OpEd: Will It Be a Highway to Hell … or to the Stars?

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  Space News Business

OpEd: Will It Be a Highway to Hell … or to the Stars?

By JEFF KRUKIN

posted: 09 January 2006
01:19 pm ET


Ah, the open highway. Is there another icon that more perfectly evokes America’s view of itself? Freedom… to move about over vast spaces. Wealth… generated by transportation-supported commerce. Power… to control one’s future, the result of freedom and wealth.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has suggested recently the highway as the perfect analogy for his agency’s implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration. Let’s examine this closely, beginning with Mr. Griffin’s words on these very pages in a commentary published May 24, 2004, entitled “Exploration and Commercial Space.” At that time, he was head of the Space Department at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, and thus not hemmed-in by the political and financial realities of Washington .

“… [I]n the context of the proposed Exploration Initiative, we have an opportunity to examine the issue anew. We’re not going anywhere in a hurry, and if we plan it right, there are enormous opportunities to use the initiative to build a true commercial space infrastructure along the way. …” He went on to describe the great need for propellant, “… tanks of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen … the constituents of water, …” in low Earth orbit for decades to come, concluding that “… the delivery of water to appropriate staging areas in cislunar space is the perfect ‘kick start’ for a commercial space initiative.” In other words, to use the highway analogy, gas stations.

Unfortunately, now that Mr. Griffin is head of NASA and faced with the political pressure to maintain Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center jobs and infrastructure, along with shuttle and international space station budget constraints, the highway analogy now is used to support NASA’s Crew Exploration Vehicle/Crew Launch Vehicle (CEV/CLV) plans. In other words, vehicles rather than infrastructure.

The highway analogy may seem perfect at first glance, but the analogy is being misused. The government builds roads, not vehicles, and it is inappropriate to say that CEV/CLV are the road when they are obviously vehicles. Since one doesn’t lay down asphalt and concrete in space, what is the space equivalent of a road? Infrastructure, like those water (gas) stations. Infrastructure, such as cislunar navigation systems like the Federal Aviation Administration provides for transcontinental aviation. And just as the government builds roads by accepting competitive bids from businesses, NASA must build its cislunar roads the same way.

I know the argument that NASA can’t rely on the unproven NewSpace companies if it’s going to meet the president’s deadline for returning to the Moon, but this is a false argument for two very powerful reasons.

First, NASA and the traditional aerospace companies can hardly boast of their ability to develop new space vehicles, as the readers of this publication are certainly aware.

Second, and more to my point, recall Mr. Griffin’s statement above that “We’re not going anywhere in a hurry. …” Exactly. The president himself stated that NASA’s new mission isn’t a race, and the Aldridge Commission emphasized that NASA must transform its relationship with the private sector.

It therefore follows that deadlines for reaching the Moon and Mars should incorporate and support the NewSpace companies and their development of the cislunar highway, rather than be solely based on the expected time required by NASA and the traditional contractors to build CEV/CLV. This is the way to create the commercial space infrastructure and services that NASA, and the world, need.

NASA and its contractors, of course, will loudly proclaim that CEV/CLV meet unique requirements that only they can provide, and that NASA’s peculiar procurement methods are the only way to provide these vehicles. Well, if the traditionally conservative U.S. military can work in new ways with businesses, so can NASA.

The Nov./Dec. 2005 issue of Defense Technology International describes the U.S. Navy’s sea trials of Sea Fighter:

“The ship underwent a novel procurement process for the Navy: It was built in a medium-sized yard to commercial standards and practices. Specifications didn’t change during construction; there were incentives to bring the project in on time; and only 14 people, including six from the Navy, oversaw construction. The vessel was the first navy ship certified by the American Bureau of Shipbuilding, which saved more money than if built solely by the Navy. Sea Fighter was budgeted at around $75 million, one-third to one-half the cost of a ship built to standard Navy criteria. …”

There is a clear lesson here, and spare me the arguments about why this doesn’t equate to space transportation. We have heard enough from the naysayers, the doubters and the minions of mediocrity. This is the time for leaders, for thinkers, for doers. The visionaries already have provided the goals.

NASA has taken tentative steps in the direction espoused by Mr. Griffin in 2004, but by no means is it enough. As Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) told the Commercial Space Transportation Congress Feb. 10 when speaking about the NewSpace companies: “The job of Congress is to pass legislation and exercise its oversight functions in such a way that will enable this industry to succeed. We must keep a watchful eye on our government agencies to ensure they are operating and cooperating with the commercial space industry and not implementing unnecessary or overly burdensome regulations.”

Space highway construction would be an excellent place for Mr. Calvert’s attention.

Jeff Krukin is executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation.