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from ALLEN M. STEELE, author

2001 The Coming of the Space Age

The first decade of the 21st century will mark the beginning of the Space Age.

The past is prelude; everything humankind has accomplished in space up during the 20th century has been part of a learning curve. This curve has been steep, yet in hindsight we've been very adept students. In 1901, the Russian mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was one of the few people researching methods for interplanetary travel; by 1926, the American physicist Robert H. Goddard had launched the world's first liquid-fueled rocket. In 1942, German scientists test-fired the first V2 missile; 27 years later, American astronauts were walking on the Moon. The first space stations were in orbit by the mid-`70s; within a decade, the United States had a small fleet of reusable space shuttles, and by the end of the `90s these craft had flown more than 100 successful missions. Just this last week, the annual Academy Awards ceremonies were officially opened by American and Russian astronauts aboard the International Space Station, an event witnessed by an estimated audience of 800 million people.

This progress hasn't been without cost. There have been many setbacks along the way. Lives have been lost, bad decisions have been made, and roads have been taken which have led to dead-ends. Despite all this, we've accomplished something quite remarkable -- the opening of a new frontier, one which exists far beyond the natural and political borders of Earth.

The time has come for humankind to take the next logical step the establishment of a permanent spacefaring civilization.

Incentives, Obstacles and Objectives
The exploration of space and the development of its resources is no longer a luxury. In fact, it has become a necessity.

Over the course of the last century, the United States has become the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth. Our position as world leader is largely the result of technological innovation, and during the last forty years much of this is either directly or indirectly tied to space exploration.

Our global communications network are now linked by geosynchronous satellites; without them, many personal, business, and financial transactions could not occur with the instantaneous speed to which we've become accustomed. Weather forecasts have become dependent upon satellite imagery; major storms or hurricanes which used to come upon an unsuspecting local populace without warning can now be predicted days in advance, giving people ample time to prepare their homes and seek shelter. Overseas military actions are now largely guided by satellite; officers in the field can now access real-time images which allow them to see the exact positions of opposition forces and react accordingly. By much the same token, intelligence officials are able to monitor the actions of unfriendly nations and tell whether they're abiding by international peace treaties, thereby preventing future conflicts.

All of these things -- and much more, not to mention the countless technological spin-offs which are part of our everyday lives -- are the result of space technology. Indeed, a strong case could be made that space exploration has become one of our principal technological drivers.

Therefore, in order to maintain our high standard of living during the coming century, it is imperative that we continue to invest wisely in this new frontier.

Yet we cannot simply keep doing things as we've done them before. Commercial expenditure in space has already outpaced that of the U.S. Government; however, NASA continues to enjoy a near-total monopoly over access to launch services, and with the exception of Pegasus and SeaLaunch remains the sole means by which a company can launch a satellite into orbit without resorting to assistance from foreign governments and contractors. At present the market for launch services is still limited, yet in the coming years we can expect to see the commercial space industry to experience exponential growth as the demand for satellite technology increases. A half-dozen small companies are poised to build and launch a new generation of passenger-rated spacecraft which are less expensive to maintain and operate than the present space shuttle fleet, yet all are hindered by lack of private investment and the burden of government overregulation.

During the last 40 years, NASA has become the world leader in space exploration; no other nation has a space agency that comes close to what it's doing. Indeed, when it comes to astrophysical research, NASA is second to none; it has sent men to the Moon and launched robotic probes to all the planets and major moons of the solar system. It's been proposed that, once the ISS is completed and becomes fully-functional, NASA's next long-range goal should be sending an international manned expedition to Mars. This is a worthwhile objective; NASA has the ability to accomplish this within the next twenty years, and such a mission would be a major boost to both space science and international relations.

However, because of the nature of its own charter, written over 40 years ago, NASA is poorly equipped for dealing with commercial enterprise. It was never meant to be involved in commercial space endeavors. Despite the visionary leadership of its current Chief Administrator, who has urged for the privatization of space transportation systems, NASA has become an impediment to commercial space development.

I believe that the time has come for the United States to change its philosophical approach to space exploration. The very term "space program," still commonly used by many, is a left-over relic of the Apollo era; it suggests short-term, single-purpose objectives which end once a particular goal has been achieved, whether it be putting men on the Moon or building a space station. Instead, we should start thinking in terms of "space settlement" -- the long-term, multi-purpose effort to make near-Earth space a permanent habitat of humankind.

