NASA, Space Exploration, The USA and Russia...???

I am going to be incredibly naive here, yet I have briefly researched these issues. NASA funding is in the pits. We have been and continue to use Russian RD-180 engines, made in Russia or made/final assembly in the USA.

My general question I guess is where is this going? The ISS is a great example of the triumph of collaboration of nations over politics, yet…what is going to be the commitment going forward?

Another question is how in the F are we still able to do business with Russia over rockets and rocket travel when politically, they are now more our enemy than ever? Where does that end up?

I have read and continue to read (and watch shows like “The Expanse”) that involve intra-solar system migration by the human species, which seems like the most plausible first step towards diaspora amongst the galaxy. When enough hard sci-fi begins to populate the landscape, many portions of it become reality.

How far are we from this? Wouldn’t this take a monumental effort by a coalition of nations to share the R&D costs and execution of such a plan, like colonizing and terraforming Mars?

SpaceX intends to support significant colonization of Mars in the coming decades. Whether that will actually happen is unknown, but their plan, with a whole slew of caveats, does seem somewhat plausible. They’re just in the early stages of manufacturing their “BFR” that they think will be capable of travel to and from Mars. I don’t think they’re planning on drawing on a large pool of the R&D budgets of various countries to do so.

One of their competitors, Blue Origins, funded by (I think) the richest man on the planet, has plans to enable a settlement on the Moon.

If we haven’t landed a human on the Moon or Mars in the next couple of decades, I’ll be rather disappointed in us, but I don’t think Russia adds much value to that effort.

Presumably rockets and associated infrastructure and research are … I believe the technical term is “incredibly fucking expensive”. At least for SpaceX and assorted other companies, building rockets is paid for by satellite launches, especially if you can master recovery and reuse. The incredible profits to apy for resaerch stem from (a) not overengineering them like governments do and (b) charging a little bit less for launches than expensive overengineered throwaway rockets. But at this time, they are not researching the incredibly varied number of projects that NASA has teaken on.

As a good example, the Chinese who would dearly love to prove they are number two in the world and on their way to number one, have still managed only a few astronaut launches (about one every two years or more) and have managed only one uncontrolled space station re-entry (so they have caught up to the Americans in that regard…)

Russia? To some extent coasting on Soviet laurels and barely able to afford what they do now…

I just want to point out that the U.S. and Russia have been conductingjoint missions since 1975 – back when Russia was the Soviet Union and arguably more of an enemy than they are now.

If the Israelis and Palestinians can reach an agreement over water rights, the U.S. can pay the Russians for renting a seat in a spacecraft.

The 2018 budget allocation for NASA is one of the largest annual budgets [corrected for inflation] they’ve had since the Apollo program. One can take issue with how the budget is allocated, but it is hardly “in the pits”.

The International Space Station is and has always been about politics. Although it is an international collaboration the US has borne most of the cost. Research at the station only started provided useful science in the last few years and even that is limited as many of the most important experiments and modules have been eliminated for budgetary reasons and curtailing shuttle flights after the lost of Columbia in 2003. The US will be dependant upon Russia to send crew to the ISS and return them for the foreseeable future, e.g. until either the SLS or SpaceX Falcon Heavy is qualified for crewed flights, and both of those vehicles are well behind schedule.

For all of its “hard science” trappings, The Expanse is still science fiction with the technomagic that goes along with it, particularly its super-efficient high thrust fusion driver, wonder drugs that ameliorate the effects of freefall and radiation on the body, and the future noir aesthetic that represents the future of society about as well as Victorian steampunk resembles modern technology. No amount of literary conceit or international cooperation is going to change some of the fundamental physical and physiological problems of space travel and crewed exploration without some pretty radical advances in both propulsion, energy, and medical technologies, to name a few. This is not to say that interplanetary exploration is not possible—we’ve done amazing work with remotely operated probes and landers, and as machine intelligence becomes better we’ll be able to develop machines that can function with greater autonomy—but at the foreseeable state of technology crewed exploration is an exorbiant cost with great risk and a paltry scientific return on the money expended.

