Local Enthusiasts Discuss Future Of Space Exploration
Thursday, February 25, 2010
How will big changes at NASA impact the local aerospace industry? We speak to participants in the upcoming SpaceUp unconference about the local space exploration industry, and how the nation's space exploration goals have evolved over time.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): This is a changing time for the U.S. space program. Earlier this month, President Obama stopped a $100 billion plan to send astronauts back to the moon, and redirected funds toward new rocket technologies. Now NASA also plans to partner with private space research firms. These changes just happen to fit in very well with the aims of the SpaceUp unconference taking place in San Diego this weekend. Some of the movers and shakers of private sector space research will be gathering at the Air & Space Museum in Balboa Park. Here to tell us more about SpaceUp are my guests. Chris Radcliff, he is with the – a member of the San Diego Space Society and organizer of this unconference event, and thank you, Chris, for being here.
CHRIS RADCLIFF (Organizer, SpaceUp): Well, thanks for having me on.
CAVANAUGH: Dr. John Hunter is president of Quicklaunch, Incorporated, one of the new generation of entrepreneurial space related research businesses. And, John, welcome to These Days.
DR. JOHN HUNTER (President, Quicklaunch, Incorporated): Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Chris, tell us, what is the purpose of this SpaceUp conference – unconference?
RADCLIFF: Unconference, yes. And the ‘unconference’ tends to throw people off but…
CAVANAUGH: Well, I’m going to ask you about that next…
CAVANAUGH: …but what is SpaceUp about?
RADCLIFF: The big thing about SpaceUp is that, just like any other space conference, the idea is to get people together to talk about the future of space, what we’re doing right now, what we’re capable of doing and what people might do together to push it forward.
CAVANAUGH: Now what is the concept of an unconference? Because I wasn’t familiar with it until I read about this. So what does it mean?
RADCLIFF: Umm-hmm. So unconferences come primarily from the tech community and that’s actually where I got involved with them. And the idea is that you take the hallway conversations that you usually get at a standard conference and you bring them into the session rooms. So usually what you do is you go into a session and—at a standard conference—you listen to what’s going on and maybe you go out into the hall and you have a discussion with somebody about the amazing thing that you just heard or some side thing that it made you think of. But then you have to go back into the session room and talk about something completely different that has been decided, you know, three months in advance. So for an unconference what you do is, you get together and decide on the spot what’s going to be talked about. That means that if something comes up and it’s an interesting line of discussion, you can just go right over to the session grid and create a topic, create a session for it right there.
CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. It’s sort of anarchic, though, isn’t it? I mean…
RADCLIFF: Yeah, the term we try to use is controlled chaos.
CAVANAUGH: Why did you choose San Diego as the first location for one of these SpaceUp unconferences?
RADCLIFF: Well, part of it is that San Diego’s where we are but the other part is that San Diego has this interesting confluence of both the traditional aerospace community and also this new space community that’s forming right now, the entrepreneurial groups that are like SpaceX and Masten Space Systems that are coming together to create the rockets of tomorrow, the space technologies of tomorrow and also kind of the groups and organizations that’ll actually get us there.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you more about the kinds of entrepreneurial effort that’s going on in San Diego towards space research but first, do you know what some of the themes are going to be for this unconference or is it just going to happen spontaneously?
RADCLIFF: I do have some ideas because people have talked beforehand, especially on the website that we set up for it, spaceup.org. We – Let’s see, what were some of the ones that came up there? Oh, that – the most interesting to me so far has been a little pocket of attendees who are interested not just in the actual space hardware and making it happen but also the stories you tell in science fiction, documentaries, that kind of thing. So we have filmmakers and writers and editors, and they’re all going to be getting together to talk about how to better tell the story.
CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. I’ve been speaking with Chris Radcliff, who is organizing the SpaceUp unconference in Balboa Park this weekend. And joining us now, Dr. John Hunter. And I want to point out that you’ve been on These Days on several occasions in your capacity as founder of the Water Station project for undocumented immigrants crossing desert areas in California but now you’re here as president of Quicklaunch. You’re a very busy man, Dr. Hunter. Thank you for joining us.
