You can almost taste the rocket exhaust now from SpaceShipTwo climbing into black sky. The day when your primary piece of equipment for getting into space as a private citizen was a time machine has passed. Today, the countdown clock ticked once more forward towards blast off, carrying a group of civilians on the grandest of all adventures.
Virgin Galactic announced only hours ago the successful completion of the first phase of tests of the hybrid Nitrous Oxide rocket motor that will make up the main propulsion system for SpaceShipTwo. A fleet of these vehicles is being built for delivery to the company where they’ll soon begin regular service at Spaceport America in Las Cruces, New Mexico as the planet’s premier spaceline. The motor is the largest of its kind and will propel the Ship and its passengers to 2500 mph and heights over 65 miles.
Company founder Sir Richard Branson said, “As Virgin Galactic gets ever closer to the start of commercial operations, we are reaching and passing many important and historic milestones. The Virgin MotherShip (VMS) Eve, the first of our amazing, all carbon composite, high altitude WhiteKnightTwo launch vehicles, is flying superbly. SpaceShipTwo, which will air launch from Eve, is largely constructed and awaiting the start of its own test flight programme later this year.”
The first space ship to role off the assembly line will be named Enterprise after the ship in Star Trek, but that’s where the connection to science fiction ends. Construction is happening today… now! You have a front row seat to the most stupendous historical event ever. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s to come. As Branson puts it, “…space is on the cusp of a new industrial revolution.” And the opportunities that are sure to present themselves are limitless. We have reason to be more excited about space now than ever before. When the reality of space travel for the common man settles into our collective consciousness, when we see for ourselves that space is no longer the exclusive domain of an elite few, it will set off a wave of energy to make the enthusiasm of the Apollo era pale in comparison.
You can watch a movie of the test on the Virgin Galactic website: www.virgingalactic.com.
The most important task to be undertaken by the next Administrator of NASA will be to manage the Constellation program; this, above all else, because it represents the future of human space flight in the United States, and arguably sets the tone for space exploration across the globe. Not since the Apollo era has the US embraced such a unified vision as is embodied in this single program. Finally we have a tangible goal, one that will, if realized, take us out of the purgatory of low earth orbit and propel us outward into the solar system. But that future is far from set. We stand at a crossroads, and the decisions NASA makes over the coming months will determine whether or not we take a grand leap forward into space or stall and remain in our own back yard.
Already we see serious wavering in public opinion. In an editorial two days ago, USA Today stated that, “NASA Should Deemphasize Manned Spaceflight.” Their surrender speech continued with, “…it is far from certain a costly program with modest public support can survive long term when the nation faces an increasingly perilous fiscal situation. For that reason, it might be best to focus not on fixing NASA’s failures but on building on its successes. Recent years have seen a golden age of scientific and robotic space missions. … At some point, technological advance might change the economics of space travel, opening up an era in which humans are more than just celestial repairmen. For the foreseeable future, however, NASA’s real stars are its machines.” I myself have worked in the field of robotic space flight for well over a decade, and I have a deep appreciation for what robots can do. But they are no replacement for people, and we should never be satisfied with a space program that leaves humans on the ground. Robots can and should be our partners in space, but leave the exploring to us.
To avoid taking a road that could well lead to an irreversible atrophy of America’s leadership space, what we need is someone who is not only firmly committed to Constellation and to the larger Vision For Space Exploration but can remain focused and effective as the leader of NASA.
I’m afraid that person is not Major General Charles F. Bolden. Yes, I’m sure he’s a great guy. Yes, I’m sure he’s a patriot, a leader and a hell of an astronaut. But with all due respect for his accomplishments, the lot won’t amount to a hill of beans if he is constantly forced to recuse himself from critical decisions; decisions that require a champion unimpeded by political entanglements. His previous financial and business ties to GenCorp Inc., having served on its board of directors, and to Alliant Techsystems, Inc., the builders of the solid rocket motors for both the space shuttle and the Ares I rocket, guarantee endless questions over conflicts of interest. How can he possibly be effective at managing Constellation under these circumstances? If he truly possesses a passion for space exploration and wishes NASA to move forward, he should withdraw.
