PODCAST: The Future of Space Exploration
Will future space exploration be led by the government or the private sector? In this episode, Dr. Gary Deel talks to Dr. Dan Britt about the evolving role of private-sector companies like SpaceX in space exploration and space commerce. Learn about Dr. Britt’s work at the Exolith Lab, in partnership with NASA, simulating the mineralogy of asteroids, Mars, and other unexplored surfaces to share with the scientific exploration community. Also learn about the viability of space mining, space tourism industry, and other potential business opportunities in space.
Dr. Gary Deel: Welcome to the Intellectible podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Gary Deel. Today, we’re talking about the exciting future of space exploration and space commerce over the next few decades. My guest today is Dr. Dan Britt, who is Pegasus Professor of Planetary Science at the University of Central Florida, Director for the Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science, and Director of the Exolith Lab. Dan, welcome to Intellectible, and thank you for being our very first guest on our very first episode.
Dr. Dan Britt: Thanks very much, Gary. I appreciate the invitation and the chance to have a chat.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to have you here. I want to get into quite a few topics related to space exploration, space commerce, the work that the Exolith Lab is doing in conjunction with UCF and NASA. Before we do that, I definitely want to touch upon something that you had mentioned to me in an earlier conversation that I thought was fascinating to cover. That is the fact that in your early career, you were, and correct me if this is in any way inaccurate, an ICBM missile launch officer for the United States Air Force, is that right?
Dr. Dan Britt: That’s correct.
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Dr. Gary Deel: Oh, boy. Tell us about what that’s like. I’m imagining you sitting in a room underground, waiting for a command to do something that you hope you never have to do.
Dr. Dan Britt: That’s pretty much exactly what it is. Actually, a very boring job. You’re on alert for 24-hour shots, two or three times a week. You’re in a fairly remote location. My base was in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I would drive out into the wilds of the Great Plains. My launch control center was literally in the middle of nowhere.
Dr. Gary Deel: Lots of crossword puzzles, I would guess.
Dr. Dan Britt: I read a lot. The base had a pretty good library. I was a reader and I read voraciously because in the 24 hours, there were maybe two or three hours’ worth of work to do. The rest of the time, you were just monitoring status.
Dr. Gary Deel: We talked about this previously, but refresh my memory in terms of how, to the extent that it’s declassified, of course, how that process works if the United States government decided that it was time to launch for whatever reason, someone has to call you, as I understand it, and it’s a two-person process to … or at least at the time you were there to initiate a launch. It’s not something you could do, in other words, on your own volition.
Dr. Dan Britt: Yeah. It’s not something you do on your own nickel. The launch control center has a crew of two officers. It takes two officers to put a launch mode into your missiles from your launch control center. Then, you have to have another launch control center put another launch mode in before that actually activates things.
Dr. Gary Deel: Got you.
Dr. Dan Britt: Those are only activated by command of the President.
Dr. Gary Deel: The codes are not something that you would have. You’d have to receive those. Even if, for example, there was a conspiracy or collusion between two missile launch officers, you couldn’t independently decide amongst yourselves, hey, we’re going to launch today?
Dr. Dan Britt: You could. It takes two officers to put a launch code in but you’d need two others from some other launch control center to also put launch codes in order to actually initiate a launch.
Dr. Gary Deel: Okay, so it’s almost like a four-person process?
Dr. Dan Britt: Yeah. You do have verification codes there so that you know you’re getting the right code.
Dr. Gary Deel: How does a US Air Force ICBM missile launch officer become a professor and scholar in the field of planetary science?
Dr. Dan Britt: You need something else to do with the rest of your life after you do a few years in the Air Force. I thought exploring space would be interesting. I got into it, got a Ph.D. and was lucky enough to be able to do some interesting research and end up in University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Dr. Gary Deel: Is that where you went to school? Or where did you do your doctorate work?
Dr. Dan Britt: No. I started at the University of Washington. I actually started in economics so I have a Master’s in economics and decided at the ripe old age of 32 that I wanted to try science. Went back to school, got a Bachelor of Science in geology from the University of Washington again and then was able to go to Brown and get my Ph.D. there.
Dr. Gary Deel: Sounds like we have that much in common. I found an interest in space science at about the same age 32, 33 and I’m finishing the Master’s degree here at American Public University in Space Science. Fascinating.
