I was having dinner with friends the other night, and one of them asked a pragmatic question: what are the benefits of space? The answer to that question is multifaceted, its morphology branching off into examinations of human vs robotic space flight, near-earth vs deep space and on and on. The topic could easily fill an entire book, but for the purpose of this discussion, I’ll narrow it down to two generalities associated with human space flight: benefits derived from space now and future benefits.
The most talked about benefit from space is the so-called spinoff; that is, technology developed to support space missions that spun off into the consumer, industrial and medical markets. The topic has been discussed ad nauseam over the last several decades, so I won’t spend much time on this aspect, but one of the more visible spinoffs to consumers has been cordless tool technology.
What’s the old saying? Necessity is the mother of invention? When astronauts are assembling or repairing structures or any of a host of other tasks in space, it’s important that the work area be constrained as much as possible. Stringing an extension chord to provide power to a tool is neither practical nor safe, so there arose the need for a tool that provides its own power. Engineers set about solving that problem and voila! Cordless tools. Though the technology dates back to the Apollo era when astronauts needed a special drill for extracting lunar core samples, we all saw the recent application of this technology in space this past May during the fourth servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Although the list of spinoffs is lengthy, its inventory is but a very nice bonus and not a justification. There must be more support behind the argument for space. Why make the effort, and particularly now?
Like the old saying goes: “there’s no time like the present.” Mankind cannot lapse into complacency without falling into stagnation. We need problems to solve and undiscovered places to explore. And it is a simple fact of our nature that the healthiest societies on earth are those actively engaged in the space frontier, and with the coming of the Space Industrial Revolution in which the commercial sector becomes vested in space, every scientific discipline, the white collar and the working class alike have opportunities in space. It is perhaps this reason above all others that provides the justification for turning our ambitions towards the heavens.
Now, for the first time in history, we stand on the cusp of an era in which space is affordable, opening the door to colonization and all the benefits that come with it, and not for a few but for everyone. It behooves us to seize the moment. Take a deep breath and pass through the door while it’s open, because there’s no guarantee it will remain so.
History is littered with examples of lost opportunities, of pathways opened only to be closed again either for lack of ambition or fear of the unknown. Take for example the Antikythera Mechanism discovered off the shores of a Greek island by that name in 1901. More than two thousand years ago someone created a mechanical calculator as complex as any Swiss watch. The mind that created it was ages ahead of its time, certainly capable of revolutionizing the world it inhabited. But such a revolution would have to wait two millennia. The Mechanism would seem to have been unique or at least exceedingly rare in antiquity.
Around the same time, someone created the first battery. It was discovered in 1936 among the ruins of a two-thousand-year-old village in Baghdad. The ancient world made discoveries that, had it pursued, could easily have resulted in a very different world history. Perhaps right now we would be living on the moon, Mars or beyond and having solved the mystery of cheap, abundant energy. We’ll never know. All we do know is that for a few, brief moments in time, technology took a great leap forward, only to abandon the gain.
Now here we stand in a similar instant. Faced with the choice of taking a collective leap forward into the cosmos or remaining earthbound, which will we choose? I’d like to think that the Balboa or the Daniel Boone in each of us will win out, but it’s a fate far from being written in stone.
And as for the future benefits of space, there is one impetus for leaving earth that we’ve only recently come to realize is ignored at our own peril. It’s called “Preservation of the Species” (see Knowing, May 7th).
There exists a very thin, seemingly innocuous layer of Iridium in the earth’s crust. It sits at the so-called “Cretaceous–Tertiary Boundary” of about 65 million years ago. What makes this layer unusual is its concentration of Iridium; in places as much as 130 times normal. It was placed there by the impact of an asteroid or comet in the Yucatán peninsula, which resulted in the Chicxulub crater some 110 miles wide. When the object struck earth, it released so much energy that it ignited world-wide wild fires, the evidence of which is found in the presence at the same layer of something called Fullerenes, molecules composed entirely of carbon, in the form of a hollow sphere, ellipsoid, or tube, and which are thought to form in the presence of intense heat. In a flash, approximately 50 percent of all plant and animal families, including the non-avian dinosaurs, were wiped out. But this was not the only event of this kind in the history of the world. At least five major and global mass extinction events have occurred during the past 500 million years. And there is absolutely no guarantee, whatsoever, that our home world will not be visited by another such cataclysm. For that reason, we should not allow mankind to be concentrated in one place. As rocket scientist and pioneer in astronautic theory Konstantin Tsiolkovsky said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one can not live in a cradle forever.”
