Advanced Automation for Space Missions/Chapter 4.6

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4.6 Conclusions, Implications, and Recommendations for Implementation[edit]

The Nonterrestrial Utilization of Materials Team developed scenarios for a permanent, growing, highly automated space manufacturing capability based on the utilization of ever-increasing fractions of nonterrestrial materials. The primary focus was the initiation and evolutionary growth of a general-purpose SMF in low Earth orbit. The second major focus was the use of nonterrestrial materials to supply the SMF. A third major focus was on SMF automation technology requirements, particularly teleoperation, robotics, and automated manufacturing and materials processing techniques.

The team adopted a systems approach, beginning with a review of inputs to the SMF system (including sources of raw materials in the Solar System), processes for converting nonterrestrial materials into feedstock, and costs of transporting raw materials and feedstock to LEO. Initiation and growth of the SMF then were considered. A taxonomy of terrestrial manufacturing techniques was developed and analyzed to determine space-compatibility, automatability, and cost-, mass-, and energy-efficiency. From this selection process emerged several "starting kits" of first-generation equipment and techniques. One such "kit," for example, was based on powder metallurgy, extrusion/spray forming, laser machining, robotic forming (by cold welding), and process control via central computer or a distributed network. These tools and techniques would provide an initial space manufacturing presence for the production of second-generation machines and more sophisticated outputs.

As the SMF grows it evolves in several dimensions beyond mere expansion of manufacturing capability. First, the original factory is highly dependent on Earth for its raw material inputs. This dependency lessens as nonterrestrial sources of raw materials - especially the Moon and the asteroids - are developed. Second, the initial facility is run almost entirely by teleoperation (equipment operated by people located at sites remote from the SMF, such as on Earth), but later these teleoperators may largely be replaced by autonomous robots. Finally, the SMF system originally manufactures solar power stations, communications satellites, and a number of other products difficult or impossible to make anywhere but in space (e.g., certain biomedical substances, and foamy metals), but should eventually also begin to produce some outputs for use in other NASA missions in space or back on Earth. Examples include hulls and pressure vessels, integrated circuits and other electronics components for robots and computers, laser communication links, gigantic antennas, lunar teletourism equipment, and solar sails.

The establishment and growth of such a facility would have far-ranging and significant effects on human social and economic institutions. Stine (1975) has called space manufacturing the "third industrial revolution" to highlight the tremendous potential for transforming civilization, much as did the introduction of powered machinery in the 19th century and computers in the 20th century. It is impossible to predict the exact nature of the implications of an SMF for Earth since many would be second- and third-order perturbations. However, several areas of maximum impact were outlined by the team to aid in developmental planning and to minimize potential negative effects.

From an economic standpoint, the SMF scenario is expressly designed to reduce its demands on Earth resources - both material and monetary - as it is developed. Thus, initial costs are the major issue, and proposals have been made for reducing these. Other studies suggest that an SMF can provide a very reasonable return on investment. Certainly, the government will be highly involved in both the approval of the project and its implementation. The establishment of an SMF has definite legal implications, and close cooperation among several nations may be necessary in order to create a mutually satisfactory system. Finally, the public stands to benefit from the establishment of space solar power systems, the creation of new wonder drugs, superpure materials and other products unique to space, and the potential for unusual and fascinating vacations via teletourism.

Besides reducing environmental pollution hazards and increasing world interdependence, the advanced SMF in the long term will undoubtedly have major impacts on private enterprise, labor, industrial capacity, and social conditions in general. While expanded capacity and increased product variety seem likely to be a positive contribution, competition for markets and jobs must certainly be a concern. Careful planning plus a very gradual evolution will help to minimize disruption. A system for equitable involvement of private enterprise in space manufacturing must be devised. The gradual retraining of labor to carry out supervisory and high-adaptability roles for which humans are uniquely suited is already necessary because of advancing automation on Earth. But it is important to note that this retraining, though initially potentially painful, casts human beings in the fundamentally most appropriate role: telling machines what to do for the benefit of all mankind.

4.6.1 Long-Term Implications for Humankind on Earth[edit]

The implications of a growing SMF are unquestionably complex and to some degree unforeseeable. The following discussion is limited to just a few major impact areas, conceptually isolated to convey the enormous potential consequences of the undertaking. A large-scale research effort in the area of societal consequences is required to provide an adequate assessment of the possible scope of the effects.