There is no expectation we will ever be able to terraform Mars, and although we might install bases under the Martian regolith or canopy over fissures to form larger pressurized spaces, actually maintaining a large population indefinitely without external resources is unlikely. The Martian soil not only lacks more than trace amounts of nitrates for growing crops but is also contaminated with large amounts of perchlorate salts which would have to be washed out to be arable for even crops as robust as potatoes. Hydroponic farming is possible but because of the reduced amount of sunlight and dust storms that can last for weeks, such farms would have to rely on artificial light. And of course fundamental differences like the 1/3 Earth gravity on Mars and a day just long enough to disrupt circadian rhythms really means that it would actually be easier to construct habitats reproducing most aspects of the terrestrial environment in space rather than trying to make Mars sufficiently Earth-like.

I know that with improvements in CGI in televison and film that it seems like space habitation should just be a matter of will and money, but there are some pretty substantial problems that have to be solved in order to support any signficant population or send people beyond Earth orbit for years at a time, and the route to solving those problems and building the necessary infrastructure is by increased reliance on robotic systems that can lay out the groundwork at vastly less cost and no great amount of risk, while other medical and propulsion technologies are improved to the point that sending people beyond Earth orbit is not an exercise in extreme hazard at enormous cost for a few adventurous souls. We can no more create the world imagined in The Expanse with a reasonable extrapolation of current technologies than we can beam up to interstellar space cruisers. I know that is not what crewed space enthusiasts with visions of zipping between planets on a lark or honeymooning in Saturn’s rings want to hear, but that is the rational assessment.


Unless there’s a dramatic turnaround in coming years, Russia isn’t going to be a player in future space developments. The Atlas V, which uses the RD-180 you mention is not only uncompetitive with SpaceX rockets, but is due to be eliminated from US launches completely with the introduction of the Vulcan rocket (which uses engines from Blue Origin).

The Russian Proton workhorse rocket has only one commercial customer for 2018. And even that may not happen.

Unless there’s an enormous failure, SpaceX will have an incredible 2018–and that’s following a 2017 where they already flew more payloads than any other party.

But these are still short-term trends. The future belongs to the aforementioned BFR with its full reusability, and to some extent to Blue Origin’s future rocket lineup (New Glenn, New Armstrong, etc.).

No one outside of the US has a reasonable competitor even on their roadmap. Not Russia, not Europe, and not China. They will all maintain some launch presence due to effective subsidies from government launch requirements, but this is not the road to innovation. If anyone pulls through with their dignity intact, it’ll probably be China, but we’ll have to see about that. They need to be targeting full reusability but there are no serious proposals that I’ve seen.

Falcon Heavy will never be man-rated, nor will it need to be. SpaceX crew capability is blocked by Dragon 2 development and by the Falcon 9 Block 5.

Due to NASA holding outside providers to a higher standard than they hold themselves, Block 5 will need to fly at least seven times before being crew qualified–nevertheless, that should not be the bottleneck since Block 5 is due to fly this Monday and the SpaceX flight rate is so high that they’ll reach the necessary number in a handful of months. Dragon 2 development will take more time–until 2019 at least.

Another issue is supplies. Saying “we can get water from moon ice deposits” means a huge investment simply to get to there - and that is only one of the supplies needed for space habitation. They you need the equipment to electrolyze it and create liquid oxygen and nitrogen, which becomes rocket fuel to spew out into space… Food - the amount of effort needed to grow enough food for one person is quite high. I see numbers from 0.07hectare to 1.2 acres; of course, in space presumably fertilizer, grow-op lights (or very thick glass) and all the other pieces would initially have to be flown up. Want to build a base that isn’t a bunch of prefab units? need to transport all the building equipment and the supplies other than rocks. Power - assuming you use solar power and batteries - look how big the ISS "wings"a re to support 6 people and their habitat…

