March 13, 2013
The news of the day is abuzz with the new and astounding discoveries from the Curiosity rover that Mars once had an environment conducive to life. Once it was warmer, wetter, more hospitable. Water flowed over its surface. The chemicals necessary for life’s emergence and development are present on Mars, suggesting that life may have arisen there in the distant past. So why do I have this sense of déjà vu? Perhaps because this new “result” gets trumpeted anew every few years.
The fixation on the possibility of martian life has been a constant throughout the history of the space program, starting before the first planetary mission to Mars in 1965 (Mariner 4) and then waxing and waning in likelihood every few years. Mariner 4 showed us a moon-like Mars, with a rough, cratered surface and thin cold atmosphere. The stock for martian life fell accordingly. A few years later, the twin probes Mariners 6 and 7 flew by Mars, again returning pictures of a cratered surface, but with hints of the presence of unusual terrain, possibly the result of subsurface ice. The stock of the life story rose slightly, but the barren cold desert of the martian surface was hardly a Garden of Eden.
A big breakthrough came with the flight of Mariner 9 in 1971. To the astonishment of most planetary scientists, it revealed a world of giant volcanoes, canyons much larger than the Grand Canyon on Earth, and amazingly, channels that looked as though they were carved by running water. The idea of life on Mars – at least in the distant past – gained credence and served as a springboard for the Viking missions of 1976, America’s bicentennial year. These two missions consisted of both a lander and an orbiter and were specifically designed to test the surface of Mars for the possibility of life. Both landers returned results that were immediately interpreted as negative (although there was some dissent); the surface materials of Mars had a very reactive chemistry, but no organic material was found in the soil, even at concentration levels measured in parts-per-billion. Thus, we had the conundrum of abundant landform evidence for an early, warm and wet climate yet chemical evidence for an almost sterilizing environment at present. If Mars had life, it must have been present only in the distant past. The results from Viking were considered so definitive that no mission was sent to Mars for over 20 years.
What precipitated the new flurry of interest in Mars about twenty years ago was the finding that, astonishingly enough, we have samples in our possession from Mars in the form of meteorites, the so-called “SNC meteorites” (the initials of Shergotty, Nakhla, and Chassigny, the first three meteorites recognized to be of martian origin). It had been thought that the preservation of rocks intact during ejection from the planet at escape velocities and greater was not possible, but in this case, observations trumped theory. Even more amazing, it was claimed that in one of these putative martian rocks, small features within it were actually fossils of ancient bacteria. Although highly controversial then (and now), this finding was given widespread publicity (including even a Rose Garden Presidential statement) and the agency used this discovery to sell a program to send a series of probes to Mars at every two-year opportunity for the next decade.
This fleet of orbiters and landers returned an abundance of new, high-quality data on the martian surface, its composition, the locations of water and its environment. Each mission confirmed that water had once been present on Mars. Each mission confirmed that at present, the surface was not conducive to life. Each lander went to a site that was thought to have been more promising for the development of life than the ones that preceded it. As the years rolled on, each “new discovery” of the former presence of water and favorable environmental conditions on Mars became something of a joke among my colleagues in the planetary science business – how many times can you claim the discovery of something already known?
Lest you think that I am simply expressing my lunar parochialism, I note that this same media phenomenon occurs in regard to the existence of water ice at the poles of the Moon. The theoretical possibility of ice on the Moon had been known for many years. We first found direct evidence for it in 1996 with an improvised radio experiment on the Clementine mission. Subsequent studies from Earth and a variety of other space missions caused the stock for lunar polar water to rise and fall, depending on who issued the latest press release for their published work. Finally, the collision of the LCROSS impactor in 2010 removed all doubt – there was and is ice there, at least at the south pole and in quantities greater than could be reasonably expected to have resulted simply from solar wind deposition. Yet each new finding was announced as a new “discovery” in the press. So this media frenzy is not simply related to Mars mania or even to the over-preoccupation with finding life elsewhere.
