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United States Space

White House Wants Ideas For "Bootstrapping a Solar System Civilization" 352

MarkWhittington writes Tom Kalil, the Deputy Director for Policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Senior Advisor for Science, Technology and Innovation for the National Economic Council, has an intriguing Tuesday post on the OSTP blog. Kalil is soliciting ideas for "bootstrapping a solar system civilization." Anyone interested in offering ideas along those lines to the Obama administration can contact a special email address that has been set up for that purpose. The ideas that Kalil muses about in his post are not new for people who have studied the question of how to settle space at length. The ideas consist of sending autonomous robots to various locations in space to create infrastructure using local resources with advanced manufacturing technology, such as 3D printing. The new aspect is that someone in the White House is publicly discussing these concepts.
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White House Wants Ideas For "Bootstrapping a Solar System Civilization"

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Prison colonies!

  • so...... (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    where did they find oil now?

    • Re:so...... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by tloh ( 451585 ) on Thursday October 16, 2014 @09:13PM (#48165289)

      I won't speculate on the intentions of OC. But bringing up oil does raise a very legitimate item of concern. For much of the 20th century, petroleum has been the critical resource that drove or enabled much of our civilization and technical infrastructure. If we are going to look skyward, we have *GOT* to start thinking differently about the resource(s) that we are going to use. Unless big oil is willing to shell out the cash for researching the exploration and mining of hydrocarbons in the Jovian system, our government has got to step up and look at what we need to power space travel on an industrial scale.

      • Why is this comment modded off topic? Anyone who has bothered to read the linked webpages would know they are not talking about photovoltaics. What perhaps *IS* off topic is that is usually a really poor source of good science. The feed they provide to YAHOO is almost always filled with sensationalist nonsense.
    • Power Source (Score:5, Insightful)

      by sycodon ( 149926 ) on Thursday October 16, 2014 @09:42PM (#48165479)

      Nothing will happen until you can build and loft a real power source that can generate hundreds of megawatts of energy to drive the ships and once there, power the outposts.

      Solar can be part of that but putting up a solar farm to generate enough power to provide for an actual colony would take hundreds of tons of material as compared to a compact nuke or a fusion device like recently discussed by Lockheed. Think Nuke Sub reactors.

      • A colony where? Space-grade solar panels are actually fairly lightweight. You can get something like 300 watts per kg today. It's my understanding that this is fairly close to large-scale electrical generators, and that's without including the rest of the power plant (usually a heat engine). Who knows where we'll be in twenty years.
        • Re:Power Source (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Immerman ( 2627577 ) on Friday October 17, 2014 @11:04AM (#48168881)

          Oh, and meant to mention: solar panels are really only promising in the inner solar system, and there's just not much worth colonizing inwards of Earth and its L-points. On Mars you only have 43% of the solar intensity, so you'll be getting only 130W/kg. At about 2 AU the asteroid belt will only see ~25%, and at over 5 AU the Trojans and Jovian moons are seeing less than 4%. And then there's everything beyond Neptune, where the sun is little more than a particularly bright star - lots of mineral wealth floating out there - I've heard estimates that the Oort cloud might extend as far as a light year from the sun.

      • Trade studies have suggested that out to the main asteroid belt, aerospace grade solar panels have a higher power/mass ratio than nuclear systems. Only out near Jupiter does the equation shift (but even that is only counting the direct reactor mass. The added mass of shielding, trusses for distance, etc, is usually not included.) And every year, the cross-over distance shifts further out.

        The exception is where sunlight is unavailable — Lunar night, Mars winter — where the length of darkness exce

        • Re:Power Source (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Rei ( 128717 ) on Friday October 17, 2014 @05:38AM (#48167045) Homepage

          On the other hand, when it comes to propulsion, nukes are the bees knees. No form of currently-achievable propulsion yields a higher Isp than a fission fragment rocket [], with the exception of photonic / magnetic sails, which are impractically low thrust for interplanetary travel. Some day I'd love to run some simulations as to whether you could have a spallation-driven subcritical [] dusty fission reactor get rid of much if not all of the moderator mass (power to drive the accelerator should be copious from a fission fragment reactor), and whether you could run one in an infrared nuclear lightbulb [] mode (making use of the electrostatically-contained dust's extreme surface area and low IR absorption spectrum to get high output, rather than using extreme, unmanageable temperatures to get high output as in a traditional nuclear lightbulb concept), thus opening up non-dirty high thrust power modes for surface operation (airbreathing, simple fuel heating, etc, including using electricity from fragment deceleration to run a microwave beam to help ionize the air/fuel and make it more opaque to IR) and a few other space options (such as a nuclear VASIMR-like mode)

