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Grand Challenges: Space Settlement

Space Exploration Challenges

The challenges in this section are those that must be solved before humans can regularly explore the moon, Mars, and nearby asteroids.  It starts with the present challenge of affordable launch, and ends with the basic technologies needed to start outposts for settlement, in the next section. 

To see a detailed explanation of each challenge, click the links below.  

Summary

The cost of reaching space with heavy payloads must drop dramatically before significant exploration and settlement. 

Status - Green

Between SpaceX dropping the price of launch dramatically and Blue Origin coming online, we will be able to launch twice the payload at half the price.

Next Steps

Falcon Heavy Test launch - Nov 2017

New Glenn Test Launch - 2020

Summary

Refueling on orbit multiplies the amount of payload that can be taken into deep space by 4 times. It is critical to deep space settlement.

Status - Green

This is done routinely on the International Space Station for using room-temperature fuels.  
For cryo-propellants, Space-X ITR/ITS program has this as a requirement for getting to Mars. ACES and Bigelow also have this as a requirement.

Next Steps

ITR Revised announcement, late Sept 2017

ACES from ULA - TBD

Summary

Bone loss, muscle loss, and fluid shifts impact astronauts during long exposure to microgravity. 

Status - Yellow

Recent advances in nutrition, exercise, and medication have offset bone and muscle loss on one year ISS missions.  The fluid shift impacts vision in 2/3 of astronauts, however, and has prolonged if not permanent effects on return to Earth.

Next Steps

Continued ISS research.

No current program for spinning spacecraft are planned. 

Summary

Solar flares are a strong hazard that can kill quickly without strong but thin shielding.  Cosmic rays are basically unstoppable and less dangerous, but can be an issue on long voyages.

Status - Yellow

With the exception of the Bigelow habitats, no one has a current program for using water shielding against cosmic rays. 

Next Steps

Ongoing ISS medical and AMS research.

Bigelow BA330 launch - TBD

5: Life Support

Summary

Life support systems for long voyages or stays requires high rates of recycling for water and oxygen. 

Status - Yellow

Current life support systems recycle 42 percent of oxygen and 75 percent of water. 

Next Steps

Ongoing ISS research.

No breakthrough programs planned by NASA, but may be possible with Space-X, Bigelow, or eventually Blue Origin. 

6: Supplies

Summary

Food, medications, and other supplies may expire more quickly when exposed to cosmic radiation.  For a multi-year mission this can become an issue. 

Status - Green

Current testing implies that the effects can be mitigated.  More work is needed.

Next Steps

Nothing on the radar at the moment. 

7: Mechanical Entropy, Space

Summary

Systems must be reliable and repairable on long voyages, both inside and out.

Status - Green

While ISS requires extensive crew maintenance, systems seem to be up to the task of multi-year voyages. 

Next Steps

Ongoing ISS experience. 

8: Spacesuits (Read more)

Summary

Spacesuits for surface operations have not been used since the Apollo era.  

Status - Red

US built suits on the ISS are so old that they are leaking water on occasion, and they are in short supply.  A $200 million program to make suits for Mars has not produced a working spacesuit that could be tried there. 

Next Steps

Ascent suits in development from Space-X, Boeing, and several other companies.   NASA hopes to have a basic ISS suit by 2023, although the ISS will retire in 2024.  Unless SpaceX and Blue Origin are building suits in house, they cannot count on a NASA-commissioned surface suit for the moon or Mars prior to 2025.  Since NASA and ULA's own space plans for the Moon and Mars are stalled into the mid-2030's even if they stay on schedule, they are in no rush to build suits for these missions.

9: Lunar Landing and Surface Issues

Summary

The cost of reaching space with heavy payloads must drop dramatically before significant exploration and settlement. 

Status - Green

Blue Origin's "Blue Moon" lander program is financed and could eventually land 20 MT cargos on the moon.  They plan to land a lot of robotic equipment before attempting a crewed landing.  Space-X has also announced the moon's surface as a near-term goal. 

Next Steps

Falcon Heavy/Dragon Lunar flyby, 2020?

10: Mars Landing and Surface Issues

Summary

Current technology limits the amount of payload to the surface of Mars at 1 MT.  Biconic and propulsive methods have not been tested yet.

Status - Red

The Red Dragon program was cancelled.  Space-X intents to test a sub-scale (9 meter diameter) ITS at some point.  This may delay the first big data point for a decade.

Next Steps

ITS test launches.  TBD.

11: Water, Fuel, and Electricity

Summary

Any system must have power, propellant and water.  These can be made on the surface of the moon and Mars. 

Status - Green

NASA is stepping up work on space nuclear power.  ISS is refining life support systems with Sabatier reactors. 

Next Steps

Ongoing research with Kilopower - 2020.

12: Returning to Earth

Summary

Entering the earth's atmosphere from deep space involves speeds of roughly 24,000 MPH.  This has only been done historically by Apollo and some sample return missions. 

Status - Green

Systems for returning crew capsules (up to 7 people) are well understood.  Biconics like the ITS would be more challenging. 

Next Steps

Falcon Heavy/Dragon Lunar Flyby - 2020?

Space Settlement Challenges

When the problems above are solved, humanity has the technology and economic depth necessary to begin space settlement.  This starts with basic outposts that make their own water and fuel, then expands to a basic industrial and economic base.  The definition of settlement ends with full independence from Earth and the ability to launch locally-sourced expeditions to other locations, such as the asteroid belt or outer solar system.  

COMING SOON

1: Deep Space Propulsion Breakthroughs

2: Power Plants

3: Deep Space Shelter

4: Surface Shelter

5: Growing Food

6: Mining Gases and Liquids

7: Mining Metals and Minerals

8: Refineries and Foundries

9: Manufacturing and Assembly

10: Money and Economics

11: Skills and Culture

12: Independence and Expansion

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