The basic fact is that most in the news business do not understand (or at least, do not fully appreciate) the incremental, cumulative nature of modern science. It is seldom indeed when a single experiment or observation causes a scientific revolution. Moreover, it is equally seldom that a breakthough comes from one person or even one research team. Science is a complex, interdisciplinary effort. It makes progress, but slowly and in a manner that includes both leaps forward and (sometimes) backward. Only over long periods of time (decades and greater) is it apparent what the key observation or measurement is and how it fits into a pattern of understanding. Each new mission result adds knowledge, sometimes in great leaps and sometimes in increments so tiny that one can question whether anything new is being learned at all. But even a repeated observation has value in science – in fact, if an observation is not repeatable, it is not a valid scientific observation.
The new inferences from Curiosity suggest a more benign and hospitable environment for life, but few working Mars investigators doubted that such existed in the past. Even if it did not, we have found in the past few decades that even extreme environments on the Earth can support certain types of microbial life. So the new results broaden and deepen our understanding of martian surface properties and processes, they do not revolutionize them. That’s just how science normally works. If some scientists tend to oversell their results, well, they’re only human.
January 6, 2013
As a memorial to honor Neil Armstrong’s contributions to aeronautics and astronautics, a bill (HR 6612) was recently introduced by Congressman Kevin McCarthy and passed by the House of Representatives to change the name of the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (a field center proximate to Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave desert north of Los Angeles) to the Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center. While I take a back seat to no one in regard to my respect and admiration for Neil and his life of accomplishment, I think that this effort is both mistaken and inappropriate.
Who was this Dryden guy anyway? Hugh L. Dryden was an American aeronautical engineer who became the last head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)* in 1947 and the first Deputy Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. Dryden had a long research career in the complexities of airflow and the boundary layer, critical subjects in the science of aerodynamics. Dryden’s published work in this field became standard texts for upcoming aeronautical engineers and aircraft designers. Dryden, a quiet man whose life story is filled with notable achievements and roles, took the lead in establishing the National Academy of Engineering, the sister entity of the National Academy of Science.
In 1958, an act of Congress established NASA which absorbed the NACA and its aeronautical research facilities, including the field centers of Langley Aeronautical Laboratory near Hampton VA, Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center in Cleveland OH, and Ames Research Center next to Moffett Field in CA. President Dwight D. Eisenhower tapped T. Keith Glennan to be NASA’s first Administrator. Hugh Dryden was asked to join the new agency as its first Deputy. In his new role, Dryden was a key link to the immediate past, providing both institutional memory and continuity of service. The NACA had been involved in space research, including the X-15 project, a rocket-powered, piloted aircraft capable of supersonic transport to the outer fringes of the atmosphere. Neil Armstrong, a NACA test pilot, flew seven X-15 missions before his career as a NASA Gemini and Apollo astronaut.
Dryden and the NACA worked with the U.S. Air Force on the MISS (Man-In-Space-Soonest) project, which ultimately became Project Mercury, our first human spaceflight program. This program was being developed and managed out of Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, a NACA facility. The Space Task Group at Langley was headed by Bob Gilruth (later center director of Johnson Space Center), with Max Faget as one of his young, bright engineers grappling with the problems of hypersonic and orbital flight.
Hugh Dryden performed admirably the job of technocrat and manager during these early, exciting years, but perhaps his biggest contribution to space history is barely known. The fate of Project Mercury was unknown in early 1961. Recently sworn in as the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy seemed supportive of bold new technical endeavors but had been largely silent on his plans, if any, for the civil space program. Although Kennedy made much about a supposed “missile gap” with the Soviet Union, this policy discussion was focused entirely on our parity in ICBM deployment (or rather, the alleged lack thereof).
This all changed in April of that fateful year. The Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin on his single orbit flight, once again beating America to the punch by putting the first man in space. In the same month, the United States suffered a humiliating military and diplomatic setback with the very public failure of an American-instigated invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The new President eagerly sought a high-visibility field of endeavor (preferably technological) in which America could demonstrate its superiority over the USSR. Initially, the desalination of seawater was a leading candidate among the many projects Kennedy considered. However, at the height of the Cold War, that challenge didn’t quite fill the bill.
