Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Freeluna! the Cry for Space Colony Independence

I have often been asked why I chose the name "Freeluna" for my blog and my webpage. The name comes from the "Luna Free State" envisioned in Robert Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" -- a must read for all space afficionados.

While Heinlein's main interest in that story had to do with politics, the social aspects of revolution, and the advantages of living at the top of a gravity well, it seems inevitable to me that most space colonies will not only become self-sufficient, but will evolve socially at odds with Earth, and will consequently demand their autonomy somewhere off in the distant future. It is in this spirit that I envision a lunar nation or nations, independent of the old imperial Earth.

The reason for these impending social change has to do with the differences between living on Earth and living in space. On Earth, despite what you may have heard to the contrary, we are profoundly resource rich. So rich, that it is not obvious to the casual Earth dweller. In particular, the Earth is rich in oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon -- the fundamental building blocks of life as we know it. The oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen are contained primarily in two convenient forms: in the form of oceans of water -- on average 3km deep, covering 75% of the earth's surface; and an atmosphere at a conveniently high pressure, uniformly covering the earth's surface and 100 km deep. Carbon is a bit scarcer, but still easily available -- mostly in the form of the plant matter that covers most of the Earth's dry surfaces.

In space, people will live in small enclosed environments -- little bubbles of life. For each person in the colony, there has to be a reserve of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen in the form of plants, air, and water for that person to survive. For every new person added to the colony, either by immigration or by birth, new supplies of these "life resources" will need to be added to the colony. In space the life resources are typically rare and usually found in inconvenient forms -- oxygen may have to be wrestled out of the oxides in the soil, hydrogen extracted from lunar polar ice (if it exists), carbon and nitrogen from bits of carbonaceous asteroids or similar. As a consequence, the space colonists will evolve a deep respect for their resources that we Earthlings will likely never appreciate. Trash disposal will never be an option in a self-sustaining colony. Everything -- trash, toxic waste, sewage, bodies -- will end up being recycled.

On the other hand, energy in space will be next to free. A network of solar energy stations around the moon could provide continuous power to all lunar habitats. Such a network will be possible because (1) the moon is politically a clean slate, (2) there are no geographical barriers to prevent such a system (such as oceans, etc.) and (3) because solar energy shines nearly 365 days a year on the moon (except for during eclipses). On Earth, universal power access is hampered by all the things the moon is missing -- politics, weather, oceans, largess. As a result on Earth we have to burn fossil fuels to light our way.

These differences in environment will cause the differences in perspective that will lead to the space colony independence movement. No colonist will ever consider converting his local stores of life resources into products for the Earth market. And yet no Earthling would think twice about doing just that.

So be prepared for the impending space colony revolutions. If we are considerate of each other's needs, they need not be bloody.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Riding Dog Bones and Doughnuts to Mars and Beyond - The Freeluna Space Program

Recently, NASA asked the public for opinions on what priorities should they use in the Moon, Mars, and Beyond exploration program. Today's blog is an attempt to answer that request, and to debut the Freeluna Manned Space Exploration Program, or FMSEP for short. FMSEP is based on the following tenets:

1. The purpose of manned space exploration is ultimately to develop technologies and pathways to enable and encourage space settlement. Technology isn't just building and shooting rockets. It's also creating sustainable space infrastructures and economies. It's creating a business environment where people and businesses can contribute to the space program and are encouraged to flourish in space related endevours. It's creating technologies that facilitate people living in space, and it's also identifying space resources that can be used to enable more space exploration and colonization (For instance, identifying whether or not Phobos or Deimos might be useful as fuel sources/depots for fueling the trips to earth and/or fuel trips to the asteroids).

2. Wherever people go in space, they must have technologies that allow them to "live off the land", to be able to spend extended periods away from Earth. One of the focuses of any manned space mission is to create a travelling environment that will allow people to grow their own food and to use the local resources. The reason this is so important is because it isn't economically viable to do otherwise in the long term. No space colony will ever be sustainable if it has to be sent frequent shipments of food, water, and oxygen -- so these are things we need to focus our attention upon.

3. The space program is to avoid "Hail Mary, Flags and Footprints" efforts Flags and footprints worked for the Apollo program, but it didn't provide follow-through. If the United States had focused on creating a earth-moon transporation system, with sustainable space stations on either or both the lunar and earth ends, we would've colonized the moon by now.

4. Infrastructure Reusability is key. In the FMSEP, interplanetary craft are not built to be used just once. They are not staged vehicles, tossing stages as they progress from Earth to Mars. Sure, they're more expensive to start with, but since the FMSEP craft get used more than once, the overall cost per flight drops.

So how would my space program be implemented? It starts off with creating a sustainable enclosed environment on Earth. On or about the same time, a space station is created in low earth orbit. This environment would either be the traditional toroidal space station from the days of old, or a spinning dog-bone shaped station with living pods at either end. One of the initial goals of the station is to answer a critical question of space exploration: whether or not humans can maintain their bonemass under lunar and/or Mars conditions. In the long term, this information will determine if we will be settling planets or living strictly in space stations. As work progresses in the sustainable enclosed environment on Earth, elements of that environment are introduced into the space station.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the solar system (just kidding) one or more sample/return missions are sent to investigate the make-up of the martian moons. The interest here is whether or not they contain sufficent amounts of water or hydrogen to be used as candidates for fuel dumps/depots. Since the craft would be landing on moons with less than one hundredth of a g gravity fields, it is probably possible to explore both moons with one mission and perhaps re-use the craft again at another time for a similar mission to the asteroids, depending upon the resourcefulness of the mission developers.

Just up from the Earth gravity well, there will be a mission to investigate lunar resources, especially water. I would anticipate a lunar base of some sort, also with work done to create a sustainable living environment for its occupants.

When a sustainable environment has been achieved on the station, high impulse engines (Ion or similar) and extensive electrical generation (solar and/or nuclear) are added to the station. Mars landers and sample/return craft are attached. Fuel tanks are added. Our first mission to Mars is ready. We go to Mars, we explore Phobos and Deimos and, if they have the resources, gas-up. We send craft down to the Martian surface, returning samples of martian soil, rocks, water, ice, etc. Somebody might actually go down to the surface, plant a flag, and come back, depending upon fuel resources, etc. Meanwhile, we also maintain our human environment in orbit. So far, we haven't had to add extra food and air to our environment, because we checked it out in earth orbit to make sure we really had a sustainable space environment to start with. After a few weeks or months, we fly our station/rocket back to Earth in order to drop off our samples, refuel, and exchange the crew. Any new experiments or landing craft or what have you are added at this time (any lessons learned from this mission were radioed ahead and prepared while we were in transit from Mars to Earth), and we're off on our next mission to Mars.

Repeat as necessary. Use the moonbase experience to create a habitat for Mars. Create more than one Mars-Earth transport to allow people to stay over in the Mars base with the guarantee that another ship will arrive every six months or so. And volois! The human race is off and running towards real space colonization.