The ESA Workshop of Space Exploration & Resources Exploitation

A First Report

by MCB


A meeting on the above theme was held at Cagliari (Italy) between 20-22 October: the first, timid step from the "official" Europe on this, extremely relevant, subject. Well worth examining, therefore.

Statistics - The Contributions

More than sixty contributions (formal and poster papers) provided the formal part of the workshop: discussions suffered from an overloaded program, in what was otherwise a well-organized event in a very congenial environment. An analysis of the contributions' themes leads to following categories:

Rather surprisingly, the largest block of presentations indeed discussed space utilization themes (Lunar Base, ISRU or ISPP, power from space, space tourism, and the risk of NEOs impact on Earth). On the other hand, conventional science-related themes concerned almost as many contributions. Were one to fall prey to a frenzy of optimism, one could see a positive signal in the fact that almost 8% of the paper analysed the future of "space" or discussed global approaches for a sound element of the "space program" (be this called space option, Astronautical Imperative, integrated use of space resources, or nothing at all). But there are plenty of reasons to remain realistic, as we shall see.

The final list of participants showed ninety persons attending, good three-quarters of them involved as either as speakers or chairmen. In addition to ESA staff members, participants came from 15 countries (T1): noteworthy is the weak attendance from member countries other than Italy (hosting the meeting) and Germany. Overall, industry and private research groups were rather well represented, actually contributing as many participants as official research institutions and universities (T2).

 

Highlights and Tonal Deafness

The workshop was organized in the by now classical ESTEC scheme, with an inaugural event decorated by addresses from the agency hierarchy and introductory/ summary papers. In the present case, the special addition was a "keynote" address by Prof. C. Rubbia of Nobel-Prize fame. He presented a concept for a high-specific-impulse (in the 40-odd km/s range) nuclear rocket engine based on the fission of subcritical thin layers of Americium brought to reaction thanks to CERN-developed neutron reflectors. This reporter cannot gauge the feasibility of the technical concept but the presentation was not a keynote, in that it bore not relation to the general theme of the workshop (but of course through a hypothetical connection with the subject of human Mars exploration -- flights that will remain irrelevant until human development is well established within geolunar space).

 

T1: Geographical Distribution of Participants

Country

No. of Participants

Italy

23

Germany

19

US, France (each)

8

Great Britain

4

Finland, Switzerland, Japan (each)

2

Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden (each)

1

Subtotal

75

ESA (Hdqs, ESTEC, ESOC)

15

Total

90

 

T2: Participants by Institutional Category

Institutional Form

No. of Delegates

Industry and private research centers

30

Universities

20

Science institutes

14

Space agencies (other than ESA)

11

Total

75

At the closure of the workshop, the chairmen reported on the respective sessions, a pro-forma (because of the lack of time) panel discussion was initiated, and the workshop organizers concluded by sketching future activities. At this closing session, a "visionary" presentation was given by a student, but the meat was given by an advance look to the conclusions of the LSPC's (the European Long-Term Space Policy Committee) second round. On detail content and specific recommendations we will return in the future: in this first report, we shall concentrate general impressions.

First, it ought to be made clear that the workshop amply reflected the unsettled state of the fieId in Europe: most presentations that went beyond the conventional "scientific exploration" attitude hovered at the level of general introductions; ie, most of the time, there was little new to be learned by a competent listener. The strongest exceptions was the paper by Eastlund on the use of SPS for wheather modification (and specifically the inhibition of tornados formation); in the field of supporting technical issues, Koelle's well articulated argument for moving now to develop a fully-reusable transport system in Europe made the case convincing even to this skeptical observer. The US papers by Sridhar and Criswell offered good reports on the progress of development of concepts for resource uses in the near-term (to support robotic exploration) and in the normative medium term (for power supply to Earth), respectively; in the entrepreneurial category, the contribution by Sved well deserves a mention for progress reported from a domain (nuclear applications and fusion research) that is also not without obstacles (created at art by the powers that be, according to the speaker). Solid reviews on the fundamental theme of power from space were given by Sallaberger (in the best tradition of the Canadian Space Agency) and by Prof. Kaya (University of Kobe), who clearly would have deserved a more prominent and leisurely spot (given both breadth and intensity of the Japanese activities in the area), but was short-changed by the program.

