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

The way tech accelerates nowadays is the same way it’s always accelerated. No matter what slice of an exponential curve you look at, it always looks like you’re looking at the exciting time when change was very rapid. The tough part is just in figuring out what direction technology will accelerate in.

interesting that the current rockets cannot put as much weight into space (low earth orbit) as the Saturn V from the 60s. But I guess that’s by design. I assume if they wanted to build a more powerful rocket than the Saturn V they could

If someone with unlimited funds came along and said “I want to build a single rocket that can loft a rocket to take itself to moon orbit and back and also a ship that can land from moon orbit and return to orbit… oh, and it has to be done in 8 years…”

Then someone would build one. The key part is the “unlimited funds”. Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end…

a NASA engineer told me they knew the Soviets were not close to the US in terms of a moon mission. But they played up the space race to keep the funds flowing to NASA

I’m not sure how they would have known. The core of the Soviet program was the superheavy N1 rocket (their equivalent of the Saturn V), which never flew successfully. Most of the information about the failures of the program was secret until the 90s. The US had some aerial reconnaissance early on but I doubt that information was available to a typical NASA engineer.

Mars colonization is an idea that is extremely premature - especially if we are talking about a permanent colony that has to become self-sustaining.

You cannot survive on Mars without a lot of high technology. That means a self-sustaining colony has to be able to maintain a high-tech infrastructure without Earth resupply (if it’s truly going to be a hedge against Earth’s destruction, which is what Musk wants it for).

Maintaining a high tech civilization requires millions of people. A single company on earth can have a supply chain greater than 50,000 different suppliers, and each one of those has its own supply chains. The economy is an extremely complex web. You can’t just stand one up on another planet.

So you start sending people to Mars. At first, your cargo might be mostly people with some simple habs. But then the next flight not only has to bring more people, but the goods the first people need. With every new launch of colonists, the logistical tail from Earth to Mars will get longer. Eventually, you would wind up in a situation where you would be spending huge amounts of Earth’s GDP just to maintain the colony on Mars while it grows into something that can sustain itself. We will never do that.

And note I’m not even talking about all the problems with colonization like perchlorates in the soil, radiation at the surface due to lack of a magnetosphere, and all the rest. Mars could look like Bermuda and it would still be prohibitive to build a self-sustaining colony without some way for the colonists to pay Earth so that it wants to keep doing it.

If a colony of people is going to be created off-earth, it has to be self-financing, profitable, and organically evolve in place out of the needs of the people doing the things that make the profit.

This is why the Moon is a MUCH smarter choice for our first manned outpost. The moon is close enough that we can fly many more missions, and we don’t need to wait for launch windows to do it. Many missions and fast turnaround are the key to making travel safe and maximizing the rate of problem discovery and solution.

Furthermore, the Moon has potential for commercial profit. For one thing, given that there are hundreds of billions of tons of water ice there, an obvious application is providing water and LOX for other missions to other planets or for orbiting stations. And while the Moon overall is rather depleted of heavy metals, it has been bombarded by comets and meteors for billions of years, which have deposited metals, volatiles and who knows what else in various places. It may be that permanently shadowed craters are filled not just with water, but with other volatiles that froze out. There may also be sealed lava tubes and deep fissures filled with volatiles. The moon is still outgassing volatiles today (the Aristarchus Plateau sometimes has a slight ‘fog’ over it due to outgassing). So I would suppose that there are places where those gases have been trapped, and they may be ripe for mining much as we have found large pockets of natural gas, helium and other volatiles deep in the Earth.

The Moon may turn out to be useful for tourism or retirement, assuming you can live in 1/6 G for an extended period of time. The far side would be an excellent place for radio astronomy, or for deep space communication network facilities. There are lava tubes on the moon that could be sealed and provide massive living spaces - it’s possible that there are empty lava domes under the surface as big as 5 km around and 1-2 km from floor to ceiling. That’s big enough to house a city, and it would provide the protection we need from micrometerories, surface radiation, and temperature swings.

That’s way off in the distance, but even in the near term we may be able to send inflatable habs to the moon and put them inside lava tubes for a fully protected environment without having to build heavy buiildings for shielding.

But more to the point, the Moon is where there’s a chance that a large colony could eventually be created. If we can find money-making opportunities there, eventually more people will go, and eventually you will need other people to support the miners. And then they have families and you need schools and all the rest. This is how civilizatations have grown organically in the past. The first settlers to California died of starvation. Later, when the gold rush happened, people shipped their laundry to Hawaii! Eventually, support people and infrastructure came along to supply the gold rush, and as more people arrived more ancilliary businesses started up where it made sense. That’s what needs to happen wherever we plan to build a colony. We can’t just do it on permanent subsidy.