With so many preaching gloom and doom for the US, manned space program, it’s worth stepping back for a moment and taking a look at the current situation from an historical and developmental perspective. When speaking of NASA, space pundits everywhere are using adjectives like “irrelevant” and “lost” and referring to the human space exploration program in terms like “troubled,” “scrubbed,” or even “dead.” But I’m absolutely convinced that this is the wake up call we’ve needed to reevaluate our paradigms and make adjustments where needed, and in some cases, outright course changes.
From its inception, NASA has been building machines to go where no man has gone before: each one unique and distinct from those that proceeded and followed. When the mission itself was unique by virtue of never having been tried before, there was no other way of getting the job done. Missions of this nature will continue to be defined, but those are reserved for the edge of the frontier and beyond. We’ve reached the developmental stage in which much of what we’re doing — particularly in low earth orbit — has been done many times before. It is nonsensical to continue the practice of building unique systems for this region; more than that, it’s unsustainable and is the reason we find ourselves in this situation. It’s time to put decades of operational experience in earth orbit to good use and build our systems in industrial fashion: that is, build a few systems that can be repeated on an assembly line with only small modifications tailored to a given flight. And we don’t have to look any further than American industry for the experts at doing just that. They’ve already demonstrated the willingness and ability to input millions in their own funds to design and build flight systems. They are the key, missing element to solve our fiscal woes.
It has been suggested that the US turn to its international partners to pick up the tasks that are too expensive for NASA. I categorically reject this assertion as fallacious, destructive and irresponsible. It amounts to the abject surrender of American know-how and an abandonment of our preeminence in space. It runs counter to the very nature of the people who make up this land. We are explorers at heart, and it is the following of that urge to seek out the unknown, to push back the limits of our abilities, that has kept us on top in everything from education to communication, from transportation to energy production and the list goes on. Since when have we turned from a thing because it was hard? Since when have our hearts grown faint in the face of the unknown? And since when have we grown content to follow in the paths blazed by others?
No. I think we’ll do what we’ve always done in times such as this: pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. I’ve heard it said that people are at their best when things are at their worst, and it’s doubly so of Americans. We can find a true course and be counted upon to dig deep and summon the courage and tenacity to follow it, but it will require that our leaders, lead; both in Washington and in industry.
When I wrote back in May that I believed Bolden was the wrong choice for NASA Administrator, I was content to drop the issue until such time that he demostrated my point. Well, that time has arrived. Already he’s showing signs of a leader disconnected from the people and programs he’s tasked with leading. Case in point: The Ares I-X rocket. He is quoted by InsideKSC.com as having said of Ares, “Since the program of record will not be recommended by the Augustine commission, I don’t see any point in continuing with the launch.” Odd, since his own NASA Ares I-X Mission Manager Bob Ess vehemently contradicts that statement, saying that, “We have a very high confidence level that the Ares I-X is germane to NASA. Period. No caveats.” Ess is unequivocal; absolutely confident that a great deal can be learned from the test flight of the Ares I-X. We’ve already spent good money to build the rocket that now sits fully assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center. Why not learn what we can from it? To throw in the towel at this point simply because an outside entity may or may not find favor or see relevance in the program smacks of the kind of docility and pliability found in a figurehead. Exactly when Bolden plans on actually leading NASA, one is left to wonder. Certainly backing up his own and seeing that their efforts (not to mention our taxes) aren’t waisted is a good place to start.
Excalibur Almaz Limited (EA), an international space exploration company, today announced plans to open up a new era of private orbital space flight for commercial customers, using updated elements of the “Almaz” space system originally developed by Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia (or NPOM). It consists of two vehicles: the Almaz reusable spacecraft and re-entry vehicle or RRV and its accompanying, expendable Service Module, which will allow the spacecraft to perform flights of up to one week, without rendezvous with a space station. The company says it, “plans for its spacecraft to be compatible with a number of launch vehicles and capable of being launched from worldwide sites.”
EA plans to offer week-long orbital space flights beginning as early as 2013 – taking a big leap beyond the sub-orbital flight market targeted by most other private space companies. In addition to NPOM, other leading aerospace firms in the U.S., Europe and Japan will provide technical support for EA’s space flight operations.
