Issue 31, 1 June 2008 -- 39th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. Astrium proposes crude spaceship, by Stephen Ashworth
  2. Astroelectric power: the breakthrough starts here, by Stephen Ashworth

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(1) Astrium proposes crude spaceship

by Stephen Ashworth

The European aerospace giant EADS Astrium, prime contractor for ESA's new throwaway cargo ship the ATV, has proposed turning the ATV into a manned spacecraft by adding an Apollo-style capsule for three astronauts to one end, taking the place of the current cargo module.

A full-scale model of the ship, dubbed the ATV-Evolution, was on display at last week's Berlin Air Show -- see the BBC report. (At the same time, Astrium is still studying the alternative possibility of developing a joint manned spacecraft with Russia -- i.e. son of Kliper.)

Germany, France and Italy are reported to be "very interested" in the ATV-derived design. The issue of an independent European manned spacecraft is most likely to be on the agenda of the space ministers' meeting at The Hague this coming November.

But a new three-man space capsule would be an irrelevance.

Manned access to the ISS after the Shuttle retires is not an issue: the Soyuz will in any case be filling that role from 2011, and if ESA really wants its own Soyuz launches it can now have them at Kourou. When the Orion-Ares-I becomes available, that too will service the ISS for as long as the Americans are involved with the station.

The issue is: what is ESA supposed to do with its own European manned spacecraft?

-- Boldly explore the final frontier by going endlessly round in circles 350 km above our heads? That's exactly what the Shuttle was doing, and why everyone found it so unsatisfactory. Modern space agencies regard themselves as exploration agencies, but low Earth orbit is no longer the frontier.

-- Boldly explore the Moon and Mars? Don't they wish!!! What European government is going to spend billions on astronaut flights to the Moon, let alone Mars, when European economies are imploding as energy prices rocket and as the ill-thought-out policies of the anthropogenic global warming scam come home to roost? Not to mention the retirement of the post-war baby-boomers putting more pressure on social spending.

-- Perform a useful public service by stimulating the development of space tourism and space-based solar power? Unlikely. We don't do that here. We're bold explorers of the final frontier, devoted to pure science, and we can't dirty our hands with anything that might make a profit. Maybe space tourism and space solar power will happen in 200 years time.

Clearly the ATV-Evolution is useless as a means to carry any growth in manned space activities. It would be dependent upon the Ariane-5 to get into space -- thus almost all the hardware at each launch would be destroyed during the course of the flight, just like Apollo-Saturn-IB or Orion-Ares-I, which it would resemble.

Three key reasons why reusable spaceplanes are necessary to begin regular access to space are that on they way up they use atmospheric oxygen, saving launch mass, on the way down their huge empty propellant tanks give them a much reduced ballistic coefficient which subjects them to much reduced reentry heating, and their reusability will confer greater reliability. ATV-Evolution-Ariane-5 will have none of these advantages.

So why is ESA so keen to acquire something like the ATV-Evolution? It appears to be simply in order to have a European Orion or Soyuz -- i.e. to keep up with the Chinese, who already have their own Soyuz-clone, though they hardly ever use it (a third flight is expected this autumn).

The ATV-Evolution is clearly not part of any strategic view of space development, but rather an opportunistic attempt on the part of Astrium to get a chunk of business by selling ESA something it vaguely wants, something it thinks will make it look good on the global stage, but doesn't really have a clue what to do with.

The brightest part of the picture is the likelihood that the space ministers will dither endlessly and never commit to building the thing because their finance ministers will not let them have the money for it.

The ATV-Evolution is a crewed spaceship in more senses than one.

P.S. DO YOU DISAGREE with this point of view? Do you believe that within 15 years ATV-Evolution-Ariane-5 launches could be daily events at spaceports around the world? Or do you think that ESA and its prime contractors have a public duty to restrict manned space access to a tiny elite of morally pure, heroic knight-astronauts? Write in, and let me publish your viewpoint!

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(2) Astroelectric power: the breakthrough starts here

by Stephen Ashworth

The presentation "Space-Based Solar Power for Peace, Prosperity and Survival", by USAF Col. M.V. "Coyote" Smith, on 7 May 2008, was perhaps the most important meeting hosted by the British Interplanetary Society for a long time.

Col. Coyote Smith (his Air Force nickname derives from an unexpected encounter with a beast of that species while in the course of attempting his first solo jet landing) is normally based in America at the National Security Space Office (NSSO), though he is currently studying at the University of Reading in the UK for a doctorate.

The NSSO is part of the Pentagon, but independent of the individual branches of the military, enabling it to take the broadest view of security. A growing concern is energy security: how will we cope in a world without oil? Coyote Smith pointed out that the American-Japanese round of the Second World War was in fact a resource war: the attack on Pearl Harbor was an attempted knock-out blow intended to give Japan a free hand in south-east Asian oilfields. Was this a taste of future wars to come in a world of dwindling energy supplies?

