17 October 2000
Features - Vehicles (None)
Space Tourism and NASA's Evolving Role
Where Space Access Is At Now and Why
After the Apollo missions, many expected Moon bases, manned Mars missions and, of course, floating wheel-like Space Stations. However that future has not yet transpired. So when will Joe and Jane Everyman get into orbit? In the years following the Apollo space program, a gradual evolution of NASA (and otherworld space agencies and programs) has been in progress. What started out as a politically motivated space race has now evolved into a slow, steady outward expansion and consolidation of government and commercial space activities. From the multibillion dollar data, voice, television, GPS navigation satellite services to privately developed expendable rockets and space cargo, the private sector has commercialized many aspects that were once the sole domain of government space agencies.

Since the end of the Cold War space race, the government's role in space has become more apparent and sustainable. Government agencies using public funds to explore and develop technology remove barriers to commercial space opportunities. This is true for any project that is too risky and expensive for private industry to initiate. Governments thus push the frontier forward, with commercial industry following closely behind.

"So where are we now, and when will I get to go?" I hear you query. Currently there is a realization that if the space frontier is to be opened further, the cost of access to space must be lowered substantially. A slew of new and very capable heavy-lift expendable launch vehicles are nearing completion. Some of these are being developed with private money (Beal BA2); others are fully or partly government funded (Ariane V, Atlas V, Delta IV, Angara). These have been developed for the increasingly heavy classes of satellites. They will also be capable of delivering small payloads to the Moon.

Unfortunately, Expendable Launch Vehicles ( ELV's) are as cheap as they are going to get. To bring down the cost of space access by one or two orders of magnitude, new reusable technologies must be developed. But with a limited market for satellite launches, reducing the number of expendable vehicles will reduce the existing rocket maker's revenues. So there is little incentive to develop reusable vehicles by these firms. Thus a new market with a far higher flight rate needs to be developed to justify the expense of developing reusable vehicles. One such market is space tourism. Investors, however, are skittish, unwilling to risk capital on unproven vehicles and an untested space tourism market.

Developing vehicles for human and cargo space station supply is one possible way out. By developing reusable two stage vehicles with a high flight rate, the private sector can design launch vehicles that will re-supply the space station for substantially less money than the space shuttle.

Government and Commercial Space Development Roles

All throughout the space era (from German V2 Rockets & onwards), government investment in new technologies has been necessary to get the ball rolling in a new and risky area. The private sector has to move in smaller steps than government, with short or near-term profits and stakeholder interests keeping a tight reign on risky project investment. However, once the technologies and an initial market have been developed and demonstrated by a government, private industry can then move in to evolve it, grow it, and make money from it. So a government space agency's role should be to create and demonstrate technologies that private industry deems too risky or out of reach. There also needs to be third-party overseeing of the agency to ensure that it does not impede commercialization by holding on to its new-found technological monopolies any longer than is necessary. If the private sector can do it, then it should. The US Commercial Space Act has been an important step in this direction necessitating NASA accountability in space station commercialization, among other things.

We live in a very exciting transition period. As NASA grapples with the construction of the International Space Station, it will also need to develop cheaper access to it.

NASA currently has a large say in the sort of Reusable Launch Vehicles ( RLV) developed. This is because they are the only ones who currently operate and use a partially reusable space shuttle system and thus have a monopoly on human space access requirements and policy. NASA is the only agency in America that sends people into Space (Excluding MirCorp!). However it does so infrequently and at great taxpayer expense (about US$550 million per space shuttle flight). NASA is performing a number of studies into less costly replacements to the shuttle, but it is primarily focused on optimizing the design for its own needs. This limits the possibility of the design being of wider 'commercial human space transportation' use due primarily to the large payload and launch costs. Despite the huge cost of maintaining the space shuttle, it can send a very large payload into space.

Most two-stage-to-orbit ( TSTO), RLV's on the drawing board reuse the heavy first stage and have a much smaller second stage that may or may not be reusable. The winged space shuttle is essentially a large reusable upper stage. And since it is large and has to go all the way back down to earth, it has expensive heat shielding, wings, and landing gear. It uses solid boosters and a large expendable external fuel tank to help get the reusable shuttle into orbit. Designing a reusable first stage to send a reusable shuttle and payload into orbit would be prohibitively expensive. It would be better to reduce the payload to orbit and optimize the RLV for a higher flight rate and thus lower the average flight cost. This is the problem with NASA determining the RLV requirements: NASA wants a large payload and will settle for a lower flight rate. Companies eyeing space tourism need a lower payload weight and a higher flight rate to lower running costs. They also prefer a reusable first stage and possible a 'throw away' or small reusable second stage.