EA Founder and CEO Art Dula said, “Through cooperation with NPOM and with the support of leading space contractors around the world and an exceptionally strong management and advisory team, EA is in a unique position to initiate a new era of private orbital space exploration.”
And indeed the company does have an impressive array of leadership, including Walter Cunningham who was pilot for Apollo 7 and who later served as Chief of the Skylab Branch of NASA’s Fight Crew Directorate; There’s Leroy Chiao, Commander of Expedition 10 aboard the International Space Station; Vladimir Titov, the Russian cosmonaut who set a record for spending more than a year in space for the first time and who also trained for missions using the Almaz spacecraft. Russian Cosmonaut Valery Tokarev who flew on space shuttle mission STS-96 and also spent 6 months on ISS; and then there’s Jonathan Clark, MD, the company’s Chief Medical Officer who is a member of NASA’s Constellation Program EVA Systems Standing Review Board and was a Space Shuttle Crew Surgeon from 1997 to 2005 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. This, just to name a few.
To add still more legitimacy, the company has formed contractor and other alliances the world over with organizations such as Houston-based United Space Alliance (co-owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin and responsible for operating and processing the Space Shuttle fleet and the International Space Station); Tokyo-based Japan Manned Space Systems Corporation (involved in the operations HTV, Japan’s unmanned resupply spacecraft to the ISS) , Moscow-based NPOM (the original designer of Almaz) and Rice University in the US.
From the standpoint of technical expertise, Excalibur Almaz is very capable of placing private citizens into space. The open question at this point is its source of startup funds. Also, the company has not quoted prices for seats or elaborated on the flight profiles other than to say that they will be orbital. There’s also the obvious question of a destination, which they have not yet stated as a part of the flight but through which many companies wishing to establish orbiting hotels could gain their first access to space. Still, the fact that a private company will be offering orbital trips represents are huge leap forward in the Space Industrial Revolution.
It’s easy to envision a partnership with another commercial entity such as Bigelow Aerospace, designers and builders of space habitat modules, two of which are on orbit now and have established proof-of-concept over thousands of successful orbits, and with a third, much larger version in the developmental stage.
Carry the plan just a little further, and one could envisage a complete offering whereby SpaceX, Builders of the Falcon rocket, offer the booster for getting into orbit, Excalibur Almaz provides the spacecraft and Bigelow Aerospace rounds out the service by providing a destination – an orbiting hotel, if you will. This would require a great deal of cooperation, but it’s really not too different from the kinds of cooperation we see in play right now in the terrestrial-based tourism industry, in which hotels, airlines, cruise lines, bus services and car rental companies all work together to provide a complete, end-to-end service offering.
And now Excalibur Almaz adds its name to the rapidly-growing list of private space flight providers including Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures, Galactic Suite, XCOR, Spaceport America and Spaceport Sweden. The space adventures we dreamt of as children are materializing before our eyes, thanks to the Space Industrial Revolution. Today, you can book a flight to the edge of space or a 10-day stay on the International Space Station. Soon, you’ll be able to stay at an orbiting hotel and – hang on to your hat – there are plans to offer a trip to circumnavigate the moon!
While NASA and other civil agencies are scratching their heads and pondering how to remain relevant, the commercial sector is planning bold, new ventures that take not only the elite but the common man into space. Once again, we see that past is prologue.
It’s a very basic concept, but one that’s only recently come to be employed with space flight systems: The scientific sector provides the knowledge and advanced technologies with which the commercial sector generates economic benefit for society as a whole. Yes, there have been the so-called “spin-off” technologies like the infrared ear thermometer, smoke detector and cordless tools, but only in the last few years have we seen the emergence of commercial entities owning flight hardware previously developed under NASA contracts and with which they can start up private, manned space ventures. In the near future, we’re going to see more and more of this kind of thing.
The tipping point may have been when Robert T. Bigelow acquired the patent rights to TransHab, an inflatable space habitat concept that had been studied by NASA but then shelved in 2000. He has since built upon the concept considerably, adding his own designs and patents like the Flexible Structural Restraint Layer, Window and Bulkhead assemblies and Radiation Shield, among others. And now with two sub-scale demonstrators, Genesis I and II, on orbit and functioning as designed, he and his company Bigelow Aerospace are developing a full scale model: the BA 330. Each module offers 330 cubic meters (roughly 12,000 cubic feet) of living space and can theoretically be attached to any number of other modules to form a much larger assembly, the purposes for which are only limited by the imagination. Orbiting laboratories, factories and hotels are just the tip of the iceberg.
