Come join us at the next International Space University (ISU) Space Cafe on March 2 at 7 pm in downtown Washington, DC. A panel of space policy experts and citizen-advocates from March Storm will speak at the Science Club to engage the audience in a discussion about how space policy is opening up the cosmos for humankind.
Discussion topics include:
What is the real purpose of human spaceflight? Should we be focused on the large-scale human settlement of space, perhaps even “millions of people living and working in space” like Jeff Bezos suggests?
How might we define Cheap Access to Space? How would a multi-billion dollar Cheap Access to Space prize, funded by the federal government, work?
What happens if the ISS is de-orbited in 2024 and we don’t have a commercial space station in LEO yet? Should we maintain a human presence in LEO as NASA looks to Mars? If you agree, what can we do to make sure that happens?
America could put humans back on the Moon by the end of the 2nd term of the next President, within NASA’s existing budget … If it used commercial COTS-like partnerships. U.S. industry could mine the Moon for propellant, and lower the cost of trips to Mars. Thoughts?”
Bring your comments, questions and concerns. We’ll see you there!
Last year March Storm successfully advocated for full funding for the development of Commercial Crew. That was a huge success and it will go a long way to making sure America can launch astronauts from its own soil in the coming years. But our work is not done. Commercial Crew will likely require additional development funding before flights begin in 2017.
We are so close to having not one but two new spacecraft to send human beings into orbit. Commercial Crew is essential to our national security and achieving our goals in space, and it may also lead to more space tourism and other commercial activities in low earth orbit. Join us and help push this program over the finish line!
March Storm is a legislative advocacy event occurring in Washington DC from March 13 to 17 this year. Join dozens of your fellow citizens as we educate Congress about the citizen’s space agenda. Learn more here.
From March 13 to March 17 dozens of private U.S. citizens will again travel to Washington, D.C. — on their own time and their own dime — to advocate for a Citizens’ Space Agenda.
A key item on this year’s Citizens’ Space Agenda is to pass legislation ensuring there is no gap in the permanent human presence in space. The International Space Station will be decommissioned in 2024 and there is currently no plan for a replacement. Congress should take steps to encourage private space stations in low earth orbit before 2024, with NASA as an anchor customer.
This ‘gapless transition’ is a key part of the larger Commercial Space Industrialization Act (CSIA). CSIA will also clarify space property rights and require the U.S. government to establish a market for rocket fuel in space, especially for propellant manufactured from asteroidal and lunar resources. In short, this proposed bill will lay the groundwork for a commercial economy in space.
Excited? We need your help! Register now for MarchStorm 2016 at www.marchstorm.com to join the movement.
Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results. In the past thirty years the United States government has made three attempts to develop a special kind of rocket called a reusable launch vehicle. RLVs are the holy grail of aerospace engineers: they are a type of rocketship that can be reused many times greatly reducing the cost to access space. Think airplane to space rather than big shiny tube full of explosives to space.
Three times in recent memory the U.S. has tried to build RLVs. Three times it has failed:
Space Shuttle – Intended to be reusable and reduce the cost of access to space. Turns out it was just as expensive as previous rockets, and probably more dangerous. Total program cost: $209 Billion. Tragically, 14 astronauts lost their lives as a result of this failed experiment in reusability.
National Aerospace Plane – “By the time of its cancellation [in 1993], the government had admitted to making a $1.7 billion investment in the National Aerospace Plane, but parts of the R&D was highly secret and the official costs were probably somewhat higher.”
X-33/VentureStar – “By early 2001, the program was officially cancelled – five years and $1.5 billion down the line. Official reasons for the cancellation was a disagreement over extra funding from both industry partners, NASA and Lockheed Martin. However, the recommendation of the composite tank to keep costs down to prospective commercial interest was the main reason given to workers.”
And now the Department of Defense is messing around with what I like to call “Shuttle lite” in the form of the X-37.
Reusability is a worthy goal. We as a country and as a species should pursue reusable launch vehicles in order to more quickly and cheaply open up the universe for exploration and settlement.
We just need to use a different strategy. Going the government contracting route when it has already failed three times is, like Einstein said, pretty much insane.
According to our sources, Congress is thinking about international cooperation in space. Specifically, some members of Congress are considering who the U.S. should ask to join us if we go to the Moon, Mars and the asteroids. Should it be liberal, capitalist, western democracies like Japan, Canada and Europe? Or should it also include not-so-progressive nations like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea?
This is ultimately a question of values versus cooperation. Do we want western values exclusively represented in outer space? Or do we want to foster cooperation between conflicting nations as humanity heads out to the stars? Do we want to build the ‘shining city on a hill‘ referred to by Kennedy and Reagan or do we want to replicate the United Nations in orbit?
The argument for a U.N. in space is pretty obvious. Cooperation is like motherhood and apple pie, who doesn’t like it?
