Monday, April 18, 2016

Shoot the Moon: An ICBM Crashportation "Bridge to Nowhere" to Help Start a Moon Village

          By Michael Turner

The president of Orbital ATK's flight systems group, which operates the Minotaur family of ICBM-based launch vehicles and the CEO of Virgin Galactic have crossed swords (or maybe plowshares) over the most recent variation of a very old idea; the hauling of old ICBM components out of retirement to be put to more peaceful uses.

A reminder that there is rarely if ever anything new under the sun. The abandoned Fort Churchill Rocket Research Range in Northern Manitoba is now a national historic site. As outlined in the July 11th, 2011 post, "A 1968 Battle Between Poker Flat & Fort Churchill," it once directly competed with, and was eventually driven out of business by, re-purposed US built ICBM's launched from Alaska. In the 1990's, as outlined in the March 1st, 2010 post, "A Short History of Akjuit Aerospace," there was also a failed plan to use re-purposed ex-Soviet ICBM's for launch at Churchill. Photo c/o Canada's Historic Places.

As outlined in the April 5th, 2016 Space News post, "Ending ban on retired ICBMs would allow U.S. companies to reclaim small satellite launch market," Orbital ATK flight systems group president Scott Lehr says that using his firm's rocket motors to launch small satellites would make the US more competitive in that particular segment of the launch market, which is currently dominated by subsidized players abroad.

However, as outlined in the April 5th, 2016 SpaceNews post, "Dumping excess boosters on market would short-circuit commercial space renaissance," Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides disagrees.

But Whitesides has a pecuniary interest of his own. Virgin Galactic not only offers perpetually delayed suborbital fun-rides, but has also begun a small satellite launch initiative of its own, one that might even orbit a satellite before anything very recreational happens elsewhere in the company.

Whitesides' complaint is understandable: there could be a "crowding out" of private sector initiatives.

The Minotaur V, derived originally from the LGM-118 Peacekeeper ICBM, was developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation, (now Orbital ATK) and made its maiden flight on September 7th, 2013. It carried the NASA Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft. Graphic c/o Orbital ATK

Perhaps it's my trollish nature, but I'd like to see what I can do to antagonize both sides of this debate.

First, however, let me go back to an old ruckus that bid fair to burst at the seams with political venom back in 2008: the uproar over U.S. congressional "earmarks." Many projects that enjoyed "earmark" funding promises at that time were derided as "bridges to nowhere."

Sarah Palin is shovel ready. Photo c/o Washington Post.
Since 2008 was also the year of Sarah Palin's vice-presidential candidacy, and since Alaska had two bridges to nowhere earmarks of its own, I found myself studying bridge projects. I did this in (frankly partisan) hopes of finding some awful embarrassment for Palin. In a way, I was disappointed: neither Alaskan bridge proposal was as ridiculous as it seemed at first. In fact ...

One of these Alaskan bridges would have connected a (low-volume) international airport to a small town nearby. It probably would have improved the local economy by getting more tourists who were bound for Misty Fjords National Monument to stay longer, at a slightly more developed way-station. The other bridge would have connected Anchorage to a relatively undeveloped subdivision across a river that was served by a ferry only when winter ice didn't make the transit too difficult. It might have sparked a construction boom across the water from downtown.

But it gets better. With the kind of low-interest financing that tends to be more available when the US Federal Reserve targets the lower bound of interest rates in a recession, it seemed possible that these bridges had a kind of business case. That is, they could eventually have been revenue-positive for their respective municipalities. Coincident with the Fed targeting the lower bound is the economic predicament that justifies such low interest rates in the first place: high unemployment in a recession. Later in 2008, the global economy imploded. Suddenly, certain Bridges to Nowhere looked a lot like "shovel-ready projects."

"Shovel-ready" at least according to Wikipedia is "a political term used to describe construction projects (usually larger-scale infrastructure) where planning and engineering is advanced enough that with sufficient funding, construction can begin within a very short time." As outlined in the March 27th, 2016 post, "No Puppies Falling from the Heavens With Space Funding in this Federal Budget," quite a large proportion of the $11.9Bln over five years allocated in the latest Federal budget  for "infrastructure" could be categorized as being advanced enough that with sufficient funding, construction can begin within a very short time. Cartoon c/o Graham Mackay.

Bridge projects are infrastructure. Stimulus spending tends to be oriented toward infrastructure because it's most often "shovel-ready" when a recession hits. Infrastructure investment doesn't cause much private sector "crowding out" -- because it's not something the private sector directly invests in. It's a "public good:" few users directly pay the carrying costs, but if the project is chosen wisely, the economy as a whole tends to benefit for a long time to come.

George Whitesides. Photo c/o Space News.
Getting back to space launcher plowshares: to be honest, I think George Whitesides is pretty close to correct. Even though a private-sector entity that uses freebie ICBM motors is still in the private sector, those freebies could mean there's effectively been some crowding out done with a past public investment.