The most recent development has been NASA’s announcement of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) contract worth $50M. This will allow commercial entities to invent technology to support NASA human space flight programs while retaining the title and rights to that technology. NASA will waive title and instead maintain rights to usage. Though this is a comparatively small contract, it sets the stage for more public/private partnerships that can foster new industries.
The biggest road block to the privatization of space has been the enormous startup costs. But when the scientific sector — NASA — provides the knowledge and advanced technologies with which the commercial sector can then turn into new opportunities, all of society benefits. It brings within reach the creation of new industries that previously had no affordable access to space. Suddenly, the concept of blue collar astronauts is transformed from farfetched to attainable; from science fiction to science fact.
The International Space Station is another project in desperate need of cost management. With NASA’s budget having been identified by the Augustine Committee as insufficient for supporting both deep space flight and ISS (both of which we need), it simply makes sense to transfer Station to a private entity. A spaceport authority can manage the sustaining engineering of this critical asset far better than NASA, which is by nature a research and development agency ill equipped for the task. Here again, the scientific sector has provided knowledge and advanced technologies in the form of the greatest space station ever built. Now it’s time to go the next step and transfer it to the commercial sector. Without this important progression, we’ll see little benefit to society.
We’ve had the ability for decades now to see the commercialization and privatization of space come to fruition but lacked the right formula for making it happen. Now we have the right formula, or at least a few of the key people do. Let’s just hope the people in charge of policy and finance can see the writing on the wall and continue in this direction. You can help by writing your congressmen and women and telling them that you want 1) more contracts like NASA’s CCDev and 2) the International Space Station transferred to a spaceport authority when construction is complete.
Space truly can be a frontier open to the common man of today, but it will require the sustained presence of the commercial sector.
On Monday, NASA announced “plans to use funds appropriated for ‘Exploration’ under the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) through its Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office [ known as C3PO — catchy name] to support efforts within the private sector to develop system concepts and capabilities that could ultimately lead to the availability of commercial human spaceflight services.” The contract is valued at $50M and follows in the style of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract in that it seeks to nurture a commercial, human space flight sector, which is the most critical element in the future of manned space flight. Forty-five US companies have already expressed interest in the contract, including: Blue Origin; Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne; Orbital Outfitters; Bigelow Aerospace, LLC; Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX); The Boeing Company; and PlanetSpace, Inc., who, incidentally has filed their second protest, this time with the US Court of Federal Claims, over the loss of the COTS contract in 2008 to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. Their first was filed with the US Government Accounting Office who denied the protest. The complete list of interested parties is quite a mix of Commercial Spaceflight Federation members, aerospace giants and a few wild cards.
It’s not difficult to see why this Commercial Crew Development, or CCDev, contract is so attractive. Speaking of a desire to “seek and encourage the fullest commercial use of space,” the announcement states that “In order to foster such commercial use, NASA has determined that title to all property acquired for the CCDev effort with NASA funding will remain with the participant(s).” This is as it should be. Participants will be granted a “waiver” from NASA retention of title their inventions whereupon the agency will, “retain only a government purpose license to use waived inventions.” With this provision in place, companies who invent technology that lowers the cost of NASA access to the space station will retain the right to develop that technology, improve upon it and profit from it. What a great idea! And at a time when the cost of access to space has become so critical.
The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (also known as the Augustine Committee after Norm Augustine, it’s head) is wrapping up its activities and has decided on the recommendations it will make to the White House on where the country should go next with human space exploration. The common theme among the possibilities they see is cost. Speaking of the Constellation program begun 4 years ago aimed at taking humans back to the moon then on to Mars, Augustine said, “The money available has declined considerably since the program began.” Most experts agree that unless the current administration is amenable to sharply increasing NASA’s budget, we may find ourselves in the position of having to choose between the International Space Station and the moon. Of course, this position fails to consider the option of a commercial presence on the ISS; and further still, the administration of the Station by a private spaceport authority. I’ll be writing more on this topic on Monday.