The other thing that makes the Moon very attractive is that the BFR rocket system can put 15 tons of mass on the Moon or 150 tons into lunar orbit, then return and land on Earth with a single refueling in Earth orbit.

Think about that. I’m going to be conservative here and assume that a BFR will initially only fly 10 times, and not the 100 or 1000 times some people are talking about. Maybe one day we’ll get there, but for now these things aren’t going to be rated for that kind of reuse. So let’s say the rocket can be reused 10 times before being refurbished or scrapped.

Let’s also say the system costs $500 million to build, and not the $250 million some people have claimed. That’s $50 million per flight for depreciation. With one refueling required, that’s $100 million. At that price, fuel and support are rounding errors - call it another $5 million.

So we can put 15 tons of equipment and people on the moon and fly back for around $100 million. To put that in perspective, the dry mass of the lunar LEM during Apollo was 2.37 tons. You could put six of them on the moon in one mission, for less than $20 million each.

Eventually, if the BFR proves itself and gets the modifications required, we may be able to drop the price in half or maybe a quarter.

But at the first price, that’s roughly $6000/kg to put mass on the moon, or $600 per kg to put it in Lunar Orbit. Sending a human to the lunar surface would cost a couple of million dollars, and eventually might cost a fraction of that.

We are in the kind of price range now where exploring and exploiting the moon comes within range of companies who build deep-sea drilling rigs, giant container ships, or who create big budget movies. James Cameron could probably shoot a movie on the moon profitably if he had the gear for it.

This is all highly speculative, and until we start doing it we have no idea how this will actually evolve. But with the moon there’s at least a plausible path forward for a colony to built organically and sustainably. I just don’t see that for Mars, unless there is a big discovery there of something incredibly valuable. I think it’s more likely that we’ll see large colonies in orbit or at a Lagrange point mining asteroids and doing science with giant telescopes before we see one on Mars.

To me the big attraction of the Moon is that it is within range of teleoperated robot devices. With a lightspeed delay of a second or so, remotely-operated machinery could do most of the things a human construction crew could do. After a few decades of work the Moon could have enough infrastructure on its surface to support a permanent colony - all without a single human landing there.

Such a task would practically impossible on Mars, with a timelag for back-and-forth messaging which is measured in tens of minutes (most of the time).

Not only that, but the moon is close enough that we could plausibly provide internet access, albeit with a big lag. But still, Moon residents would stay connected with people on Earth in a way that Mars colonists could not.

The moon landing was the race the US could win. With its larger industrial capability and wealth the US was always going to be able to reel in and overtake whatever perceived lead the Soviets had. And perception was a very large part of the entire deal. The US was much less the lagging side than public perception placed it. Perhaps the most extraordinary element of the time was the Corona project, and the manner in which what was an extraordinary capability was kept back and under wraps. National security trumped even the public perception of beating the Soviets and the political damage that brought.
Once the moon landing programme was underway it would have been a pretty damaging thing to cancel - and even a delay beyond 1970 would have been tantamount to cancellation. They were different times for many reasons. NASA had been very careful to made sure that nearly every state in the union had a slice of the action when it came to contracts. Every senator and congresscritter knew that Apollo money was flowing back to their states to provide something towards the programme. Jobs and money, and good jobs and good money at that.
Even before Kennedy set the race off, things like the F1 engine were well underway. Apollo was a big leap, but it wasn’t presented to Kennedy as a winnable race with nothing to back it up.

To answer the OP’s question, I don’t see American/Russian cooperation moving forward in the coming decades. While I applauded the efforts to improve political relations, coordinating every aspect of the ISS while dealing with political tensions was a drag on schedule. As such, I don’t know how much money was saved as a result, I would imagine if NASA had done everything in-house we would have been better off. There are plenty of riches in space that would support continued space exploration. Rare elemental metals in asteroids and helium-3 on the Moon are the most notable targets. If material science progresses far enough to make a space elevator possible, that will be the beginning of a second industrial revolution.

Rare earth materials are not actually very rare on Earth; they are just costly and polluting to extract, and it is highly doubtful that access to extraterrestrial sources alone would justify the cost of crewed space exploration (though an in situ source of them is an essential precursor for high technology industry to support large scale human presence in space). The notion promlugated by popular science writers that [SUP]3[/SUP]He is somehow a really valuable substance is based upon a misrepresentation of its utility in the present and foreseeable future; the only significant current use for [SUP]3[/SUP]He is in neutron detectors owing to its high neutron capture cross section and conversion to easily detectable hydrogen; its use as a fuel in controlled nuclear fusion ignores the fact that D-[SUP]3[/SUP]He and [SUP]3[/SUP]He-[SUP]3[/SUP]He fusion have triple product requirements more that two orders of magnitude more difficult than D-T fusion that we are still struggling to attempt to achieve. And even if we could active fusion using [SUP]3[/SUP]He, it would be far cheaper to manufacture it on Earth using a neutron source than to sift it from Lunar regolith at a gram per hundreds or thousands of tons of material.

