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Ad Astra, Without NASA

| 16 Comments | 10 TrackBacks

This coming decade has the potential to be the most exciting time in the history of human space travel since the 1970s - maybe ever. All the pieces are there. Will we grasp that opportunity? What will it take?

Space remains more important to the USA than ever, and especially to the U.S. military which is becoming more and more of a "space power" as a natural extension of its naval pre-eminence. Yet other countries besides the USA have a strong interest in space, and NASA may not be up to the job of keeping America ahead.

How could the USA compete on terms that favour its strengths, help to maintain its preeminence, and simultaneously open the benefits and opportunity of space to humanity? What might that new model look like?

Rand Simberg notes, correctly, that space travel is still wedded to a 1960s model that may have been appropriate to the Cold War, but is no longer valid today. Fortunately, private efforts like the X-Prize, the backing of tech billionaires, and airplane designers like Burt Rutan may usher in a new era of affordable Low Earth Orbit (LEO) vehicles.

If the cost barriers to productive space efforts can be lowered, the effect on both private enterprise and other nations could make LEO vehicles the stepping stones for a bigger, sustainable space industry - and eventually to a new generation of space exploration technologies. That's the way innovation works in other industries, at least in those industries unhampered by the fundamentally Soviet model of human space efforts thus far. Rand Simberg is making a fine point when he discusses "enabling technologies" vs. "enhancing technologies", and Bill Whittle discussed the broader innovation dynamic in Trinity, Part 2, but the point actually goes deeper than that. LEO craft could well prove to be what Clayton Christensen calls a "disruptive technology."

Of course, once you get up into space, the question of what to do with that access arises. LaughingWolf's thoughtful & excellent Space Commercialization series offers all kinds of interesting ideas - led by new business models, not new technologies. The core of that future, however, is a radically different model for NASA that directs research and enables private efforts. As "reinventing government" gurus like Osborne and Gaebler would put it, NASA needs a mission that focuses more on steering, and less on rowing.

It's a model that may even mean the end of NASA as we know it. As LaughingWolf notes:

"Space tracking, data and relay, and other functions currently performed by Goddard can easily be integrated into Space Command. Essential launch operations should go to the Air Force. Commercial promotion and development should go to the Department of Commerce, and be directed to make the fullest possible use of commercial launch and development services. All non-essential launch services should be contracted out to truly private launch operations as soon as possible.

Core functions of essential research into aviation and space development can be given to a new, small, agency. This agency will do some research on its own, but should fund as much of that research as possible to be done by private companies. There is some need for government funded, directed, and performed research, but the fact is that much of what is being done could be better done by private industry. Government needs, at best, to nudge and encourage, not to do and control."

As James Pinkerton wrote back in October 2000, the libertarian paradox of our journey into space is that it may "take non-libertarian means to achieve libertarian ends." LaughingWolf's thoughts extend that idea in a useful and fruitful direction.

These will be challenging times for NASA, with the coming release of the Columbia report and the necessary onslaught of questions it will provoke. To move ourselves forward, however, we need to be asking the right questions. So kudos to Laughingwolf, Wind Rider, Rand Simberg... and all of the passionate and informed commentators who are helping us rethink our species' journeys into space. Special kudos, and heartfelt appreciation too, to all of the private individuals working on their own dime to make access to the stars a reality for themselves and their fellow human beings.

Ad astra, per aspera.

UPDATES:

* Blogger and rocket scientist Rocket Man says there is one piece missing.

* Rand Simberg builds on the discussion, and responds to LaughingWolf's 'abolish NASA' proposal: "The most frustrating thing to me, of course, is that we continue to discuss what to do with NASA without having the more fundamental discussion of what we're trying to achieve."

* LaughingWolf gladly picks up the baton, and begins to answer Rand's question. "So, why are we going to space and what do we want to do there?"