Bigelow Aerospace has come up with a very interesting idea for what they call “Orion Lite.” Orion is a spacecraft currently under development for NASA by Lockheed Martin as an interplanetary transport, but Bigelow proposes a variant modeled on Orion that would remove some of the systems not needed in flights to low earth orbit and use it as a transport to ISS. Mike Gold, Director of the company’s Washington office, stated in an interview with Space News that he believed the vehicle could bee launched on a man-rated Atlas 5 rocket as early as 2013. He also suggested SpaceX’s upcoming Falcon 9 as a possible booster, but either way, they’re moving on this one. Gold said, “We have a history of leveraging existing technology as demonstrated by the Dneper [Russian ICBM converted for satellite launch] missions, and utilizing a commercial capsule simply follows in the pragmatic path we have begun upon. We will soon be moving forward with solicitations focused on the airframe and getting quotes from various subcontractors.” Let’s all wish them well in this endeavor. Their success will mean the emergence of private space stations. They are currently the only manufacturer of habitat modules for this purpose, and theirs is a very unique design in which the assembly is launched into space in a collapsed form then inflated upon reaching orbit, at which point it offers living space more resistant to micro-meteor impacts than other designs.
Nature News reported on Monday that two independent teams have developed systems to extract oxygen from lunar regolith (soil). Derek Fray and his colleagues at the university in Cambridge, UK, are working with the European Space Agency to develop a prototype reactor. Fray anticipates that three reactors, each a metre (about a yard) high, would be enough to generate a metric ton of oxygen per year on the Moon. A similar technique is being developed by Donald Sadoway at MIT. Sadoway’s process is receiving funding from NASA and he reports that he could have his system scaled up within two years, concluding that “Once we solve the materials problems at the lab scale we should be able to move quickly.” The Lunar Surface Manipulator System I told you about last month (see Shuttle Returns and Harrison Schmitt Speaks Out, July 31) and Fray and Sadoway’s inventions illustrate that systems are in the developmental stages and that they can be made available to support humans on the moon in the near term. Very quickly, the pieces are beginning to come together for the fundamental resources we’ll need to bring the world’s first moon base online. And it’s not mere happenstance that this is occurring at the same time that commercial entities are being given a greater foot hold and share of interest in space. But this is how things are supposed to work. The scientific sector provides the knowledge and advanced technologies with which the commercial sector generates economic benefit for society as a whole. And it’s an economic benefit that opens the door to limitless opportunities a short 3 day’s journey away in the equivalent of our cosmic back yard; the moon. But what are the tangible benefits of going there? Apollo 17 astronaut and former US senator Harrison Schmitt put it very well in an article that appeared in this week’s issue of Space News titled Liberty and Space Leadership. In the article, he speaking of the fundamental motivations and goals that we need to maintain in order to prevent societal stagnation. He said, “Human Exploration of space embodies basic instincts — the exercise of freedom, betterment of one’s conditions and curiosity about nature. These instincts have been manifested in desires for new homelands, trade and knowledge. For Americans particularly, such instincts lie at the very core of our unique and special society of immigrants.” These are more than mere words. They express a deeply-rooted desire in individuals and societies to explore. And from that exploration comes the very concrete benefits he mentions.
The fact is we need the moon. We need its resources. We need the economic opportunities and technological advances that will come from the opening of its lands. We need new horizons that are attainable, and the moon provides with that. Here. Now.
And finally, I’d like to encourage those of you lamenting all the change that’s going on in human space flight, particularly in the US. Many of you are concerned about the end of the shuttle era and the uncertain path that lies ahead. Headlines like “NASA chooses crew for last scheduled shuttle flight” only intensify the dread, as though we were preparing to put down the family dog. Well, if I may be forgiven a colloquialism from my Southern roots… ‘things ain’t all that bad.’ Change — the right change — is a good thing. First of all, the shuttle was a huge step backward after Apollo. It was an extremely limited and sadly, extremely dangerous, system. Even now, NASA is having to order more tests of the foam on the external tanks. Shedding of that foam continues to threaten every mission. So the sooner we retire it, the better.
Though we’ve not yet decided on the exact form the next-generation system will take, we’ve still made big strides in that area and, despite deep concerns over the costs of space, we are at last headed in the right direction again: deep space. This time of indecision will not last long. These things never do. I’m excited about space, and so should you. The commercial industry’s might and agility, it’s ability to fill the gap in terms of finance, expertise and logistics are finally being realized. We’ve made it over a big hump.
