August 27, 2003

The Case for Mars Revisited

Speaking of the Future with Robert Zubrin

Two items in the news set the stage for today’s piece.

  • The Gehman Report on the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster has been released, and it is as critical of NASA as many predicted it would be. While the report calls for an overhaul of the culture that drives the space agency, there are those who suggest that fixing NASA won’t be enough. Some critics are calling for the end of the space shuttle program or for the abolishment of NASA altogether.
  • Today, Mars and Earth are at their closest point in nearly 60,000 years. What a treat it’s been, on recent evenings, to stand in my back yard and gaze at this amazing golden light shining in the southern sky. There’s another world, right there, almost close enough to touch. It’s a world many of us have thought about, read about, dreamed about all our lives.

The crux of these two news stories is that it may be time to put away childish things where Mars is concerned. I’ve always believed that I would live to see the day that human beings set foot on Mars. And I’ve always assumed that, when that day comes, it will be NASA that makes it happen. Both that belief and that assumption are now seriously in doubt.

After all, if we were ever going to go to Mars, wouldn’t we be doing it right now? Wouldn’t this have been the perfect time, with Mars so close?

And how could NASA — an agency apparently still mired in the same cultural bog that gave us the Challenger disaster — possibly get us there?

Enter Robert Zubrin.

While many of us have been reading and dreaming about Mars, Zubrin has been making concrete plans. He’s a former Staff Engineer with Lockheed Martin, and the founder and President of both Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society. Zubrin is the author of several books on the future of space exploration and settlement, most notably The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.

For years, Zubrin has been making the case that a series of missions to Mars could be deployed quickly and safely, and at a much lower cost than other experts have suggested. These missions would serve as the first steps in the human settlement of the red planet and of the rest of the solar system.

Some will argue that such ideas are pipe dreams, that any attempt by NASA to take on a major exploration initiative would inevitably dead-end just as Apollo did, to the detriment of other, more realistic space inititiatives. That may be true. On the other hand, if abolishing the space shuttle and even NASA itself are going to be on the table, then some other alternatives need to be there as well. And maybe — just maybe — it’s time to think big again, as we did when the space program was born.

In the wake of the Gehman report, with Mars shining bright in the southern sky, it’s time Robert Zubrin had a fair hearing.

You've been in the news this week saying, "Next year is a crisis that may well determine whether humans to Mars occurs in our lifetime. This is a unique opportunity, but if we let it slip by, we're going to blow it." Can you please explain what that means? How are we going to blow it?

We have a conjuncture of events that are facing us right now. First of all, NASA is about to be thrown into chaos over the shuttle report, which is going to be deservedly very harsh. It's going to be impossible to suggest that we should keep launching the shuttle orbiters for the next 25 years or so. Also, there's going to be a severe rethinking of NASA's overall priorities. Human space flight is risky. Is it worth taking those risks just to fly ant farms into Earth orbit? Or, if we're going to take those kinds of risks, should we be attempting goals that are worthy of those risks?

You mentioned keeping the shuttle orbiter going for the next 25 years. What's the plan of record for that?

Well, that's the party line prior to the Columbia, actually. And it's ridiculous. You can't maintain these things, they're Carter-Administration-era constructs. They take a hell of a beating every time we fly. Actually, it's somewhat incredible that they have had the good luck they have had up to this point. NASA has already begun to move on this and they've started a program called the orbital space plane.

You see, the shuttle is irrational as a launch vehicle regardless of whether an accident occurs. It's a huge launch vehicle; it has 7 1/2 million tons of thrust — the same amount of thrust the Saturn V, a moon rocket, had at take-off. A Saturn V could lift 140 tons of payload to Earth orbit. The shuttle delivers 20 tons of payload to Earth orbit. It actually delivers 120 tons, but most of that is the inert mass of the shuttle itself. So flying cargo to Earth orbit is like trying to truck cargo in a Winnebago. You've got a powerful engine, but most of it is hauling your house around. So we’re using the shuttle to transport crew to the space station, basically to perform a taxicab function . It can do it, but it's like using an aircraft carrier to pull water skiers. The vehicle is way oversized for the task.

That's why NASA has come up with a plan to create a thing they called the Orbital Space Plane, which would be, by comparison, a relatively modest capsule or a mini-shuttle.

Is that the ramjet/scramjet?

No. It's either a capsule or a miniature shuttle put on top of an expendable launch vehicle, an Atlas or a Delta, which sends it to orbit. It can have a crew of six people in it. It will have about one-tenth the take-off thrust and one-tenth the cost of the shuttle. That's rational. Fine. Okay.

