Ever since US President Kennedy pledged in the early 1960s that the US would land a man on the moon within the decade, the US has been caught up in episodic bouts of space enthusiasm. Engineers and other technical people tend to be science fiction fans at some stage in their lives, soaking in visions of outer space exploration and space outposts and colonies on the moon, Mars, and beyond. Until now, nothing much has come from these bouts of space fever — but something seems different this time around.
The world’s richest man — Jeff Bezos — and one of the world’s most audacious men — Elon Musk — are competing to be the one man that fathers the true age of humans in space. Musk’s company SpaceX has been successfully launching satellites and ISS resupply missions for well over a year, and Bezos’ New Glenn heavy launcher is poised to begin launching heavy orbital payloads in less than three years.
Now Jeff Bezos Wants to Go to the Moon
Recently at a Washington DC ballroom in a gala event, Jeff Bezos announced plans to build spacecraft that could land on the moon. He wants to be the one that makes permanent space outposts and habitats on the moon a reality. Bezos also wants to facilitate the building of giant space habitats orbiting Earth, with human populations into the millions each.
Some of you may remember the heady days of Gerard K. O’Neill’s “High Frontier,” and the grand idea to build large space habitats in L4 and L5 orbits between Earth and the Moon. Bezos’ dream is a bit closer to Earth, with the giant idyllic habitats directly orbiting the home planet.
“These are very large structures, miles on end. They would hold a million people or more each,” explained Bezos to a quiet audience made up of supporters, media, and elementary school robotic students.
He went on to show images of cities, parks, mountains, and waterfalls all in a self-contained rotating space cylinder. He talked about how they could differ in gravity, perhaps affording humans an opportunity to become birds.
“You could have a recreational [colony] that has zero Gs so that you can go flying,” Bezos said dramatically pausing, “With your own wings.”
While acknowledging that this reality is extremely far off, Bezos set out his utopian vision. Humans will live peacefully together among the stars in these contained O’Neill colonies rather than spreading to inhospitable worlds like Mars.
“This is Maui on its best day all year long; no rain, no storms, no earthquakes,” he said, “People are going to want to live here.” __ https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/moon-mars/a27434904/jeff-bezos-oneill-world-history/
[Admin: Note that the Popular Mechanics article above posted an image of the wrong Gerard O’Neill. You can never be too careful about fact checking the people who run the media these days.]
Both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos can seem a bit grandiose at times. Here are some of the problems Bezos plans to solve, for example:
His immense wealth often prompts questions about how he chooses to spend it, and Bezos hinted at the criticism on Thursday. “There are immediate problems, things that we have to work on … I’m talking about poverty, hunger, homelessness, pollution, overfishing in the oceans,” he said. “But there are also long-range problems, and we need to work on those too.” __ https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/05/jeff-bezos-moon-nasa/589150/
Bezos is not alone among the new rich in wanting to solve problems that do not easily lend themselves to real world solutions, beyond grand words and phrases. Bill Gates’ foundation is working on many of man’s oldest and most intractable problems. Elon Musk is trying to solve global warming using solar energy of all things. The fact is, no matter how wealthy a person becomes, there is no solution to the inability of the human brain to solve itself. Wherever we go, there we are, and there will also be humanity’s problems.
But if we are not willing to reach beyond our grasp, what’s a heaven for? Or so Mr. Browning suggested many years ago.
So What is Different This Time?
This time, the space enthusiasm does not rest on the fickle shoulders of politicians and government bureaucrats. This time it is being pushed by super-wealthy individuals who are planning to find a growing number of ways to become much wealthier as a giant web of new space enterprises grows itself outward from Earth to the moon to near-Earth asteroids to Mars and beyond.
The sheer willpower and ingenuity of private entrepreneurs within an opportunity society such as the US is a force to be reckoned with. Things will be moved to make it all possible, because the very technologies that made these men wealthy are all enmeshed within a larger movement of innovation — from biotech to nanotech to advanced computing to increasingly autonomous robots and more. As long as governments are not the ones driving the projects and decisions, something special is likely to get done.
Musk’s and Bezo’s wealth is in stocks and not cash. Neither them nor them together have the resources to build space stations or put men on the moon. Those projects would run to well over $100 B or maybe $1 T or more. Only China and the US have the resources to send men to the for a visit. It would both working together to build a Moon base of small size. It would the whole planet to build the space stations they are talking about.
No one is suggesting that either Jeff or Elon is going to march into the offices of a space construction company and pay cash for a new million-person space colony. Things do not work that way for large scale pioneering projects.
Asteroids hollowed by space mining may provide some of the first large scale colonies, which will look nothing like the pictures. New automated approaches to space construction are not only likely, but inevitable. The early colonies themselves may be ad hoc ramshackle affairs, growing to suit the need.
Humans in space will probably be few for some time, due to the expense and to the improved utility of autonomous robots and drones.
Have any of these Space Entrepreneurs solved the problem of getting man through the Van Allen Belts alive and then shielding the space men from the radiation of outer space?
A big problem to be sure.
Here are a few prize-winning ideas
Mass-shielded spacecraft and habitats for long exposures will most likely be constructed using non-terrestrial materials. A lot of infrastructure will have to be built to accomplish that and that takes time and dinero. A lot of the key breakthroughs and tools will probably be created coincidentally, for entirely different purposes.
Que? Didn’t we solve that Van Allen radiation problem in the late 60’s with technology from the moon landing? Hmmmm….
Sorry to say, no. We are living in a dangerous universe. If we choose to go out and play with the big boys (dangerous forces) we have to be prepared.
I believe cosmic rays is the big issue here. Solar radiation, mostly in the form of flares, can be dealt with by having a “storm shelter’ inside the habitat (these last only a few hours). Cosmic rays, on the other hand, come from all directions and are of very high energy. Worse, inadequate shielding makes the problem worse with the cosmic rays creating other high energy particles through collisions. The Van Allen belts actually shield LEO from this. That is why some are no advocating that the first O’neill habitats be built in LEO. The key for deeper space habitats is to build them big enough that the required shielding is not as significant part of the overall mass of the structure as it would be for a smaller habitat.
In any case, lots of technology must be developed to make space colonization possible. Refining of asteroid materials into useful form, automated fabrication of the habitat structure, creation of a self-sustaining biomeme; all of this being fully automated as to reduce cost. We’re looking at multiple decades of development here.
Multiple decades will be required if politicians and bureaucrats are running the show. Entrepreneurs of a determined nature have ways of trimming timelines using unexpected methods. Consider if SpaceX were being run by a congressional committee rather than Elon Musk.
What I meant is that entrepreneurs and free markets will get us into space in large number over multiple decades. With politicians and bureaucrats in charge, it will never happen at all.
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