For too long we’ve been staring at our feet. It took us falling flat on our backs before we could see the sky. I’m reminded of that little diddy… how did it go? The future’s so bright, I’ve gotta wear shades.
When the White House recently commissioned the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee — also known as the Augustine Committee after its head, Norman Augustine — to review current plans for human space flight and to explore alternatives, it was decided that the next destination for human exploration should be one of the items for review. To that end, a separate subcommittee was formed, and public meetings are being held in which subject matter experts are called to speak. During one of those meetings this week organized by the Mars Society, NASA Ames Research Center planetary scientist Christopher McKay voiced his opinion that NASA should not bypass the moon, as a few like Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society and author of the book The Case For Mars, have been so ardently enunciating in a bid to derail current plans to establish a permanent lunar base.
That handful of dissenters (some of whom are certainly acclaimed) argue that going back to the moon is a dead end. Zubrin even went as far as to say that, “The reason we didn’t stay on the moon is there was nothing worth staying for.” In his determined yet single-minded attempt to rescue what he believes to be a waning opportunity for humanity to reach the red planet, he belittles the one destination that holds so much promise not only for getting humans back into space but for keeping them there.
I personally hold a great amount of respect for Zubrin. He holds his view that Mars should be our only focus deeply, unabashedly and without reservation. He’s simply wrong.
His argument is underpinned by conspicuous non sequiturs and oversights. The first is that going back to the moon will be at the expense of Mars. This is not so, and Dr. McKay answered that charge well when he said, “Mars ought to be a goal, but it doesn’t have to be the only goal… we can do both.”
Zubrin also fails to take into consideration the tremendous cost of going directly to Mars, one that neither NASA or any other national space agency can bear alone. Cost will easily place any Mars mission in jeopardy without the intrinsic and embedded participation of the commercial space sector to balance government investment. Furthermore, there is the necessary prerequisite of going to the moon in order to establish the hardware and operational experience that will be needed for long-term planetary missions. When NASA and the commercial sector reach this level of experience and as a team, then and only then will we be ready to go to Mars. As Dr. McKay put it, “If we can’t establish a long-term base on the moon that is done at a reasonable fraction of NASA’s budget and do it for fifty or a hundred years, we can’t do it on mars.”
That’s not to say that we must wait that long before we go to Mars, but we must establish permanency and learn the lessons that it has to teach us. The best place to do that is the moon, and it was gratifying to listen to one of NASA’s own state this in very matter-of-fact, terms in this my favorite quote from Dr. McKay:
What do we have to learn on the moon? We have to learn how to operate a base for years on end: in terms of technology; in terms of human factors; in terms of life support; in terms of operation. The most important lesson we have to learn on the moon is how to transition from an exploration base, which may take an enormous fraction of NASA’s budget, to a mature base, which becomes a small part of the overall budget. A moon base should be operated in perpetuity, and it should take no more than 20% of NASA’s budget to do that. That’s going to be a hard lesson. We’re going to have to go to a contractor-operated-based transportation [system]. SpaceX should fly us to the moon, not NASA.
The last line is one that should be shouted to every corner of Washington, because it’s the key to both cost-effective space exploration and the opening of space to for settlement. The latter is a natural consequence to the former.
Dr. McKay argues some of the same central points for which SpaceTalkNOW.org was established: 1) that it is shortsighted to plan programs with the goal of simply reaching some destination. The point of all our human exploration should be to remain in space, permanently. And 2) that we should employ the commercial sector as our partner.
We’ve seen quite painfully the results of human space programs that fail to account for perpetuation and thus stability. Apollo was one such example. For all its grandeur and accomplishments, it left the generations since orphaned from the promises of space exploration and settlement. And the mentality that created it left the exiguous few, fortunate enough to travel into space at all, marooned in low earth orbit. It’s a mistake we cannot afford on — any level — to repeat.
Speaking in familiar terms, McKay extolled a new idea whose time has come when he said, “I grew up on star trek; the original series, or course. And I was always enamored by the, ‘to boldly go.’ But I realized that we’ve got the wrong verb. The verb that we need is not to ‘go.’ Going is easy. The verb we need is ‘stay.’ The challenge of space is not to go; it’s to stay. It’s time for a change of verb.”
