Commentary | LEO to NEO: Frontier Partnerships That Work

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As we transition from the old space program into the era of space as a frontier, exciting times lie ahead. As the private sector leaps forward with new initiatives and ideas, the U.S. government is slowly awakening to the possibility that rather than a threat to its longtime hegemony in space, a new partner has arrived on the scene, with new ideas, new minds and new investors who can take on some of the work needed to at last open space to humanity.  

For example, while new commercial companies have been formed to seek out and harvest space resources, recent events have triggered a renewed government focus on asteroid missions and “planetary defense” projects. Thus both sectors now find themselves heading in the same direction. All agree on the need to greatly expand support for the astronomical search for near-Earth objects (NEOs). The question now is once found, what do we do about them? Who does it? How does it fit into our national space agenda? And how do we make sure both sectors succeed in a way that best benefits all, providing the highest economic and scientific returns to both public and private investors while supporting the U.S.-led settlement of the frontier?

On the one hand there is an understanding by some enlightened leaders that the ability to manage and utilize asteroids will be pivotal to protecting both the planet and our long-term future in space. They know we need good science and a greatly expanded knowledge base to begin to protect Earth from potential disaster, even as we work to develop a solar system infrastructure that can support long-term exploration and settlement.

On the other hand, many who see Mars and her moons as the space destination worthy of a nation who long ago conquered the Moon consider a major asteroid project a “dogleg” that relative to its cost and use of time and resources will slow down our quest to the red planet. 

Both are right. 

We need a national focal point like Mars that will inspire the nation and people of Earth in a simple and easy-to-explain way that keeps the funds flowing toward the wide range of basic scientific research, technologies, systems and precursors needed no matter where we go in space. 

We need to learn all we can about asteroids so we can protect the Earth and use their vast resources to develop a space economy based on “living off the land.” After all, if we can’t protect ourselves we may end up dead anyway, and unless we can develop in situ resources, anywhere we go will be a dead end.

The obvious answer is for the public and private sectors to work together. If we can invest the money the taxpayers have generously offered and combine that with the genius, sweat and investment of the commercial space industry, we can both catalyze and accelerate a new space economy and dramatically lower the cost of exploration and science to the nation — even at a time when government budgets are shrinking. 

Regarding Mars, NASA should focus its attention on long-lead research into how to keep humans alive in space using systems that are as robust and self-sustaining as possible. For example, long-duration facilities beyond the protection of the Van Allen belt would help us learn how to protect ourselves against the radiation, gravitational questions and social/psychological issues of long space voyages and stays far from Earth. Such a facility would also foster the ability of future solar system travelers and inhabitants to be as self-sufficient as possible — a critical skill set for wherever we go and whatever we do on the frontier. Additional programs focused on lunar analogs and continued support for private lunar robotics and resource utilization will also help us prepare for martian settlement.

When it comes to asteroids, there is a confluence among the needs of science, defense and business, so let’s act accordingly. When it comes to pure science, NASA should work with the private sector to develop small, low-cost robotic exploration and prospector missions that can provide it with the data it needs to understand these objects. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have an interest in space propulsion systems, and need low-cost ways to develop and test them in space, which planned multicraft missions using different systems can provide. Small sample-return missions to several asteroids will help us learn how to mitigate and manage them while providing priceless information on the history of the solar system, leading to the ability to move and control them, useful both for defense and mining. 

Again we must ask a key question of the new space age: Why waste taxpayer funds on duplicative and costly government projects that can be done for much lower cost in partnership with commercial firms — who can then leverage the investment to create new industries that will expand the U.S. tax base — while freeing NASA to focus on its true mission of science and exploration?

For example, given that U.S. taxpayers are still pouring some $18 billion into NASA and more into DoD and DARPA, why not leverage some of these funds so that the interests of science and exploration in the public interest can both catalyze and benefit from the efficiency and expediency of private companies and projects? It would seem to be a win-win in the making, more science at lower cost and more capital to help start a new industry, not to mention the opening of a new frontier — and we already know it works.

The success of programs like Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and Commercial Crew Development, where NASA partnered with private investors to support the development of spaceflight systems, is now unquestionable. It is highlighted each time a Space Exploration Technologies vehicle flies into space, and will become ever more apparent as other companies in the program demonstrate their systems in the coming months. We have and will save billions of dollars over what we might have spent on traditional government contracts, and in the end, not only will NASA save money on the cost of carrying payloads and people into orbit but a new commercial space transportation industry is being born before our eyes — one that will eventually employ tens of thousands and inspire millions of young Americans for generations to come.

An example that more directly parallels robotic exploration and sampling of asteroids is the Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data program, where $30 million will be awarded to several companies to provide information to NASA developed during the planning and execution of low-cost robotic lunar missions. Several firms have already completed milestones resulting in more than a million dollars of funding to supplement their private investors. Each milestone has been harder than the last, and in the end we will have strong and robust companies capable of sending robotic explorers to the Moon and returning valuable information to scientists and engineers on Earth, for a fraction of what such missions would cost if done the old way — again, anchoring and catalyzing a new commercial lunar industrial economy.

As we consolidate and expand access to the frontier, it would be a wise to apply what we have learned about low Earth orbit (LEO) transport and lunar robotics to free space itself — greatly accelerating the development of an industrial in situ economy that perpetuates throughout the solar system. The ability to explore, categorize, sample and utilize asteroid materials goes beyond science and exploration. Our very lives may depend on what we learn, while at the same time what we learn may lead to the creation of wealth that will make the lives and futures of people back here on Earth far better than we can imagine. As we move ahead and outward, commercial industrial resource exploration and processing can support and supplement NASA and private human activities in space, adding markets for local products and low-cost supplies for living to cheap and regular commercial access — the core elements of a frontier economy.

We should apply what we have learned in Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and the Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data to exploration beyond LEO. A partnership between government and private investors makes sense, saves money and helps open the frontier sooner to more people, be they explorers, scientists or settlers. It makes sense in transportation, on the Moon, in free space, and yes, if it works there we should apply the concept to Mars and everywhere else we go to explore and live. We have nothing to lose and absolutely everything to gain.

 

Rick N. Tumlinson is chairman of Deep Space Industries, an asteroid mining company. He is also the founder of the EarthLight Institute and the Texas Space Alliance and co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.