March 19, 2018 Zimmerman Space Show podcast

A quick holiday fund-raising campaign for Behind the Black!
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In past years I have managed to avoid asking for donations for Behind the Black during the holiday season. My finances however now compel me to do a short one-week fund-raiser, from November 11 to November 17.
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My two hour appearance with David Livingston on the Space Show last night is now available and can be downloaded as a podcast here.

This show was particularly interesting because of the high quality of questions from the callers. In fact, in many ways I think it might have been one of my most interesting Space Show appearances in a long time. Definitely worth a listen.



  • Richard M

    I was struck by your question and discussion at around the 19:00 mark: Why do they insist on building the LOP-G station? What is the point?

    I think we have to entertain the probability that the point right now is chiefly *inertia.*

    NASA is, after all, as you say, in something of a leadership vacuum. And it’s not like the White House has the time right now to devote any real analysis to NASA’s future HSF program of record, either – their plate is full. LOP-G survives (with just a name change) because that’s what was inherited from the Obama Administration, and there’s no directive so far to abandon or replace it yet. So it remains, as a placeholder if nothing else. And so, likewise, since it’s still the nominal program of record, various international and commercial partners continue to hitch a ride on the wagon, because it’s really the only wagon in town. For now.

    So LOP-G will soldier on as a notional program for the time being, until the White House and whoever its eventual NASA chief decide on something else. There’s obviously some unease about this state of affairs at NASA HQ, however, given the RFI put out a few days ago to farm out both the launch AND the development of the propulsion power module on a Space Act agreement a couple days ago.

    P.S. I think you’re almost certainly on the money that SLS/Orion’s most likely fate is to get one or two launches to salve honor before it’s put out of its misery. It’s the smart way to bet.

  • Localfluff

    @Richard M
    David Livingstone sometimes says that the SLS might have national security purposes. But the SLS is expressively stated to not make any missions to LEO och GEO (one tenth of the distance to the Moon) but only further out. And for defense and surveillance purposes that is the range relevant. So the SLS does not serve as some security guarantee (in case the Chinese buys SpaceX in return for making Musk mogul of Ulan Bator, or whatever imagined scenario).

    The SLS is a Moon rocket that won’t go to the Moon. The bureaucrats have found a way to send the SLS neither to the useful LEO/GEO, nor to the useful surface of the Moon, but instead into a limbo in between. In nowhere. It is much more expensive, much more dangerous, has no science to be made, no useful technologies to be demonstrated and . But it is a unique selling point of the SLS+Orion-Loophole nonsense. Because nothing can do it worse than SLS+Orion, and what idea could possibly be worse than the Lop-G? (Oh, well, the next NASA strategy probably will be worse still, although it is beyond my imagination how bad it can get next).

    To motivate the existence of SLS, NASA had to make up some kind of scenario beyond LEO, but way off any surfaces of any astronomical objects. So they got the idea to send astronauts to a near Earth asteroid. That turned out to be too difficult because of the necessarily rare conjunctions with co-orbiting asteroids. Then to bring an asteroid to Lunar orbit (if Muhammed can’t go to the mountain, bring the mountain to Muhammed). But that also turned out to be undoable. So they came up with the idea of picking up some rock from a NEA and put that into Lunar orbit (although Hayabusa and Osiris are much better at getting useful samples and bringing them to labs on Earth). Now without the asteroid thing, what remains is the Lunatic Loop-Holeway. No asteroid no retrieval no rendezvous. The only thing that remains constant from ARM to Lunar-loopy is the orbit. Because that’s the only competitive advantage of the SLS-Orion junk. If SLS-Orion cannot create a unique niche in cis-Lunar space, it has no purpose at all. And it turns out that it doesn’t. So they just make up a lie about it.

    I think that the best thing that could realistically happen to NASA’s human space flight program, is that the first SLS explodes on the launch pad, so that they can start applying their talents on something meaningful instead. The Russian Moon rocket N1 detonations are said to have been the largest non-nuclear explosions humans ever caused. SLS might beat that record! Depends on how the solid boosters react. Although the Challenger disaster was caused by a solid booster, they both flew on as if nothing happened after the rest of the shuttle had been obliterated. Maybe the SLS’ solid boosters, the same as on Challenger, will fly around and crash, causing spectacular mass killings. We’ll see, in the 2030s when the SLS will make its first launch attempt.