But in order for that epiphany to be made manifest, the antiquated ideas must be replaced, beginning with our national space agency. We must think it terms of decades, not short-term gains. Again, Dr. McKay showed great insight when he said, “NASA has a tradition of thinking that projects have a 5, 10-year lifetime, and then that’s it; you throw them away and do something else. We could go to Mars. There’s lots of designs that show we could go to Mars, but we’re not ready to stay on Mars. We’ll end up doing what we’ve done before: boldly go and then stop and come back, and that’s it.” Indeed that would be a mistake, and a costly one at that.
As the Augustine Committee settles on recommendations, it will place cost as one of the primary considerations. And it would seem that they’ve already dismissed a Mar-first plan. The Houston Chronicle noted yesterday in an article titled ‘Mars First’ Advocate Receives An Icy Response that, “Neither Augustine nor any member of the panel questioned Zubrin after a fast-moving briefing where the witness belittled rival proposals to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972.” In an apparent snub, Augustine told Zubrin dismissively, “We’ll read your book.”
The current environment places ever more emphasis on costs, and if for no other reason than this, we must bring in the commercial sector in to help shoulder that burden. Another case where this strategy would serve the public well is the International Space Station. Space News reports this week that, “Keeping the space station in service through 2020 — five years longer than NASA has budgeted — would cost an addition $9.3 billion to $14 billion, depending on the level of utilization.” If savings are sought by NASA with which to bolster its exploration program then it makes no sense for the agency to continue to operate Station. Why not turn over ISS to a private spaceport authority? Not only would this translate into tremendous cost savings, but it would place this valuable and incalculably important asset in the hands of an organization dedicated to its administration, health and prosperity. It would enable the station to serve us as both a science laboratory and as the first node in a space-based infrastructure (see The Writing On The Wall, April 11, 2009). Under a spaceport authority, further commercial presence could be enabled, thereby setting the stage for the emergence of whole new industries that have been waiting for their first foothold in space.
In other parts of the space industry, Aabar Investments PJSC, a company based in Abu Dahbi, United Arab Emirates, has just agreed to invest $180M in the Virgin Galactic company. Though the backing was not a prerequisite for the first flights of SpaceShipTwo, the first passenger carrying spaceliner due to begin service in 2011, the investment will no doubt greatly strengthen Virgin. The two companies are also planning a satellite launch capability, for which Aabar will be investing a further $100M.
Imagine if, whenever automobiles became undriveable, the owner could simply pull over to the side of the road and abandon the vehicle. It wouldn’t take long before the derelicts accumulated to the point where they were a hazard to driving. Perhaps those cars are completely clear of the road, perhaps not. Perhaps they have been driven out of gas, and maybe some have full tanks. And maybe a driver in distress looking for a place to pull over to change a tire could avoid the junk cars or perhaps he would hit one full of fuel and… well, you get the idea. There are a lot of unknowns in this situation. And we all agree that leaving junk vehicles on the side of the road is a completely unacceptable practice. No local government anywhere in the country would allow such a thing.
Yet this is exactly the kind of thing going on above our heads. Operators of obsolete, debilitated or depleted spacecraft are doing something very similar to “pulling over.” They’re placing these spacecraft into what’s called a “graveyard orbit” then turning them off and abandoning them. A clearer case of “out of site, out of mind” thinking, you will never find. And it will take a change of space policy to fix this situation, one written by legislators savvy to these operations practices. They will need to understand that current policies to “de-orbit” spacecraft abjectly fail to remove risks imposed by derelict spacecraft, due in great part to the false sense of security created by the term.
For the record, the term “de-orbit” is not synonymous with re-entry and thus a return to earth! It simply means to remove an object from the orbit it currently occupies. In the case of geosynchronous orbiting spacecraft like those used to carry television signals or even weather observation satellites, end of life means being placed into a super-synchronous or “graveyard “orbit. Translation: boost it up another 350 km (about 217 miles), turn it off and forget about it. All responsibility for the dead piece of space junk you’ve just generated is then relinquished by all currently-existing policies and international agreements. Were the practice to be used sparingly, there might be a legitimate argument that there is no need for concern. When this strategy was initially adopted, this was the case, but no longer. Today, spacecraft operators are continually replacing spacecraft and placing the defunct ones into the graveyard orbit, a convention that is unsustainable.