However, the question then becomes: what do we do with the shuttle launch infrastructure? The shuttle launch infrastructure is more than the orbiter, it's also the external tanks, the solids, the space shuttle main engine, the pads, and all the people and technology that support that. Now if you simply discard that, you're discarding a gigantic asset.

Really, what you want to do with the shuttle launch infrastructure is lose the orbiter and replace it with an upper stage, a rocket stage. And then, all of a sudden, without the burden of this huge mass, this giant Winnebago, it becomes a proper launch vehicle. It provides Saturn V class launch capabilities, which means it could serve as the primary instrument to send humans to the Moon or to Mars. With this approach, we can achieve direct throw, straight from the launch vehicle, just like we had with Apollo. No monkeying around with trying to build gigantic science fiction interplanetary space ships. Just throw the payload to the planet using the booster. Bang! You're there.

NASA can do that, or not do it. They have a choice. They can simply rationalize the shuttle's taxicab function to orbit, to move people back and forth to the space station on a little capsule on top of an Atlas, and lose the shuttle pads, and capabilities. Or they can turn the shuttle into a heavy-lift vehicle. The only way they can rationalize turning the shuttle into a heavy lift vehicle is if they decide we’re going to go to the Moon or Mars, or both. With people.

Because otherwise we don't need that big lift capability.

Right. NASA has had an academic position for the past 30 years that some day, we'll go back to the Moon. Someday we'll go to Mars. Of course, someday we're going to do it. But now, they've got a choice: they either have to do it now or throw away a $10 billion asset. So it's like a guy who's been hanging around a girl for five years, and she finally turns and says, "Jack, are you going to propose or not?"

Let me give you a choice: shuttle launch infrastructure or Saturn V for going to Mars which one would you pick?

I'd take the Saturn V.

We really lost something, there, didn't we?

Yes, we did.

Now, in risking throwing away the shuttle launch infrastructure, is NASA poised to repeat the mistake they made with the Saturn V after Apollo?

Yes, that's exactly what they did with the Saturn V after Apollo. And it was the most catastrophic mistake that has ever been made in the history of the space program. We destroyed tens of billions of dollars worth of space capability. We set ourselves back a generation. It was like Columbus coming back from the New World and Ferdinand and Isabella saying, "Oh, so what? Burn of the fleet." That's what happened after Apollo, and that's the juncture they're at right and now. So they can choose. Which way are they going to go?

Some of the contractors have a vested interest in how this position works out. There's jobs at stake. There's money at stake, here. Some of the contractors don't see the possibility of getting a moon/Mars program launched. And so what they're trying to do instead is to make the Orbital Space Plane as expensive as possible. It's basically you're the cabdriver, there's one fare at the airport, and you want to show him all the sites in town. They're coming up with designs for this capsule — I cannot believe this, but it's true — with proposed program cost-to-development of $17 billion. That's almost twice what it cost to develop the shuttle, the whole shuttle, its propulsion systems and its external tanks as well as the orbiter. It's three times what we were going to pay to build the Superconducting Supercollider. It's crazy. And yet all it gives you is a capsule, to go back-and-forth to the station. This program should be a $1 billion program, not a $17 billion program. Maybe $1.5 billion. But they're trying to run it up on the meter.

Now if they do that, there will be no money to convert the shuttle, there will be no money to do anything in space, except to build this stupid taxicab. And then people have to start asking the question, "If we're just going back and forth to the space station, why are we going to space all?" Because the only real justification for the space station is to prepare the way for human interplanetary flight. You can't justify that if, at the same time, you're destroying your main asset that would support this requirement.

On the other hand, for many of the contractors, the destruction of the shuttle infrastructure means they're out of business.

They are in crisis, too, and this gives the people who want to launch a planetary initiative a certain constituency right now. All this is happening at a time when five spacecraft are on their way Mars:

There's the Mars Express, the interplanetary probe from the European Union; there’s the Beagle 2, the first British interplanetary probe; there are two NASA Mars landers equipped with capable rovers, robotic rovers, which will move kilometers across the Martian surface; and finally there’s the Japanese Nozomi orbiter, which has been limping along towards Mars for several years now, but looks like it's finally going to get there in the spring. And then there's two American orbiters in orbit around Mars right now as well. So next spring, there will be seven spacecraft operating on Mars, representing Europe, the United States, Britain, and Japan. There's going to be worldwide excitement about Mars. If the robotic space program is ever going to have the effect of kickstarting a human exploration program, it has to happen next spring. There'll never be another show this big. It's going to be a hard act to follow. I mean, there will be other probes, which can do this and do that, but in terms of public impact, this spring is the climax of the robotic program.

