upstart writes in with an IRC submission for c0lo:
[Nearly 4 years ago, we covered flooding at the "doomsday" seed bank at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Fortunately, there was no harm to the seed samples stored there. For further background, consult the Wikipedia entry on the seed vault. --Ed]
Why We Need A ‘Moon Ark’ To Store Frozen Seeds, Sperm And Eggs From 6.7 Million Earth Species:
Species or planets[sic] could be wiped off the face of the Earth any minute—so we need a “Moon Ark” to safely store frozen eggs, sperm, seeds and other DNA matter from all 6.7 million Earth species.That’s according to students and staff at the University of Arizona, who at the IEEE Aerospace Conference last weekend divulged details of an ambitious “modern global insurance policy” for our planet. Their daring plan is to build a complex in the Moon’s lava tubes staffed by robots and fuelled by solar panels on the lunar surface.[...] The incredible plan to build a lunar base that includes an underground ark goes something like this:
Species or planets[sic] could be wiped off the face of the Earth any minute—so we need a “Moon Ark” to safely store frozen eggs, sperm, seeds and other DNA matter from all 6.7 million Earth species.
That’s according to students and staff at the University of Arizona, who at the IEEE Aerospace Conference last weekend divulged details of an ambitious “modern global insurance policy” for our planet.
Their daring plan is to build a complex in the Moon’s lava tubes staffed by robots and fuelled by solar panels on the lunar surface.
[...] The incredible plan to build a lunar base that includes an underground ark goes something like this:
Ball-like SphereX robots—each weighing about 11lbs/5kg and able to fly and hop—to enter, explore and map the Moon’s recently discovered (in 2013) network of underground lava tubes, each about 328ft./100 meters in diameter. Design, and then construct, underground ark in the lava tubes, with solar panels on the lunar surface and elevator shafts that access the facility. Launch 250 rockets to the Moon, each taking 50 samples from each of 6.7 million species (it took about 40 to build the International Space Station). Store the petri dishes of seeds in cryogenic preservation modules inside the lava tubes, which would shield the seeds from solar radiation, meteorites and temperature fluctuations. The seeds would be kept at around -292ºF/180ºC, temperatures that would likely cold-weld together metal parts of the base. Cue “floating shelves” made from cryo-cooled superconductor materials that enable quantum levitation above a powerful magnet.Staff the facility with robots that navigate through it above magnetic tracks. Robots that can operate under cryo-conditions don’t yet exist—though the proposers admit that new technologies will be needed to make the “Moon Ark” a reality.
>We regularly spend trillions of dollars to achieve relatively little. For the smallest of fractions of these sort of figures, we could transform humanity into a space-faring civilization
I think you grossly underestimate the cost of developing an industrial moon base - which is pretty much an essential first step to developing a significant presence in space. We can't do anything significant in space so long as we're having to haul all the fuel and materials up from Earth. NASA is estimating $20-30 billlion just to land on the moon. Now scale that up to landing a few dozen shipping containers worth of supplies so that we could start building just a preliminary outpost, much less an industrial facility. Without reusable transportation to the Moon's surface, which may still be years away, it's just not realistic.
As for the COVID response - it's important to recognize that most of that money was handouts to the wealthy, which has a huge return on investment for the politicians making the decision. A space program has essentially no payout, and almost all the money would be going to actual expenses that don't make anyone much money.
That $20-$30 billion cited by Bridenstine (head administrator of NASA) is money that would have mostly just been dumped into the blackhole that is Artemis/SLS. He may as well have said it would cost a trillion dollars to land on the moon and hired a bunch of weavers, because at this point building a rope out of dollar bills would be more effective than giving Boeing more money. He was the best administrator NASA had in decades, but he sold out hard at some point in the past couple of years. Hope he's enjoying his private life working as a "senior adviser" at some shell investment company focused on Boeing et al. Was it worth it Jimmy boy?
So what would be the real cost be? If NASA cared they could find out. Tell SpaceX you want 100k kg on the moon within a year, two at most. Ask for a number, give them the commercial guarantee, and it will happen. I don't know what that number would be, but it's going to be way under $20 billion even with current gen tech. And if we look to immediate future tech, the Starship in particular, this all becomes trivial. You're talking about 150,000kg to the moon (or Mars) after an in-orbit refuel on a ship that is designed from the ground up to be 100% reusable. And SpaceX is developing that [primarily] with their own money.
Of course you hit on the real problem: corruption. And this again gets back to why I think the future of humanity belongs to China.
Bridenstine, like his predecessors, had to work within the limitations placed on him by the Senate. I don't see any obvious reason to fault his performance. If someone out there has done an exhaustive analysis of Bridenstine vs. Bolden, I would like to see it. I don't know if it was Charles Bolden or Michael D. Griffin that can be credited with saving SpaceX with a cash flood.
