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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Reading List: Honor Bound Honor Born

Howe, Steven D. Honor Bound Honor Born. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2011. ASIN B005JPZ4LQ.
During the author's twenty year career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, he worked on a variety of technologies including nuclear propulsion and applications of nuclear power to space exploration and development. Since the 1980s he has been an advocate of a “power rich” approach to space missions, in particular lunar and Mars bases.

Most NASA design studies for bases have assumed that almost all of the mass required to establish the base and supply its crew must be brought from the Earth, and that electricity will be provided by solar panels or radiothermal generators which provide only limited amounts of power. (On the Moon, where days and nights are two weeks long, solar power is particularly problematic.) Howe explored how the economics of establishing a base would change if it had a compact nuclear fission reactor which could produce more electrical and thermal power (say, 200 kilowatts electrical) than the base required. This would allow the resources of the local environment to be exploited through a variety of industrial processes: “in-situ resource utilisation” (ISRU), which is just space jargon for living off the land.

For example, the Moon's crust is about 40% oxygen, 20% silicon, 12% iron, and 8% aluminium. With abundant power, this regolith can be melted and processed to extract these elements and recombine them into useful materials for the base: oxygen to breathe, iron for structural elements, glass (silicon plus oxygen) for windows and greenhouses, and so on. With the addition of nutrients and trace elements brought from Earth, lunar regolith can be used to grow crops and, with composting of waste many of these nutrients can be recycled. Note that none of this assumes discovery of water ice in perpetually shaded craters at the lunar poles: this can be done anywhere on the Moon. If water is present at the poles, the need to import hydrogen will be eliminated.

ISRU is a complete game-changer. If Conestoga wagons had to set out from the east coast of North America along the Oregon Trail carrying everything they needed for the entire journey, the trip would have been impossible. But the emigrants knew they could collect water, hunt game to eat, gather edible plants, and cut wood to make repairs, and so they only needed to take those items with them which weren't available along the way. So it can be on the Moon, and to an even greater extent on Mars. It's just that to liberate those necessities of life from the dead surface of those bodies requires lots of energy—but we know how to do that.

Now, the author could have written a dry monograph about lunar ISRU to add to the list of technical papers he has already published on the topic, but instead he made it the centrepiece of this science fiction novel, set in the near future, in which Selena Corp mounts a private mission to the Moon, funded on a shoestring, to land Hawk Stanton on the lunar surface with a nuclear reactor and what he needs to bootstrap a lunar base which will support him until he is relieved by the next mission, which will bring more settlers to expand the base. Using fiction as a vehicle to illustrate a mission concept isn't new: Wernher von Braun's original draft (never published) of The Mars Project was also a novel based upon his mission design (when the book by that name was finally published in 1953, it contained only the technical appendix to the novel).

What is different is that while by all accounts of those who have read it, von Braun's novel definitively established that he made the right career choice when he became an engineer rather than a fictioneer, Steven Howe's talents encompass both endeavours. While rich in technical detail (including an appendix which cites research papers regarding technologies used in the novel), this is a gripping page-turner with fleshed-out and complex characters, suspense, plot twists, and a back story of how coercive government reacts when something in which it has had no interest for decades suddenly seems ready to slip through its edacious claws. Hawk is alone and a long way from home, so that any injury or illness is a potential threat to his life and to the mission. The psychology of living and working in such an environment plays a part in the story. And these may not be the greatest threat he faces.

This is an excellent story, which can be read purely as a thriller, an exploration of the potential of lunar ISRU, or both. In an afterword the author says, “Someday, someone will do the missions I have described in this book. I suspect, however, they will not be Americans.” I'm not sure—they may be Americans, but they certainly won't work for NASA. The cover illustration is brilliant.

This book was originally published in 1997 in a paperback edition by Lunatech Press. This edition is now out of print and used copies are scarce and expensive. At this writing, the Kindle edition is just US$ 1.99.

Posted at May 10, 2014 21:54