NASA does a lot of things right and provides a huge return on investment in terms of broadening human knowledge and understanding our world, the solar system, and beyond. It creates new technologies that are too expensive for private industry to develop and inspires all of us as it enthusiastically goes about its tasks. However, it should not run a shuttle airline.

NASA's Requirements versus Public Space Tourism's Needs

Although barely past the giggle factor, space tourism promises to be the big human/space access enabler. Unfortunately, by its deeds, NASA is very 'anti-private space tourism'. NASA is put there and paid for by the average Joe and Jolane. It gets its mission from Congress, which in turn gets directed by various space societies, public sentiment, state politics (state jobs, etc.), and so on. Because NASA is not a business but a government bureaucracy, it can be inclined to develop its own agenda instead of understanding the wider commercial realities. This is not an indictment but simply a symptom of any non-business government monopoly. This is where an educated Congress needs to shepherd NASA. As the sole provider of human space access, NASA treats human space access as primarily its own domain, or at least puts its needs ahead of other wider commercial possibilities (that is, space tourism, among others).

This is a sad note on an otherwise cutting-edge and recently reinvigorated government agency that provides inspirational scientific and technological insight for America--and indeed the world. At present, US human space access is a 'limited NASA-only' game, yet it should not be. Not now. These days, NASA should be just another customer for a commercial space access operation. The introduction of a commercial space shuttle operator like the United Space Alliance (http://www.unitedspacealliance.com) heralds the beginning of a new era by steering NASA away from running day-to-day operations. However, NASA is still dictating the requirements for new government-funded RLV development. This is despite the fact that its needs are different to the wider possibilities in the commercial world.

NASA is not going out of its way to advertise the fact that access to space could be possible for the average person in the very near future. On 25 March 1998, the results of a joint NASA/STA study (see http://www.spacefuture.com/archive/general_public_space_travel_and_tourism.shtml or http://www.spacetransportation.org/genpub~2.pdf ) begun in 1995, titled 'General Public Space Travel and Tourism', stated, "Fortunately, critical advances have been made during the past decade in many of the technologies that can enable non-astronaut human space travel to become both technically and economically feasible, and more are foreseen. As a result, the potential exists for the creation, in the next very few decades, of a $10-20 billion...per year 'general public space travel and tourism' business."

NASA has since removed all reference to the General Public Space Travel and Tourism study from its various websites. NASA does not ever mention space tourism, and if it does, it relegates it to the distant future 50 to 80 years hence in contradiction to its own study and a number of others. It is not NASA's priority. The Study Report's first recommendation was "Our national space policy should be examined with an eye toward actively encouraging the creation of a large general public space travel and tourism business." The reverse at NASA is in fact the case. With regard to human space access, and space tourism in particular, NASA has displayed, myopic, self-serving attitude that benefits no one and prevents it and the conservative aeronautics industry from moving on to bigger things and a higher plain (bad pun intended).

Congress Must Carefully Direct NASA

NASA should therefore be directed by the incoming president to concentrate on exploration and technology development, not setting commercial space policy (by choosing RLV designs that only cater for its own limited human space access needs). It should be publicly mandated to develop technologies on behalf of industry and the small RLV start-ups, not in competition to them. The responsibility for space access for the general public should be transferred to the FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST). (See http://ast.faa.gov/). In stark contrast to NASA, the AST, with a limited budget, has already done a great deal to promote commercial space access (and tourism) for the broader tax-paying public.

The small AST budget is going to double next year. That's what happens when you are in tune with what your 'customers' want. But what should be the focus of these two agencies for the new millennium? NASA is good at technology development--that's their forte. But NASA also needs to be prohibited from setting up the winners and losers as far as space commercialization and access is concerned. For example, NASA needs to be removed from setting up commercial policy on the International Space Station (ISS) if the ISS is going to be commercially successful in any way. NASA is not a business but is funded with a budget: a different beast altogether. Therefore, NASA should not be in charge of any sort of commercialization policy.
NASA should push the frontier onto Mars and beyond and leave Low Earth Orbit ( LEO) transportation and space station operations to the private sector as soon as possible, as mandated in the commercial space act. Even the Russians are less socialist than NASA. Give a Socialist money and he'll spend it; give a government money and it'll spend it; give a sensible business money and they will invest it!

Should a Government Agency Run an Airline or Dictate What Airplanes To Buy?

Through many space-access studies, NASA instinctively views its own human space access needs as paramount. It therefore bets on the loosing commercial horse, squashes the little guy ( RLV start-ups), and, in the longer term, keeps back the frontier. It can thus substitute good commercial designs for fancier ones that cater only to its needs, for example, the late and over-budget X33 design. This is not a criticism of the X33, but a demonstration that, although NASA is good at technology, it is clearly hopeless at setting long-term commercial policy and a competitive environment.

