Space Is A Place, Not A Program


A reader, who will remain nameless to protect the guilty (unless (s)he tells me that (s)he wants me to expose him or her) writes, presumably in response to some of my recent space policy postings:

I’d like to put my two cents in on how to get moving forward in space. This is probably too long and boring for a comment, but feel free to use it as you wish.

Well, it’s not boring at all, at least to me, and I wish to use it as a typical example of exactly what’s wrong with our thinking about space policy. And to show that, despite the fact that it was emailed to me, the author hasn’t really read what I’ve been writing, or else (equally likely) I’ve been abysmally unsuccessful in making my points. Gee, I’ll bet he/she’s glad that they offered it to me now…

(Also, I hope that this doesn’t discourage anyone from emailing me in future. I actually thank the writer–it’s a good letter in the Limbaughian sense, in that it provides an opportunity to make the host look good…)

I believe that NASA has three legitimate functions:
a. Provide infrastructure for low cost access to low earth orbit
b. Perform research and development of space technologies (propulsion, navigation, life support, reentry, etc.)
c. Utilize space technologies for pure science (planetary exploration, satellite observatories, biomedical research, etc.)

Well, legitimate meaning “legal,” NASA’s legitimate functions are described in its (somewhat vague) charter. It doesn’t include the first item here (even assuming that we could agree on what “infrastructure” means). It could be construed to include the second. It certainly includes the third.

If you mean “legitimate” in some esoteric Constitutional sense, it’s arguable whether the existence of NASA itself is legitimate (a characteristic that it shares with many federal agencies).

Of these three functions, low cost access to low earth orbit is the most important at this time and should receive at least 80% of funding. It’s reasonable and probably unavoidable that the government will have to finance these activities. They are too expensive and too long term for most investors.

While I agree that low-cost access to LEO is important if we want to make any national progress in space, the assumption that NASA can or should make this happen, or that 80% of its funding should go toward that goal are highly questionable.

As to the second statement (like almost all the contents of the email), this is conventional wisdom, and it is utterly wrong. There is nothing intrinsically expensive about space stuff, except in the way that we’ve chosen to do it for forty years. And even if it were, private investments of many billions of dollars are made every yearjust ask Intel, or GM. As to its being long-term return, this is not a barrier either. Weyerhauser plants trees that won’t provide timber for many years, even decades. Oil companies fund and build pipelines that may be half a decade or more from delivering oil.

No, the only thing keeping necessary private investment out of space right now is perception of the risk, in terms of technical risk, market risk, and most importantly, regulatory risk.

It seems to me that there are at least three approaches to reaching low earth orbit that NASA should examine:

And when you say “approaches,” you mean, of course, technical approaches. You believe that the dominant risk is technical, and that if we can just come up with the “right” kind of technical solution, and have NASA build it, we can reduce costs. OK, I’ll play along.

a. Conventional rockets optimized for low cost, not man rated. This would include the Shuttle Derived Heavy Lift Vehicle and could also include advanced designs that rely only on chemical rocket engines (e.g. aerospike and X-33 type engines). These can provide a short term solution that should be able to reduce the cost to orbit by a factor of 10 and that can be fielded in 5 to 10 years (the Shuttle Derived system could probably fly in 2 to 3 years).

There’s little reason to think that this approach would reduce costs by that much, unless the market increases dramatically. And if the market increases dramatically, even existing rockets (certainly Russian and Chinese ones, but probably EELV) will do it. But if it only reduced costs by a factor of ten, it wouldn’t be worth the investment, because it almost certainly wouldn’t expand the market much–it’s relatively inelastic in that range.

b. Systems that use aerodynamic lift and are man rated.

I’m going to stop right here and make the point that there’s not really any such thing as “man rated.” It’s an oxymoron when talking about reusable launch systems (which I assume that you are). “Man rating” is a concept that NASA came up with in the 1960s to describe how materials, quality control and design would be modified to allow us to have some vague comfort level in putting a human on top of munitions (i.e., ICBM’s). It was deemed necessary to take measures to get the missile as reliable as possible, since the payload was very valuable–even priceless.

For reusable launch systems (I prefer the apellation “space transports”) it’s a meaningless concept. The vehicles themselves will be of such high value that adding people in the mix will make no difference in designed reliability. There’s no such thing as a “man-rated” airplane, and similarly there will be no such creature as a man-rated space transport.

This would include revisiting failed approaches such as NASP and X-33 and scaling up systems like Pegasus. More likely, this approach could yield a solution similar to the original, fully reusable shuttle concept. These systems would deliver modest payloads, be fully reusable, and have rapid turnaround. Target should be at least one flight per month per vehicle, preferably more frequent.


ONE FLIGHT PER MONTH (he repeated in stunned disbelief)??!!

If we are only going to get one flight per month, any moneys expended on a new system may as well be flushed down the toilet, or, equivalently, spent on some other new government program.

Any launch system that doesn’t fly multiple times per week is not worth building–it will not reduce costs significantly below what we are currently paying.

The long pole for this system is reusable rocket engines.

Actually, that is not the long pole, at least if you study Shuttle turnaround timelines. But those are probably not relevant to a modern space transport.

Hopefully we’ve learned enough from the Shuttle to design reliable, reusable engines.

