November 9, 2013
Should those on Earth control and restrict the use of off-Earth real estate or should people use and profit from what they find in space? We have conducted reconnaissance and mapping of celestial bodies for centuries using telescopes, orbital and landing spacecraft, and (forty years ago) explored it with people. Earth’s scientists have studied the returned data and we’ve dreamed of returning to the Moon and to new places where humanity has never set foot. Entrepreneurs and social engineers see a time in the near future when we will make that next step and they each hold somewhat different views — some want to develop and capitalize on their investment, some want to preserve and permit only limited access.
In a recent Popular Science article, Veronique Greenwood argues for having the Moon declared an “International Park – an off-World Heritage site.” And not just the Apollo sites but all 14 million square miles of the lunar surface. Greenwood likes the legal model of Antarctica, an entire continent that the nations of the world agreed to not develop but use solely for scientific study. Understanding that profit motives will be behind the drive to the Moon, she allows there may be carve-outs for mining (after environmental impact studies) but legally, the Moon will be protected as a preserve for history and science, serving as the template for human expansion beyond the Moon. She doesn’t want it “damaged.”
Greenwood’s concerns stem from her belief that humans (even when they’re careful) “tromp all over things” and that without government preservation and oversight, cultural artifacts on the Moon (such as the Apollo 11 crew’s “One Small Step” footprints and various “important craters”) are in danger of destruction. She argues that “because the Moon was part of Earth until 4.5 billion years ago” (a proposition not yet established), the United Nations should have legal sovereignty over its use and disposition. She notes that the 1979 Moon Treaty was never ratified (“flopped spectacularly”), a presumed “victim of the Cold War era.” In fact, the treaty’s “flop” had nothing to do with the Cold War – a concerted lobbying effort by various space advocacy groups (such as the L-5 Society) was largely responsible for the Senate’s refusal to ratify it. No nation that had space faring capability at that time ratified the Moon Treaty.
Her article illustrates that the “green” anti-development worldview has expanded to include opposition to unfettered space utilization. Because we’re not dealing with anything green, I suggest that we dub the lunar environmentalists “Grays.” Stemming from their belief that humans are harming the Earth, the Grays fear that it is not right to allow unrestricted access and development of the Moon. Fifty years after those interloping Apollo astronauts tromped on, drove over and kicked up a lot of dust on the Moon, a more enlightened humanity will return to peacefully – and carefully – explore its surface and, in the words of the National Park Service, “Taking only photographs, leaving only footprints.” If environmental impact studies allow it, some limited mining activity might be permitted, presumably to pay for these Luna Park overseers.
The analogy to Antarctica, beloved of academics, is of limited value in this instance. The reason nations of the world do not bother to mine or drill for oil in Antarctica is that there are alternative and cheaper sources of oil and minerals that do not require the costly build up of infrastructure in that challenging environment. Such is not true for the Moon; the alternative to using the resources of the Moon is to bring everything you need with you from the deep gravity well of the Earth. With launch costs of thousands of dollars per pound (and unlikely to come down significantly for the foreseeable future), it makes good sense to look for and obtain as much of the required “dumb mass” (i.e., air, water, shielding and propellant) needed for extended presence from “local” sources – the extraterrestrial bodies themselves. Launch from Earth should be reserved only for high information density items – high-technology equipment, instruments and people. The raw materials of space will provision us – and we need to learn how to do it out there, starting with the Moon. You cannot lock up new territory and then expect entrepreneurs to invest their capital in getting you there.
While Greenwood uses Antarctica as a model for the Moon, in my mind, a better analogy is Alaska, a vast area (656,424 square miles) of great natural beauty and abundant resources. Alaska serves a multitude of purposes, including mining, fishing, oil and gas production, tourism, recreation and settlement, as well as maintaining and protecting vast reserves of national and state wilderness. No one could call Alaska a decimated paradise or an industrial wasteland – it is an immense landscape with room for every imagined activity, commercial and non-commercial. It is a harsh place, yet one where self-reliant humans migrated for profit, play and its wide-open spaces. It also has the virtue of being part of a self-governing republic, not an “administrative area” controlled by international bureaucrats. And yet, even though the land has been developed and used, the people have conserved, protected and managed the landscape and resources of the state. But Greenwood points to the Antarctica “peaceful and scientific use of” model, whereby the U.N. would own and control the Moon, thereby setting a precedent for the rest of the Solar System. Talk about throwing cold water on pioneering outer space! Greenwood’s suggestions certainly do that.