With this in mind, we should undertake a two-prong approach a public space effort, led by NASA and focused upon the exploration of the solar system for sake of scientific knowledge; and a private space effort, which is geared toward opening the space frontier for the purpose of exploiting off-Earth resources.

These two prongs would be largely independent of each other, yet run parallel (and sometimes tangential) courses. While commercial industry would frequently enlist NASA assistance, it wouldn't be wholly dependent upon it. Naturally, the same logic would apply vice-versa the public space effort would gain from rapid advances made by a private space industry that no longer has to compete with NASA for access to launch services.

A New Space Agency
As stated before, NASA is ill-suited for dealing with commercial space enterprise. This was demonstrated during the early 1980's, when the demands of the satellite launch industry contributed in part to the circumstances which led to the Challenger disaster; the Reagan Administration responded by barring commercial payloads from the space shuttle fleet. More recently, we've also seen the indecision over the purpose of the International Space Station; no one could decide whether the ISS should be a government R&D lab, a commercial space outpost, or neither or both. As a result, the ISS was redesigned several times, causing enormous construction overruns.

In a sense, NASA is a bit like the pushme-pullyou, the two-headed llama from the Dr. Doolittle stories a creature which wants to go in both directions at once. We should allow NASA to return to doing the things it does best, and give private industry a chance to achieve its own goals in the free market without having to compete with the government space effort.

The time has come for the creation a new federal space agency devoted entirely to private space development.

This hypothetical agency, which I'll call the Commercial Space Administration (CSA), would be much like the present Federal Aviation Administration. Its primary purpose would be to foster private space enterprise; unlike NASA, it would have no launch facilities of its own, nor would it actively engage in research and development. It would probably be organized under the Department of Transportation, with major support from the Department of Commerce and the Department of Defense.

The CSA would have two major functions. First, it would serve as the primary regulatory agency for commercial space exploration. Private enterprise currently has to gain approval from several different federal agencies before it can launch a spacecraft, thus has creating a bureaucratic maze which inhibits the development of commercial carrier. The CSA would streamline this process, making it easier for a company to put a project on the fast track to full operation.

Second, the CSA would award federal grants to private companies that wish to develop new spacecraft for commercial use, with an emphasis on second-generation passenger-rated craft. Right now, small firms have to raise funds from individual investors before it can hope to bring its ideas from the drafting table to the launch pad; this is a major obstacle to commercial space development, since investors are wary of putting money into projects which may not pay off for many years.

By offering "seed money" to such fledgling companies, the CSA would assist private industry in developing advanced launch systems. Instead of having NASA pick one design over another -- such as in the case, several years ago, with the government-sponsored competition among four different major aerospace companies to build a second-generation shuttle, which in turn led to the ill-fated X-33/VentureStar being selected while the three competing designs were left to wither and die -- the CSA would encourage many different companies to build their own spacecraft without having to rely on NASA as its primary customer. In this way, free-market competition would drive the development of the advanced spacecraft.

Second-Generation Shuttles
During the last decade, there has been a major push toward the development of a new generation of passenger-rated spacecraft which would eventually replace the present-day space shuttle fleet. This is absolutely necessary; the current NASA shuttles were designed nearly thirty years ago, and as such they're high-maintenance vehicles which are expensive to operate while having limited launch capabilities. Furthermore, the shuttle fleet will soon be reaching the end of their life expectancies; although the NASA shuttles have been upgraded several times, nonetheless they were largely designed for missions which no longer exist (e.g. placing large military satellites in polar orbit) and rely on a technology base which is already obsolete.

Unfortunately, NASA and the White House made a serious mistake in 1996 when it selected the X-33/VentureStar program as the carrier which would replace the Columbia-class shuttles. As experience has proven, the technology doesn't yet exist to build for a reliable single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft capable of lifting a sizeable payload mass into orbit. SSTOs may yet be built and successfully flown, but not for some time to come. While we should continue the research and development of SSTOs, in the meantime we should also search for an intermediate step between the Columbia-class shuttles and SSTOs.