Environment. The direct environmental impact of the SMF will be significant and positive, mostly because of the relief it will provide from the twin pressures of resource exhaustion and industrial pollution. Many processes now conducted in Earth-based laboratories and factories which pose health hazards could be transferred to the SMF. Biological investigations of recombinant DNA and physics experiments with nuclear or other dangerous materials could be carried out on space platforms using teleoperators.

Indirectly, SMF could serve as construction bases for space solar power systems (SPS). Easily accessible sources of nonrenewable fuels are being consumed at an alarming rate, and the increased use of capital intensive nuclear energy is meeting stiff public opposition in this country and elsewhere. The sane alternative is to use the Sun as a source of "free" energy. Even using terrestrial resources, space solar power stations appear economically attractive (Grey et al., 1977; Johnson and Holbrow, 1977). About 100 5-GW stations would suffice to supply a majority of current Earth-based electric power requirements.

Environmental benefits of placing the energy plant in space are manifold: There would be no danger from natural disasters such as earthquakes, no thermal or particulate pollution, and no risk of explosions or other failures which might conceivably cause harm to human populations (Grey et al., 1977; Mayur, 1979). On the negative side must be weighed the possibility of leakage of microwave transmissions (Barr, 1979; Glaser, 1979; Johnson and Holbrow, 1977) and the security of installations which become the main U.S. energy source. Still, it is clear that SPS technology has the potential to relieve much of the current global energy shortage. Some global cooperation would be inevitable, suggesting major impacts in the sphere of world interdependence.

World interdependence. Somewhat paradoxically, establishment of an SMF may contribute to global interdependence. The fully productive SMF call be compared, in scope, to current multinational corporations, with one important difference: if the economic investments required are so great that governments rather than private sources must be partners in the venture, then nations will share in the wealth generated by the SMF instead of individual investors. Active cooperation would then be required to find some equitable means to ensure that under developed countries have an opportunity to share the fruits of state-of-the-art manufacturing technology (Mayur, 1979). Thence, all nations will come to regard industrialization in a more homogeneous manner, enabling less-developed countries to concentrate greater effort on improving the social and economic conditions within their own borders.

Private enterprise. Space industrialization has the potential for enormous impact on the economic system of the United States. Some of the potentially negative effects can be avoided through proper planning. SMF may be national, perhaps even multinational, enterprises, with the potential of transferring a great deal of the productive capacity of the U.S. into government hands in part because of the anticipated long lead time for economic return. Since SMF output would continually increase, it could eventually dominate the U.S. GNP, in which case Earth-based American manufacturing industries may no longer be competitive. While net national productivity would expand because of the input of additional nonterrestrial materials and energy, the contribution of private enterprise might diminish.

Some means must be found to transfer some of the investment potential back into private hands as the timeframe for economic return on the SMF grows shorter. This opportunity must, however, be equitably distributed, or a few large corporations could gain oligopolistic or monopolistic control over nonterrestrial resources. One suggestion for avoiding the problems associated with the economics of space industrialization is to encourage individuals to become investors (Albus, 1976). While this would avoid the problem of monopolistic control, some means should be devised to ensure that the scheme would not further widen the gap between rich and poor in this country.

Space industrialization will hardly leave the present private enterprise system unmodified. SMF planners must consider to what extent modification of the economic system is acceptable in future generations.

Automation and labor. The scenarios developed by the study team presuppose a high degree of SMF automation. In the long term this means that much of the productive capability of the world will be in the hands of robots, a trend already abundantly apparent in Earth-based manufacturing. Thus, the SMF merely accelerates an existing trend in industrial robotics deployment, with a multiplier effect throughout commercial manufacturing. At issue, then, is to what extent the SMF threatens existing jobs while eliminating the possibility of alternative employment - not simply whether machines can replace humans in some roles.

Many Americans define self-worth through their work. A potentially grim scenario resulting from rapid automated space manufacturing development is that many people might be left suddenly "worthless," shut off from productive activity. The best antidote to such an unwholesome situation is early recognition of the problem. Alternative employment possibilities must be created, perhaps by returning to a strong craftsman or handicraft tradition. Some means must be found to permit participation in automated activities, perhaps through teleoperation or higher-order supervisory control (Chafer, 1979). Finally, more creative leisure time activities must be developed. The educational system must be re-oriented to support the notion that human beings need not derive their worth solely through work. Personal relationships, expanded hobbies, and private research are just a few of the many possible alternatives.

