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Dr. Jeff Bell, Tuesday, 7-10-12 July 11, 2012

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Dr. Jeff Bell, Tuesday, 7-10-12


Guest:  Dr. Jeff Bell.  Topics:  Vintage Jeff Bell.  We discussed a wide range of space history and current space projects from Dr. Bell’s perspective.  You are invited to comment, ask questions, and discuss the Space Show program/guest(s) on the Space Show blog, https://thespaceshow.wordpress.com. Comments, questions, and any discussion must be relevant and applicable to Space Show programming. Transcripts of Space Show programs are not permitted without prior written consent from The Space Show (even if for personal use) & are a violation of the Space Show copyright. We welcomed the return of Dr. Jeff Bell to The Space Show.  This 2.5 hour marathon discussion with Dr. Bell was classic Jeff Bell with space history, his analysis of current projects, new space ideas, NASA, Congress and well, you name it.  Dr. Bell had lots to say about many topics and for those of you familiar with Dr. Bell & his analysis, I promise you, you will not be disappointed with this discussion.  Those of you new to Dr. Bell, hold onto your seat!  Jeff started off with the cold war space history, X-33, and DCX. In doing so, he offered up his critique of the classic space book by G. Harry Stine, “Halfway To Anywhere: Achieving America’s Destiny In Space.”  As to be expected, Dr. Bell provided a very hard hitting, factual, and critical analysis of these topics & the book.  We also talked about the new company in Florida, Project Speed, and air breathing engines for space vehicles.  Dr. Bell spent some time on this analysis including scramjets, ramjets and the National Aerospace Plane.  When asked to confirm that little progress was being made from his perspective re space vehicles & even aviation, he cited the current military games going on in Hawaii, referencing the planes being used by the Air Force, Navy, & other military services, all to illustrate by example the points he was making.  He put out the fire on nuclear propulsion based on economics & costs, & then in discussing human spaceflight (HSF), like so many others, he said the rational for it was difficult justify to Congress & the taxpayers.  A listener asked Jeff he was biased in his analysis.  Jeff said he was unbiased in his examination of the facts. This issue surfaced again later during our program.  We then talked about a Washington Post article saying that our science field was over populated by excessive PhDs that cannot find work in their discipline (www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/us-pushes-for-more-scientists-but-the-jobs-arent-there/2012/07/07/gJQAZJpQUW_story.html?hpid=z1).  This prompted listeners to reply and John made some excellent points about science PhDs that Jeff missed.

In our second segment, we started off with space visions, including the one from this program, followed by a discussion of the “Sputnik Panic” following theUSSR launch of Sputnik.  We both had much to say about this event & its aftermath. Returning to the HSF rational, Jeff said there were two main problems with it. First, the very high cost.  Second, the is no place to go that does not require massive technology & support to sustain life.  He spent some time elaborating on this & responding to listener comments.  Next up, Planetary Resources, asteroid mining, space telescopes, & Earth imaging.  Dr. Bell took no prisoners in sharing his analysis with us.  He did talk about several serious projects including the B612 project & Pan Starrs.  As the program was ending, Dr. Bell had many positive things to say about the recently completed SpaceX Dragon & Falcon 9 flight, & the pork as he called it, SLS.  Dr. Bell was very strong & clear in his support for SpaceX and their accomplishments.

Please post your comments/questions on The Space Show blog URL above.


1. Steve - August 6, 2012

As a reformed space cadet and engineer I find Jeff Bell to be the most fascinating voice to ever discuss space policy. I have been listening to Jeff for a few years on the Space Show and he is the only guest I care to follow and listen to the program. I first found Jeff on Space Daily and was astonished by his insight and I feel fortunate to have found another regular outlet for his views.

I became disillusioned by space policy in the 90’s first with the loss of Mars Observer, then with Al Gore’s dramatic anouncement of the ‘next space shuttle’ by skunk works, then with the lack of mission for the ISS.

I have a plan to transform man kind into a spacefaring species and if I get ten million dollars, I’ll commission a study to fill in the details and possibly write a book similar to Zubrin’s Mars Direct.

This discussion with Jeff touched on some of the topics relating to the premises of my plan. Namely that biggest problem with proposing space travel plans is that there is nowhere to go in space and have people settle.

I believe that in order to send people into space we will need to first create a place for them to go. If we can design a complete self sustaining environment on Mars, we could build that environment piece by piece similar to ants moving an entire loaf of bread crumb by crumb over decades. Only then could we send the first person to Mars. Life support and habitation would only be small part of the infrastructure needed. We would need to create an entire economy on Mars.