Setting aside the obvious objection that the United Nations has not shown any particular management capability (nor does it possess the ability to oversee natural resources 250,000 miles from Earth), a more important objection to this proposal is the negative impact it will have on investment toward the development and support of commercial space activity. If advocates of commercial spaceflight think dealing with the federal government is difficult, they haven’t seen anything until they start dealing with a U.N. authority. Greenwood wants “important craters” protected from defacement by ATVs, but that begs the question as to who decides which craters are “important,” what needs to be protected, and who gets those limited mining rights? Would she leave these environmental assessments and commercial allocation judgments in the hands of U.N. decision makers and arbitrators?
The basic problem with the attitude of the Grays is that it is misdirected. There is no “ecology” to preserve on the Moon because there is no life there. The only thing that can be preserved is the Moon’s pristine state – an ancient surface unsullied by the tread of endless footprints. It would take tens of thousands of years, if then, (since few would live on the Moon) to put a footprint on every square meter of the lunar surface, an area greater than the continent of Africa. Even the most rare and valuable terrains on the Moon – the water-containing areas near the poles – are enormous regions, hundreds of square kilometers in extent, containing tens of billions of tons of water ice and other valuable deposits. As these materials are the most accessible and useful products in near Earth space, they are crucial to the creation of new space faring capability.
If the entire territory of the Moon is designated the property of Earth with U.N. oversight, we will handicap ourselves from becoming a space faring species. We must learn how to use what we find in space to create new capabilities. Even the most ardent developers would not object to preserving the historical sites of the first impacts of spacecraft on the Moon (Luna 2), the first soft-landers (Luna 9 and Surveyor 1), and of course, the site of the first human landing on another world (Apollo 11). But the rest of the Moon should be open to exploration, development and use. It is wrong to restrict the use and development of whole new worlds in order to assuage the overly emotional and misguided aesthetic sensibilities of the Grays, as opposed to opening up of a frontier that can be profitably used and enjoyed for the benefit of all humanity.
September 5, 2013
Generally speaking, I hate “mop up” posts wherein stories, anecdotes, factoids and announcements are lumped together solely for the purpose of clearing the writer’s desk. But that’s what I have here, so let’s get on with it.
Despite being written off by many as a dead letter topic, the Moon (an object of scientific and commercial interest and utility) continues to confound experts and frustrate naysayers.
You may have recently learned about yet another discovery of lunar water. The “new” this time around is that we have apparently succeeded in identifying a form of hydration (i.e., the OH molecule) present in mineral structures in the central peak of the mid-latitude crater Bullialdus (20.7° S, 22.2° W; 60 km diameter). Past identifications of lunar water involve either the polar dark regions or high-latitude, solar wind implanted OH and H2O molecules. We’ve known about water-bearing minerals in the lunar samples for the past couple of years, but this is the first time we have identified them using remote sensing. This water is present in extremely minute amounts (tens of parts per million); it has nothing to do with the possibility of extracting water for human use, but rather, is a clue to the hydration state of the deep interior, and ultimately, the origin of the Moon.
We are finding that the early Moon had its own indigenous water, not an obvious consequence of the giant impact origin model, and that this water participated in early melting events. Water is an important compound in these processes by lowering the threshold temperatures of various significant reactions and creating an environment in which explosive, volatile-charged volcanic eruptions may occur. Work continues on understanding the meaning and significance of this interior water to the geological processes of the Moon.
The latest edition of the Global Space Exploration Roadmap has been released and to the astonishment of the press and many other observers, human lunar return is still prominently featured (minus NASA) in the strategic pathways considered by the world’s space agencies. This shouldn’t really surprise anyone – the international partners were taken aback (and angered) by the unilateral renunciation of lunar return by the U.S. in 2010. They have remained firm and consistent in their belief and knowledge that the Moon is a critical step toward developing genuine space faring capability, a path which they have no intention of abandoning. In this, our partners show more insight and sophistication than we do. There are simply too many advantages in developing technology and practicing operational skills on the Moon, all applicable to future human missions beyond low Earth orbit. In a sop to the reluctant Americans, human near-Earth asteroid missions are mentioned. But in the minds of the international partners, the benefits of human lunar return will not be subsumed by a domestic political agenda.
