Private Industry Can Help NASA Open the Space Frontier

Second in a series of two Commentaries. This article first appeared in Space News and is reproduced with their permission.

There are three initiatives from 2004 that if built upon the right way will rapidly accelerate the human breakout into space.

The first was U.S. President George W. Bush's vision of permanent human presence beyond Earth orbit, which was endorsed by congressional funding and clarified by the Aldridge Commission.

The second was the flight of SpaceShipOne, the first major triumph of the new space movement and its goal of opening space to the people. This was solidified by a multi-million-dollar contract from Virgin Galactic to build a fleet of commercial spaceships.

Finally, the passage of legislation in Congress that begins to create regulatory certainty in the New Space transportation field clears the way for the long-term development of this nascent industry.

Thus we have both a mandate for our government to explore and open space to permanent habitation, and the birth of a private sector space industry, which can power, sustain and capitalize that expansion of our civilization beyond the Earth. But of course, this means they will have to work together, which is a bigger challenge than the physical act of opening space itself. But I believe it can be done with benefits to all.

However, there is one point that needs to be made early in this discussion that clearly is not understood by the traditional space establishment. I believe the new space frontier movement can survive and even begin the opening of space completely on its own, even if NASA vanished tomorrow.

I am not expressing a desire, just a reality that should be part of all future discussions of national space policy. Momentum is building, and the funneling of several independent fortunes into the cause is creating networks of mutual support and interest.

For example, we will soon witness the launch of Bigelow Aerospace hotel test articles on a SpaceX rocket. Projecting this trend further, we arrive at another critical milestone on the way to an open frontier, when the first private space facility is serviced and supported entirely by a private transport firm or firms. This is a real take-off point, for when this happens if we should lose the government space program entirely the frontier will still be at hand.

I am not stretching reality. At some point in the next 10 years the private sector will attain the ability to transport relatively large numbers of people and payloads to and from low Earth orbit on its own, to house them while they are in orbit and to develop the infrastructure needed for industrial development. This part of the frontier formula is simple: Transportation + Destination = Habitation + Exploitation + Industrialization.

As SpaceX and Bigelow begin to develop their infrastructure, Richard Branson, who created Virgin Galactic, will have been flying suborbital commercial space flights for years, as will have Jeff Bezos, the founder who just announced a new commercial spaceport in West Texas. Branson and Burt Rutan, the man behind SpaceShipOne, already have said they want to go to orbit and even beyond, as do Bigelow and Bezos, including trips to and around the Moon.

Again, this is serious stuff. I am not wildly chanting L-5 in '95 as the early followers of the late Gerard O'Neill of the Space Studies Institute in their naivete used to do. I am not betting on some pie-in-the-sky magic product like Iridium and the mythical little Leo constellations to fund start up rocket companies. I am certainly not betting on some magic government X vehicle like the X-33 space goose.

These new O'Neillians have their own money, their own business models and the ability to finance what they are doing all by themselves.

The new imperative that must be faced by our government space leaders is not just to carry out a formal national mandate, and do so on a tight budget, but to maintain their relevance in a field that may well be moving faster than they are.

How does NASA justify its intention to spend tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to build what will probably be a far less efficient space transportation system than what the commercial space industry is developing for its own purposes.

Look at the contrasts. Bigelow is assuming that his $50 million dollar America's Prize will result in a safe and reusable passenger capsule for roundtrips between Earth and low Earth orbit. NASA is expecting to spend over $10 billion dollars to develop the same sort of capability. Yes, Bigelow expects the winner to spend far more than the actual prize amount based on hopes of follow-on markets; and yes, the winning capsule will have fewer bells and whistles that anything NASA builds, but the magnitude of difference in the development costs is ridiculous.

NASA, the White House and Congress are being driven more by the power of traditional aerospace lobbying and the need to maintain political constituencies than practical and common sense understanding of the changes at hand. NASA must be made to grasp this now and stop all of its current plans for the Moon/Mars initiative, or it will fail.

Although the current Crew Exploration Vehicle plans incorporate a very small wedge of new space players, the new White House space transportation policy and the bulk of U.S. government funding is still targeted at the old space industry.

How do self- and investor-funded innovators compete against government subsidized systems? How does this help America compete in global markets in the long run?

The government is ignoring the need to grow a wide-ranging and robust space transportation and low Earth orbit industrial base to support all of our activities from here to the Moon in favor of drawing up monster space vehicles such as a new heavy-lift launcher.

They want to be able to toss giant elements of government-designed space facilities and craft into orbit all at once, a la Saturn 5. This may have been necessary when we were in a race to the Moon, but a much wiser, long-term solution now would be to use smaller vehicles over time to get the people and infrastructure to where they are needed.

If the goal is to have a thriving Earth-Moon-Mars economy as an end point, it makes sense to begin creating the low Earth orbit anchorage and industrial port element as early as possible.

