Sunday, February 7, 2010

Obama's Brilliant Space Policy

Prologue: I want to build space settlements. I want Life to grow outward from this beautiful but tiny planet and fill the solar system. This is technically feasible but incredibly difficult (for engineers, that's the fun part).

Yesterday's space program was all about putting a very small number of people on the Moon entirely at enormous government expense. It wasn't doing much for space settlement. For space settlement, we need to put huge numbers of people in space mostly at their own expense. The key is much, much better transportation from Earth to space because today it costs thousands of dollars per pound and the failure rate is a percent or two. Yet another expensive government owned transportation system, as we were developing, can't deliver. We need better technology, a private sector human-rated launch industry so people can buy a ticket with their own money, and, above all, much higher launch volume. Today, the whole world launches less than 100 times per year. At that rate we'll never settle space.

In Paths to Space Settlement I identified three near term projects that would develop most of the technology and infrastructure necessary to settle the solar system: space tourism, space solar power, and planetary defense. President Obama's new space policy takes a big step for all three.

Much of President Obama's new space policy, about $2 billion/year, is to develop better Earth to orbit transportation and, especially, develop private sector companies to take people into orbit. After a year of ramping up, the budget provides $1.4 billion per year to help private firms develop human-rated launchers and successful companies will have a core tenant flying government astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). But the real payoff isn't flying to the ISS, it's space tourism. In “Researching the Space Tourism Market,” Crouch estimates that at $100,000/flight about 400,000 people will want to go a year. Even with a 100 person vehicle, and the largest today carries 10, that would pay for 4,000 launches a year. There are many surveys supporting traffic at similar levels and higher if the price comes down. Furthermore, Bigelow Aerospace has launched two small space hotel prototypes and plans to launch a full sized system in a couple of years, but there will be no customers without a private sector vehicle to bring them there. President Obama's new space policy may be just the ticket.

The other big potential market for launch is space solar power (SSP) -- gathering solar energy in huge satellites with wireless power transmission to Earth. For SSP to supply 1/3 of today's energy needs would require approximately 125,000 launches of a heavy lift vehicle capable of taking 500 tons to orbit (the largest vehicle today can lift perhaps 40 tons). President Obama's budget allocates almost $600 million/year to develop heavy lift launch technology. SSP development is not part of the new program, the policy's biggest deficiency, but vehicle development won't start for a few years giving SSP advocates time to make the case for SSP-related requirements.

President Obama's policy also quintuples NASA's planetary defense budget, from $4 million to $20 million. This will not only help find asteroids in time to deflect them before hitting Earth, but locate most of the larger near-earth asteroids which will tell us where the materials we need for space settlement are. For example, one of the key problems in orbital settlement development is access to sufficient materials as millions of tons of radiation shielding and structure are needed. Building an orbital settlement co-located with an asteroid solves this problem very nicely.

The new budget also ramps up to $3 billion/year to develop and demonstrate new space technology, including fuel depots, life support, and space resource utilization, which will help when the time comes to build space settlements.

President Obama's policy does a lot of other sensible things. For example, the old policy, after spending something like $100 billion to develop the ISS, planned to destroy it five years after completion and had very few plans to actually use it. The new policy extends the ISS's life and provides funds to actually use the ISS for America's benefit. The new policy also increases Earth observation funding substantially so we can understand what is happening to Earth and perhaps avoid creating serous problems.

President Obama's space policy abandons "Apollo on Steroids," the third attempt to recreate the glory of the brilliant 1960s era program by going back to the Moon and on to Mars. Apollo was great. It ended 35 years ago. Get over it. We don't need "Apollo on Steroids," we need a program that benefits the people of Earth and lets millions of us go to space on their own dime. I doubt that Obama read Paths to Space Settlement before creating his space policy, but he might as well have. Brilliant!