I am an occasional member and contributor to the Lunar Exploration and Analysis Group (LEAG), an informal working group of lunar scientists, engineers and developers who have devised a “roadmap” (i.e., a sequenced, strategic plan) for lunar exploration. This roadmap has been completed and we have developed a couple of ancillary products – an executive summary booklet (being readied for distribution), which will describe the major findings of the three-year road mapping exercise. It will be illustrated by wonderful Technicolor artwork of missions and surface activities (the creation of pretty pictures and graphics we have down pat), and a one-page “fact sheet” describing the value and rationale for human lunar return. The compact fact sheet is particularly good. It summarizes the main points about lunar return, its value to the nation and to science and society in general. This roadmap follows a lot of the concepts about which I write. If you visit Develop Cislunar Space Next, you will recognize many of the same themes and ideas. I am very happy with this product; it is concise and well crafted. I thank my LEAG colleagues for their scientific insight and technical acumen.
About 15 years ago, I wrote a reasonably well-received book published by the Smithsonian Institution Press titled The Once and Future Moon. In it I described the then-recent findings from the Clementine and Galileo missions about the Moon’s processes and history, and summarized what we had learned about the Moon from the Apollo missions. I also took the opportunity to make the case for a return to the Moon (some things never change) and how we might use it to create new capabilities in space. That book is now out of print, as well as rendered somewhat antiquated by the explosion this last decade of new information from data returning from lunar robotic missions and subsequent studies. Many have urged me to revise that book and I am considering writing an updated second edition. Unfortunately, the Smithsonian Press terminated their “Library of the Solar System” series and is not interested in publishing a new edition (but will give me copyright to the material). I am investigating the interest of other publishers and will keep you posted on what develops.
Next – an announcement. For some time I have watched the progress of many of the Google Lunar XPRIZE competitors. It’s a mixed bag, with some teams pretty much out of the running and some who have a decent chance to actually fly a mission. I have been very impressed with the team and the approach of one company, Moon Express (MoonEx), located at NASA Ames Research Center in California. Moon Express has plans for small and medium class lunar landers, using a soon-to-be-unveiled design that seems both robust and affordable. I have agreed to be associated with them on a part-time basis as their Chief Scientist. As such, I will evaluate possible mission scenarios and profiles, devise sample payloads, identify possible instruments and their investigators and vendors, and help define measurement requirements and operational scenarios.
I like working with small missions (my first mission experience was with Clementine, a small DoD-NASA mission in the 1990s and I was the Principal Investigator for the Mini-SAR radar experiment on India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission) and believe that these small missions deliver a lot of scientific and exploratory bang for a reasonably small amount of bucks. I have worked previously on projects with some of the Moon Express personnel, including Principal Systems Engineer Steve Bailey on the world’s first private lunar lander project (Blastoff.com in the late 1990s) and with CEO Bob Richards, when we were both affiliated with Odyssey Moon a few years ago. I am also happy that my longtime colleague and NASA Advisory Council member Jack Burns has joined the company on a similar part time basis as Chair of the Moon Express Science Advisory Board. I look forward to helping Moon Express achieve their goal of winning the Google Lunar XPRIZE and developing a truly commercial system to deliver payloads to the Moon.
Look for an article on the origin of the Moon written by yours truly, coming soon to a special web-based edition of Astronomy magazine. I’ll post the information when it appears. My recent post here at Air & Space describes the call for small lunar lander missions. The last of the (currently planned) NASA missions to the Moon is scheduled for launch this Friday, September 6, 2013. Here’s wishing LADEE a safe, successful and productive journey.
So I’m happy to report that there are signs of “life” about our future on the lunar frontier.
August 17, 2013
Wanted: lander spacecraft to deliver payloads to the Moon. Must be cheap and reliable.
NASA recently issued an “RFI” – a Request for Information – a method used by the agency to solicit concepts from various companies and gauge their ability to fulfill a future anticipated need. In this case, the need is for a small robotic lander, one capable of delivering two classes of payloads to the lunar surface: small (from 30 to 100 kg) and medium (from 250 to 450 kg).