Talking about that regolith, which is composed of highly abrasive and electrically charged fines, that poses a significant problem both to EVA equipment and the health of astronauts, which will likely pose major problems for any attempt at setting large scale industry or indefinite human habitation on the Moon. The low gravity (1/6 g) also poses two different sets of problems: logistically it requires more energy and potential for risk to lift materials and products from the Lunar surface into orbit or back to Earth, and physiologically it is probably insufficient to fully ameliorate the medical problems of living in a less than terrestrial acceleration environment. Although we do not have any data on human or large mammal development in a fractional gravity environment, the general consensus among space physiologists is there is likely to be some degree of significant long term impairment and chronic health effects from living in such a low acceleration environment, and those go right down to the cellular metabolic level, so just wearing a weighted suit or exercising with heavy resistance will not protect against this, nor would it be feasible to walk around all day with six times the normal inertia of a human body, as astronauts would be constantly slamming into walls and misjudging their ability to stop in low gravity.

Pretty much anything that could be done on the surface of the Moon could be done more readily in orbital space including habitation, provided that there are sufficient access to materials and a developed infrastructure, including material processing and permanent habitation. It should go without saying that telescopes and other instruments are actually better located in orbit where they can be oriented freely than on the surface of a moon or planet where their orientation and access to portions of the sky are limited by the motion of that body (and again, returning to the issue of Lunar dust which will contaminate optics and radiating surfaces as well as pose a wear hazard for moving mechanical mechanisms.

I don’t see a persuasive reason to attempt to engage in any construction of a crewed outpost on either the Moon or Mars in the foreseeable future, or indeed, until there is sufficient infrastructure and in situ resource production capability from materials found in space such that there is no need for bulk haulage of consumable and construction materials from the surface of the Earth. And I would take any estimates about the costs and reliability of a yet-to-be-flown space transportation system with skepticism, and especially those promoted by a party whose motivation is to enthrall space advocates and spur venture capital investment rather than to objectively weight and assess the necessary technology developments and risks for a space infrastructure and indefinite human habitation.


Technology will develop apace (and in ways we cannot predict), but the one element that really isn’t changing are human beings; we are still evolved to operate in a terrestrial environment with all of the provisions and protections that the planet provides us, and the more we learn about the physiological issues of people in space, the more it becomes apparent how much we will have to do in order to support crewed exploration or indefinite habitation. The Expanse is science fiction, imagined by reasonably informed authors, and based on some assumptions that make it possible for people to live, work, and fight in space while still being recognizable and relateable to audiences. The actual future is likely to be far different and much stranger than we can actually imaging, just as Victorians did not envision Twitter or radio and X-ray astronomy expanding our essential concept of the universe vastly beyond what we can see using terrestrial-based optical telescopes.


But what do we mean by “Earth’s destruction”? Cracking the planet in half like an egg, or blowing it into rubble? The only way that happens is if Galactus comes to visit, or a catastrophe of similar scale, which probably wouldn’t leave Mars unscathed, either. Most real catastrophes that would “destroy the Earth” would leave it a considerably more hospitable environment than Mars is now, even after being “destroyed”. So we’d be much better off, instead of colonizing Mars, in colonizing Earth. Anything you can build on Mars, you can build on Earth, too, and much more easily, and if it can sustain human life there, it could sustain it here even in the face of nuclear fallout or a superplague or global flooding or whatever other calamity you’re worried about.

I read somewhere that for the US vs. Soviet space race it was summed up as “our Germans were better than their Germans”

I’m not so sure about that. It’s obvious that in the longish term, humans will evolve to live in space, just as we have evolved to live in high-UV environments, low-UV ones, low oxygen, cold temperatures, and so on. There will probably be noticeable changes over mere thousands of years.

The shorter term is less certain, but at the rate that we’re learning about genetics, we may not have to let evolution run its course. Most of the problems of living in orbit or on Mars/the Moon are not inherently problematic; they are just a problem because our biology hasn’t caught up yet. There’s no fundamental physiological reason why low bone density or muscle tone should be associated with low gravity; the body must be using various forces and stresses as signals for bone/muscle growth, but signals can be overridden or amplified.

