Although he is a descendant of one of the 19th century’s richest men — shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt — Detroit native Henry Vanderbilt did not have a trust fund to fall back on when he dropped out of the University of Massachusetts in the mid-1970s. Instead, he performed a variety of jobs, including driving a cab, grinding brake shoes, developing optical missile-tracking technology, building surgical lasers, overseeing computer programs for the space advocacy group the L5 Society, and writing computer gaming software.
It was the computer gaming job that provided Vanderbilt with enough income to take a break from the daily grind and establish in 1992 the Space Access Society, an organization dedicated to promoting “routine, reliable, radically cheaper access to space ASAP,” according to its website.
Vanderbilt stepped down as president of the organization in 2006 and spent three years working at XCOR Aerospace, where one of his tasks was managing a rocket engine development program. Vanderbilt continues to oversee the Space Access Society’s annual conference, a gathering that takes place in Phoenix every April, attracting an ever-increasing number of space industry enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and government representatives. Vanderbilt spoke recently with Space News correspondent Debra Werner.
What made you start the Space Access Society?
I was involved with a bunch of people who thought space was an essential part of the country’s future and that reducing space transportation costs was the first big step toward realizing that future. We all had day jobs. So we would get together occasionally and formulate policy initiatives.
We supported the DC-X [McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper Experimental]. DC-X did not end up being as ambitious as we hoped. Groups whose interests were threatened by the project got it scaled back. All of this happened over a month or two and all of us were too busy to keep an eye on it.
I started harping on my associates that someone needed to be keeping an eye on the program full time. I founded the Space Access Society initially to follow the DC-X program. The mission expanded over the years to focus on cheap space transportation.
Why did you begin holding Space Access Society conferences in 1993?
We saw that the only way to get cheap access to space was to bring in commercial industry because, quite frankly, the government was not likely to achieve that on its own. The government’s civil and military space agencies were already mature bureaucracies with agendas and expensive ways of doing things. They were not very interested in low-cost space access.
The conferences were specifically aimed at encouraging formation of a commercial industry. We brought in people to talk about venture capital, how startup companies work, how to write a business plan and how to attract capital. We wanted to plant the idea among a number of people that they could start the space ventures they had dreamed of all their lives. That was the not-very-hidden agenda behind the conference.
Does the Space Access Society also lobby lawmakers to get funding for projects?
The Space Access Society has always been a very ad hoc organization. We did a fair amount of Washington lobbying in the early 1990s. Over the last couple of years, we started again, not so much lobbying as asking other people to do it. With the demise of the Constellation program we saw an opportunity for something new and useful to take place at NASA. We wanted to encourage that.
What do you think of NASA’s Exploration program?
It’s massively unbalanced at this point. They are not doing the advanced technology work needed to make exploration cheaper. NASA’s budget for technology has been raided for years to fund mainline projects. So it was very hopeful when the White House was proposing significant increases in technology funds on an ongoing basis. The  budget is not a done deal at this point but it seems very unlikely that there’s going to be any plus-up for technology (Editor’s Note: Congress Nov. 17 approved $575 million of the $1 billion the White House requested for Space Technology).
If you look at the overall budget shrinking and you look at the amount of funding that’s being put into the Space Launch System, NASA could solve an awful lot of problems if they were not mandated to do that particular thing.
What is your view of the Space Launch System?
There seems to be very little in the way of a plan to develop payloads for it. Apparently, it’s supposed to exist for its own sake. It doesn’t seem to make sense to spend that much money for the ability to fly extremely large payloads every few years at a distant point in the future.
I think we’d be a whole lot better off putting some fraction of that money into developing new technology and new procedures to allow us to use existing boosters to launch smaller payloads that could be assembled in orbit. Instead of having to launch missions that work with no further assembly, if you could put something in orbit and then check it out, you could launch missions more cheaply. Just the ability to send two guys in spacesuits with a box of tools up there on short notice would be invaluable. Getting to the point where you have a couple of people in space to bolt pieces together and check everything out would bring costs down.
What do you think of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program?
I think it has a lot of potential. I think there’s a good chance it’s not going to realize that potential. If you look at [NASA’s] commercial cargo program, the companies have accomplished quite a bit. They will have vehicles ready to fly in a few months. The commercial cargo program was done very simply and quickly with a minimum of traditional NASA overhead.
Commercial crew is getting more attention within NASA. The stakes are much higher and there are people within NASA who want the program done their way. Historical data indicate that projects done NASA’s way tend to be more expensive and take longer than commercial projects. Realistically, there’s a chance it will destroy the program.
If I had to bet, I’d bet they would end up with a split: with the government program continuing with the contractors who decided that having the government pay for it is the way to go and some of the commercial operators who are able to self-fund, deciding the government money isn’t worth the restrictions involved and setting out on their own.
What are the major impediments to low-cost space transportation?
Getting funding is still difficult but it’s getting easier, partly because a number of millionaires are investing their own money and partly because people are getting more familiar with the concept of space travel. Investors are actually signing fairly large checks at this point.
Another potential impediment is the regulatory environment. If the parties at NASA who have been taking over the commercial crew program get to control the specifications for passenger-carrying commercial space vehicles, they are very likely to overlook the needs of the industry in ways that will make it vastly more expensive, if not impossible, to operate the vehicles profitably. The Federal Aviation Administration has done a good job balancing the safety of the public with encouragement of the industry.
Are there also engineering challenges?
The engineering was never going to be easy. Low-cost space transportation can be achieved with existing technologies but they are going to have to be well-refined and polished, cleverly used and packaged. And there’s going to be a considerable amount of testing. And just about everybody who is going to fly is going to fly later than they currently hope because there will be surprises in the test programs.
If you want to reduce the cost to orbit, do you need reusable launch vehicles?
Costs can be reduced quite a bit with expendables. Look at Space Exploration Technologies. Elon Musk has looked at a lot of the really expensive elements of launch programs, brought them in house and reduced the cost greatly. He seems to be selling Falcon 9s for one-half to one-third of what other vehicles are costing.
If you want to reduce costs much further, you have to start looking into reusability. You have to stop throwing away the airliner after every flight.