I don’t know about that. We’ve probably learned quite a bit about how not to design them. What we’ve primarily learned from the Shuttle (or at least what we should have learned) is that NASA should never, EVER again be put in charge of developing an operational space transport.

The aero-lift system should reduce the cost of delivering astronauts to orbit by 10 to 100 fold and could probably be fielded in 10 to 20 years.

There is no reason to suppose that aero-lift will help the problem (nor that it won’t) and all of the numbers provided here are purely guess work, and certainly not adequate to use as a basis for policy decisions.

c. Limited skyhook system. I read an article at least 20 years ago in AIAA Journal (sorry I don’t have the citation) that proposed a low orbit space station with a long cable and winch. At the end of the winch is a docking module. Vehicles would launch from Earth in a suborbital elipse and rendevous at the apex of their trajectory with the docking module. Once docked, the vehicle would be simply winched up to the space station. This process would lower the orbit of the space
station slightly, but either rail gun or ion thrusters could return the station to its desired orbit. Winching satellites away from Earth could easily provide the force to insert the vehicles into transfer orbits to geosynchronous orbit, the moon, or beyond. The beauty of this system is that it opens space to a wide array of commercial vehicles that are feasible today and that it reduces costs by many orders of magnitude. This is a long term project that will probably take more than 25 years, but also offers the best alternative for low cost access to space.

Skyhooks are neat. Sometime, in the future, when it’s clear that there is adequate market for millions of pounds up and down, and the technology matures, someone will put forth the money and build one.

But for the purposes of this discussion, skyhooks are also irrelevant.

As is any discussion about: whether the vehicle has wings or not; uses scramjets or rockets; uses hydrogen or kerosene or propane or methane for fuel, uses vertical or horizontal takeoff or landing; has one, two or twenty stages; breathes air or pixie dust, hypersonically, or otherwise, etc. These are all theological issues, and they will not be resolved by posts on the web, or emailed opinions, or even extensive analyses by government contractors.

There are many ways to lower the cost of launch, but none of them will succeed unless they are funded, and funded in such a way that the goal of reducing launch costs is important (as opposed to the goal of simply feeding funding to NASA and its contractors). No one knows for sure what the launch system should look like.

That is a question that will only be resolved by the marketplace–a marketplace that, to first order, does not currently exist. If the federal government wants to make a contribution to space transportation, it will remove the barriers to space commerce, which are mentioned above. The market is uncertain, and the regulatory environment is frightening. In addition, we have been inured, for over forty years, to the bizarre notion that space transportation is unbelievably expensive, and something that is only in the realm of government, so investors will enter only at extreme peril. In the face of this reality, figuring what the launch vehicle should look like is like figuring out where the deck chairs should be located on the Titanic.

NASA’s legitimate objective should be to develop the technologies to make space flight routine and inexpensive. In effect, I’d like to see NASA act like the government agencies that built and maintained canals and locks to facilitate trade.

The history of government subsidization of particular modes of transportation is not as beneficent as your historical analogy implies. Whenever the government sticks its nose into the transportation business, some other transportation business suffers. Canals were nice, but it isn’t clear that they were the best way to move freight and people in the late 18th century. Government-subsidized railroads opened up the west, but they drove the canals out of business, perhaps before their time. The federal highway system destroyed much of the cargo, and most of the passenger rail system, perhaps at the cost of economic and energy efficiency. Bob Poole, founder of the Reason Foundation, has published numerous articles and papers on this subject.

To the degree that the government should play a role here (and it’s not at all clear that NASA should even continue to exist, let alone develop launch systems), it will be to clarify the regulatory situation, and to help provide a market for space transportation. A real market, not a few people to space station a few times a year. The precedent for this is the airmail subsidy in the 1930s that helped develop the modern aviation industry. Hang a big enough carrot out there, and let the providers figure out what the vehicle should look like.

Why should the government do such a thing? Because it’s in our national security interest to do so. We just won a major phase of the war against terrorism because we had assets in space. Without them, we would have been unable to deliver ordinance precisely. The enemy would have escaped much of the devastation (or it would have cost us much more, in money and lives to provide it) and many more civilians would have been killed, and their property destroyed. Had the enemy had the capacity to eliminate our space-based assets, he surely would have done so.

We dominate space, in the sense that no other country has as much power as we do there, but we do not control it. Had someone launched a missile to take out our satellites, there’s nothing we could have done to prevent it. Nor could we have replaced it quickly. A robust space transportation infrastructure would solve this problem, but the most efficient way to accomplish this is through the private sector, satisfying market needs. The space policy challenge is not in figuring out what a vehicle should look like, or coming up with technologies to build it, but in putting in place the proper institutional incentives to develop such an industry and infrastructure, to make us a truly space-faring nation.

As the Space Frontier Society says, “space is a place, not a program.” We need to think about it in exactly the same way that we think about land, sea and air. We don’t have a national Truck program. We don’t have a national Ship program. We don’t have a national Airplane program. It is just as nonsensical to have a national Launch Vehicle program.

I hope that everyone who has persevered to the end of this post will now understand that I am interested, even eager, to receive input as to how to solve this fundamental policy problem. I also hope that they understand that any comments, or emails, with ideas about what the next “national launch vehicle” should look like will be deleted with extreme prejudice.