DR. HUNTER: Yes, Maureen. My goal is to be on your program every single week with a new project.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us why you’re planning to attend this—this—unconference.
DR. HUNTER: Well, this is sort – as you know, it’s sort of a weird coincidence. I’m not really a radio seeker. But the last time was the All – swimming across the All American Canal.
DR. HUNTER: But now, the reason I’m here at the unconference is because, as you know, I used to be a scientist at Livermore. And so two of my compadres and I formed a company called Quicklaunch to use hydrogen gas guns to deliver propellant to low space, very, very affordably. And we believe this is the breakthrough that NASA needs that will enable it to revitalize itself and get back into action. And so when I heard about Chris’ unconference, it sounded very unconventional. And so I – really, we want to go see this, and it sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun, too, so I’m bringing my wife with me and – as well as another one of the guys, so there’ll be three of us down here having a good time.
CAVANAUGH: Well, now what I’ve heard about – the way you described it was a little techie so the way I heard what you’re doing at Quicklaunch is you’re trying to create gas stations in space. Is that correct?
DR. HUNTER: That’s exactly right, yeah. If you look at the numbers for, say, the Apollo mission, it was about 120,000 pounds of propellant in low orbit per person that went to the moon. That’s 120,000 pounds. And if you multiply that by the costs, the current cost of payload in space, which is about – it’s about $10,000 per pound, you get numbers which are astronomical. They basically break the budget for going back to the moon in large quantities of people, and I’m talking sending 100 people to the moon as opposed to two guys for two days, you know, which is – You know, so we really want to do – We want to do the moon in a real realistic fashion where you’re doing real science. And then, of course, I think the real prize here now is to go to Mars and I think you should do Mars safely with more than one person and you need to do it probably with at least ten. Same numbers, it turns out it’s worse. Going to Mars, you need about a million pounds, a million pounds of propellant, as in gasoline…
DR. HUNTER: …in low orbit per person. And at $10,000 per pound, which is the current NASA number, we’re talking $10 billion per person. $10 billion per person, just propellant alone. Now, propellant’s 95% of your budget so we’re thinking even though we’re a one-trick pony, that’s a huge part of the space cost.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, you would launch this propellant capsule…
DR. HUNTER: Umm-hmm.
CAVANAUGH: …into space and it would go into orbit, is that the idea?
DR. HUNTER: Exactly, yeah. Yeah, we were – we built SHARP, which is Super High Altitude Research Project, at Livermore. I had one of the first shots taken at SHARP which was a little piece of plastic about as large as a six-pound chicken in my right hand here.
DR. HUNTER: This is a low velocity shot, our first test shot, in a piece of rock off Adak Island, where we might put a system to launch two things like the international space station. I was on Adak just before 9/11. And – But the idea is that to use hydrogen gas guns to deliver these payloads. You launch them ala Jules Verne at six kilometers per second then you have a very small – a very modest single stage rocket to circularize the orbit and rendezvous with the gas station per se. And, of course, there’s nothing more rugged than fluids. You can launch a fluid at many, many thousands of g’s, no problems with these fluids, they’re very vanilla. You’re just launching liquid oxygen and you’re launching basically gasoline. It’s called RP-1 but it’s basically diesel. And so those are the things you would launch and they’re very vanilla and we just want to launch that one niche of the market which, by the way, is 95% of what you need.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I understood 25% of what you just said but I’m still impressed.
DR. HUNTER: Sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ll get rid of the propeller on my head and talk like a human being here. Pass me the beer, Chris.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Dr. John Hunter, president of Quicklaunch, Incorporated, and Chris Radcliff. Tell us about the local people like Dr. Hunter or in – who are working on projects, starting companies, for space.
RADCLIFF: Oh, it’s such an amazing mix. We actually have a fellow, Dave Masten, up in Mojave so, you know, a day’s drive from here. And he actually just, over the course of this year – or, sorry, over the course of 2009, won the NASA Centennial Challenge for building a lunar lander. And this is a guy, again, he started in the software industry and moved over to rockets, you know, like you do. And they, you know, set up this company with a handful of people who happened to take home the million dollar prize. And that’s just one. There are folks here who are building rockets, there are folks here who are designing the Rovers that’ll be roving around the moon and Mars, working on little parts like, you know, cameras or propulsion and then also the folks that are doing the advocacy like, you know, Jesse Clark of the Space Society who just works tirelessly just to make sure that everybody’s talking and on the same page.