So you've got NASA itself in a crisis, you've got the robots doing everything they can to move things forward, and it's all happening in the high political season in United States. The New Hampshire primary is going on virtually simultaneously with the Rover landings. The timing of these missions and the political climate make this an excellent opportunity to generate interest in a humans-to-Mars program among the American public.

Let me ask about something else that I think is going to attract a lot of attention towards the end of this year. I'd like to know what your views on it are. That is the X Prize. Will it generate interest not only in getting people into orbit, but in doing it in something other than a make-it-as-expensive-as-we-can kind of approach?

A little. But the X Prize, if someone does win it, is a sub-orbital junket on a rocket. It's not the same as planetary exploration. It's not exploration at all.

And it doesn't help to get us there?

Well, you know, it's giving some publicity to small launch vehicle companies that need some publicity and so, by running it as a race, you can generate public attention and perhaps some investment, but the scale of these operations are very small compared to what is needed to open the solar system for humanity. And that's what we're really doing now. So hats off to the X Prize. And hats off to anyone who wins it . But it's a peripheral element of the situation from where I stand.

The X Prize approach of doing it more-or-less on the cheap reminded me a lot of The Case for Mars.

That's true. But you know, you don't have to do things on the cheap if you're the United States. You just have to do them. The incredible waste that we've had in our space program is not a function of particular operations being expensive. It's a function of the fact that the space program as whole has no plan. They're literally spending as much money per year right now as we spent on average during the Apollo period, and accomplishing nothing. Nothing.

The average NASA budget, taken from 1961 when Kennedy made his speech, to 1973 when we had the close-down of the Apollo and Skylab missions was $17 billion per year in today's money, inflation-adjusted. NASA's budget this year is $16 billion. We're within six or seven percent of Apollo-level funding, and we're not accomplishing anything. We spent $150 billion on NASA in the 1990's, and we're not one step closer to the Moon or Mars today than we were in 1990. That is because they have no plan. So they launch a series of simultaneous programs. They start them; they stop them. None of them ever produces anything, with the exception of the robotic probes. The robotic probes are good. A few elements have advanced since 1990. We've got a bit more scientific knowledge about Mars from the Mars Global surveyor probe. Of the $150 billion, that was $150 million. Just one-tenth of 1 percent of the money was usefully spent.

I'll just give you one example. In the 1960's we had Apollo. We knew where we going. We're going to the Moon, thanks to Kennedy, and we had a deadline.

Within this decade.

Within this decade. Sitting there in 1961 they say, if we're going to do this by 1969, we’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to do it in a year and then put out contracts, and then build the elements and have them test-flying around 67, and then go on to the Moon from there. And that's exactly what they did. Take the Saturn V: from1961 to 1962, they figure out how they're going to do the Moon mission. In 1962, they said okay, these are the elements we need: the command module, the lunar lander, the service module. We need a vehicle that can throw all that to a trans-lunar trajectory, the Saturn V, it's got to have this capability. They put out a request for proposals to select contractors. The deadline is to fly by 1969. They have the first test flight in 1966. And they send people to the Moon in 1969.

Now contrast that to NASA's more recent approach. In 1996, NASA administrator Dan Goldin says he'd like to work on "new launch vehicle technology." No requirements, no deadlines, no nothing. So they spend a billion dollars and five years on the program they call X-33, which they cancel in 2001 without having flown anything, and without having achieved anything. And if you look at it, since the 1980's, NASA has had a series of launch vehicle programs: it was the Shuttle C, we had the Advanced Launch System, we had the New Launch System, we had the SpaceLifter Program, we had the X-33, we had the Space Launch Initiative — I know I'm leaving a couple of them out. But they just start them up and shut them down; start them up and shut them down. They just spend money without making any progress.

Administrator O'Keefe has been going around saying NASA should not have a goal. It should not be destination-driven. That's what he says.

What would NASA be driven by, then?

He says instead we're developing the technologies to allow us to go anywhere, anytime. So, organically, the technologies are being developed until they're mature. And then we will have them to go everywhere, instead of just a particular place, like Mars.

This could not be further from the truth. They're not developing the technologies that will allow them to go anywhere at all, let alone "anywhere, anytime." Without a goal, they don't develop a coherent set of hardware that can do anything. We didn't get to the Moon by a bunch of guys running into each other in the cafeteria at the Johnson Space Center in the spring of 1968 And saying, , "You know, if we put your booster together with my lunar landing module and his command module, we could call these pieces together and gee, we could go to the Moon. Isn't it lucky all the pieces fit?"