Dr. Dan Britt: I was the oldest graduate student at Brown when I was there in the ’80s.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, it feels a little odd as you get into your 30s and everyone is starting their careers and you’re turning the corner on maybe a second career.
Dr. Dan Britt: The first semester though, I ended up sitting next to this guy from China, who is also getting a geology Ph.D. He was one year younger than I was. I told him, “That’s pretty old for a graduate student, what’s the story?” He said, “I started my undergrad at the regular time back in the ’70s. Then, the Cultural Revolution hit and the schools were closed or collapsed. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, they sent me into exile for nine years into death.”
Dr. Gary Deel: Oh boy.
Dr. Dan Britt: I thought, wow. I told him, “Wow, that’s a great excuse.”
Dr. Gary Deel: Indeed, yeah. At least you weren’t alone there.
Dr. Dan Britt: Yeah.
Dr. Gary Deel: Heck of an interesting story for him too as well. Which aspects of your work as a professor and a scholar in this field do you enjoy most? Do you do most of the teaching and find the most joy in that or the research element?
Dr. Dan Britt: Mostly it’s in watching the development and participate in the development of space exploration and the development of the space economy. All of that is very much in its infancy. It’s something that you can directly intervene in and hopefully have some positive impact.
Dr. Gary Deel: You brought the subject up. I’ll address sort of the elephant in the room. Do you see the future of space exploration and perhaps even space economy, space commerce being a government-led effort? Or, is this private sector trend going to stick?
Dr. Dan Britt: I think that it really is going to be led by the private sector. The big revolution in space exploration right now had essentially nothing to do with the government. It was Elon Musk deciding he wanted to be in the rocket business. He was able to get government funding along the way. The government actually was not that keen on him doing it. Certainly the existing rocket companies, Boeing and Lockheed really didn’t like him intervening in their little patch.
Dr. Gary Deel: I can imagine. I’ve struggled to sort of define this without propping Elon up on a pedestal. I will say, I own a Tesla. I’m a huge fan of most of what he’s done. He’s obviously sort of a controversial character in many ways. What do you think is attributable to his, some may call it his genius, his innovation? Is it just his superior intellect? Is it an outside-the-box thinking mentality that leads him to do all of these revolutionary things with his various companies? What’s different about him that has brought retro-rocket landings and all the amazing things he’s done with SpaceX in the last few years?
Dr. Dan Britt: Nothing.
Dr. Gary Deel: Nothing.
Dr. Dan Britt: Absolutely nothing. All of this is fairly standard technology. It’s been around a long time. What he saw was a business opportunity, because basically, Lockheed and Boeing had divided up the space business in the US between them and were competing as a monopoly. Essentially charging outrageous amounts of money for relatively old technology. He realized, he could come in with the same technology, be willing to take a few chances in development and testing and end up with a product that would undercut his competition by a factor of five or 10, which is exactly what happened.
The reusability is nice. NASA had been playing around with it with the concept for a while, but they just never got around to doing anything about it because they were afraid of the risk. Elon was willing to take the risk and it worked just fine. Lockheed and Boeing, they would have taken the risk of somebody would have given them 20 times more money than Elon had spent on it.
Dr. Gary Deel: Sure. It was my understanding prior to making that work with the early renditions of the Falcon 1 and the Falcon 9, which now is sort of an ordinary thing. It’s more surprising when they don’t land than when they do at this point. It was my understanding that a lot of experts in the industry, engineers and scientists thought that that was really just not possible. Not to say physically possible, but just with our current technology that it just couldn’t be done. What led so many people to being naysayers on that? Was it just a lack of capital and investment?
Dr. Dan Britt: Really, the lack of testing. One of the things that’s really enlightening is if you go on to YouTube, you can look at the reels of V2 testing shots from the German’s World War II. One of the ways you can build hardware is you can analyze the problem. You can model it. You can run simulations. Or you can just build the sucker, watch it, see if it works. Building it and launching it was what the Germans did, because they didn’t really have this sophisticated analytical techniques we have today.
They also didn’t have a lot of time. Time is money. Time means that you’ve got a big engineering staff that’s going around and charging against your account and burning money. The faster you turn things over, the faster you test and take chances, the quicker and cheaper things are going to happen. You get failures. Any sort of failure like this is only a failure if you don’t learn anything from it.