          • Re:Power Source (Score:4, Interesting)

            by FatLittleMonkey ( 1341387 ) on Friday October 17, 2014 @05:54AM (#48167101)

            No form of currently-achievable propulsion yields a higher Isp than a fission fragment rocket

            We're so far from FFR, we might as well talk about fusion drives, or Harold White's warp drive.

            and a few other space options (such as a nuclear VASIMR-like mode)

            My previous comments apply to NEP vs SEP. SEP has better power/mass ratios until you are somewhere near Jupiter, and realistically probably somewhere past Jupiter.

            • by Rei ( 128717 )

              I totally disagree. A dusty fission fragment reactor has been demonstrated using a non-nuclear substitute fuel, which demonstrated proper containment and thermal management. And modelling shows that such a configuration should produce a collimated fission fragment beam. So what's so grossly impractical? Have you come across a paper indicating that it's impractical? Because I sure haven't.

              My previous comments apply to NEP

              I'm not talking about NEP. I'm talking about generating a RF plasma and funnelling it t

  • One word: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by penguinoid ( 724646 ) on Thursday October 16, 2014 @08:06PM (#48164787) Homepage Journal


  • Step one (Score:4, Funny)

    by SlowMovingTarget ( 550823 ) on Thursday October 16, 2014 @08:09PM (#48164809) Homepage

    Step one: corner the maple syrup market.

  • Baby steps (Score:5, Interesting)

    by __aaltlg1547 ( 2541114 ) on Thursday October 16, 2014 @08:09PM (#48164813)

    Step 1: research on the ISS focused on biosphere components and food production.
    Step 2: build a new station to experiment on establishing a small biosphere
    Step 3: Expand it to the point that it's food and air sufficient for humans
    Step 4: Build a moon base and apply what you learned in LEO to make it self-sufficient

    At the same time, work on high efficiency, low reaction mass propulsion systems. This is the real killer. If you can't crack the problem of long distance propulsion systems, we're stuck near earth where we can or make fuel.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by CRCulver ( 715279 )
      After the US has spent years and billions of dollars on e.g. biosphere research with the technology available to them at the time, the Chinese for example might just wait and see, and then outpace the US with more advanced technology available to them after the US has exhausted itself. The problem with taking the first step into a technology-heavy field, where the political will to continue investment might collapse after one or two presidential administrations, is that later entrants can coast on your achi
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Um, because one way you've got a chance to engineer your process until you get it right, and the other way you're a loser? Because "has exhausted itself" is loser thinking all by itself?
    • Step 2: build a new station to experiment on establishing a small biosphere

      I think this is a problem that we need to confront first: Figuring out how to live in a sustainable closed system.

      Were people ever successful in those bio-dome experiments? Are we now able to build an enclosed biosphere that can function sustainably, indefinitely, without bringing in materials or resources from the outside once you get started? There's not much point in trying to build something like that in space until we know how to build a sustainable closed system, reliably, without fail, here on Ear

    • Step 0: Put men & women into space for 3-5 years and see if anyone is left functionally able to continue doing work at the end of that time. It is already highly suspect that people would be able to see by the end of 3-5 years. We have one heck of a lot to learn yet.
                                          If people can't stay alive for 3 years, then figure out how to do it before you continue further.

    • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

      It makes far more sense to skip the space station beyond simple research and head straight back to the moon. Gravity helps, rather than hinders when it comes to colonising and space has no resources to use unlike the moon. Self sufficiency research can be done quite effectively on the earth, the moon is all about achieving launches in a far lower gravity well. When it comes to radiation protection et al light weight earthmoving (moon dust) equipment can achieve much more than trying to get that mass into o

  • by jpellino ( 202698 ) on Thursday October 16, 2014 @08:25PM (#48164931)
    they start asking how to get off the planet? Lightweights.
    • Yes, but by the time anyone reads your post, that number will be up to six cases.