A more subtle result of increased automation is greater human dependency on "the machine." Many people may begin to sense a lack of autonomy in relation to their robot creations. This feeling will be exacerbated by the seeming remoteness of the the SMF, far from the immediate control of people on Earth. This may be a real psychological problem for the general public, so great care should be taken to ensure that the move toward complete automation is sufficiently gradual to allow people the opportunity to adjust to a new man-machine relationship.

Industrial capacity. An expanding SMF must eventually greatly augment the industrial output of the U.S. and the world as a whole. New materials and energy resources will become available at an ever-decreasing cost. Care must be taken to ensure that this capacity is used in a socially responsible manner. Extensive planning may be required to determine what products will have the most beneficial impact for the least cost in terrestrial resources. Several long-term "complex" products have been suggested in section 4.4.4.

It must be recognized that one important function of the SMF is to provide an industrial capability not currently available. The unique space environment makes possible the production of substances not easily duplicated under atmospheric and high-gravity conditions. These materials include serums and vaccines now produced only in very limited quantities, new composite substances, porous metallic structures, and high-purity metals and semiconductors (Grey et al, 1977). Thus directed, the increased industrial capacity derived from the SMF would supplement rather than supplant existing terrestrial industry, and therefore alleviate potential problems of unemployment.

Society. The spirit of the American people has taken an introspective turn. Many are no longer convinced that unexplored horizons still exist. Predictions of global calamity are commonplace, and the philosophy of "small is beautiful" has become popular (Salmon, 1979). Given only limited terrestrial resources, such predictions and prescriptions might indeed be appropriate.

However, establishing an SMF opens new horizons with the recognition that planet Earth is just one potential source of matter and energy. Recognition of the availability of lunar and asteroidal materials and the abundant energy of the Sun can revitalize the traditional American belief in growth as a positive good and can generate a new spirit of adventure and optimism. It is unnecessary to speculate on the directions of growth in its various dimensions because it is clear that American society would continue its historic tradition of exploring new horizons and avoiding stagnation in an ever-changing Universe (Dyson, 1979).

On a more fundamental level, the proposed mission is species-survival oriented. Earth might at any time become suddenly uninhabitable through global war, disease, pollution, or other man-made or natural catastrophes. A recent study has shown that an asteroid collision with Earth could virtually turn off photosynthesis for up to 5 years which, together with massive kilometer-high tsunamis, would virtually extinguish all higher life on this planet (Alvarez et al., 1980). The proposed mission assures the continued survival of the human species by providing an extraterrestrial refuge for mankind. An SMF would stand as constant proof that the fate of all humanity is not inextricably tied to the ultimate fate of Earth.

4.6.2 Near-Term Requirements for SMF Implementation[edit]

The foregoing analysis suggests that no single consequence of building an SMF is inevitable. Societal impacts may be channeled by proper planning, i.e., by taking a look at the proposed technological development within the entire global cultural framework. Recognition of the consequences of building an SMF is the first step in determining the requirements for making space industrialization a reality.

Some additional short-term planning requirements are reviewed below. The set of preconditions for the mission also may serve as a set of recommendations for action in NASA planning. A number of technological and societal factors are instrumental in determining whether the scenario proposed in this chapter can ever be actualized. The present discussion makes explicit many requirements tacitly assumed in previous sections, and provides both a general review of the broader significance of the mission and a set of recommendations for future NASA planning.

New technologies. SMF research and development should proceed concurrently with research in materials processing and the design of human space-transportation systems. While lunar and orbital starting kits could be deployed using current techniques, resupply of the SMF, conveyance of raw materials from Moon to LEO, and delivery of SMF products all demand additional technological development to be economically feasible. Likewise, independence of terrestrial resupply (nonterrestrial materials closure) and economic feasibility go hand in hand.

Technical requirements for limited human habitats in space and on the Moon also must be considered. The proposed mission attempts to minimize the human presence in space through automation. Nevertheless, some supervisory functions must be performed by people, at least in the initial and midterm Stages of space industrial development. In addition, as the machine systems evolve they will be able to create increasingly economical and secure nonterrestrial habitats for people.

Economics. Implementation of the proposed scenario, even given its strong emphasis on the utilization of space resources and automation, will require large-scale investment. The mission is designed, however, to build on existing and planned space programs Some venture capital from private individuals and corporations may be expected as the project draws closer to the point of economic payback.

The space-manufacturing mission is designed to draw less and less on terrestrial economic resources as it develops. The primary initial investment will be for the emplacement of the orbital and lunar starting kit facilities, the concurrent technical development required to create the machines contained within these packages, and people involved in the maintenance of operations.

