2021 Status Report – Volume 1
We’re about a month into 2021 and it’s time for me to inform you what I see is going on with respect to space and the environment since I think the two will become more and more intertwined. The next space events are a Space-X Falcon 9 launch of Starlink 17 Sunday January 31st, another Falcon 9 launch of Starlink 18 on February 3rd, a Space-X Starship flight later the next week if they can get FAA clearance, and the Perseverance Lander settling down on the surface of Mars about 3 PM EDT on February 18th. This pretty well describes how the U.S. Space is going. The vast majority of launches this year will be commercial rockets carrying either commercial payloads or government payloads; and a small percentage will be government developed launch vehicles carrying government payloads. Outside of the NASA-developed Space Launch System (SLS), which may get its first and only flight opportunity next year, we have the Ariane 6 developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) due for first flight in the 2nd quarter of 2022, the H-3 developed by the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) due for first flight in April 2021, and the Chinese Long March 11 scheduled to fly three times in 2021 from a floating launch pad out in the Yellow Sea. So far Space-X and Blue Origin in the U.S.A. are the only launch providers demonstrating significant reusability, which is the key to driving the cost per kilogram to orbit down, which will in turn will open up Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to commercial operators. Because of lower costs I see Space-X and Blue Origin capturing the space markets.
Any hope for resurrecting the NASA plan to put the first women on the moon in 2024 is in a holding pattern because the necessary funding will not be forthcoming from the Biden Administration. The current Congress is just not going to add $5B a year to NASA’s funding so they can meet the 2024 date proposed by the Trump administration. With their current funding NASA could probably meet a 2028 landing date if they jettison the SLS and the Lunar Gateway Station (both money sinks), but I doubt that will happen. Hence, NASA will choose their subcontractor later this year to build the lunar lander, but only have enough funding for a seven-to-eight-year development, delaying the first woman on the moon until 2029 or 2030.
NASA could retire and commercialize the International Space Station (ISS) early, thereby saving enough funding to speed up the lunar lander, but I don’t see that happening. Even though Axiom Space has negotiated a tourist mission to the ISS in early 2022 using the Space-X Dragon capsule, and each of the two tourists are paying $55M for the ride and $35,000 per day for living expenses, there are too many international treaties involved for NASA to back out of the ISS.
However, there does appear to be along-range plan to gradually develop a commercial wing on ISS and gradually expand it. They have a vision for an economy in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) called the Plan for Commercial LEO Development. They have selected Axiom Space of Houston, Texas to provide a commercial habitation module for the ISS. Enclosed is NASA’s presentation of Commercial LEO Development written before the election.
“NASA will partner with industry to achieve this commercial economy as the agency moves full speed ahead toward its goal of landing the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024. Commercial companies will play an essential role in establishing a sustainable presence in low-Earth orbit as well as on and around the Moon, working with NASA to test technologies, train astronauts and strengthen the burgeoning space economy.
A robust and competitive low-Earth orbit (LEO) economy is vital to continued progress in space. The United States is committed to encouraging and facilitating the growth of the U.S. commercial space sector that supports U.S. needs, is globally competitive, and advances U.S. leadership in the next generation of new markets and innovation-driven entrepreneurship. NASA has developed a long-term vision to achieve this goal where, one day, NASA will become one of many customers in LEO. This plan builds on, uses the capabilities of, and applies the lessons learned from over a decade of work and experience with commercial companies.
This plan, entitled NASA's Plan for Commercial LEO Development, addresses supply, demand, and lays out steps to date that have been taken. NASA utilized the recommendations provided by 12 companies from recent market studies while developing this plan. The companies assessed the potential growth of a LEO economy and how to best stimulate private demand for commercial human spaceflight and other commercial and marketing activities in LEO.
NASA developed a five-part plan of near-term actions that will build on the work of the last two decades. These plans have all developed opportunities, policies and information that can be found on this website. “
NASA’s plan to develop commercial activity in LEO has five elements:
Establish a pricing policy for access to the ISS. This will allow private companies to purchase services and resources from the ISS and make it easier for them to build business plans.
Starting as early as 2021, allow two short-duration private astronaut stays on the ISS.
Plan for the attachment of a commercial module to the ISS, and a free-flying platform in the future.
A plan for stimulating demand for commercial activities in LEO.
Quantify their own long-term needs in LEO.
Axiom’s commercial module will attach to the Node 2 forward port on the ISS. Node 2 is considered the utility hub on the ISS, because it connects the laboratory modules from the US, the ESA, and JAXA (Japan.) Node 2 is also called “Harmony. The module will demonstrate its ability to provide services to commercial actors in LEO and it’ll begin the transition to a sustainable low-Earth orbit economy. NASA and Axiom will negotiate a firm-fixed-price contract with a five-year base performance period and a two-year option.
This plan laid out their strategy which was independent of whoever won the election and should work to ensure their current plans will continue baring a big cut in overall NASA funding. Time will tell, but it was a good strategy.