      And by the time anyone reads this post, that number will be up to seven cases.

      So if the White House is building a rocket in Area 57 to take mine shaft gap folks into outer space, to, um, "re-spawn" civilization . . . maybe they know something about Ebola that we don't . . . ?

    • I was thinking the same thing. Does this mean we are screwed>?

  • by BenJeremy ( 181303 ) on Thursday October 16, 2014 @08:26PM (#48164949)

    Fund NASA to explore the advantages (and mitigate issues, such as waste heat) of using fusion in space vehicles. Let's get new designs in play now, so we can get the ball rolling fast when these compact generators are practical and real. Ion thrusters, magnetic fields, life support... having hundreds of megawatts of power makes the entire solar system within reach for manned space travel.

    • We don't have to wait 10 years for Lockheed to make the fusion reactor work. Fission rockets are plenty powerful, enough to rule the solar system.

      Plus there's always the chance that Lockheed fusion turns out to be a dead end and we're left with nothing.

      Behold, the gaseous core nuclear thermal rocket, Liberty ship []

      3,060 ISP
      1,000 ton payload to LEO

      But since it's eeevil nuclear power (and fission at that), it will never get built in the US. But hopefully in the future China or some other country not under the t

      • by able1234au ( 995975 ) on Thursday October 16, 2014 @09:08PM (#48165255)

        Those wimpy environ-liberals are so weak they fear being irradiated by exploding rockets. Where is the fun in that. I look forward to having three eyes and a tail.

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        Great! Now you just need to invent an actually functional confinement method for the absurdly-hot gaseous/plasma nuclear fuel to stop it from destroying its containment vessel or leaking out its fuel in short order. And while you're at it, you should probably go ahead and invent a way to stop the quartz / fused silica bulb from undergoing blackening when exposed to a neutron flux, something it's so prone to doing that people deliberately expose quartz to nuclear reactors to make opaque black quartz for jewe

    • I know Mr. Fusion is in all the news lately, Lockheed-Martin skunkworks, etc, but then again, every now and then some Tesla nut says he can plug appliances directly into the ground. How about we get a working prototype before we start selling timeshares on Titan.
  • Robots (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Jack9 ( 11421 )

    This is almost the same as asking how we are going to transition to a galactic civilization. From the mile-high-view, quit trying to put humans in places where they have trouble surviving for any period of time. You have to port an ecosystem with you and can still lose it all in a single incident. We haven't even conquered our own biome yet (at least not without a number of side effects). Spaceships with humans is not the answer. Everyone born on Earth will likely die on Earth (with rare exception). This is

  • by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Thursday October 16, 2014 @08:38PM (#48165013)

    You want to encourage exploration/exploitation of space? Fund NASA and point them in the desired direction..

    Fully fund a manned mission to Mars and set a 10 year goal. Dig up a pile of past interplanetary missions and let's start funding them too. Saturn and Jupiter all have possibilities that we need to go look at. How about making a survey of near earth asteroids? What are they made of, is there something there we can use, refine or utilize so we don't have to get it all off the surface of the earth and into orbit? NASA has already suggested all these things and more.

    Why are you asking the public for ideas, just FUND NASA and let NASA collect ideas and run with the good ones. All they need is the money....

    • When budgets grow at NASA or any other bureaucracy, the admin overhead bloats faster than a new iteration of Windows. It's when budgets decline that folks get creative and make spectacular new ways to soft-land something on Mars, for example. So just vote no for socialized space boondoggles.
    • by AdamThor ( 995520 ) on Thursday October 16, 2014 @08:52PM (#48165109)

      Indeed! The actual key in our current generation is to provide consistent direction and funding to NASA. As it is, every president comes in, makes some big talk about the Moon or Mars or something, no resources are allocated, and the next president in line makes a different set of commitments.

      A framework for a large-scale goal that is capable of withstanding our political situation is the thing we lack.