Part of the problem is attitudes. Many spacecraft operators subscribe to something known in the business as the “big sky” principle. Simply stated, it means that the sky in space is so vast that the likelihood of colliding with another object is infinitesimally small: essentially zero. But we’re beginning to see the fallacies in this thinking. Take for example the recent collision of an active US satellite with that of the defunct Russian Cosmos spacecraft. Both operated in low earth orbit where orbital velocities are much higher than geosynchronous orbit. The half-ton Iridium collided with the one-ton Cosmos at a relative velocity of roughly 15,000 miles per hour, generating some 1200 pieces of debris that will linger in the two original orbits for years to come as a hazard to navigation.
The problem of space debris is being tackled primarily from the standpoint of mitigation. That is, satellites and other objects such as spent rocket bodies are tracked, probabilities of collisions computed and notifications sent to operators when a significant risk is identified; the idea being to give them time to maneuver out of the way. As we can see from the example just given, it’s a strategy that is not perfect.
Some very ingenious engineering solutions for removing spent satellites from orbit have recently been published. One example is the “Terminator Tether” by Tethers Unlimited. Designed for satellites flying in low earth orbit, it’s a devise that is bolted onto the spacecraft before launch. When the satellite is at the end of its life, the device deploys a 5-kilometer-long tether below the spacecraft, which then takes advantage of the physics of interactions between the tether and the earth’s ionosphere to produce a drag on the spacecraft. That drag slows down the satellite until it no longer has sufficient speed to remain in orbit, at which point it enters the atmosphere and burns up. Tether Applications offers a similar device and though they have not re-entered any spacecraft, has flight tested some of their designs.
Devices like the tether are a great idea for future satellites, but what about those that are already up there? Many ideas have been put forward for their removal from using low-powered lasers to gradually slow down the satellite until it falls from space to literally blasting it out of the sky, which, as we’ve seen from example, is a solution that causes as many hazards as the problem it’s meant to solve. But any way you slice it, the problem of removing existing, dead satellites from orbit is one that presents a great challenge, one that seems ideally suited for the private sector.
An idea that I believe to have great merit and promise was recently proposed by attorney Jim Dunstan. He suggests levying fees on launch vehicle and spacecraft operators, which are then escrowed for the purpose of offering “bounties” on objects in orbit based on their size and the risk they pose. If consideration is given not to overburden the industry with too high a fee structure, this plan would simultaneously remove dangerous objects from space and the hazards to future space navigation they impose and create a new market for space entrepreneurs. And of course, the option for operators to themselves pay remediation companies for removal could also be explored.
This could, in turn, open yet another market: the salvage of spacecraft parts from orbit. Bear in mind that many of the dead spacecraft in orbit right now are in that state because they simply ran out of fuel, suffered a batter failure or other, similar problem that, while it ended the mission, did not destroy the spacecraft itself. The bulk of the spacecraft remains in tact and most of its components are still operable. How much is out there? Dennis Wingo, author of the book Moonrush: Improving Life On Earth with the Moon’s Resources (Apogee Books Space Series 43, Ontario, Canada: 260 pages) says, “There’s well over half a million kilos’ worth of hardware in GEO… There’s big solar arrays, there’s transponders: you could actually go up there and bring some of this stuff together, create a big transponder park, and recycle this hardware.”
The scenario is easy to envision whereby companies could establish a space station to serve as a base of operations, from which these and other commercial ventures are carried out. And it’s a scenario that can be played out using the scientific and engineering know how that exists in the private sector, now. These are yet more examples of the limitless opportunities that space has to offer us today!
I’ll borrow a term used by Mr. Wingo in his book by stating that government can act as the “macroeconomic enabler” such as they are today in helping private space companies with NASA’s COTS contract (see Commercial Human Space Transportation Now, May 11) and in the proposed plan to levee fees, which are then offered as bounties on dangerous space objects. Government and private industry can act in tandem to solve these problems and, in doing so, open up whole new industries and markets, but there’s much room for growing that symbiotic relationship. You can play a part in making that happen by writing or e-mailing your congressman and telling him or her that government and the private sector must work together and more often. Tell them that you want to see the limitless opportunities that space has to offer available for you and for your children. Tell them that space need not be either government or private sector but that they should be viewed as partners in space.