Elon had lots of failures but he learned from his failures. If you look at the V2 loops, you find that they had hundreds of failures. Some of them just spectacular explosions. What they did was they figured out what went wrong. They fixed it and tried it again. They kept trying it until it worked. That’s really what you would need to do if you want to have rapid advancement in space technology.
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Dr. Gary Deel: It’s always surprising to me when a rocket does fail, that somehow the engineers can pick up all the tiny little pieces and figure out … it’s kind of like a building that’s burnt to the ground and there’s nothing but ash, but then you sift through that and figure out how it started. I remember when the first Falcon Heavy was launched a few years back and the center core failed to make its landing on the drone ship and exploded in the ocean a few hundred yards off the ship.
Somehow, they managed to recover and figure out, I would assume, from the data and the relays that they didn’t have enough igniter fluid for the liquid engines. They weren’t able to restart in time. I’m always impressed by their ability to retroactively figure that out when all you have is a pile of scrap metal on the back end.
Dr. Dan Britt: One guy that I knew when I was a missile launch officer, another missile launch officer had been a crew on the early Atlas ICBMs. He had actually been to Vandenberg Air Force Base, the western test range and launched a few atlases out over the Pacific for testing. The general attitude was that a successful launch was one that actually made it into the water, whether you made it into the water and you’re targeting Kwajalein 6,000 miles away, or just pass the surfline in California.
Because if you just pass the surfline they weren’t able to pick up all the pieces and figure out who messed up. From his point of view, being a missile crew, he was not that keen on finding out who messed up. I always thought that was an interesting attitude.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, it’s an ambitious perspective and at least a positive one. Are you surprised at this point that, I mean, I am a little bit but perhaps I just underestimate how complicated it is that SpaceX has now been doing this retro-rocket landing and saving enormous costs and reusing the rockets for years. No one, Boeing, Lockheed, anyone really is a serious competitor in that space.
The Indian Space Research Agency is now experimenting with that reusable kind of rocket. I think they’re looking at launching that later this year, early next. Are you surprised that it’s taken this long? I kind of look at that as an analogy to Tesla with the autopilot driving, and you have these giant auto companies, Ford and Chrysler and Toyota, and yet, for years now, Tesla has had some version of autopilot and it seems like these giant corporations are just perpetually lagging behind.
Dr. Dan Britt: You know what? Actually not. Again, it’s more of a structural and administrative issue than a technical issue and more of an economic issue. The problem is that if you’re the first into a niche, like SpaceX, then it’s easier for you to dominate that niche. To pay off your development costs, you need to fly a lot of payloads. If you’re the guy who has this track record of success, you can essentially command all the payloads and all the revenue from that stream.
Anybody else that wants to break in is going to have to compete head-to-head with you. What Elon and SpaceX has done is cut costs down to the bone. There’s not a lot of fat there. When Elon got in, there was a huge amount of fat from the Boeing, Lockheed monopoly. He was able to very successfully undercut them. You have to ask yourself, how many private payloads does Boeing and Lockheed launch these days? It’s essentially none. They only launch government payloads because it’s only the government who can afford that kind of price and who, as a policy decision, keeps these guys in the launch business.
Anybody that wants to break in at Elon’s level is going to have to compete with Elon, which is not so easy. What Boeing and Lockheed have done, their joint venture is called the United Launch Alliance, is that they’re building a whole new launcher. Basically with the same technology they have for their previous launchers. This is another administrative thing. Your previous launchers, you’ve been charging the government a big pile of money to use, you can’t turn around and take those same launchers and offer to launch payloads for other people in private companies for a different price.
That will land you in federal prison. What they’ve had to do is they’ve had to essentially develop an entirely new launcher that says, “Oh, this one. We were very clever. Now, we can offer this three or four times lower price than our previous launchers because we’re so brilliant.”
Dr. Gary Deel: I heard Elon criticized the cost-plus-pricing model of NASA. Indeed, when I look at it, it seems foolish in terms of almost incentivizing private vendors and partners with the government to inflate their costs for the sake of maximizing the dollars that they can take from the federal budget on various projects.
Dr. Dan Britt: Yeah, that’s a complex discussion that’s probably best over a beer.