2. Amnon I. Govrin - July 30, 2012

I’d like to comment on the claim that there are too many engineers and scientists. I have to respectfully disagree. I have worked in several software companies in the US including Amazon and Microsoft. There is huge shortage in American engineers and engineering-adjacent positions. Americans are in many cases a minority in the engineering workforce and the majority are Canadians, Chinese, Indian and (to a lesser extent, as there are not many of us) Israelis. All the while there is a 8.2% unemployment in the US. There is shortage but it is not felt as there are enough countries that will fill in the gap. If there were no foreign students and foreign employees what would the engineering and scientific landscape look like? Foreign engineers and scientists don’t get paid less (at least from my own personal 10+ year data point), but their existence hides the fact that there is a problem. Frankly, there are enough people that would be happy to come to the US that the problem will be hidden until there is a good reason for a big portion to go back to the country of origin. I bet there would be a shortage if somehow conditions improve in India or the Indian government will offer all of the Indian engineers in the US comparable salaries (currently 1 engineer in the US, Indian or US-born alike) costs about 3 times an engineer in India.
The fact that Amazon (for example) goes to great lengths to find engineers and last year relocated people from places such as Israel and Australia (not to mention create development offices in Canada and UK with all the problems resulting from distributed teams) points contrary to Dr. Bell’s claim of too many engineers and scientists.

3. Kelly Starks - July 13, 2012

Now I remember why I don’t bother to listen to Dr Bell programs. To absolutely sneering and disregarding as impossible things he clearly doesn’t know the details of, or doesn’t understand. His dismissal of DC-X as “obviously impossible”, and the DC-X itself came “no where near the mass fraction needed for orbit” so its so obviously impossible it was probably some SDI disinformation. Is technically incorrect:

– the DC-X was built specificly to be to heavy because the only off the shelf engines they could get, were away more powerful then they needed. ( It’s a old mistake often corrected),

– no one cared what its mass fraction was, since it was a system test and operability test craft.

– No one cared much if it could have reached orbit as a SSTO. The experts in McDonnel Douglas, NASA, and DOD thought it probably could, but simple workaround weer avalible. It was focused no operability and reduced cost. Something that could be turned around in under a day with a very small crew – which it could, and prove that the full scale one could. It did spectacularly.

As for the idea it was known that couldn’t work, or was a disinformation campaign. That certainly wasn’t what I was hearing from the company (they debated developing it and fielding it commercially – but could prove to investors that there was a market), or folks I knew on the program, or folks at NASA Office of Space Access Technology I worked with.

He was also technically incorrect about NASP, ideas for Mixed air breathing and rocket systems etc. But I couldn’t take the condescending know it all attitude and bailed from podcast after about 20-30 minuttes.

4. SpaceDude - July 12, 2012

Just wanted to add my $0.02 cents worth.

It was claimed that there is simply no justification for a HSF program. A couple of things…

I think that a very good reason is to ensure the survival of humanity. Obviously it is hard to argue that there could be anything more important than that. However one could make two arguments against this:
1) There isn’t anything that realistically threatens the survival of humanity or
2) Space settlement is too difficult to achieve and so it’s just not a realistic option.

Can any knowledgeable and honest person deny that, by the end of this century, self- replicating technology will not mature? Researchers are making steady progress with biotech (e.g. artificial life), nanotech, self-replicating chemicals, and artificial intelligence. Our children are going to be facing technologies so powerful that one accident can replicate wherever air reaches. Self-replicating technology isn’t an unrealistic likelihood.

With good recycling, lunar colonists will need only a modest amount of lunar polar ice each day to sustain life support. Lunar ice contains about 6 and 7% carbon and nitrigen respectively. You need equipment but nothing more than which could be delivered in a few Falcon Heavy deliveries. Separating metals from regolith is as simple as running a magnet through it. Melting it can be be accomplished using sunlight and Fresnel lenses. Yes, air, water, food, regolith shelter, metals and glass isn’t self-sufficiency yet. But it is covering the biggest factors.

It would be worthwhile to establish a lunar ice program followed by a manned lunar base followed by an attempt at a true off-Earth colony.


Kelly Starks - July 13, 2012

>.to ensure the survival of humanity.

>..With good recycling, lunar colonists will need only a modest
> amount of lunar polar ice each day to sustain life support.

Thats a common MAJOR mistake. Ignoring the big question if humans can survive long term exposure to the low G adn other issues of the moon – or the issue of the survival anywhere of such a tiny gene pool. Your biggest requirement for survival their is a really big supply train of everything from medical supplies to IC chips.

A lunar colony is more like a ship at sea then little house on the prairie. So unless you do have spectacular levels of AI’s and nanotech to replace the millions of folks and their factories down hear you’ld need now to support your lunar base. Said base would be luck to survive longer then folks on Earth if theirs some global extinction level event.

SpaceDude - July 15, 2012

Centrifugal gravity, indoor living (for dust), and frozen embryos for genetic diversity are relatively straight forward solutions to the issues you mentioned. I consider the supplies issue a more serious concern. But the common mistake that you make is that people are unable to survive unless they have technologies that a large western society can provide. This is more of a failure of imagination than an unsolvable problem. For example, IC’s. Can outdoor telerobots only be remotely controlled using IC’s? Can’t we imagine an approach that either uses either simpler vacuum tubes, macroscopic electronics, or even line-of-sight wire control? Plus also, a single Falcon Heavy launched lander could supply centuries worth of IC’s buying you time to develop those processes.

