Why, in this era of change and emphasis on renewable and reusable resources, is NASA investing its future space transportation development on ancient and wasteful concepts – throwaway rocket systems. While other parts of NASA are developing and applying the fruits of modern technology to enhance their science and exploration programs, the NASA 21st century space transportation concepts remain firmly rooted in the mid-20th century, indeed some would say 14th century technology first introduced by

The Ares program will modernize the Apollo concepts and upgrade an enormous infrastructure that supports and propagates continued reliance on expendable, man-rated rocket systems. Dedicated government and industry teams are accomplishing significant and challenging engineering tasks fielding this new/old rocket system. But when finished, the United States will be left with a modernized relic that still will not resolve the key problems inhibiting space growth – lack of safe, routine flights that can lower the cost of traveling to and from space and increase the commercial use of space for business and pleasure.

What is regrettable is the large sum of precious research and development (R&D) resources – time, money and talent – being spent on re-engineering old concepts, that otherwise could be focused on moving the
commercial and civil space activities forward. This forward focus should be on developing 21st century technology for reusable space transportation systems. NASA and the
United States
would greatly benefit by expending our scarce R&D resources on advancing space transportation technology, while transitioning existing commercially available and developing rocket systems, such as the Delta, Atlas, Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon or foreign boosters, to satisfy near-term needs. Advancing space transportation means moving beyond expendable systems and advancing to space planes that can be used over and over and over again – renewable space transportation. This change starts with concepts of operation and continues with vehicle design, test, manufacture, training and operations. This change requires leaving behind old terms of man-rating, vehicle reliability and escape systems and embracing design for safety, maintainability and certification. This is the approach that has evolved and been proven by the aircraft industry to achieve both low costs and the lowest accident and fatality rate of all transportation systems. This change leads to a global spaceport infrastructure supporting hundreds of flights to and from space as well as rapid point-to-point travel here on Earth. This new spaceport infrastructure will involve hundreds of new communities that will contribute to and benefit from an expanding space economy.

What NASA can do to lead the space transportation change is to refocus its development of expendable systems to support maturing the technology for next-generation, privately developed and operated, reusable vehicles and supporting infrastructure. These new, privately developed reusable capabilities will be available for NASA to use in expanding space exploration (both human and robotic) and science programs.

In this way NASA will return to its NACA roots and devote its resources to help build a new space industry not another shuttle program. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) did not try to build and operate a DC-1 or a Boeing 307 Stratoliner. NACA did develop fundamental technologies and national facilities that supported these and other commercial as well as military developments.

Rather than continuing with a point design for a second shuttle development, NASA and the
United States
will be better served by NASA developing commercially relevant technologies and demonstrating these technologies through a series of X-Plane projects. These projects should be narrowly focused to demonstrate specific technologies and concepts of operation enabling technology solutions that private industry can draw upon to build and operate a 21st century space transportation infrastructure. X-Plane projects should encompass technology demonstrations using existing commercially available equipment for both suborbital and orbital flights. These will lead to periodically flying specifically designed X-vehicles to demonstrate the integration of these technologies, including operations.

NASA also should help in the development of commercially relevant infrastructure such as on-orbit propellant depots that would support future NASA missions as well as commercial ventures such as space-based solar power stations and provide a competitive market for the new space transportation systems. NASA in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation should help in developing the standards, processes and procedures as well as the relevant technologies and databases required for the flight worthiness certification of the equipment and personnel for the design, manufacture and operation of the new space transportation systems.

As the
United States
considers its next steps in space science and exploration, a top priority should be given to developing the commercial benefits of space, specifically using X-Planes to mature critical technologies and operations to enable reusable, 21st century space transportation systems. With safe, routine and affordable transportation the
United States
will lead the world in opening the new space frontier and a 21st century of high-tech jobs, education and economic bounty.

William A. Gaubatz, Ph.D., is the former director of the Delta Clipper programs and the

flight demonstrations. He was a co-founder of Universal Space Lines where he was president of SpaceAvailable LLC and presently is a consultant for “new-space” activities. Dr. Gaubatz is an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a member of the International Academy of Astronautics, an honorary member of the Japanese Rocket Society, chairman of the Space Tourism Society, co-founder of the annual International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, and member of the Space Frontier Foundation.