  • Seriously, I broke the code, it works. There are a lot of problems integrating modern robotics into useful wholes. Adapting John Von Neumann's work in the 1950's to what we've learned since with Information Science, I have made some theoretical breakthroughs in automation, some as fundamental as adoptiong the use of 1's and 0's was to computing science. The result is an organic whole, enabling self replication to spread across networks of machines, using simple, off the shelf parts and local materials fo

    • by khallow ( 566160 )
      Drop a link and maybe we can help you out right now. I don't think you have post-scarcity realized, sorry, but if you have interesting gear or literature, I might be up for a purchase.
      • I wish I could, but I've made the commitment not to share until my literature is done. I also don't have anything saleable, as my prototype, modest that it is, is not finished. The only thing that would help me speed up right now is an angel investor, as I'm totally cash strapped. My current stretch goal is to save up for a 3D printer, as I found that there are some features that macguyvering from my local hardware store just won't do. Yes I'm that poor! LOL (Disclaimer: While very useful, my work ha

      • I almost forgot, a link! LOL If anyone wants to contact me, my email is spatialautomation at the usual Google domain.

  • If you consider the concept floated (briefly) in the movie: Aliens, the company simply dropped a large atmospheric processing installation on the planet (LV 426, at that time) and began the terraforming process. That's not substantially different than "sending autonomous robots to various locations in space to create infrastructure using local resources with advanced manufacturing technology, such as 3D printing"

  • Unless you have a few trillion dollar coins stashed away somewhere that'll fund thousands upon thousands of chemical rockets, it's just not possible to do this. The only hope we have of actually getting to a place like Mars, or even the Moon, on a large scale (even with sufficient economic incentive to be there) would be new physics or a wild breakthrough in engineering, at least 30dB more than a re-usable SpaceX rocket would be. There's no guarantee that the former is even possible, and there is a guarante
    • by Livius ( 318358 )

      Unless you have a few trillion dollar coins stashed away somewhere that'll fund thousands upon thousands of chemical rockets

      Maybe they're looking for a cover story for "thousands upon thousands of chemical rockets" that they're planning to build anyway.

    • Unless you have a few trillion dollar coins stashed away somewhere that'll fund thousands upon thousands of chemical rockets, it's just not possible to do this

      this is, of course, 100% true.

      but, in light of this administrations total incompetence on so many issues, i think the plan is just...

      "hey, dream whatever ideas, we will get funding and then make announcements and speeches about how smart we are, and it doesn't even matter if they ideas succeed or not, we will just say they did!

      it's our intentions that

    • by khallow ( 566160 )
      You do realize that a thousand Falcon 9 flights would fall well short of 100 billion dollars at current prices? That would be enough launch capability to get a modest number of people or gear to Mars and about an order of magnitude more to the Moon. Most of that mass would be propellant, water, and air/food, meaning little additional cost beyond the launch costs for significant parts of the missions.

      What will enable exploration and development on a modest budget scale is use of local resources or (ISRU -
      • In my most optimistic guestimates, 1000 falcon first stage launches would probably cost about 5-10 billion, assuming they're recoverable half the time and last half a dozen flights each. But even when not counting the cost of the second and earth departure stages, that only puts a few hundred to at most a thousand-plus kg of payload on the moon per flight. You need way more than that to have ISRU equipment *and the in-place industrial capacity to maintain it*. Hell, a CNC mill can run 1000kg. And you need a
  • I wish I could believe he was serious.

    What else is there to say. When I've been lied to enough I stop believing. Sometimes cynical is just realistic.

    • If I really wanted to do something the world generally thought of as ridiculous, I would try to get something moving under a lame duck term. It's not like he can accomplish anything major, but setting things in motion.

      Unfortunately, it's easier to post "It's a distraction from X" than it is to come up with a few reasonably sane ideas based on all of the science fiction ever.

      What little we have learned in our lifetimes, we should be able to put to use correcting the errors in what we have read.

  • President and Congress direct NASA to carry out such and such programs but fail to provide enough budget. Yes, same whiney post like everyone else.
  • 4 years ago: []

    From there:

    My suggestion for a "Game Changing" project is that NASA (possibly in partnership with NIST) could coordinate a global effort towards designing and deploying self-replicating space habitats that can duplicate themselves from sunlight and asteroidal ore (developed under free and open source non-proprietary licenses as progress towards "open manufacturing").

    NASA showed the basic technological feasibility of this with work in the late 1970s on space habi

  • Politicians often discover that when the issue they wish to move forward is resisted by their peers, they can appeal directly to the public. Explain their plan and encourage input from everyone. If they build enough support among the voters, then their peers may be forced to support the plan as well.

