42 – Initial discussion and criticism of the Cheap Access to Space (CATS) draft legislative proposal

This is the first of several Spacefaring America blog entries discussing and providing criticism of the Cheap Access to Space (CATS) draft legislative proposal now being advocated by the Space Frontier Foundation and the National Space Society. The full text of the CATS’ draft description is available here and the draft legislation here.

A starting point for discussion is that the draft legislation speaks only to one operational component—the human Earth-to-orbit and return transportation capability using a fully-reusable spaceflight system. To become a true commercial human spacefaring nation, the United States needs to build an integrated spacefaring logistics infrastructure throughout the Earth-Moon system. If the goal of the proposed legislation is not in concert with satisfying this need, then it is substantially flawed.

(Note that the term “fully-reusable” has a specific meaning in terms of safety. The usage in the draft legislation is not made within a safety framework. In fact, the word “safety” is not mentioned in the draft legislation.)

What history teaches us about the need for integrated infrastructure

Let’s look back at American history to understand this issue. When the railroads were first built in the early 19th century, the gauge of the tracks—the distance between the tracks—was set at whatever the railroad owner and train builder chose. The gauge of the track governs such design elements as the size and load capacity of the cars and the minimum radius of curvature of the track. When railroads met and it became a reasonable expectation that the passengers and cargo from one railroad should be able to continue on to their destination on another railroad without having to change cars, the need for a common gauge became apparent. As a result, a uniform gauge was implemented and the size of cars became fairly standard, the couplings between cars became standard, the minimum height and width of tunnels and overpasses became standard, etc. By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. had an integrated railroad infrastructure serving the entire country efficiently and economically. Government intervention, in the form of safety requirements (e.g., brakes) and certification, dramatically improved the safety of railroad operations for passengers, crew, and the non-involved public.

The knowledge, lessons-learned, and experience that comes from building and operating such national infrastructure should now be used to guide the building of a new American integrated commercial human spacefaring infrastructure. There is no reason to act like this knowledge and experience doesn’t exist and is to be ignored.

Two Earth-to-orbit transportation elements are needed

Second stage orbiter of a fully-reusable two-stage Earth-to-orbit spaceflight system used in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey"
Second stage orbiter of a fully-reusable two-stage Earth-to-orbit spaceflight system used in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”

The revolution needed to transform America into a true commercial human spacefaring nation requires two Earth-to-orbit transportation capabilities be established. The first of these is the capability to transport passengers to and from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with airline-like safety and operability. (See the illustration above.) The second is the ability to transport oversize and heavy payloads to LEO. (See the illustration below.) With these two capabilities, a substantial in-space logistics infrastructure capable of transporting passengers and cargo from the Earth’s surface to anywhere within the Earth-Moon system can be readily built.

Notional heavy and oversize space launch system, using reusable boosters, comparable in performance to the NASA Space Launch SYstem
Notional heavy and oversize space launch system, using reusable boosters, comparable in performance to the NASA Space Launch System

The Space Launch System (SLS), fortunately already under development by NASA, can be adapted to meet the needs for transporting oversize and heavy payloads to LEO. Properly done, this system will provide a unique capability that cannot be matched by existing expendable launch systems (ELV)—even the so-called “heavy” versions of existing ELV’s. The evolved version of the SLS is projected to be capable of placing 286,000 lb into orbit compared to 117,000 lb for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and 51,000 lb for the Delta IV Heavy. Further, the increased payload mass is matched by substantial increases in the payload shroud diameter and length. Effectively, this will allow the transport of ready-for-assembly components far larger than what current launch capabilities could handle and much larger than those used in the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS). (See the illustration below.) All useful infrastructure needs the ability to transport heavy and oversize payloads.

Heavy spacelifter delivering oversize payload to LEO space dock, itself built from similar large components
Heavy spacelifter delivering oversize payload to LEO space dock, itself built from similar large components

A demonstration of the benefit of this was the Saturn V launch of the Skylab space station as a single unit. Contrast this with the complexity, cost, and delays in building the ISS brought about by NASA’s political decision to have all of the American ISS components transported inside the payload bay of the Space Shuttle Orbiter. It would have been far better to provide superior operational capabilities using large components launched with a Saturn V-class launch system—either a resurrected version of the Saturn V or a heavy lift unmanned version of the Space Transportation System now represented by the SLS design. In other words, we should have built the equivalent of the SLS decades ago had practicality and cost-effectiveness been the motivation.

Two initial criticisms of the CATS approach

From a review of the CATS draft legislation, a first point of criticism is that it is addressing only one element of a needed integrated spacefaring logistics infrastructure and is doing so in the absence of a greater plan on what American spacefaring infrastructure is to be built. This is comparable to the inadequate decisions made by NASA on how to construct the ISS. The failure to plan almost always brings failure in outcome.

A second point of criticism is that the CATS concept appears to be is another Ansari XPRIZE created to promote commercial suborbital passenger spaceflight. As discussed in this Spacefaring America blog entry, what did this prize approach achieve twenty years later? Do we have a successful commercial suborbital passenger spaceflight industry today? No, we don’t despite all of the fanfare and hoopla for the past two decades.

Consequently, why pursue in this draft legislation an approach that is not successful? The only reason that Congress should favor this approach is if it totally disregards the importance of America becoming a true commercial human spacefaring nation to lead the world in the coming spacefaring industrial revolution. Prize approaches, such as the Ansari XPRIZE, will not advance America to this needed leadership capability.

Do those Americans truly wanting America to become the world-leading commercial human spacefaring nation want another “house of cards” approach to realizing this critical 21st century goal? With so much to gain, I don’t think so.

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