Kelly Starks - July 15, 2012

>.. But the common mistake that you make is that people
> are unable to survive unless they have technologies that
> a large western society can provide. …

Really, thats the minimum threshold you need. Theres serious debate that even that isn’t enough.

>… IC’s. Can outdoor telerobots only be remotely
> controlled using IC’s? Can’t we imagine an approach
> that either uses either simpler vacuum tubes,
> macroscopic electronics, or even line-of-sight wire
> control?

No, those would be far to large, far to fragile — and more important also require massive industrial and technical infrastructure to do. Beyond that, you need the ICs to run the internal systems need to keep you, and the station, alive and functional.

5. Trent Waddington - July 12, 2012

The problem with Jeff Bell shows is that he basically makes one unsubstantiated claim after another which demonstrates that he’s 1) completely disconnected from the space community and 2) doesn’t do much more reading than Gene Cernan. Almost all his answers are babble around the question that was actually asked. After 10 minutes of not talking about what was asked he forgets the question. Thankfully, most of his unrelated ranting is entertaining.

Kelly Starks - July 13, 2012

I’ld agree with you up to the entertaining part.

6. Jim Davis - July 12, 2012

“Space is intimately woven into our modern technological life…”

Unfortunately, manned space is not.

This is a shell game that is played all to often. The virtues of various unmanned systems (communications, weather, imaging, etc) are (quite properly) extolled but then used as a justification for speculative manned ventures (return to the moon, Mars colonies, etc).

Paul Spudis - July 13, 2012

> “Space is intimately woven into our modern technological life…” Unfortunately, manned space is not. <

As it is my assertion that you attack, I will respond.

You leave out a critical piece — we cannot now (and never will be able to) launch complex space satellite systems that are larger than the size of the biggest launch vehicle. The Shuttle-Station program demonstrated that complex, distributed systems can be assembled in space from smaller pieces by humans and machines working together. The key to the next generation of orbital space assets is to get people and machines to the places where these assets are needed, typically beyond LEO, within cislunar space.

My contention is that by developing lunar resources (specifically the harvesting of polar water for propellant), we establish a permanent space faring system that can access cislunar, the Moon and eventually the planets. I further argue that to assure that the space frontier remains a domain for free markets and free people, it behooves us as the predominant pluralistic western society to do these things, lest some economic-political system antithetical to our values preclude this new economic sphere from emerging.

There is no "shell game" at work here — it is based on both an envisioning of future requirements and a logical extension of current capabilities.

Jim Davis - July 13, 2012

Dr. Spudis,

“The Shuttle-Station program demonstrated that complex, distributed systems can be assembled in space from smaller pieces by humans and machines working together.”

Yes, of course, but such systems are in no way “intimately woven into our modern technological life”.

“My contention is that by developing lunar resources (specifically the harvesting of polar water for propellant), we establish a permanent space faring system that can access cislunar, the Moon and eventually the planets. I further argue that to assure that the space frontier remains a domain for free markets and free people, it behooves us as the predominant pluralistic western society to do these things, lest some economic-political system antithetical to our values preclude this new economic sphere from emerging.”

But there is a vast gulf between one’s own personal convictions and being “intimately woven into our modern technological life”. I’m not saying you’re wrong; you might well be right; I hope you are right. But I’m unconvinced that you’re a better judge of “future requirements” than a Robert Zubrin or a Jeff Bell, for that matter

“…it is based on both an envisioning of future requirements…”

Or, more cynically, one’s own fervent desires. I think one has to be very skeptical of anyone who claims knowledge of requirements so far in the future.

“…logical extension of current capabilities…”

But are they *accurate* extensions of current capabilities? Von Braun’s Marsprojekt was a logical extension of current capabilities in the 1950s. Today, it seems hopelessly naive. Much the same can be said of O’Neill’s L-5 space colony schemes of the 1970s.

Kelly Starks - July 13, 2012

>..we cannot now (and never will be able to) launch complex
> space satellite systems that are larger than the size of the
> biggest launch vehicle…

>..The key to the next generation of orbital space assets is
> to get people and machines to the places where these
> assets are needed, typically beyond LEO, within cislunar
> space…

First its pretty easy to show that you can more cheaply supply most any program I can think of, from Earth cheaper then from the Moon, but more fundamentally there’s no real programs in development that need much of any people or machines beyond LEO. So its a supply chain looking for any demand it could even try to compete for.

Paul Spudis - July 16, 2012

It’s not a matter of making things “more cheaply” — it’s about creating a long-term capability through acquiring skills (resource utilization) that we will have to master to become a space-faring species. To look at it another way, if we are to have a civil space program at all, it might as wlel make something useful rather than blow its budgets on silly PR stunt missions.

