A merica is on the verge of a revolution in space transportation. More than design or technology, NASA is taking a revolutionary step in developing a space transportation system that will enable human space exploration — while also providing the launch vehicle that could serve as the basis for a sustainable, commercial human space transportation industry.
The goal of achieving a safe, reliable and affordable transportation system to make low Earth orbit a routine commercial destination is achievable. The best hope for doing so already has begun. A combination of NASA and the private sector already is working together to build the next generation of crew launch vehicles. Besides supporting NASA’s human access to space requirements, this same transportation system also could be used for commercial purposes. Those who doubt the potential for the commercial impact of such public-private partnerships need only look at the development of the modern airline industry.
The roots of the airline industry go back to 1918. It was then that Congress appropriated funds to start the first regularly scheduled airmail service using U. S. Army Air Service pilots and a small fleet of airplanes. Soon after, the U.S. Post Office assumed responsibility for airmail service while still utilizing railroads as the primary transportation method for delivering mail between cities. And even though the cost for airmail was more expensive than train delivery, by 1925 airplanes were delivering millions of letters and packages a year and were maintaining regular flight schedules.
It was this U.S. Post Office support for airmail delivery that gave the airline industry its true start. Landing fields and supporting infrastructure were established and managed by the federal government. These are examples of government subsidies that provided the “stop gap” measures to enable an industry to develop and flourish on its own. The Air Commerce Act of 1926 gave the government responsibility for fostering air commerce, establishing airways and providing safety oversight. Eventually, the government transferred all airmail service to private companies. Contracts were established that provided stability within a fledgling industry, nurturing growth and reliability.
The airlines leveraged their government contract business to offer passenger service. Likewise, aircraft manufacturers applied technologies developed for military applications to commercial aviation resulting in increased safety and reliability.
The opportunity exists to pursue a similar path within the space transportation industry. NASA’s selection of proven, human-rated space hardware to form the foundation of the next crew launch vehicle is the necessary ingredient to stimulate the path forward for commercial access to space utilizing the same transportation system for both passenger and cargo. The design is simple and safe. The technology is proven and robust. The first stage is reusable and is flying today. And, the full system will be available for NASA and industry within five years.
Industry can capitalize on this launch system and adapt it to provide commercial opportunities. If the goal is to open the heavens to space travel, this simple vehicle holds the key to unlock the gate to low Earth orbit on a routine, low cost-per-pound basis.
The space shuttle, as grand and capable as it is, is too complex and costly to be adapted to commercial applications. But the new crew launch vehicle is another story. Capable of lifting more than 50,000 pounds to orbit, with industry initiative and NASA sponsorship, the cost per pound can be very attractive. Flying the same vehicle as the NASA astronauts, commercial astronauts can transport humans and cargo to commercial and international space destinations. Indeed, the future may hold that commercial astronauts become the pilots for access to routine low Earth orbit with NASA and others as customers being delivered to the starting point of their missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
Few people, if any, could imagine in 1918 how we individually and as a nation would be influenced by the introduction of air transportation. The technological advances, timeliness and ease of travel, and connectivity for business, science and recreational purposes, have altered our way of life. Routine space transportation and attendant technologies offer still yet another incredible leap forward. What will change and how our personal lives will be affected are yet to be determined but, taking history as our guide, it is sure to be a stimulus for advances in technology, economic growth and improved quality of life. We must move forward with commitment and vision.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has repeatedly stated his intention to stimulate and support the commercial space industry. He has identified a smart and viable path, with the crew launch vehicle as the keystone, to develop a commercial space transportation industry. It is worthy of our support.
Ronald D. Dittemore is president of ATK Thiokol and senior vice president of ATK .