Actual economic calculations are beyond the scope of the present study. However, previous studies have shown that space facilities not based on the principles of growth and automation can provide an economic return on investment (Johnson and Holbrow, 1977; Science Applications, 1978; Rockwell, 1978), so it is expected that the economics of the present proposal should show an even greater potential for return on investment.

Government. Studies have shown that the Executive branch of the Federal government must be a driving force behind the implementation of a large-scale space program (Overholt et al, 1975). The Chief Executive must be convinced that the project will have real value for the nation's citizens, preferably during his own Administration. The present mission emphasizes quick, highly visible results; the SMF is a constantly growing accomplishment with clearly visible benefits for all.

Planners of the project should strive for Interagency cooperation and financial support. DOD and DOE are obvious candidates, but other agencies such as NIH might also be interested if properly approached. The SMF could become a truly national facility, particularly if it is recognized as transcending the interests of any single government agency. The grand potential for space utilization may require some revision in NASA's charter, which presently is directed primarily towards exploration (Logsdon, 1979).

Space law. The legal difficulties associated with an SMF and a lunar mining facility have not yet been resolved or exhaustively examined. The latest draft Moon Treaty emphasizes that the use of the Moon should be "for the benefit of all mankind." Interpretations of this phrase vary (Jankowitsch, 1977), but an advisable approach would be to allow other nations to participate in the benefits achieved from the SMF. A Second possibility is to ensure that the space and lunar activities proposed for space manufacturing will be explicitly declared legally permissible in the final version of the Treaty.

Global requirements. Since the SMF will eventually have impacts ranging far beyond the borders of the United States, active cooperation with other nations should be sought during project implementation. In this way the problems inherent in a narrow territorial perspective, as well as possible legal objections by other nations, can be avoided. Plans should be drawn for the distribution of some, if not most, SMF products on a global basis. Capital investment in the project by other nations should be encouraged. Less-developed countries should be given an opportunity to participate in any way they can, even if they are unable to invest money in the project (Glaser, 1979). These attempts at open-handedness will do much to alleviate international apprehensions concerning a large-scale project of this sort initiated and conducted solely under U.S. auspices.

Public sector. Americans must be convinced they will derive some immediate and visible advantages from the SMF if it is to become a politically viable concept. People tend to view past space efforts primarily as prestige-oriented events (Overholt et at, 1975). An extensive public education program should be undertaken to demonstrate that automated space manufacturing can produce real economic benefits to the nation as a whole (Bannby, 1979). It should be emphasized that the project can help combat the problem of inflation now facing the country, and that space solar power systems will offset energy shortages that aggravate worldwide economic problems (Science Applications, Inc., 1078). Thus, the project can be shown to have the necessary links to problems of immediate and long-range concern to the ordinary citizen (Overholt et al., 1975). Special applications in the areas of health and tourism should also be emphasized.

It is essential to reassure the nation that fully autonomous robots will be only gradually introduced, that most existing jobs will not be replaced but rather enhanced, and that automata employed on the SMF will not be completely beyond human control. (Quite the contrary; for example, terrestrial construction crews could teleoperate bulldozers, cranes, or machine tool equipment in space or on the surface of the Moon.) People tend to fear machines which they feel they cannot control, even when this apprehension is unjustified (Taviss, 1972). Great care should be taken to discredit demagogues who may try to create false images and fears in the minds of the public.

Useful production. Planning for an SMF must include detailed consideration of the outputs expected to be produced. The most reasonable approach to production is to view it as an incremental process. Primary initial output of the SMF should be that which allows the facility to expand its own productive capability - an expanded set of machinery. These new devices may then construct hulls or pressurized vessels to provide a larger working environment. At this point some small-scale preparation of biological materials could be carried out (Grey et al., 1977).

Large-scale expansion of the facility requires large-scale teleoperation and robotics. Second-generation products should consist of parts essential to the construction of robots such as integrated circuits, capacitors, resistors, printed circuit boards, and wire. Some of this may be shipped back to Earth as useful production, together with increasing quantities of rare biomedical substances and other materials unique to space.

An expanded SMF makes possible full-scale production of space products and permits utilization of the facility for other purposes. Space platforms, pure glasses and synthetic crystals, satellites, and robots are ideal outputs. In addition, the SMF could undertake the major construction of solar power stations and provide a variety of other commercial applications.