Foust Forward | Moving the needle, ever so slightly, towards space settlement
“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Nov. 12, 2018 issue.
For decades, space advocates have promoted a vision of space settlement: people living permanently in space, be it on the moon or Mars, or in self-contained space colonies proposed in the 1970s by Gerard K. O’Neill. For most of that time, those visions have been little more than a long-term dream, if not an unattainable fantasy.
However, those concepts now seem at least a little less unrealistic. Elon Musk talks about settling Mars, attracting a fervent group of supporters convinced he can achieve it based on how SpaceX proved naysayers wrong on reusable rockets. Jeff Bezos, inspired as a student by O’Neill’s space colony concepts, regularly describes his goal at Blue Origin of millions of people living and working in space.
“There’s a lot of change going on in our industry,” said Bruce Pittman, senior vice president of the National Space Society. “Things may be possible now that may have never been possible before.”
Pittman was speaking at the society’s Space Settlement Summit, a two-day event in Los Angeles in early November for discussions on how to, he said, “help us really move the needle towards enabling space settlement.” Those discussions showed that while the needle may be moving, space settlement is still a distant dream.
What encouraged many at the summit is the development of low-cost heavy-lift launch vehicles, like SpaceX’s BFR. “If you have that size of vehicle operating, fully reusable and for tens of millions of dollars per flight, I think it’s going to completely transform how we use space,” said Dan Rasky, director of the Space Portal Office at NASA’s Ames Research Center, comparing its potential impact to the transcontinental railroad.
The growing interest in the moon, and using resources there, is also a major step forward. “Propellant on the moon would lower the cost of going from Earth to the lunar surface by a factor of three,” said George Sowers, a former United Launch Alliance executive who is now a professor in the space resources program at the Colorado School of Mines. “To me that’s the obvious next step.”
Even the administrator of NASA seemed to support the idea of space settlement. “We share your vision of people living in space permanently and creating a vibrant space economy,” said Jim Bridenstine in a video message to summit participants.
There was a temptation, though, at the meeting to skip ahead to that end state of space colonies rather than focus on next steps. During one panel, Anthony Longman of Skyframe Research discussed in detail one concept for an expandable space habitat that could grow to more than 200 meters in radius and house thousands of people. Attendees peppered with a wide range of technical questions about its design, until someone asked how much it would cost to build.
“Oh, costs,” he said, and paused. One chart “suggested it was in the tens of trillions, but I don’t know for sure.”
“Trillions?” someone in the audience asked.
“That’s probably not right,” he said. “An earlier estimate we worked on was about 400 billion. I don’t really know.” Whether it’s $400 billion or $10 trillion that budget is unrealistic for government and companies alike.
Even the promising near-term efforts will take time: it will be several years before SpaceX’s BFR is flying or missions to the moon can better quantify the water ice and other resources there. That may be a good thing, giving advocates time to make a better case for supporting, and funding, space settlement.
“We have to be storytellers. Sometimes in our technical world, we think we can just do what we do and everything else will happen,” said Charlie Bolden, the former NASA administrator, who attended part of the conference. As the technology enabling space settlement advances, so should the case for doing it.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.