|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
The time has come for humankind to take the
next logical step the establishment of a permanent spacefaring
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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Space Studies Institute, Princeton N.J., 1997
- O'Neill, Gerard K.; The High Frontier
Human Colonies in Space (first edition); Morrow, 1976
- Pianin, Eric; "U.S. Faces An Energy
Shortfall, Bush Says"; Washington Post, March 20, 2001
- Stine, G. Harry; Halfway to Anywhere Achieving
America's Destiny in Space; M. Evans & Comnpany, 1996
- Strock, Ian Randal; "Selling Our Way
to the Moon The Artemis Project"; Artemis, Issue 1;
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for 21st Century Space Exploration; Simon & Schuster,