The question with space expansion will always be “profits?” While American colonies were exercises to “plant the flag” ahead of euro-rivals, the real valuable land was initially the Indies where sugar and rum(!) were produced in serious quantities. So far, I don’t see any persecuted minorities able to pay their way into space like the Pilgrims. Actual human outposts in space will probably have to follow the same rule - people will go where there are profits to be made. The same economic logic that justified giant platforms in the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico will eventually justify platforms in space, if we find something equally lucrative. But then, nobody lives full time on oil rigs yet).

Correct. And there’s also Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, which will fly on an Atlas V rocket (also probably not until 2019). AFAIK, SLS doesn’t really factor into the equation of ending our dependency on Russian Soyuz flights for ISS crew missions.

Right, because SLS is designed for deep-space missions, i.e. sending astronauts to the Moon or beyond. It’s way overkill for sending astronauts to the ISS.

Damn. Thanks for systematically picking apart every aspect of what I used to call a dream and now call “an idiot’s thoughtless ruminations upon nothing”. Thanks again.


Just kidding. I know how far-fetched some sci-fi ideas are, so…yeah.

I don’t see the RD-180 as uncompetitive. If anything, it’s been competitive for it’s failure rate versus cost (as of this writing I believe our use of them is 100% in terms of reliability) and the cost is fixed. I just don’t like giving a government that shamelessly interferes in our government, amongst other things, money for rocket engines that we should be building ourselves.

The RD-180 is a fantastic engine for what it is. But it doesn’t fit in with anyone’s future plans. SpaceX, Blue Origin, and ULA are moving to methane propellant. Low cost, better performance, and better compatibility with reusable architectures are all reasons (not to mention the possibility of generating it on Mars). The political issues surrounding the RD-180 are just nails in the coffin.

There’s an aspect to the BFR that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, but to explain its importance requires a bit of backstory.

To efficiently travel to the outer planets requires a great deal of energy in the final stage of the rocket. Delta-V (the amount of velocity a rocket can impart to its payload) is the fundamental commodity of all rockets, and travel past low Earth orbit requires a great deal of delta-V on top of what you already spent to get to LEO. Because energy scales with the square of velocity, the energy contained in the final stage tells us a great deal about how good a rocket is for travel beyond LEO.

There are two main ways to achieve this. First is to use a propellant with a high energy density–namely, cryogenic hydrogen (LH2). Hydrogen is a wonderfully energetic propellant with the downsides of being awful to work with, expensive, and having a low volumetric density (it is 1/14 the density of water!). Despite these downsides, a number of rockets use hydrogen upper stages.

The other way is to use more stages. Effectively, this is putting kinetic energy into the upper stage. The second stage of a typical rocket isn’t going all that fast at separation, and has a fairly low kinetic energy–but the third stage has tremendous KE, as it is traveling at or near orbital velocity. This makes a significant difference in delta-V capability.

Some rockets do both–the Saturn V had three stages, with the upper two being hydrogen. This sent quite a lot of payload toward the moon.

Now, the BFR is only a two stage rocket, and it doesn’t use hydrogen. It uses methane, which is a little higher energy than the Falcon 9’s kerosene, but it’s not nearly as good as hydrogen.

So what makes it a fantastic interplanetary craft? The answer is orbital refueling. You can send the BFR spaceship into LEO, and then refill its propellant stores over five additional flights of a tanker craft.

What this means is that the BFR is really a three-stage rocket. The third stage is just the fully fuelled ship. Normally, the ship would be almost depleted of propellant once it got to LEO, and likely couldn’t even get to the Moon, let alone anywhere farther out. But propellant transfer solves that.

Not only that, but it is an absolutely enormous three-stage rocket. It is fully equivalent to a huge rocket with a ship as the third stage, and six full BFRs strapped together as the first and second stages. That is a 27,000 tonne rocket, and nearly 10 times as big as the Saturn V. Not only that, but it has a highly energetic third stage (since it is going at orbital velocity).