Probably focused near-term with the RESOLVE (Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction) payload, the intent of this RFI is to survey existing capabilities for the commercial delivery of a variety of payloads to the Moon. RESOLVE is a NASA experiment designed to test and demonstrate some techniques of in situ resource utilization (ISRU) on the Moon, specifically the generation of oxygen and the extraction of volatile elements (such as hydrogen) from lunar soil. The RESOLVE package consists of several highly integrated experiments designed to collect soil on the Moon, heat this feedstock to various temperatures and measure the amount and type of volatile elements released, and practice some techniques of processing the soil into useful products (such as water or oxygen).
Though we’ve been talking about using off-planet resources for years, this is the first time the agency would fly an experiment designed to evaluate the processes and difficulties involved. Some of us contend that until it is proven possible (by demonstrating it in space), space-based resource utilization (ISRU) will remain classified as “too risky” to incorporate into an architecture. Engineers don’t doubt the chemistry or physics behind ISRU, but to evaluate risk and return, they want demonstrations using real hardware versus theoretical concepts and paper studies.
Although it will not answer all ISRU questions, RESOVLE can provide useful data and would be an important milestone. Our ignorance is particularly vast in regard to the nature of the polar volatile deposits. Some near-polar sites are under consideration for RESOLVE, but because the lander must be able to communicate with Earth, sites near the poles must be in radio view of Earth. This eliminates the most promising polar volatile sites (permanently dark, out of radio sight) from consideration, at least for the first mission. However, we know that water ice occurs in some areas in view of Earth, so careful targeting will permit us to get ground truth for a critical area near the one of poles.
There are a wide variety of possible payloads (scientific and resource utilization) for lunar missions using small landers. A key priority for the lunar science community has been the deployment of a global network of geophysical instruments. Such a package would include a seismometer (to monitor and measure moonquakes), a heat flow probe (to take the Moon’s temperature) and other instruments, such as a magnetometer and a laser reflector. The five-station surface network laid out during the Apollo missions was operational for more than 7 years and gave us a first-order understanding of the nature of the deep lunar interior. A new global network – widely spaced and operating longer with more stations – would vastly improve on that knowledge.
The success of a network mission necessitates a long-lived power source to operate instruments during the very cold, 14-day lunar night (the Apollo network used nuclear power supplies), along with an inexpensive way to deploy the network stations. New technologies have developed small, reliable radioisotope generators that operate for many years. A small lander could deliver geophysical stations across the entire globe; each station is low mass, so the smaller (and presumably cheaper) the lander, the more likely that this mission will be realized. A global seismic network would decipher the crust and mantle structure of the Moon and could monitor its surface for large impacts. A precise measurement of lunar heat flow (measuring the abundance of radioactive elements in the Moon) will give us more information about the bulk composition of the Moon and advance our understanding of lunar origin. Laser ranging will also be useful in addressing some critical geophysical and astrophysical problems.
Single-point landers, making simple measurements, can investigate the surface composition and geology at select landing sites. If the landing sites and investigations are carefully chosen, they could significantly advance science by answering key questions. For example, a critical issue in the cratering history of the Moon is knowledge of the absolute age of some of the youngest craters on the Moon. The formation of the crater Copernicus marks a key time horizon in lunar history (the Copernican Period). We know its relative age very well but are uncertain about its absolute age. A small lander can be sent directly to the crater floor, where the impact melt is exposed and accessible, to analyze crater melt rocks for chemical composition and to learn the nature of the impact target (as well as determining the age of the rock by measuring the radiogenic potassium and argon in the rock). Although the potassium-argon technique is not the most precise method of radiometric dating, it can distinguish among the different proposed absolute ages, which vary over a billion years. By determining this age more precisely, we will better understand the impact flux in the Earth-Moon system, knowledge that will help us better interpret the surface ages of units on other terrestrial planets.
Small landers could deliver a variety of long-lived assets for future surface operations and resource utilization experiments. Techniques for making oxygen from lunar soil have been proposed but no comparative demonstration has been done on the Moon. A small laboratory could be send to the Moon to conduct simultaneous experiments on oxygen manufacture. The advantage of this experiment would be the use of identical feedstock under identical thermal and time constraints to compare their relative efficacy and identify any problems. This experiment would fit on a small lander (~ 50 kg capacity) and by using solar power, within the span of a single lunar day (2 weeks) could quickly complete its evaluation.