Senior project scientist for the Hubble space telescope, David Leckrone, publicly spoke out against the agency last week for what he feels is a loss of engineering expertise in the servicing of space-based instruments. His sentiment stems from the fact that the shuttle is being retired. He feels that without the shuttle, instruments like Hubble are doomed, having told the Washington Post that, “There is no person out there, there is no leadership out there, there is no vision out there to pick up the baton that we’re about to hand off and to carry it forward.” Given Dr. Leckrones position and his reputation as a “superman” of science, it’s a surprisingly myopic view of the state of affairs and bespeaks of the same ‘space equals NASA’ mentality for which this blog was created to dispel. The shuttle was but one engineering solution to repairing and refurbishing Hubble. It is neither the only nor the ideal solution. There are others, which could service Hubble and other spaceborne instruments more efficiently and cost-effectively than a shuttle.
The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has already demonstrated the technology for autonomous servicing of satellites in space. In 2007, they launched the Orbital Express mission consisting of two satellites: a “servicing” satellite and a “client” satellite. The servicing satellite was able to locate, maneuver around, rendezvous and dock with the client satellite. It performed a visual inspection of the entire client spacecraft using a video camera mounted on a light-weight, robotic arm. It then set about refueling to the client. And as if those two history-making maneuvers weren’t enough, it was also able to replace batteries and computers on the client. And all of this was performed with complete autonomy. Imagine that: One spacecraft docked with and completely repaired another. Of course, the two were designed with common interfaces and any spacecraft attempting to service spaceborne instruments would necessarily have to carry this same design consideration. But this is hardly a show-stopper. In the case of Hubble, we have an instrument that’s already flying. A servicer would have to incorporate into its design those specific interfaces; again, very do-able and likely with a price tag far less than a shuttle mission. With a technology transfer from that program to the private sector, a commercial solution could be made available with great cost savings.
The shuttle’s space-plane design is not a necessary component for servicing Hubble or anything else. A capsule-based architecture like that of the shuttle’s successor Orion can also do the job. NASA spokesman Grey Hautaluoma stated that, “There is nothing about the [Orion] architecture that would preclude satellite rescue work,” and former Administrator Michael Griffin has also said that Orion will be capable of a servicing mission. The problem there is that Orion may not be available for a mission like this for another decade, perhaps more, but there is another solution: a commercial, manned mission. SpaceX is in the advanced stages of flight testing for its Dragon spacecraft that could do the job. Given the opportunity and CEO Elon Musk’s stated desire to become more involved with manned space flight, it is very likely they could deliver a commercial solution with significant economy.
By its very nature, repair work is a natural fit for the private sector. It requires the standardization of all processes, hardware and software, which industry handles with more proficiency and fiscal agility than NASA, which is by its nature is a research and development organization. Make no mistake, there is a broad distinction between operations (which include repair) and R&D. Whereas operations relies upon standardization and repetition, R&D seeks the unique solution to what is at the time a unique problem: getting people to Mars for the first time is a good example. With operations and R&D, each has its place, but if you’re seeking economy, unique solutions and the large-scale development programs that they require, are not your goal. And for the first time, private industry is in the position to offer repair solutions. Organizations like that of Hubble should open their eyes to this fact.
The bottom line is that shuttle is history. In my view, its retirement can’t come soon enough. It was a white elephant from the beginning, never having delivered on its promises of a quick flight turn-around and cost savings over its expendable predecessors. In the end, it was too expensive both in terms of money and human lives. Add to that the fact that it could never fly higher than low earth orbit — and thus is useless for moon and Mars missions — and it becomes painfully obvious that we desperately need a new system. In both its NASA and commercial forms, the architecture of that new system will be capsule-based. And why not? It proved itself safe and reliable time and again with Apollo. It even served as the basis for the US’s first space station: Skylab. SpaceX was wise to choose it, and once their systems reach even a modest level of maturity, the number of missions of which they are ultimately capable will open many doors to many as yet unforeseen opportunities in space. In the meantime, a commercial repair solution for Hubble and follow-on missions like the James Webb Space Telescope still makes the most sense.
