Failure analysis of lack of acceptance of space access system concepts

In engineering doing development work, there sometimes is a need to debug something. The first step in debugging is to evaluate the data which discovered the failure to live up to expectations; this data and its failure analysis needs to be as thorough and accurate as possible, so as to be more likely to fix the problem in the subsequent effort.

The development of space colonization might benefit from a similar approach. Looking back at failures is no fun; but if we don't learn from our mistakes, it is wisely said we are doomed to repeat them.

I personally know of several such failures on the path to space colonization; so, despite my dislike of rehashing the unpleasant and often incomprehensible, subsequent events have provided me with significant understanding of what was going on in the bigger picture, that probably caused the failures to get those early starts in space colonization.

Sifting out what seems the most pertinent parts - the whole scenario and sequence of related events would take volumes to write - the following items are some of those failure analysis findings:

The first one has to do with the failure to build Space Elevator technology on the Moon, using the leftover Apollo Saturn 5 launch vehicles to emplace a seed elevator cable on the moon. This concept was informally gotten to NASA and in mid-1972 was given a rejection by the NASA Inventions & Contribution Board. This concept showed that an existing material, space-rated fiberglass, was capable of being used to build what is now called a Space Elevator, but I called it the Mooncable back then. A cable made of space rated fiberglass, built into a tapered constant-stress-cross-section shape, could be built linking the lunar surface with a somewhat lower gravitational energy level toward the Earth, going through the L-1 balance point, where the thickness was greatest. It took me months of hand calculations to prove that the material was up to the task; and my concept description described a way to utilize motor-generators traveling up and down the Mooncable, using conductive tracks on the structure to connect the earthward-downward electrodynamic braking energy over to lift another motor generator tractor up off the lunar surface toward L-1. The system thus provided a siphon-like effect, so my more extensive description was titled "The Mooncable: Gravitational-Electric Siphon in Space"This was a deeply integrated concept description, where it integrated the mooncable structural transportation mechanism with a major product so as to make it a profitable activity, supplying a useful material to the Earth. Foamed steel, a material only create-able in zero-g, would be made at a manufacturing plant located at L-1 balance point on the Mooncable, by using focused solar energy to melt nickle-iron brought up by motor-generator tractors from the Lunar surface. The metal would be filled with gas bubbles there in zero-g at L-1, while being input to a mold, which would shape the material into the form of a re-entry glider, for the trip from the earthward-end of the Mooncable to the Earth's surface. The cast gliders, with the durability of stainless steel yet the density of wood, would float in the ocean after landing, and be towed to land where it would be sawn up and used for construction material, such as for energy-absorbing crash barriers lining the middle of freeways; and building fireproof homes that were nearly impervious to weather effects. The Mooncable structure itself would be made of fiberglass, and glass is an abundant material on the surface of the Moon; so the only thing needing landing by Saturn-5 launch systems would be the original seed cable, plus a robotic operated glass materials plant. The timing was right; we were still landing astronauts on the Lunar surface, and this seemed an appropriate next step to build upon Apollo, and enabling economical establishment of a lunar manufacturing facility on the Moon, a first space colony. And the project could be started immediately, right then in 1972.

But it did not happen. What was the failure in the system? So here is an engineering failure analyst effort:

Looking back, there seems to be multiple points of failure, and each provides an example for preventing similar failures for present and future efforts striving for space colonization.

One factor was that it required Congress to vote to provide appropriations. And that congress was showing its meaningfulness by hacking off a percentage of the funds asked for Space Shuttle development, standard Congressional practice, to show they are doing their job. Unfortunately, the Space Shuttle proposal did not provide extra fluff to play the game of having its funds chopped back some; thus solid rocket boosters had to be put into the design, and ultimately we lost a spacecraft because of that, the Challenger and her crew. So NASA was in deep struggle for money to get its job done; the Mooncable project would have required a significant amount of money to achieve even its first steps, despite use of the two Saturn 5 vehicles that were built but not going to be used.

Much of this was explained in the brief letter the NASA ICB chairman sent to me with the rejection of my informal proposal. This rejection had another major effect, in that when my wife read the rejection, saying no grant funds were forthcoming, she was quickly out of my life, very pragmatic lady she was, and I was no longer as good a money source as other men would be. The effect on me was that, being an Asperger, now without a pragmatic mate to take care of the social etc aspects of my life, in despair I threw away my promising career at JPL and basically just existed for the next half dozen years. Occasionally I would try to find someone interested in my Mooncable concept, but I had no connections. In the early-1980's I made another effort, by writing an article for the L-5 News, but it was rejected.

