The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Exploration chart
The historic transition from exploration to expansion to establishment has been missing in spaceflight so far. (credits: NASA, Space Exploration Corporation, Blue Origin Inc., Amsterdam Museum, The Boeing Company, Heritage Village Museum)

Getting back to the historic sequence of opening our space frontiers

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There is a historic a sequence to opening new frontiers, which can be boiled down into three distinct phases: explore, expand, and establish.1 In the case of our space frontier, we have explored Earth orbit and are beginning commercial expansion there. Our civil space program continues exploration of the solar system. Unfortunately, in the context of opening the space frontier, NASA has gotten itself locked in a perpetual exploration phase where their programs and objectives support the explorers rather than blazing the trails for the rest of us to follow.

America’s lack of progress in opening the space frontier appears to stem from being stuck in an exploration phase mentality.

Since Apollo, America’s space policies have struggled, failing to reach beyond exploration for our new space frontier. Attempts to build and operate a new space transportation system and a space station have taken years longer and cost billions of dollars beyond original expectations. Proposed grand space program plans have shifted, with one exploration endeavor morphing into another seeming with every change in administration.

What seems to have been forgotten is that it is a nation’s ability to expand and ultimately establish itself in those new frontiers that is the true measure of success. This means that not only NASA programs, but also our national space efforts overall, need to be focused on developing and maintaining a permanent and stable cultural presence in these space frontiers.

The reason any nation successfully invests in the exploration of new frontiers is to enhance prosperity, security, and the leadership position of the host country. The US, in a past national space policy, has wisely stated that, “In this new century, those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not.”2 However, the idea of providing large amounts of public funds simply for scientific research or undertaking a new space exploration adventure sustains only moderate public interest and sometime herculean lobbying to justify continued funding. Sustained technological and national efforts to open new frontiers have only been successful in the long term when clear national enhancing and security interests dominate justifications.

The creation of NASA and the development of Apollo, in retrospect, appear to have begun by more closely following the historic frontier sequence. The agency’s vision included the fundamental frontier motivations to achieve greater national security, technological prowess, and clear international leadership goals for domination in space and aerospace technologies. If we had not had this unifying vision characterized by beating the Soviets in the 1960s, it is unlikely that this country would have sunk the vast sums of money into a program often riddled with massive risks and failures. Based on this purposeful objective, justifying the investment of public money and learning from our sometimes tragic mistakes in the 1960s, we achieved the end goal of reaching and returning America’s first explorers from the Moon.

During and since Apollo, other aspects of our national space frontier efforts have begun the expansion transition. Commercial and national security space activities have continued largely in support of clearly defined Earth-related market demand and global defense mission needs. Companies have continued to purchase, profitably launch, and operate communication satellites. The military has developed and enhanced intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, communications, and especially navigation (for both military and commercial), ensuring a dominant US global role.

Civilian space, however, seems to have been caught in a loop of exploration for exploration’s sake. The allure of the next great space mission adventure and the professed excitement of scientific discovery has dominated America’s civilian space programs. Because of this, our NASA programs have failed to transition into support of the frontier expansion phase, let alone the frontier establish phase, for more than 40 years. In retrospect what has been lacking is a unifying national vision, which has been shown historically to be at the heart of any successful frontier endeavor. As a nation we need to realize that space is a place for expanding trade, our culture, and national character, not just a grand laboratory, if we ever expect to reap the benefits of the space frontier.

When NASA’s vision is, first and foremost, to support the success of America’s space trade, NASA can plan programs that are more in line with the needs to foster frontier growth.

It is only recently, and through many years of effort by those who grew up in the Space Age, that we’ve begun changing course. In spite of resisting forces and vested interests, commercial companies are finally being allowed to use the International Space station to investigate and demonstrate potentially profitable commercial processes for products. The commercial cargo and crew programs are making progress. A few private citizens have been allowed to visit the ISS. One of the ISS docking ports could even be made available for use by a private commercial module.3 It has often been correctly said that timing, in business, is everything. These efforts are all resilient indicators that the time is ripe for a return to frontier expansion principles in civil space.

Today, conditions are right to recreate a unified national space policy and associated implementation management structures that the nation can rally behind. One that can begin again to open America’s space frontier, based on time-proven new-frontier precedents.

Our space plans should foster opening these “new lands.” With some adjustments, activities across all government space organizations can more effectively stimulate and accelerate the efforts of existing and new space commercial business ventures. NASA programs will need to be amended so that they provide a more energizing foundation of knowledge that supports development of commercial space expansion enterprises and fosters cultural colonization in low Earth orbit (LEO). Still closely tied to the American homeland, it is the resulting early LEO space trade outposts that will set the stage for the human services and industrial capabilities that are the foundations of growth in new frontiers.

When NASA’s vision is, first and foremost, to support the success of America’s space trade, NASA can plan programs that are more in line with the needs to foster frontier growth. Efforts will refocus on the demonstration of space technologies and resource survey missions that allow informed investments and emergence of profitable space-based ventures. They will contract for, rather than try to manage, the development of commercial products and services to meet their basic infrastructure, operations, and maintenance needs. Just as the commercial computer industry has created a growing and prosperous socio-economic effect, the resulting new commercial inspired space capabilities, products, and services will positively enhance all our national interests.