In the short run, what makes more sense is the development of a new generation of multipurpose two-stage spacecraft a spaceplane with a lower hangar-to-pad turnaround turn than the present shuttles, which would be lifted into orbit by means of a fully-reusable flyback booster. Such spacecraft could be used for a variety of different purposes, ranging from freighting large payloads (e.g. space station modules, environmental and communications satellites, space power systems, etc.) to ferrying large numbers of civilian passengers to orbit or suborbit. These craft could require less ground maintenance than the present NASA shuttle fleet; much like SSTOs, they conceivably could be designed to be launched from relatively small spaceports. In many ways, they would be the 21st-century equivalent of the Douglas DC-3 or the Boeing 707

Several companies have already done considerable research and development in this area. Providing support for their efforts should be the first objective of the Commercial Space Administration.

Solar Power Satellites
One of the major problems which will confront humankind during the coming century will be the means by which we produce a reliable supply of electrical power. Indeed, the harbingers of the coming energy crisis are already upon us.

We've become dependent upon foreign governments for oil supplies; this has led to tense relations with the OPEC nations and an increased potential for international conflict. On the other hand, there's considerable public resistance against endangering the natural environment by exploiting Alaskan and offshore oil reserves. The rise in fuel prices has cost the U.S. Economy more than $115 billion between 1999 and 2000; this last winter, we've seen skyrocketing home-fuel prices in the Northeast, while in California rolling blackouts are on their way to becoming commonplace. At this rate, the situation will get worse before it gets better according to the federal Energy Information Office, domestic energy demands will rise 45 percent over the next 20 years.

President Bush has recently called for long-range solutions to the energy crunch. There is one, and it's been extensively studied for more than 30 years solar power satellites.

SPS was first proposed in 1968 by Dr. Peter Glaser, and was popularized by the late Dr. Gerard O'Neill in his 1976 bestseller The High Frontier Human Colonies in Space. During the last 20 years, SPS research has been conducted in the U.S. by the non-profit Space Studies Institute; organizations in Russia and Japan has also investigated the proposal.

A 1979 study by NASA and the federal Department of Energy concluded that SPS was too expensive and inefficient for it to be an effective solution to long-term energy needs. However, in 1995 NASA conducted a Fresh Look study of SPS which re-examined the proposal in terms of recent innovations in light-weight materials and orbital construction.

One of the more recent configurations for an SPS system is the SunTower, a tethered array of disc-shaped modules containing photovoltaic cells, each capable of generating 100 to 400 megawatts of electrical power; the array would be approximately 10 miles long. Launched into orbit by Columbia-class shuttles or second-generation spacecraft and positioned about 600 miles above Earth, SunTower would collect sunlight, convert it into electrical power, then transmit this energy to ground-based "rectennas," or receiving antennas, via low-power microwave beams.

The study estimated that the first SunTower system would have a start-up cost of approximately $6 to $8 billion, and would generate between 15 to 20 megawatts of electrical power. Although expensive, this cost compares favorably to that an new nuclear power plant or hydroelectric station, and unlike nuclear plants or dams the environmental impact would be minimal.. Over a fifty-year period, a system of 18 to 24 SunTower-type powersats could generate 3.5 to 4.0 gigawatts of electrical power.

Even more ambitious is the proposed SolarDisc SPS, positioned in geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above Earth. Although larger and much more expensive -- an estimated $30 to $40 billion for the construction of six satellites, each nearly four miles in diameter -- it's estimated that they could generate up to 60 gigawatts of electrical power.

SPS has the potential to solve the energy crisis which looms before us. They will also be very profitable for the space corporation or consortium which builds them; it's estimated that the SunTower system could generate revenues of up to $270 billion against construction costs of approximately $60 billion. Again, like second-generation commercial shuttles, this is an appropriate and potentially lucrative goal for a robust American space industry.

Return to the Moon
In 1972, the U.S. launched the final Apollo mission to the Moon; after the Apollo 17 astronauts returned to Earth, more than 20 years would pass before this country would send another probe to the Moon. Although this decision was caused by NASA budget cuts which, in turn, were motivated by short-sighted politics of the time, in hindsight it may have been a blessing, for during this long hiatus space scientists have had ample time to study the findings of those first six lunar expeditions.