If the FAA/AST set policy on behalf of the RLV start-ups, they could then tell NASA what the RLV start-up requirements are, and NASA would get out a slide rule and do it. They would have to! If the NASA moneys spent on endless paper studies were instead handed over to some of the start-ups, civilians would be in space by now! By setting its own agenda (because of insufficient Congressional direction, at times), NASA delays the commercial space access answers that would have evolved through natural selection. For example, after the 1986 Challenger disaster, NASA lost its monopoly on commercial satellite deliveries. It was then that the commercial expendable space launch industry was born (or reborn): It certainly headed for the skies. As a publicly funded agency, everything NASA does should be for the greatest possible public good. Clearly we live in a time of transition, and some of these things are becoming apparent to many in Congress.

NASA should at least have any budgeted money that is set aside for space access removed if it continues to undermine space access development policy.

The AST should then have the space access money allocated to their budget instead. They would then direct NASA how to use it on behalf of the private RLV start-ups. Private space tourism technologies would be developed. Again, this is not an attempt to slam NASA. The problem exists because NASA is running a space airline that by and large only it uses. NASA therefore does not need more money but better policy overseeing.

As far as technology is concerned, if SSTO doesn't work or is a hard sell to investors initially, then let's try Two Stage to Orbit ( TSTO). Let's separate the first stage from the man-rated capsule, using what we have already. Let's make the capsule interoperable with a number of different rocket first stages, for example, the common core booster on the EELVs, or Araine V, or BA2, or others.

If NASA had only popularized and backed space tourism, its budget would increase, but it seems to be content to slow and delay this paradigm shift as long as possible. And so the huge mantle for space tourism will rest on the shoulders of a transportation department office like the FAA/AST. This will soon dwarf NASA's space access budget as space tourism's underlying commercial and technical merits and 'do-ability' are understood more and more by the broader tax-paying public and Congress. It will only take an X-Prize (http//www.xprize.org) winner or a private Space Tourist flight to Mir by the likes of a Dennis Tito (courtesy of MirCorp ,http://www.mirstation.com) to ignite the imagination of the general public and Congress. The Producer of the television series "Survivor" is reported to be devising a free flight to Mir that will be paid for through worldwide television rights! Sooner or later, 'by hook or by crook', NASA is going to lose its hegemony on human space access. When the general public finally understands what NASA has done to prevent space tourism, it is going to be the greatest public relations nightmare the agency has ever experienced. Congress will put the agency on the coals and will no doubt set up a public enquiry barbeque.

An Example of NASA Working the Way It Should

On a more positive note, the partnership set up through the NASA general aviation propulsion GAP (http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/AST/GAP) and advanced general aviation technology AGATE (http://agate.larc.nasa.gov/) programs is positive proof that NASA can work in true partnership with private industry to revitalize the technology base. The GAP and AGATE initiatives intend to slash the cost of owning and operating a private general aircraft. For example, they will simplify the operation of a small aircraft similar to that of a car through radical computer and satellite navigation, thus creating highly automated and safe highways in the sky. This will lead to the widespread use of automated airplanes and even more fantastic 'aircraft' like the Moller SkyCar (http://www.moller.com). However, with a view to human Space Access, there needs to be a reorganization of who directs what with respect to NASA and RLV development. NASA is currently telling the commercial world what it wants and is running around with its eyes closed and it's fingers in its ears! The reason the AGATE program works is that NASA does not own a General Aviation monopoly like it does with the space shuttle. It therefore develops technology to help the general aviation business as it is supposed to.

The Frontier

NASA should be directed to develop technologies to open the frontier. NASA should not even have oversight of a probable human Mars Mission, at least not total domination of every aspect of it. The Mars Society, in cooperation with private industry, would do a better job of setting the longer-term objectives. A 'flag's and footprints' Apollo-style journey is a waste of gathered momentum and energy. Space exploration should be a team effort between the government, space societies, and private industry. Each has a part to play. Space societies tend to have a more thoughtful long-term colonization viewpoint that leverages the taxpaying public's initial NASA investment in technology development. Private industry is better suited to refine the technology further and perform the day-to-day operations once the frontier has been established. As far as exploration goes, the Moon Society (http://www.moonsociety.org) and the Mars Society (http://www.marssociety.org) are better at setting out a long-term vision and rationale for exploration and colonization. NASA should merely be a technology facilitator for human and robotic exploration on behalf of the general public, private industry, and the various societies.