10 TrackBacks

Tracked: August 25, 2003 5:28 PM
Ad Astra, Sans NASA from Transterrestrial Musings
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Tracked: August 25, 2003 9:45 PM
Excerpt: Over at WindsOfChange.net, a roundup of what's going on in space exploration outside the NASA umbrella, and outside the United States. Read entire, and follow the links, where you will find for example, this tidbit: Get the paper pushers out...
Tracked: August 25, 2003 9:47 PM
Excerpt: Over at WindsOfChange.net, a roundup of what's going on in space exploration outside the NASA umbrella, and outside the United States. Read entire, and follow the links, where you will find for example, this tidbit: Get the paper pushers out...
Tracked: August 26, 2003 8:59 PM
My Favorite Martians from The Speculist
Excerpt: ...all read The Speculist. Presented for your interplanetary enjoyment, a list they have compiled of things to do this week in celebration of the convergence of Mars and Earth. FastForward to Mars Join the Mars Society. This week, we're closer...
Tracked: August 26, 2003 9:10 PM
My Favorite Martians from The Speculist
Excerpt: ...all read The Speculist. Presented for your interplanetary enjoyment, a list they have compiled of things to do this week in celebration of the convergence of Mars and Earth. (This and other righteous Mars Photos downloaded from Calvin J. Hamilton's...
Tracked: August 26, 2003 9:37 PM
My Favorite Martians from The Speculist
Excerpt: ...all read The Speculist. Presented for your interplanetary enjoyment, a list they have compiled of things to do this week in celebration of the convergence of Mars and Earth. (This and other righteous Mars Photos downloaded from Calvin J. Hamilton's...
Tracked: August 27, 2003 6:29 AM
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Excerpt: From now on the people of Mission Control will be known by many words, but the two words that will be dominant in our language is "tough" and "competent." "Tough" meaning we will never again shirk from our responsibilities....
Tracked: August 28, 2003 4:29 PM
Catchy Title Needed from Rocket Jones
Excerpt: I need a snazzy name for these rambling link-filled muse-o-rama's. C'mon peoples, gimme a hand here. I thought maybe "Around the Horn", but that's already used by a loser of a sports show. I also thought of "Link-o-rama" (lame), "The...
Tracked: May 17, 2006 2:07 AM
X-Prize: Mission Accomplished! from Winds of Change.NET
Excerpt: SpaceShipOne won the X-Prize yesterday. Ad astra, without NASA. Let the future begin.

16 Comments

Nice title!

Joe,

The future of space is military, American military "monopsony" to be precise.

The truth of the matter is that the wiring of America, Europe and Japan with fiber optics is reducing the non-US military demand for satellite transponders.

There is also a trend to larger and larger birds with more transponders, so there are fewer space launchers. No matter how large the French make the Ariane 5, it still cannot get a two-satellite stack because the communication satellite "Borg cubes" are getting bigger.

It is to the point that a new class of transponder “aggregator” has sprung up that buys up satellite transponder channels and sells time on them priced for what the market will bear.

I read a report somewhere that during the last Iraq war something like 80% of the satellite transponders from the Gulf to the USA were bought by the US military. Unscrambled live Predator UAV video was available for dish viewers in South America a number of times during the war.

A lot of the reason we saw jerky telephone-video from the Gulf was the fact that all the newsies could get were audio channels through the transponders rather than full video because the US military bought all the available video transponder time.

That being the case, the US military is fast approaching a market position of being the one customer that drives the satellite transponder market. The economic term for which is "monopsony" where the market is so dominated by one customer that the customer can use non-market forces to set market price. Ths is the opposite of "monopoly."

I expect deals in 5-10 years where the US military buys the next generation “commercial” satellite that they then lease back to a commercial firm to operate for profit until a major military bandwidth surge (AKA War) arrives to bump off the commercial customers at need.

The historic parallel is how the US government got good long term price discounts for the military using the land grant railroads. One of my railroad history books said that the amount of money the US government saves in WW2 due to land grant price discounts was worth more than all the land grants combined.

Sorry Trent, I've heard your basic argument many times over many years and it still doesn't wash. Even now in the midst of a global economic funk satellite service is not diminishing, it's still expanding (though, obviously, at a slower rate due to the economic slow down). Communication satellites still have many numerous advantages over land lines, and satellite services continue to advance and expand. More importantly, perhaps, there are many satellite services which really cannot be adequately provided via ground based infrastructure. Among these are especially weather and climate observation and study, remote sensing, global visual imagery, global radar imagery, global ELINT reconnaisance, and highly accurate global positioning. And that's not hardly the entire list. Those are all major commercial enterprises (or could be) and each represent multi billion dollar a year industries. Then you add in the fact that communications satellites are still doing just fine (thankyouverymuch) and will likely continue to do so for the foreseable future, and there's very little reason to think that commercial satellites are doomed.

