Elon Musk, Alan Stern and the future of space

Elon Musk and Alan Stern teamed up for a public event sponsored by University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) 10 days ago (April 29). With the caveat that I’m not as versed in New Space as I am “old space” (what do you call the space program as we know it today?), it was a pretty enlightening show. If you’ve got two hours to spare, it’s online here.

Very quick bios: Musk is CTO and CEO of SpaceX (as well as CEO of Tesla Motors and chairman of SolarCity); Stern founded and led the Southwest Research Institute office in Boulder, Colo., during which time he finally sold NASA on a mission to Pluto, which he now leads (New Horizons). He then led NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (~$5 billion annual budget) for a couple of years, and now consults widely as he leads New Horizons and prepares to take scientific payloads on commercial suborbital missions (via Xcor and Virgin Galactic).


In addition to being at the the top of their business and scientific fields, both are top-drawer communicators. I took a lot of notes.

One of the most interesting bits was from the Q&A, when someone asked how commercial space outfits like SpaceX can manage to launch satellites (or, in the future, people) for a third the price of existing players. (I wrote a bit on the topic of space budgets, focusing on satellites and instruments, here).

Musk said part of it is a lack of choice for government buyers, who are forced to work with a handful of cost-plus contractors. “They will underbid the project, then once they’re in they will raise the prices to the maximum amount, just short what would bring about program cancellation.” Stern elaborated that the incentive of such programs is to add people to them. That costs money and makes communications worse, which leads to problems, which they then hire still more people to fix. “It’s a bad closed-loop feedback,” Stern said. “and the government system likes more jobs, even though it doesn’t say so explicitly — more jobs particularly in the zip codes of people on the approriations committee.”

Because of the lack of appetite for cancellations, money is then pillaged from good-performing projects to shore up ones that are over budget, providing yet another bad feedback. In sum, he said, “They’re all pumping the system towards something disastrous happening.” In contrast, Stern said, private commercial companies are largely led by people with training in the Internet or elsewhere. “And now they’re porting all that over to aerospace and it is the rise of the mammals against the dinosaurs,” he said.

The rest in bullets (Stern, then Musk).

From Stern’s talk:

  • If the distance from the Earth to the moon were a 100-yard football field, the space shuttle (and space station) orbits at the equivalent of 2 inches from the goal line.
  • The space shuttle program has cost us about $200 billion; the International Space Station $100 billion.
  • “Really we have had, for 40 years since the era of Apollo, a very politically driven, centrally managed, really Soviet style approach to space flight.”
  • SpaceX conceived, designed and flew the first Falcon rocket for less money than was spent on the launch tower for the (cancelled) Ares I test firing.
  • The entry of players like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Armadillo Aerospace, Xcor, and Virgin Galactic offer, for the first time, the potential of multiple competitors to carry people into space (in the U.S., it has always been a single option — Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the shuttle program). Stern said he expects four separate suborbital lines to reach markets in the next two years.
  • Paying $250,000 for a scientist to carry an instrument into space on Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship Two might seem steep, but it’s a deal compared to the $2.5 million needed to loft an instrument on a Black Brandt sounding rocket, the next-cheapest option. Stern called it “an access revolution, where spaceflight goes from rare to routine,” and likened it to the transition from big, expensive centralized mainframes to PCs. In terms of aviation history, commercial space is today where commercial aviation was in the 1920s, Stern said. “I think this is the beginning of a real revolution,” Stern said. “This is the best time to be alive in space exploration.

From Musk’s talk: (Musk, for the record, had just flown in, and his jazzy SpaceX videos, e-mailed prior, for some reason couldn’t be coaxed to work. So he went a capella. Where Stern is straight-talking, go-getting American in his delivery, Musk’s South African background lends a British sensibility; soft spoken; very wry wit also).

