Commentary by Mike Mackowski
I attended the last two days of this year’s Space Access Conference, held April 30 through May 2 at the Radisson Phoenix North hotel. Henry Vanderbilt has done a marvelous job pulling this event together year after year, and it has evolved from something like a hyper-hobbyist rocketry meeting to a mini-version of the International Space Development Conference.
The topics get more diverse each year and this was no exception. There were the expected updates from folks like Jeff Greason (XCOR) and Dave Masten (Masten Aerospace) but also from student groups, researchers, and other experts involved in trying to find ways to speed the development of an off-planet economy. But what struck me was an over-riding theme of honesty and reality among the presentations. Lately I’ve been exposed to a lot of what I call “space hype” where people predict great things and make promises of achievements that clearly are not going to happen. Not so at this year’s Space Access.
It started with Henry Spencer’s honest appraisal of the concept of mining extraterrestrial resources. Sure, there may be water on the Moon’s poles but getting it out will be difficult and expensive. We current have no idea if the ice is embedded in the form of a very hard solid or available as a fluffy snow. Breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen takes a lot of energy, and storing liquid hydrogen is difficult. Pete Swan continued with his examination of the economics of mining asteroids, and (along with Jeff Greason) anticipated that we’d have to plan on a government-sponsored Mars mission as the initial anchor customer. That is a reasonable plan, but it adds a lot of uncertainty. Doug Plata promoted using the COTS approach to lunar development. This is certainly an appealing idea, but achieving a true cis-lunar economy based on extraterrestrial resources is a long, long way off. Establishing a market for these products will be difficult. It was refreshing to see these problems laid out honestly.
There were similar frank appraisals of the challenges of getting humans to Mars. Erik Seedhouse gave a talk on the many unknowns (radiation, low gravity, bone decalcification) related to the human body’s reaction to long term spaceflight, or even long duration visits to low-gravity surfaces. Perhaps studying some of these effects on the Moon is a smart option before committing to Mars. Several speakers, particularly Gary Hudson, suggested that what is really needed is a true variable gravity biology lab in low Earth orbit. NASA seems to think humans will simply adapt to low gravity and we can do initial Mars missions before we have these answers. That approach has a lot of risk, and we’ll need a lot more data before permanent settlements can be assured of any sort of chance for success.
There were other examples of reality-based perspectives. XCOR (and other companies) would love to develop a non-toxic monopropellant but the chemistry makes that very difficult and/or expensive, so most folks fall back to hydrazine. Going from reusable, high altitude, suborbital rockets to reusable orbital vehicles is a huge, difficult jump. Doug Messier gave a sobering assessment of Virgin Galactic, the SpaceShipTwo accident, and the observation that it is over ten years from them winning the Ansari X Prize and it is still unknown when the first commercial tourist flights will occur and what will be the performance capabilities of the vehicle.
There were other topics presented, many offering clever solutions to some of these challenges. But overall I was happy to see some honesty and realism in the general tone of the conference.