Last year a group of four friends in the Pentagon, including today's speaker, started discussing these issues, and examining the role which solar power harvested in space might play in the future energy economy. They came to be known as Los Caballeros -- "the cabal" -- and quickly attracted interest from other proponents of space solar power, including John Mankins at NASA. Most importantly, Smith's boss at the NSSO, Maj. Gen. James B. Armor, gave the group strong moral support, despite a lack of resources to spare for the project.

The study was carried out over the internet -- unheard of for a Pentagon project -- and resulted in a detailed report, published in October 2007: "Space Based Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security: Phase 0 Architecture Feasibility Study".

It is available on the internet -- together with many other space solar power documents.

This report is clear, highly readable, and takes a broad view: for example, while today -- with the ISS foremost in mind -- it may seem like science fiction to place satellites weighing around 3000 tonnes apiece into high orbit, the report offers a historical context, mentioning such past engineering achievements as the Eiffel Tower (8000 tonnes), the Empire State Building (365,000 tonnes), the largest oil tankers (650,000 tonnes each), and even the Great Pyramid of Giza (5.9 million tonnes) (p.31).

And while today the space agencies of the world struggle to maintain a tempo of five manned launches into orbit per year, in 2005 Atlanta International Airport saw close to a million take-offs and landings of jet aircraft weighing several hundred tonnes apiece, "barely 100 years after the single wood & cloth, 338 kg Wright Flier flew only 120 feet at a mere 30 mph". This is precisely the sort of historical perspective one needs to make progress in space.

A few points from Coyote Smith's lecture. The acronym "SBSP" for space-based solar power arose because, for some inscrutable reason, "SSP" was being rejected by spam filters. But he drew a comparison with hydroelectric power, and suggested the analogous term "astroelectric power" or "astroelectricity" for power from sunlight harvested in space.

Certainly he does not see astroelectricity as the only future power source. But other sources of power such as geothermal, ground solar or biofuels are more limited in scope, and there is a real possibility that astropower might shoulder the bulk of the base load of civilisation's power needs by mid-century, taking over from fossil fuels.

He pointed out that astropower needs to work hand-in-hand with ground-based solar power, which uses similar technologies for converting sunlight into electricity. (The latter is of course an expanding industry at the moment.)

Coyote Smith pointed out that both disaster relief and military interventions had problems obtaining enough power. After a hurricane or earthquake, the local power infrastructure is damaged, hampering rescue efforts, while in a military action such as the invasion of Iraq, 70% of the supply train is taken up moving petroleum around. In both cases, the existence of a system which could beam power down from space directly to any location on Earth would be of enormous benefit to the people on the ground (though a question remains in my mind: the physics of microwave transmission over the distance between GEO and Earth require the transmitter antenna to be more than 0.5 km diameter (see p.23 of the NSSO report), and the receiver needs to be larger again than this (see diagram at the top of p.27), suggesting that microwave power cannot be picked up, or cannot be efficiently picked up, with the type of small portable receiver antenna that a military or rescue force would have).

Japanese studies have suggested using lasers to transmit the power from orbit to the ground, but -- again with security uppermost in mind -- the Pentagon study preferred microwaves in order to avoid any suspicion that the system could be used as a weapon.

While electric power cannot be directly used to drive large vehicles, ships or aircraft, it can be used to manufacture hydrocarbon fuels such as methane and methanol, using carbon drawn from the air. Abundant electric power is therefore a key to creating a carbon-neutral fuel for transport.

Fleets of reusable spaceplanes will be necessary to carry the components up into orbit. Coyote Smith described an architecture in which the power satellites are assembled in low Earth orbit, where they are relatively accessible, and then when they are ready for deployment are boosted to geosynchronous orbit (presumably using solar-electric propulsion). But the level of activity required suggests that an international Space Traffic Control system will be needed.

Old power satellites could be retired to the Moon. Ultimately they will be built from the outset from lunar or asteroidal materials. Clearly, if a satellite can throw power over a distance of 380,000 km without losing too much of it, then the problem of supplying a lunar colony with power during the lunar night is solved.

His report's recommendations focus on the need for the US government to enable an astroelectric power system by reducing the technical risks, arranging a favourable legal environment, setting up an early demonstration satellite and offering itself as an initial guaranteed customer in order to incentivise private development.

The rewards include the expectation that future resource wars will be avoided, benefiting everyone's security.

Coyote Smith emphasised how (in contrast to one's presuppositions about how the Pentagon works) the study had emerged from the informal debate among a group of friends, and offered the observation: "The ability to make friends, who work together to solve problems, is the finest power we will have."

That group of friends, together with their far-sighted commanding officer, have been recognised by the award of the 2008 Space Pioneer Award from the National Space Society.

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Astronautical Evolution is an e-mail forum devoted to debate and comment from an astronautical evolutionist perspective. To subscribe / unsubscribe / contribute / comment, please e-mail Stephen Ashworth, sa--at--astronist.demon.co.uk.


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