Dr. Gary Deel: Fair enough. I’ll hold you to it. Is there a place then for the government? We’ve obviously heard Elon say that he’s building Starship, or I’m not sure what they’re calling it these days. They’ve changed the name several times. His aim has been from the beginning to get us to Mars, human-sustainable colonization and people have criticized that it can’t be done. It won’t be done. There’s no role for private sector there because there’s no certainty as to the profit motive.
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has been publicly pronounced about this, saying that because you don’t have a certainty as to your economic return, it’s not something that the private sector is positioned to do. I’m cautiously optimistic because every time he says something that he’s going to do and people say, “Yeah, that’ll never happen.” I just hold my breath because eventually, it does. His timelines are always a little extremely ambitious but eventually, it seems to reach the finish line.
I guess my question is, do you think that’s going to happen on the private side? Or do you think that the government’s role is still in pushing the boundaries of exploration whereas the private sector will serve the routine sort of logistics to and from low Earth orbit?
Dr. Dan Britt: I think there’s a really strong role for the private sector and for the government. I’ll throw out a historical analogy. Columbus sailed west to get to China because he was interested in tapping into that market. There’s a business case you could make. Of course, the Americans were in the way. Ask yourself, Columbus discovered America in 1492. When did America actually start turning a profit for anybody who came over here? You could easily argue that that was not until the Spanish encountered the Aztecs in the 1520s.
They kept at it for 30 years, hoping eventually to find a way to China and the economic return that they were expecting. They weren’t getting it at all. Then, they happen to stumble over several cities of gold and tripled the world’s supply of precious metals.
Dr. Gary Deel: Do you think that, because I’ve heard that analogy before, I think it’s an interesting one. Actually, Dr. Tyson usually uses that in the same topic. The argument, I think, from the devil’s advocate point of view is that when the Portuguese and the Spanish set off in search of this trade route to the West Indies and to China, there was sort of a light at the end of the tunnel and that they knew what they were after and there was a certain goal, but we just didn’t know how many obstacles or, in this case, continents we would have to cross to get there.
In the case of saying, we’re going to put a human colony whether it be on Mars or even the moon. The payout or the return, I think, is more speculative. I mean, there’s certainly supplies of precious metals and rare earth elements out in space that space mining, and I’m sure we’ll get to that in this hour. Do you think that it’s more speculative in the sense that investors would look at that and go, here’s why your comparison isn’t apt because when the Spanish were going over the other side of the world, they knew they had a market there for their products and trade, whereas we’re going to a desert planet where people will probably die along the way. We have no idea how we’re going to turn this into an economically prosperous business model.
Dr. Dan Britt: I’ll throw out two ideas. The first thing is that the Portuguese actually had thrown Columbus out of the country because Columbus made this proposal about sailing west. It got peer-reviewed by scientists at the time. The scientists at the time knew how big the Earth was and they knew Columbus was just full of it. He got terrible reviews. They also knew that the real distances involved were simply outside the range of the ships that were available at the time. That if there wasn’t the Americas in the way, they would die, simply from things like starvation, scurvy and running out of fresh water.
The Spanish were no dummies either. They sent the proposal out for peer review and it just got utterly panned. Columbus was just lucky to have gotten his little expedition funded. The point is, there are enough unknowns that I can’t really project what the cost-benefit is going to be and what the product is going to be. I know that in an exploration, a big chunk of the benefit is finding things that you don’t know or understand at the time. I’m pretty sure there are no solid Platinum asteroids. I’m pretty sure that returning mined metals to Earth is not going to be a viable cost model.
I’m also pretty sure when you start building a space infrastructure, that you can do all sorts of amazing things. I think that’s the important part is that it gives you the chance to start building up this infrastructure and changing the cost calculations for a variety of things that I have no clue about. I’ve got an economics background, but what I know about is the mineralogy of asteroids and the moon. I will leave the business cases to other people.
Dr. Gary Deel: Sure. If you had to put your money on government versus private in terms of reaching even the moon or Mars next, do you think we’ll see Elon and his company get there first? Or do you think we’ll go back as a government agency here in the US or some other country?
Dr. Dan Britt: I think it’s more likely that Elon and Bezos and these fabulously wealthy guys are likely to take the chance as necessary to beat NASA almost any place.