Kelly Starks - July 16, 2012

If it costs more to do it that way, I.E. its resource wastefull, its not going to enable us to become a spacefaring species – its going to inhibit it. If we have a program at all, it shouldn’t even try to tell providers how, just demand better and cheaper and provide a market for a start up. Anchor tenant, not developer.

7. The Space Show - July 12, 2012

As host of The Space Show, I would like to clarify a few points. Most of you know that my style in doing an interview is to let the guest and the listeners express their views without my editorial comment, challenges, criticism, etc. I typically let the guest and/or the caller determine his/her own credibility or level of expertise. There are times when I violate my own policy and I feel compelled to challenge, strongly dispute, and even strongly agree with what is being said, but my preference is to make sure the callers and the guest have all the room and rope they need to be an expert or something less than that. And always with civility and respect.

Regarding Jeff’s comments about Dr. Spudis, Paul has been a guest on The Space Show many many times and I have never heard him say what Jeff represented as his position. I continue to believe that Dr. Spudis and his associates have a terrific plan in their Cis-lunar economic development program, but to the best of my knowledge, he has never said a program should stop because it does not get sufficient funding. I strongly believe Jeff was in error with this representation of Paul’ position.

As for nuclear propulsion, those of you that are long term and frequent listeners to The Space Show know that we have done many programs on the subject over most of the 11 years The Space Show has been around. I believe a very safe assumption would be that our audience as well as me personally are strongly supportive of nuclear propulsion. But Jeff did speak to an important point and that is the economics of nuclear propulsion.

To have an economically feasible project, not only do we need to know the R&D, we need to know the operating costs and the project implementation costs. The latter includes whatever it takes to win over protestors, regulators, etc. But that is only half of it. One also has to know what the benefits/payoff will be and their estimated value per the relationship of what is being spent on the project. I have heard various estimates for what it might cost to develop nuclear propulsion but I am waiting for a valid financial, economic, and marketing analysis that addresses the standard components in any go-no go financial decision. A real analysis for a real project, not something hot off Power Point or an Excel spreadsheet. I understand this is hard to do when the actual project is theoretical and a design is not yet in existence. For example, how can a business person cost out a lunar project if you don’t know how you will get to and from the Moon or what the transportation will cost, the frequency of the travel and such. One can have rough estimates but they are likely not very realistic until hard financially oriented questions can be answered. The same is true with a futuristic project such as nuclear propulsion.

I find I can’t disagree with what Dr. Bell said about the economics, but because its nearly impossible to accurately assess a real economic nuclear propulsion project, I have to consider what Jeff said . That said, I would not let this absence of credible real time information thwart the development plans for nuclear propulsion, but as to who pays for these costs, that is another question. If our tax dollars are to fund it, there must be value to the tax payers for doing so and I have not yet heard the compelling case on this. For the private sector to fund this, they would have to believe that it would pay off for them in the future. It is possible that different private sector financiers would see different payoffs for doing this so I think its at least plausible that a nuclear project could be privately funded in part or in full.

I do not think letting nuclear propulsion die because it is not yet at the stage of being able to undergo a full financial and economic vetting is the right thing to do. In the end, Jeff may be right, but I think it is too early to know that with any certainty. I also think that there will be considerable time and expense invested in overcoming the political and regulatory resistance to nuclear propulsion. I for one do not underestimate the potential risk to nuclear propulsion by those who will strongly oppose it.

There were many other issues and topics discussed in this show where I find myself in disagreement with Jeff but there were also areas where I definitely agreed with him. Also, again to be clear, I am a Space Shuttle supporter (I know its a museum piece now). I do not see the program as a failure. I do see it as a strong potential source of solid information and lessons learned for moving toward being truly space-fairing in our future. I know many believe it did not achieve certain goals but from what I can tell, the goals talked about were not NASA’s or the government’s goals but instead the goals of space enthusiasts. Perhaps a future Space Show program will be a webinar panel discussion on NASA and civil government space goals post Apollo and Skylab to the present.

James A. Dewar - July 12, 2012

I agree that economic studies of the type suggested above are needed, but more than that, a vision is needed to see the full scope of those studies. Here, to get started, all that is needed are back of the napkins sketches, you know, the kind that launch many business ventures. They lead to more detailed studies, then debate and dialogue, and finally an action plan.

To get started then, all one needs to know is that using a nuclear engine to boost payloads into LEO results in a doubling of the payload. Witness the 1968 Rocketdyne study that concluded a NERVA engine (75k thrust, 825 isp) as the 3rd stage of the Saturn V could double the payload to LEO, from up to 250k pounds to up to 500k pounds. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the potential, up to 250 tons into LEO in a single launch. The space station alone weighs 440 tons. That’s with a first generation system. Many generations are possible and that would continually change our economic numbers. So we have to do some crystal-balling here in our study.