The larger version of the RFI lander opens up other possibilities. With a payload capacity on the order of 500 kg, this lander could deliver an advanced, automated surface rover (powered by an RTG – nuclear battery) able to undertake extensive and protracted exploration of the polar cold traps. Equipped with instruments utilizing well established technology, this rover would characterize the physical, chemical and isotopic make up of the polar volatiles – a task critical for mapping the extent and purity of deposits of water ice on the Moon, and evaluating their mining and extraction potential.
At this scale, it’s possible to deliver an ascent vehicle to the Moon to retrieve and return samples to Earth. Scientists have a long list of desired targets for sample return and the potential for low cost, commercial landers to deliver payloads simply and inexpensively to the Moon could revolutionize our understanding of the Moon’s (and Earth’s) history and processes. From remote sensing data, we know that many fascinating areas on the Moon display rocks either unrepresented or unrecognized in the existing collections from the American Apollo, Soviet Luna, and lunar meteorite samples. Samples from the oldest impact feature on the Moon – the floor of the South Pole-Aitken basin – are especially desired. Although a simple “grab” sample won’t answer all of our questions, rocks from this site could address major questions about the bombardment history of the Moon and the early Earth.
Small lander spacecraft will open up new horizons for science and exploration. Critical to their success is making them simple, robust and inexpensive. That’s been a tall order for NASA. Whether the commercial sector can provide this capability more effectively remains to be seen.
November 17, 2012
Space missions are commonly thought of as the ultimate in “high tech.” After all, rockets blast off into the wild blue yonder, accelerate their payloads to hypersonic and orbital speeds and then operate in zero gravity in the ice-cold, black sky of space. It requires our best technology to pull off this modern miracle and even then, things can go wrong. Why would anyone believe that with high technology, sometimes less can be more – that we’re missing a bet by not utilizing current technology. Like the intellectual tug of war involving man vs. machine, there also is a tug of war between proven technology and high-tech. Creating these barriers and distinctions is nonsensical. We need it all. And we can have it all.
Point in question – in situ resource utilization (ISRU), which is the general term given to the concept of learning how to use the materials and energy we find in space. The idea of learning how to “live off the land” in space has been around for a long, long time. Countless papers have been written discussing the theory and practice of this operational approach. Yet to date, the only resource we have actually used in space is the conversion of sunlight into electricity via arrays of photovoltaic cells. Such power generation is clearly “mature” from a technical viewpoint, but it had to be demonstrated in actual spaceflight before it became considered as such (the earliest satellites were powered by batteries).
The reason we have not used ISRU is because we’ve spent the last 30 years in low Earth orbit, without access to the material resources of space. Many ideas have been proposed to use the material resources of the Moon. A big advantage of doing so is that much less mass needs to be transported from Earth. The propellant needed to transport a unit of mass from the Earth to the Moon keeps us hobbled to the tyranny of the rocket equation – a constant roadblock to progress. If it takes several thousand dollars to launch one pound into Earth orbit, multiply that amount times ten to get the cost to put a pound of mass on the Moon.
In the space business, new technologies tend to be viewed with a jaundiced eye. Aerospace engineers in particular are typically very conservative when it comes to integrating new technology into spacecraft and mission designs, largely on the basis that if we are not careful, missions can fail in a spectacularly dreadful fashion. To determine if a technology is ready for prime time, NASA developed the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale, a nine-step list of criteria that managers use to evaluate and classify how mature a technical concept is and whether the new technology is mission ready.
Resource utilization has a very low TRL level – usually TRL 4 or lower. Thus, many engineers don’t think of ISRU as a viable technique to implement on a real mission. It seems too “far out” (more science fiction than science). Believing that a technology is too immature for use can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a “Catch-22” for spaceflight: a technology is too immature for flight because it’s never flown and it’s never flown because it’s too immature. This prejudice is widespread among many “old hands” in the space business, who wield TRL quite effectively in order to keep new and innovative ideas stuffed in the closet and off flight manifests.