These newly stimulated commercial space trade activities will each add their own extension to America’s global cultural and socio-economic prowess. First will be what Craig Thomas would term a closely coupled Earth-LEO econosphere. This earth-LEO econosphere will extend the current global economy into a sphere of influence that extends into Earth orbit.4 It will likely consist of orbiting “business parks,” new services, and recreational service industries. These space trade centers will lay the economic and technological foundations for further growth and expansion to create other space econospheres that extend to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Fostered by civil demonstration programs, a growing number of commercial interests will be able to effectively weigh project investment risks. By reducing the business investment risk versus return horizons, and showing the market value of product and service capabilities like reliable lower cost commercial Earth-to-orbit transportation network capabilities, a bootstrap affect will ensue. Coupled with the development of supporting commercial space transportation infrastructure, space traffic management systems, and needed laws and legal precedents, the private secgtor should be able to make informed product and service business development decisions.

Although commercial progress has been recently made in the reusability of rocket first stages, the demonstration of truly ultra-low cost, safe, and reliable space transport capability is vital to reach economic growth tipping point thresholds.

It is within this adjusted frontier context that America’s current and future civilian space plans should be reconsidered. Like the explorations of Lewis and Clark under President Jefferson, discoveries from the frontier will fuel the national and private actions that follow. Like the aeronautics side of NASA, civilian space programs will need to focus on the development and demonstration of low cost, safe, and reliable technologies and operational capability programs that support America’s trade expansion. Once brought within acceptable commercial investment horizons, these capabilities can be exploited to create competitive and profitable commercial products and services for government, private, and international space markets. Under such favorable economic conditions, one setback or failure will not stop a nation that is united in its pursuit of national prosperity.

Developing space industry and trade to and from LEO will also stimulate new ground and in-space services, secondary businesses, and industries. Many of the anchor and secondary orbital corporate facilities will require human tending and maintenance. This will, in turn, create the demand for space lodging and the associated tenant logistics and support services.

On the ground, supporting logistics, spaceport operations, and related capabilities will be created, fueling new jobs profit centers. Once the lower cost of space access becomes a reality, investment tipping-point thresholds will be reached that will generate new economic market incentives for orbital industries. This, in turn, will spur construction of creative space accommodations and new entertainment activities and facilities.

Such market-driven positive profit growth cycle activities can also be expected to stimulate new innovations and advances that will keep all people healthy, happy, and productive in space. These types of developments can be then be exploited and evolved for use in future space exploration and expansion. The thriving American-based culture established in LEO will spur frontier expansion for a lunar econosphere and even a Mars econosphere, resulting in an ever-expanding cycle of American-led global prosperity.

This, then, is how the space program can learn from and leverage the historically successful sequence that has opened new frontiers for centuries. To support this challenge, America’s public and commercial space efforts must be refocused on the demonstration and the building of key foundational space infrastructure capabilities.5 Focus areas include ultra-low cost space transportation, information systems, life support systems, power systems, and space manufacturing and fabrication processes, to name just a few.6

Our first logical focus is LEO expansion to create a growing Earth-orbit econsphere. Once established, it is only a matter of time before America will lead humanity to explore, expand, and establish itself in the rest of the solar system’s space frontier.

Although commercial progress has been recently made in the reusability of rocket first stages, the demonstration of truly ultra-low cost, safe, and reliable space transport7 capability is vital to reach economic growth tipping point thresholds. To ensure safe, secure, and effective navigation, a civilian space traffic management system is critical. To reduce commercial investment horizons and stimulate LEO trade, the profit potential for space logistics support8 and orbital manufacturing and assembly capabilities need to be pursued at the appropriate pace and time. As LEO activities expand, orbital intermodal facilities and propellant depots will be needed. To support the productivity and health of our people in space we will also need artificial gravity technologies, advances in space medicine, and life support systems that will allow people to live and work safely in space. These are examples of the types of innovations that foster migration for everyday people vital to expand and establish America’s first socio-economic space beachhead in LEO and beyond.

The return to a historic sequence for opening new frontiers will require prudent consideration in the development of US policies, laws, and budgets. As recently pointed out by John Logsdon,9 it will require an objective review of past space policy efforts to obtain lessons learned for a more effective national oversight organization. More importantly, it will require the considered selection of a national administration to manage the acquisition and operations of technology demonstrations and needed supporting infrastructure capabilities. But unlike many past infrastructure-related program debates, the ultimate decisions can be done within a more unified and bounded context defined by the applicable frontier phase.

The implementation of a national vision that exploits the proven historic sequence to opening new frontiers will provide a sustainable framework for America’s leadership in the space frontier. Our first logical focus is LEO expansion to create a growing Earth-orbit econsphere. Once established, it is only a matter of time before America will lead humanity to explore, expand, and establish itself in the rest of the solar system’s space frontier.


  1. National Space Society Chapter Briefing Book, Steve Hoeser, July 1989.
  2. What U.S. National Space Policy implies about becoming spacefaring, Dr. Michael Snead, May 26, 2007.
  3. America’s future in LEO? The possibilities and challenges facing commercial space stations (part 1 & 2), Cody Knipfer, The Space Review, December 19, 2016.
  4. The Econosphere: What Makes the Economy Really Work, How to Protect It, and Maximize Your Opportunity for Financial Prosperity, 1st edition, Craig Thomas, 2010 Pearson Education.
  5. Should NASA build spacefaring logistics infrastructure?, Mike Snead, The Space Review, January 9, 2017.
  6. Associated Bibliographic References:
    1. The Space Review: Technology shocks are felt around the world
    2. The Space Review: Finally, a prudent space access architecture perspective
    3. The Space Review: Selecting from the flight demonstration spectrum
    4. The Space Review: Zero-g or why not?
  8. Snead, James Michael (2008) “Spacefaring Logistics Infrastructure: The Foundation of a Spacefaring America”, Astropolitics, 6:1, 71 – 94.
  9. Is creating a National Space Council the best choice?, John Logsdon, The Space Review, January 3, 2017.