However, some have argued that the ‘shining city’ option is better. By going into orbit with our democratic allies, we will be saying to the world that the future of the human race is one of rights, rule of law and progressive capitalism. And when the Russias of the world choose to become free, democratic countries they can join the rest of us in outer space.
What do you think? Why not let us know in the comments section below?
Last month Congress passed a law stating that commercial companies can own moon rocks and asteroid bits if they go into space and mine it themselves. This ticked a lot of people off because the U.S. is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty. The Outer Space Treaty says (kinda, sorta, if you squint at it really hard) that commercial companies cannot in fact own moon rocks and asteroid bits. Because of this, a lot of excitable people on Twitter kind of went nuts saying that the U.S. wants to ignore the Outer Space Treaty and instead wants to consume all the resources of the entire universe all for itself.
Everyone take it easy.
What the Outer Space Treaty actually says is that no national government may claim the Moon. By enabling commercial companies to keep (relatively tiny) portions of the Moon for commercial purposes, the U.S. Congress is not claiming U.S. sovereignty over any celestial body. In fact, if those people on twitter actually read the law they will see that it says, right there in section 403 that, “It is the sense of the Congress that by the enactment of this Act, the United States does not thereby assert sovereignty … or the ownership of, any celestial body.” Translation: you can mine it, you can keep what you mine, but the Moon and the asteroids are not notnot U.S.-owned territory.
It’s sort of like commercial fishing. You can take a ship out to international waters and extract fish from the ocean. You will own the fish, but you can’t claim the international waters.
So what will this law do? Peter Diamandis, one of the godfathers of commercial space, said it best:
“A hundred years from now, humanity will look at this period in time as the point in which we were able to establish a permanent foothold in space. In history, there has never been a more rapid rate progress than right now.”
Agreed. Well done Congress. Haters gonna hate, don’t worry about it. You got this one right.
Are you serious about this relationship we have, NASA? We’ve been messing around for years and it’s been fun but I’m not a young kid anymore. I’m getting impatient. I’ve invested more than a decade in you and what has it gotten me? Let’s get real: are we going to Mars or not, NASA?
All joking aside, a few items make me wonder how serious NASA really is about getting humans to Mars. Consider:
1. We don’t have a budget. NASA has yet to tell us how much it is going to cost to send humans to Mars. We literally have no official estimate of the price tag, could it be well over $100 billion? It’s hard to take the organization’s commitment seriously if they won’t say how much they need from Congress to do it.
2. We don’t have a schedule. NASA and the President give different deadlines for completing the mission. In a major space policy speech in 2010 President Obama said we would land on Mars “in the mid 2030s.” NASA’s website concurs, saying we will land “in the 2030s” i.e. by 2039. But in November 2015, the NASA administrator randomly moved the landing date up to 2030. In light of this confusion one can’t help but think NASA has a sincere hope of going to Mars but no actual plan.
3. Mars is killing me. Or it would, if I was on the way there. Really, between the zero-gravity and the radiation, an astronaut might arrived crippled or brain-damaged before even setting foot on the planet. NASA’s plan to figure this out? Send one guy to live in space for a year. A sample size of one is insufficient to fully understand these risks and mitigate against them.
Listen NASA, I love you, I really do. I want to make this work. Please get your act together and let’s go to Mars already, ok?
This is the question posed at the beginning of an intriguing (dare I say groundbreaking?) study recently published by NexGen Space.
The study was funded by NASA, reviewed by an all-star cast of actual rocket scientists and, to top it all off, endorsed by Buzz Aldrin himself.
Bottom line: we can return to the Moon in seven years (from when we say go!) and do it within NASA’s current human spaceflight budget ($3B per year). A decade or so after that, we can have a fully functioning manned Lunar outpost delivering rocket fuel to orbit, greatly facilitating Mars exploration.
We can return to the Moon with the existing NASA budget and in less than seven years.
Don’t believe it? Read the report yourself, right here:
Back in July I wrote an op-ed for Space News encouraging everyone to support full funding for Commercial Crew. Congress still hasn’t decided how it wants to fund the program and, in fact, the entire government. Therefore, I think now is a good time to republish my op-ed in its entirety here at This Orbital Life:
Whenever a group of people put tons of high explosives into a fragile metal tube and set that tube on fire, there are bound to be mishaps. No matter how advanced the equipment or how much funding is provided by Congress, a rocket launch is still a controlled explosion. This is what people are saying when they quip, “Space is hard.” Space is hard because until we perfect antigravity or the space elevator, we will be forced to send our people and our stuff into space on columns of smoke and fire.