The above is from a fixed launch site, which I do not advocate. Perhaps later. I advocate a cargo plane launch from somewhere in the vast Pacific Ocean with a small Pewee size engine (20-inch core). You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that launch sequence will have markedly less costs – a C5-A – than a fixed site, with all its guards, gates and guns and other overhead. Also, its safety margins – the vast Pacific – seem much greater than with chemical rockets launched from land bases. Surely that needs a look before concluding it is too “risky.”

Then on our napkin we can sketch the costs of a Pewee nuclear engine. Make your own estimates for a metal pressure vessel about the size of a 55 gallon drum, for 1000 pounds of beryllium and boron, for a turbopump/turbine and nozzle (1960s vintage) and then some tubing, valves and motors to turn the control drums. The principal cost is with the 534 fuel elements. Using late 1960s numbers, they were $1000 each. Today, who knows? Pick your own number. $10k per element? That means a core for about $5 million. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that a nuclear engine could be very inexpensive and combined with a cargo plane launch could produce some very low cost numbers for payload to LEO. I hold $100 per pound, but surely that needs further study.

Now, though, we have to get another napkin. Here is where vision is really required. A nuclear engine is nothing more than a small, compact, high temperature gas reactor (HTGR). In theory, it could be derated from operating at 2000-3000 degrees C to about 1000 C. That’s blast furnace temperatures. Now it could be used for process heat applications in oil, chemical, petrochemical, metals and other industries. It could revitalize those industries. Sounds like there is profit to be made here. It also could be made into small, portable power plants, leased to FEMA and deployed in emergencies. Sounds like more profit. And here’s the kicker – for all those who worry about the greens and anti’s – it could be used for process heat to melt the wastes that are clogging our landfills into a liquid that then is subsequently processed to separate the commercially valuable from the true waste. And it could allow the shipment of nuclear wastes and plutonium into space for permanent disposal. Sounds like the greens and anti’s would like this, sounds like tremendous profit here and sounds like a total revitalization of the degraded US manufacturing base. New jobs, new industries, new tax bases, all something politicians love.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the tremendous profit potential in this, all without that of taking payloads into space. Surely it must be included in any study.

After our dinner is over we can look at our napkins and see the vast potential here. Surely that merits further study. Surely shouldn’t we ask NASA at every opportunity why they haven’t studied this launch profile in over half a century? After all, it was part of the plan from 1955-1960 until NASA became image conscious and banned it. And surely the potential to revitalize the manufacturing sector in the US merits further study. Wouldn’t NASA want to be part of this? And as citizens, surely wouldn’t we want to have personal access to space and not leave it only to the government and rich business elites?

Kelly Starks - July 13, 2012

Nit but
>..Dr. Spudis and his associates have a terrific plan in their
> Cis-lunar economic development program ..

I really find calling it a “economic development program” is rather specious. In summary they advocate a big NASA program, designed to need lunar resources, to justify a lunar resources program. That in no sense is a economic development program. Its just pork.

Or as has often been accused of NASA, a program to develop self licking ice cream cone.

Paul Spudis - July 16, 2012

Your nit is a crock.

We suggest that NASA do this because a) it is entirely appropriate for the federal government to undertake engineering R&D to see if using lunar resources is a viable way to create new capability; b) the money is going to spent anyway, so we might as wlel get something for it.

What’s your proposal for what NASA should do?

Kelly Starks - July 16, 2012

> Your nit is a crock.

Hey, your calling it “economic development” that ain’t economic dev. Its pork for your program.

>. What’s your proposal for what NASA should do?

I get asked that a lot. Caned answer on what Ithink they should be spending $19B/year on?

Research and development of new or cutting edge systems, and exploration, and facilitating public/private use of space.

Say take the $250 billion penciled in for return to the moon over the next 25? years. Issue a RFP for commercial firms to bid on cargo and personnel transport to LEO and Lunar surface from 2020-2040; and construction and operation on the lunar surface of a base capable of permanently manned operation of say 20 people, plus expansion capabilities for expanded science, private or commercial utilization negotiated by the bidding team. Such alternate clients must not unreasonably interfere or inhibit the services contracted for in this RFP. All transport craft and facilities must be adaptable for commercial or private usage, and built to the highest practical aviation safety and reliability standards.
The RFP is assumed to cover development, extensive testing and FAA (or negotiated other credible certification service) certification of all craft and systems.
US government VIA NASA will provide launch facilities if required, at KSC.
Certified vehicles and facilities, will be available for commercial contracting by the bidding teams – though the depreciated value of the “base fleet” or facilities used to support those commercial activities must be reimbursed.
Should the winning teams require expanded launch facilities for a expanded commercial fleet and associated operations, this will also be provided by NASA at KCS.
The above should be about 1/3rd the cost of the constellation based systems developed under NASA (given commercial estimates and history of related dev programs), and you get a much bigger base, and CRATS launchers and Earth / Moon transport, and the fleets and facilities open up real private/commercial development of space at a tiny fraction of current costs.