It went to the other way. You define the goal; you figure how do the goal; you figure out what hardware elements we need to do the goal; you build those hardware elements; and you go do it. The way they're attempting to develop space technology right now is like this: imagine a couple is trying to build a house. The way they're doing it is, they're accumulating things that might be useful to build the house. So they go to a garage sale, where somebody's got a banister and they think, hey, that's a good-looking banister. Hey, there's some aluminum siding, next year maybe we'll get a spiral staircase, how about a Doric column or two. They accumulate all this junk in their backyard and they hope that eventually they’ll have all the right pieces to build a house.

So that's the problem, here. NASA's spending $16 billion a year, and taking no material steps forward toward human space exploration, because they have no commitment in place to do human space exploration. They have no plan. Then have no goal. They're not destination-driven. They need to be a destination-driven. That's what's needed to create a productive space program.

You put together what reads to me like a really coherent plan to get us to Mars a number of years ago in your book, The Case for Mars. To what extent is the plan that you outlined there what you would propose now in this (potentially) post-shuttle era? Would you recommend the same approach?

Pretty much. If you look at the Mars Direct Plan, we used the shuttle as our heavy-lift launch vehicle. It moves the orbiter replaced with an upper stage. It was the right approach in 1990, and it's the right approach today.

Do you have any hope that there's going to be a change of heart at NASA around adopting a kind of mission-oriented, destination-driven approach to these things?

I'm going to try to make it happen.

The Mars Society is going to try to make it happen. We're going to mobilize our chapters to go and visit with Congressmen all across the country. The goal is to visit with at least 300 Congressmen in their offices over the next six months and tell them that America needs a space program that’s going somewhere. That's what we need if we're going to have a viable space program. We need to have a viable space program if we're going to continue to be a nation of pioneers.

Here's the question that maybe either doesn't get asked, or doesn't get answered properly. Why think about going to Mars? It's been 30 years since we've been to the Moon, we've done a fair job of exploring the planets with the unmanned satellites, we have Hubble doing a pretty good job for us. Have things just kind of evolved to where the human exploration of the planets of outer space is over?

Try exploring the Earth with orbiters. Yes, you can do some imaging from orbit, you can learn something about the Earth from orbit, but try to exploring the Earth from orbit. Try exploring Paris from orbit. The orbiters are worthwhile. No doubt about it. In pointing out the limits of robotic exploration, I am not opposing robotic exploration. I am simply making clear that it's a limited tool. It's like aerial reconnaissance. You can't win wars with aerial reconnaissance. It comes in handy. It's good to do. You should do it. But it's not the decisive element. The decisive element in exploration is the human being on the ground. If we’re ever going to find out if there's ever been life on Mars, if we're going to find fossils on Mars, we're going to have to drill into its crust to extract water from the subsurface, and examine it for life ... you have to send human explorers there.

These rovers that we're sending to Mars this year, in their life they will travel a kilometer. You know, the Mars Society has a simulated Mars exploration environment on Devon Island. We constrain people to operate as if they were on Mars. The can’t go outside without wearing space suits, for example. Our explorers on Devon have found stromatolites, which are fossils left by colonies of bacteria. I guarantee you that you could have parachuted a hundred robots to Devon Island and you never would've found those stromatolites. You could parachute a thousand of these rovers into the Rocky Mountains, and you'd never find a dinosaur fossil.

What about taking the argument one step further? So what if we drill into the crust and find those things? Why is it worth spending this kind of money to have people standing there so they can discover ancient bacteria on Mars?

Well, we get an answer to the question of life in the universe, whether it's a general phenomenon or not. We find out if it's life like on the Earth or not. Getting an answer to that question is worth the money. But beyond that, there's something worth much more: if we go to Mars, we're going to open up a new world for humanity. We're going to open up a world that has a surface area equal to all the continents of the Earth put together and that has on it all the resources needed to support not only life, but civilization. If we go to Mars in our time, then 200 years from now there will be a new branch — or perhaps many new branches — of human civilization on Mars, with their own dialects, literatures, cities and universities, used bookstores. They will have made contributions to social thought, to technology and invention, and they'll have epic stories to inspire those who go out further. When they look back at our time, what will they think that we're doing today that is equal in importance to what we did to make their existence possible?

We look back today to 1492: who was queen of Spain?


All right, who was queen of Spain in 1540?

Beats me.

And I bet you couldn't find one person and a thousand who could tell you that one. Or 1640. Or 1740. Or 1840. Isabella is only a significant person because she sponsored Columbus.

So this is a message you need to get to President Bush, right?


