Sketches of Three Initial Scenarios in Space Development

The New Worlds Institute exists to achieve the following goals:

  1. To enable and support humanity’s expansion into and sustained development of space.

  2. To promote the conversations and collaborations that enable this expansion to happen.

  3. To highlight and support the people, projects, programs and plans found most likely to succeed in opening the high frontier of space to humanity and to the heritage of Earth.

Large-scale space enterprises will be the critical driver of space settlement. Without economic justification, a human community living beyond Earth, no matter the rationale for its founding, won’t be truly free to exist on its own nor able to grow. Since the birth of the space settlement movement, credible concepts and paths have been discussed. Most target near-term products and services, trying to finance business plans or gain research funding. A very few may become major drivers equivalent to historic economic industrial engines such as resource development, transportation, construction, or energy production. Almost all such enterprises, if implemented in space, intrinsically offer major benefits for humanity and other life here on the motherworld.

One enterprise that can support both space settlement and saving the Earth is powering global civilization via space-based solar stations. Orbiting the planet in the zero-gravity environment of Free Space, where the sun shines 24/7/365 unfiltered by an atmosphere, Solar Power Satellites (SPS) convert sunlight into electricity, beaming it back to the Earth or to customers in space. In this benign location with no gravity or weather, SPS can be constructed at any scale, can be lightly-built, and can be economically feasible if made mainly of materials mined and processed in space. Initially, building this grid was expected to require a large human labor force, and to provide huge perpetual revenues, together making space settlements necessary and affordable. Today, with the rise of smart systems and automation, labor force size should be re-examined, but the potential for very large, very long-lived revenues from clean power is greater than ever.

How could we realize this vision? In his award-winning book The High Frontier (often credited with starting what many call “the space revolution”) the late Gerard K. O’Neill, then a physics professor at Princeton University, outlined a way forward. Starting with his work and adjusting for advances in technology since then, we can construct scenarios to fill out that outline. Each scenario becomes the basis for a timeline highlighting key capabilities and order of deployment. 

The goals here are to help guide pioneering efforts to determine the best approaches; to help such efforts converge on useful tracks; to make it easier for interested parties to follow and join in the research and planning; and to offer a foundation for practical time-and-money estimates.

In sketching scenarios, the New Worlds Institute is not endorsing them as the only approaches, nor arguing that they’re the prime means to generate economic growth on the High Frontier, but is “trying them on” to discover which might work best to achieve our goals. The focus is not minimum time to R&D funding, maximum cost-saving automation, gaining political support, nor advancing any social agenda – it’s to plan for truly large-scale industrialization of space, large enough to both require human settlements in space and economically justify funding for them.

Here are sketches of three linked Space Industrial “Startup” scenarios:

1)  Building a Mine, Beneficiation Plant and Mass Driver on the Moon

On the Moon, a mining operation (perhaps on the lunar farside, out of Earth’s view) scrapes off surface soil, digging down only a meter or two (is this first site Moonraker One?). Bucket-loads of soil, after basic sorting (beneficiation) by sifting etc., and likely loaded into bags of fiberglass melted out of lunar sand, go to a “mass-driver” electromagnetic launcher. The mass-driver places bags into buckets in a chain of many re-circulating buckets, accelerating soil off the Moon to a “barge depot.” Key Metrics: complexity, infrastructure, construction cost, time to continuous material flow to depot, reliability, maintenance cost, cost per kilogram launched.

2)  Building a Mass Catcher and Earth Orbit Transfer Barge Line at L2

At the Earth-Moon second LaGrange point (L2) or other “gravity-efficient” area, bucket-loads of beneficiated lunar soil are captured, consolidated into barge-loads, and transported via low-cost freight propulsion (possibly mass-driver reaction engines or other electric drives) to a Processing Plant at the Earth orbit construction site. This is the transfer point for Lunar surface and Earth passengers and freight.  Key Metrics: complexity, infrastructure, construction cost, time to full operation, capture efficiency, cost of delivery per kilogram to Earth orbit.

3)  Building a Grid of Solar Power Satellites (SPS) and Earth Rectennas

In high Earth orbit (geosynchronous or as suitable), a Processing Plant receives lunar soil, refines it to feed a Fabrication Plant for construction and energy production components, and stockpiles materials for later use (“slag” becomes shielding or reaction mass). SPS are built on a production line to gain long-term economies of scale (revisit photovoltaic versus solar thermal). A matching grid of Earth Rectennas is sited, designed, and constructed, always with optimal use of local terrain (even offshore if advantageous), local resources and labor. Rectennas need operating spectrum, integration into existing grids, operating and maintenance provisions, revenue agreements, etc. Key Metrics: time to initial commercial-scale utility-grade power, overall reliability, validated safety concerns responsibly resolved, “all-in” cost per kilowatt-hour.

These three scenarios interact; the first establishes a flow of bulk raw materials and how they reach the site of the second, which then establishes a flow of these materials to the site of the third – but the production design and construction process at the third overwhelmingly drives the first two. This re-visits O’Neill’s “bootstrapping” concept, emplacing only what’s essential to minimize launched mass and cost (e.g., an automated factory mass-produces SPS components in Earth orbit almost entirely from lunar materials, saving orders-of-magnitude in launch costs).

Note that these elements and the overall scenarios are designed to scale an already proven SPS electric generation and delivery system, not to build and demonstrate a proof-of-concept SPS.

These scenarios depend on successful precursors and milestones in several areas:

  1. A demonstrated SPS operational proof-of-concept (from all Earth-derived components)

  2. A proven business case versus terrestrial sources (with all costs and subsidies included)

  3. A basic Earth / Moon / Free Space infrastructure and technology path ready for funding

  4. A low-cost Earth/LEO transport system in place, or ready to be emplaced when needed

In examining and improving on these sketches, or perhaps proposing more innovative concepts, we can make progress towards the large-scale space enterprises that are needed, both for their value to civilization on Earth, and as the means of expanding civilization into space settlements.

Later sketches may look to asteroid or other resources, habitat construction and sustainability, or building space settlements as “generation ships” to eventually carry humanity to the stars. The hope is that these thoughts are a beginning for ever-better approaches to the work ahead.

We must be very clever to have a chance of success; we must also dream with determination.