As for research – given the above peels a big chunk off the budget:

I’d throw $500M at the polywell and focus fusion reactor development companies. They aren’t sure yet if the reactors can produce much more power then they consume, but since your paying for full up prototypes to test this and there adaptability for propulsion systems. If they only make 3/4ths as much power as they consumed – NASA gets a plasma or other propulsion system that gives 4 times more thrust then the power you supply it.
Restart with the DOD the BlackSwift tech demonstrator. It was to demonstrate a craft with combined cycle turbo-ramjets, advanced avionics, and advanced TPS that could take off from a runway independently, accelerate to Mach 6+, cruse, and return to land on the runway. It was to be under a $1B program, so perhaps split it with DARPA?
Such techs very close to a runway HTOL SSTO. So NASA should look into it.
A tech demonstrator of a Rocket/ramjet combined cycle craft with orbital capacities (if possible). NASA estimates such engines could double the ave ISP from ground to orbit. Lower ISP then craft based on the BlackSwift systems, but lighter. Possibly little heaver then the weight of tanks they replace.
The above would be significantly cheaper, greatly expand commercial (even public) access to space, and have a wow factor to avoid the public seeing it just as pork.

NASA would be decimated of course – but the bulk of their staffs are commercial personnel – and their companies could do so much more they’d be hiring not laying off tens of thousands.
Then assign NASA to study adapting and utilizing the above for advanced (beyond CRATS) launchers, advanced aerospace tech development, and deep space projects.
I expect with to orbit cost down 2(?) orders of mag. compared to shuttle, they could spec out a very good Mars ship. If the fusion systems look promising (the program groups figure they would take a couple years to get to commercial dev – so NASA for propulsion shouldn’t take much longer) you could far farther then Mars in months not years. (Bussard did some good papers on this.)
That would be research worth billions to NASA, as opposed to just “researching” P&W building a US competitor to the RD-180′s.

8. James A. Dewar - July 12, 2012

James A. Dewar

Dr. Bell’s views on nuclear propulsion need to be updated.

For the historical, I refer him to my first book “To the End of the Solar System: The Story of the Nuclear Rocket” that is the history of the Rover/NERVA program. In it I discuss the economic benefits of the program – the spinoffs – and conclude they are still reverberating in the our economy. Multi billions of dollars of spinoffs still today.

To discuss current economics, however, means going back to 1960 when NASA banned the use of nuclear rockets to take payloads to LEO. It only could be used from LEO outward. That prohibition was only for public relations reasons, not technical ones. It had major consequences. It left the principal justification for the program manned Mars, but that has proven to be a poison pill for the last half century. It will continue to be, in my view, for the next century because it requires government funding and our government like many others is functionally insolvent. I sense this is the source of Dr. Bell’s views.

There is another option though, that of going back to the views before the NASA ban and using it to push payloads into LEO and then elsewhere. I see no technical reasons why it cannot be done and it produces a profound change in the space program. It democratizes it, opening it up to the common man because the costs of reaching LEO can drop to $100/pound and lower, while a chemical rocket space program is vastly more expensive and thus just for government and business elites. That will never change as long as the rocket equations govern our propulsion options. (Its most critical part is the ‘Velocity of the exhaust gas as it enters the nozzle throat is proportionate to the square root of its Temperature over its Molecular weight.’ To have a different space program, one must increase T while decreasing M. That is precisely what nuclear does. It is just smoke and mirrors to think that rich billionaires can overcome this choke point with chemical fuels).

In other words, it is a real paradigm shift, opening up space for a centuries of expansion by the common man, and as such, requires totally new thinking away from government to private sector funding. I begin that in my second book “The Nuclear Rocket: Making Our Planet Green, Peaceful and Prosperous.” I supplement that with a 29-page paper on the technical and economic aspects of nuclear rockets; it can be accessed in my February 12, 2012 blog on The Space Show.

To worry about the anti’s and greens and hold they would block this launch profile seems to me just mindless parroting of the “common wisdom.” When you look deeper, they would be among the program’s strongest supporters because this launch sequence allows them to accomplish nearly all of their goals.

I hope Dr. Bell would be open to new thinking and read these works. They are my attempt to consider what NASA has banned and not studied for over a half century. They are a marker laid on the table to provoke discussion and dialogue. After he has read them, I would be happy to enter into debate in whatever forum he chooses and lay to rest all his concerns. A sceptic and cynic won over is the biggest ally.

Kelly Starks - July 13, 2012

>..a chemical rocket space program is vastly more expensive
> and thus just for government and business elites. ..

I have to disagree with you hear. The chemical programs are similar in cost to Aircraft development programs of similar cargo capacity, and operations costs don’t need to be much higher. The killer is all thisis fixed costs, in a virtually dead international launch market. So you get into a situation like the Shuttle where the margin cost for a flight was $60 million, adn the program overhead divided by the number of flights came to over a $1.2B each.

Its not the tech, but the market thats burring us in costs.

On the other hand NTR is almost the minimum nessisary for anything BEO.