But Scott Lehr also has an excellent point about how private sector space launch initiatives in the U.S. are not on a very level international playing field to begin with.

Against this background of two launcher company executives facing off, I see ... the Moon. Remember the Moon?

Scott Lehr. Photo c/o Space News.
The FAA's arm for regulating commercial spaceflight has responded enthusiastically to the current ESA director's proposal to put a base on the moon as outlined in the May 1st, 2015 post, "Europe's Next Space Chief Wants a Moon Colony on the Lunar Far Side," and has done so with possibly more enthusiasm than any government entity in the EU.

Well, there's another book being talked here, isn't there? In this case, it's a government book. The FAA's new arm for for overseeing commercial spaceflight would prefer to have more US based spaceflight to oversee. And if those launches are mostly for ESA and for any Moon Village partners that happen to materialize, well, it's still spaceflight, potentially by American launch providers, launches that could still take place within FAA purview.

Let's look at the bright side of all this self-serving talk. Government can sometimes take an economic "pump-priming" role, shoes that the private sector won't fill on its own. Government is perhaps at its best when it steers private interests toward public good in ways that also help those private interests. (Did I mention I'm running for chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce? No? Well, anyway....)

What I propose is to crash a lot of retreaded, unladen ICBMs wherever the ESA says they'd like their Moon village.

Since these vehicles would arrive at speeds in excess of 2 km/sec, the vehicle wreckage would be quite fragmentary, to be sure. But the detritus would consist largely of pure metal pieces.

When you consider the costs that would need to be sunk to mine and refine metals on the moon, starting from bare regolith, these rocket chunks would have great value. Compared to anything you could scoop up on the moon today, they would have enormous value added.

Proposal for a European Space Agency (ESA) Moon village. As outlined in the January 4th, 2016 IFL Science post, "European Space Agency Plans To Build Moon Village By 2030," the multi-dome lunar base would use 3D printing construction concepts. Once assembled, the inflated domes would be covered with a layer of 3D-printed lunar regolith by robots to help protect the occupants. Graphic c/o ESA/ Foster + Partners.

A big plain strewn with pure metal on the moon could give the Moon village a major initial boost to in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). Even in the meantime, metal 3D printers could use collected shrapnel as feedstock. The sooner a Moon Village can scale up, the more opportunities that launch providers -- including American providers -- would see to serve a growing village.

Well, let politicking begin. Surely, the U.S. should crash this "bridge to nowhere" on the Moon only with "international earmarks;" that is, it should make sure Moon Village partners only "mine" the crashed metals if they bought them at some market rate.

The proceeds from the sales could be paid into an account that could be drawn upon by Moon Village partners only to buy launch services from American commercial providers. (Perhaps our Sam Dinkin would like to do the metals auction design?)

I'm not sure whether I've antagonized both sides of this debate enough. My hope is far more vaulting, actually. It's to antagonize sides of the debate I haven't even heard of yet.

This is ambitious of me, I suppose.

But we all have our dreams of greatness, do we not?

Michael Turner is the executive director of Project Persephone, a Japanese based society founded with the goal of bringing space development to the masses. He lives in Tokyo.


  1. Notwithstanding the sense of whimsy in your piece, I feel obliged to point out that a booster crash debris field is not all metal and that any metal in not all pure. It would be a field of highly mixed materials of very disparate alloys.

    3D metal printing today requires at the very least, exceptionally consistent alloy feed stock ground very finely. So, even assuming that the booster materials are amenable to use as 3D feed stock, the hassles of collecting, separating and then grinding the debris may require the landing of more infrastructure and as yet undeveloped industrial equipment than simply launching the building materials from Earth.

    Before anyone runs off half cocked thinking this is an exceptionally good actual plan.

    1. Details, details! It's not an actual plan, of course. It's just an idea, and very possibly a half-baked idea. Nevertheless, it could offer any nascent Moon Village temporary end-run around most initial mining and refining steps that might otherwise be required for initial scaling of a lunar complex.

      As for the types of materials delivered: with knowledge of what's been delivered already, systems for bootstrapping ISRU could be devised well in advance of landing, systems customized for the rocket-derived materials available.

      Whatever the "hassles of collecting, separating and then grinding" the debris would be, surely they cannot be as hard as setting up entire mining and refining operations from the start? (And whatever these hassles might be, certainly they can't be as expensive as sending mining equipment.) Somehow, I don't imagine that Moon Village partners would fold their arms and pout, saying, "But you didn't give us the technology to make all this pretty. Please develop that." No, I think if there were a credible promise of providing a metals dump at their selected village site, they'd set to work figuring out whether they could economically exploit it.