The beauty of course is that a rocket that large never has to be built. BFR is big, no doubt (already bigger than Saturn V), but it gains nearly an order of magnitude in effective “size” due to the propellant transfer. LEO is an excellent place to perform the transfer, being relatively easy to get to, but also far enough (in delta-V terms) from the outer planets to make the transfer worthwhile.

All of this is really aside from the fact that the BFR is fully reusable. Propellant transfer gives capabilities that are not practically achievable any other way–we are not yet ready to build 27,000 tonne rockets. Maybe someday, but even then, propellant transfer will enable even larger payloads.

And propellant isn’t the only thing you can transfer. You can transfer people, too. SLS is often talked about in terms of missions to Mars and the like, but you’re not going to keep three men (or even one) crammed into a capsule that size for months on end. If SLS is ever used for anything beyond Earth orbit, and probably even if it’s used for another Moon mission, it’ll just be the surface-to-LEO vehicle. The astronauts will then transfer to some other, larger, vehicle, launched unmanned and (if necessary) assembled in orbit.

I think you mean Orion? SLS is the launch vehicle. Orion is the manned capsule, analogous to the Apollo Command Module.

Cargo transfer, orbital assembly, etc. are all important for future space development. But the advantage of propellant transfer is that the problem only has to be solved once–fluid transfer in space is not trivial but once you’ve put in the necessary hardware and software, it is close to automatic. Orbital assembly, though, depends on the characteristics of the pieces in question and requires a huge amount of EVA time. Smaller craft can get away with basic docking clamps but we don’t have stuff that works for larger ones.

Bulk cargo like food and water are not so bad to transfer, but large items like (say) a nuclear reactor runs into the same trouble. You need a whole set of special procedures just to transfer that one piece. We’ll probably work these things out eventually, but until then it’s nice to focus on just one type of transfer, and for that propellant makes the most sense.

If you’re really ambitious, you can do even better than the three “virtual” stages. If you fully refuel two BFR ships in LEO, and then put both in a high elliptical Earth orbit, and then do a final transfer there, you effectively get a fourth stage. The tanker ship can still return to Earth for reuse, while the passenger/cargo ship can now go to quite a few more places compared to starting at LEO.

Actually you can save a few tanker flights if you progressively raise your orbit with transfers in-between instead of doing it all at once, but that’s not a huge deal. The main thing is that you reach the limit of this approach–a fully fueled ship on a near-escape trajectory from Earth. You can’t do better unless you start throwing things away.

Am I the only one reminded of Operation Black Buck, here?

I had only a vague memory of that operation, but was strongly reminded of various brainteasers along the same lines. The main point of optimization is that you want to bring as little dry mass (empty ship) up the gravity well as you can. So a fleet of ships raising their apogee should stop and redistribute their propellant as soon as the remaining propellant can fit in (N-1) craft (the final craft needs minimal propellant to land back on Earth by using aerobraking).

I also sketched out a lunar mission to land 150 t on the surface and return using ~11 BFR flights. It involved sending two ships to lunar orbit, only landing one, and using the other to refuel for the trip back. This is more efficient than hauling spare propellant down to the lunar surface and then up again. Even better would be to leave a depot in lunar orbit.

About 500 years to get to the level shown in the expanse and that’s without the maguffin drive. Right now, Nasa just launched project insight (hail hydra) and we are gonna put another rover on Mars, and its expected to get there in 6 months because right now that’s politically the best we can do. Until we stop thinking about launching pressured coke cans and actually start building armored ships, we have no business even trying to get beyond a glamping trip to the moon.

The more I watch and read The Expanse, the more I believe that this level of technology cannot be more than a couple hundred years away for humans, with the way tech accelerates nowadays. It’s like history is on fast forward.