And I liked your book!😉

James A. Dewar - July 13, 2012

Thank you very much for reading my book, all authors like it when someone appreciates their work, but I am unsure which of the two you read. Nonetheless, thank you.
We differ on the economics of nuclear versus chemical rocket space programs. Please refer to my February 12, 2012 blog on The Space Show and read my 29-page tutorial on technical and economics factors of nuclear rockets. There I lay out why the cost can be $100 per pound to LEO and even lower. Chemical rockets are in the thousands of dollars per pound to LEO. I hope you read the tutorial, then we can continue the dialogue.

Kelly Starks - July 13, 2012

>.but I am unsure which of the two you read.

To the end of the solar system. Have to look for the other.

>.the cost can be $100 per pound to LEO and even lower.
> Chemical rockets are in the thousands of dollars per
> pound to LEO.

Chemicals are in the thousands per pound, but could be in the tens of dollars. Even the shuttles margin cost per pound was only about $1,000 per pound. As Claudio Bruno and Paul Czysz pointed out in a presentation a couple years ago [The Future of
Space Depends on Dependable Propulsion
Hardware for Non-Expendable Systems], 5 B747’s Operated At Same Schedule And payload As The Space Shuttle, would deliver similar cost per pound to orbit. Its the flight rate not the tech that drives the costs up so high.

As to the economics outline in the tutorial. Some of the details I wonder about ($25M for a engines not that high for a chemical rocket engine, and estimating via the cost of the materials?? Steels tens of dollars a ton, but cars are a thousand fold more per ton.) but the big gaps I can’t see in your section 7 of “a-technical-note-on…” is the vehicle dev costs, operating cost, market size, etc.

For a 25 ton lift RLV, developed commercially, up to certifiable aviation standards, your likely in the $15-$20B range, including a couple $billion to design, dev, and certify a new NTR. ( in http://www.fas.org/sgp/othergov/doe/lanl/la-ur-85-2442.pdf page 9 they suggested the cost of rebuilding a flight-ready nuclear-thermal rocket is $4-5 billion in ‘1985 $’s. That would be 2-3 times as much in current dollars – but I’ll discount that for commercial, versus government program.) So if you assume the shuttle fleets 130 flight service life, your already in the $150m a flight, or $3,000 a pound to LEO level.

Kelly Starks - July 13, 2012
James A. Dewar - July 14, 2012

Thanks for the link, but I have to differ with the authors. If you read my second book, you will see that they are “gold-plating the nail” when the need is for a bigger hammer. In other words, 90% of a the weight of a chemical rocket on the launch pad is fuel and oxidizer, with the remaining 10% the fuel tanks, engines, piping and valves and turbopumps and turbines. Typically, they account for about 8% of the remaining weight. That leaves about 2% for the payload. This payload fraction hasn’t changed in any marked degree from the 1950s. Check it out yourself. Find out what the payload fractions were for rockets a half century ago and find out what they are now. You will see little gain. All these authors are trying to do is increase payload fractions while decreasing costs by making the 8% lighter and reusable.
You might eke out some gains here, but only with great labor and expense. 90% of your rocket is still fuel and oxidizer, so this just shows the rocket equations prevent anything more, the heart of which says the V velocity of the exhaust gas as it enters the nozzle throat is proportional to the square root of its T temperature over its M molecular weight. In short, its T/M. The best chemical rocket fuel is LOX/LH2 and it has a molecular weight of 18. Go through the list of chemical fuels and determine their molecular weight and you’ll find the higher the M, the lower the payload fraction.
I say to have a meaningful space program you need to increase T while lowering M. That is precisely what nuclear does. Hydrogen is used and it has a M of 2, though in principle it can become 1. So this then leaves T as the principal problem to attack. For the solid core, T appears to top out around 3000 degrees C right now, but a determined materials effort may get it higher by several hundred degrees. However, if gas cores prove feasible, then your talking about very, very high Ts, enough so that some gas core proponents say it can give 8000 seconds of specific impulse. That means Mars in a month.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the impressive and dynamic potential of nuclear over chemical rockets. And in my second book, The Nuclear Rocket, I argue for its use in taking payloads to and from LEO, a launch profile NASA banned in 1960. It’s a thought piece designed to provoke discussion and dialogue on something not studied for half a century. I hope you read it and consider it carefully and not buy into the “common wisdom” that the greens and anti’s would oppose it. I maintain they could become nuclear’s biggest supporters because it allows them to achieve nearly all of their goals for planet earth.

Kelly Starks - July 14, 2012

I’ll order your other book.

>..90% of a the weight of a chemical rocket on the
> launch pad is fuel and oxidizer,..

True and irrelevant given the fuel and oxidizer is currently under 1/1000 the cost per per launch.

>..That leaves about 2% for the payload. ..

