Issue 27, 1 February 2008 -- 39th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. UK in space: a bold proposal to join the ISS
  2. Announcing the UK Space Conference, Charterhouse School, 27-29 March 2008
  3. A plethora of different ways to reach Mars -- Bond, Parkinson and Hempsell in debate

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(1) UK in space: a bold proposal to join the ISS

The great UK in space debate continues.

Many readers will already have heard of the latest plan to put the UK on the map in manned spaceflight, authored by Mark Hempsell, senior lecturer in Astronautics at the Dept of Aerospace Engineering, University of Bristol.

The plan is that the UK should design, build and deliver two Habitation Extension Modules for attachment to the ISS. These would provide extra living space for the full crew of six, which is needed since a US module for that purpose has been deleted from the design.

During launch on Soyuz rockets, the two HEMs would be used to deliver UK scientific experiments, general ISS supplies and extra radiation shielding. After docking to the ISS, one would be used as a common room, the other as a dormitory.

Total cost, including a couple of astronaut visits to the ISS, comes to about £600 million over six or seven years.

Fuller details are available on the HEM web page.

But not everyone agrees that this is the best way forward for Britain. For an alternative view, see "The Hempsell plan: Boldly Going the Wrong Way", by Duncan Law-Green, Dept of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester.

Nor does this seem to be a good time to ask for more money for the UK civil space budget, with a series of recent headlines about cutbacks in British science:

"Space weather science rues cuts" -- "Andrew Kavanagh, a space scientist at Lancaster University and member of the MIST council, said the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which looks after UK astronomy, was "essentially scrapping an entire field of research in the UK"."

"Skies dim for British astronomers" -- "UK astronomers will lose access to two of the world's finest telescopes in February, as administrators look to plug an £80m hole in their finances. Observation programmes on the 8.1m telescopes of the Gemini organisation will end abruptly because Britain is cancelling its subscription. It means UK astronomers can no longer view the Northern Hemisphere sky with the largest class of telescope. Researchers say they are aghast at the administrators' decision."

"UK woes could impact Euro physics" -- "The future development of one of Europe's scientific "crown jewels" may be affected by the current woes over the UK's physics budget. [...] Britain is a major partner; but with its physics funds under pressure, it is unclear how much the UK can contribute." [...] "Its problem is that it [i.e. the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council] has an £80m hole in its three-year spending plans to 2011. To manage its way through this shortfall, the STFC has announced its intention to close certain programmes and cut research grants. Science societies and union officials say the damage to UK physics will be incalculable and will lead to hundreds of job losses (including at the Daresbury Laboratory, which is home to the UK's own pioneering Synchrotron Radiation Source)."

The obvious question is whether a more reliable customer for orbital accommodation can be found.

-- S.A.

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(2) Announcing the UK Space Conference, Charterhouse School, 27-29 March 2008

The UK Space Conference -- incorporating BROHP -- will be held on 27-29 March at Charterhouse School, Godalming, Surry, UK.

The organisers write:

We are delighted to announce that the opening session of the UK Space Conference on March 27 will feature Dr David Williams, Director General of BNSC, and Major General Joe Engle, distinguished astronaut and test pilot.

The BROHP conference has run successfully for nine years, but we feel that it is appropriate that the conference evolve. We intend to keep doing the things BROHP has done well but add a little more. The Conference will embrace the leading edge of Space Research and Astronomy, Education and Outreach, as well as our traditional strength in History. Major General Joe Engle and Dr David Williams will speak in the first session of the 2008 conference. David Williams became Director General of BNSC in 2006. With the International Astronautical Congress coming to Glasgow later in the year we greatly look forward to hearing the Director General's thoughts.