However, there are choices we can take to minimize risk and maximize benefits. SpaceX and Boeing are developing two new spacecraft for America’s astronauts as part of NASA’s commercial crew program. Congress is on the verge of underfunding this unique public-private partnership by $300 million, consigning the program to more delays. Even worse, the Falcon 9 explosion on June 28, despite being the first SpaceX failure after 18 successful launches, is being used by some to argue that commercial crew is not an appropriate method for supporting government space operations.
This could not be further from the truth. Here is why:
Commercial crew will provide redundancy. The Falcon 9 explosion illustrates why it is essential for the United States to have multiple launch providers. Maintaining uninterruptible access to orbit is critical to supporting both civilian and national security assets in space. If one launcher fails and is down for a few months, there needs to be another one to fill the void. Commercial crew is doing just that by midwifing the development of two competitive, commercially available space launch providers.
It is the most reliable alternative. Astronauts currently access low Earth orbit and the International Space Station using Russian rockets. The Russian Proton has failed seven times in the past five years and the Soyuz has failed twice in the past two years. More troubling than the crumbling state of their aerospace industry are recent pronouncements from Russian government officials to end that country’s involvement in the International Space Station. Without Russian cooperation, America is unable to access the space station. A $100 billion American investment would be stranded, useless, in outer space. While we hope that our Russian colleagues will not take such a drastic step, it shows that they are becoming increasingly skeptical and unreliable partners in the ISS framework. America quickly needs another way to get its astronauts to the space station, and commercial crew is the only alternative currently under development.
It’s cost-effective. Commercial crew uses a new type of a contracting method that shifts much of the development risk to the private sector. That, and having two firms competing for limited funds, lowers costs. Specifically, the American taxpayer will spend less than $5.6 billion to get two new launch vehicles under the commercial crew program. Compare that with conventional rocket programs like the new Space Launch System and the old space shuttle program. SLS will cost about $18 billion to develop and the space shuttle cost $43 billion (in 2011 dollars) to develop. Commercial crew represents a new way of doing business at NASA, one the taxpayer and Congress should embrace.
It’s developing cutting-edge technology. Both Boeing and SpaceX will use late-model American-made rockets for their commercial crew vehicles. SpaceX in particular is very aggressive in developing cutting-edge launcher technology at multiple facilities throughout the United States. In fact, SpaceX hopes to use machinery developed in the commercial crew program to eventually send spacecraft to Mars. Commercial crew is leading to the development of a new rocket industry in the United States and, more importantly, appears to be inspiring young people to pursue careers in aerospace-related fields. Rather than subsidize the Russian ballistic missile industry or waste taxpayer money on pork-barrel space projects, we should embrace commercial crew because it is helping to develop the technology and the workforce needed to ensure American dominance on the high frontier.Yes, space is hard. No matter what policy we pursue, there are bound to be failures when we launch rockets into space. However, within that reality, we can choose a path that makes the best and highest use of our shared resources.
Commercial crew is still the best hope the United States has for ensuring uninterruptible and reliable access to low Earth orbit. It will save the American taxpayer money and will continue to expand homegrown innovation and technology development.
Commercial crew, despite recent setbacks and a lack of congressional funding, deserves our continued and full-fledged support.
A previous post proposed a new national space policy, specifically regarding human spaceflight. A key component of the new policy will be public-private partnerships to solidify and expand the permanent human presence in Earth orbit, and thus lay the groundwork for a mission to Mars. This post will describe three public-private partnerships that will help to do just that. They are ‘Commercial Station’, ‘Commercial Resources’ and ‘Commercial Transport.’
Luckily, humanity already has a permanent foothold in space in the form of the International Space Station. At any one time there are six human beings living and working in space aboard ISS, or simply ‘Station,’ as it is called. Station is a incredible feat of engineering and international cooperation. It took decades to design and build and it rivals the Apollo program as humanity’s greatest achievement in space.
Unfortunately, it’s deteriorating rapidly and will have to be replaced no later than 2028. It cost over $100 billion to build and billions more per year to operate. We must find a cheaper solution if we are to continue the research necessary to push on to Mars.
Happily, as a result of the experience gained with ISS, the private sector is in a position to provide commercial space stations. NASA does not have to spend $100 billion and ten years to build a whole new station. Instead, by 2028 it will be possible to rent space in a private space station, just like one can rent space in an office building on Earth today.
But how to develop the market and ultimately choose a landlord? Well, why not have a competition? The private sector makes a compelling case. For instance, Bigelow Aerospace, a premier commercial space station operator that has already flown station hardware, is offering a station equivalent in size to the ISS for $1.35 billion per year. For comparison NASA requested over $3 billion for Station operations in fiscal year 2015. However, due to design efficiencies, Bigelow’s station could accommodate at least twice as many astronauts.
For instance, one private space station offers twice as much capacity for half the price of the NASA station.