Until very recently, the only astronauts were those trained and certified either by the military or civilian space agencies such as NASA. That changed on June 21, 2004 when the US Federal Aviation Administration issued the first pair of commercial astronaut wings to Mike Melvill for the final test flight of SpaceShipOne. That day, he flew to an altitude of 328,491 feet or about 62 miles. I might add that he made this flight at the age of 63 years, proving that you can still spit rocket fuel even when your peers are retiring.
I had the good fortune to meet Mike when I was there covering his history-making flight for a professional astronautics journal. He’s not what you might expect to find in a test pilot. One of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, I found no overblown ego, no arrogance, no cold detachment. Instead, I saw a surprisingly approachable man, friendly and good-natured; very humbled by his experience. The only coolness he exhibited was the professional sort like that he demonstrated earlier in the day when SpaceShipOne went into a series of rolls, brought on by a fault in an actuator on the flaps. Mike suddenly found himself in a vertical corkscrew maneuver, and being the consummate professional pilot he is, calmly and quickly brought the Ship under control with no more fuss than most folks would display in parking the family car at the grocery store. After the flight and with a sly grin, he quipped about holding, “…the world’s record for victory rolls at the top of the climb.” Cool? Well, only when it counts.
Three and a half months later, Brian Binnie became the second commercial astronaut when he flew SpaceShipOne to nearly 70 miles altitude. Brian is an ex Navy aviator and test pilot, having graduated from the US Naval Test Pilot School. He flew many different aircraft while in the military, but it wasn’t until he left and began flying commercially for Scaled Composites as a test pilot that he was to become an astronaut. This is a story that I predict will be become more and more common: people turning to commercial ventures for the next great opportunity and adventure.
Both Mike and Brian beat the high-altitude record held since the early 1960′s by the X-15, an experimental military aircraft. Now, for the first time in history, people are flying into space as part of a private endeavor.
The identities of the next batch of commercial astronauts are not yet known, but the likelihood is that they’ll be flying for Virgin Galactic. Another in the Virgin Group brand of companies started by Sir Richard Branson, Galactic will be flying the newest spaceliners fresh off the Scaled Composites assembly line. These sleek, six-passenger vehicles are the next generation of rocket planes following SpaceShipOne, which won the designer Burt Rutan the Ansari X Prize. And where are the pilots coming from? Where else? Virgin Atlantic airline. No doubt the airline experienced a sharp increase in pilot resumes when that news leaked out.
And hot on the heels of Virgin Galactic will be another set of commercial astronauts flying the Dragon, currently being designed and manufactured by a company called SpaceX. The President of the California-based company, Gwynne Shotwell, announced on February 6th at a conference hosted by the FAA that if COTS-D (see Commercial Human Space Transportation Now) is funded, the astronauts to fly the demonstration flights of Dragon to the International Space Station will not be NASA but rather their own commercial astronauts. For several moments, you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. Up to that very moment, the assumption had been that the astronauts would be NASA.
This reminds me of the riddle about a father and son involved in a car accident. When the ambulance carrying the injured boy arrives at the hospital, the attending doctor looks at the boy and exclaims, “Oh my god. He’s my son!” What is the identity of the doctor? Of course it’s the boy’s mother, but you’d be surprised how many — both men and women — either get it wrong or return a blank stare. Why? I won’t get into a political debate over the reason; suffice it to say that the word “doctor” has been burned into our collective consciousness as a male figure. Something similar has happened in our minds with the term “astronaut.” Without thinking we associate the term with NASA. Likewise, we associate “cosmonaut” with the Russian Space Agency. Neither terms conjure up images of a private company. It’s what I call the “Space Equals NASA” mentality, and it’s a way of thinking that is quickly becoming antiquated.