Joe Engle is one of the great test pilots. He was chosen to fly the rocket-powered hypersonic X-15 and completed sixteen flights, exceeding Mach 5 on ten of those flights. On one flight he reached 3,886 miles per hour or Mach 5.71. He also gained his astronaut wings flying above an altitude of 50 miles on three occasions. Selected by NASA in 1966, he was on the support crew for Apollo X and was back up pilot for Apollo XIV. One of the test pilots on the Space Shuttle, he flew Columbia on the second Shuttle mission. He flew Columbia from orbit from Mach 25 through to subsonic and landing. This was the first and only time that this has been done. Joe Engle then is a remarkable pilot, having both flown into space and flown down from orbit.

There will be fifty speakers in the final programme -- visit the website for the latest details. On the final day of the conference, Saturday 29 March, David Southwood, Head of Science at ESA, and Sir Martin Sweeting of SSTL will be speaking.
Note the new website.

-- S.A.

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(3) A plethora of different ways to reach Mars -- Bond, Parkinson and Hempsell in debate

by Stephen Ashworth

My writeup of the three Mars talks by Alan Bond, Bob Parkinson and Mark Hempsell, held at the BIS in London on 24 October 2007, is now available as a pdf file.

I sent a draft version of this report to one or two people, and the following correspondence resulted.


From Colin Philp, 31 October 2007:

Hi Stephen,

Many thanks for sending the information. An excellent, concise summary. It would be good to have the slides shown by the speakers. Perhaps these will appear in JBIS in due course.

I grew up with the von Braun 1969 NASA proposal, thinking humans would step onto Mars in August 1982. At present I feel pessimistic about the prospects for getting to Mars with humans after the success of robot landers, but the journey will one day be made. I hope it will be within our lifetimes.

The biggest problem will be political will, and a debate on the costs/benefits of the mission. Over the duration of the flight catastrophic failure will be a distinct possibility, so selling this to taxpayers/investors will be a tough job, i.e. 'we need $100bn at least, and the mission could still be a complete failure with nothing to do but organise a string of memorial services for the astronauts'. We live in a world vastly more risk-averse than the 1960s. Imagine if current 'health and safety' thinking had been applied to the moon landings. The plans would probably have been shelved.

Maybe we will have another 'space race', with the US/EU versus China. This might be the only way to do it, reflecting the US/USSR rivalry in the 1960s.

Rodney Buckland talked about the world population rising to 9-10bn sometime this century seemingly with the hope that a mission to Mars would help with the problem of overpopulation. The idea of shipping billions of humans off to Mars in the next century seems ludicrous. Whether we will collectively make it through the 21st century is debatable (ref Martin Rees). Having said all this we will have to adopt some optimism, otherwise the humans to Mars mission will never go ahead. Perhaps a decade as optimistic as the 1960s will dawn again.

What are your thoughts?




From Stephen Ashworth, 3 January 2008:

Hello, Colin.

Many thanks for your comments on Mars missions.

You ask what I think. So ...

As I see it, Mars expeditions can be divided into "heroic" and "evolutionary".

A "heroic" Mars mission is one conducted with basically present-day levels of space infrastructure. Or even less -- a plan such as Mars Direct makes no use of manned stations in LEO like the ISS. It assumes no other manned space infrastructure at all.

An "evolutionary" Mars mission is one conducted with more space infrastructure than we have today, in such a way that it makes use of that additional infrastructure.

What, for example, accounts for the bulk of the mass of any Mars mission (or lunar mission, come to that) in LEO? Clearly, it is rocket propellant.

At present, all that has to be hauled up from the surface of Earth on a superbooster. But supposing that there exist large scale space and lunar tourism and space-based solar power industries? As well as benefiting Earth, they will force the creation of in-space refuelling stations, which sell fuel and oxidiser to a variety of users, and acquire these rocket propellants from the well-known in-space resources of the Moon, the near-Earth asteroids and the Sun.

In this situation, the designer of a Mars mission can therefore buy most of his or her hardware off the shelf, and can assume that refuelling is possible in a variety of orbits in the Earth-Moon system. Development and reliability are taken care of by the mass market, and most of the mass of the mission is sourced in space, not on the ground.