Pay for delivery contracts and prizes tied to tax incentives for investment in space transportation would greatly accelerate the growth of New Space transportation systems. On orbit assembly would teach us how to really operate in space, while developing expertise and potentially profitable orbital businesses.

Fuel depots in space could be developed now using new space and old space transportation systems to fill them and preparing a technology base for the day when we begin to harvest and refine propellants from space resources. Breaking payloads down into small elements expands the pie greatly. It also mimics how we do things on Earth, which seems to have worked very well so far.

If handled the right way, even the dinosaurs of aerospace could be coaxed into evolving or spinning off innovative space transportation divisions to service this new mixed private- and public-sector market. After all, Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman are not doing their stockholders any favors by clinging to a dying market, when an expanding frontier-based market would not only be potentially huge, but by definition infinite.

The president has said we should go back to the Moon and on to Mars, this time to stay. Of course from his mouth to the ears of NASA is a journey far greater than the distance to the Moon.

Already, the concept of permanence has been redefined by those who are mono-maniacally focused on the end point of Mars. They have jettisoned lunar development, instead opting for touch-and-go missions to the Moon on the way to a grand-flags-and-footprints mission to Mars. They prefer Apollo redux rather than the careful build up of an Earth-Moon infrastructure that can teach us how to go and live anywhere in space forever.

Yet there is hope that some in NASA and the space community are shaking free of old ways of thinking. I have met many, including the oft maligned and yet ignored planetary scientists who really are beginning to get it when it comes to frontier-style thinking. At recent NASA sanctioned meetings, I was stunned to hear many of them rejecting a return to the Moon based on scattershot landings for so-called scientific purposes as some at headquarters had been planning.

Apollo on steroids, as it was called, seemed to be roundly trounced in favor of a carefull build-up to one community on the south pole of the Moon.

There are those who fear we will get bogged down on the Moon, that NASA will simply be replacing the Albatross of the international space station with a large grey boulder called the Moon, weighing itself down so much with lunar infrastructure it cannot proceed to Mars. This is a completely valid point. We must learn from the mistakes of the space station and not repeat them on the Moon.

NASA must never again tie itself to facilities or buildings, or to trying to manage transportation and other infrastructure. NASA will need not an exit strategy from the Moon, but rather an entrance strategy to open the Moon, and the basics of this new way of doing business must be locked in this year.

The actual construction and operation of the lunar community must be carried out by the private sector. Meanwhile, NASA can develop its own pure Mars analog base a few kilometers around the other side of the Moon, using what it learned from the first buildup and focusing purely on studying the elements needed for Mars. The Mars analog can be placed outside of the view of Earth, where the astronauts there can be isolated, delays can be simulated, and yet supported and backed up by staff at the main community-whose facilities and habitat rentals can feed into the economy.

This will require revolutionary thinking on the part of the U.S. government, especially in its relationship to the private sector. These changes will have to extend far beyond technologies and operational considerations, to the legal, regulatory and contractual aspects of space.

The United States must develop a package of tax and investment incentives to open the spigots of Wall Street and other capital sources. The normal methods of cost-plus contracting -- awarding contracts to develop capabilities rather than paying for provision of services -- must be done away with. But it will not be sufficient for the government to simply pay for the delivery of goods, people and services if we want to kick start the space economy. The nation must go further. We must create a package of incentives that together make it irresistible for private investors to want to get involved on the frontier.

One example is what I call a Catalytic Contingency Contract. Let's say NASA needs a laboratory for long-term research. The government, rather than building or contracting a module as was done on the international space station program, would instead offer to lease a certain number of square feet for an extended period from the first private developer who demonstrates the capability to provide it.

This lease would be part of an overall package designed to make it so sweet a deal that the firm and its investors would be able to see past any potential risks. Such a contract would include: The right of the developer to rent out any volume beyond the government's to anyone it pleases at whatever rate it chooses; the right to own all intellectual property it may develop while building the facility; the right to sell any advertising based on its contract and involvement in the project; and freedom from any taxes it might be assessed on profits realized from any activities generated by the project.

The privately funded new space firms will push into space if the money continues to flow and it doesn't turn out to be a billionaire's fad. NASA eventually might be able to spend billions and get something or someone to the Moon in a couple of decades -- if politicians and presidents continue their support.

For now NASA has billions of dollars and a mandate to push outward into space, but it needs a partner that thinks outside the box. The new space firms live outside of the box and if given the right support they could accelerate the push into space and make it permanent.

Last year both the government and the people said they want to open space. Working separately the public and private sectors might be able to stagger and stumble into the future, or they might trip and fall back into the past. Together, using the strengths of each, we can create an amazing future and take the first strong steps now. I don't know about you, but I don't want to wait any longer.

Rick N. Tumlinson is the founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, he is currently editing his new book Return To The Moon.

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