Dr. Gary Deel: That’s an interesting perspective. You mentioned mineralogy and geology. I guess this is as good a time as any to talk a little about the Exolith Lab. I guess the general question for those who may be listening to this episode and not really understand the purpose, why do we study this? Why are we interested in dirt on the moon or dirt on Mars?
Dr. Dan Britt: If you want to explore Mars or you want to operate on the moon, you need to test the materials, test the hardware that you build. The whole idea is that when you’re testing, you want to test as realistically as possible. You try to simulate the environment, you try to simulate the mineralogy, you try to simulate the texture of the soil. That’s what Exolith does, is we try to develop high mineralogical fidelity simulants for the surface material of asteroids or the moon or Mars, and make those available to the scientific and exploration community.
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It’s a service that we do in partnership with NASA to try to make standardized, reliable materials readily available.
Dr. Gary Deel: How does that partnership work? Are they just partially funded by NASA? Is there some other type of arrangement?
Dr. Dan Britt: It’s part of the Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science, which I run. That’s a node of the NASA Solar System Exploration Virtual Institute. We get funding to do a lot of different exploration-related projects. One of our exploration-related projects is to stand up the Exolith Lab and make these highly scientifically relevant simulants available to the science and exploration community.
Dr. Gary Deel: In terms of the Exolith Lab’s product line, you have several different simulants that are based on lunar regolith. You have Mare and the lunar Highlands, which, for listeners that may not be familiar with different topographies on the moon. The reason why that fidelity can be as high as it is, is that we’ve been there before. We have the Apollo missions, who brought back samples from which we can analyze and get a keen sense of what that looks like.
The Exolith Lab also offers simulants for other surfaces, including the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos. Since we’ve never been there and we’ve never recovered a sample and brought it back to Earth, how do we have any idea what a simulant for that would look like?
Dr. Dan Britt: Fundamentally, we make a guess but it’s an educated guess. What we have is knowledge of extraterrestrial geology. That limits the range of possible minerals. We have remote sensing data, which further constrain the possible things that make up these modes. We have formation scenarios based on our knowledge of physics. All of these things can go into narrowing down the range of possibilities. Given our limited information, we do a reasonable job in bracketing the possibilities.
Dr. Gary Deel: Got it. The spectroscopy that we use in remote sensing lets us know, correct me if I’m wrong, the basic composition of the surface of a moon like Phobos?
Dr. Dan Britt: Yeah, it works really well if you have transparent, highly optically active minerals. Something like Phobos and Deimos, you actually don’t have that. These things look a little bit darker than copy machine toner. It looks black. That tells you something. The fact that it is that black, you can go and look at other things in the solar system that are that black. It’s a reasonable chance that the reason they’re that dark is because they have similar mineralogies.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, that lets you know about their composition and allows you to speculate about what the soil or the surface might be like.
Dr. Dan Britt: Remember, I can be wrong, so if you’re afraid of being wrong, you should probably find another job.
Dr. Gary Deel: Scientific frontier is not the place.
Dr. Dan Britt: Yeah, scientific frontiers are not for you.
Dr. Gary Deel: We were discussing Dan’s work leading the Exolith Lab, which is a joint venture between NASA and UCF here in Orlando, Florida, for the purposes of production of simulants. Essentially dirt from different planets and moons in the solar system that you can buy and it’s close as possible that we can get to something you might find if you were actually there.
Dr. Gary Deel: In terms of the sale of this product, is it by the kilogram or by the ton or by the ounce? How does that work?
Dr. Dan Britt: It’s by the kilogram. One thing I should say is that we don’t sell to just anyone. We’re not into commercial business. What we do is we sell to people who are doing research, exploration, education. Institutions that are involved in that. If you want to build a little garden out of Mars simulant in your backyard, we’re not your guys. If you want to do research projects on growing plants on Mars, then by all means, we’ll be happy to work with you.
Dr. Gary Deel: Perfect. I’ll keep that in mind if I just want to bag a moon dirt from my desk, but this way, at least researchers and teachers and educators know where they can find you. We’ll make sure that we include the URL for your lab site and whatnot in our description.