  • The lessons of history, Musk said, are important in setting one’s own priorities, or that of a business. Looking back, the less important stuff falls away. Musk is talking big, big picture here, citing the emergence of single-celled life, the evolution of creatures with differentiated cells, and the transition of life from oceans to land being “important.” Where does SpaceX come in? He views life becoming multiplanetary as a similarly important moment — perhaps more important than the oceans-to-land transition, “because you have to travel hundreds of millions of miles across irradiated space to do it.” Musk says he’s happy to take payloads to the moon, but he’s most interested in Mars. “Mars is a real planet. There’s water almost everywhere, the red is iron oxide.” To get there, launch costs need to be at most $100 a pound, he believes (they’re at $1,000 a pound now).
  • “That’s why I’m into space. To advance the technology of space travel and set us on a path to make that happen.”
  • As far as what we should spend on going multiplanetary, Musk said maybe a quarter of a percent on GDP per year — less than what we spend on health care, but more than we spend on lipstick.
  • Despite his leading Solar City and running a rocket company, Musk is dismissive the idea of space based solar power. “If anybody should be interested in it, it should be me,” Musk said. “But it totally doesn’t work.” The sun’s intensity in orbit is only about double that on a good spot on Earth, and you’d need to orbit equipment to convert photons to electrons and beam it down via microwave radiation, and then convert back to electrons on the ground. “Even if launch costs were free and you could teleport the equipment to Earth orbit–which would be awesome–it still doesn’t work. So we shouldn’t be thinking about it.”
  • The Falcon Heavy, which SpaceX recently announced, can lift 53 metric tons orbit, more than a Boeing 737 with passenger, luggage, fully loaded with fuel. “That’s double the capacity of the space shuttle, the Delta 4 heavy or any other rocket on Earth.” First flight is slated for 2013, he said.
  • The dream of truly inexpensive access to space depends on the creation of what Musk described as “a fully and rapidly reusable” orbit-class rocket. That is, the rocket becomes like the jet plane or the bicycle, which you don’t write off each time you ride it. If it can be done, one can amortize capital costs across “tens of thousands of trips,” making those costs “quite small.” So if a Falcon 9 launch costs $50 million and could fly 1,000 times, you’ve got a capital cost of $50,000 per flight, Musk said, plus propellant (propellant for a Falcon 9 costs about $150,000, equivalent of loading up a Boeing 757, he said).
  • SpaceX hopes to unveil something by the end of this year, Musk said. “But it’s quite tricky, because Earth’s gravity is quite strong.” No rocket has ever carried even 4 percent of its weight to orbit (I’ve described space-bound payloads as the equivalents cats in sedans). Usually it’s 2-3 percent of the total rocket-plus-payload weight that ends up in orbit, Musk explained. And if the rocket’s rapidly reusable, you’ll need to add reentry shielding on the upper stage, hardware for a deorbit burn, final velocity attenuation. . . “In all prior attempts, you come up with negative results. You get negative payload to orbit. Not very helpful,” Musk said.

Five bucks well spent

The CU Center for Environmental Journalism forwarded a note with this link this morning, to a Wired.com article about how Al Gore and Push Up Press are aiming to “blow up the book.” As someone who recently wrote a book and then converted it into Kindle and ePub formats, this caught my attention. Push Up Press, founded by two former Apple guys, has created an app for books, as opposed using the Amazon Kindle or ePub formats, which are all HTML (standard web language) based. “Our Choice” is their inaugural product.

It’s amazing what they’ve done with “Our Choice,” Al Gore’s 2009 book. The print version is full of great images and artfully done, and a great place to start if you’re looking for a rundown on renewable energy technologies, biofuels, energy efficiency approaches, political and sociocultural considerations, population and environmental issues and other facts of the climate change mitigation/adaptation puzzle. This app, which I bought for my wife’s (well, mostly my wife’s) iPad and which, for the moment costs, $4.99, brings the graphics to life; lets you click on photos to understand exactly where Shishmaref, Alaska or Guazhou, China are; and has embedded videos as well as animations in which with Gore narrates how wind turbines, geothermal plants, solar concentrators and so on work. This iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch version has also been editorially updated and has tons more pictures than the book (such as of wind turbines in Guazhou, China).

Whether the “Our Choice” app is a model for the future of e-publishing, I don’t know. The book’s topics are visual and topical, and they lend themselves to multimedia. Publishers will have to invest more in their books to make this standard. A novel about an Elizabethan-era romance won’t gain much by it. Reading fiction and narrative nonfiction is ultimately about visualizing scenes in the mind, the ultimate multimedia tool. It must have cost a fortune to create this thing.

It’s also not searchable, at least as far as I can tell, and while the scroll bar at bottom’s pretty useful, there’s no table of contents page that gives a quick overview.

But man, is it worth the five bucks.

On the Gulf Oil Spill anniversary

To confirm a single statistic I wanted to share about a year after BP’s Gulf oil disaster, which killed 11 men and countless creatures and spewed an estimated 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf over 86 days, I stopped by a cool/chill/rad web site that slices and dices CIA Factbook data.

I was curious as to how many days of U.S. crude consumption poured into the gulf, in toto. Turns out it was about 0.25 days. Six hours. The entire mess equated, roughly, to  U.S. daily oil production of about 5.3 million barrels per day.

Energy Information Administration site may not seem the sexiest place to troll the Web, but it can be enlightening. The United States imports twice as much oil from Canada (1.9 million barrels per day) as it does from Saudi Arabia (a million barrels per day), I now know. How many points per game LeBron James averages is a much better-known statistic. If we committed numbers to memory in proportion to their importance, democracy would be in a lot better shape.

The Washington Post’s Brian Vastag did a great year-out roundup of the catastrophe that ran Sunday, not terribly long, but poignant, data-rich and well worth a read.

