SSTO's would have made possible Arthur C. Clarke's vision of 2001.



Space Travel: The Path to Human Immortality?
Space exploration might just be the key to human beings surviving mass
genocide, ecocide or omnicide.
July 24, 2009
On December 31st, 1999, National Public Radio interviewed the
futurist and science fiction genius Arthur C. Clarke. Since the author
had forecast so many of the 20th Century's most fundamental
developments, the NPR correspondent asked Clarke if anything had
happened in the preceding 100 years that he never could have
anticipated. "Yes, absolutely," Clarke replied, without a moment's
hesitation. "The one thing I never would have expected is that, after
centuries of wonder and imagination and aspiration, we would have gone
to the moon ... and then stopped."

I remember thinking when I first saw 2001 as a teenager and could
appreciate it more, I thought it was way too optimistic. We could
never have huge rotating space stations and passenger flights to orbit
and Moon bases and nuclear-powered interplanetary ships by then.
That's what I thought and probably most people familiar with the space
program thought that. And I think I recall Clarke saying once that the
year 2001 was selected as more a rhetorical, artistic flourish rather
than being a prediction, 2001 being the year of the turn of the
millennium (no, it was NOT in the year 2000.)
However, I've now come to the conclusion those could indeed have been
possible by 2001. I don't mean the alien monolith or the intelligent
computer, but the spaceflights shown in the film.
It all comes down to SSTO's. As I argued previously [1] these could
have led and WILL lead to the price to orbit coming down to the $100
per kilo range. The required lightweight stages existed since the 60's
and 70's for kerosene with the Atlas and Delta stages, and for
hydrogen with the Saturn V upper stages. And the high efficiency
engines from sea level to vacuum have existed since the 70's with the
NK-33 for kerosene, and with the SSME for hydrogen.
The kerosene SSTO's could be smaller and cheaper and would make
possible small orbital craft in the price range of business jets, at a
few tens of millions of dollars. These would be able to carry a few
number of passengers/crew, say of the size of the Dragon capsule. But
in analogy with history of aircraft these would soon be followed by
large passenger craft.
However, the NK-33 was of Russian design, while the required
lightweight stages were of American design. But the 70's was the time
of detente, with the Apollo-Soyuz mission. With both sides realizing
that collaboration would lead to routine passenger spaceflight, it is
conceivable that they could have come together to make possible
commercial spaceflight.
There is also the fact that for the hydrogen fueled SSTO's, the
Americans had both the required lightweight stages and high efficiency
engines, though these SSTO's would have been larger and more
expensive. So it would have been advantageous for the Russians to
share their engine if the American's shared their lightweight stages.
For the space station, many have soured on the idea because of the ISS
with the huge cost overruns. But Bigelow is planning on "space hotels"
derived from NASA's Transhab[2] concept. These provide large living
space at lightweight. At $100 per kilo launch costs we could form
large space stations from the Transhabs linked together in modular
fashion, financed purely from the tourism interests. Remember the low
price to orbit allows many average citizens to pay for the cost to
The Transhab was developed in the late 90's so it might be
questionable that the space station could be built from them by 2001.
But remember in the film the space station was in the process of being
built. Also, with large numbers of passengers traveling to space it
seems likely that inflatable modules would have been thought of
earlier to house the large number of tourists who might want a longer
For the extensive Moon base, judging from the Apollo missions it might
be thought any flight to the Moon would be hugely expensive. However,
Robert Heinlein once said: once you get to LEO you're half way to
anywhere in the Solar System. This is due to the delta-V requirements
for getting out of the Earth's gravitational compared to reaching
escape velocity.
It is important to note then SSTO's have the capability once refueled
in orbit to travel to the Moon, land, and return to Earth on that one
fuel load. Because of this there would be a large market for passenger
service to the Moon as well. So there would be a commercial
justification for Bigelow's Transhab motels to also be transported to
the Moon [3].
Initially the propellant for the fuel depots would have to be lofted
from Earth. But we recently found there was water in the permanently
shadowed craters on the Moon [4]. Use of this for propellant would
reduce the cost to make the flights from LEO to the Moon since the
delta-V needed to bring the propellant to LEO from the lunar surface
is so much less than that needed to bring it from the Earth's surface
to LEO.
This lunar derived propellant could also be placed in depots in lunar
orbit and at the Lagrange points. This would make easier flights to
the asteroids and the planets. The flights to the asteroids would be
especially important for commercial purposes because it is estimated
even a small sized asteroid could have trillions of dollars worth of
valuable minerals [5]. The availability of such resources would make
it financially profitable to develop large bases on the Moon for the
sake of the propellant.
Another possible resource was recently discovered on the Moon: uranium
[6]. Though further analysis showed the surface abundance to be much
less than in Earth mines, it may be that there are localized
concentrations just as there are on Earth. Indeed this appears to be
the case with some heavy metals such as silver and possibly gold that
appear to be concentrated in some polar craters on the Moon [7].
So even if the uranium is not as abundant as in Earth mines, it may be
sufficient to be used for nuclear-powered spacecraft. Then we wouldn't
have the problem of large amounts of nuclear material being lofted on
rockets on Earth. The physics and engineering of nuclear powered
rockets have been understood since the 60's [8]. The main impediment
has been the opposition to launching large amounts of radioactive
material from Earth into orbit above Earth. Then we very well could
have had nuclear-powered spacecraft launching from the Moon for
interplanetary missions, especially when you consider the financial
incentive provided by minerals in the asteroids of the asteroid belt.