You mentioned earlier something that I wanted to probe a bit deeper on, you said that mining and returning of rare earth elements to Earth from space is probably not a viable business model, if I heard you correctly. I feel like a lot of people are heading in that direction or leaning on that as a major industry. I know that I’ve read in several places that people think the world’s first trillionaire will be someone who tackle space mining, first and best, so to speak. Did I hear you right, in terms of the fact that you don’t think that that’s going places in the way that others do?
Dr. Dan Britt: I think more reliably, I can say that, I don’t know.
Dr. Gary Deel: Got you.
Dr. Dan Britt: I have my doubts as to whether returning material to the surface of the Earth is a viable operation. Building large structures in space might be the way to become the first trillionaire beams, power, manufacturing in space, all of these things are certainly within the realm of possibility.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. I was going to ask, so in terms of the doubts that you do have, and I think it’s fair to have those doubts, because we’re so early on in this process, but what about it is most doubtful? Is it the logistics of just being able to manage the trips back and forth? Is it getting to them and conducting the mining in space? Is there a particular piece of it? Or is it just the fact that the whole idea seems crazy at this point?
Dr. Dan Britt: I don’t think the idea is crazy. We return things to the surface of the earth all the time, samples from the moon, samples from asteroids. There’s nothing crazy about it, the issue is whether you can make money or not. That’s something that I really don’t know. It’s one of the long list of things I don’t know.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think, correct me if I’m wrong, that part of NASA’s agenda and maybe not necessarily for space mining, but is to sort of lasso, for lack of a better term, an asteroid and put it into orbit around our moon for further study. Maybe even an infrastructure there. Do you think that’s a potential stepping stone to an industry like this?
Dr. Dan Britt: Potentially, this was part of a NASA mission during the Obama administration, where the idea was called the Asteroid Redirect where you could put a small asteroid in a distant lunar orbit. That was an idea, I was involved in a scientific team that studied that. It’s certainly something that’s viable and on the table. It’s just hard to move bulky objects around in space because you’re up against fundamental physical limitations in terms of thrust and energy.
Dr. Gary Deel: If space mining isn’t necessarily where it’s at or at least not in the near term, I know that some entrepreneurs, Mr. Richard Branson and others are looking at space tourism. It’s kind of a loose definition because obviously, we can articulate whether we’re talking about truly orbital trajectories or sub orbital stuff where you’re only in the weightlessness of space for a few moments. Do you see that coming to fruition as soon as, I know Branson was hoping to have flights in the air on Virgin Galactic within like, I think, 2009 was the original target date. Here we are 11 years later, two pilots lost their lives in a test crash several years ago and they’re still sort of going through, as I understand it, the final steps for the FAA approvals and safety checks.
Do you see that exploding in the near term? Or do you think we’re still years or decades out from really having a sustainable space tourism industry?
Dr. Dan Britt: It’s really hard for me to say. I do observe that when there are tourist slots available to go off and hang out in the International Space Station, they don’t have that much trouble selling them for a lot of money. I will observe that people pay six figures to be drug up the side of Mount Everest and take about a 1% chance of dying for tourism. I would say that it’s very much in the realm of possibility. There are plenty of people that would like to experience that.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yes. Corollary and I think is worth asking you about is something I had written an article about, I guess, probably at this point it might have been last year but alongside Elon’s ambitious plans for colonizing Mars at some point in the future. There’s also this parallel plan to use the same or similar launch vehicles to do intra-planetary city-to-city travel by rocket that would take an airplane trip between New York City and Australia is like 30-something hours, I think. You could do it conceivably at rocket speeds in like 35 minutes.
Do you see that just from an aviation standpoint that that’s as viable or more or less so than the space tourism piece?
Dr. Dan Britt: Quite possibly and quite possibly more viable. The issue, of course, is going to be safety. I think one of the issues that people are realizing is how much travel like that do you actually need to do because COVID has certainly calmed down that kind of fever level of travel that we were indulging in this world.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, that’s a great point. I hadn’t thought of that until now. You’re right. People are realizing with how little travel they can manage their lives.
Dr. Dan Britt: Yeah. If I was going to expose myself to a crowded room of people, 35 minutes would be better than 30 hours.
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Dr. Gary Deel: I would agree. I haven’t traveled on an airplane that often for that long, but at six foot two, it’s a miserable experience if you don’t have a first-class seat. I’ve wondered how that would work in terms of managing the G-forces associated. You’re obviously not going to launch at Saturn V G forces, but you’ve got to find some balance so that some type of market would not vomit projectile throughout your spacecraft while you’re on route. It’s got to be modest in that respect.