Really, it’s astonishing how well-suited humans are to space. We don’t instantly choke to death in microgravity, or find ourselves unable to shit or perform any other necessary functions. The problems are all fairly long-term, not immediately fatal, and can largely be ameliorated through exercise or other means.

Ten years ago I was much more optimistic about the ability of advances in medical science and molecular biology to adapt humans to freefall conditions and the space environment. Since then, the more we’ve learned from space physiology studies of astronauts on the ISS and the complexities of mammalian physiology in general, I’ve become far more reserved about assuming that advances in medical science will overcome the problems involved in living in space and the cosmic radiation environment in the foreseeable future despite the advent of CRISPR/Cas9 and other tools for examining the genome. We barely know enough about practical genomics to identify and possibly treat a few pretty straightforward genetic maladies, and making complex changes to the nominal function of biological systems without creating new pathological problems is beyond the expectations of people advancing the fields of genetic engineering.

Splicing in a gene into rice to make it produce complete proteins, or into corn to resist fungal infections is vastly easier than making even simple changes to an organism with a dynamically controlled metabolism, immune response system, and complex nervous system. And it is unlikely that we’ll be able to make such changes to a developed organism without serious developmental effects; making a ‘human’ capable of living in a freefall environment would probably require making such changes in vitro before even foetal development is very far along, and all of the ethical issues that go along with that. The technomagical drugs in The Expanse that protect against radiation or effects from differing gravity are just literary conceits to make the story seem based in hard reality but has no basis in actual science.

As we’ve discovered, exercise does very little to ameliorate syndromes caused by long duration exposure to freefall; at best it helps to retain some degree of muscle tone that would be lost and retard the progress of decalcification and associated problems such as kidney stones, and this is expected to be true in fractional gravity environments such that the viability of Lunar or Mars habitat is questionable. It would literally be easier to modify humans to survive unprotected in the Antarctic or live underwater than to live without chronic problems in the space environment, and we’re not anywhere close to being able to make mer-people. The desire to believe otherwise on the basis of what is portrayed on television and movies is wishful thinking that does not account for the actual fundamental developments in science which would actually be required.


All it would take is a nuclear war, or a biological attack, or even a massive economic meltdown, and you would lose the ability to supply your Martian colony. So while it is on the way to self-sustainabily it will be incredibly vulnerable to any change on Earth that eliminates Earth’s ability or desire to maintain a logistical tail.

As for scenarios that could wipe out himanity completely, that would have to come down to something like a biological warfare agent that runs out of control. Or a massive asteroid strike, or runaway greenhouse, or something like that.

Musk’s point is that so long as humanity is located on one planet, it will always be vulnerable to some kind of extinction event. Imthink that’s right, but I also think the timeframe for that kind of statistical logic is more like thousands to millions of years, and we have plenty of time before we start committing to a major project like this.

And I still think that any large human population anywhere has to have an intrinsic need to be there, or it won’t be sustainable. I think the most likely scenario for an attempted Martian colony today will result in something like McMurdo station. except at 1000x the cost for maintenance and resupply. Eventually, the cost will be too high, and we will pull the plug and bring everyone home.

But look at what you’d need to build a successful Mars colony. It’d need an airtight enclosure, and radiation shielding, and so on. Build the exact same structure on Earth, and it’ll be just as protected from all of those calamities as it would be on Mars. Considerably more so, actually.

I agree that [SUP]3[/SUP]He doesn’t look like a viable, profitable resource to mine now or in the near or even medium term future.

However… That doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth mining on the moon. We have just barely begun lunar exploration, and we’re already getting surprise after surprise. In just the past few years we’ve learned about billions of tons of water ice just sitting in the open. We’ve also learned that the lunar interior was wet, at least at the time of the last active volcanoes. Not only that, but we’ve learned that water is being created all the time on the moon by the reaction of the solar wind with the regolith, and we know the moon is still outgassing.

Billions of years of meteor bombardment has left the moon littered with the stuff carried by meteors. The small stuff that burns up in Earth’s atmosphere survived impact on the moon and has left residue everywhere. How that translates into pockets of valuable minerals or gases is an open question.

But I generally agree with you that we have no idea what the future of space exploitation will look like. Perhaps one day we will have a huge orbital presence, and someone will figure out a way to get water from the moon to our in space facilities much cheaper than bringing it from Earth. Or maybe it will turn out to be even easier to get it from an ice world like Ceres, and the moon will never be anything more than a dusty rock with a few tourists or scientists on it at any given time.