Oh, and this is a relatively minor point but perhaps one reason why the US military bought up such a large percentage of the satellite video channels available from around the middle east is because there are fewer satellites there than elsewhere and because those satellites are mostly of the older variety with fewer channels (e.g. the old standard of circa 12 channels per satellite rather than the new standard of hundreds). Judging by this nifty diagram from Boeing, that looks to be the case.

Robin,

The total number of commercial space launches is tubing with fewer, longer life, more transponder rich birds. Multiple space launcher and satellite vendors are either abandoning commercial markets or going out of business.

This is the classic 'race up market' as defined in the book THE INNOVATORS DILEMMA.

Sure, the total space service market is growing. So is the American military's demand for space services.

The Iridium leo comsat service exists today as a American military communication service that, oh by the way, also sells to commercial customers.

The American military exercised effective control of non-US commercial space observation of Iraq during the Iraq war by the simple means of buying all the space imagery from all the private space firms. It was the most effective way of exercising "shutter control" imaginable.

That defines "monopsony" well enough for government work.

I find the knee jerk space libertarian denial of reality on this score to be black comedy at best.

Trent is right about the Iraq situation.

One issue with commercialization of space is the massive investment needed in infrastructure. That can, in theory, be addressed by market forces (maybe).

However, unlike running fibre across the US or wherever, capacity can only be added to space assets in BIG chunks. That has a significant dampening effect on the emergence of multiple private suppliers.

Put those two things together & I think Trent's prediction probably holds for the near future.

One caveat, however: if another country decides that the prestige of being in space is worth the cost, & they can scrape up the technology (likely), then the picture changes, maybe, in the mid-term. But it's more likely that diversity of sources in space will come about this way than through true market activity in the near & mid term both IMO.

[ Among these are especially weather and climate observation and study, remote sensing, global visual imagery, global radar imagery, global ELINT reconnaisance, and highly accurate global positioning. ]

High altitude, long endurance UAV's are going to take on many of these roles in the future, particularly the visual and SAR remote sensing and ELINT market.

I don't see where GPS and meterology is going to need a large quantity of launches per year. And pleas explain how the free free free market is going to relieve gu'ment of the job of financing GPS and weather forecasting services.

david.davenport.1@netzero.com

Both GPS and weather could be done privately, though it would require a change in the technology for the former to make it work--it's hard to make money with a system that's intrinsically designed to give away the signal for free. There's tremendous demand for weather, and forecasts could be provided on a subscription basis.

That said, the future of space lies in two things--the growing recognition of the need for space control by the DoD, and the market for public space travel. These two demands will converge in the near future to provide much lower-cost access, at which point a lot of new possibilities open up.

[ ... That said, the future of space lies in two things--the growing recognition of the need for space control by the DoD, and the market for public space travel. These two demands will converge in the near future to provide much lower-cost access, at which point a lot of new possibilities open up. ... ]

But isn't a big space budget for the DoD kind of un-Libertarian?

Hello Rand, I just like to kid people about Libertarianism. Myself, in real life I always vote for the candiddate promising lower taxes.

My point is that Dod missile defense projects are the next growth area for space launches. They've got to get numerous Space Based Infrared Detectors in orbit. I predict that the concept of putting kinetic energy interceptors ( "Brilliant Peebles" ) in orbit us also going to be revived.

By the way, does anyone know what the size and mass of a lower tier SBIRS sat might be? I don't know.

There's nothing intrinsically unlibertarian about defense budgets, large or small. Defense is one of the few areas that most libertarians agree is a prerogative of the state. The budget should be as large as it needs for the purpose.

"I predict that the concept of putting kinetic energy interceptors ("Brilliant Peebles") in orbit us also going to be revived."