And assuming a kero/Lox SSTO (even worse mass fraction, but easier to do and more economical) you wind up burning about $8 worth of fuel for every pound of cargo you put in orbit. (give or take what oils doing per barrel.) Which clearly is NOT driving the thousands of $ per pound launch cost.

We in the spacebiz need to focus more on economic equations.

Kelly Starks - July 14, 2012

Wait a minute – I have “The Nuclear Rocket”! I didn’t realize it until I saw the cover on amazon.com.😉

Oh, and I am in NO WAY sympathetic to the greens! They are self destructive idiots.

At this point though I’m more interested in (for Earth to LEO) some of the fusion electric rockets Bussard was outlining in relation to his polywell fusion systems, and for beyond LEO some of his direct fusion propulsion system based on the same reactors.

James A. Dewar - July 15, 2012

I disagree on trying to beat life into the dead chemical rocket horse. I would rather go with a new technology with growth potential. That is nuclear, starting with the solid core NERVA for which the basic R&D costs have been sunk. Just dust it off and see where it takes you, e.g., my 29-page tutorial that crystal-balls what ten generations of solid cores could look like. If 1100 seconds of specific impulse is possible in a decade or so, why would you want to stay with kerosene/Lox at 330 seconds? Again, if 1700-1800 seconds are feasible for a solid core – though it seems completely unrealistic now – again why would you want to stay with 450 seconds for LOX/LH2?
I agree on Bussard’s polywell, but Bob also saw the need to get going now. That’s why he wrote an intro to my second book. Fusion, even polywell, has been just around the corner since the 1950s. When will it come? Who knows.
I also disagree on the greens, as I am one myself. Reread my second book and see if you agree that the greens and anti’s might be the nuclear rockets biggest supporters. Also see if you agree on the non-space profitability of nuclear rockets, i.e., the spinoffs. You need different thinking when evaluating nuclear rockets and cannot impose chemical rocket criteria on this technology. That would smack of requiring nuclear subs to surface every couple of days because diesel-electric subs had to to recharge their batteries and refresh their air supply.

Kelly Starks - July 15, 2012

I’ve discused the cost issues for developing NTRs. As for dead horse chemicals? With near 100% energy efficiency, and operating adn margin cost capability to orbit of $20-$30, or more using combined cycles (rocket/ramjet hybrides) offering up to 700 average isp from surface to orbit with Kerosene LOx; I really don’t see how the NTRs could offer much if any cost advantage to orbit. All with well established (and politically non controversial) technology.

>..would you want to stay with kerosene/Lox at 330 seconds?

The goal is cost reduction adn increased safty/utility/commercial applicability etc. ISPin itself is just a means to a end. Given the lower cost, and easier commercialization, LOx/Kerosine would have big advantages.

You still haven’t show how NTRs could be cost competitive for Earth to LEO?

>..see if you agree on the non-space profitability of nuclear rockets, i.e., the spinoffs…

You really can’t justify a vehicle program on spin-offs. It just doesn’t have traction politically – or commercially. Especially when it doesn’t benefit you with the primary mission.

>I also disagree on the greens, as I am one myself. Reread
> my second book and see if you agree that the greens and
> anti’s might be the nuclear rockets biggest supporters. ..

BIG disagree. Greens are hostuile to all major indistrial systems, EVEN AT THE COST OF MORE DAMAGE TO THE ENVIRONMENT. Being pro cleaning the environment DOES NOT mean you are a green.

Look at their core energy technologies biofuel, wind, etc. All incapable of in anyway dealing with the power demands of a major industrial civilization, and more harmful to the environment then traditional tech.

Greens are more a political movement toward a different reduced scale limited civilization, constratined to the tech – not tech developed to support increasing civilization.

Anyway off topic.

9. Paul Spudis - July 12, 2012

I was taken aback to hear myself quoted on this show, or more precisely, to hear myself being misquoted.

I have never proclaimed that we should stop the space program because we aren’t spending enough money on it. In fact, my true position is somewhat 180 degrees removed from this — I assert that 1) our civil space program ought to have a strategic direction (it currently does not); and 2) we should be clever enough to devise a program that can make progress regardless of the level of funding available — faster progress when flush and slower progress when times are tight, but progress in any event. I do not believe that we should leave space to “those countries who want to waste money on it” as Jeff claims. Space is intimately woven into our modern technological life and we must retain the ability to use and access those levels of space that serve important national interests. I contend that cislunar space is the prime economic zone for space activities for the next 50 years or so. I further contend that ceding space access and dominance of this zone to a potential geopolitical adversary will ultimately have unpleasant consequences for our national life.

I understand where Jeff’s cynicism is coming from, but he greatly overstates his case. It is possible to imagine and devise a sane approach to space. The fact that we are not currently pursuing such a thing is an indictment of those in charge of it, not the very idea of one.

Kelly Starks - July 13, 2012

>..In fact, my true position is somewhat 180 degrees removed from this..

That seems to be Bells normal level of accuracy.

I agree with your points, but they don’t answer voter interest, hence NASA interests.

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