The Sustainability Problem


The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has proposed a dramatic shift in the fundamental manner in which the nation pursues manned spaceflight by moving launch responsibilities to the private commercial sector. In response, Congress has convened hearings and received testimony to best determine how to proceed forward. Many topics are under consideration, including the technical merits of the program of record (Ares), the impact on the existing work force of NASA, and the abilities of an emerging commercial sector to meet its expanded responsibilities.

As important as these topics are, however, they have proved unable to answer the recurring problem of sustainability within manned orbital spaceflight. We need to focus on new approaches that drive sustainability specifically in the manned orbital space industry, and consider how those approaches also strengthen our successful space markets.

Sustainability is not a new issue. In the past three decades, many reports recommended that space activities must become sustainable and affordable. Answering these reports, the subsequent policies sought to guide the U.S. space program toward sustainability by defining commercial incentives, technology demonstrator programs and visionary destinations. However, only the satellite and the suborbital spaceflight industries seem to have responded to these policies; manned orbital spaceflight remains solely a government-subsidized affair. Worse, no one seems to know why.

This is not an easy question to answer. Since the historical approaches have been thoroughly explored, it might be time to try something new, such as a macroeconomic perspective. This approach considers the broader issues of why money is spent and leads directly to the crux of the issue within manned orbital spaceflight. For something to be sustainable in a macroeconomic sense, you first have to make the argument that it is affordable, and commercialization is the typical means by which something is perceived by the public as affordable. This relationship is readily apparent in the successes of the satellite industry and the growing suborbital spaceflight market, the parts of the space industry that have responded to government incentives. Since manned orbital spaceflight continues to struggle with commercial independence, despite having access to the same government incentives, there must be a reason.

From a macroeconomic perspective, many of the controllable costs associated with manned orbital spaceflight (beyond technological advances or economies of scale) involve safety and reliability. These issues are handled consistently throughout the entire space industry, manned and unmanned, through multiply-redundant systems and damage tolerant design (DTD) practices. It is here, though, that the operational differences in manned orbital spaceflight cause a significant issue. Unlike satellites, manned orbital spaceflight must support astronauts; unlike manned suborbital spaceflight, these astronauts remain isolated in a hostile environment for extended periods of time. These fundamental differences drive the costs associated with safety and reliability to unsustainable levels within manned orbital spaceflight.

Looking at alternatives, other transportation industries — such as the automotive and maritime industries — operate similarly to manned orbital spaceflight, address safety and reliability, and are sustainable. It is from those industries that we may find a new approach. Examining these industries, DTD practices remain in use; however, there are additional government-funded agencies specifically tasked to respond to mechanical or medical emergencies that limit the extent to which costly DTD practices must be applied. For automobiles, there are tow trucks and ambulances that exist to handle unforeseen difficulties, from simple malfunctions to catastrophic wrecks. In the maritime industry, there is the Coast Guard. This mechanism is missing in manned orbital spaceflight, and its absence provides an explanation as to why that industry has been unable to successfully transition from a solely government-run affair to a sustainable market.

It is quite clear what effect removing this capability would have on an already-sustainable market, such as the automotive industry. Consider that you were planning a trip across the country and back, and needed to buy a car for the journey. However, that car was custom-built, relying on technologies that were not yet in widespread use. Furthermore, it had to carry all of its fuel, supplies and air for the entire journey lasting a few weeks, and if anything went wrong, or the car broke down, you would die with the entire world watching in horror. How much would that car cost, compared with one that had access to a tow truck?

Without this sort of support, it is difficult to make arguments persuading commercial ventures to risk the dangers of manned orbital spaceflight, despite the potential rewards. It is not surprising, then, that few companies are even exploring long-term possibilities, much less actively obtaining profit from manned orbital space assets.

We must re-evaluate the debate surrounding space strategy and break from paradigms that have guided decision-making. We must prioritize sustainability in our strategies, and those strategies must be defined before considering technologies and destinations. The idea of an agency whose mission is to support manned orbital spaceflight has been presented by the authors to Congress, the administration and NASA, and is quietly awaiting its turn in public debate.

Unless we pursue these new ideas, any politically balanced solutions dealing with manned orbital spaceflight are likely to be temporary. Furthermore, future administrations will undoubtedly find the money we have spent has not solved the issues surrounding sustainability.

Alone, technology- and destination-based initiatives applied to manned orbital spaceflight merely foster jobs programs with no sustainable impact. Drawing inspiration from other successful transportation industries, it becomes clear that creating a means to address on-orbit issues is significant to creating a sustainable industry, and provides a specific vision for the debate.

If we continue to focus solely on the finer points and details of technologies and jobs without addressing the drivers that affect sustainability in manned orbital spaceflight, history suggests that in five or seven years, we will find ourselves again chartering committees to examine the space industry and again discover that we need to address sustainability. We have already read that report.


Gordon Smith and Alan Thompson have researched the space industry from a business investment perspective for 15 years. More information about their research and findings can be found at