Actually, the current best design for a space based missile interceptor system is the Space Based Laser. My group did some design work on this (as well as on Brilliant Peebles, but that was before I got here), and it is a very promising technology.

Rocket Man
Politics is not Rocket Science, but all the
Rocket Scientists I know are Conservatives

Rocket Man, could you give us some hints as to why Brilliant Peebles is out?

Y'know the MDX single stage to orbit project spacecraft, the one that landed on its base with its engines firing the way Classic Sci-Fi rockets should? MDX started out as a DARPA project for a Brilliant Peebles launch vehicle. Single Stage to Orbit makes more sense if one specifies low orbit and small but numerous payloads.

...

My prediction about NASA: not much will change. Why?

(1) Still stuck with the Space Station;

(2) No mandate to take humans beyond earth orbit;

(3) Still stuck with same old Boeing LockMart NorthGum contractor oligarchy. No requirement to reach out to new, small firms for design ideas.

(4) (a) Nobody's getting fired in the upper ranks, icluding Sean BookKeeper O'Neil

and (b) none of the worthless middle rank Affirmative Action hires with which NASA is overstocked are getting fired. No white men need apply at NASA still applies.

Result: not much change at NASA.

I don't have any insights into why spaced based kenetic-energy kill vehicles (i.e. Brilliant Pebbles) are not currently on the menu for a missile defense system. I'm just a lowly engineer, but I suspect it has more to do with political considerations than technological ones.

The people I know who worked on the Brilliant Pebbles program all thought the technology worked quite well. Plus, the tests were pretty cool. I once saw the video this picture came from, and I would have to agree with them.

Rocket Man
Politics is not Rocket Science, but all the
Rocket Scientists I know are Conservatives

Rand,

The US Military has a huge first mover advantage with GPS. They spent a huge wad of cash to put up this space information utility and they are giving the service away free.

There is no commerical firm in the world that will be able to sell a business plan that compete with this.

The only competition will be other governments. The Russians cannot afford to maintain their Glosnass system and the French/E.U. are going to hit hard economic limits before they get far with their GPS equivalent.

Robin,

I don't know if you have seen and read them, but Space News has had articles in the last three issues that make clear that for the last year US Military demand for bandwidth is radically reshaping the space communication industry.

I say the case for American military "market monopsony" in space has been made and is in print.

The following is from Strategypage.com:

August 7, 2003: The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is gradually being replaced by commercial spy satellites. The NRO has suffered from increasing management problems since the end of the Cold War. Because just about everything the NRO does is top secret, it's been difficult to spotlight the problems, and fix them. The NRO budget is currently $7 billion a year, and when you spread that purchasing power around, you gain lots of grateful allies in Congress. But the NROs customers in the Department of Defense have become increasingly unhappy with NROs work. The U.S. has six or seven photo satellites and about ten working electronic reconnaissance (eavesdropping) satellites that are controlled and maintained by NRO. But NRO hasn't launched any new satellites since 2001, and in that year, the two new spy satellites that were launched, ran into software and mechanical problems that have limited their effectiveness. Other launches are being held up as efforts are made to find and fix the problems that plagued the two defective spy satellites. Meanwhile, commercial photo reconnaissance satellites are becoming effective, to the point where the Department of Defense is buying a lot of the imagery they need from the commercial providers. There are no signs that NRO is cleaning up its act.

August 2, 2003: Russia's answer to GPS, GLONASS, was at full strength (24 satellites) shortly after the Cold War ended (1995). But the end of the Cold War meant the end of the regular financing for GLONASS. By the end of 2002, only seven GLONASS birds were still operational. However, a series of launches in the past seven months has increased the number of active satellites to twelve, and this is expected to grow to 18 by the end of 2004 and the full 24 birds by 2005. The money is coming from a Russian government that does not want to be dependent on the American Department of Defense controlled GPS system. But the money is only there because of high oil prices. Most GLONASS receivers in use are actually combined GPS/GLONASS receivers. Russia will have to put billions of dollars into GLONASS over the next few years to get the system fully operational, and then spend even more money to maintain the satellite network. But so far no one has found a way to make a buck off a network of navigation satellites. There are plenty of ideas, but no one has yet turned any of those ideas into cash.

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