      "As yet undeveloped industrial equipment"? So what? The whole Moon Village concept is embryonic, and if it ever happens (I have my doubts) it certainly won't even land anything within this decade. Development takes time, but there's obviously time.

      "Simply launching the building materials from Earth"? "Simple" isn't always "cheap" or "easy". It costs an enormous amount of money to get stuff to the moon's surface, to precise locations. Crashportation would leave a mess, to be sure. But arranging for soft landing of materials that don't need to land softly, and crashing it well in advance of any infrastructure or habitation to be protected, is always going to be cheaper.

      As for the effort involved in collecting the resulting debris for processing, as I understand the Moon Village concept, they'll be doing a lot of collection of debris anyway. That ancient debris called "regolith". With much of the collection being done in the name of what might be called "prospecting."

      Don't worry, be messy. In some parts of the world, people who mine garbage dumps send their kids to college on the resulting savings. Not everything done in space needs to be squeaky-clean and mapped down to the millimeter. ICBMs have the premise that you'll make an enormous mess for someone if they don't behave. Those would have been destructive messes, but they do not, in the lunar development context, preclude constructive messes.

  2. If the repurposed ICBMs could reach the Moon they could reach lunar orbit where they would have greater value if collected than would debris spread across hundreds of kilometers. If anything it would only be the 5th stage. Not much mass. More mass is likely to reach LEO. Given that the 2nd stage and higher could reach LEO and be collected at LEO the collected remains could potentially be cannibalized to produce other stuff - fuel depot components, components for the Earth to Moon bus and truck service, or pieces for ISRU process development and testing, etc. etc. An investment by the US in the form of donated ICBM's to be launched into space could help to reduce the costs of startup of Moon Village. Alternatively, the ex-ICBMs could be donated to the African Union to launch satellites for member states from Kenya's San Marino island launch site thereby serving to start the African Space Agency

    1. Peacekeepers don't have 5th stages. They have three solid stages and a restartable hypergolic.

      Don't assume that these rockets would be limited by their original (suborbital) range. The Peacekeeper had a throw weight of about 4 tonnes. Without that burden, interplanetary distances are not unthinkable for ICBM retreads -- Roskosmos outlined a small-probe mission to Mars for their Dnepr.

      If you had a payload mass budget, what would you add as "payload"? The experience of SMART-1 shows that ion drives can take a spacecraft from GTO to impact at fairly precise locations on the moon; accuracy of targeting might be substantially improved over what that hypergolic restartable could do for you. If you're still positive on your payload budget after that, it would make sense to add a package of elements that are relatively rare or hard to extract on the moon as "warhead": carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, for CELSS/BLS. IIRC, it's been calculated that it would be more economical to crashport chunks of ice straight into regolith than to try to land H2O intact; it would leave quite a lot of H2O available for quite a while, even if most of it would vaporize on/during the impact. This might do until ice mining can start. Carbon would be less prone to vaporization, and perhaps various nitrogen-rich hydrocarbon compounds as well.

      As for dispersion of fragments -- ICBMs were designed to put nuclear weapons into zones with a fairly small target radius. It seems unlikely to me that debris would be spread "across hundreds of kilometers" (even if some smaller pieces might fly that far.) Aiming as much as possible to head straight into the center of a crater of some optimal depth and diameter should significantly limit how far the impact byproducts spread, because of the starting depth and the containing effect of the crater walls.

      I appreciate what you say about making more effective use of vehicle bodies delivered to LEO, but you're assuming a context. And that's precisely where you end up back in Bruce Lusignan non-starter territory: planning major interplanetary logistics, presumably with massive financial backing secured, for very long-term projects. In this case, we have the added complication that the private sector would complain about "crowding out" of services they'd prefer to offer. They'd feel a lot better if this nagging threat of ICBMs eating their lunch were simply eliminated.

      The whole thrust of my piece is that you could put a lot of refined metal on the moon, starting soon, in a fairly short time -- basically, in the time frames typical of economic recessions and recoveries. It's consistent with the current policy that U.S. would support a return to the Moon, but won't lead it. In being something that could probably start soon, it's also consistent with the continued need for stimulus spending in the U.S., where (by the Fed's U6 measure of unemployment), there's still something to be desired. Finally, look where we are: on the Canada Space Commerce blog. Canada has been a good partner for NASA, and for ISS; and God knows, during the Cold War as well. It deserves a little Peace Dividend too. With some fast-track ITAR authority, Canada might become the ideal broker between the U.S. defense complex and any Moon Village partners for some such Shoot the Moon project. What Moon Village partners? None, really, right now. But throw a stone into the hot water, maybe Stone Soup starts to happen. And there are some cheap stones, just sitting there.

    2. Your idea for a faster buildup of lunar power generating capacity via spare ICBMs with the potential for also processing lunar regolith adds important elements to the stew that should generate some business excitement. See below -
      From Mike Turner <>


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