Meanwhile as NASA is concentrating on exploration and technology development, the FAA AST will concentrate on space access regulations and Space and Air Traffic Management System (SATMS) navigation integration for RLV start-ups. The AST will also provide investors with considerable assurance that the RLV start-up's plan is a valid one. The AST should also have a start-up development bank fund (or a guarantee for a loan that all the little start-ups feel provide a level playing field) for RLV companies. The big players, like Boeing and Lockheed, are not too interested in creating cheaper vehicles that will compete directly with their current line of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) etc. It's their way of protecting their interests.

But later on, a huge synergy between the little start-ups and the big players will come into being. This however requires another article. Briefly though, a two-stage-to-orbit design like the Orbital Sciences proposed MRRV (outlined in a previous space access study) or Buzz Aldrin's Star Booster (http://www.starbooster.com) could be evolved from the current crop of upcoming rocket-first stages. Put some wings or airbags and parachutes on them, and they could carry a X38-like space taxi and be recovered for reuse. The Beal BA2 Rocket's first stage is even designed with water recovery in mind. RLV companies could concentrate on developing the wings, landing mechanism, and avionics for these first-stage rockets. Others could design the capsules. How many people can be put in the capsule on an Alan Shepherd-like flight? The reusable first stages may not fly so high, but they will send the capsule on a thrilling sub-orbital space trajectory. Thus the modified reusable first stages will not compete for GEO launches because of the reusable weight penalties.

The capsules and the reusable first stages could be made interchangeable for different missions. Limited Adventure Space Tourism thus begins. If a staged RLV uses parts initially designed for GEO, we just might get LEO and stage reuse with limited expenditure. There will be a greater number of large booster flights, not less. No big aerospace stakeholders loose because the reusable rockets are tapping into a new market.

The above example is simply that, an example. According to the Space Access Society (http://www.space-access.org) 'radical' widespread space tourism will not begin until the space access costs are brought down by about twenty-fold from current levels. This will require significant research and development and will require public and private partnering and probably investor loan guarantees of some kind. (See http://www.space-access.org/updates/sau94.html). So the AST should thus be given powers to help develop business plans for start-ups and act as a facilitator to the investment community, ensuring that the start-ups are not squashed by the big boys (Boeing, Lockheed, etc) before they see the light through anticompetitive practices. The AST will thus provide a sort of shepherding or oversight of the new chicks in the nest.

The 'Zero G, Zero Tax' bill should be passed through Congress next year, along with extra terrestrial properties rights, etc. Some sort of loan guarantee system that is fair could be helpful. NASA just has to step aside from putting their needs above the general public's space access desires.


There absolutely has to be some sort of Presidential/Congressional directive or mandate or bill that pushes NASA away from its current space access oversight and rigging of the RLV playing field to suit itself. NASA should impartially push the technology development envelope on behalf of industry and further Mars exploration--NASA will love that, and so will the tax-paying public! Let's hope the Republicans win the election because they have actually articulated a pro commercial space development agenda while the Democrats have not. With input from the space societies, longer-term colonization can be put on the agenda. With affordable LEO, space tourism and colonization will be possible. That is really what the ISS is all about, after all. It is about a human space foothold or beachhead. When you look at a space station with space tourism and human space exploration in mind, it makes sense. Do you think it is by accident that NASA prominently displays a Mars Exploration link on its space station/flight Web site? (See http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/station/index.html).

Orbital repair and protein crystal growth may become good businesses, but that's not NASA's motivation for the International Space Station (nor the public's!). So let's keep NASA exploring and let the FAA AST take up the mantel of the oversight and growth of the soon-to-be-routine space tourism market. This is so plainly obvious because the FAA has been successfully regulating and nurturing commercial air travel for decades. NASA has been a successful government agency for decades, they just need to be directed towards technology development for RLVs and exploration and pulled out of the loop with regards to setting human space access policy--it's not what they are good at! NASA is not the bad guy; they are making a mess of human space access but have done many other things right! NASA produced the first and only partially reusable space transportation system. NASA has fought courageously through tight budgets to reinvent itself, explore the universe, and push the frontier forward. All of the problems at NASA are due to presidential neglect. NASA is a government agency that has struggled through the wilderness without a sufficiently clear and compelling mandate.

NASA has to get out of the space shuttle airline business as soon as possible. Public space access development and oversight needs to be moved to a 'transportation-based' agency that will champion the cause. This needs to be explicitly spelled out in a few words by the new president and backed by Congress. NASA will be compensated by publicly being pushed on to further exploration. NASA will impartially develop technology, not rig the space access playing field. This will put a rocket under space access development!

Remember this: NASA should not run an airline and not be the government tail that wags the commercial dog.
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17 October 2000
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