The Human Spaceflight Cargo Cult

This is strongly related to my concept of the Apollo cargo cult. If we want to justify humans in space, we have to stop using the word “exploration,” because it simply raises the issue of letting robots do it. Talking instead about space development and particularly settlement implies humans, by definition. And if we can’t persuade the taxpayers that those are worthwhile goals, and instead try to sell them a bill of goods, then we don’t deserve taxpayer money for our hobbies. And cults.

36 thoughts on “The Human Spaceflight Cargo Cult”

  1. Off topic: I wonder if it would pay for itself to put the world championship of mixed martial arts up into the new Bigelow module that will be attached to the ISS? Would it be too small?

  2. The British Royal Astronomical Society debunked this years ago. Humans are needed even for pure exploration, even leaving aside ideas like settlements or commercialization.

  3. The key phrase is quantifiable sought-after results

    Yes, let’s call for settlement, but that’s just the beginning. What kind of settlement? Is a research base a settlement? Sure, but it that what result we are looking for? How about 4 reality show employees on mars dependent on life support from earth; is that settlement?

    My idea of settlement is a great many free people pursuing there own goals with enough resources to actually accomplish things.

    There is no more zealous advocate for colonization than Elon Musk, but will his plan work? Not directly, because he wants to sell them a half million dollar ticket. Which means most arrive poor and without a space suit. That just isn’t going to work. Mainly because you will soon run out of people wanting to be destitute on a world where survival is difficult. Indirectly, getting the cost down to half a million will certainly work, but it’s because there is a way to make it possible for people to go for free and arrive with resources.

    I offer my settlement charter where the transportation companies take the risk (the colonist risk their lives, the transportation companies are just risking profits) and the colonist go for free (on as many seats as are made available.)

    Free people pursuing there own goals with enough resources to actually accomplish things. That’s the result I want. Anybody else offering another way to quantifiably accomplish that result?

    The transportation company doesn’t even have to be a space company. A vehicle (BA330 w/Merlin upper stage) with life support for six can be put into orbit for as little as $200m. Without fuel it becomes a tourist destination so you can recover your $200m. Seen in orbit, it allows others to consider renting it for their pursuits. In time, some will think to use it for mars colonists under a settlement charter.

    Psst. Anybody wanting to be such a transportation company? The profits are in the trillions.

    Or we could just continue to make control towers out of bamboo.

    1. You’re missing something, Ken. You’re describing an end result. How do you get there from here? You’re at the bottom of Everest and can see the top, but you can’t make it in one leap.

      You need more than just your single $200M vehicle. You need a way to get people to and from that vehicle on each end. You probably need a bigger boat, or a flotilla of them, to maintain your supply chain and keep a steady stream of colonists coming. You need a dozen other companies, each doing their own thing for profit, to have interests that coincide and dovetail to create the infrastructure needed on the Earth side of the equation.

      On the Mars side, your BA330/Merlin vehicle is probably not for use in entry/descent/landing. It would likely be making a return trip for reuse. So you need somewhere for colonists to transfer to the EDL vehicle. You need a Mars orbital way-station, propellant depot, maintenance shack… basically another dozen other companies besides the transportation company.

      Who operates transportation from Mars orbit to the surface and back? It doesn’t need to be the same company (or companies) operating transport between Earth orbit and Mars orbit.

      Once on Mars itself, your need some sort of bootstrap facilities to produce more living space, expand the ecosystem and so forth. It is only once all those things are in place that your chartered settlement becomes feasible.

      The Earth-to-Mars transport company cannot by itself take on all the financial risk of the colonists. The monopoly position doesn’t allow all those those other companies that are needed for the infrastructure to get in place and profit via the same mechanism you’re awarding to a (single) transportation company.

      You need some base camps between the bottom and top of Everest. You need propellant depots in orbit. You need a cislunar transportation infrastructure in operation before anyone will be able to establish a propellant depot and base in Mars orbit (Phobos is lovely this time of year), and only then will the chartered settlement of Mars work. And even then, it will only work if all the companies involved can profit, not just the transportation company and the colonists.

      1. You need more than just your single $200M vehicle.

        Did I say otherwise?

        You probably need a bigger boat, or a flotilla of them … a dozen other companies, each doing their own thing for profit

        Absolutely. You have described a clear view of my vision.

