At a time when many doubt our national commitment to human exploration of space, it is important to reflect on where we have been, where we are going and most importantly, why.
There can be little doubt that humanity is destined to live beyond the confines of our Earth and even our solar system. But this expansion is far more than mere adventure, more even than a survival necessity in the great span of time. Human expansion into space will continue to bring radical benefits right here on Earth in the very short term, just as it has already done.
Today we are at a new dawn, the beginnings of the new Space Race! With the retirement of the Space Shuttle and all the budget and planning cutbacks, many have proclaimed the end of the U.S. manned space program, ceding our leadership to Russia and China. But this is not the case.
In the first 50 years of space flight a lot was done: Sputnik, Gagarin, docking, spacewalks, space stations and landing on the moon. We have thousands of satellites, telescopes, probes and rovers moving out through the solar system. The twin Voyager spacecraft have even left the solar system and are heading out into interstellar space! Yet we never achieved the simple 1960s vision from Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Space liners have yet to take casual business trips to wagon spoke stations and moon colonies.
The first "golden age of space travel" has accomplished much. But the HUMAN exploration of space couldn't go much further with the "old ways." It was far too expensive, far too dangerous and showed insufficient practical results.
George W. Bush announced a grand plan to build a huge new fleet of spacecraft called Constellation. Then with its mighty capabilities to return to the moon, the plan was to build a permanent base there, and then go on and conquer Mars. Bold plans for sure. But it required dramatic long term increases in spending to be continued for decades, through multiple political cycles, which would likely be subjected to cost overruns and delays, making these already bloated estimates probably too small. Thus, it should be no surprise that President Bush and his own administration, which laid out these bold plans, ultimately decided not to fund even the first part of this enormous vision.
More recently President Obama called together the Augustine Committee to review the country's human spaceflight plans. Their clear guidance was to do with human spaceflight, what NASA already does with satellite launches and robotic exploration. Specifically, to change procurement methods -- from building in-house capabilities to buying flights on rockets developed by private industry.
This change from in house ownership to "per use" purchases, means that NASA can regularly buy from the cheapest, safest, most capable system as their needs change, versus be stuck with one system for decades without regard to these factors. Just that one small change opens the door for competition to quickly drive down costs, ramp up safety and thus increase flight frequency. We will be able to explore farther and sooner with a smaller budget. It also opens the door for commercial players to fly their own missions on the same hardware!
But there are bumps along this new path to space flight. The entire space budget is controlled by the states that have large NASA facilities, including Texas, Florida and Alabama. As the traditional space industry is seeing an upheaval in the status quo, many special interest groups and employers are seeing a shift in their workforce, from traditional subcontractors to those who are competing in this new entrepreneurial space race. Thus NASA has been forced to compromise. They will still fund some internal development with their limited budget, but they will also be spending funds on some new commercial vehicles. If this is the compromise that is required to move forward, so be it. It will cost more, and take more time, but it is far better than not turning the ship at all. My belief is that as the new machines reach maturity, the old ones will be dropped as unnecessary backups.
Numerous companies are now competing to provide those rides -- first for cargo, then for humans traveling to low Earth orbit, where the International Space Station is located, and eventually for exploration of the solar system.
After the X-Prize for suborbital spaceflight was claimed in October 2004, privately funded space vehicles went from something often laughed at to something that seemed inevitable.
Early projections shows that this new fleet will provide space access at nearly one-tenth the price of the space shuttle! Eventually, fully reusable spacecraft should beat that by almost 10 times again!
Space X -- The firm started by Elon Musk, founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, launched its Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon Space Capsule in November of last year. It orbited the Earth and safely re-entered, and the company recovered its capsule. This monumental event was the first orbit and re-entry of a space capsule by a non-government entity. They are scheduled to begin cargo service to the ISS this year, with crew to follow. Space X already has plans beyond ISS, beyond LEO (low Earth orbit), all the way to Mars. They believe they can drop prices to low Earth orbit to near $1 million, through fully reusable launch vehicles. If they do this, human space exploration will be hugely profitable for the first time!
Traditional firms are competing in this new era too! Boeing, which makes the main shuttle orbiter and which few can doubt has the capability to build rockets, is one of the major commercial competitors. Sierra Nevada Corp. is building a great "mini shuttle" that could sit atop existing rockets and bring crew comfortably back like an airplane. It is similar to the shuttle but with far less complexity in a simpler and safer system.
The makers of these new vehicles can now sell flights to customers not associated with NASA. This is good for NASA, the vehicle makers and anyone who believes, like I do, that they can create business opportunities in space. My company, Space Adventures, has already flown seven private citizens to the space station and has a circumlunar mission planed in a few years. In fact we are the sixth largest global space agency after NASA, RFSA (Russian Federal Space Agency), ESA (European Space Agency), CSA (Canadian Space Agency) and JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency), and ahead of China, Bulgaria and about 19 counties who have flown a single astronaut each.
So, why travel into space and why should tax payers pay for humans to travel beyond Earth? Because this exploration will return direct economic value beyond exploration, in areas such as energy and minerals. Also, it will create microgravity research in fields such as biology where medicinal drugs and vaccines are already proving to be quite promising.
So, let us boldly move forward into this new era. A new era of frequent visits to space by private citizens via suborbital rockets provided by Virgin Galactic/Scaled Composites, Space Adventures/Armadillo Aerospace, XCOR and others. A new era where NASA leads the exploration to asteroids, moons and planets. A new era where private enterprise supports NASA's mission of science and exploration and follows behind it to build lasting commerce and habitation beyond the Earth. Let us go boldly to asteroids and small moons -- then on to Mars!
I will outline my own 30-year plan for Mars, in my next blog.