Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New Space Policy Targets Launch

I'm very impressed by President Obama's visionary new commercial space policy. This policy, among other things, is directed towards developing a private, commercial human space launch industry and efficient, reliable heavy lift launch vehicles. Thus, the new policy directly addresses the key problem that limits everything we do in space: launch.

Today, transporting a pound of anything from Earth to orbit costs thousands of dollars. Worse, in fifty years of development this cost has not come down. The high cost of launch makes everything we want to do in space too expensive, be it sustained human activity on the Moon or Mars, Space Solar Power, Space Tourism, Mining the Asteroids, or Space Settlement. Launch is expensive because it is so rare, there were fewer than 100 launches last year and only a handful carried humans. Imagine the cost of a single trip by car if the whole world only took 100 car rides each year.

The new policy allocates $2 billion/year not on a mission, not on a program, but on building an industry that can eventually stand on its own without taxpayer support. How can it succeed where so many have failed?

NACA, Solaren, and SpaceShipOne.

NASA's predecessor, NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics played a huge role in developing today's robust aircraft industry. How? By using technology development, subsidies, and purchasing flights to deliver the mail. The new space policy calls on NASA to repeat this history, with launch vehicle technology development, subsidies, and purchasing flights to the International Space Station (ISS).

Solaren is a small company in California with big ideas and a contract to sell 200 megawatts of electrical power to PG&E, a major energy utility, starting in 2016. What's remarkable is that those 200 megawatts will come from space. Solaren plans to launch a huge satellite into space, collect energy from the sun, and send it wirelessly to Earth. If they or their competitors succeed we will have a vast source of extremely clean power for the next few billion years. Space power can easily supply 10% of our needs. While Solaren may need only three or four launches to meet their PG&E contract, for space solar power to supply 10% of our energy needs might require as many as 75,000 launches -- enough for economies of scale to kick in. Not surprisingly, the number one problem Solaren and others face is the cost of launch, and the President's policy is exactly what they need. Solaren, of course, may fail, but that's the beauty of building an industry not a program, Solaren has competitors.

In 2004 the privately developed SpaceShipOne flew a test pilot into space twice. On March 22, 2010 SpaceShipTwo made its first test flight. If all goes well, it will follow SpaceShipOne into space, this time with paying customers -- over 300 of whom have already deposited a total of $45 million for a ride into space. Better yet, Virgin Galactic, which will operate a fleet of SpaceShipTwos, has competitors.

SpaceShipOne flew 60 miles straight up and glided back down, a quick trip into space. To stay in space, to get into orbit, is much more difficult. This is where the President's policy comes in. It will provide technology development and subsidies to develop private launch vehicles that can service the ISS. These same vehicles could take tourists into orbit, and visit the private space station under development by Bigelow Aerospace. Unlike previous plans, which called for four or five human flights per year (all at taxpayer expense forever), the private market for humans in space is huge, 400,000 people a year if the price is around $100,000. If launch prices can be brought down to these levels, we can do everything we want to do in space. We can have permanent outposts on Mars, mine the Moon, visit the asteroids, build solar power satellites to power the world and even settle the final frontier.

The administration's new policy does many sensible things, such as using the ISS for materials and drug research, finding asteroids before they hit us, and gathering data on the environment. But the key to space is bringing down launch costs, the President seems to understand this, and the administration has crafted a sensible, intelligent policy based on private enterprise to open the heavens to us all.