        BA330/Merlin vehicle is probably not for use in entry/descent/landing.

        Obviously. Instead they will meet up with prepositioned landers. Dragon 2 is the only thing I see being made ready at about $150m each to mars orbit. I see the BA330 returning to earth orbit empty on ion drive.

        Who operates transportation from Mars orbit to the surface and back? It doesn’t need to be the same company (or companies) operating transport between Earth orbit and Mars orbit.

        True, but then the right to claim 1000 per colonist has to be shared between companies that have a part in getting a colonist from earth to the mars surface.

        Once on Mars itself, your need some sort of bootstrap facilities

        Absolutely true. This is why most plans we see are suicide missions. There absolutely must be an industrial ecology meaning the designs required for ISRU self sufficiency the moment they land. That includes tractors from dirt (not in one step of course.) Chemists, machinist other design engineers must be a high priority for colonists.

        …all those those other companies that are needed for the infrastructure to get in place

        I call those subcontractors.

        You need some base camps between the bottom and top of Everest.

        Yes and no. Yes, there are intermediate step. No, they don’t have to include all that we can imagine.

        If we focus on results (the point of the article) we don’t have to include everything in our pert chart that might delay a mission forever. Yes we need intermediate step and should include them in a comprehensive plan, but that plan should not include things that just delay results. We need to be smart about the whole thing. We need smart guys like you to avoid suicide… but the human tendency is to include that which is not required (and leave out that which is.)

        The big picture is that we can go now and it’s all paid for (if we don’t put the cost on the colonists. Risking their lives is enough payment.)

      2. You need a way to get people to and from that vehicle on each end.

        Which touches on another point about costs. The more you send into orbit at a time the cheaper it is per person. I see a Falcon Heavy sending dozens of people in one shot to orbiting general purpose space ships. I’m calling that vehicle a stretch Dragon. But that’s up to commercial entities to figure out how to get costs down. With competition the result that costs will come down is guaranteed.

    2. How long would it take to recover my $200m investment so that I have a six passenger in earth orbit for essentially free?

      We know some tourists will pay $20m. We know Elon will sell rides to orbit for $20m. Elon needs more launch facilities. With those I’m sure we can negotiate the price down to $15m per taking six at a time.

      So $30m into $200m requires seven flights for a $10m profit. That sounds like about three years in which we have a valuable asset in orbit for which we can negotiate much bigger deals.

      1. There length of stay would depend on the amount of supplies they take with them. A trip around the moon would cost more of course.

        Colonists to mars would be free if they agree to a settlement charter. I’ve got to get busy and write a more definitive one. Did I mention trillions of profit potential? Any billionaires reading this?

  4. “There is no more zealous advocate for colonization than Elon Musk, but will his plan work? Not directly, because he wants to sell them a half million dollar ticket. Which means most arrive poor and without a space suit. That just isn’t going to work.”

    Ken – The first people who arrive on Mars will have almost no need of money, for the simple reason that there will be nothing to spend it on. Everything will have to be created from human effort. In time, as the population and the capital base of the colony increases, they will certainly have need of a currency, but conversion from Earth wealth to Martian wealth will remain difficult as long as interplanetary trade remains small or non-existent. Basically, settlers will probably not mind paying most or all of their Earthly life savings on a ticket since they are starting from scratch anyways and will be expected to contribute to the building of the colony infrastructure through non-monetary means.

    1. Forgive me for saying Loonie, but you have just expressed the same economic ignorance (ignorance is not a slur, it is simply the human condition that we all fall pray to.)

      The first people who arrive on Mars will have almost no need of money, for the simple reason that there will be nothing to spend it on.

      Only under the economic model of slavery. For free people, they will always have something to spend it on. They will spend it on each other including some of the mass allotment of new colonists. People tend to specialize in what they produce. This implies the natural economic model of free trade.

      Part of the purpose of my settlement charter is to increase the value of land by limiting it’s supply (supply and demand is a fundamental economic issue that can not be violated.) If you see 144 million square kilometers as free for the taking it will have no value for generations. But if a colonist wants more than one square kilometer, they will have to buy it only from that which the settlement charter allows as legal claims. Since the charter limits each colonist to one sq. km. that will go for a higher price than the transportation companies 1000 sq. km. Which is fine because the transportation company can recover their costs for about $100 an acre which they can sell to investors on earth.