In other words, one has to stop trying to design a mission, and think in terms of stimulating the growth of a diverse space economy based on products and services (tourism, power) that a mass market of people on Earth want to buy.

The Mars Society would argue that all this extra infrastructure is too complicated and unnecessary. I would argue that it is the only way not only to make Mars flights affordable and the risks acceptable, but to make them sustainable. I have not renewed my Mars Society subscription recently.

I certainly don't agree that China is going anywhere at the moment. With one flight every couple of years, and in a spacecraft that is a Chinese copy of the commercially marginal Soyuz, they are essentially irrelevant, unless they start to pull their socks up soon. Shen Zhou is essentially a military prestige project, and that has little relevance to real success in the 21st century.

I'll take some of that criticism back if they put up a station and keep it manned, in competition with the ISS, which desperately needs smaller, leaner competitors. But I've not heard anything much about such a station so far -- people are talking more of bringing the Chinese into the global cartel of the ISS monopoly.

Rodney Buckland was, of course, joking. The way that space will benefit Earth is by making solar power competitive with oil in energy density and cost, but to do that demands the development of space resources, which in turn will bring Mars closer. The most important space news of recent days is the report that crude has topped $100 a barrel!

Maybe the US will launch a heroic mission to Mars. But if Mars is ever to become an affordable and sustainable part of our world, it will be thanks to Burt Rutan, Richard Branson, Anousheh Ansari, Alan Bond, David Ashford and their investors, competitors and customers!

Therefore what Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and other start-up space companies are doing is now more important in the long run than what the old government monopoly agencies like NASA, ESA and Roskosmos are doing.

How does that sound?



From Colin Philp, 23 January 2008:

Dear Stephen

I agree. The old 'heroic' approach of the 60s is no longer viable. This has always been the problem with the US manned space programme: excellent for headline grabbing and photo opportunities, but focused on the short term. Arthur C. Clarke said, to paraphrase, that the 20th century event he would never have predicted was that we landed on the moon but failed to return. The slow and steady, incremental approach of USSR/CIS, although less spectacular, is the lesson for the future, and, as you say, must be built on private investment.

If the Russians had made it to the moon with their prevailing philosophy, we might now have manned bases there. Perhaps the main problem with manned spaceflight so far is that it has been almost wholly government funded, and therefore biased towards 'heroic' exploration. However, this government funding was essential for developing the first stage of manned spaceflight.

So, as you argue, the whole issue rests on the opening up of space for commerce, i.e. identifying markets, and expanding everyday commercial activity into earth orbit and beyond. But there is a role for government in at least stimulating the development of infrastructure. I'm thinking here of a parallel with the history of, say, Canada in the late 19th century. I think a central role of government is to facilitate free markets. Exactly how this philosophy would be applied to space I'm not sure, but the development of tourism and space-based solar power is the key.

Mars is the obvious next step beyond the moon, but if we are talking about the evolutionary development of human activity in space, I am pessimistic about the timescale involved. It might take at least 50 years, maybe 100. In which case, I hope my children or grandchildren will see the first humans on Mars. The Mars Society favours the 'heroic' approach in order to get humans to Mars as soon as possible. This is understandable. But the political and economic background has shifted and the buzz words now are, or should be, 'evolutionary' and 'sustainability'. So with that in mind the real space heroes are people like Alan Bond and Richard Branson.

I've recently had a discussion with an astronomer friend who questions the whole policy of manned spaceflight with its costs and risks. I can perfectly understand his point of view. However, I am a Fellow of the BIS, interested in manned exploration of space, and humans must eventually leave the earth if we are not to die here.

The most important question is how governments can facilitate the opening up of space to private enterprise, and what regulation is needed.

This doesn't add anything new to your argument, I'm afraid, because I agree with what you've said.

Having roundly criticised the U.S. manned space programme, I'm off to Florida for six weeks, hoping to see a shuttle launch.



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