CAVANAUGH: I want to invite anyone in our – any one of our listeners who perhaps is involved in this entrepreneurial space research to give us a call and tell us what you’re doing or if you have questions or comments about this new private sector space research that’s occurring apparently here in San Diego, give us a call, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Chris, I want to ask you a little bit more about what rationale the White House gave in changing its plan to go back to the moon, spend all this amount of money to send astronauts back to the moon, and redirecting the funds towards developing new rocket technologies and partnering up with entrepreneurial rocket engineers. Why are they doing this?
RADCLIFF: Yeah, and that’s actually a very important recent development and there’s going to be a lot of discussion about that. I think that it’s a decision that’s been building for a long time. Over the course of last year, there was a commission put together, the Augustine Panel, and they talked about what all the possibilities were, what NASA’s doing right now, what their timelines look like, what the funding looked like based on, you know, the actual congressional funding levels, and they produced a set of options that then the administration pored over and kind of looked through and decided on. Now the interesting thing about it is that it’s gotten a lot of fanfare recently but I actually don’t think it’s that big a change in terms of goals. It’s been presented as kind of the ‘we were going to the moon, now we’re not going to the moon,’ and it’s a little bit closer to the ‘we thought we were going to the moon with this project.’ It probably wouldn’t have gotten us there very quickly and it probably would’ve been another 10 or 20 years just to set foot on the moon again. And, instead, we still want to go to the moon, we still want to go to Mars, we still want to go to these near Earth asteroids and other interesting things in the solar system but we want to do it in a new way. We want to actually involve everybody. Get all these people involved, both in the private sector and also, you know, the NASA Centers, and get everybody working at their best altogether to get us there and everywhere as fast as we can.
CAVANAUGH: One of the things I read, too, was that there was a lot of criticism that the original plan to go back to the moon relied so heavily on old technology and that there – the idea was now what we need to do is maybe find the next generation of technology that’s going to take us to the moon and beyond. Do you think that we’ll be able to do it in this way?
RADCLIFF: Oh, I definitely think so. And, in fact, I think that what we might end up seeing is a combination of both the old and the new because really what it is, is that NASA’s changing the way they make decisions about this technology. Historically, they’ve decided what would work best and then pushed forward on that. So you decide on what would work best in, say, 2004 and then you push forward on it until 2018. Well, by the time you reached 2018, that answer may have changed. So by doing it in this new way, what they’re doing is saying, okay, we know the final goal that we want to reach, we have a whole, you know, passel of different ideas that might get us there, let’s do them all. You know, you take this part, you take this part, and, you know, some of them will compete to figure out who gets there first. In other cases, like, for instance, with Dr. Hunter’s work, we will combine forces so that you can get propellant to these depots however you might actually do it. And NASA then takes on the role of setting the goals, setting the policy and then helping the community actually step up.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Chris Radcliff and Dr. John Hunter. We’re talking about the SpaceUp unconference that’s taking place. It’s a private sector space research gathering at the Air & Space Museum in Balboa Park this weekend. I’m wondering, Dr. Hunter, John, what do you need to take this Quicklaunch project that you’re working on and make it reality, make it actually happen?
DR. HUNTER: Yeah, we have a phase four plan of action and we’re in phase one right now. Basically, phase one involves getting the funding, which is a few million dollars to break the world record for altitude. Phase two is to launch a kilo into low orbit, so it’s actually orbiting. That’s a harder phase. Then phase three will be the first commercial phase, relaunching hundred pound packages. And phase four, of course, is the big mother of all systems that you saw in Popular Science this month. They had a nice – Page 39 of Popular Science had a real nice picture and description of it. And, of course, we’ve got a webpage at Quicklaunch, Inc. But those are what we need. We need to get – I need – It’s – Actually the burden is on the guys and myself to raise the funds and do this.