As more and more commercial ventures in space begin, we’ll see the ranks of the commercial astronaut swell to meet the demand. And that demand will rise quickly. Plans are being drawn for space hotels (see The First Space Settlement) and if the European Space Agency and some within the Space Frontier Foundation get their way, even the International Space Station will be commercialized, opening the door for it to become the nucleus for an entire city in earth orbit. I must admit that it’s something I, too, would like to see come to pass. The commercialization of space makes sense on so many levels, and every opportunity should be seized.
Take a good look at the commercial astronaut wings in the picture. The next time you see them, they may be pinned on the lapel of your pilot.
If humans are to go into space en masse, there must be a destination, and that destination must be capable of providing at a minimum a few, key elements.
The first is that it must be able to support all the basic needs of the people there: shelter, air to breathe, food and the equipment for its preparation, water, personal living space and health needs. It must be able to expand to support population growth for unlimited periods of time. And to do all of this, it must support commerce. What we’re describing here is a permanent settlement, and we’ve not yet established one, which requires that we first identify its form. But what would that be?
The US and Russia have been operating space stations since the early 70′s, but none of them meet our requirements for a destination, including today’s International Space Station. The ISS is what it was designed to be: a scientific outpost. But there is a world of difference between an outpost and a settlement. That’s not to say the station could not grow beyond the limitations of an outpost. During a series of congressional hearings in 2001, the Space Frontier Foundation proposed that the International Space Station be transferred to a spaceport authority once its construction is complete. This would open the door to commerce and could well establish the station in its current form as the nucleus for the first city in space. The design does allow for expansion. It’s essentially a series of cylindrical containers connected together at their ends to form the overall structure. If one wishes to expand, simply attach more cylinders. Commerce is the only missing element.
Congress did not act on the recommendations of the SFF, so no plans have been made for a spaceport authority through which to operate and maintain the ISS; however, this may be the best time to re-examine the proposal with construction due to finish just around the corner. My own research leads me to conclude that such a move will, if proposed again, be resisted by NASA. I believe there are elements within the agency that feel it would amount to a black mark on their reputation to allow any entity other than themselves to operate ISS. This is utter nonsense, of course. NASA is a research and development organization and has no business in operations, but that’s a topic unto itself.
Where do we turn, if not the ISS, for a destination? In a word: hotels. And because an orbiting hotel could no more exist alone than one of the old west could have existed without the general stores, livery stables and yes, even saloons, it will bring with it a host of other businesses that operate in conjunction with it. The hotels and the supporting infrastructure that will necessarily accompany them will constitute our first settlements in space.
But that’s far off into the future, you say. It won’t be available in my life time. Let’s be realistic. If you’re talking about hotels in space, you’re talking science fiction. If this is your viewpoint, let me be the first to set you straight.
There are currently two, serious contenders who have the resources for building a hotel in earth orbit. At present, I wouldn’t place a bet on who gets there first, because they’re both backed by plenty of vision, technical know-how and — not to put too fine a point on it — cash.
The first is Robert Bigelow who became a multimillionaire with his earthbound Las Vegas hotel chain Budget Suites of America. He had the vision and fortitude to capture the technology from the cancelled Transhab program when he purchased the rights to the patents developed by NASA. Transhab was a program that the agency cancelled, but not before it had developed a space habitat module much stronger than the rigid body construction like that found in the International Space Station. The whole assembly is flown into orbit in a compressed form to save space on the launcher, then inflated with air to expand to its operational size and shape. The multilayer, inflatable shell is a marvel of innovation, capable of withstanding strikes from micrometeorites and other similarly-sized pieces of space debris. Several layers are made from a material called Vectran, which is twice as strong as Kevlar used in bullet-proof vests. Bigelow saw the immense potential of this technology and is now building it into his prototype habitats, two of which are flying high above earth as you read this article: Genesis I and II. His prototypes will culminate in a space hotel called the CSS, or Commercial Space Station, Skywalker.