    It is now very clear to me, if not immediate revolution occurs when the next director takes over, that NASA will be totally irrelevant in human space flight. Even if they execute this meaningless SLS-Orion-Nowhere program successfully, the result will be that NASA is totally irrelevant in human space flight. The Chinese and others will by then already ave created permanent bases on the surface of the Moon, making huge discoveries about the formation of Earth and the Moon and the solar system and what else. While NASA flies around in the emptiness och nowhere doing nothing.

  • Richard M

    “To motivate the existence of SLS, NASA had to make up some kind of scenario beyond LEO, but way off any surfaces of any astronomical objects.”

    The previous administration was clearly desperate to avoid *any* architecture which involved a gravity well (and all the expense involved therein)….well, for at least a generation.

  • Dick Eagleson


    You’re correct that SLS, as currently conceived, is to have no role in Earth-orbital space and no role in national security. If my Reusable SLS proposal was to be taken up, though, that would change very radically.

  • Edward

    Richard M asked (rhetorically) “Why do they insist on building the LOP-G station? What is the point?

    The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (formerly the Deep Space Gateway) has a stated purpose of being used as a staging point for the proposed Deep Space Transport (DST), which is a concept of a reusable vehicle for manned missions to Mars.

    LOP-G would give SLS a mission or purpose, but it pretty much requires the DST in order to give it a purpose and a use every other year.

    It seems to me that we are pretty much designing our civil NASA Mars mission backwards. Rather than designing a LOP-G for the needs of a DST and SLS for the needs of LOP-G, we are intending to design LOP-G as limited by the SLS design and may or may not eventually design a DST as limited by the LOP-G and the requirement to use it.

    The reason that SLS is a system (the second “S”) is that it and Orion were largely designed together to work as a system. Unfortunately, neither had a real mission to be designed to accomplish, so now we are stuck with a design for some imaginary generic mission. Dick Eagleson’s essay says that Orion has “life support capability for only 12 person-weeks of continuous occupancy.” The Space Shuttle had more life support capability, and it never left low Earth orbit. Orion has the capability of entering lunar orbit, but only for about a week before it has to come back. LOP-G could extend that stay, but the mission seems to be to only support a hypothetical future Mars mission that may not come before SpaceX does it better.

    Blue Origin sometimes talks about landing on the Moon, but do they need LOP-G in order to do that?

    ULA talks about mining the water from the Moon’s poles for use in CisLunar space, but they imagine a base at Earth-Moon Lagrange point 1, not lunar orbit.

    So here are four organizations that have great hopes for space programs, but they do not seem to be working together in order to take advantage of each other’s strengths and plans. SpaceX could buy fuel from ULA in order to save money by not lifting heavy fuel from Earth for use on its Mars missions. Blue Origin could use LOP-G or ULA’s hypothetical L1 base as a waypoint and refueling station to and from the Moon’s surface. If LOP-G, one of Bigelow’s space habitats, one of Orbital ATK’s proposed CisLunar habitats, or a combination of the three were at L1, then it would be useful for ULA’s vision of CisLunar operations. NASA could use inexpensive competitive transportation from SpaceX or Blue Origin to regularly supply LOP-G, rather than the once-a-year-or-so launch cadence of the SLS. But no; it is all haphazard planning rather than the cooperative, coordinated, yet competitive methods that have worked so well for American companies for almost a quarter millennium.

    When America opened up the western portions of the country, canals and railroads were built out to where new farmlands were being created, and towns grew up to support all the people and companies that went west. Now America is opening up space, and every organization seems to be planning out the future on its own rather than a more coordinated way that opened the west. I would rather see some coordination and cooperation between organizations than all this haphazard planning. It would help to guarantee that everyone succeeds in business as well as in their goals.

