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Brent Sherwood, Tuesday, 7-24-12 July 25, 2012

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Brent Sherwood, Tuesday, 7-24-12


Guest:  Brent Sherwood.  Topics: Human spaceflight to Mars: Is it on the path or a distraction?  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 Brent Sherwood back to the show to discuss his GLEX paper and ideas regarding human spaceflight (HSF), Mars, and alternative NASA goals/missions regarding HSF.  His GLEX paper, “Mars-On the Path or in the Way” is posted on The Space Show blog following this program summary.  Please read & review his paper as it contains far more detail regarding his proposal, analysis and his conclusion than what we were able to discuss during our program.  In our first segment, Mr. Sherwood provided us with the background and context for his having written this paper and for his conclusion that HSF to Mars is not the right path. He then outlined alternative paths for HSF missions that he believes can better “regain the cultural centrality of human space flight and grow by attracting private capital.” Our guest talked about the value proposition of a HSF mission to Mars, plus the value proposition of the alternatives he describes in his paper & on this program.  The value proposition is understood to refer to the value received by sending humans to Mars (or the alternative HSF missions) as compared to the value of the mission costs, the opportunity costs, risks, etc.  Mr. Sherwood assesses the value proposition for all of his alternative HSF proposals which include the Explore Mars mission, lunar settlement, space passenger travel, and SSP.  For most of this initial segment, Brent outlined his ideas and explained why he has concluded that HSF to Mars does not measure up as a value promise & why SSP is his first choice.  We began taking listener email questions and phone calls after he summarized his position  & as you can imagine, most all the listener questions/comments were of the challenging nature to his conclusion that HSF to Mars was not in the best interest of our space program.  I urge you read his paper and to pay attention to the technical, cost, time line, and historical information shared with us by our guest.

In the second segment of this nearly two hour program, Brent took questions and expanded more as to why he supports other options than HSF to Mars.  He also explained why he is calling for a debate on this issue within the space community.  At the start of this segment, I asked him if he thought discovering life on Mars would change his opinion and the value proposition.  He said no but did say it would expedite the Martian sample return mission, but would not alter the variables & unknowns involved in the magnitude of technology challenges needing resolution before sending humans safely to and from Mars.  Toward the end of our discussion, I asked how he might move forward to implement the industry debate he has called for on this show & in his paper.  Suggestions on how to do this are wanted so if you have any, post them on the blog.

Brent would like your feedback so after listening to this program and reading his paper, please post comments/questions on the blog.  You can email Brent Sherwood by sending your note to me & I will forward it to him.

Brent Sherwood’s GLEX Paper:

Mars-On the Path or In the Way?




1. Alistair - August 17, 2012

Fascinating show. I’d love to see what sort of space program Brent and Paul Spudis could design together. There is a good deal of overlap in what they are proposing.
I’m a little skeptical of as space based solar power as an avenue for economic development of space, primarily because of the technical issues. Having said that, I’ve not read Brent’s paper, so I’ll withhold my final verdict.

2. John Thomas - July 31, 2012

My country doesn’t believe in human spaceflight, so maybe I care less about whether humans land on Mars in my lifetime.

But Brent’s case makes a lot of sense to me. Apollo was a heroic project run mainly for political reasons. Scientific outcomes in advancing studies of our nearest neighbour were just side-effects.

It was a giant leap into the dark. So amazing with hindsight that only one crew paid the ultimate price. Nowadays such risks aren’t acceptable for test pilots, and the top of their flight envelope is obviously well within Earth’s atmosphere.

That may be frustrating to some space advocates, impatient to see the next big thing within their lifetime. The scale of the challenge of returning a crew safely from Mars is as Brent explained, orders of magnitude greater than keeping them safe in low Earth orbit or even a lunar or asteroid mission.

I wonder if it’s useful to add infrastructure as an explanation for why this stuff is so difficult, and ultimately a solution to the problem.

Many times in human history infrastructure has moved us on from heroic explorers doing the next big thing to it becoming commonplace. The cities of ancient Rome became safe havens ordinary citizens could travel between on efficient roads, making journeys formerly open only to highly skilled and well resourced adventurous explorers possible for ordinary families with horses and carts.

Current and foreseeable rockets make a crewed mission to Mars a giant leap into a two year or more unknown. 70 unsolved major problems Brent explains.

If there were a strong reason for a heroic leap, the US and other countries would probably engage. A serious threat to life on Earth is one possible reason that would enable the rest of us to request a crew of highly trained, highly skilled, highly capable individuals to undertake what with current systems and technology would have a greater than 50/50 chance of becoming a suicide mission.

Without such motivation, tolerable risks are lower, both in terms of capital and human life. But if robot exploitation of near Earth asteroids, as proposed by Google’s founders becomes commercially successful, maybe a need will be established to support humans in long-term bases in the gap between Earth and Mars.

Maybe the gap could increasingly be filled with stations in solar orbit between Earth and Mars to perform various commercial tasks from mining through solar array deployment to solve the need for zero carbon energy resources. Such stations would need to retire some of Brent’s obstacles to a direct Mars landing – but not all at once.