      In time … they will certainly have need of a currency

      It’s true that small communities can get by with pure trade, but will move beyond that quickly simply because banking is more efficient. Banking on mars will probably be much simpler than on earth, not being based on fractional reserves. Anybody can be a bank simply by giving a receipt for a deposit of metal. Anybody could provide a debit card against metals deposits. Trade between colonist will use the debit cards when direct trade isn’t used. The unit of currency will probably be a mars dollar (or a unit mass of some metal) but could be any earth currency if they choose.

      conversion from Earth wealth to Martian wealth will remain difficult

      Not at all, they will simply have to retain an earth bank account. Transportation companies can be publicly traded. Legal recognition of land claims gives them value here on earth.

      they are starting from scratch anyways

      Why choose that when the alternative is to arrive with millions of dollars worth of resources as part of the settlement charter?

      1. If Elon can get the cost down to $500,000 per ticket then the transportation companies only need $2 an acre to cover their costs. That’s a no brainer.

  5. Ken, what legal entity will be doing the denying? How enforced? And, why? Why make land limiting just to artificially increase it’s value? Seems like finished goods will be where most value will lie, for many years. Land on Mars is practically limitless, though mineral lodes would have value.

    1. Good questions Tom.

      Members of the charter are self enforced. Nothing precludes non members from doing their own thing including claiming the entire planet. Members will ignore them. Here’s the difference.

      Members will travel for free and arrive with a legally recognized asset worth millions of dollars.

      Non members will have to pay their own way (or be slaves of some entity.) Non members will therefore alway be limited in numbers. Let them claim whatever they like.

      Members will be a part of a free trade ownership society. Nothing will beat them as they take over all of mars in a landrush of people wanting to become instant millionaires.

      1. Mars settlement can set the precedent for all other settlements in showing that a free trade ownership society is vastly superior to enslaved serfs working for any entity, national or commercial.

  6. Assume there are not enough colonists to fill all the seats available. That’s a good thing as companies will then compete in offering colonists deals to persuade them to choose their company.

    1. Space exploitation is being done today, both by the military and by commercial firms. They’re exploiting the unique capabilities that space systems enable that couldn’t be done (or done nearly as well) from the surface. For the US military, that includes communications (DSCS-III, WGS, UFO, MUOS, Milstar & AEHF), PNT (GPS), launch detection (DSP and SBIRS), weather observation (DMSP) and “earth observation.” For the commercial companies, we’re primarily talking about communications satellites with a small number of privately owned imagery satellites.

  7. Rand is entirely correct that if the establishment of a durable, normative human presence in space is not the object of any so-called “space program” exercise, then said program has no rational basis for being continued except by private subscription.

    My own view of what human presence in space ought to look like, long-term, is based on a literal reading of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s famous line “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.” If one believes this to be true, why would one advocate taking huge risks and subjecting oneself to readily foreseeable dangers, highly probable privations and a lifetime of sharply limited options and strenuous toil by leaving the cradle of Earth in order to relocate to some other – and notably inferior cradle? If Earth is a cradle, it is well-made, plush and snuggly with all exposed surfaces smoothly sanded and finished. The Moon, Mars or any other body in the Solar System with palpable gravity is, in contrast, a crude, bare, jagged cradle badly fabricated from splintery rough-split puncheons or worse. Ghastly! Forget planets! We need to live in nice, comfortable, homey artificial constructed environments that rotate to provide suitable pseudo-gravity and which are free of all the ills planetary surfaces are heir to. We must see to it that Gerard O’Neill did not die in vain!

    1. Dick,

      Unfortunately O’Neill habitats are as impractical as the Pilgrims building modern Boston. The model to follow has always been Asimov/Cole model of small mobile habitats.

      Benford, Gregory and Zebroski, George. Skylife: Space Habitats in Story and Science, Harcourt: 2000.

      1. Gentlemen, it’s logistics. Neither O’Neill or Asimov habitats are economically viable without delta V which is costly. For an O’Neill colony it’s not so much the colony itself as the vehicles that must service it.

        Dick, you make a mistake, the cradle is the safe place where adults protect you. The world is harsh and adults adapt it to their needs. We are like fish that can’t perceive water. The first thing you need to realize is that earth can kill you like any other planet. It is the fact that we terraform it that makes it usable. We need to do the same on other worlds and mars is the best place to start. It has all the resources in walking distance to make more cradles.