In truth, the idea that the processing and use of off-planet resources is “high technology” is exactly backwards – most of the ideas proposed for ISRU are some of the simplest and oldest technologies known to man. One of the first ideas advanced for using resources on the Moon involve building things out of bulk regolith (rocks and soil of the lunar surface). This is certainly not high-tech; the use of building aggregate dates back to ancient times, reaching a high level of sophistication under the Romans, who over 2000 years ago built what is still the largest free-supported concrete dome in the world (the Pantheon). The Coliseum was made of concrete faced by marble. The Romans also built a complex network of roads, some which remain in use to this day; paving and grading is one of the oldest and most straightforward technologies known. Odd as it may seem, sand and gravel building material is the largest source of wealth from a terrestrial resource – the biggest economic material resource on Earth.
Recently, interest has focused on the harvesting and use of water, found as ice deposits, at the poles of the Moon. Digging up ice-laden soil and heating it to extract water is very old, dating back to at least prehistoric times. This water could contain other substances, including possibly toxic amounts of some exotic elements, such as silver and mercury. No problem – we understand fractional distillation, a medieval separation technique based on the differing boiling temperatures of various substances. Again, this concept is not particularly high-tech as only a heater and a cooling column is needed (basically the configuration of an oil refinery). Some workers have suggested that lunar regolith could be mined for metals, which can then be used to manufacture both large construction pieces and complex equipment. Extracting metal from rocks and minerals is likewise very old, developed by the ancients and simply improved in efficiency over time. Processes like carbothermal reduction have been used for hundreds of years. The reactions and yields are well known, and the machinery needed to create a processing stream is simple and easy to operate.
In short, the means needed to extract and use the material wealth of the Moon and other extraterrestrial bodies is technology that is centuries old. Even advanced chemical processing was largely completely developed by the 19th Century in both Europe and America. The “new” aspects of ISRU technology revolve around the use of computers to control and regulate the processing stream. Such control is already used in many industries on Earth, including the new and potentially revolutionary technique of three-dimensional printing. A key aspect of the old “Faster-Cheaper-Better” idea (one NASA never really embraced) was to push the envelope by relying more on “off-the-wall” ideas, whereby more innovation on more flights would lead to greater capability over time.
Nothing that we plan to do on the Moon involves magic, alchemy or extremely high technology. Like most new fields of endeavor, we can start small and build capability over time. The TRL concept was designed as a guideline. It was not intended as a weapon eliminating possibly game-changing techniques from consideration or to carve out funding territories. Attitudes toward TRL must change at all levels, from the lowly subsystem to the complete, end-to-end architectural plan. A critical first step toward true space utilization and for understanding and controlling our destiny there is to recognize and take advantage of the leverage one gets from lunar (and in time planetary) resource utilization.
September 8, 2012
Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation published a “free-enterprise” critique of the Republican platform in regard to the American civil space program. Indeed, the text of the space plank is vague (no doubt intentionally, so as to give the candidate maximum flexibility to structure the space program to align with his vision and goals for the country). But what I found most interesting was the underlying premise and assumptions in Tumlinson’s article, a worldview that I find striking.
In brief, Tumlinson approves of the current administration’s direction for our civil space program. The U.S. has stepped back from pushing toward the Moon, Mars and beyond and redirected NASA on a quest for “game-changing” technologies (to make spaceflight easier and less costly), while simultaneously transitioning launch to low Earth orbit (LEO) operations to private “commercial space” companies selected by our government to compete for research and development funding and contracts. Many see this as gutting NASA and the U.S. national space program. To be clear, the term “commercial space” in this context does not refer to the long-established commercial aerospace industry (e.g., Lockheed-Martin, Boeing) but to a collection of startup companies dubbed “New Space” (typically, companies founded by internet billionaires who have spoken much and often about lofty space plans, but have actually flown in space very little).
Tumlinson criticizes the Republican space plank because it does not explicitly declare that a new administration would continue the current policy. In his view, the very idea of a federal government space program, including a NASA-developed and operated launch and flight system, is a throwback to 1960’s Cold War thinking. Instead, he envisions space as a field for new, flexible and innovative companies, untainted by stodgy engineering traditions or bloated bureaucracy. Many space advocates on the web hold this viewpoint – “If only government would get out of the way and give New Space a chance, there will be a renaissance in space travel!” But travel to where? And why?
The idea that LEO flight operations should be transitioned to the commercial sector is not new. It was a recommendation of the 2004 Aldridge Commission report on implementing the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). NASA itself started the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program (COTS) in 2006, designed to nurture a nascent spaceflight industry by offering subsidies to companies to develop and fly vehicles that could provision and exchange crew aboard the International Space Station. That effort was envisioned as an adjunct to – not a replacement of – federal government spaceflight capability.
