A Space Program for Americans, 2008

Al Globus

February 2008

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Constitution tells us what the government is supposed to do. How does the space program fit in? For the most part, to '... promote the general Welfare,' in other words, to benefit most Americans. To a certain extent NASA's current program does that, but a lot of the money spent only benefits a small slice of American society. What would a program focused solely on promoting the general welfare look like? Here's my take on the priority order:

  1. Earth observation -- to understand what we are doing to Earth and minimize negative consequence. This is critical. Now.
  2. Earth to orbit transportation -- the high cost and low reliability of launch from Earth to orbit limits everything we do in space. Not only is the direct cost high, but spacecraft development costs are driven up since satellites must be made as light as possible. This means everything must be engineered to the edge, requiring a lot of expensive testing. Also, because solar arrays must be as small as possible, power is limited requiring more expensive engineering.

    Unfortunately, NASA has a terrible record of developing low cost launch vehicles. The shuttle was supposed to be $500/lb to orbit but actually costs over $10,000/lb. Several subsequent projects failed to get anything into space at all. NASA does do a good job of research, and could develop radical new technology like electromagnetic first stages, aerospike nozzles, air-breathing hypersonic propulsion, space elevators and so forth; but the key is high launch rate. Today there are only 50-100 launches a year, too few to generate economies of scale. We need to support commercial markets that require high launch rates, at least thousands per year. That means supporting space tourism, the only market for high-volume human launch, and space-based solar power (see below). See Contest-Driven Development of Orbital Tourist Vehicles" for data on the tourist market.

  3. Planetary protection -- there are hundreds of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that will, for sure (unless we do something), hit Earth with globally devastating consequences, and tens of thousands that will cause regional devastation. Fortunately, it will probably be a long, long time before this happens. Unfortunately, it could also happen in five minutes. We just don't know. However, this is one natural disaster we can prevent. Telescope searches to find dangerous NEOs are very inexpensive by NASA standards and, should a dangerous NEO be found, there are many potential techniques for giving it enough of a nudge to miss Earth.
  4. Aeronautics -- hundreds of millions of Americans fly every year.
  5. Space-based solar power (SBSP) -- Long term, SBSP can completely solve our energy and global warming problems. I'd put it higher in the list, but it's definitely 'long term,' not something that's likely to make a big difference in the next 5-10 years without a crash program. Also, SBSP is not economic without much better launch vehicles as millions of tons of solar collectors are needed in orbit to make a real dent in energy supplies. See A Better Strategy for America for the short story and the NSS SBSP library for more than you could possibly want to know.
  6. Space science -- knowledge of the solar system enriches lives, promotes education, and sometimes has important practical benefits.
Notice what is not on the list: (1) Human exploration of the Moon and Mars. That's not to say we shouldn't do that, but only if it's a good way to meet goals that 'promote the general Welfare' -- and putting a very small number of people on big things far away doesn't do that. (2) 'Exploration.' Exploration is part of science. (3) Education. Education is great, but it is a side effect of the space program, not the primary purpose. Also, in America, education is primarily a matter for the states, not the federal government. The best the space program can do for education is simple: put everything learned on the web so everyone can see it and learn.

Also not on the list is ISRU -- in situ resource utilization -- a fancy term for mining off planet. However, finding and deflecting NEOs is a good first step towards mining them; and very large scale SBSP is probably best done with lunar materials. Consider, to provide all the energy used on Earth today would require perhaps 30 million tons of solar power satellites in orbit. Most of that mass is silicon and metal, both of which are available in ample supply on the Moon. It requires a lot less energy to get materials from the Moon to typical SBSP orbits than from Earth.

Also not on the list is the 'human space program.' That's because putting small numbers of astronauts in space has done little or nothing to directly benefit most people, although spin-off technologies have been valuable. However, there are a number of companies planning to offer tourist rides into space in the next few years. One, Virgin Galactic, is planning 40 vehicles each capable of carrying six people into sub-orbital space twice a day. Furthermore, Bigelow Aerospace, which has flown two subscale space stations, is negotiating right now with major aerospace companies for twelve flights a year to put up a space station and fly astronauts to it. This is a far higher flight rate than the U.S., China or Russia has ever achieved in their manned program. Human space flight may be best left to the private sector.

There you have it, a space program for the people. This program isn't driven by national prestige, curiosity or altruism. It does what the federal government is constitutionally required to do: "... promote the general Welfare."