        That was a great quote, but he was talking about being adult.

        1. Yes. And part of being adult is putting away childish things, like irrational attachment to the idea that a mudball’s surface is a prerequisite for a home site.

          Maybe Mars could be terraformed, but it’s about the only place in the Solar System that looks like an even marginally feasible prospect for such a project. And why bother? Planetary re-engineering is complex, expensive, risky and time-consuming. For a lot less money, risk and time, you could create far more usable real estate by converting the Asteroid Belt into O’Neill colonies. If you need more mass, or want to tap conveniently concentrated stores of some particular element or compound – water ice from Europa, sulphur from Io, or methane from Titan, say – use a tiny bit of the carbon in the carbonaceous chondrite rocks to make carbon nanotube cables, then fabricate beanstalks to allow economical access to the surfaces of moons and minor planets. Or even Mars.

          And I don’t get your comment about delta-V at all. Getting onto and off of large planets is what gobbles up delta-V. Orbit changes within the Asteroid Belt are trivial by comparison. Want to be spacefaring and still minimize your delta-V footprint? Live in free space, not on mudballs.

          1. I don’t get your comment about delta-V at all. Getting onto and off of large planets is what gobbles up delta-V.

            Sorry for being terse and obtuse. I will now be more explicit.

            Keep in mind the quote that from earth to orbit is about half the delta v to anywhere. So yes, getting to and from orbit gobbles up lot’s of delta V, but less than half for those smaller than earth.

            But here’s the deal… Launch is much closer to a one time deal per person once you get to a mudball because you stay there. In space you also may stay there, but you still have to pay the other half of delta V continuously for required resources. A mudball that you don’t have to leave for resources has a huge economic advantage. An advantage that space habitats will take over a hundred of years to equal. Mars can be self sufficient almost immediately and will have Walmart in a couple of decades.

          2. The most reasonable place to build the first free space habitats may be Mars orbit using raw materials from Phobos and Deimos. After that, it’s the Asteroid Belt. I can’t think of any resource one could find on a planetary surface that one couldn’t also find in or on an asteroid. Moving raw or refined material mass around within the belt is not very expensive from a delta-V standpoint if low-thrust, high-ISP engines are used – as they will be. You also don’t have dust and weather problems with free space habitats.

            On planetary surfaces, in contrast, you face the very real problem that raw materials you can find may be located at a considerable distance from your habitation. We have oceans on Earth to make long-distance bulk transport economical, but we won’t have that anywhere else. Building a large road or rail network on Mars to move stuff around looks to have a poor expense to reward ratio too, at least in the early going. The only other alternative is using point-to-point sub-orbital rockets to move things over long distances. That hardly economizes on delta-V. I still think mudballs are not where we need to be going except for researchers and people who fancy doing a feet-and-footprints publicity thing.

      2. Agree about the pilgrims and Boston. If O’Neill colonies had to be built by hand by spacesuited humans using the equivalent of saws and hammers, you’d be right about that too. But large space structures will probably only ever be economically feasible if built from asteroidal raw material by robot miner-refiner-assemblers. I think the necessary technology is certain to be in hand within 50 years and nearly as certain in 25.

        As for the question of scale, I wasn’t implying a one-size fits all space structure future. The O’Neill reference was just to underline the fundamentally different goals of living in free space as opposed to seeking out other, and inferior, planetary surfaces. An irrational attachment to mudballs makes no sense because, as Ken points out, they don’t love us back and are quite able to indifferently kill us. In the United States we have clusters of skyscrapers in major cities, isolated hunting cabins in Montana and Northern Michigan and everything in between. I see no reason to suppose space will be any different. Form, including size, will follow function.

        1. I think the necessary technology is certain to be in hand within 50 years and nearly as certain in 25.

          Perhaps even sooner. When I read your post, this is what came to mind. Imagine a giant lathe. Put a Bigelow-style balloon cylinder in the center of the spindels and rotate very slowly. Using 3D printer style technology, slowly start applying an outer surface to the balloon cylinder. The material deposited could possibly be as low-tech as concrete made from asteroid materials. Build up your outer shell over a period of days, weeks, months to include areas for water storage (which would double as radiation shielding), then cover the outside with solar cells for electricity. Once the shell is finished, you can being fitting out the interior to meet your needs. The limiting factors would be the size of your lathe/printer assembly and the rate you can supply asteroid materials to it. What can be made in space must be made in space from materials that are already in space. Only those things that aren’t (yet) possible to make in space (such as integrated circuits) would be launched from the Earth.