Of course, the slower you reach your altitude, the more fuel you burn and the more expensive it becomes. I’ve wondered how they’re going to make that work and be competitive with commercial airline travel. It’ll be interesting to see. Do you see any other opportunities in space in terms of industries or opportunities for businesses to create a profit model that we haven’t already discussed? I know we talked mining, we talked tourism, and the exploration for its own purpose in terms of understanding and furthering our knowledge. Scientific breakthrough, of course has its merits. Is there anything out there that we’ve overlooked in terms of opportunities economically speaking?
Dr. Dan Britt: Part of the mining is fuel extraction. I think that’s probably some of the low hanging fruit here. Either fuel extraction from water on the moon or asteroids. Part of it is also an orbital servicing of spacecraft of satellites.
Dr. Gary Deel: When you say fuel harvesting, I assume what you’re referencing is a way that we might be able to refuel spacecraft in space so that they’re not having to carry everything with them along voyages back and forth across the solar system.
Dr. Dan Britt: Correct. Eating a kilo of fuel off the planet usually takes many, many kilos of fuel to get up to altitude into orbit. If you can eliminate that step, you have a huge advantage and a built-in market for that fuel. Because there are lots of satellites in various orbits that could extend their lives quite a bit by refueling or motor servicing. That’s an entire market that is up there.
Dr. Gary Deel: It’s funny you mentioned that I remember watching a documentary about Dr. Bob Zubrin’s Mars One proposal, which goes back several decades. Essentially the idea was to send rockets to Mars on sort of a recycling mission of back and forth every two years. The plan, if I remember correctly, was to generate fuel from the Martian atmosphere from the constituent elements found there so it could just sit there over time and the rocket could have some type of chemical process that fills up the fuel tank just from the air around it.
Dr. Dan Britt: Yup. Typically, your rocket fuel is oxygen, liquid oxygen, an oxidizer and some sort of complex hydrocarbon or hydrogen. You can get a big chunk of that. You can get the oxygen directly from the Martian atmosphere because it’s mostly carbon dioxide. There’s two oxygen atoms there. You get a carbon. Your challenge is to find a little bit of hydrogen to meet up with the carbon, but there’s a lot of potential for making fuel in all of these places.
Dr. Gary Deel: Do you see any of the more experimental and less fuel-dependent propulsion options that are being tested today? The EM Drive, the ion engine, the solar sail, which of course has its limitations in terms of the speed of your acceleration. Do you see those being competitive as opposed to having to make stops at proverbial gas stations in space?
Dr. Dan Britt: It depends on the mission and how much of a hurry you’re in. The advantage of ion propulsion is that it’s extremely efficient, but it’s low thrust. You have to be patient about where you’re going. You can design your programs and your hardware with that in mind. Same with the solar sail, you have to be patient. I think the critical thing is to have a lot of tools in the toolbox. That way, you can design missions smartly for best results and optimize what you got.
Dr. Gary Deel: Some would argue that we all benefit if we welcome participation from China and from Russia and even nations with whom we might have differences in other foreign affairs arenas to the stage. If we’re out for economic superiority, then that would seem to be kind of a capitalist perspective where we’d want to be there first and treat other nations as competition. Is there a middle ground?
Dr. Dan Britt: I disagree with that as necessarily the capitalist point of view. What you find is that’s kind of a mercantilist attitude, is that you get there first, you exclude everybody else. What we found is that freer trade works great for almost everybody concerned. That’s really the lesson of economic development. There are competitive advantages that some groups have relative to others and you maximize your returns by trading amongst those competitive advantages. No big deal. Keep it open.
Dr. Gary Deel: Got it. If I understand correctly, you would not hesitate to partner, to pitch the question in a different way, are there any countries or entities around the world that you would turn your back on in terms of partnership? Would you advise, for example, that NASA not work with any particular country? Or would you say, “Hey, everybody’s welcome into this joint effort?”
Dr. Dan Britt: The thing is that, just like the oceans are open to everybody who wants to travel them, space is like that also. You don’t want to necessarily pick and choose who should be the winners and who should be the losers because you don’t know everything. You might be able to take huge advantage of other people’s discoveries and explorations.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think that’s fair.