Anyone can produce eye-catching, computer-generated graphics and claim that they’ll begin producing real hardware in the near future. But “the proof…” as they say, “is in the pudding.” Here with Bigelow’s designs, we have flight tested hardware, real stuff you can go and lay your hands on — well, that is until it launched. As of this date, his full-scale habitat module is on the launch manifest for 2011 aboard a SpaceX (see Commercial Human Space Transportation Now) Falcon 9 rocket. Where others are producing nothing more than hype with cool pictures and a website, Bigelow is flying now.
There’s one other company that has a real shot at creating the first orbiting hotel: Galactic Suite Limited. Based in Barcelona, they’ve assembled a very competent team to cover the technical end. And they, too, have the cash with investors from the US, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. Their ace in the hole is a yet unnamed investor who has put up $3B for startup. A hefty sum, and let’s face it; with the technology well in hand for at least the past two decades, money is the bottom line to getting a project like this from the drawing board to selling tickets.
Galactic Suite also has a vehicle for getting clients aboard their orbiting accommodations: the Russian Soyuz. All the best designs will add up to nothing if you have no way of getting people to and from orbit, but they have this base covered, too. The usage of the Soyuz is not ideal, and will drive up ticket prices, but it will do nicely for the beginning of flights. In the meantime, they’re keeping their eye on the various X Prize-Generation (XP-Gen companies are those who came into being in response to the Ansari X Prize – see The Ansari X Prize) companies designing and building commercial spacecraft, including the two, top contenders: Scaled Composites and SpaceX (see The Writing On The Wall).
Which of these two companies ultimately makes history with the first orbiting hotel, or whether it’s another company, is really not that important. The fact is that we’ll soon see a new star in our night sky, and it will have people on it just like you and I. The dawn of a new age is breaking and with it comes the hope and the realization of decades of dreaming about space. Neil Armstrong said, “The regret on our side is, they used to say years ago, we are reading about you in science class. Now they say, we are reading about you in history class.” Now try to imagine a day soon when we will be reading in history books about common folk and their experiences in space. You need not strain to imagine it. Indeed, we may just be reading about you!
It was just three weeks ago that the Heinlein Prize for Accomplishments In Commercial Space Activities was awarded to the University of Texas Health Science Center for their proposal on the space-based development of implantable devices for controlled, long-term drug release. Paid by the estate of Robert A. Heinlein, noted science fiction author, the prize will be a cash award of $25,000 and a place on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft in which to conduct their experiments in low earth orbit. The University of Texas team won the prize in a competition against Universities Space Research Association, the Durham VA Medical Center of Duke University and others. Here again is a great example of competition in the private sector leading to advances in space.
The Heinlein Prize was established in 1988 in order to advance the commercialization of space, but it is just one in a series of similar prizes awarded over the past 80 years. Many advances in aerospace technology came as a direct result of prizes, and it is a fact of which few people today are aware.
Most of us know about the infamous flight of Charles Lindbergh when he flew the Spirit Of St. Louis on a transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in May of 1927. But what few people know is that Lindbergh made his flight while vying to win the Orteig Prize.
Raymond Orteig immigrated to the United States from the south of France in 1882 at the age of 12. From humble beginnings he worked his way up from a busboy to a full-fledged entrepreneur, having acquired two hotels. He offered the prize of $25,000 in 1919 after attending a dinner honoring the World War I American ace Eddie Rickenbacher. Orteig had a passion for flight and wanted to see the United States and France linked by air, and his prize ignited the technological developments and the advances in operations know-how needed to make that dream come true. The commercial aviation industry was openned as a direct result of the Orteig and the competition that his prize motivated.