  • Anthony Domanico


    I agree with you that cooperation between American companies is good for space development, but it seems like it would be asking them to take on more risk in an already extremely risky endeavor. I have often thought that SpaceX’s future plans could benefit immensely from an orbital propellant depot if that propellant came from a smaller gravity well like the moon or NEA’s instead of being lifted from Earth. Unfortunately, asking them to plan on another business making that happen and being there when they need them to be is too much.

    I think the cooperation will happen after there is a first-mover. Once there is a market created by that one bold company then other companies can come in and fill in different niches and once they are established then companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin can count on them being there in their business plans. I think another, more productive way to get there is to have the government be the one taking the risk and be the first-mover. The government could set up a COTS-like competition to have a company provide an orbital propellant depot and guarantee they will pay for the service for 10 years (with the contract being competed for every 2 or 5 years) or some set time so their business case could close. If it’s done in a way similar to COTS it would probably still be cheaper than SLS/Orion and it would be far more useful! Like COTS, the company would own the depot and have the rights to sell their services to anyone, even foreign states.

    What are your thoughts on this? Is there another way to get companies to plan in a more synergistic way like you would hope?

  • Richard M

    Hello Edward,

    “LOP-G would give SLS a mission or purpose, but it pretty much requires the DST in order to give it a purpose and a use every other year.”

    A pity, then, that there’s no funding for the DST, nor is there likely to be for some years to come (if, indeed, ever), since this administration at least has shifted HSF focus back to the Moon.

    I think LOP-G/the Gateway remains in the Program Of Record (albeit while ALSO being unfunded) out of simple inertia as an Obama mandate left over. This is not likely to change until NASA gets an administrator, at the least.

  • Edward

    Anthony Domanico,
    You asked: “What are your thoughts on this?

    Very interesting. This is exactly what went wrong with the Google Lunar X-Prize. All five finalists depended upon others who were still in development to perform as expected in order to complete their own mission within the time limit. Coincidentally, I was just thinking a couple of hours ago about the deadline being a week away, and there has been no last minute miracle that allowed any of the competitors to launch in time, which is three or four days away, considering the three day trip to the Moon.

    Japan came closest to a launch, as they had a rocket lined up, but they depended upon the Indian entrant to help finance the rocket, but that financing did not come through. The others depended upon rockets that were still in development, but none became operational in time to meet the deadline.

    So perhaps you are correct, Anthony, that there is not yet enough other infrastructure in place to allow for companies to cooperate together to accomplish a goal. SpaceX may need to plan for fueling its Mars rocket on their own until someone actually succeeds in creating fuel from lunar sources. Blue Origin may need to plan for an independent lunar landing until there is an actual lunar orbiting station that can berth a more cost efficient lander that does not have to be carried back and forth from the Earth to the Moon. Perhaps ULA will have to be the company that creates the first lunar mine and fuel factory, unless or until someone else gets into that business — a “first mover,” as you called it.

    Richard M,
    I think that one problem NASA has with either the DST or the focus on returning to the Moon is that there are other organizations that are motivated to do the same thing, and may be able to do it sooner than NASA can. One would think that, with the backing of the federal government, NASA could do more faster than commercial space, but the reality is that commercial space is proving to be better than the big-bucks guys.

    NASA started out as an innovative, rapid reaction organization, but government (President Obama and Congress) has turned it into an organization that is set adrift without a tangible mission, that works in fits and starts (e.g. Constellation being turned into Orion-SLS), and that takes forever to develop its hardware (e.g. Apollo-Saturn flew manned less than a decade after the beginning of development and Orion-SLS will take more than a decade, possibly just to fly unmanned, not including the four or five years of Ares development). Even Ares managed to fly unmanned four or five years after development began, but after seven or eight years, SLS is still a couple of years away from first launch, so the problem is getting worse over time.

    With all the changes that happen from president to president, NASA is showing lots of action but little forward motion. “Don’t confuse motion with action.” — Ernest Hemingway

    Congress and Obama turned much of NASA into a cluster[bleep], in the exact same sense that Clint Eastwood used the word in the movie “Heartbreak Hill.” Which brings us back to your original rhetorical question: “Why do they insist on building the LOP-G station? What is the point?” Perhaps Congress likes to watch the action and does not care that the wheels are spinning without much forward motion. (2 minutes)

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