Bob Clark

1.)The Coming SSTO's.,13211.0.html


3.)Private Moon Bases a Hot Idea for Space Pioneer.
by Leonard David,'s Space Insider Columnist
Date: 14 April 2010 Time: 02:23 PM ET

4.)Mining the Moon's Water: Q & A with Shackleton Energy's Bill Stone.
by Mike Wall, Senior Writer
Date: 13 January 2011 Time: 03:57 PM ET

5.)Riches in the Sky: The Promise of Asteroid Mining.
Mark Whittington, Nov 15, 2005

6.)Uranium could be mined on the Moon.
Uranium could one day be mined on the Moon after a Japanese spacecraft
discovered the element on its surface.
By Julian Ryall in Tokyo 4:58PM BST 01 Jul 2009

7.)Silver, Gold, Mercury and Water Found in Moon Crater Soil by LCROSS Project.
Catherine Dagger, Oct 22, 2010



This discussion thread showed such SSTO's were already being proposed in the 60's, as well as ambitious lunar exploration proposals as exemplified by the lunar bases in the film, 2001:

ROMBUS, Pegasus, Ithacus .

We didn't have the required high efficiency kerosene or hydrogen engines in the 60's. But we did in the 70's with the NK-33 for kerosene and the SSME's for hydrogen.

Bob Clark


Donald McKelvy
Senior Member
Aug 14, 2009
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Has anyone ever calculated the cost of the space infrastructure that would be required to be in place to successfully mine asteroids, the moon, and other objects within the solar system and compared it to the cost of terrestrial mining techniques? Can current commodity prices make space mining economically viable?


Triton said:
Has anyone ever calculated the cost of the space infrastructure that would be required to be in place to successfully mine asteroids, the moon, and other objects within the solar system and compared it to the cost of terrestrial mining techniques? Can current commodity prices make space mining economically viable?

Some articles optimistic about asteroid mining:

Asteroid Mining.

Gold rush in space?
Thursday, July 22, 1999 Published at 17:54 GMT 18:54 UK
By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

The Technical and Economic Feasibility of Mining the Near-Earth Asteroids.
M J Sonter
Presented at 49th IAF Congress, Sept 28 - Oct 2, 1998, Melbourne, Australia

And here's one skeptical about the possibility:

Monday, February 06, 2006
The Great Asteroid Mining Con.

Keep in mind I'm only envisioning this if the price to orbit can be brought down to the $100/kg range. Note also as Robert Heinlein said, once you get to orbit you're half-way to anywhere in the solar system. So getting to the asteroids should be roughly twice as expensive, though you'll probably need orbital refueling stations to make the trips to the asteroids this inexpensive.
Say getting from the asteroids is about the same cost, ca. $200 per kg of payload, $16/oz. Again undoubtedly you'll need refueling stations on the asteroids for this, but observations show the asteroids contain a great deal of water which can be used for propellant.
Because of that $16 per oz. transport cost back to Earth you probably want to do the refining on the asteroid and only send back the precious metals, platinum, gold, etc.
About why do this when there are mine fields on Earth, see this story about one of the richest gold mines on Earth:

Peru, the Curse of the Incan Gold, October 2005.

The story discusses the political difficulties of this mine but I'm concerned about the financial value of the mine here. The mine opened in 1994 and now extends over an area of 60 square miles. Over the approx. 10 year time from 1994 to when this story aired in 2005 it produced $7 billion worth of gold. That's about $700 million a year. At that rate it would take 30,000 years to amount to the value of an asteroid's precious metal content.
Note this mine extends over an area of 60 square miles. Even if you took 100 years to mine the 1 mile wide asteroid you would still produce over two orders of magnitude more than what this mine has produced per year.

Bob Clark


Just saw this article on The Space Review discussing a recently discovered copy of a 1963 TV interview with Arthur C. Clarke:

The perils of spaceflight prediction.
by Jeff Foust
Monday, December 5, 2011

In the interview Clarke gives some predictions of the future of space exploration. From the standpoint of the beginnings of human spaceflight, he suggests a manned Mars mission within 25 years, which would have been by 1988, and Moon bases by the end of the 20th century.
This turned out to be too optimistic. But as I argued above, this could indeed have been technically and even financially feasible: if it had been recognized that reusable SSTO's are possible and in fact aren't even really hard, we would have had routine, private spaceflight by the 1970s.
Such wide spread, frequent launches using reusable spacecraft would have cut the costs to space by two orders of magnitude, at least. This would then have made the costs of lunar bases and manned Mars missions well within the affordability range.
The important point is that the required high efficiency engines and lightweight stages for SSTO's already exist and have for decades. All that is required is to marry the two together. An expendable test SSTO could be produced, like, tomorrow. Just this one simple, cheap test would finally make clear the fact that routine spaceflight is already doable.

Bob Clark

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