Maybe one in every few of those stations will receive additional infrastructure funding from governments to support facilities like emergency operating theatres with astronauts trained in nursing care stationed on board long term.

If such a network of stations were to develop ever further from the Earth as the easy pickings of the very near asteroids were exhausted eventually a landing mission could be just a few days from Mars. The crew would have support from stations in a similar orbit to Mars, only a few hours away in an emergency. Landing safely on Mars would then be nearly as “easy” as landing on Earth’s Moon. And an advance mission of “explorers” could quickly be followed by people with lower levels of skills and training, some to settle or build permanent bases.

It’s possible that all this infrastructure could be rendered useless in the lifetime of the stations by a new propulsion system able to sustain 1g (10m/sec/sec) all the way to Mars, retiring the micro-gravity problem by keeping the astronauts under an Earth-like acceleration/deceleration for the whole trip. Or by a completely unforeseen technology.

But the risk of a new technology coming along making the trip much easier is not a reason to put off starting to organically grow an infrastructure. Much of it would presumably be privately funded by companies keen to profit from the resources available from asteroids but exhausted on Earth.

Such infrastructure build has happened before, probably many times. The best known example might be that of the railroads in the United States. Networks of seaports enabled trans-globe travel by non-explorers. Today, networks of airports enable ordinary families to travel almost anywhere on Earth with no special skills or training needed.

But infrastructure always takes different amounts of times to build than expected at the outset. Mobile phone users in the 1990’s suddenly discovered they could send low-cost text messages to their friends and suddenly mobile network providers realised a significant proportion of their revenue was coming from SMS messages. Motorways, freeways, airports, the same infrastructure rules apply. Growth happens somewhat organically until the infrastructure suddenly becomes available, convenient and inexpensive to a large number of people, then the infrastructure gets busy.

A network of stations in solar orbit, each a few days travel further towards Mars would eventually provide the infrastructure needed to make the risks of a landing mission acceptable. We still might need heroes for that mission, but it wouldn’t then be so much to ask. Unlikely a landing would happen in our lifetimes in an infrastructure-based scheme, but it would be great to see Brent’s ideas leading to a start on achievable steps instead of reaching for a goal near impossible with current technology.

3. Joe - July 28, 2012

Rockets going into space is all about ultimate power and control on Earth. Like wars, I’m sure you will agree it is a game with millions of people involved in the most humanistic natural way.

Unless you, the reader, are a transformational visionary like Von Braun, Kepler, Clarke, or Asimov, one person can only have an infinitesimal effect on this control over their entire lifetime. Sometimes it is about the safety of a few lives. Many other times, however, it is about the perceived safety or prosperity of millions of lives. As Spock once said, “The needs of the many outweigh those of the few”.

Those in control of access to space can choose peaceful or non-peaceful reasons for going there. Fortunately, they are currently choosing peaceful albeit greedy reasons. Why do they do this? When you are in control, you have the power and followers to support your decisions by definition; you easily become self-serving which causes many others to suffer. In truth, if you didn’t become self-serving, you would always be in control.

Anyone claiming this or that leader or person in control has made all of the right decisions is a follower of that leader that can be immediately countered by an army of opposers to those decisions. In a democracy, we constantly draw a line in the sand and play tug-o-war and compete over who has the most power. We relish our victories like in a football game and we sadden ourselves when we lose. You can’t easily play tug-o-ware with three teams. That is why our struggle to send humans and robots into space is such a huge problem to overcome. It is always about one way or the other. There is no third choice. Adding strength to your side of the tug-o-war game builds the power needed to achieve certain space goals assuming they are still within the realm of the one-way-or-the-other-way analogy. There is no third way since you can’t play tug-o-war with three groups pulling against each other. We constantly believe we try three-way tug-o-wars but it always ends in one side joining the other to overtake the third party, hence, the tug-o-war game played with two opposing parties.

Breaking powerful space choices down further leads one to observe and learn from their actions which sometimes directly oppose what they say they choose publically. Many times NASA is told not to spend their congressionally granted funding on certain programs, yet they take action to do it anyway.

Letting credentialed scientists persuade those in control of the best uses of their funding in space takes huge visionary and persuasive skills that exceed far beyond How-To books or academic education.

Conducting open debate can expose these decision makers for who they really are; people who choose to use their power for self referential reasons, as Brent pointed out early in his interview. This is clearly more powerful than infinitesimal actions by individuals. Facilitating these events like the Augustine commission attracts the people who have the power to convince others of their space visions. It is the best way to accelerate desired intelligent change.

Using the Internet to connect like-minded people in groups is a great way to gain trust and build your tug-o-war team. It remains one of the few pristine pathways to change. Hurry, because it won’t last long.

4. Roland - July 26, 2012

I like the different paths Brent sketches. The different choices and the outcomes should be in the consciousness of everybody who has anything to do with space (work related, space cadet or otherwise)

Personally I like the idea of light pollution on the moon by 2100.

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