On April 14, two days after Gagarin orbited the Earth, Kennedy met with his new NASA Administrator James Webb and his deputy, the holdover from the Eisenhower Administration, Hugh Dryden. During this meeting, Dryden pointed out that while the Soviets could beat America to many different space “firsts,” a near-term human landing on the Moon was out of reach for both nations – that while declaring a “contest” with the Soviets on virtually any space goal ran the risk of America losing, odds were even for the first manned lunar landing. America could not go to the Moon now, but likely we could within a few years. Thus, if space was to be the chosen field for a superpower contest, Dryden believed the goal of a human lunar landing was the challenge we could win.
Kennedy received a detailed memorandum outlining all his space options from Vice President Lyndon Johnson on April 29, 1961, but Dryden had already forcefully made his case for a lunar landing to the President two weeks earlier. It is often thought that Wernher von Braun was the one who convinced Kennedy that the Moon was the proper goal for Apollo, but Dryden had digested and presented von Braun’s technical arguments in policy terms that Kennedy could understand. In the public’s mind, von Braun was “Dr. Space,” largely because of his work with Walt Disney in the 1950s popularizing the idea of space travel. But it was Hugh Dryden who helped turn the dream of landing people on the Moon into a political commitment from the President and ultimately, a reality.
Hugh Dryden remained the Deputy Administrator of NASA until his untimely death in 1965. He has been honored with a crater named for him on the Moon and as the namesake of the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, an entirely appropriate memorial given his contributions to aeronautics and his key role in the establishment of the Apollo program. He was at the right place (the White House) with the right President (Kennedy) at the right time (when America needed a challenging yet achievable space goal). His life was one of service and excellence. I think it does a disservice to the memory of Hugh Dryden to re-name the Dryden Flight Research Center and what’s more, I believe that Neil – the consummate gentleman – would also view HR 6612, the congressional bill passed to drop Dryden’s name and insert his in its stead, as unnecessary and wrong-headed.
I certainly agree that we should name a major facility for Neil Armstrong. May I suggest that the first manned lunar outpost be named for Neil Armstrong – the first man to set foot on the Moon.
* Pronounced by saying each individual letter: “N-A-C-A,” not as a single word, as we do for its successor agency, NASA.
Note Added Jan. 7, 2013: I have been reminded that the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 had already designated the American portion of the then-planned international lunar outpost as the “Neil A. Armstrong Lunar Outpost” (sec. 404 b). Thanks to both Bill Mellberg and Joel Raupe for jogging my memory on this.
December 31, 2012
The Moon is remarkable for the variety and unusual nature of the names of its surface features. The dark, smooth maria are named for weather or states of mind (Sea of Rains, Sea of Tranquility) while many of the abundant craters of the Moon are named for famous scientists, philosophers, mathematicians and explorers. Before the advent of the space age, only the near side of the Moon was visible, although most scientists believed that the far side probably looked exactly like the one facing Earth. (How wrong they were!) Naturally, once we had the ability to see uncharted lunar territory, a new era of name assignment commenced. But even now, many lunar craters and features await something more than mere coordinates.
The drawings by Galileo of the Moon in 1610 show craters and mountain ranges but he did not assign names to them. As telescopes improved, revealing finer surface details, several maps appeared with names bestowed by their astronomer authors to flatter patrons or express their nationalism. Most of those early names have been forgotten to history. In 1651, an influential map by Jesuit astronomers Grimaldi and Riccioli became the foundation for the official naming reference guide that we use today.
With the flight of the Luna 3 probe in 1959, the Soviet Union was the first nation to image the far side of the Moon. To the surprise of most, large regions of maria (so prominent on the near side) were mostly missing from the far side. Although the first images were of very low quality, the Soviets couldn’t resist the urge to name newly discovered features for a variety of Russian heroes and place names, such as Tsiolkovsky and the Sea of Moscow. Some new “features” were misidentified because of the low resolution – the name “Soviet Mountains” (no longer used) was given to a bright linear streak across the far side globe (a feature that turned out to be a long ray from the fresh crater Giordano Bruno and not a mountain range).
Over subsequent years, as both American and Soviet spacecraft filled in the far side coverage with increasingly higher quality images, most major far side craters received names of various scientists and engineers. From around the world, a mixed bag of names were submitted to the International Astronomical Union (IAU – the body of scientists who authorize the names of planetary surface features) for consideration and approval. Although some were historically significant, many were people with whom few were familiar.