My feeling is that we have reached a new tipping point in terms of the cost of space access, and that has opened an adjacent possible for new commercial uses of space that we have discounted in the past because of the cost. The laws of economics would strongly suggest that a space marketplace predicated on $5000/lb launch prices may be substantially different and probably much smaller and less diverse than one where launch costs are $500/lb, and even more different than one where launches can be done for $50/lb. As an example, a civil airplane market where a Cessna 172 costs a quarter of a million dollars can support a few hundred aircraft per year, primarily sold to flight schools or very wealthy individuals, whereas one where a light aircraft could be had for the cost of a Cadillac could support thousands of sales for all kinds of uses.

We don’t know what the future holds for space industry, but we have to stop being blinkered by old habits of thinking - habits formed when space launches cost hundreds of millions of dollars and only governments and government contractors could play.

It’s definitely a problem, but I don’t see it as being insurmountable. In any event, if we one day had large habitats inside Lava Tubes, a lot of those problems go away. People living there might never step foot on the surface of the moon, or if they do it would be in carefully controlled and fairly rare excursions - not just because of the dust, but also because of radiation exposure and micrometeorite risk.

However, also consider that this makes the moon a pretty good test bed for exploration of other airless worlds, which can be assumed to have the same kind of problem.

That’s a few probablies and maybes. We actually don’t know what 1/6 G will do to people, and that makes the Moon an even better starting point before we head to Mars. Data collected at 1/6 G vs 1G and zero gravity will give us the data point we need to start to understand how humans will survive long-term existence in gravity fields other than 1G. That alone makes a long-term moon base useful before sending people on extended Mars missions.
Pretty much anything that could be done on the surface of the Moon could be done more readily in orbital space including habitation, provided that there are sufficient access to materials and a developed infrastructure, including material processing and permanent habitation.

Well that’s the rub. Where are you getting all the mass from? If we need to live in space anywhere outside of LEO, we need major shielding from solar flares, we need to rotate the station to provide gravity, and those two requirements probably drive up the required mass for habitation by an order of magnitude or more. That’s a lot of mass. The moon is rich in aluminum, titanium, and other necessary minerals for station construction, and its lack of an atmosphere means it can be mined without polluting the entire surface and possibly even be shot into LEO using mass drivers. Power them with nuclear power plants, and you’ve got an almost free method for shooting as much mass off the moon and into orbit as you need. Yeah, I know that’s handwaving away a lot of complications, but that’s how economies develop.

I’m not saying we SHOULD do these things - I’m saying it’s possible that it will turn out to be smart to do that - or it might not. We have no way of knowing today what will be possible, reasonable, or obvious to do 50 years from now.

Probably. That’s why I only mentioned radio telescopes, where having the body of the moon shield the scope from the radio noise of Earth may be very useful. But it’s also possible that we could make use of large craters as ready-to-go radio telescopes, much like the Arecibo dish. There was a paper a while ago which suggested that some craters may have a high enough reflectivity that we don’t even need to skin them with a mesh of wires or anything.

This is where we disagree. I think human exploration is critical for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that it inspires people and maintains interest in space exploration. And again, we really do need to figure out how people respond to 1/6 G so we can get another data point and start really understanding our limitations.

I also think there is lots of room for human exploration on the moon. Those lava tubes are fascinating in that they represent pristine environments untouched for billions of years. There may be layers of them going down thousands of feet, and they may have collected volatiles or other materials from the early solar system. Just the fact that the mantle is or was ‘wet’ is a big surprise that changes the way we look at the formation of Earth/Moon system, as our current models didn’t predict that. So there’s still a lot to learn on the moon. I’m sure much exploration will be done with robots and remote sensing, but I also think humans will need to be in the mix for some of it.

That’s why I used the most pessimistic estimates I could think of, and not Musk’s claim that BFR could be flown for less than the cost of a Falcon 1. That might be true on an incremental basis one day, but when you consider the amortization and financing of expensive craft like that, I highly doubt it.

Consider this - if a BFR/BFS can fly 150 tons to lunar orbit for $10 million dollars, then an empty BFS could fly there and bring back 150 tons of material. So if we can find anything on the moon that’s worth more than $67,000 per ton, it could be profitable to mine on the moon and bring back to Earth.

Today, a metric ton of Gold is worth about $43 million dollars. We go to great lengths to mine gold. And yes, there’s gold on the moon. The LCROSS mission that found water ice in the plume from the crash also found gold, silver, magnesium, and other elements.

With low enough launch costs, we might see serious effort from big mining companies to explore and recover minerals on the moon. Not soon, but perhaps in decades. If I had to guess, I’d say that it would be even cheaper to get it from asteroids by then, but who knows? We have no idea what breakthroughs will happen once the space industry is ten times its current size.