Private-sector space flight
The Americans may still go to the moon before the Chinese
Feb 18th 2010 | From The Economist print edition
Can you direct me to reception, please?
WHEN America’s space agency, NASA, announced its spending plans in February, some people worried that its cancellation of the Constellation moon programme had ended any hopes of Americans returning to the Earth’s rocky satellite. The next footprints on the lunar regolith were therefore thought likely to be Chinese. Now, though, the private sector is arguing that the new spending plan actually makes it more likely America will return to the moon.
The new plan encourages firms to compete to provide transport to low Earth orbit (LEO). The budget proposes $6 billion over five years to spur the development of commercial crew and cargo services to the international space station. This money will be spent on “man-rating” existing rockets, such as Boeing’s Atlas V, and on developing new spacecraft that could be launched on many different rockets. The point of all this activity is to create healthy private-sector competition for transport to the space station—and in doing so to drive down the cost of getting into space.
Eric Anderson, the boss of a space-travel company called Space Adventures, is optimistic about the changes. They will, he says, build “railroads into space”. Space Adventures has already sent seven people to the space station, using Russian rockets. It would certainly benefit from a new generation of cheap launchers.
Another potential beneficiary—and advocate of private-sector transport—is Robert Bigelow, a wealthy entrepreneur who founded a hotel chain called Budget Suites of America. Mr Bigelow has so far spent $180m of his own money on space development—probably more than any other individual in history. He has been developing so-called expandable space habitats, a technology he bought from NASA a number of years ago.
These habitats, which are folded up for launch and then inflated in space, were designed as interplanetary vehicles for a trip to Mars, but they are also likely to be useful general-purpose accommodation. The company already has two scaled-down versions in orbit.
Mr Bigelow is preparing to build a space station that will offer cheap access to space to other governments—something he believes will generate a lot of interest. The current plan is to launch the first full-scale habitat (called Sundancer) in 2014. Further modules will be added to this over the course of a year, and the result will be a space station with more usable volume than the existing international one. Mr Bigelow’s price is just under $23m per astronaut. That is about half what Russia charges for a trip to the international station, a price that is likely to go up after the space shuttle retires later this year. He says he will be able to offer this price by bulk-buying launches on newly man-rated rockets. Since most of the cost of space travel is the launch, the price might come down even more if the private sector can lower the costs of getting into orbit.
The ultimate aim of all his investment, Mr Bigelow says, is to get to the moon. LEO is merely his proving ground. He says that if the technology does work in orbit, the habitats will be ideal for building bases on the moon. To go there, however, he will have to prove that the expandable habitat does indeed work, and also generate substantial returns on his investment in LEO, to provide the necessary cash.
If all goes well, the next target will be L1, the point 85% of the way to the moon where the gravitational pulls of moon and Earth balance. “It’s a terrific dumping off point,” he says. “We could transport a completed lunar base [to L1] and put it down on the lunar surface intact.”
There are others with lunar ambitions, too. Some 20 teams are competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, a purse of $30m that will be given to the first private mission which lands a robot on the moon, travels across the surface and sends pictures back to Earth. Space Adventures, meanwhile, is in discussions with almost a dozen potential clients about a circumlunar mission, costing $100m a head.
The original Apollo project was mainly a race to prove the superiority of American capitalism over Soviet communism. Capitalism won—but at the cost of creating, in NASA, one of the largest bureaucracies in American history. If the United States is to return to the moon, it needs to do so in a way that is demonstrably superior to the first trip—for example, being led by business rather than government. Engaging in another government-driven spending battle, this time with the Chinese, will do nothing more than show that America has missed the point.