The kind and inclined reader may wonder about the author's own contribution: well, I'm of course very partial to it and, given that it is to be published in Technologies of the Frontier, every person will be in position to get familiar with it. Suffice to say here that it was formulated as a summary of the space option work of the last five years, around the three threads: as a support for revitalizing the "space program," study of its position in worldviews and ethical terms, and quantitative analyses of its necessity. The outcome was a strong appeal for a much-needed action in this field but, do I need to say it, the appeal largely reached ears well-tuned to be deaf to it?

 

Scouring the Ramparts

Feelings and emotions collected during the workshop are still present even in my ancient memory banks -- and I'd like to transmit a few of them to you in guise of conclusions and advice. Let's try to use some (free) quotes, in random order.

"Space is a transition." Actually, we've heard this for too many decades to care: but there may be more that a token measure of truth this time. The classical space agencies are on there way out and - with some help from the people - their pesky bureaucracies may soon stop to absorb our creative energies. This conclusion is supported by a fair number of remarks by other authors, in particular by those of Dr Wendell Mendell (NASA Johnson Space Center - JSC). In his analytical paper, he sketched the evolution of the (US) attitudes towards space environment and its local resources in the course of the space activities. During Apollo, for instance, the imperative was to manage risk, a high degree of control was introduced, and the space environment was seen primarily as hostile. After the 1970s (the "empty epoque"), NASA was trying to sell the Space Operations Center (SOC - then Space Station), including an Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV) to access higher orbits, up to geostationary ones: in energy terms, this requirement would make such a system capable of reaching the Moon. From this observation and from the suggestion that these capabilities enable a "return to the Moon" derived Dr Mendell's own involvement with the utilization of extraterrestrial resources, to support a "cheap" Lunar Base. While activities did develop at JSC (but not only there) as part of the "space exploration initiative epoque," the idea of ISRU (In-Situ Resources Utilization) remained alien to the NASA management's mindset. He recalled the episode of a presentation on lunar oxygen given to the Johnson's working group in presence of some high-brass from Headquarters: not only it was necessary to introductorily explain what lunar oxygen was, but after having been so educated, the man exploded: "This is the most stupid thing I ever heard!"

At present, NASA officially endorses considerations of use of extraterrestrial resources in support of exploration flights -- typically for Mars ISPP (In-Situ Propellant Production) -- but, Dr Mendell cautioned the audience, the resistance is still strong. In concluding, he expressed his conviction that (as a consequence of increased commercial presences in Earth orbits and in the launch services provision) "soon" there will be exploitation of lunar resources, though he claimed not to know exactly what they'll be used for, and advised: "If you have an interesting piece of technology in this domain, then take it to the private sector." Later in the meeting, in a comment from the floor, Dr Mendell remarked that there is little involvement of real-world civil engineering companies, where the field's competence base resides, in the space contruction business and commented that projects ought to be discussed with them, not with aerospace industry. (To my recollection, this got "translated" into a recommendation to bring construction companies in the discourse. Such an approach, of course, would serve only to get them addicted to the "space-agency" subvention process.)

Denial is the perfect attitude of the comfortable slave. The strong morning of the second day (with the sessions on space power and mining) was concluded by the contributions of Dr Criswell (on the Lunar Power System, the needs for it, and novel cost-reduction approaches) and of the writer, whose paper attempted to sketch how the 21st century's society cannot afford not to follow Krafft Ehricke's extraterrestrial imperative. A comment from the floor found these analyses too "pessimistics" in that, eg power usage could be decreased by conservation, changing the boundary conditions for development. (Note that these remarks were made after Dr Criswell had again mentioned the LPS target of providing only 2 kW/person of net electric power (vs the current 8 kW gross power consumption in the industrialized countries). They were also made after the subsequent author had explicitly addressed the issue of "uncertainty" of the true potential of conservation on an overfilled planet, using the example of the growing need for energy subsidies in agriculture, and shown afresh that sufficient energy inputs are mandatory to sustain the averaged wealth generation in the real economy.)