What about this. I've heard it argued that Greens, people who support the environment, really should be in favor of space exploration. The argument goes like this: take the Apollo missions for example. For a short time, we brought life to what had always been a lifeless body. If we continue with the human settlement of space, we can bring life to many places where it's never been before. But at the same time, you hear about this movement to keep the Moon and now Mars pristine and make a preserve out of them.

Well, that point of view is anti-life. It is the nature of life to take barren environments and transform them to those that are friendly to the development and propagation of life. That's the whole history of life on Earth. That's why life on Earth has been a success. And we regard this process as marvelous. When Hawaii came out of the Pacific Ocean, this huge piece of bare basalt, would anyone have wanted it to stay that way? No, we want the birds to fly over and drop seeds so the islands become lush, then the animals arrive, then the Polynesians show up, and then Europeans come and build hotels. This is what life does. This is what life should do. Who would want the Earth today, with all its natural wonders, to become a place like Mars? No one sane. So, clearly, it is a good thing to take Mars in the state that it is in and transform it into becoming something as wonderful as the Earth.

So, if you get your wayif the Mars Society is successful, and a program is adoptedlet me give you a list of things, and then you tell me when you think they will happen. Starting with a manned mission to Mars.

If we get our way, we can be on Mars in 10 years. We’re closer today, from a technological point of view, to having humans on Mars than we were to having people on the Moon in 1961 when that goal was adopted.

How about a permanent settlement on Mars?

Twenty years.

How about permanent settlement elsewhere in the solar system? And where you think that would be?

Well, you could establish a settlement on the Moon, but it wouldn't be anywhere near as self-sufficient as one on Mars.

Because of the lack of resources there?

Yes. And then similarly in the near asteroids, and eventually the main-belt asteroids. Mars is not the final destination, but it is the direction. It's where we establish our first new branch of humanity in space as a space-faring species. And if we do it, that in itself will develop our capabilities. The first people that go to Mars are going to go in chemically propelled spacecraft. They're going to make the passage in cramped and uncomfortable quarters. The grandchildren of the first Martian immigrants will find it difficult to credit the story that their grandparents tell about how long it took. Because they'll be traveling in fusion-powered spacecraft which can do it in three weeks in great comfort.

Once there is a branch of human civilization on Mars, we have the incentive to develop more of the technologies that will allow us to make the transit routine. Columbus fared the Atlantic in ships that even a generation later no one would have attempted to the Atlantic in. Because until there was transatlantic transportation, there was no need to develop transatlantic-capable ships. But after Columbus came a trans-oceanic civilization and your three-masted sailing ships, your clipper ships, your steamers, your ocean liners, your Boeing 747’s all followed in turn. But the same technology that makes the transfer to Mars routine, will also make it possible for more daring people to take much greater steps. If you can get to Mars in three weeks, you can get to the Moons of Saturn in a few months. Perhaps even attempt interstellar voyages within a few decades.

A few decades from now?

No, a few decades of transit.

Actually, that was the next item on my list. Using the same time line, when we would we venture to the stars?

If we go on this trajectory, if we take the high road, and establish a new branch of human society on Mars, such that 50 years from now there are growing settlements on Mars and we're seeing the beginnings of settlement of the broader solar system — with mining colonies in the outer asteroids and so forth — I think a few decades later, we will see the first exploratory missions beyond the solar system.

Posted by Phil at August 27, 2003 08:55 AM | TrackBack

The further development of a shuttle-derived heavy-lift rocket (as Zubrin proposed) in a step-by-step methodology ultimately leading to Mars is a 'very' good idea! NASA and its industrial partners are familiar with the vehicle's components, and previous studies (NLS) have shown such a system to be both viable and cost effective. The hingpin for both public and 'consistent' congressional support, however, lies in the rocket's 'flexibility!' Such a powerful rocket is good for so many things - like in the efficient construction and re-supply of space stations - that it is clear that we should have one regardless! It could be used for launching smaller, but much more useful follow-on stations into much more useful polar and geostationary orbits: enhancing our communications and weapons monitoring activities! The moon's surface and the astronomically important Langrange 2 orbit would become accessible (with Apollo-sized service modules to go along with Apollo-like capsules).
And, it could, indeed, help launch the remaining infrastructure (like cargo-moving space tugs, space tethers, and rail/coil guns) needed to get to Mars 'in force.' Such flexible, multi-use rockets and hardware helps avoid public and congressional concerns about once-and-done mission that end up getting us nowhere. The public instinctively knows what works, and after 40 years of 'gong-ho attempts,' I think they are well prepared for step-by-step methodical actions!