It was the Orteig Prize that inspired another competition 77 years later with the Ansari X Prize. This time, it would result in the rise of the commercial human space flight industry. $10M was offered to the first team to fly into space twice in the course of two weeks and do this without assistance of any form — monitary or otherwise — from government. It was to be a purely private venture. The prize was captured in 2004 by legendary aerospace designer Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites with funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Shortly thereafter, the Personal Spaceflight Federation was formed and the commercial human space flight industry was born. This moment in history was a tipping point. People had previously been flying into space for half a century, but in very small numbers and purely as an academic and research venture. Private, commercial human space flight had been little more than a dream until then. This single event marked the point in human history when the scale tipped and the idea of the common man going to space was transformed from science fiction to short-term goal. Today, now, Virgin Galactic is on the verge of regular, passenger carrying space flights as the world’s first “spaceline.” Mile marker zero on the road to colonizing space was set at October 4, 2004.
Today there are still more prizes to be had for those industrious individuals and organizations who dare to design and build the space technology for passenger carrying. There is the America’s Space Prize. Hotel and aerospace entreprenuer Robert Bigelow is offering $50M to the first US-based, privately-funded team to design and build a reusable spacecraft capable of carrying 5 people to a Bigelow Aerospace space habitat module. The team to claim this prize will ignite the orbiting hotel industry.
Then there is the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30M competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters (1640 feet) and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth. Twenty teams are currently registered to make an attempt for the prize. Who wins is unimportant. When that prize is claimed it will establish another first: a commercial foothold on the moon. When that happens the door is wide open to the colonization of our nearest neighbor in space.
Competion spurred on by prizes has brought about some of the most beneficial technical advancements of all time. It is a healthy and necessary component of our civilization, and the prizes being offered today will help ignite whole new industries culminating in the colonizing of earth orbit, the moon and the rest of the solar system.
For the last week and a half, a lot of verbiage has been flying around about NASA funding a commercial, human space transportation system. The Orlando Sentinel reported on April 29 that NASA will be getting $150M from the new Stimulus Bill, $80M of which is slated for a “crewed launch demo.” The article also goes on to say that acting NASA Administrator Chris Scolese stated that the money is not “technically” for a crewed demo. Some Blogs are reporting that the Sentinel is all wet, while SpaceX – the provider of a crewed demo – has declared victory. Whomever is correct, here’s what they’re talking about and why it’s important.
The Space Shuttle is retiring at the end of 2010. At the moment, it is the only vehicle capable of carrying people and cargo to the International Space Station. Add to that the fact that the shuttle’s successor will be available no earlier than 2015 and you’re left with the so-called 5-year “shuttle gap” (see The Writing On The Wall, April 11). In other words, the US will not have the capability to reach the Station during this period, forcing us to hitch a ride on the Russian Soyuz. The situation has been the source of a great deal of consternation at NASA.
A company called SpaceX has already solved the engineering portion of the problem. In a stunning display of vision, they set about developing a spacecraft they call Dragon back in 2005 that would have the capability to take both crews and cargo to the ISS. In March 2006, they proposed it as part of their bid for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract, and by August they had won the contract.
The COTS contract has four options: A through D. Option A is for carrying cargo in an unpressurized cabin. In other words, it rides to orbit in a vacuum. A reasonable choice if your cargo is mechanical assemblies and fresh shirts. Option B provides for transporting cargo in a pressurized cabin. Option C does the same thing but also returns cargo to earth, the so-called “down mass.” Finally, option D would carry crews, and it is this option leading to a “crewed demo” that was mentioned in the Sentinel article. The first three options have already been funded, but D has been languishing without the money to move forward. It’s quite ironic since D holds the most promise for revolutionizing space travel.
