Facing Opportunities and Obstacles in Space

Obama Space ProgramPresident Obama’s plans for the future of America’s civilian 
space programs 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 and President Obama’s 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

Jonathan Coopersmith is a historian of technology at Texas A&M
University and a writer for the History News Service

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