But the best had yet to come. On the last day, Mr Linssen (LSPC) offered a good summary of how only the acquisition of extraterrestrial resources within a window of opportunity (Martin's analysis) can defeat the ecozist rationale and the consequent future of decay (Meadows work for the Club of Rome). But a voice from the floor admonished that the space community runs the danger of projecting an image of "catastrophists" by pursuing this sort of arguments. The gentleman (incidentally an ESA staff member) simply refuses to see that Astronautics does not projects future catastrophes, but provides the way to avoid them! In truth, the actuality of any menace is always irrelevant on the political plane: what is highly relevant for the citizens are the policies that are attempted in response to a menace. Today, the ecozist model is in execution: and, according to its own predictions, it is a model that negates freedom, destroys hopes and lives eventually! Arguing that explaining the Extraterrestrial Imperative is "scary" is sheer subversion of the frames of reference induced by a wish to deny reality.

Manager hypocrisy avoids lots of trouble (and work). The Webster defines hypocrisy as "the ... practice of pretending ... to have principles ... that one does not have, esp the false assumption of an appearance of virtue." High tolerance to one's production of hypocrite statements is a fundamental "quality" for present-day managers: but it is deeply saddening to see the propagation of this trend even inside what could be the space community. The whole arguments around the so-called International Space Station (ISS) can be classified as webs of false appearances masking what some outspoken American friends would call "the underlying political frauds." Of course, these cobwebs are quite helpful in avoiding unnecessary efforts. Thus, we learned that ISS (after twenty years (!) of development) will be in use for.. ten years (!!); it may seem therefore only reasonable that the monies spent to actually use it will be... less than half the amount thrown at its development. And it sounds so sensible to appeal to future ISS users to be economically efficient, because this way the agencies might be able to put aside some funds to throw at... a Mars flight! Of course, everybody can enjoy the deep logic of this recommendation. The ISS has been a politically-imposed conduit for "international cooperation" and subvention to the Russian space complex: given that it serves no real purpose, it is utterly reasonable to cut short its utilization and to divert means for its support of another pointless political stunt. Anyway, the real users have been largely replaced by "managers" who have no interest whatsoever in the experiments under their responsibility; and the few researchers who still carry out their work in good faith are stretched so thinly between looking after the scientific quality of their work and making ends meet, that only by a truly superhuman effort they could find the resources to observe that the emperor is naked, notwithstanding the amount extorted from them and from their fellow citizens to pay for his "new clothes."

Just give people impressions: it is much more efficient than giving them something real. Nearer home, following the recent hedge fund crisis, UBS is said to have circulated memos calling its personnel to cooperate in giving the customers the impression that the bank remained a solid institution. Of course, after being leaked, it reincarnated as a press release but with modified wording calling for showing to customers the solidity of the bank. Why should "space" be different? Let's illuminate this with the example of the asteroid menace.

