The Human Space Flight Plans Committee, led by former Lockheed Martin chief executive Norman Augustine, argued in their Summary Report that “Planning for a human spaceflight program should begin with a choice of goals. Destinations should derive from goals.” Chartered by the White House to review U.S. human space policy, they added, “the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human exploration into the Solar System.”
If so, the highest priority initial goal must remain a permanent lunar outpost. Nothing is more important to humanity’s future in space, especially a commercial future.
There are plenty of other destinations within NASA’s near-term technological reach, each of which has its advocates.
- Missions to asteroids and other small bodies — part of what the committee calls the Flexible Path — could provide enormous benefits to science, while demonstrating resource extraction and practicing techniques for deep space exploration.
- Visits to the martian moons would provide early experience at interplanetary flight, and, again, extraordinary scientific returns.
- Although popular, the martian surface seems a little beyond NASA’s realistic technological reach for the next human exploratory goal: “The Committee finds that Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration, but it is not the best first destination.”
Any of these destinations would have great promise to advance the scientific understanding of our solar system. Only the nearby Moon provides an early opportunity for a permanent base on a planet-like surface.
Why is a permanent outpost important? For decades, space transportation entrepreneurs have worked hard to launch people and supplies into low Earth orbit. They include companies like Rotary Rocket and Beal Aerospace who are little more than memories, those just abandoned like Kistler and the AirLaunch QuickReach, and those still trying like Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and the SpaceDev division of the Sierra Nevada Corp.
Until recently, the record has been uniformly depressing — ranging from rare instances of glacial progress to the far more common outright failure. Those initially entrepreneurial companies that have survived and become ongoing concerns — Astrotech, Orbital Sciences — did so by, respectively, changing their business plan to something other than space infrastructure, or by largely “becoming the enemy” and adapting the methods and markets of traditional aerospace companies.
In a potentially dramatic turnaround, today there is real reason to hope for success. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are being subsidized by the U.S. government via Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreements to develop cargo services to orbit. If successful, crew transportation may be next. The expansion of this strategy is explicitly endorsed by the Augustine Committee: “an architecture for exploration employing a similar policy of guaranteed contracts has the potential to stimulate a competitive commercial space industry.”
There is a clear consensus that alternatives are necessary to continued dependence on the expensive and dangerous space shuttle, and to foreign vehicles like the Russian Soyuz or, potentially, the Chinese Shenzhou. Even before the Augustine Committee’s report, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration appeared sympathetic to encouraging, and possibly expanding, the COTS agreements.
After all the decades of abject failure, what makes privately developed transportation to orbit politically or commercially achievable now? Before the international space station, there was no large market for the delivery of bulk cargo to orbit. No one outside of government would finance a billion dollars or more of development to launch a few tens of communications satellites, military vehicles, and civil science and applications missions each year. This was especially so since the government-developed vehicles were certain to continue in business, no matter how much they cost, providing highly subsidized competition to the commercial companies.
The key change is that, today, the space station has a day-in and day-out absolute requirement for large volumes of bulk cargo that current government systems cannot meet. The U.S. government has promised that any privately developed vehicles that prove themselves can compete for a share of that market.
These two facts may change the nature of the game. Just possibly, there may now be enough of a market for private industry and banks to justify commercial investment in new launch vehicles — and for governments to politically justify subsidizing the nascent industry.
Many argue that the space station has achieved, and will achieve, nothing; that it is a near-total waste of money. I disagree, but even if that is the case, it does not matter. For advocates of commercial space transportation, it really does not matter why the world’s governments are willing to pay for the upkeep of a permanent base in low Earth orbit, only that they are. As long as a permanent orbital base exists, and someone — anyone — is willing to pay to keep it running and supplied, the space station represents a market.
If humanity is to explore and utilize the resources of the inner solar system, we need commercial transportation beyond Earth orbit. How do we get from COTS to deep space cargo services? First, by recognizing that developing effective transportation to the lunar surface contributes solutions to a lot of apparently unrelated problems. A lunar lander, with a little modification, would probably be able to land on most asteroids or the martian moons. Many of the lander’s components, and the experience of operating it, would later be applicable to a Mars surface lander. The crew vehicle could service spacecraft in most Earth orbits, and even the various Lagrangian points now favored for large space-based observatories.
Second, by emulating our one example of possible success. In truth, we don’t yet know if COTS will deliver routine and affordable cargo to the space station, but we should know within the next year or two. SpaceX, at least, has gone a lot farther than any entrepreneur has ever gone before.
We do know that without the space station market, entrepreneurial spaceflight to orbit produced a near-complete record of failure. If we bypass the Moon and go to Mars, as Apollo bypassed infrastructure in Earth orbit and went directly to the Moon, our emphasis will be on getting there and we are unlikely to establish a permanent destination needing supplies or much in the way of permanent infrastructure. As with Apollo, there will be few opportunities for near-term commercial transportation.
The committee’s “Flexible Path” shows more promise, since deep space observatories needing refueling, refurbishment and repair would provide a market for deep space transportation, albeit a relatively small one. Fuel depots would also be a market — as suggested by the committee — but only for fuel. The martian moons would be ideal positions for interplanetary bases, but they remain a very long way from home for the first step beyond the international space station. Because of their changing locations and distances, and different orbits, no one is likely to establish an early permanent base requiring supply on near Earth asteroids.
Like the space station, a lunar base requires large volumes of supplies of every kind, day in and day out; it is the stable and consistent market at a known, nearby and unrelatively changing distance that could provide political and commercial justification for a “lunar COTS.” A lunar outpost would be able to mine local resources such as oxygen — the heaviest commodity required to survive and operate anywhere in space. Lunar oxygen could be exported to the space station and other low Earth orbit spacecraft, fuel depots, Lagrangian observatories and elsewhere, potentially providing transportation markets beyond supplying the lunar base itself.
It really is that simple. Build the lunar base and supply it, and private transportation to deep space may come. That could lead to further exploration and the earliest beginnings of solar system trade and commerce.
Don’t build a lunar base, and none of that is likely to come to pass any time soon.
Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco. More of his work may be found at www.DonaldFRobertson.com.