  8. “Cargo cult activity was well established in the South Pacific during the Second World War when technically primitive tribes in Melanesia and Micronesia were exposed to Japanese and Allied military occupiers. The lifestyle of those primitive islanders changed dramatically as a vast quantity of wonderful materiel like medicine, iceboxes, and Coca-Cola was either dropped on or airlifted to their islands.”

    The Japanese dropped Coca Cora.

  9. Well, I just discovered another possible obstacle to Mars colonisation. This is so new it hasn’t been published on paper yet, but bear with me:

    A couple of weeks ago, the BBC did one of the things they actually do rather well; a popular science show. This particular one was a three-parter called Stargazing Live. As part of it, they enlisted a large number of (mostly) Brits into a NASA project. Apparently, Mars Orbiter has an enormous number of photos on file that have never been seen by a human. The project was to make these pictures available and simply have the volunteers look for something unusual. When I last looked, the area looked at was about the size of the Netherlands.

    It turns out that there is a previously undiscovered phenomenon in the southern areas of Mars (around 60 S or so) involving the formation of enormous geysers of dust and sand (500m high enormous) and these structures form suddenly and (it is thought) without warning. This happens in spring, and is powered by the sublimation of subsurface deposits of ice and CO2 – they think.

    In other words, venturing into the Martian South in spring will be rather like walking into a minefield.

    1. This mudball has served us well. The limiting factor is the rocket equation. Getting from one mudball to another which has all the resources required for a colony (not all do) is hard enough.

      In space, almost all of your resources are someplace else. The rocket equation is a huge drag on such an economy. In time we will build up to it. Until then, mudballs are far from obsolete.

      Terraforming an entire world is mega-engineering not yet ready. We need to think in terms of how we terraform right here on earth… by habitat and by community.

    2. The above was supposed to be a reply to Dick and Larry. This is my response to Fletcher.

      another possible obstacle to Mars colonisation

      Why would it be? It’s regional. Let somebody explore the area when they get around to it.

  10. From a social and political perspective, one of the biggest problems for space exploration and settlement is that it’s a hill-climbing exercise with pronounced valleys. Right now we’re on a local maximum, such that getting to a higher maximum will require a period that looks to the uninitiated very much like a retreat. And as long as funding for space is dependent upon at least some degree of popular support, apparent retreats only reinforce the meme of crewed spaceflight as a waste of money that could be better spent on Earth, or put into robotic programs that don’t risk human lives.

    One of Travis S. Taylor’s biggest objections in his book A New American Space Plan is how NASA keeps developing a technology, then abandoning it to start something new. Part of it is politically driven — a new administration doing the Not Invented Here thing and ditching a predecessor’s program because it’s the Other Guy’s Program. But I’m wondering if a big part of this inability to pick a plan and stick with it, especially related to Constellation and then SLS, is that each of them reach a point where they’re no longer Bright And Shiny, but clearly are going into a valley that looks like a retreat (politically untenable, especially in a political climate driven by the four-year election cycle).

    A lot of people in the Alternate History communities have speculated that if only the Soviet Union hadn’t thrown in the towel on their crewed lunar program after Apollo 8, we might have stayed the course instead of retreating back to LEO for the past four decades. So maybe a serious Chinese space race might actually get us back on course, if they can sustain their program enough to maintain the push until both (or all) sides have a sufficient space presence that there’s no way it can be shut down by a shift of the political winds after an election.

    1. This is why I say it takes a lightbulb. The space settlement initiative has identified a solid means of profit. I just don’t like their government required sponsorship and company towns the size of Alaska. Neither is required or desired.

      A charter with terms that legally establish property rights by possession enforced by it’s members to limit supply based on rate of colony growth will allow an ownership society to demonstrate it’s clear superiority to the usual slavery plan being espoused by almost all others. That cargo cult mentality won’t work, but it dominates the thinking. What happened to individual risk and reward?

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