President Obama’s plans for the future of America’s civilian space programs, outlined in his speech last week, have been attacked for being too bold and relying too much on private enterprise. The reality is that they’re not bold enough.
The end of shuttle flights this year, as scheduled by President George W. Bush, and President Obama’s proposed cancellation of its successor, the over-budget Constellation program, have received the most congressional and media attention. What’s been neglected has been the core of the president’s proposed revamping of NASA: the development of new technologies to reduce the cost and complexity of operating in space.
These proposals, however, do not address the key problem that limits the exploration and exploitation of space — the high cost of reaching orbit. When I fly domestically, I pay about $2 per pound of me for a ticket. In contrast, launching a satellite into orbit costs approximately $10,000 a pound. Until that cost dramatically drops, the promise of the final frontier will remain only a promise.
High launch costs have restricted space to those governments and corporations that can afford tens of millions of dollars to launch a satellite. Nor are rockets infallible: Insurance rates for the launch of a communications satellite can be 10 to 15 percent of its value. In comparison, the cost of auto insurance for a teenager seems a bargain.
Such challenges of exploration are nothing new. A comparably slow and expensive exploration of North America occurred after Columbus’s voyages. The high costs, risks and uncertainties of crossing the Atlantic restricted exploration, communication and trade.
Turning the Atlantic from a dangerous barrier into a reliable, controllable pathway that connected England and other powers to their colonies took decades of improvements to ships, navigation and ports, as well as new understanding of the Atlantic environment. Not until the early 1700s did a transatlantic trip became routine as goods and people began to flow easily.
Space travel today is closer to Columbus’s voyages than a repeatable, unexceptional experience. Unless the cost and risk of reaching orbit drops drastically, space will remain the preserve of the few institutions able to afford rockets. To truly open space to exploration and exploitation, President Obama and Congress need to set a goal of reducing the costs of reaching orbit to $100 a pound by 2020.
Developing appropriate technologies will demand billions of dollars and a number of years. Promising concepts such as beamed energy propulsion, which uses a microwave or laser beam to power a spaceship into orbit, and the even more hypothetical space elevator are still in the laboratory, more promise than reality.
Required commitments of time and money are beyond the reach of corporations. These commitments are, however, reasonable for a government, which can invest for the long term. The mammoth Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969 would not have been possible without the large investments made by the American military in rocket technology in the 1950s.
Reducing launch costs does not carry the political excitement of sending astronauts to the moon. Nor will the benefits accrue until the 2020s, perhaps too long a time for present-day elected officials to gain politically. Yet making space affordable can prove far more important than was beating the Russians to the moon. Instead of twelve Apollo astronauts walking on the moon, thousands of people could be working in space. The long-predicted promise of businesses using space - for example, to transmit pollution-free electricity to Earth — might finally come true.
By opening up space, the Obama administration can create what could be its greatest legacy, a nation that is exploring and exploiting space for the benefit of all humanity.
Jonathan Coopersmith is a historian of technology at Texas A&M University and a writer for the History News Service