TCS Daily

Space Program: Looking Up

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 24, 2005 12:00 AM

I've written here in the past about NASA's work on space elevators, and on the new leaner, meaner, prize-oriented approach favored by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. Now there are some signs of real progress on a number of fronts.

As I noted earlier, NASA was offering prizes for space elevator research. That's still going on, but there are some new studies suggesting that space elevators may be closer to practicality than previously thought. A cover story in the IEE Spectrum reports:

        "A space elevator would be amazingly expensive or absurdly 
        cheap -- depending on how you look at it. It would cost about $6 billion in 
        today's dollars just to complete the structure itself, according to my study. 
        Costs associated with legal, regulatory, and political aspects could easily 
        add another $4 billion, but these expenses are much harder to estimate. 
        Building such an enormous structure would probably require treaty-level 
        negotiations with the international community, for example. A $10 billion price tag, 
        however, isn't really extraordinary in the economics of space exploration. 
        NASA's budget is about $15 billion a year, and a single shuttle launch costs 
        about half a billion dollars.

        "The construction schedule could conceivably be as short as 10 years, but 
        15 years is a more realistic estimate when technology development, 
        budget cycles, competitive selection, and other factors are accounted for."

The first one is the hardest to build, which has an important strategic implication:

        "The second elevator would be much easier and cheaper to build than the first, 
        not only because it could make use of the first elevator but because all 
        the R&D and much of the supporting infrastructure would already be complete. 
        With these savings, I estimate that a second elevator would cost a fraction of 
        the first one-as little as $3 billion dollars for parts and construction.

        "In my studies, I have found that the schedule for more elevators, after the 
        first, could be compressed to as little as six months. The first country or 
        consortium to finish an elevator would therefore gain an almost unbeatable 
        head start over any competitors."

This seems like a reason to push this as hard as possible, consistent with the technology. And it's worth noting that the technology underlying space elevators -- superstrong carbon nanotubes -- is in a phase of rapid progress.

I don't think that we're ready to start construction, but I think we may be there sooner than we imagine.

NASA's also thinking smarter in other ways, looking to smaller, startup companies like Transformational Space and Scaled Composites for new spacecraft technologies, as Wired News reports:

        "In the last year, with $6 million in NASA funding, Transformational Space, or 
        tSpace, surged ahead with a design for an orbital spaceship called the Crew 
        Transfer Vehicle, or CXV. The company built a full-scale mockup of its 
        four-seat space capsule, successfully demonstrated a novel method for 
        launching spaceships from airplanes, and, this month, dropped another 
        full-scale capsule from a helicopter off the California coast to test parachute 
        deployment and capsule recovery.

        "That's grabbing attention at NASA, where millions are normally expended 
        just to create project proposals dressed up with charts in pretty binders. 
        'It's very rewarding to see tSpace actually do this,' said Michael Lembeck, 
        tSpace's contracting manager at NASA. 'I know how easy it is to throw out 
        a set of viewgraph presentations and claim you're going to save the world 
        as opposed to actually building something and making it work.'"

This approach has a lot to offer, and I'm glad to see that NASA is starting to follow it.

In fact, as Jeff Foust has noted, NASA seems to envision a much more aggressive program of encouraging commercial suppliers to develop new capabilities. I think that makes a lot of sense. Doing things cheaply in space means doing them often. Doing them often means having more people doing them than just NASA. Commercial suppliers who can draw on customers interested in everything from mineral exploration, to energy, to space tourism are likely to manage a lot more launches than NASA would alone, which means that NASA can do a lot to promote lower costs and improved capabilities by fostering an environment where that's more likely to happen.

Griffin and I also seem to be on the same page in a related area. Nearly four years ago, I wrote, in this very space, that:

        "There aren't enough firms in the space industry to foster competition, 
        and competition is what gives us expanded capabilities and lower costs. 
        Whether this calls for the Justice Department to pursue a breakup of some of 
        these companies, or whether the government should attempt to foster the 
        growth of startups is unclear, but that's one of the things that should be 
        looked at. (Nor would either tactic constitute unwarranted interference 
        with the free market, since what we have now is in essence a cozy, 
        government-supervised cartel.)"

Now, at a recent Women in Aerospace forum, Griffin observed:

        "I was not fond of the industry restructuring that went forward following the 
        downing of the Berlin Wall. There was a lot of consolidation. It was, in fact, 
        requested by senior government leaders at the time, both on The Hill and in 
        the Executive Branch, to achieve a certain amount of industry consolidation.

        "My own opinion is, that's gone too far. I am a fan of competition. I believe in 
        it. I think it makes us sharp. Not every problem can be solved by competition, 
        but many can. And we've consolidated to the point where, you know, as 
        NASA Administrator, I would certainly worry if I saw any more of it, because 
        I don't know--I think we'd all collapse into one big company. That worries me.

        "I'll be doing what I can do to establish and encourage competitive 
        approaches, going forward, because I think that's going to bring out the best 
        in us."

My message to Mike Griffin: Make it so!


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