Category Archives: Economics

Space Jobs

Donald Robertson has a crazy idea: Find something useful for people working SLS/Orion to do:

Presidents answer to the nation, not to local job concerns. Two presidents in a row — Bush and Obama — have tried in varying degrees to redirect NASA away from the Apollo model, only to be blocked by institutions and senators who are answerable to local NASA employees. This time, we cannot repeat Mr. Obama’s mistake of canceling the SLS without finding a future for the people who work on it.

The new “constellation” work needs to be planned and distributed in a way that will keep the traditional NASA workforce, and those who represent them, on board. Where is it written that engineers in Alabama cannot be employed building space-based tugs and modules for a lunar base? To have any chance of killing the SLS and replacing it with a useful space program, opponents need to come up with something that fulfills SLS’s political and economic purpose at least as well, while endeavoring to achieve something useful in space at the same time. That is beginning to occur, as NewSpace companies like SpaceX slowly expand beyond California and the Seattle area and increasingly employ people in Texas, Florida, and other traditional NASA states.

Encouraging this change will take a great deal of political capital and skill —the Bush administration did not deploy the former, and the Obama administration failed at the latter. So far, the Trump administration has shown little aptitude for any kind of positive relationship with Congress.

If someone does not come forward to invest the political and financial capital needed to end this conflict and move on to a more constructive vision, the United States will continue to drift in space. Resources will remain split between an increasingly successful but underfunded NewSpace industry unable to fulfill its potential, and the SLS and Orion, which the nation cannot afford to actually use. Our future in space will increasingly rely on largely self-funded efforts by people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

He says that like it’s a bad thing.

Meanwhile, NASA has incorporated its next planned boondoggle into human exploration plans.

A Veneer Of Certainty

How dependable is climate science?

Not enough to base energy policy on.

[Update a few minutes later]

A vigorous fisking of what Judith Curry calls “the stupidest [peer-reviewed] paper ever written.” With all respect to Professor Curry, that’s a pretty high bar, even in this field.

[Update a couple minutes later]

OK, I slightly misquoted her.

[Update a while later]

Link is fixed, sorry!

The SLS Mess

Jason Davis has a good rundown on it, and the implications for Europa Clipper. I don’t know how he knows this, though:

Any other rocket besides SLS—including SpaceX’s upcoming Falcon Heavy—lacks the power to blast Clipper directly from Earth to Jupiter. A conventional rocket would rely on three gravity assists from Earth and one from Venus, increasing the transit time from about 2.7 years to 7.5 years.

How does he know that? Has he run the numbers, or is he just taking NASA’s word for it? He’s also not considering the possibility of New Glenn, New Armstrong, Vulcan/ACES with a distributed launch, or BFR, all of which could be ready by 2022.

3-D Printed Metal Parts

They’re getting better:

The new device reflects a wave of rapid progress in metal 3-D printing, suggesting that the technology is moving toward becoming a more realistic manufacturing tool. Last month, researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced they had developed a new method that created stainless-steel parts three times as strong as any previous 3-D-printed steel parts. That means mission-critical parts can be created using 3-D printing without worries about compromising structural integrity. Startup Desktop Metal, meanwhile, is helping to overcome the speed barrier. Its production machine, available for purchase next year, makes metal parts 100 times faster than a laser-based 3-D printer.



I tweeted from the meeting in Seattle last Thursday that this was probably the biggest news from the event:

The Russian billionaire venture capitalist and amateur physicist is the man behind the Breakthrough Starshot mission to send a nano-spacecraft to the closest star, Proxima Centauri, and an initiative called Breakthrough Listen to use powerful radio telescopes to search for signals from intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations. Now Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives has set its sights on Enceladus.

“We formed a sort of little workshop around this idea: Can we design a low-cost, privately funded mission to Enceladus which can be launched relatively soon?” Milner said at an inaugural international space summit called “A New Space Age” put on by the Economist magazine in Seattle, as reported by If Milner is serious about launching a spacecraft to Enceladus, it would be a historic feat as the first privately funded mission to the outer solar system. (If it launched today, it would be the very first private interplanetary mission at all.)

I haven’t talked about it on the blog, but I may be at least partially responsible for this. About a year ago, in the context of developing my Ending Apolloism rant, I started working out the possibilities of a private Enceladus mission, partly just to show that we don’t need no stinkin’ SLS to do fast outer-planet missions. All of the Congressional focus had been on Europa, due to enthusiasm for the mission by Chairman Culberson.

When I went to the New Worlds conference in Austin last year (previous version of the one I attended last week), I talked to Pete Worden about it, as well as John Mankins and John Carrico (who was Google’s astrogator at the time, before they sold off Terra Bella). They all thought it was feasible. However, Pete said that he didn’t think that Yuri would be interested in a private mission to Enceladus, because he wouldn’t want to be distracted from his starship. (Imagine someone typing that sentence a decade ago.)

I talked to some planetary scientists, including Carolyn Porco (PI on Cassini, who is very enthusiastic about prospects for life there, and who was at the Seattle event as well, giving a whoop of joy from the back of the room when Milner made the announcement) and Morgan Cable at JPL. Mike Loucks provided me with some porkchop plots, and we saw some interesting opportunities for fast trips to Saturn in March of every year, starting in 2020, for affordable C3s. It wouldn’t orbit, but be a fast flyby when the moon was outside the limb of the planet, at about 10 km/s, which Morgan told me would be a reasonable velocity to gather dust to search for organics and particularly amino acids. I also talked to ULA, who worked out some numbers of what could be done with Vulcan/ACES and a Star-48.

The idea would be to have a mother ship with a flock or flocks of cubesats that could scatter themselves around the limb of the moon, maybe in several waves to get time variation as well, to taste the flumes of the geysers. It would charge the batteries on the birds, send them off, and store and relay the data back to earth (it would require cooperation from NASA to use the Deep Space Network). I also talked to Professors Jordi Puig-Suari (inventer of the cubesat standard at Cal Poly SLO) and Dave Barnhart at USC about the feasibility, and they thought it would be a good cubesat app. My idea was to put together a basic mission concept and cost estimate, and look for money and a PI. I would be the inital project manager, until we could raise the money and hire someone else who knew WTF they were doing.

Anyway, when I saw Pete in Pasadena at the Space Tech Expo in May, he told me that Yuri had in fact developed an interest in ocean moons. I don’t know whether it was because of my suggestion to Pete or not, and I don’t know whether the workshop came up with something similar to my concept, but based on what Yuri said at that meeting, it sounds like it. In any event, I’m very happy to see this happening.