When I attended an Ansari X Prize competition flight press conference in 2004, Burt Rutan who had designed and built the SpaceShipOne craft (which now hangs in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC) presented a sign that an onlooker had made. Everyone chuckled at the clever quip, “SpaceShipOne, government zero.” For the first time in history, a one-hundred-percent privately funded venture had outdone a massive government agency in spaceflight. Not only had Rutan and his Scaled Composites company managed to build and fly a spacecraft far more cheaply and safely than NASA, but they had also overcome technical malfunctions in a tiny fraction of the time it would have taken the space agency and went on to capture the prize.
And this theme, far from being a flash in the pan, continues.
Now a company called Space Exploration Technologies – more commonly known as SpaceX – is poised to become the champion of space transportation to earth orbit. Having successfully test flown their new Falcon 9 rocket (a variant of Falcon I, capable of lifting much heavier loads) and Dragon spacecraft despite the grumblings of many nay sayers, on November 30th they will become the first private company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Their ingenuity and agility are remarkable. The company has managed to combine what was to have been two flights, a final test flight and the first cargo delivery flight, into a single mission and thereby accelerate the time table for regular Station delivery flights to begin. And if that were not enough, in a show of true pioneering spirit and American innovation and industrial prowess, the company designed Dragon from the beginning with the intent that it carry astronauts, as well as cargo. As you read this article, they are designing and building the final components that will make Dragon the transportation system so desperately needed to fill the void in US space lift capability left by the end of the space shuttle program.
But their plans still don’t end there. Also in the works is a “heavy” variant to the Falcon 9 (you guessed it; called the Falcon 9 Heavy) which will carry twice the heaviest load as the space shuttle and at one third the price of their nearest competitor, the highly government-subsidized United Launch Alliance. And if you’re still drying the tears over the end of shuttle, consider this: Falcon 9 Heavy will place payloads into orbit for less than one tenth the cost of the now retired orbiters!
For many years, the holy grail of space launch has been to put payloads into orbit at or below $1,000 per pound, but no one has been able to come close. It loomed like some impenetrable barrier. Like… what was it the narrater in The Right Stuff said?
There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.
And like the sound barrier, the cost barrier stood firm for decades. That is, until now. Two weeks ago at Vandenberg Air Force Base, SpaceX broke ground on the launch complex from which the new super rocket – the most powerful in the world – will rumble through the clouds into black skies beyond like a space age Hercules.
This is game changing, boys and girls. And why is that? Because at the prices SpaceX will be offering lift into orbit, flight rates can dramatically increase leading to an economy of scale that will open up space to the common man, once and for all. You and I are going to witness the building of the first space hotels.
And remember little SpaceShipOne? Well, it’s big brother SpaceShipTwo is in testing. The next stage is powered flights, and after that the production models will be delivered to Virgin Galactic to begin service as the first spaceline. The debut flights will be expensive, but again, economy of scale will drastically reduce the costs. Remember the first pocket calculators? They were $400 in the early 1970′s when they first hit the US market. Today that would be over $2000! but thanks to economies of scale, we can buy them for a few dollars. Anyone can afford them.
Only through private industry have we been able to realize such forward leaps in space, and only in America do we see the dreams taking form and taking flight. So what’s next? Go outside any time after about 1:00 in the afternoon next weekend, and look up.
NASA is now estimating that the shuttle replacement will enter flight testing in late 2017. Once the testing program has concluded some 5 years beyond that, we are told to expect the first missions carrying people to begin in 2025 with a flight to an asteroid. And even when manned missions do commence, only a single flight per year is expected.
Of course, any estimates going beyond 4 years or the end of any given administration – which ever comes first – are pure fantasy. If history teaches us anything, it’s that one may safely add an additional 5 years to estimates, which invariably prove to be overly optimistic.
Even the space shuttle with its exorbitant cost of operation flew at a rate of 4 to 5 per year, so if the government is unable to maintain that level, how can it possibly expect to produce a cost-effective space launch system for the American people?
In the business of making space affordable, costs are driven down in large part through economy of scale. That means the highest possible flight rate, and once per year doesn’t even begin to make a dent.
American innovation can and is making all the difference, but it would seem that it’s not coming from the historical source. It’s coming from private industry. With little fanfare in the mainstream media, a company called SpaceX, headed up by a pioneer in the truest sense, has set itself in the position of offering access to space at the lowest prices on earth, bar none. It’s nearest competitor United Launch Alliance or ULA, the highly government subsidized collaboration between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, lags behind in a distant second place.
From the beginning, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has had a clear vision of how to propel the US back into the forefront of space exploration. He and his engineers have designed their Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules with the idea of carrying people, and they’ll have them in production and ready to carry out missions years before the government can field its own system. With Russia, China and India eagerly poised to spring ahead of the US with flights to the moon, Musk and a cadre of other American astronautical trailblazers will undoubtedly frustrate those efforts. China is publicly admitting that they cannot hope to match the prices offered by SpaceX. Still further, Bigelow Aerospace, another American company, is prepared to turn out space stations like hotels and seed humanity in space by the thousands.