Posted by: Chris Eldridge at August 27, 2003 12:17 PM


The challenges of colonization and becoming a two planet species would almost certainly unify man. It would provide a second foothold and emergency 'blood bank' to call for help in the event of some unanticipated 'Chernobyl-like' disaster here on Earth. It would secure not only the existence of our species, but also all of our sciences, arts, history, and even the existence of a great many animals and insects whose genetic code could be carried along with us as we go. All of these are ‘tremendous and worthy goals’ emblematic of the conscious species that we’ve become! Colonizing the Moon or Mars, however, isn’t the only way to achieve them. Neither Mars nor the Moon has a protective atmosphere like the Earth. Their surfaces are just as exposed to cosmic radiation as the rigors of space. Neither Mars nor the Moon has a level of gravity that our species has adapted to either. Furthermore, if our goal is to secure our race and knowledge from a chance asteroid impact (or something like a reactor breach), then going to Mars or the moon is definitely not the ideal place to go and find such a secure second home! The devastating effects of a asteroid impact or a reactor breach are actually ‘magnified’ on the surface of a planet or moon where the crust (and perhaps even the atmosphere) serve to spread the shock wave of the impact (or say the radiation of a melt down) over thousands of miles. With these factors in mind, clearly our initial second home should come in the form of a robust ‘space center’ that can easily avoid a catastrophic collision and would feel no side effects from a near miss! A ‘space center’ is also the only option that can simulate adequate gravity and is no more exposed to cosmic radiation than the surface of these worlds.

Building a space center is just such a way to work within the present day system and yet get what we want anyway. Such space centers - which I believe would be best built in a Lunar orbit - would themselves be the key to eventually fully colonizing Mars and the Moon and would be needed either way!

The key isn’t just to go off proposing a new space center though. How we demonstrate the effectiveness of this solution to expand our presence in space will greatly effect how the public perceives its eventuality. This is why I would like to further propose a unique ‘tubular’ space center design that is an expansion on the common donut shape we are so accustomed to seeing. Instead of a single spinning ring, we need to lengthen such a ring out into a long tube which (most importantly) is a design that can be ‘ADDED TO’ as we go!

Posted by: Chris Eldridge at August 28, 2003 03:21 PM

You're thinking much along the lines of O'Neill colonies which also this ability to link together.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at August 28, 2003 04:59 PM

I always like to say to myself in such situations (when someone else has come up with an idea before me) that “at least I’ve confirmed a good idea” - right?? O'Neill definitely uses an ‘add-on’ cylinder in his work! The artwork I found on Google was wonderful! I do, however, see a consistent problem in his architecture: his architect-like ‘addiction’ to open/flowing free space: the wish to add a ‘grand’ feel to the design, but which is functionally very inefficient!
I battle this same mentality here on earth. I once sat with a CEO for Taisie Corporation of Japan who handed me an Annual Report that actually highlighted the fact that one office building they did consisted of 60% open free space. You know - all those internal gardens, those towering open middle sections, and so on. I’m the exact opposite - especially given the environmental and humanitary issues we face on earth. Such open space may look good initially, but it is a huge waste! We really need to use every ounce of space available to us! If you take what O’Niell is proposing and divide by 10 or 20, I think you’ll have an idea of the naval-ship-size I’m proposing: something about on par with building a small outpost on Mars. You shouldn’t need a train to get back and forth. Build something too large (Trade Center) and you run the risk of a single event cascading into the destruction of the entire facility.
The elimination of open fee space isn’t just a matter of tastes. A compartmentalized design is ‘very necessary!’ Foremost is the threat of a damaged wall in an open design effecting the entire ring. Fire and smoke would more easily spread. The noise of building/renovation would be more of a problem. Dividing walls add structural stability and allow the entire area to be used too. I’m not proposing the austere conditions of a naval submarine (close), but things would have to be done almost fanatically small! All space station designs (like naval ships or Martian outposts) would have to be a communal living arrangement by their own nature. Everyone would have private bedrooms (say 4.4 X 2.6 meters in size), but living, working, and dining areas would all be shared for efficiency!
Such small centers around the moon are only a launch pad to get to Mars in force!

Posted by: Chris Eldridge at August 29, 2003 07:49 AM

On "wasting space", I disagree with you Chris. We have plenty of space in space. Instead, if I read your post correctly, you're really concerned about wasting air mass and big safety issues from large air filled spaces. We just need some creativity.

While I don't know about the wisdom of creating large empty spaces in buildings, I like buildings with open spaces near or in them. I also see a psychological benefit which might make workers more productive and commercial zones more popular.