So how might the aforementioned competition work? It would be very simple. NASA could issue a request for proposals (RFP) for commercial operators to provide accommodations for government astronauts to live and work on a privately-operated space station. NASA could offer, say, $1.35 billion per year for six astronauts to occupy 900 cubic meters (the volume of the current space station). The respondents to the RFP would work with NASA to meet the government’s specific criteria before any contracts were signed. Over time with subsequent proposals and more competition, it is likely that the price might fall even further. Additionally, other space agencies and commercial operators, like space tourism companies, would join NASA as tenants in the burgeoning commercial space station industry.
Of course, this new generation of space station, as well as any eventual mission to Mars, will need supplies. Things like fuel, oxygen, water and radiation shielding. That brings us to the next partnership that will enable the new national space policy:
The ten or twenty people living in space once ‘Commercial Station’ is up and running will require relatively small amounts of supplies to survive. Those supplies will probably be brought up from Earth on rockets.
However, getting to Mars is a completely different story. One trip to the Red Planet will require 428 tons of fuel. For comparison, the ISS (the biggest thing ever to be put in space) masses about 419 tons. So we’re talking a lot of fuel. To get it all into orbit, NASA is planning to spend billions of dollars.
But making rocket fuel is a relatively simple process, even in space. And the raw materials are up there too, in the form of asteroids just floating around. Perhaps the privatesector could deliver propellant to NASA and figure out a way to do it cheaper than sending it all up from Earth?
Theoretically, if NASA used the cheapest rocket to launch 428 tons into orbit (which they won’t), it would cost $1.07 billion. Instead, NASA could offer to purchase the equivalent amount of fuel for $1 billion, assuming it was delivered where they needed it (low earth orbit) and in a usable form. And that’s only for one mission; they could offer the same deal for every other mission to Mars. This would save the taxpayer tens of millions of dollars and provide a billion incentives for the private sector to set up a sustainable rocket fuel industry in space.
Oh and by the way, the same stuff that makes rocket fuel also makes great drinks, breathing air and radiation shielding: it’s good ol’ water ice. So our Commercial Resources partnership not only provides fuel for the mission to Mars cheaper than NASA could do it, but it also establishes a supply chain in space for cheap oxygen, water and shielding.
Going to Mars will require humans to test equipment and techniques on the Moon which in turn will require an intermittent base on the lunar surface. But in order to properly establish and supply a base, we need a means to get to and from said base. In short, what we need are regularly scheduled commercial flights between low earth orbit and lunar orbit.
What we need are regularly scheduled commercial flights between low earth orbit and lunar orbit.
In 2004, NASA estimated it would cost $63.8 billion to return humans to the moon once. Just once. But getting something the size of the original moon lander into orbit today would only cost about $70 million (using the cheap rockets referenced above). To get it all the way to lunar orbit would require additional fuel and a booster spacecraft costing about another $500 million. So, rounding up, let’s say it will cost $600 million, one way to the Moon. That’s for a craft that holds two astronauts and a few tons of cargo. Of course our estimate doesn’t count development costs. But, come on, we’ve done this before. Will it really cost NASA $63.2 billion to reinvent the wheel?
If so, it’s an opportunity for another partnership. Rather than spending all that money on something it’s already done, NASA could instead issue another request for proposals indicating it wants to purchase, say, ten round trip flights to the Moon for $12 billion (assuming a one-way trip costs $600 million). There could be two trips a year (every six months) so the budgetary impact would be $1.2 billion per year for ten years. This would take astronauts from the Earth’s surface to low lunar orbit. Then they would use the NASA lander to finish the trip and go down to the NASA base on the lunar surface to perform their research and experiments. $1.2 billion per year may sound like a lot but it sure beats $63 billion plus. Also, the Commercial Transport provider will have other customers: there are lots of other firms with plans to go to the Moon for various reasons. And they all need a ride to get there.
Towards An Orbital Economy
A summary of the costs so far, compared to space station spending:
$ billions per year
deliverable for the year
12-astronaut capacity space station
428 tons of LH2/LOX in low earth orbit
2 round trips between Earth and low lunar orbit
FY2016 NASA Budget Request for
6-astronaut capacity space station
The total cost of these proposals total is $3.55 billion per year. Compared to $3.13 billion for ISS operations in 2016.
But let’s set the costs aside for a moment. Stepping back, one can see that these plans create an economic ecosystem of self-sustaining and self-reinforcing business relationships in space. Over the long term, Commercial Transport could provide transportation services to private entities wishing to get out of low earth orbit and establish stations, mining facilities or workshops in other areas of the orbital neighborhood. Commercial Resources will provide the fuel and supplies for those entities and Commercial Station will provide the housing.
These plans create an economic ecosystem of self-sustaining and self-reinforcing business relationships in space.
And by acting as an anchor tenant in the beginning stages NASA will not only enable Mars exploration, but it will also kick-start the creation of an enduring orbital economy.
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