"Privatization of Space Exploration": A Book Review

By Richard Mains, Posted 08/26/09

3 comments

Solomon Book, Amazon.com

"Solomon Book" Source: Amazon.com

One of the ten Resource Types provided by the Commercial Space Gateway is “Books”.  And for each there is a brief description of content with a link to its Amazon.com page for more information. I just read one of these books, by Lewis D. Solomon, titled, “The Privatization of Space Exploration: Business, Technology, Law and Policy” (2008). It was only 120 pages long, but to my surprise it provides a very good overview of the emergence of the entrepreneurial space sector and its broad significance for the commercial space industry and NASA. It integrates several key factors that are both driving and required by these new enterprises in order to succeed. It was a pleasure to read and I commend it to any who would like a quick tour of this emerging market.

The first chapter is “The Rise, Stagnation, and Possible Revitalization of NASA”. Solomon notes that “the iron triangle, consisting of private sector contractors, NASA, and congressional delegations” has controlled space infrastructure development for years. He gives a succinct but insightful analysis of NASA’s evolution and its recent interest in space commerce as a cost-effective option for providing future products and services to lease and/or purchase. NASA needs lower-cost innovative options to augment its decreasing capability to fund development of space infrastructure elements in-house or by using large aerospace contractors. Cheaper access to space is not only better – for NASA it is now essential. Innovative, entrepreneurial low-cost solutions to space transport and operations challenges are needed to leverage NASA’s chronically underfunded obligations.

Solomon identifies three key areas of focus for these "NewSpace" entities, namely: “regularizing suborbital space travel through less-expensive, but reliable and safe launch vehicles; significantly lowering the cost of launching payloads into space; and creating human habitations in space.” He considers winning of the Ansari X Prize in 2004 by Burt Rutan’s firm, teamed with Mojave Aerospace Ventures, by reaching a suborbital altitude of 62.5 miles twice within a two-week period, a major milestone in commercial space history. He likens it to the Wright Brothers successful aircraft flight at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903. Solomon regards that event as transformational for NASA, the NewSpace sector, and especially, the public’s perception of our future in space.

Solomon describes the Mojave, CA SpacePort where Rutan’s company and several others have gathered as a kind of incubator for entrepreneurial research, development and testing and emerging space enterprises. He profiles four examples of NewSpace companies including: Virgin Galactic (low-cost access for personal flight to the edge of space) Space Adventures (personal space flight broker, spaceports), Space Exploration Technologies Corp. or SpaceX (low-cost, mostly reusable orbital rockets for transport of cargo and humans and free-flyer payloads), and Bigelow Aerospace (orbital space habitats, for research, manufacturing, 30-day habitation).

Solomon’s approach to profiling each of these NewSpace companies is to address a broad set of issues such as: origins/failures/successes; obstacles to overcome; key personnel; technology assets; and financing. This allows the reader to compare and assess the general strengths and weaknesses of these fascinating companies, most of which arose from their founder's expertise in IT/software, not aerospace. He finishes by describing the legal environment faced by these companies and gives a realistic summing up.

The author, like many, sees reliable, safe, frequent, and lower-cost access to space as the key to the future of space commerce. Beginning with suborbital flight, then progressing to orbital free-flyers and transport services to space platforms like the International Space Station, and finally to Bigelow’s expandable habitats, is the evolutionary path often associated with NewSpace companies. The “holy grail” for space commerce would be development of the true, but elusive, Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) that could be flown more than daily.  The initial space planes that are being developed for suborbital flight are seen as an initial step in that direction. The goals of these pioneering NewSpace companies can be grand and often go beyond just the profit motive, especially for those who are largely self-funded. As Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX often says, “long-term our ambition is to help humanity become a multiplanet species”. He also claims he’s in it for the long-haul, and that is probably what it will take.

Comments

From: mason, 11/10/10

I think this is one of the few times imho when privatization is a really good idea. Whether we think it’s necessary or not, we need to continue to develop new forms of space travel and technology to facilitate it. What the ppl whose only argument is “we have too many problems down here to be worrying about this,” they fail to understand the two most important implications of aeronautical research. The first is for national defense… it’s bad enough that nasa has to rely on Russia to ferry them to the ISS. If we keep going at this rate, our disadvantage will only grow as they continue to develop new technologies in their space program while we pump the brakes on ours. Is air and space superiority something you really want the Russians to have? It doesn’t seem like a good idea for any one country to have, let alone one whom we have a sketchy history with. The second is that with aeronautical research comes a flood of new technologies, most of which are very applicable to us down on earth. For example, if it wasn’t for NASA, we wouldn’t have the chips that we use for non-invasive biopsies, solar energy, and a whole litany of other things (http://www.thespaceplace.com/nasa/spinoffs.html#Top has a good number of inventions that most of us don’t know came from our space program). And if you’re one of those people that are so skeptical (or cynical imo) that you still don’t think that any of the things on this list warrant a larger investment in a privatized space industry, just remember that while you sleep at night, you most likely have NASA to thank for that, too. If you use any type of home security system, chances are they use infrared and laser technology that came out of NASA’s research (just look at the adt security infrared camera page. They even admit that the technology came from NASA!)

SpaceX Pricing

From: Jack Lewis, 01/21/10

A one ton LEO payload with SpaceX currently costs $20M not $60M. http://www.spacex.com/falcon1.php

NASA can't rely in new.space companies now

From: gaetano marano - ghostNASA.com, 08/27/09

the price of new.space (CRS program) payloads to LEO prices ($60M per ton for SpaceX and $95M per ton for Orbital Sciences) are up to FOUR TIMES HIGHER than the (already very high) NASA and Shuttle costs! . http://www.ghostnasa.com/posts/042moneywasted.html . all other things about new.space (big and reusable rockets, manned vehicles, etc.) will surely happen, someday, but only in the LONG TERM so, USA and NASA can't rely in the "commercial space" to replace the Shuttle, send US astronauts to the ISS without the Soyuz or go back to the Moon

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