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Private Space

Times have never been more promising for proponents of commercial spaceflight.

When the Bush administration announced a new mission for NASA in January 2004, many dismissed it as a cynical P.R. ploy. Yet it was the first time a U.S. administration had declared that the country’s policy on manned space exploration was to go into space and keep going (see “Toward a New Vision of Manned Spaceflight”).

Given that ambition, the “Report of the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy” – also dubbed “A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover” – charted an ostensibly reasonable course. It decreed that when construction on the International Space Station finished in 2010, the shuttle would be mothballed. By 2014, a new manned vehicle – the crew exploration vehicle, or CEV – would make its first flight. Astronauts would take the CEV to the Moon by 2020 and would head for Mars in the following decades. Since the Bush administration gave NASA a limited budget with which to achieve this, some said that the White House wasn’t serious; others argued that the tightfistedness was justified, given the agency’s history of overruns. In any case, NASA in 2005 announced a design for a four- to six-astronaut CEV resembling the Apollo command module, which would be boosted into space atop a revamped heavy lift vehicle (HLV). NASA’s new boss, Michael Griffin, described the combo as “Apollo on steroids.”

Because the Bush administration had stipulated that $27 billion of the $104 billion needed for the two vehicles would be freed up only with the shuttle’s retirement and the space station’s completion in 2010, the president’s commission initially called for the first piloted CEV flights for no later than 2014. This would have meant that for four years the official U.S. space program would have had no manned-spaceflight capability, and for eight years taxpayers would have been paying for a program that was doing nothing visibly new. Soon after his appointment, Griffin made clear his displeasure with the plan: “the Apollo spacecraft was brought from contract award to fruition in no more than six years. It seems unacceptable to me that it should take from 2005 to 2014 to do the same thing.”

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Under Griffin, NASA now plans to deploy the CEV no later than 2012. Moreover, Griffin has broken with NASA tradition. Under his administration, the agency has taken the position that it doesn’t make sense to use a costly vehicle like the CEV (at approximately $400 million per flight) to resupply the space station if a cheaper alternative exists. In an October 28, 2005, announcement, “Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Space Flight Demonstrations,” the agency solicited proposals from companies to build and launch unmanned cargo delivery systems capable of reaching the space station. Once a company achieves that milestone, NASA said, “proposals will also be solicited for…demonstrations [that] will consist of one or more crewed missions to the International Space Station.” Ultimately, Griffin envisions NASA not just purchasing rockets to carry crew and cargo from commercial firms but even buying propellant from commercially operated fuel stations in Earth orbit.

Fighting Gravity
Griffin won’t have an easy time. It has been 33 years since the last humans, Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan, walked on the Moon. The public presumption during the Apollo years that manned exploration of our solar system was inevitable has given way to the perception that human spaceflight is too hard, dangerous, and expensive. Exploration, the new orthodoxy runs, belongs to unmanned probes sailing through deep space and robots crawling over planets.

Still, though the rationalists are right to argue that the short-term scientific payoffs will come from unmanned exploration, the effort to go into space has always been about more than science. National pride, competition for technological supremacy, the thrill of exploration, and hopes for humankind’s advancement have all played their part. In 2006, moreover, technological progress has improved the prospect that manned, commercial flights into space can be economical and perhaps even profitable.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, for instance, claims to have 42,000 customers registered for $200,000 rides to the edge of space, indicating significant public support and consumer demand. Sending tourists up for five to seven minutes of weightlessness, however, isn’t manned spaceflight.

Among the small, young aerospace companies that have proposed plans to send human-sized payloads into orbit, including t/Space, SpaceDev, and Interorbital Systems, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is often touted as a frontrunner (see “Space Tourism or Bust”). Musk is an entrepreneur who cofounded PayPal, the online-payment service, and SpaceX has actually built prototype rockets, unlike many of its competitors. The company has made bold promises and adopted aggressive business tactics, filing suit in 2005 against Boeing and Lockheed Martin, both of which it accused of violating antitrust laws and inhibiting competition. But SpaceX had to scrub the first test launches of its rocket, the Falcon 1, which is designed to loft small, satellite-sized payloads into orbit and constitutes a feasibility study for the future development of larger launchers for human cargoes.

NASA’s initial efforts to get off the ground saw worse failures. But at the outset, anyway, NASA’s entire reason for being was that the U.S. government believed that a successful space program was essential to America’s security and standing. Things have changed. Musk and other entrepreneurs are left to appeal not to our patriotism but to our pocketbooks: they claim that their companies can make manned launches far less expensive than either NASA missions or today’s main alternative, launches using the Russian company Energia’s Zenit rockets.

Some proposals from private companies represent transformational thinking about manned spaceflight’s economics. In an article for the Mars Society, of which he is president, Robert Zubrin suggests an alternative approach for NASA’s return to the Moon, with a CEV that carries three or four crew members, not four to six. Zubrin, an aerospace engineer formerly with Lockheed and founder of the aerospace company Pioneer Astronautics, argues that this smaller, lighter spacecraft could carry enough fuel to reach the Moon, enter orbit, land, and return to Earth without a separate landing module or an Apollo-style rendezvous in lunar orbit. Such a craft would be simpler and cheaper to build.

NASA could even propose, Zubrin suggests, that companies compete for the CEV contract. And the money NASA saved by ordering a smaller CEV, Zubrin writes, could be immediately applied to the development of the heavy lift vehicle. The CEV and the HLV could therefore be completed sooner, allowing the shuttle’s early retirement, saving even more money.

Others have their own scenarios for returning to the Moon on the cheap; Poway, CA-based SpaceDev, for example, proposes placing a series of habitat modules in lunar orbit and on the surface and sending down one astronaut at a time on a personal “rocket chair.” It claims that 40 people could visit the Moon in this way “for the cost of NASA’s first mission.”

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, a trained geologist, believes that there’s a highly practical reason for going back to the Moon: solar wind impregnates the lunar dust with a nonradioactive isotope called helium-3, which could be useful as a fuel for large-scale nuclear fusion. Schmitt has just published a book, Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space, which recognizes that any permanent return to the Moon is unlikely in the absence of help from private enterprise.

Schmitt’s futuristic scheme, of course, entails sending significant quantities of lunar dust to Earth for processing, but he calls that “a relatively small challenge” compared to developing fusion plants and lunar mining facilities. He suggests options for powering transport craft – including rocket boosters and electromagnetism – that would make use of lunar resources.

Indeed, escaping the Moon’s weak gravity is comparatively easy; the hardest part of space travel is getting from Earth’s surface into orbit. From there, a spacecraft can go anywhere in the solar system for roughly the same amount of energy. So once we reach a point where commercial enterprises can supply cheap, reliable means to reach orbit, much more will become possible.

Under Griffin’s leadership, NASA seems likely to underwrite part of this effort – as well it should. If the agency hopes to send more Americans into space within the Bush administration’s budget, it will need to tap into new ideas from the commercial realm – where money is an object.

“Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Space Flight Demonstrations”
Solicitation number: JSC-COTS-1
Posted: October 28, 2005
Contracting office: NASA/Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center

Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space
By Harrison H. Schmitt
Springer, 2005, $25.00

Mark Williams is a contributing writer at Technology Review.

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