I think a significant part of the failure of the system for establishing Space Colonization that way in the mid-1970's was my lack of credentials: I was an unknown in the field. the concept was not allowed to speak for itself, in other words. This seems to me to be a significant failure mechanism in the overall system: not letting a concept speak for itself, but instead first looking at the originator's standing. It is analogous to people in the military look at the number of stripes on your shoulder, to decide whether or not to pay attention to you. The academic standing, the industrial position standing, is where the evaluators looked, and they found I was a nobody, had not even graduated from college, had even switched from a physics major to a psychology major for a semester before dropping out, clearly a loser. And possibly a related factor, how could PhD's in high positions, admit that someone who was a college dropout came up with a concept to get the job done, and the credentialed folks had not thought of it, what would people think about that; better just ignore the originator, and no one would pay attention to the concept. Later, the concept could be revived by accredited folks who could build careers on it. And that happened: Pearson wrote an excellent paper on such concepts four years later, in 1976; and even today there are businesses proposing building a Mooncable-like Space Elevator through L-1, so it was not a dysfunctional concept. It was a failure of the human aspects, not the technological aspects.

So the failure mode here is that of using the originator's credentials to speak for the capability of the concept, rather than let the concept speak for itself. Part of this may be the inability of the initial evaluators to evaluate the concept adequately, especially if it is a really different thing from their field of expertise; and they do not want to admit that.

The second example for this kind of overall system failure analysis, is my effort to gain interest in my concept for rapid expansion into high Earth orbit, initially with the purpose of building abundant Solar Power Satellites to provide plentiful clean energy to nations around the world. This concept would bypass the Space Elevator's severe limitations, yet be able to do the same efficient access to high earth orbit, probably even more capably too. It would use the outward force of internal centrifugal force to balance the weight of the structure in the planetary gravitational field, instead of utilizing strength of materials to do the job.

I created this "KESTS to GEO" concept - acronym for "Kinetic Energy Supported Transportation Structure to Geostationary Earth Orbit" - to bypass the problem with the Earth Space Elevator concept, that of the lack of a material strong enough for its mass to support its own weight between GEO and the ground. I was keenly aware of this problem, having thought of the earth space elevator idea in 1969 - not the first person to do so, it turned out - then realized that the tensile strength to density ratio problem that really made a problem for the concept. (However, that effort later enabled my 1971-1972 creation of the Mooncable concept.) So I constantly sought other ways to have large scale access of earth orbital space.

The early 1980's concepts of Keith Lofstrom's Launch Loop rocket lift to the fringes of the atmosphere by a trapezoid shaped tethered out-flung loop of continuous material, and Rod Hyde's "StarBridge" vertical tower to the fringes of the atmosphere, supported by electrodynamic drag of high velocity paramagnetic beryllium disks flung upward inside the structure, excited my hopes for early large scale space colonization in my time; even Earl Smiths' "Texas and Universe Railroad" concept of an out-flung expandable iron belt from the earth surface to GEO, although had some major flaws in it including that it would not go to GEO if anchored in the high latitude of Texas, got me to do my first speech supporting those concepts, as well as my Mooncable space elevator concept, to the National Commission on Space in 1985. But to no avail, the Commission's report did not mention any of these things.

I mulled over the why-not for a few years, and finally figured out how to combine all those concepts and add some new components, to make what appeared a workable large scale ground-to-GEO access space transportation structure of high efficiency, supported by the outward force of high velocity armatures circulating throughout the quasi-elliptical hoop around the Earth, connecting the equatorial surface to GEO. The materials and technology were well within the contemporary capability.

But the problem remained, of how I, as still an unknown in the field, could get this concept into the awareness of those who could take it to the next steps. About that time, I had gotten connected to the GEnie Spaceport Library, via my 300 baud modem connected to my long-obsolete Adam Coleco computer; as always, I lived on the edge of poverty, earning a living as an engineering technician in electronics. Finally I could get the attention to my Mooncable concept and my new KESTS to GEO concept, I thought.

Even the GEnie Network was sponsored by General Electric, a large company who could possibly be able to build much of the KESTS to GEO system, I thought. I posted the initial insights there in 1988, and had largely fleshed it out in 1989, posting many files in the GEnie Spaceport Library.

But the reaction I got as a result was lots of angry replies, not involving technology, but bringing up other issues that readers would have to wade through before getting to the technical parts of the chat strings back then.

It took me a long time to realize that the KESTS to GEO concept would obsolete the ground rocket launch vehicle industry, on which these folks based their futures. No wonder the anger.

But clearly they were only interested in their personal fortunes, not the vision of large scale economical access and utilization of high earth orbit, and the large scale access of the Lunar environment and Mars' moons and asteroids, all now potentially in the near future, instead of something that would only have to withstand the test of real physical construction and usage generations later, as were the other forms of space colonization views as based on rocket systems alone.

This post is getting too long, so I will continue this in a subsequent post.

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