RealSpace or NoSpace
By Gary Michael Church
The 1967 Apollo 1 fire was the key event leading to the end of the 1st space age before it really began. Anticipation by the aerospace industry of astronomical profits came to an abrupt end in one afternoon. It was not the three fatalities that doomed the space age, as aviation mishaps every year before and since result in hundreds of civilian deaths. The realization that space was going to be hard money would be the catalyst that shifted the focus of industry. The problem was that cold war toys generating vast revenues did not really have to perform as required and spaceships had to work as advertised. Concerning Human Space Flight, there are no false promises or rigged tests bringing in money because actual space travel cannot be faked. Industry chose the easy defense money. Despite recent public relations efforts proclaiming a new age of cheap lift the reality has not changed.
There is no cheap.
At the end of 1968, 22 months after Apollo 1, Apollo 8 left the gravitational field of Earth. Human beings left Earth orbit on December 21st to orbit the Moon and the space age began. Four years later the space age ended when Apollo 17 splashed down on December 19, 1972. The Apollo 8 mission lasted six days, Apollo 10 eight days, Apollo 11 another eight days, Apollo 12 ten days, Apollo 13 five days, Apollo 14 nine days, Apollo 15 twelve days, Apollo 16 eleven days, and Apollo 17 twelve days- for a total of 83 days. Those nine missions over four years totaling a week short of three months Beyond Earth Orbit were the space age. Very soon a half a century will have passed since human beings left Earth. A repeat of the Apollo 8 mission is tentatively scheduled for 2023 but the future of the under-funded and highly criticized Space Launch System is in doubt. These SLS critics are almost all NewSpace fans with an Ayn-Rand-in-Space libertarian worldview.
The current circumstances surrounding Human Space Flight are complex and addressing the situation beyond the scope of an opinion column. However, some progress may be made by clarifying the terminology involved in discussing space. Such conversations are often a confusing mess due to years of the relevant terms being used ambiguously in misleading infomercials. Revised definitions are a must-have for sorting out exactly what is happening. OldSpace is used disparagingly to describe the aerospace “giants” that have passed on public works projects in space in favor of defense dollars. NewSpace is used to signify entrepreneurial efforts to make space pay-off for private investors by way of “cheap lift” that outbids supposedly corrupt aerospace concerns. These two descriptors are often disputed or modified so transcending and clarifying with a third and fourth are in order.
“RealSpace” is a likely third term designating a set of definitions arguing against “NoSpace.” The fourth term describes the results of OldSpace and NewSpace efforts since Apollo. The first RealSpace definition moves the boundary of “space” from the present Karman line altitude of 62 miles to Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) at 22,236 miles. The second definition classifies space platforms and spacecraft as essentially different constructs than space stations and spaceships. A “space station” is properly a minimum-healthy-cubic-foot-per-person compartment providing a near-sea-level radiation environment and artificial Earth gravity Beyond Low Earth Orbit (BLEO). Mating a propulsion system to a large enough station would in effect make it a “spaceship” capable of interplanetary travel Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit (BELO).
The third RealSpace definition regards space “travel” as necessarily a BLEO/BELO activity. Due to the distances involved, exploring the solar system with humans will require nuclear energy, multi-year missions, and spaceships of a size that, at this point, provoke shock and automatic denial. Due to the radiation problem any long term human presence BLEO will require massive shielding realistically well over one thousand tons for even a small crew. Again, this seemingly impossible requirement provokes shock and automatic denial. Especially outraged are NewSpace enthusiasts whose entrepreneurial visions do not include massively shielded, state sponsored projects. Space travel in the cislunar sea between the Moon and Earth is a risky activity using spacecraft without adequate shielding and must eventually end when true spaceships become available.
A basic guide to the requirements for any RealSpace activity can be gathered from three sources; the magazine article by Eugene Parker “Shielding Space Travelers”, the book “Project Orion, the true story of the atomic spaceship” by George Dyson, and the work of Paul Spudis that half a decade ago revealed the ice resources at the lunar poles. This “Parker-Dyson-Spudis continuum” is the key to any real progress in space exploration and colonization. In 1976 “The High Frontier” by Gerard Kitchen O’Neill was published and this book proposed artificial hollow spinning moons constructed from lunar material as the only practical form of space colonization. O’Neill’s conclusion that no natural bodies in the solar system are suitable for colonization still holds true. Space solar energy was also proposed in this work as the economic driver of colonization and, 40 years ago, the cure for global warming.
The present zeitgeist is to accept the media’s portrayal of LEO and Mars as the “logical” goals of U.S. and international space efforts. NewSpace marketing and NASA public relations are largely responsible for this farce and reversing those effects are a critical first step. The best course would be to abandon both the LEO and Mars dead ends and focus exclusively on lunar resources and Super Heavy Lift Vehicles. Entrepreneurial efforts presently directed at reuse by landing back the lower stages of smaller vehicles would best be redirected into lunar lander development. Unless the next U.S. administration drives change, OldSpace and NewSpace will continue to generate NoSpace for decades to come. The U.S. DOD budget is proof that America has the resources necessary to change direction and begin a second space age without end.