It’s pretty clear that the ecological consequences of Deepwater Horizon’s blowout remain a question mark. Over spring break the family spent time on South Padre Island in south Texas. There we learned that the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, which has been making a comeback, spends a lot of time in areas the spill hit hard. We won’t know how the turtles fared until later this month, when the females head back to a couple of beaches in Mexico and Texas to lay their eggs.




To tax or not to tax

President Obama’s remarks on fiscal policy today put forth a few numbers worth committing to memory before the forthcoming, protracted budget debates:

“So here’s the truth.  Around two-thirds of our budget — two-thirds — is spent on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and national security.  Two-thirds.  Programs like unemployment insurance, student loans, veterans’ benefits, and tax credits for working families take up another 20 percent.  What’s left, after interest on the debt, is just 12 percent for everything else.  That’s 12 percent for all of our national priorities — education, clean energy, medical research, transportation, our national parks, food safety, keeping our air and water clean — you name it — all of that accounts for 12 percent of our budget.”

Consider also a very interesting tax calculator from Remapping Debate, a publication that started showing up in my inbox a few weeks ago and as been worth a look pretty consistently. Taxes are currently pretty low, by historical standards (unless you’re talking Gilded Age).

Today I sent $4,000 to the feds and another $1,000 to the state of Colorado. Being taxed doesn’t feel good. I could only afford to put four grand in my retirement account this year. But you grit your teeth and remind yourself: taxes are necessary, because government is necessary. Taxes are quite low in Somalia, I hear, for those who want to give no government a shot. The House Tea Party caucus could do an exchange year. “Morons to Mogadishu,” we’ll call it.

Which brings me to the Republican party writ large. The idea of privatizing Medicare/Medicaid aside (it’s insane — let’s cut costs of a proven program by adding layers of private-sector bureaucracy and diluting purchasing power! At best, it’s cost shifting — rather than via government, seniors and the poor and society as a whole will pay more, just directly to insurers), the particulars of their plan are just cynical. Sure, we must cut. But taxes have to be on the table, too, just like they were for Ronald Reagan, who raised them eleven times. Because Reagan was a leader. A pragmatist.

And so U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. and his cadre, in the face of a $14 trillion budget deficit so dire that the government was nearly shut down last week, that the Environmental Protection Agency and Planned Parenthood were to take debilitating cuts, that a fight over the $14.3 billion debt ceiling makes the world wonder what our problem is, proposes to lessen the tax burden on the wealthiest.

Let’s get this straight. You refuse to even consider raising taxes — even when the numbers show that cutting outlays in meaningful ways will make us more vulnerable and hurt our most vulnerable. It’s fighting the budget battle with one hand tied behind your back. Our problems are too serious to play these games.

What’s a watt? Get on a bike.

I checked the output of our rooftop solar panels just now, at 11:28 a.m. On a sunny, brisk Denver day (briskness doesn’t affect solar output), our 13 east-facing 220-watt panels were cranking out 2,476 watts, according to the inverter in the garage. Wife’s got the dryer running, but I’d assume we’re still feeding power back into the grid. The washer just went on, which just led me to walk around the house to the sidewalk to check the net meter — indeed, still running backwards.

I’ve injured my foot and can’t run at the moment (plantar fasciitis), so I’ve spent a bit of time on the basement recumbent exercise bike. It tells me how far I’ve gone, my heart rate, and watts. I’m skeptical of the distance bit, which would depend on the bike, the terrain, the wind and so forth. The heart rate and the watt count I trust, though.

A watt, according to the Wikipedia entry, is “the rate at which work is done when an object’s velocity is held constant at one meter per second against constant opposing force of one newton.” It adds the descriptor, “A laborer over the course of an 8-hour day can sustain an average output of about 75 watts; higher power levels can be achieved for short intervals and by athletes,” with attribution to  Marks’ Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers 11th Edition. A bright incandescent bulb burns about 75 watts (the dryer upstairs, which given the sun outside probably isn’t strictly necessary, to think of it, is probably humming at 800-1000 watts), so the the laborer reference is a help. But what kind of of labor? Ditch digging? Pedicab services? Carpentry?

Get on a bike, though, and you get some perspective. Mark Cavendish, the acclaimed cyclist sprinter, is said to hit 1,600 watts in brief spurts, and Tour de France riders average about 260 or so over the entire race. So the solar panels up on the roof were, at 11:28 a.m., cranking out the equivalent of 1.54 Mark Cavendishes blowing away the field at the  finish line. It’d be  625,000 Cavendishes at speed to do the equivalent of a 1,000 megawatt (1 gigawatt) coal or nuke plant. But they’re just numbers until you get on your own watt-counting bike.

Anything over 230 watts starts to hurt and is more or less unsustainable for more than 15-20 minutes for someone in decent but not great shape (me). That’s less than a tenth of what our inert-looking rooftop-panel array is doing right now. Which is to say: when the sun’s overhead, each solar panel on my roof can do the work of me at stress.