Dr. Dan Britt: That’s, again, kind of outside of my wheelhouse as to who I would work with. What I’d rather do is work with smart people. Smart people come in all shapes, sizes and colors.
Dr. Gary Deel: I’m switching gears slightly here for perhaps the last question or two. Given what you know about the abundance of asteroids in and around the solar system, do you think that we’re doing enough, and by we, I mean, the global community in general, obviously NASA has the NEO Search Program. Do you think our efforts at this point are sufficient? Are people who worry about asteroid impacts being alarmist or are we not putting enough attention to this?
Dr. Dan Britt: We’ve looked at the asteroid impact problem quite a bit. It’s not a huge problem on a day-to-day basis. It is a huge problem over the geologic timescale. Every so often you get a big asteroid impact that destroys 80% of life on Earth. That would be bad. That doesn’t happen very often. The last time it happened was 65 million years ago. It’s a reason that this planet is dominated by mammals rather than dinosaurs. That’s okay.
There’s two different issues here, finding asteroids that are potentially dangerous, which is something that NASA is working on and finding asteroids that are potentially economically advantageous. Those two don’t overlap. That’s a different set of orbital parameters and size ranges. It’s actually something that we probably need to do to help with future space industry is to find more of these small dark asteroids in the right kind of orbits to potentially exploit for minerals and fuel.
Dr. Gary Deel: Got it. When we look at the asteroid that caused the Chicxulub crater in Mexico, and what we believe to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We compare that with the frequency, as you mentioned, of these kinds of events over the timeline of the earth. Are we overdue at this point for another one? Statistically speaking, is it safe to say we might have another 100 million years to go? Or are we about ready for another impact?
Dr. Dan Britt: We certainly don’t have another 100 million years ago. Remember, primates have not been around that long. Our species amongst primates is only about 100,000 years old, 70,000 years old. That’s a blink in geologic time. This is a problem of geologic time. Is this an actual threat to our specie as well? A modest one. You buy insurance for lots of reasons. You mostly buy insurance because you’re worried about low probability events. This is a fairly cheap insurance policy.
I had talked to a FEMA guy right after the Chelyabinsk explosion where a small asteroid exploded over a Russian city and broke a lot of glass and injured a couple thousand people. I said, “What would have happened if that would have been over Cincinnati instead of Chelyabinsk?” He said, “It’s simple, I would be looking for a job right now, because I would have been fired.”
This is one of these things where what are you willing to accept? The risk is modest. Occasionally, injuring two or 3,000 people is something that happens. Is that an important thing to guard against? A lot more people injure themselves on the roads, but I really doubt that if you’re worried about risk, one of the ways you reduce risk that we all reduce risk is we wear seat belts. Is that seat belt going to save you today? Probably not. I wouldn’t think of driving out of my driveway without the seat belt on simply because why take that chance. It does take me 10 seconds and a little bit of elbow effort to put the seatbelt on but that’s worth the cost and risk reduction.
Dr. Gary Deel: Sure. It’s a low frequency but very high severity when it does happen. Maybe there’s a market out there for asteroid impact-proof buildings and glass.
Dr. Dan Britt: It would be a lot cheaper just look for the asteroids and then divert them.
Dr. Gary Deel: Before the damage is done. Sure.
Dr. Dan Britt: Yeah, before the damage is done.
Dr. Gary Deel: Excellent, Dan. I really appreciate it. I want to thank you for sharing your expertise and perspectives on these topics. Thanks for joining me today for this episode of Intellectible.
Dr. Dan Britt: Sure.
Dr. Gary Deel: Anything else you wanted to add before we close?
Dr. Dan Britt: Just to say that we’re lucky and that we’re in a golden age of exploration. The last golden age we had was back in the 1600s. The nice thing is that a mass audience gets to participate in this on a daily basis. I think that’s one of the most exciting things that’s happening right now is that it’s not just idle elites venture, but it’s something that everybody in the society can participate in.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think that’s a great way to close and I hope more people will participate. I want to thank you again. I want to thank our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics and more by visiting the various APUS-sponsored blogs, including In Space News, where we have a lot of space-related articles and content from our faculty. Be well and stay safe everyone. Thank you very much.
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