DR. HUNTER: And technically it’s actually fairly straightforward. This is not rocket science, okay. It’s not. Thank God.
CAVANAUGH: How much…
DR. HUNTER: Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: How much does competition factor into this? Are you guys, in developing these rockets, these propellants, these systems, are you going to be working together or are you going to be competing against each other?
DR. HUNTER: No, actually I think we’re very complementary because the guys like SpaceX, which is one of the frontrunners, as you know, of the new age guys who are doing well, those guys, hopefully, are going to be promoting, will have produced systems that can launch people very inexpensively. When I say very inexpensively, I mean maybe at a fraction, maybe half or a third the price of what NASA usually costs to put folks up. But – Because people are much – a much more delicate item. You have to have really good quality assurance in those systems. So rockets will always be the way to go to launch people, I’m convinced of that. And so, hopefully, SpaceX and a company like them, so you’ll have at least two competing, would be the ones that emerge from that – on that issue. And then our – all we want to do is supply the propellant for those systems because they’ll need those to go up from low orbit in these other missions, and I’m thinking Mars.
CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Brenda’s calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Brenda, and welcome to These Days.
BRENDA (Caller, San Diego): Thank you for taking my call. I had a question.
BRENDA: My daughter has wanted to be an astronaut since she was 4 years old. She’s 15 now and she’s looking at colleges and trying to decide what her best avenue to get into the space program is, or a space program is. And I was wondering if the conference this weekend was open to the public and if so, if it’s something that’s, you know, affordable that I could bring her to? How would we go about doing that?
RADCLIFF: Umm-hmm. I can answer that.
RADCLIFF: It is open. Actually registration is, because it’s this weekend, registration is going to close tonight but you can register if you go to spaceup.org. There’s a nice yellow link there to register. And you are, by all means, welcome to come and participate. It’s not really just going to be the local rocket nerds. I should mention that NASA is actually going to be there. They’re sponsoring the conference and there’ll be folks from the different centers there. But it’s also going to be locals just like you who are interested in space, want to take part in space. There’ll be lots of local students as well.
CAVANAUGH: And that sounds like a great sort of topic to morph into something else. What are – what will astronauts – where will they come from in the future? How will they be trained? You know, if space is going to become sort of more entrepreneurial, where will they come from?
RADCLIFF: Yeah, that’s actually going to be one of the big topics this weekend because there are a couple of questions there. It’s like, you know, where will astronauts come from? Right now we have two classes of astronauts, there’s kind of the government astronauts, the folks who went through the Astronaut Corps at NASA, and then we have the private astronauts. There’s a handful but it’s actually a growing number who paid their ticket but didn’t just pay their ticket, they actually went through, you know, in most cases, a year of training and learned all sorts of things about the systems that they were going to use. So, I think that going forward, NASA can actually take a really good leading role in the training and certification of astronauts going up. And there’ll be other avenues for people to get up in space but that’s going to happen.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Chris, where do you see San Diego in the process of developing a really sort of vibrant private sector space research industry?
RADCLIFF: This actually looks very familiar to me. I’m from the tech industry and I think of basically Silicon Valley in the seventies and eighties. And there were lots of companies being started in garages as offshoots of bigger companies like Hewlett Packard or IBM and the technologies were all swirling around. People were showing off to each other, trying to, you know, out do each other. You had companies like Apple being founded at that time. And I see very much the same thing happening in Southern California and specifically in kind of the San Diego area with new space. And bringing in people from traditional aerospace industry, maybe making offshoots from those, bringing in the centers like JPL, you know, they’re right in our backyard, and then, of course, doing a lot of this, you know, rocket testing out in the desert in Mojave.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, you’ve been talking about a lot of people from the old aerospace industry and yet developing now these new companies here in San Diego…
CAVANAUGH: …with that special expertise they’ve developed.
RADCLIFF: Yeah, and that’s the thing, is basically an engineer does not stop designing. They may retire but they’ll just move on to something that‘s a more interesting project.