Though NASA does not have the authority to assign names to features on the Moon, an informal practice of naming landmarks was common during the Apollo missions. Names were given to the small craters and mountains near each landing site (e.g., Shorty, St. George, Stone Mountain) but official names were used as well (e.g., Hadley Rille). NASA adopts informal names for the same reason that names are given to geographical features on Earth – as shorthand to refer to landmarks and other mapped features. The most recent illustration of this practice occurred on December 17, 2012 when NASA named the location where the deliberately de-orbited GRAIL spacecraft crashed onto the Moon near the crater Goldschmidt (73°N, 4°W) the Sally K. Ride Impact Site. Sally thus joins other women of science and note who have lunar features named for them – Hypatia, Caroline Herschel and Marie Curie, among others. Most of the informal names assigned during Apollo were later given “official” status by the IAU.
The Apollo basin (a 540 km diameter crater on the southwestern far side) was named to honor the Apollo missions – the only crater on the Moon so designated. Within a few years of their missions, smaller craters were named for the living crews of Apollo 8 (Borman, Lovell and Anders) and Apollo 11 (Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins). Also located around the Apollo basin are craters named for deceased astronauts and NASA employees, including the lost crews of Apollo 1 and the lost crews of the final missions of the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttles. It is appropriate that some feature honors humanity’s first efforts to reach the Moon, as well as others who gave their lives pioneering space. In a similar vein, craters near the poles of the Moon tend to be named for famous polar scientists and explorers, such as Nansen, Shackleton, and Amundsen.
Other than these exceptions, the location of specifically named craters has little rhyme or reason. Neither scientific prominence nor contribution guarantees any crater-endowed immortality. Copernicus and Archimedes are rightly honored with spectacular craters named for them. But Galileo and Newton (titans in the history of science) are fobbed off with insignificant or barely detectable features. One of the most prominent craters on the Moon is named for the astronomer Tycho Brahe, an eccentric who spent most of his career trying to validate a variant of the Earth-centered, Ptolemaic model of the Solar System (Ptolemy also has a prominent crater in the center of the near side named for him). It’s not clear why Riccioli assigned the names he did to these craters, though he cannot be blamed for giving Newton short shrift, as the future Sir Isaac was only nine years old when the Grimaldi and Riccioli map was published.
It is possible to both suggest a name and to propose a crater for that name, though the IAU is not obliged to accept either. Often, a suggested name is approved but assigned to a different crater. Currently, the guidelines for submission and assignment of new names for lunar craters are: 1) a scientist or explorer who has made some significant contribution, preferably to the study of the Moon and planets; 2) deceased for at least three years before a crater name becomes official; 3) it cannot duplicate any existing lunar name.
In 2005, I proposed the name Ryder (to honor my colleague Graham Ryder, a lunar scientist who passed away in 2002) and suggested a small, bright crater on the far side to carry his name. Both suggestions were adopted. We have since found that Ryder crater is actually quite a geologically spectacular feature (Graham would be proud of his namesake). In a truly singular event, the crater Shoemaker (named in 2000 and located near the south pole of the Moon) actually contains some of Gene Shoemaker’s remains – a small portion of his ashes was carried aboard the Lunar Prospector spacecraft in 1998. At the conclusion of that mission, the vehicle was crashed into the south polar crater that was subsequently named for him.
We don’t know what the IAU will do concerning the designation of the Sally K. Ride Impact Site but as history suggests, granting of official status is not guaranteed. No matter – we will continue to assign names to features as needed and the IAU will do what they do. In the early 1970s, the IAU (by fiat) abolished the famous Mädler nomenclature system (wherein a small, nearby crater is given the name of a large neighbor plus a letter, such as Copernicus H). Most working lunar scientists stubbornly refused to accept this decision and continued using the old crater names. After 30 years of bureaucratic intractability, the IAU finally surrendered and formally adopted the Mädler system.
Official or not, with the passage of time, named lunar landmarks will become familiar to those visiting and working on our nearest neighbor. Perhaps interesting monikers will be attached by those locals, as is done here on Earth when we assign nicknames to places – like the Big Apple, the Windy City, the Big Easy and the City by the Bay.
Just published: The Clementine Atlas of the Moon, Revised Edition, an updated atlas and reference guide to lunar features, by Ben Bussey and yours truly.
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.
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