I want to caution that it will probably take multiple in-orbit refuels to get a full payload landed on the Moon or Mars. Apparently 5 times for Mars [arstechnica.com], I'm not sure how many for the Moon. That is subject to the change, as is the maximum payload (estimated between 100,000 kg and 150,000 kg, i.e. 100-150 tons). Even if the launch costs hits $20 million for landing cargo on Moon/Mars, that's still well under Falcon 9 for a much larger payload. It seems like the upper stage could be cheap enough to abandon at these places, despite the fully reusable nature of the vehicle. The biggest loss would be the Raptor engines. The steel body is cheap as hell. It would be funny if SpaceX makes grain silos as a side business just to boost the production rate.
For a Moon base, a passenger version of Starship could serve as a functional habitat, although maybe the radiation protection is insufficient without modifications... or burying it in regolith.
I have two major issues with Bridenstine (by the end - as I mentioned, he was phenomenal early on) :
1) Treating companies in radically different ways. Boeing continues to fail at everything. The only question is where the failure runs on the gamut from mild to catastrophic. Yet the response from Bridenstine each and every time was a repeating pattern of understating the impact, doing as much PR work for Boeing et al as possible, and then trying to rush them forward to the next test - which they, predictably, fail even more spectacularly at. Even Boeing's head pilot [wikipedia.org] for the Starliner resigned to "spend more time with his family." When literal test pilots are getting nervous about the systems in place, you know something has gone very wrong. By contrast the slightest slip of SpaceX was treated in the exact opposite way with an extreme exaggeration in both messaging and consequences for any failure whatsoever.
2) Not speaking honestly. The SLS is, plainly, garbage. If the program ever gets off the ground, and that is a very big if, it will already be obsolete - and dramatically overpriced. The continued funding of the program is driven primarily by corruption. It's never going to do any of the things Bridenstine was advocating for it to do, and he knew this. But he wasn't just 'playing the game.' He went above and beyond to praise SLS, Boeing, Artemis, and other programs that have near 0 chance of success. Did you see his press conference after SpaceX achieved the historic achievement of a private US company sending men to the ISS? He was gushing endlessly... about Boeing, SLS, Starliner, Artemis, etc. SpaceX was mentioned in passing, if you can even call it that. It felt like Satire, but it was real.
I think this [twitter.com] comment from Bridenstine, on the eve of SpaceX's Starship announcement, is when things started to become overt. He chose to say, "I am looking forward to the SpaceX announcement tomorrow. In the meantime, Commercial Crew is years behind schedule. NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer. *It's time to deliver.*'
It's about that time that he just started becoming deeply irrational and clearly "bought" by Boeing. "Bought" sounds so cliche, but I really find it difficult to ignore that he's now instantly segued into some role as a high level "adviser" at an investment company acquiring contractors that work directly, and exclusively, on behalf of "Tier 1 Defense Contractors" aka Boeing, Lockheed, etc. That's not a coincidence - it's a payout.
Okay, but that's probably all just a digression. Who cares about what somebody says or how he treats other companies, if he actually gets stuff done. And like you alluded to, Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo both happened under his watch and huge leaps forward. The problem here is that any answer is going to be hypothetical. I just feel that so much more could have been achieved had he remained even half the man he started out as. Something I constantly consider is that the entire Apollo program from concept to boots on the moon took 7 years - with absolutely no baseline technology to work from. There's no reason NASA should be in this absurd situation they're in, aside from the fact that everybody keeps playing The Emperor's New Clothes with regards to SLS. [wikipedia.org]
There's not that many NASA Administrators, and ultimately they are tools of whatever Administration is in office. Therefore, I don't expect honesty, and do expect plenty of gushing over SLS (govt name: Senate Launch System) and Artemis. The tweet was unfortunate, and maybe you're right about Bridenstine pivoting to becoming a complete tool of ULA, but his actions (if/when he is the actual decision maker) are the most important thing and I don't think SpaceX was hurt. Already we've had a scare under the Biden Administration with the FAA apparently throwing red tape at the Starship program, but that seems to have been a misunderstanding/hype. Maybe we can partly blame Boeing's failures for the FAA becoming more cautious?
Personally, I'm done raging about SLS for a while. There is nothing we as random individuals can do to raise enough public awareness to kill SLS. The Senate still wants it and not enough of the public even know it exists, much less why it is a complete boondoggle. The recent bad test and slowdown of the Artemis program should delay it by another year, at least. All the focus should be on Starship now, and that's a lot more fun due to the speed and openness of the test program.
Musk could start to explicitly badmouth SLS, and I would like to see him incorporate criticism into a Starship presentation directly comparing it to the SLS and calling for SLS to be canned. But Starship needs to be working first and not exploding every month. I think we also need to see a "fuck you" moment for good measure. Not a mere orbital launch, which we may see as early as this summer [nasaspaceflight.com]. We could really use a Starship sitting on the Moon before SLS even flies, a feat that was suggested by Bridenstine himself IIRC. Then SpaceX can activate the PR campaign while we go hard in the paint against SLS on every public forum. I think Boeing/ULA's PR assets have thrown some shade at SpaceX, but they would not be able to withstand what is coming.