RADCLIFF: And so we’ve actually met folks who worked at Convair in the old days and, you know, worked on the Atlas program and that kind of thing and they’re still, you know, tinkering in the garage. The one gentleman that we met, Bill Ketchum, he’s working on a private space plane, so you just can’t keep them down.
CAVANAUGH: I want to get both your – takes from both of you on this. You know, a lot of people say, well, you know, space can wait. We’ve got enough problems here right now. We’ve got the great recession we’re dealing with, we’re up to our eyeballs with earthbound problems, so what is the continuing importance of space exploration? I’ll ask you first, John.
DR. HUNTER: Yeah, I think space is important very simply because it involves exploration and the human spirit. And, you know, I have about 5,000 channels on my TV so I wake up in the morning and I see a camera on some Caribbean ruin looking all around and you go to the other channels and you see there’s basically videotape of everything in the world going on. It’s like the world has been overexposed. And to me, I think, I may be, of course, exaggerating because there probably isn’t one at my house but basically there’s overexposure. I think people need to get off the planet and at least be able to look back from a bigger perspective. And I think also, historically, mankind has made great – mankind has been inspired by exploration, they really have. The guys who went to the poles were inspiring folks, Lewis and Clark are still someone that even NASA talks about those guys, and of course the guys that went up to the moon. So I think for the sake of exploration alone and the human spirit, you’ve got to go to space.
CAVANAUGH: And – and…? And, Chris?
RADCLIFF: And I believe that there’s actually quite a bit of resources that are going to be beneficial to the human race. Earth, to start with, but us as we move on into the solar system and beyond. There are more metals in a given asteroid, any given asteroid, than we’ve ever mined on Earth to date. And so I believe the figure that Peter Diamandis used was something like the $2 trillion asteroid. And that’s one of them, and there are millions of them. We tend to think of some things on Earth as a fixed quantity, as just automatically going to be scarce but I think as we move off planet, we’ll find that some of the things that we thought were limited just aren’t anymore.
CAVANAUGH: And going back to your unconference this weekend, if this is a success do you plan more?
RADCLIFF: Yes, absolutely. I – This is the kind of thing that especially, you know, with its tech roots is designed to be done frequently wherever there’s interest, whenever there is interest.
CAVANAUGH: Is there follow-up online?
RADCLIFF: Yes, absolutely. At spaceup.org, we have set up a page where you can participate online either during the conference or afterwards. And we’ll be collecting up all the things that were talked about and photos that were taken and video and that kind of thing all in that one place.
CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering what you are hoping to get out of the conference, John.
DR. HUNTER: Well, you know, I’m like one of these porpoises that emerges once every couple of minutes and looks around and figures out what’s going on. And so I just want to see what’s happening and I have just been reading Google recently about NASA because we’ve been working intensely on another project. You know, I have a toy company, so I’ve just emerged from that thing in New York. So I’m going to just – guys like Chris will be invaluable to me to tell me what’s actually current so I can emerge and get the right haircut and, you know, that kind of stuff because when I go and solicit money from people they want me to dress appropriately.
CAVANAUGH: Fashion tips?
DR. HUNTER: I’m only kidding but you get the idea, right?
CAVANAUGH: Fashion tips and everything.
DR. HUNTER: Fashion tips, yeah, who’s now the head of NASA. Who’s the president? I’ll figure these things out.
RADCLIFF: That’ll be covered.
CAVANAUGH: …let me tell everyone that SpaceUp will take place this Saturday and Sunday at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. For more information, you can go to our website at KPBS.org/thesedays. But if you want to go, you should sign up tonight, is that right, for the SpaceUp?
RADCLIFF: Yeah, we’ll close tonight.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Chris Radcliff, Dr. John Hunter, thank you so much for talking with us today. I really appreciate it.
RADCLIFF: Thank you.
DR. HUNTER: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And These Days is produced by Angela Carone, Hank Crook, Pat Finn, Megan Burke, Sharon Heilbrunn, and senior producer, Natalie Walsh. Production Manager is Kurt Kohnen, with technical assistance from Tim Felten. Our production assistants are Jordan Wicht and Rachel Ferguson. The executive producer of These Days is John Decker. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh, hoping you’ll enjoy the rest of the week. And you’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.