Now how would we make a large open space and deal with the problems you describe above? For example, start with a O'Neill colony and put a ceiling of low reflection glass over the entire colony at around say 10 meters or so. Use the buildings and decorative walls to compartmentalize the resulting zones in a natural way. Particular buildings or complexes could poke above the "glass ceiling". Lighting would run through the center of the complex. You get the effect of that huge interior space without the risk of complete depressurization.

Incidentally, there's a large body of work on rotation and the comfort level of people (eg, avoiding motion sickness). Here's a good reference. The key points seem to be that a) you need a sufficiently slow rotation rate to avoid motion sickness (on the order of a few rotations per minute), a minimum rim velocity, and a minimum articial gravity in order to walk (I would guess without proof that the minimum acceleration needed for long term Earth human health is probably at least these values).

One conclusion that comes out is that you need rotating structures at least on the order of hundreds of meters to get the desired acceleration, tangential velocities, and rotation rates. That's a big argument in favor of the large O'Neill cylinders.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at August 29, 2003 11:25 AM free space... is functionally very inefficient!


All space station designs (like naval ships or Martian outposts) would have to be a communal living arrangement by their own nature.

I can see such a requirement in the very early days of space settlement, when we're boosting everything up the gravity well from Earth, but after we begin using local materials we're free to do whatever we want. The imposition of "communal living arrangement[s]" as necessity strikes me as, well, "communistic".

Is not open space just another commodity, to be purchased in any desired amount?

As far as your arguments about fire, smoke and noise, I think you fail to appreciate how large an O'Neill structure would actually be -- those would be no more of a problem in an O'Neill cylinder than in an any medium-sized Midwestern American town. And O'Neill did a lot of work on depressurization times, which would be very long because of the immense internal volume. Karl is right -- size is our friend!

Posted by: Troy at August 29, 2003 01:41 PM

The use of local materials is an extremely important component. This is why Dr. Zubrin favors initially settling a resource-rich planet such as Mars rather than a more barren area (the moon or lunar orbit.)

In the original Mars Direct plan, the vehicle that returns the atronauts to orbit from the surface of Mars is actually sent first. The vehicle comes with the ability to manufacture its own fuel out of local resources. So one of the most expensive propositions about a trip to Mars, hauling all the rocket fuel you need to blast off from Mars all the way from the surface of the Earth, is eliminated. Oxygen would work the same way. Rather than sending tanks of oxygen for the astronaust to breathe for weeks or months on the Martian surface, equip the Hab with the ability to extract oxygen from the environment.

The better use we can make of local resources, the more do-able the exploration and settlement of the solar system becomes.

Posted by: Phil at August 30, 2003 07:30 AM

The use of local materials is an extremely important component. This is why Dr. Zubrin favors initially settling a resource-rich planet such as Mars rather than a more barren area (the moon or lunar orbit.)

Excuse me, but I don't see the Moon as being "resource poor". Admittedly, it's more difficult to extract oxygen from rock, and chemical fuel appears much harder to come by. But the Moon has one great resource that Mars doesn't have. Namely, it is only one light second from more than six billion humans. It's location makes it among the best real estate in the Solar System right now and far better than Mars will be in the near future.

That means we can do things on the Moon that won't be possible on Mars for a long time due to the vast pool of cheap labor next door. That is, teleoperations of machinery where a two second delay is ok. Also, it means that trade with Earth and Earth Orbit is feasible on several levels. Goods can be shipped to Earth or Orbit in a matter of a few days (with a lower delta V than from Mars). Communication delays are small enough that people can communicate directly.

OTOH, can't argue with Zubrin's plan. Sounds good to me. But my point is that if we were in a zero-sum game where we could only colonize one, the Moon or Mars, then the Moon is a far better choice despite an increase in the difficulty of extracting various resources.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at August 30, 2003 10:26 AM


You're right. "Resource poor" is an inaccurate way to describe the moon. A settlement on the moon might well prove to be Seattle to Mars' Klondike,

What do you think of the idea that the moon might be a little too close, that its proximity to Earth will not encourage self-sufficiency?

Posted by: Phil at August 30, 2003 11:35 AM

What do you think of the idea that the moon might be a little too close, that its proximity to Earth will not encourage self-sufficiency?

That sounds a reasonable premise. There will be a lot of things that even with launch costs will be cheaper to make on Earth and transport to the Moon. Ultimately, whether it be the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere, one of the big draws of life in space will be a better chance for you and your family. Mars is better long term, because it has a higher gravity and even without any terraforming is the closest planet to the Earth climatewise.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at August 30, 2003 12:07 PM

> There's a large body of work on rotation and the comfort level of people (eg, avoiding motion sickness).