    Kalil may or may not have support from the White House or anyone, but if he gets a big response to this challenge Obama and others will have to reconsider their reluctance.

    Yes, ask the Public, ask schoolchildren

    • Politicians often discover that when the issue they wish to move forward is resisted by their peers, they can appeal directly to the public. Explain their plan and encourage input from everyone. If they build enough support among the voters, then their peers may be forced to support the plan as well.

      Absolutely true.

      Kalil may or may not have support from the White House or anyone, but if he gets a big response to this challenge Obama and others will have to reconsider their reluctance.

      Now you're not being cynical enough. I think this challenge is likely to be the result of a direct White House request to come up with some good "news for nerds." I don't think it's a coincidence that we are weeks from an election that Democrats are dreading (publicly or not). It's aimed at a core voting/donating demographic that largely supported Obama but now is ticked off about the NSA, the IRS, government transparency, the Middle East, and a bunch of other things. There's no commitment,

  • "bootstrapping a solar system civilization with no additional money"


  • Invent a space drive. The UFO space aliens already have one. Rockets equal failure.
  • Now it is China that is steadily building a stairway to the moon, while America focuses on a few scientific projects that are charismatic, but underfunding science in general.
  • We've seen this move before. Failing presidents love to propose stuff that they know won't happen in their lifetime. That way, they can't be accused of failure until everyone's forgotten them.

    If you really want to accomplish something, you set your sights on something that can happen within a decade, like Kennedy did with a man on the moon.

    When you go beyond that, you have no guarantees that some future President Jackoff will think that space exploration is against God's will and shut the whole thing down

  • 1. Light gas gun to get mass preferably h2o into orbit at the lowest $/lbs possible. Opens up fuel, water, and food off world.
    2. Some type of lift system: space fountain, space elevator, sky hook chain, or ???
    3. Inflatable habitats.
    4. Large linear accelerator, e.g. two spinning rocks with a cable in between.
    5. IXian no-ships
    6. Diaspora
    7. Golden Path

  • Memo to White House: how about tending to our Ebola problem for right now, okay?
  • 1. Universal human rights, including access to clean water and food, or at least arable land and the means to grow food crops.
    2. Universal and complete economic and social human equality.
    3. Ending (at least virtually) all sickness and disease.
    4. Non fossil-fuel-based energy technology.

    Once we lick all that we can go out to the other planets and beyond. There would be nothing left to stop us.

  • Insurance (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Boronx ( 228853 ) <evonreis@mohr-engineerin g . com> on Thursday October 16, 2014 @11:41PM (#48166039) Homepage Journal

    Provide low-cost federal insurance for colonization and asteroid mining missions, like we do for nuclear power plants.

  • by MrKaos ( 858439 )
    A good start would be to actually fund a space agency to do space work. It's just a thought...
  • by Karmashock ( 2415832 ) on Friday October 17, 2014 @05:25AM (#48167021)

    I don't find such statements credible unless they put the money where their mouth is on the issue. If they blew what they've blown on the war on drugs on the space program we'd have a colony on mars. Think about that.

  • Basic plan (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Chas ( 5144 ) on Friday October 17, 2014 @06:24AM (#48167215) Homepage Journal

    Step 1: Build permanent habitation in orbit. In a way that can easily be converted to a "space dock".

    Step 2: Use it as a launch pad for permanent habitation on the Moon. Build the infrastructure, build large (mega-engineering projects). Once it's done, THEN move people in permanently. Use this method as the basis for expansion elsewhere in the solar system.

    Step 3: Once permanent habitation has been done within Earth-orbit, send out automated devices to construct a similar space dock in Mars orbit, and possibly one in Venus orbit.

    Step 4: Use the Mars dock as a launch pad for permanent habitation on Mars using the Moon's habitation as a template. Due to Venus' EXTREMELY unfriendly atmosphere, I'd likely say convert the Venus station into a solar power-to-battery facility.

    Step 5: Once the Moon and Mars colonies are firmly established, use the template for occupying the moons of the outer planets.

    Basically the orbital facilities would be staging areas for occupation of the various planets/moons. They serve as fall-back points in case of catastrophe. And, once the colony was safely established, they'd become fuel depots.

    Going with a "launch from orbit" model also saves fuel and wear and tear on interplanetary vehicles.

"my terminal is a lethal teaspoon." -- Patricia O Tuama