This option is important, because it would allow the company to finalize development and flight testing and bring into service the world’s first commercial human transport system capable of reaching orbit. The historical significance of this cannot be overstated. For the first time in human history, a transportation system would be available for the commercial development of space; emphasis on commercial. On that day, space ceases to be a purely academic pursuit and becomes a place where the common man can seek new opportunities. Dear reader, this signals the fundamental shift of paradigm we’ve been dreaming about for half a century. I’m talking about the colonization of space!
So let’s sum up the pros of funding option D of NASA’s COTS contract. The problem of how to get US crews and payloads to the International Space Station is solved in one fell swoop plus we have the added bonus of opening space for all humanity to enjoy. Orbiting cities. A lunar colony. Space vacations. The world of the Jetsons becomes our reality. Today!
Cons? Hm. Let me get back to you on that one.
If you’ve not yet seen the new movie Knowing with Nicolas Cage, do yourself a favor and go. The critics don’t seem to like it, which is a sure sign that it’s worth seeing. It conveys the poignant and disturbing message that life on earth could be snuffed out by external forces with little or no warning. Mass extinction events on earth have happened many times in the past, and there’s no guarantee one won’t occur again.
If you’re one of those folks who questions the wisdom of spending money on space exploration, one who sees little value in colonizing space, preferring to spend the money on earth-bound programs, you may want to consider this fact. Were the earth to be struck by an asteroid similar to the one that slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula killing off the dinosaurs — the so called “K-T Extinction Event” — the human species could go the way of the T-Rex. But even if one concedes that destructive mechanisms like comet and asteroid impacts are unlikely, the level of risk must be weighed against the outcome. No matter how unlikely these events may be, humanity cannot recover from extinction. Once we’re gone, we’re gone forever as a species. Any risk of that should be unacceptable to us all. And so we come to one of the most compelling reasons for colonizing space: preservation of the species. Elegant in its simplicity, the concept follows that no catastrophic event, even on a planetary scale, could result in the extinction of humans if our presence is not concentrated in a single place.
Knowing the dire consequences of a global cataclysm places upon us the responsibility to act. And we have reached the most favorable time in our history to move out into space. Until recently, we possessed the technology but lacked another prerequisite for getting mankind into space, en masse: an economic environment allowing private industry to enter space on its own and remain there, sustained by profit. Hurray for capitalism!
In 2004, that last impediment was removed when the Scaled Composites LLC team flew their SpaceShipOne to space in two, back-to-back flights, winning them the Ansari X Prize in the process. In that moment of history, a sort of collective epiphany occurred in investment circles. The old paradigm of massive, government-sponsored programs for reaching space was broken. A small group of daring engineers demonstrated that the technology for reaching space can be affordable, ergo space can be profitable. Since then, private investment has taken root and is growing at a healthy rate. Sometimes that investment comes from within a company developing commercial space systems, something completely unthinkable only a few, short years ago.
The movie paints a very dark picture of one possible outcome for our tiny, blue planet, one not outside the realm of possibility. Knowing the earth could be devastated is a bitter thing, but as someone wiser than I once said, it’s better than wondering.
When NASA landed men on the moon in 1969 it captured the imagination of every human on earth. Time and again over the decades since, this astronautics behemoth has dazzled us with a steady stream of cosmic miracles, shaping our lives in ways we never dreamed. Indeed it was witnessing Apollo 11 rising above the tree tops from my home in Merritt Island, Florida and watching the astronauts on television as they walked across the surface of the moon that so enthralled me as a boy of barely seven that it was to shape my own life’s destiny. I now work in robotic space flight, and it was the best decision of my life, due almost entirely to the actions and history made by NASA. But is it fair or even logical to hold the expectation that the agency be the final word on all things space?
Of course mine is the perspective of an American for whom NASA remains at the forefront of the news in space technology. One could easily change that perspective to ask the same question of the European Space Agency, the Russian Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency or any other. Should we as humans insist that our respective governments assume the role of creating new colonies – and thus opportunities – for us in space? Is that reasonable? From a financial perspective, certainly not! Where then do we turn if not to government?
