Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Sunday, October 09, 2005

  The broad outlines of the future for manned space exploration

The New Atlantic writes:

Gradually I've begun to see some coherent arguments around the idea of flying fuel and spacecraft separately on the HLV. The private spaceflight enthusiasists are going ape after the idea, yet not one has seriously suggested that we concentrate on getting resources into earth orbit from elsewhere in the solar system (e.g. NEOs). I guess I'm one of the few who still thinks it would be cheaper to get a grip on space that way.

In this matter, my views are congruent with the fuel depot crowd - if we can separate the propellant from the payload we can double (well, barring drag problems) the usable mass we send to orbit... and perhaps... one day... with this infrastructure in place... we could derive the propellant from outside earth's orbit. The technical problems in transferring cryogenics in space are severe, but they could be mastered - or we could settle on less difficult fuels (methane, alcohol, a variety of others).

Having a viable infrastructure for fuel delivery lowers risk and increases the size of the market for all those interested in seeing more competition in the space industry.

Consider this analogy about gas powered cars: If cars ran on Xenon, and could only refuel in Houston, would they have spread across the US and the world as fast as they did? No! Only by being able to make stops every few hundred miles are cars viable transport.

(Xenon is a popular, but very difficult to refine and rare propellant used in SEP powered spacecraft. It's a dead end fuel, suitable only for missions that can't refuel....)

In looking over the vision for space exploration I note that Zubrin slices NASA's problem in two:

I slice it in three - By the time that Apollo was hitting its stride the rot at NASA had already set in. For more details, read Chris Kraft's "Flight". I look to the upcoming moon program and especially the development of a specialized lander and return vehicle as a waste of money - we don't need specialized gear to land on an asteroid - just specialized gear to mine it - and the ability to refuel in orbit...

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