Space 2.0

A Space Program for the 21st Century

May, 2008

The new millennium offers new opportunities to continue humankind’s exploration, expansion and evolution into a space fairing civilization. 

Currently NASA is busily developing two new major launch systems, the Ares-1 and the Ares-V boosters along with the Orion crew capsule that make up the Constellation Program.  

The goal is to provide new space transportation infrastructure to replace the Space Shuttle that is planned for retirement in 2010, and for crewed missions back to the Moon starting in about 2020.

First the bad news.  The current plan is seriously flawed from several standpoints as discussed below, particularly the Ares booster developments, and we believe unlikely to survive the change of administrations following the presidential elections this November. 

Now the good news.  The change of administrations will provide an opportunity to reassess and reformulate the why, what and how of our plans and future in space.  And this time we have to get it right.  We can’t afford another false start, such as the National AeroSpace Plane (NASP) or the National Launch System (NLS), the failed X-vehicle series (X-33, X-34, X-38), or the ill fated Orbital Space Plane (OSP) and Space Launch Initiative (SLI), on which billions were spent starting in the late 1980’s with no useful systems produced.

It’s the 21st century and our space program must reflect this reality given the limitations (a), challenges (b), and opportunities (c) now before us, rather than clinging to ideas and approaches of the past.  It is time for a fundamentally new approach to space.  It is time for Space 2.0.

    a.  Limitations:  Nowhere near the government money that was available during Apollo.
    b.  Challenges:  Global climate change, resource shortages, population growth, workforce training.
    c.  Opportunities:  The internet, micro-miniaturization and nanotechnology, advanced robotics, automation and simulation.
So what would Space 2.0, a space program for the 21st century look like? 

We believe it has five critical elements:
  1. Massive participation,
  2. Public-Private partnerships,
  3. Experimentation,
  4. Tele-operations and,
  5. Resources-at-hand.

What about new rockets?  NASA is pursuing the Ares launch vehicles because they are key to pursuing our space program, right?  Well, the short answer is “wrong”.  

As any rocket scientist knows, NASA established the methods for getting to low-earth orbit and the Moon with the Apollo program, and further established methods for getting to low-earth orbit with Space Shuttle.

Substantial government and commercial launch capabilities were then demonstrated with the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program in the 1990’s that successfully produced the Delta-IV and the Atlas-V launch vehicles. 

Foreign countries, including Russia, the Europeans, China and most recently India and Japan have also developed very capable launch systems. 

In fact at the present time there is a significant glut of launch capability both nationally and internationally – the problem isn’t too few rockets, the problem is too few customers with payloads to launch. 

By pursuing the Ares launch vehicles and attempting to put in-place yet more government designed, developed and operated launch systems, NASA is in effect making a bad problem worse.

A much better strategy for NASA and the country would be for NASA to move from attempting to be another supplier of launch systems, to becoming an anchor customer, by purchasing commercial launch services to meet its mission needs. 

Similar to how it is operating COTS, NASA should specify the type, kind and number of payloads it needs in low-earth orbit, and the amount its is willing to pay for these payloads, and then let the launch vehicle suppliers propose solutions for NASA to choose. 

This would help ease the current glut of launch vehicles, promote innovation and incentivize lower cost launch systems, including reusable systems, while freeing up money for NASA to apply to more appropriate activities. 

These more appropriate activities are technology and system development for capabilities needed for future NASA missions, where there is no commercial alternative. 

This includes large scale solar-electric propulsion systems for human missions to near-earth objects and eventually Mars, nuclear-electric propulsion systems for outer-planet missions, long-term, closed-loop life support systems for the Moon and other missions, long-range, high bandwidth laser communications and other technologies for establishing an inter-planetary internet, among many others.   

Taken together these five elements:

provide a solid foundation to enable a truly world class, sustainable space program that would benefit the entire nation. 

Woven into a strategy that engages important emerging opportunities in space such as sub-orbital and orbital space tourism, space based laboratories, and development of extraterrestrial resources, the stage is set for exciting and prosperous new space based activities and industries to benefit us all. 

But to enable this to happen, we all need to make ourselves heard. 

For far too long our space program has been at the mercy of a small group of individuals pursuing narrow agendas.  This has to stop! 

This is our space program – we pay for it – it should benefit the entire country in real ways that touch our daily lives, not primarily benefit just a select few. 

Make yourself heard to anyone who can help move these ideas forward, and those you may have, for Space 2.0 – a space program for the 21st Century. 

Working together, we’ll make Space 2.0 a reality.