Before we tackle that question, let’s examine a bit further the notion that space equals NASA. Why is it so pervasive? That much of it is not rocket science. We can set aside for a moment the fact that the Russians have historically been very active and successful in human space flight. Though this is true, recent events in their history have forced them to scale back that effort to a fraction of what it once was. We’ll also leave out the Chinese human space flight program since they’ve only recently made their first, tentative steps off planet. The fact is that most people associate human space exploration almost exclusively with NASA, because that’s what we see.
NASA has for so long occupied the spotlight that it is almost inconceivable to most of us that anyone else could do the job of space flight. It’s a tacit understanding that the endeavor is so difficult and so dangerous that it must be left to those with the most experience. But there are very important points that are getting lost, because too much is tacit. We’re now at a point in space history where we must re-examine the basic tenets that form the foundation of our efforts in space. We need to take a fresh look at what we think we understand.
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that the human colonization of space has never been in the mission statement of NASA. Their business is that of research and development. In their own words, their job, “is to pioneer the future of space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.” We’ve all taken it for granted that some where along the line in all that space exploration, a byproduct will be colonization. But that assumption is erroneous, and unless we suggest re-chartering NASA to include this responsibility, we’ll have to accept their role as pathfinder and look elsewhere for the builders of a space-borne infrastructure that is so necessary to support large numbers of people in earth orbit and on the moon. The harsh truth is that NASA lacks the budget to carry out all the responisbilities of its existing charter. Adding more is simply unrealistic.
Another assumption that bears re-examination is that space flight is too dangerous and difficult for anyone but NASA. There are many companies routinely building and flying space systems that will surely take issue with that assessment. Expertise in every discipline necessary for conducting space flight exists within the private sector. Indeed it is that expertise that NASA often relies upon for executing the programs it manages.
Private enterprise can manage space programs more effectively. It can do the job at a small fraction of the cost of government programs, in great part because the development cycle leading to flight is far shorter and because processes employed in diagnosing and repairing problems are far more streamlined than those of NASA. A great example can be pulled from the pages of recent history. During the final test flight of SpaceShipOne, a problem was encountered with a faulty actuator resulted in a rolling motion of the spacecraft on ascent. The malfunction was diagnosed and fixed and the Ship returned to flight within 48 hours, something that could never happen with a NASA program.
Private sector space flight has become stronger than at any time in history. So much so that we now see the emergence of an industry trade association. The Personal Spaceflight Federation is an alliance of 19 companies dedicated to the development of commercial human space flight. Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic are two companies among the Federation’s members demonstrating that space flight can be carried out without government assistance. Flight testing is under way for the world’s first spaceliner, and regular flights are due to start by as early as next year. Soon they’ll be turning out astronaut wings by the hundreds and not for scientists and military pilots but for regular folks. The first ticket prices are what can be expected from any new technology. The first calculators that came on the scene in the early 1970 were prohibitively expensive, but as more and more were sold the prices eventually fell by some 4000%. The same will happen with the cost of taking a ride into space.
SpaceX, another Federation company, has developed a spacecraft using its own funds, and now that craft is under contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. There’s also a provision in the contract to deliver people to the ISS, and the astronauts that conduct the test flights of this system will not be NASA but rather commercial astronauts!
Robert Bigelow is yet another example of an entrepreneur who so believes in the power of the private sector to deliver space systems that he is doing so with his own money. His company, Bigelow Aerospace, builds space habitats that could be used to build the world’s first private space stations, hotels or any other structures we care to place into earth orbit. Such structures could constitute the first city in space and not in the far distant future but now! As you read this article, there are two of Bigelow’s space habitats in orbit with a third and much larger called the BA330 in the works.
Put all these pieces together, and it’s easy to see that the private sector is not only capable of colonizing space but has already taken the first steps in doing just that. Train your eyes on them. Their next few years are likely to yield some surprising successes and progress that will put the limitless opportunities of space within the reach of you and I.