Plans for the Green Revolution –
John Kerry is now the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and where he is headed will impact us all. His current position is that “It’s cheaper to deal with the crisis of climate than it is to ignore it.” If our position was to ignore climate change altogether then he is probably correct, but most of us want to address climate change with intelligent actions and a cost savings approach that will both reduce carbon emissions and save consumers money. Mr. Kerry’s approach is to generate unemployment in oil-producing states and make fossil fuels more expensive through taxes and regulation so that eventually the less well-off among us will be forced to accept the governments mandates to eliminate fossil fuels. This is truly unfortunate in that technology advancements are making renewable energy and electric vehicles cost effective relative to the fossil alternatives, so he is beating a dead horse, vigorously.
As an example of this, I’ve enclosed an announcement where Mary Bara, CEO of GM, commits to a Net-Zero-Carbon Future. Bara lists six steps GM will take.
1. General Motors plans to be carbon neutral by 2040 – which means removing emissions from all our products, including every vehicle we produce, and all of our global operations in the next twenty years. Where removing emissions is not possible – for example if the technology does not yet exist in those timeframes – we will compensate for those emissions through carbon credits or carbon capture. Our preference will always be for removal of emissions. This is a critical step on the path to a net-zero-carbon future.
2. General Motors has signed the Business Ambition for 1.5 degrees Celsius commitment, signaling our intent to help meet the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement. We will set science-based targets to achieve carbon neutrality, which we will submit to the Science-Based Target Initiative (SBTi) for verification and approval. The SBTi is a coalition established to drive ambitious climate action through science-based emission reduction targets and is the lead partner of the Business Ambition for 1.5 degrees C campaign. Note that this requires halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and hitting net-zero emissions by 2050, which is in line with the Paris Agreement Accord.
3. We have worked with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to develop a shared vision of an all-electric future and an aspiration to eliminate tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035.
4. 4. We are working with the EDF and with governments, partners and suppliers around the world to build out the necessary charging infrastructure and to encourage the use of renewable energy in electric vehicle charging, to make it easier for every electric vehicle driver to play their part in the battle against climate change.
5. 5. We will use 100 percent renewable energy to power our U.S. facilities by 2030 and for global facilities by 2035 – five years ahead of our previous goal.
6. We are collaborating with our suppliers to set ambitious targets to reduce emissions, increase transparency and source more sustainable materials, including establishing a sustainability council to share best practices, learn from one another and create new standards for the industry. While electric vehicles do not produce tailpipe emissions, it is critical that the impact associated with production and charging is incorporated in our plans. By working with utility companies to provide access to more renewable energy sources, GM hopes to address the entire production cycle of future EVs, with benefits that will extend far beyond our own vehicles and operations.
These show that GM is certainly doing its part, but their decisions are driven by competitive strategy more than ecology. Electric cars will be acceptable and cheaper to produce by 2040 so it makes good business sense to offer the customers what they want. I fully support GM’s pledge but unfortunately the problem is way bigger than the U.S Automobile Industry or even the U.S. as a whole. Figure 1 below shows annual world carbon emissions courtesy of Mish Talk.
Figure 1 – Comparison of World’s Annual CO2 Emissions
The U.S. currently contributes less than 15% of the world’s CO2 emissions and one half of what China emits, so it really doesn’t matter much what we do to reduce emissions in the U.S. What we really need to do is to reduce the cost of renewable energy powerplants and nuclear backup powerplants to where the rest of the world picks renewables over fossil-fueled powerplants, and electric vehicles over fossil-fueled vehicles because they are cheaper to build and operate. That would make a significant difference in future global warming. As to how much and how soon we need to reduce carbon emissions, that is shown in figure 2 below. We are currently on the Reference Low Policy line and unless we make renewable energy affordable to the developing world that’s where we are going to stay. Unfortunately, prohibiting fossil fuel exploration of public lands in the U.S. does absolutely nothing to help the situation so you can see my frustration.
Figure 2 – Current and Future CO2 Emissions plus their effects
We need to fund development of compact nuclear powerplants, first fission, and then fusion to reduce the other 85% of the world emissions. Windmills and solar photovoltaic plants can do their fair share but the key to rapidly reducing carbon emissions is nuclear energy. If we do not advance the technologies for renewable and nuclear powerplants we will continue along the Reference Low Policy line and see a 3 to 4-degree Celsius temperature increase by 2100. That will flood most coastal cities and create a vast dessert in the Western U.S. If we can make renewable and nuclear powerplants cheaper than fossil-fueled alternatives by 2035 then we follow the Paris Accord line and only flood some of the world’s coastal cities. Overall, the climate picture is fairly bleak, and our congressional critters need to step up and make positive moves, like funding research, instead negative moves, like killing fossil-fuels jobs.
I realize I have hammered you on this theme enough, so I will sign off. Get your vaccine shots and try to get back to normal.
Thanks for reading.