We have long known that minor bodies impact on planets -- yes, even on Earth, as strange as this may sound to all those that think of the sky as something separate from the world they live in. Suddenly, we were privileged to observe Comet Shoemaker-Levy-9 impacting on Jupiter. Eventually, the movie industry (re-)discovered the phenomenon; accordingly, when some nags plead that this is a menace to be duly considered, the risk that they be listened to by the people is large. Is the "space agency" then going to do something? Definitely, yes! The phenomenon will be object of proper scientific study, analyzing the existence, orbit, and composition of minor bodies nearing Earth. The catalog will be a dynamic one, for orbit perturbations may remove some objects, add new ones, and keep altering everbody else's parameters. (Excellent: this is an open-ended job!) The question, What ought to be done, when a body is found on a collision course with Earth was briefly raised. There was no direct answer, but here's a plausible scenario building on the comments made. First, the people in charge will keep mum, to avoid panicking the public. Second, they'll vent all the scientific uncertainties about the actual damage that an impact may cause. Third, they'll lament (a) that, had the encounter occurred only thirty years further in the future, we could really have had the capabilities to actively intervene to avoid the impact. (We can always do things, better thirty years in the future: in thirty years we can go back to the Moon, we can have power from space, we... Earlier? No, sorry, earlier is simply not possible!) And they'll add (b) that, had the member countries provided all the funding requested for the scientific program, then lead time might have been longer, and some international consultation and action might have been possible.

The beauty of this principle (to give people the impression of acting) is that obviously it can be applied to lightsat philosophy, the space option, climate changes, ... to anything.

Education as an element of newspeak. In concluding a lackluster presentation on future application missions, Mr Shrimplin (LSPC) resorted to a political grand slam, and quoted (applying to developments in this sector of space activities) a British politician's answer to a query for his three priorities: "Education, education, education!" Good pun, thought it would not have gotten Mr Blair very far with some people in the Workshop audience. Prof Galimov promptly observed that the same statement had been made quite some time ago by (surprise, surprise!) Lenin -- and that history had shown that this was not (by far) a sufficient condition. Prof Sridhar added that, of course, education could be differently interpreted -- though in his extreme gentleness he seemed inclined to concede Blair the benefit of doubt. Yours truly had already scribbed next to Shrimplin's four Es: indoctrination, acceptance of illusion, slave worker training, and inculcation of political correctness.

Leading, whining, and the (pretended) lack of innovation. The "big" European space actors often complain of the US arrogance that is induced and/ or supported by the American leadership in this technological sector, and just as frequently appeal are made to respond to the transatlantic impositions. The LSPC seems to be on a good way -- for the first time ever -- to admit that there is no reason why the European space effort ought to be or to remain second to that of the US, the community of the ESA member countries being larger in human resources and richer in economic terms that the union of several States. Also good news are the announcement that focused and protected initiatives will be recommended for supporting SMEs. But lamenting about too low a level of innovation in Europe, as if it were a true and natural fact is a negative projection without basis in fact: it is the European system that is designed to inhibit innovation. Not only because of the multeplicity of burocratic levels to be traversed; not only because ESA remains the sole gatekeeper for space-related themes; not only because both processes are easily swept by political whims: but because once a technical proposition has somehow survived this sieving process, any movement towards implementation needs the concurrence of multiple parties to be initiated.

To the motto: "He who follows he's always behind," Prof Galimov replied to with old Russian wisdom: "It's better to follow than to lead on the wrong way!" Unfortunately, in truth, there is no one leading!!

 

Assessment

What should be concluded? Thinking back to those three days (and possibly under an excessive influence of the closing session), one has to conclude that the LSPC may be the best thing that has happened to the space field in Europe. The simple and basic fact is that ESA was moved to organize this Workshop as a direct consequence of the recommendations in the first report of the Committee. (This is available as ESA SP-1187, with an Annex containing the somewhat more substantive summary of the working groups deliberations and of the presentations by the special witnesses. The publication's text is also on-line at the ESA Web site -- URL: http://esapub.esrin.esa.it/sp/sp1187/ -- though without the Annex). What is possibly even better is that the Committee's second report (to be released next spring) will probably continue to mention the need for the utilization of extraterrestrial resources -- under a new label such as "integrated space resources use" -- and will force the Agency to do more work in this direction.

The fact that the Agency needs to be forced to do this, well illustrates the current conditions of the astronautical endeavour on this continent; just as the fact that they'll aim their work at the post-2030 horizon shows how bleak our common future is.

 

Copyright, Marco C Bernasconi, 1999. All Rights Reserved.

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