The termination of the VSE and the announcement of the “new direction” in space received high cover from the 2009 Augustine committee report, which concluded that the current “program of record” (e.g., Constellation) was unaffordable. The Augustine Committee received presentations with options to reconfigure Constellation whereby America could have returned to the Moon (to learn how to use resources found in space) under the existing budgetary cap, but they elected to start from first principles. Hence, we have something called Flexible Path, which doesn’t set a destination or a mission but calls on us “to develop technology” to go anywhere (unspecified) sometime in the future (also unspecified). With target dates of 2025 for a “possible” human mission to a near-Earth asteroid and a trip to Mars “sometime in the 2030’s,” timelines and milestones for the Flexible Path offer no clarity or purpose. Try getting a loan or finding investors using a “flexible” business plan.
Tumlinson argues that both political parties should embrace this new direction because New Space will create greater capability for lower cost sooner. He also makes much about the philosophical inclinations of the Republican Party (the “conservative” major party in American politics) – Why don’t the Republicans support free enterprise in space? Why are they putting obstacles in the way of all these new trailblazing entrepreneurs? As to those obstacles, it is unclear exactly what they are. True enough, there are regulatory and liability issues with private launch services, but not of such magnitude that they cannot be handled through the traditional means of indemnification (e.g., launch insurance).
The COTS program record of the past decade largely has not been a contract let for services, but a government grant for the technical development of launch vehicles and spacecraft. Close reading reveals the real issue: Tumlinson wants more of NASA’s shrinking budget to finance New Space companies. He is concerned that a new administration might cut off this flow of funding. However, what will cut off the flow of funding is having no market, no direction, and no architectural commitment – regardless of who occupies the White House.
The belief of many New Space advocates is that once they are established to supply and crew the ISS, abundant and robust private commercial markets will emerge for their transportation services. Although many possible services are envisioned, space tourism is the activity most often mentioned. Whether such a market emerges is problematic. Although Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has a back-listed manifest of dozens of people desiring a suborbital thrill ride (at a cost of a few hundred thousand dollars), those journeys are infinitely more affordable than a possible orbital trek (which will cost several tens of millions of dollars, at least initially). Nevertheless, there will no doubt be takers for a ticket. But what will happen to a commercial space tourism market after the first fatal accident? New Space advocates often tout their indifference to danger, but such bravado is neither a common nor wise attitude in today’s lawsuit-happy society (not to mention, the inevitable loss of confidence from a limited customer base). My opinion is that after the first major accident with loss of life, a nascent space tourism industry will become immersed in an avalanche of litigation and will probably fully or partly collapse under the ensuing financial burden. We are no longer the barnstorming America of the 1920’s and spaceflight is much more difficult than aviation.
Despite labeling themselves “free marketers,” New Space (in its current configuration) looks no different than any other contractor furiously lobbying for government sponsorship through continuation of its subsidies. True free-market capitalists do not seek government funding to develop a product. Rather, they devise an answer to an unmet need, identify a market, seek investors and invest their own capital, provide a product or service and only remain viable by making a profit through the sale of their goods and services.
Tumlinson bemoans the attitude of some politicians, ascribing venal and petty motives as to why they do not fully embrace the administration’s new direction, e.g., the oft-thrown label “space pork” to describe support for NASA’s Space Launch System. In regard to New Space companies, Tumlinson asserts that, “[We] have to both give them a chance and get out of the way.” But in fact, he does not want government to “get out of the way” – at least not while they’re still shoveling millions into New Space company coffers – nor when they need (and they will) a ruling on, or protection of, their property rights in space. Any entity that accepts government money is making a “deal with the devil,” whereby it is understood that such money comes with oversight requirements (as well it should, consisting of taxpayer dollars).
Successful commercialization of space has occurred in the past (e.g., COMSAT) and will occur in the future. But the creation of a select, subsidized, quasi-governmental industry is not by any stretch of the imagination what we commonly understand free market capitalism to mean. It is more akin to oligarchical corporatism, a common feature of the post-Soviet, Russian economy. True private sector space will be created and welcomed, but not through this mechanism, whose most worrisome accomplishment to date has been to effectively distract Americans from noticing the dismantling of their civil space program and preeminence in space.