The relation of rotational speed and motion sickness was a notion lost on me! I'll re-think the idea of a smaller lunar station, or move on... If we do go with a Mars Outpost, I'd really like to see the outpost be much more ‘consolidated’ - perhaps a 30 m dia. cylinder that is more self-contained (economy-of-scale - one building with low surface area - structurally stronger) as opposed to the more sprawling quonsonhut arrangements I’ve seen.

The station idea was mainly to try and use the moon’s resources to get to Mars in force. What does ‘In force’ mean? Like a Semi with the power-to-weight-ratio of an Indy car - that’s how much difference I can see the moon making in our endeavor to get to Mars. You just got to think the moon has a part to play in a serious effort to get there. If we're going to build some kind of stepping stone on or around the moon - make it robust! Make it part of the solution we seek.
I’m pretty sure a small station would be easier to construct around the moon than it would be around Mars. The cylinder’s middle also needs to be used for large assembly hangers (protected inside) and is where I would have run the rail/coil gun down to fire off supplies to Mars from the Moon.

> If I read your post correctly, you're really concerned about wasting air mass and big safety issues from large air filled spaces.

My main concern was cost and efficiency - environmental concerns don’t really apply in space or on Mars/Moon. Such huge ‘unneeded’ space (with the like of a log cabin along a crick) takes a lot longer to build and obviously costs a lot even if you’re using lunar metals. Such O’Neill stations aren’t really believable at this point, and may hurt our PR as being too outrageous.

> I like buildings with open spaces near or in them. I also see a psychological benefit.

Yacht and business-jet cabins are small, but so wonderfully customized that it sort of helps make up for the confines of the area. ‘E-Paper’ wallpaper may help - making walls seem like a distant mountain scene and the ceiling seem like the open sky! Small can be very bad if not properly furnished.

> The imposition of "communal living arrangement[s]" as necessity strikes me as, well, "communistic".

Communal living can be extremely private - I don’t see what is so wrong with sharing a restaurant-like dining room and a movie theater instead of a living room. Single-Family kitchens, dining rooms, bathrooms, showers, and utility rooms are only used about 5% of the time for the purpose they are intended for. Living rooms only 30%, and usually only up to 1/3rd of their capacity…. Communal living not only allocates these items in the ‘correct proportions’ it also enhances them: state-of-the-art health clubs and sports bars replace humdrum living rooms and so on. I know its not accepted and sounds all ‘commie-like’ but it is how humans lived for thousands of years, and from the theoretical aspects of design - it can’t be beaten for efficiency!

Posted by: Chris Eldridge at September 2, 2003 09:15 AM

Communal living can be extremely private - I don’t see what is so wrong with sharing a restaurant-like dining room and a movie theater instead of a living room. Single-Family kitchens, dining rooms, bathrooms, showers, and utility rooms are only used about 5% of the time for the purpose they are intended for. Living rooms only 30%, and usually only up to 1/3rd of their capacity…. Communal living not only allocates these items in the ‘correct proportions’ it also enhances them: state-of-the-art health clubs and sports bars replace humdrum living rooms and so on. I know its not accepted and sounds all ‘commie-like’ but it is how humans lived for thousands of years, and from the theoretical aspects of design - it can’t be beaten for efficiency!

I agree with Chris here. There's a lot of situations in modern society that are communistic. we share lots of space and resources already. So it's natural to assume that with tighter space requirements we would share even more.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at September 4, 2003 02:54 PM

A proper O'Neill colony of that size would be fairly well along in space development IMHO. You would already have significant space colonies. A colony attached to a counterweight with a very long cable would be a more likely intermediate step.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at September 4, 2003 02:57 PM

I love the counter weight idea! Perhaps it could be some kind of balloon that we can pump liquid to so as the stations mass changes (up and down) we could add or detract fluid from our reservoir.

This liquid sort of counter weight is what is used on the new air ships. Airships would become unstable as they off load a heavy cargo so they now pump water to it to maintain the same weight. Pretty neat hum?

Docking with it might be tricky - I guess you’d have to aim for the top of the arch and make sure you ‘latched on’ on the first pass…

Such a counterweight idea might actually be the preferred type of station regardless of how well along we are! Instead of a tube you could have a solid cylinder where even the middle had gravity.

I heard of this used on a small scale for a trip to Mars - has it been proposed for such a colony that you know?

Posted by: Chris Eldridge at September 4, 2003 04:54 PM

Yes, I think it has. No idea where to look for references. Big problem is that the strain on the cable makes it into quite a powerful rubber band. How do you handle cable breaks?

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