As it turns out, the Moon isn't the worthless, desolate world it once appeared to be. Surface rock and deep-drill sample returned to Earth by the Apollo astronauts revealed that lunar highlands contain abundant resources of usable materials, among them titanium, aluminum, silicon, and hydrogen. It was also revealed that the lunar regolith is rich with helium-three, an isotope rare on Earth but widespread on the Moon; many scientists believe He3 could be a source of fuel for commercial nuclear fusion reactors, if and when they're successfully developed later in this century. So the Moon has great potential for mining operations in the near future. Indeed, virtually every ambitious plan for commercial space development -- including some scenarios for large-scale SPS construction -- calls for the use of lunar materials.

Furthermore, the Moon has other uses. The lunar farside is an excellent place for the construction of radio telescopes; a long-baseline inferometry system positioned there could search the stars for signs of interstellar terrestrial planets without interference from radio emissions on Earth. The Moon could also serve as a site for space tourism; a number of American and Japanese corporations have already begun investigating the possibility of building lunar resorts. And the effort it would take to return to the Moon would give us the opportunity to test the hardware and procedures necessary to mount an international expedition to Mars.

A number of private companies such as LunaCorp have already proposed low-cost robotic sample-return missions. However, one company, the Lunar Resources Company, wants to take this a step father it intends to send a three-person expedition to the Moon for the purpose of establishing a permanent lunar colony.

The Artemis Project entails the construction of a two-vessel spacecraft -- a lunar transfer vehicle (LTV) and a two-stage lunar lander equipped with a habitat -- which would be lifted into orbit by means of Columbia-class shuttles (or a similar spacecraft, if and when one becomes available). The LTV and the lander would be linked together in low-Earth orbit; a third shuttle flight would then carry the crew to the waiting moonship.

The craft would then depart from Earth orbit and spend the next three days traveling to the Moon. All three crewmembers would board the lander, thereby leaving the LTV in orbit, and travel to the lunar surface. Once they've arrived, they would spend up to a week exploring the landing site and also establishing a base camp for future expeditions. Once their work is done, the crew would leave the habitat behind, board the lander's ascent stage, launch and re-mate with the orbiting LTV. They would then return to Earth, where the LTV would rendezvous with a shuttle or perhaps the International Space Station.

Although the Artemis mission profile is somewhat similar to that of Apollo, there's several key differences. First, it would require no new technological breakthroughs; everything used for this mission would utilize present-day technology. Second, the LTV would be reusable; unlike the Apollo LEMs, which were discarded after each mission, the Artemis transfer vehicle could be used again for subsequent flights. And third, Artemis's major objective is the establishment of a permanent lunar base; each mission would bring another habitat module, thus adding a little more to the base camp.

The Lunar Resources Company estimates that the cost of the first Artemis mission would be approximately $1.5 billion -- about one-tenth the cost of an Apollo mission, with two-thirds of the cost being the acquisition of launch services. At this time, LRC intends to attract capital investment on its own, and therefore isn't seeking government funding. It also hopes that it can accomplish its goals independent of NASA by using second-generation shuttles owned and operated by private industry. However, I believe that the Artemis Project could benefit greatly from assistance by a Commercial Space Administration.

A New Paradigm
What I've tried to outline here, very briefly, is a means by which the United States can lead the way to establishing a permanent human presence in space.

All these operations -- the formation of a Commercial Space Administration, the development of second-generation space shuttles, the construction of solar power satellites, and the return to the Moon for the purpose of establishing a permanent lunar base -- are parts of a new paradigm a multi-purpose "space settlement" approach which utilizes both public and private resources. This considerably from the traditional "space program" paradigm, which pursued one project at a time, with short-term goals instead of long-range objectives

For the last four decades, NASA has been the primary agency behind the American space effort. In this two-prong approach, NASA would continue to conduct basic scientific research, supply launch services from the Kennedy Space Center, and pursue the long-term objective of sending a manned expedition to Mars. However, now there would also be a private-side effort, carefully seeded by federal start-up grants, which would concentrate on fostering commercial space development, with an emphasis upon building a permanent infrastructure between Earth orbit and the Moon.

The potential payoff is enormous rapid expansion of the aerospace industry with the creation of thousands of new jobs, the establishment of long-term means of energy supply, and the innovation of new technology which could bring about a new industrial revolution and enhance daily life on Earth.

As I stated earlier, the past is prelude. The Space Age -- the real Space Age -- is just beginning. The first steps have already been taken; the road ahead is open, the sign-posts clearly visible. All we really need to do is be willing to travel.


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