Spacecraft a Week

PLEASE NOTE: Spacecraft a Week has moved to Spacecraftlab.

I’m going to design a new spacecraft every week. Then I’ll blog about it.

One reason for my starting this blog is a conversation I had with a former chief technology officer for a large government agency. No, not NASA. A different one. He asserted that his time at the agency had already addressed the remaining open problems in space technology, that there was nothing fundamentally new to be done. Only incrementalism remained. We agreed to disagree.

Another has to do with the two years I recently spent at NASA. I served as the agency’s Chief Technologist from late 2011 until the end of 2013. From time to time I would encounter a similarly dreary perspective among some members of the world’s space community. But, as I had hoped, I also found the opposite. There is a lot of enthusiasm out there for innovating in space. Many of us believe that the best days are ahead, that there are inventions to make, adventures to experience, and science to discover. NewSpace companies are popping up all over California. Some have their sights set on asteroids, mining them to create a self-sustaining space economy and space infrastructure, and some are going to image the Earthin unprecedented temporal and spatial detail. Some of my academic colleagues are setting out to explore space on their own: discovering new planetsunderstanding the Earth, and maybe heading to Mars in the next few years, all without waiting for the science community to catch up.

Space is possibility. As Carl Sagan said, “The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From this shore we have learned most of what we know. Recently we have waded our way out, maybe ankle deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can.”

In fact, there are so many “open problems,” so many completely new ideas that have never seen the light of day, that I’m confident I could blog about a new space system every week—each week a system that no one has seen before. In fact, I’ll go so far as to blog a year’s worth of these spacecraft a week. I’ll do so to hint at the vastness of that cosmic ocean and the ships that might sail it.

There is an awful lot of incrementalism in the technology world, so much near-term thinking. We need that, sure. But there is so much that has not yet been said. I think someone needs to say it.  Let me offer an even broader point.  Humanity needs a grand vision for space exploration, one that we commit to.  There are many such visions out there, but we only infrequently see the big questions addressed strategically.  More common are modest tactical investments in near-term capabilities that address part of a large vision that is not fully articulated.  I’m confident that there are creative solutions to some of the fundamental problems of space—access to orbit, how to live and even thrive beyond Earth, how to extend humanity across the cosmos.  But we need to think big.  I’ll try to prove my point with these posts.

I’m not concerned about people adapting these ideas for their own creative purposes. In fact, I’d be flattered. I want these things to exist out there somewhere. Maybe I’ll be the one to bring them into existence, or maybe it will be someone else. As an academic, I’m used to the idea that my work shows up elsewhere. Typically, people cite your work. Every now and then they don’t, but that sort of thing would distress me only if I thought I was out of ideas. In fact, when I start complaining about not receiving credit, you’ll know I’ve lost confidence in my ability to create new things.

But just to be clear about all that, I’m going to say that the technology concepts in these Spacecraft a Week posts are covered by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC 4.0). According to the Creative Commons website, this license means that you may copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format. You may transform and build upon the material. As the licensor, I cannot revoke these freedoms as long as you follow the license terms: you must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

Why not commercial? After all, I’m just as much a believer in the power of self-interest to incentivize progress in things like space exploration as anyone. I’m OK with the idea that self-interested pursuits, such as making money from lunar exploration or asteroid mining, will hurry along the expansion of humanity into the solar system. It’s simply that I don’t think that using a license to cover my 52-or-so blog posts about spacecraft is going to hamstring the commercial space economy. There are enough commercial opportunities out there. Instead, what’s at stake is the democratization of space. Use these ideas to help you extend your presence into the cosmos.

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