In the final analysis, government is attempting a role suited to private industry. It should stick to what it does best: research and development. The space launch system being proposed by NASA, and the huge sums of money it will require, amount to a duplication of effort. Those funds should instead by devoted to designing systems for the purpose of carrying people from earth orbit to deep space.
For the last couple of years our leadership has feverishly stabbed at the question, “With what do we replace the space shuttle?” But it’s the wrong question. Real space visionaries ask instead, “What’s next?” The former presupposes a need for another machine to perform the same job as it predecessor, the latter looks beyond to the next frontier, to deep space. And to be sure, earth orbit is not the frontier.
NASA has forgotten its purpose, and it’s a sad state of affairs we’ll likely endure until a change of leadership.
Filed under: Civil Space Flight, Commercial Space Flight
The 42nd Anniversary of the humankind’s first lunar landing by Apollo 11 on July 20, 2011, followed by the return of STS-135 on the next day, concluding the final flight of a United States Space Shuttle, places a capstone on the remarkable accomplishments of the post-Apollo generations of space engineers, builders and operators.
Those of us who were in attendance at the launch of Atlantis on July 8, 2011, felt both pride in this final accomplishment and sadness at another unnecessary, ill-conceived and excessively prolonged break in America’s commitment to lead humankind in space. Pad 39A, the Vehicle Assembly Building, and the Crawler Transporter stand in the Florida sunshine as still functional but unwanted relics of past glories. Unfortunately, these momentous events also starkly frame the deficiencies in American space policy relative to long-term national interests. This policy began its slow decline in 1968-69 when the Johnson and Nixon Administrations began the process to end procurements of the Saturn V boosters and spacecraft advocated by Eisenhower and Kennedy for the Apollo Moon-landing Program.
The absence of any significant national goals epitomizes current space policy. That policy lacks any coherent strategy to lead humankind in space and promote liberty there and on Earth. Failure of all Administrations and Congresses since Eisenhower and Kennedy to maintain a sustainable, indefinite commitment to human deep space exploration and settlement has undermined America’s status in the world and the technological foundations necessary for national security and economic growth. We have reached a point where America and its partners depend on Russia for future access to the International Space Station. More critically, we will be ceding the Moon and deep space to China. This should be an intolerable situation to American taxpayers who paid for most of the Space Station and whose Astronauts blazed the trail for humankind to the Moon.
President George W. Bush provided the Nation with a space policy in 2004 that met critical geopolitical requirements. If it had been properly funded by Congress, Bush’s policy would have created a replacement for the Space Shuttle by 2010 and, more importantly, provided for a return to the Moon on the way to Mars. Mr. Bush, however, did not ask Congress for the funds necessary to fully implement his Constellation Program. Constellation nonetheless could have been executed fully when President Barack Obama took office in 2009, although with a several year delay in the availability of the Shuttle replacement spacecraft (Orion).
President Obama, however, soon canceled Constellation, reflecting his personal bias against American exceptionalism and anything identified with Bush. His visions of largely unsupervised private contractors providing astronaut transportation to space and an unproductive visit to an asteroid are just that, unproven “visions” but hardly visionary. In light of increases of trillions of dollars in recent federal government spending, the $3 billion per year cost of implementing a “shovel ready” and “employment ready” Constellation Program appears, relatively, very small. The enormous geopolitical damage to America’s world leadership role that its cancellation has brought about will cost us dearly in the future.
Atlantis’s final arrival in Earth-orbit was historically comparable to the arrivals of the last covered wagon at Western destinations just before the Union Pacific, Central Pacific, Santa Fe and other railroads reached rapidly expanding local economies in the late 1800s. Unbelievably, and unlike the replacement of covered wagon technology with railroad technology, no American replacement exists for the Space Shuttle. Now that Obama has made NASA largely irrelevant in America’s future, the next President and Congress must consider how to reverse this damage to national security and to the future motivation of young Americans.
The next President must seriously consider focusing United States’ space goals on deep space exploration. Until the Space Station must be shut down and deorbited, NASA can continue to be responsible for managing related international obligations. A separate and intense focus on deep space, however, could be accomplished by reassignment of most NASA functions to other agencies and the creation of a new National Space Exploration Agency (NSEA) [see http://americasuncommonsense.com, Essay 46]. This would be a proper tribute to the sacrifices made on behalf of America by the personnel of NASA and its contractors since 1958. A clear commitment to deep space would also restore America’s geopolitical will to lead humankind into the future.
Harrison H. Schmitt is a former United States Senator from New Mexico as well as a geologist and former Apollo 17 Astronaut. He currently is an aerospace and private enterprise consultant and a member of the new Committee of Correspondence