Obama in space: bold but not bold enough
by Jonathan Coopersmith
|The chief flaw of the president’s proposals is they do not address the key constraint limiting human and robotic exploration and exploitation of space, the high cost of reaching orbit.|
Lost in the attention given to ending shuttle flights this year, as intended by President Bush, and the cancellation of the overcost and overweight Constellation program, are the promising initiatives to develop and deploy new generations of technology. At the core of the president’s proposed revamping of NASA is the focus on new technologies to reduce the cost and complexity of operating in space. NASA will restart its Institute for Advanced Concepts, eliminated in 2007 to help pay for Constellation cost overruns. Chief technologist Robert D. Braun will head the new Space Technology Program, which will offer research grants to encourage innovative ideas. These steps will revitalize the private, academic, and NASA technology base.
The chief flaw of the president’s proposals is they do not address the key constraint limiting human and robotic exploration and exploitation of space, the high cost of reaching orbit. When I fly domestically, I pay about $2 per pound of me for a ticket. To launch a satellite into orbit costs roughly $10,000 a pound. Until that cost dramatically drops, the promise of the final frontier will remain only a promise.
These high launch costs restrict access to space to those governments and corporations that can afford tens of millions of dollars to launch a satellite. Consequently, the annual total of all payloads is only a few hundred tons, the equivalent of two 747 freighter flights.
The great expense to reach orbit has not only hindered past exploration, but will also restrict the future if unchanged. Imagine how many more businesses would experiment and develop applications in space if the cost of launching a satellite was only in the hundreds of thousands instead of tens of millions of dollars. Making access to space affordable will create vast economic as well as scientific opportunities.
The Augustine report and the president’s proposals realize that the space remains an expensive arena, but do not take the next logical step. To truly open space up for exploration and exploitation, President Obama and the Congress should set a goal of reducing the costs of reaching orbit to $100 a pound—two orders of magnitude—by 2020.
Chemical rockets will probably not be able to meet that challenge. Despite a half-century of improvements, they remain expensive. The new generation of commercial launchers should reduce the cost of reaching orbit, but even Virgin Galactic is charging approximately $1,000 a pound of passenger—without reaching orbit.
|President Obama and the Congress should set a goal of reducing the costs of reaching orbit to $100 a pound—two orders of magnitude—by 2020.|
Instead, NASA needs to think beyond its existing launch systems. Alternatives to rockets do exist. All keep the launch system on the ground, so only the payload is sent into orbit. As well as being less costly, ground-launched systems are inherently safer than rockets because the capsules will not carry liquid fuels and their complex equipment, eliminating the danger of an explosion. Of particular interest are beamed energy propulsion, which uses a microwave or laser beam to power a spaceship into orbit; and the space elevator.
The catch is that these technologies are still in the laboratory: more promise than reality. Let’s be honest: Research, development and deployment will cost billions of dollars and several years. Such commitments of time and money are beyond the reach of corporations. These commitments are, however, reasonable for a government that can invest for the long term. Indeed, without the large investments by the American military in rocket technology in the 1950s, the mammoth Saturn V that sent Apollo 11 to the moon could not have been built.
Developing a ground-based system should give the United States a competitive edge against foreign rocket providers. Currently, American launch services are more expensive than their foreign counterparts, a consequence of their lower costs and, in the case of Ariane, better geography. A ground-launched system could change the competitive dynamics of launching.
Reducing launch costs does not carry the political excitement of sending astronauts to the moon. Nor will the benefits begin until the 2020s, perhaps too long a time for elected officials. Yet the consequences of making space affordable will be far greater than twelve astronauts walking on the Moon. Reducing the cost of space travel will be as revolutionary as the container ship was for shipping cargo. If accomplished, this could be a great legacy of the Obama Administration, an America that is exploring and exploiting space for the benefit of all humanity.