This absurd situation sucks, but Starship's projected $/kg is an absolute game changer. I am actually fine with NASA being paralyzed (other than the gobs of cash going towards SLS/ULA and not SpaceX) since Starship will enable much more ambitious projects. I don't want Apollo-level competence and speed out of NASA until they have the correct tool for the job: fully reusable rockets.
Yip, on all of this I'd agree. With one exception. If any "normal" company has failed like Boeing has, not only in space but also now even in commercial air transport, they would almost certainly no longer exist. And it's not out of the question that we'd even be pursuing criminal charges against them - Boeing have now, at the minimum, contributed to hundreds of deaths by what are undoubtedly major systemic issues within the company, likely due for the pettiest of all motivations - optimizing for shareholder profit instead of actually focusing on their products. But because they're Boeing, everything is business as usual.
Our entire political system has become deeply incestuous. This is, in part, due to appointments, and in part due to sycophancy in hopes of personal advancement. And Boeing is a major part in this entire dysfunctional system, working as a key player in the military industrial complex, among other roles. Musk has been more than happy to wade into numerous controversial topics ranging from the dysfunctional media to wokeness, and he even committed to cardinal sin of speaking in a cordial way with "The Russians" in Cyrillic! But the one thing he's never poked has been the SLS, or "real" politics in general. And I don't think that's a coincidence. The government could kill SpaceX in a practically infinite number of ways, and the media would kick their spin machine into overdrive to condone it.
I think he's doing the right thing by just keeping his eyes on the prize. Like you allude to, it's increasingly looking like SpaceX will, at the minimum, be flying folks around the moon before the SLS gets off the ground. And that will speak far louder than any words ever could.
I bring it up because I think SpaceX is quickly becoming too important for the U.S. government to kill. It's now the American ride to the ISS, with Boeing not being an option until no earlier than September 2021. It's a critical launch provider for NASA, the Air/Space Force, and the National Reconnaissance Office. Starlink is also being eyed for use by the Air Force and Army. Musk is gaining leverage that he can use to go on the attack. One of SLS's biggest proponents, Senator Richard Shelby, is retiring after 2022.
At the same time, Starship needs to be operational before the SLS can be utterly destroyed. Even though several Falcon Heavy launches are probably a better idea than one SLS launch, providing a single rocket that can do everything that SLS can is important, to leave no remaining excuses. Starship has a wider/larger payload fairing, and can likely exceed even the mythical SLS Block 2's payload capacity (~130 tons), while in fully reusable mode. In-orbit refueling is required to get any payload to TLI, so that must work first. A chart on Everyday Astronaut [everydayastronaut.com] suggests it can get 40 tons to TLI with a single refuel (comparable to SLS Block 1B at 43 tons), and the full ~150 tons with two refuels.
>It seems like the upper stage could be cheap enough to abandon at these places, despite the fully reusable nature of the vehicle. The biggest loss would be the Raptor engines.
For Mars especially that's probably a good idea - that's a whole lot of water and energy to consume to ship back a giant fuel tank back to Earth where we can make more easily enough. Especially when that steel would be an extremely valuable resource on MArs, at least until they develop a substantial industrial base. But with a few tweaks it could be made even more appealing:
1) Remove the engines from a bunch of rockets and ship them back to Earth as the payload of a single rocket. They're by far the most expensive components, and don't actually weigh all that much compared to the rest of the ship.
2) Use the "shells" as habitat modules. You're talking ballpark of 2500m^3 of pressurized space within a Starship once you cut doors into the propellant tanks, pre-tested to far higher pressures than you'd want for a habitat. Towers are a bit unwieldy, but if you were looking to build a Mars colony it might well be worth it to ship a couple of those skeletal cranes to Mars - they could be far flimsier than on Earth thanks to the lower gravity. Pick up a pressurized Starship with two cranes: one on the nose as normal, then the other to grab it near the base and lay it down on its belly in a trench. Then cover it with a few meters of gravel and you've got yourself a nice stable, well-shielded habitat module. You might even weld floor-trusses in place within the fuel tanks ahead of time so that you only need to lay down some floor boards to create some nice wide-open multi-storey habitats. Might want a layer of insulation on the outside to keep the heat from leaching into the surrounding rock, but there's lots of options for that.
I really think there's enormous potential for dedicated space-station and Moon-/Mars-base versions of Starship. They provide a whole lot of pressurized space, deliverable to wherever you want it with a minimum of fuss. But even just retrofitting normal Starships wouldn't take much effort - steel is easy to work with.