On October 10, 2007, I appeared on David Livingston’s The Space Show to talk about spacefaring logistics. For general white papers on the U.S. becoming a true spacefaring nation, see “American Needs to Become Spacefaring,” and “Near-Future American Space Infrastructure Possibilities.” You can listen to the show, after it is included in the show’s achieves.
– Mike Snead
The following questions and answers address many of the topics raised in the questions asked by listeners of the show.
1. What will it mean for the U.S. to become a true spacefaring nation?
The 20th century definition of spacefaring is to launch vehicles into space. Clearly, in the 21st century, this is neither sufficient nor enabling. In the 21st century, a spacefaring nation will be one that enables its citizens, as spacefarers, to safely and routinely access space to conduct business in space.
2. How is this different than current U.S. space capabilities?
Today, neither the U.S. nor any other nation is a true spacefaring nation. The U.S., Russia, and China have a limited ability to transport humans to space, but they do not yet have the infrastructure needed to enable routine space access. Many nations also have the ability to launch satellites into space and Russia, to be joined soon by the Europeans, has the ability to launch unmanned cargo transfer vehicles. These space operations remain infrequent and generally unaffordable for most people and, even, to most nations. We are this month celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sputnik and the start of the space age. Compare current spacefaring capabilities with the average person’s ability to fly commercially in the 1950’s, 50 years after the start of the age of aeronautics. The level of operational capability available to average people to fly around the world in the 1950’s was far greater than an average person’s ability, today, to access space. If the U.S. is become a true spacefaring nation, then it must transform its spacefaring capabilities.
3. How can the U.S. undertake this transformation?
Looking back at civil aeronautics in the 1950’s, there existed a substantial aeronautics infrastructure of airports, weather systems, communication systems, fuel production and distribution, maintenance and servicing, emergency services, air traffic control, and airworthiness safety certification. Further, there was a substantial American mastery of commercial aviation that enabled the development and production of safe and reliable airliners and the establishment and support of commercial airline companies.
If we look at the Internet today, we see a comparable infrastructure of computers; servers; routers; wireless, land line, and satellite comm links; and, hardware and software protocols for interoperability. The average person has the ability to readily access the Internet and to travel, in cyberspace, anywhere in the world to conduct their personal business. Also, there is substantial world-wide mastery of the technologies of the Internet enabling rapid growth in the Internet backbone, enabling companies to expand products and services, and enabling entrepreneurs to tap this expertise to start new Internet-based enterprises. In the 1980’s, many people asked why we needed the Internet? Its potential was not broadly recognized.
For both aeronautics and the Internet, the backbone infrastructure enabled and continues to enable significant economic growth. Yet, this backbone is not where the new wealth is being created, but it is required. Someone needed to be able to see the potential of aeronautics and the Internet and champion the significant investments in building the enabling infrastructure that must first be made. For the U.S. to become a true spacefaring nation, it needs to make comparable and significant investments in building the needed spacefaring logistics infrastructure capabilities. The current U.S. National Space Policy states that the U.S. needs “robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities” – this is another way of saying that it needs an integrated spacefaring logistics infrastructure.
4. What specifically is the role of spacefaring logistics infrastructure development in this process?
The opening of the American west in the first decades of the 19th century and the opening of the space frontier in these first decades of the 21st century are very similar. The U.S. entered the 1800’s as a small coastal nation of about 5 million with a marine and agricultural economy powered by wind, water, and muscle. At the end of the 1800’s, it was a continental nation of about 70 million with substantial industrial logistics infrastructure in place – steamship and rail transportation; telegraph and telephone communications; coal, oil, and natural gas production; growing cities built around steel-framed buildings; electrical power production and the electric light for illumination; public water supplies and waste water removal; integrated food production and distribution; public schools and universities, etc. What brought about this tremendous growth was the establishment of the industrial mastery of steam power that started with river steamboats, in 1807, and expanded to rail transport and then into general industrial manufacturing by mid-century. The same knowledge-to-industrial capability-to-economic growth bootstrap process that we saw with aeronautics and the Internet, a century later, powered the industrial revolution in the 19th century.
To open a new frontier, whether the American west, the frontier of flight, or the virtual frontier of the Internet, the initial industrial mastery of operations in the new frontier is gained by building logistics infrastructure.
I believe that the same will happen in opening the space frontier. Focusing on building the missing spacefaring logistics infrastructure will establish a new industrial mastery of space operations that will power the rapid growth and expansion of government and private space operations. We have seen, very clearly, that the true opening of the space frontier has not happened and this is due, I believe, to the lack of a concerted effort to build integrated spacefaring logistics infrastructure capabilities. I believe, that by building this new infrastructure, America will transition, as the Space Commission noted in 2001, to a new era of the space age devoted to mastering operations in space.
5. What might this infrastructure look like in terms of capabilities?
The basic spacefaring infrastructure capabilities are: improved space access for passengers and cargo; permanent space logistics depots, in low Earth orbit, to provide a destination for the improved space access systems and a base of operations for expanding human and robotic space operations; and, finally, transportation and logistics support capabilities to enable the expansion of human and robotic operations throughout the Earth-Moon system.
6. What types of systems are needed to provide these capabilities?
Starting with improved space access, two new systems are needed.
The first is fully-reusable, two-stage, rocket-powered space access to transport passengers and cargo to and from space with “aircraft-like” safety and operability.
The second new transportation system would be a Shuttle-derived unmanned system that would transport heavy and oversize cargo to the space logistics depots in LEO. All major terrestrial transportation systems have the ability to transport heavy and oversize cargo. This is needed because some manufactured products cannot be economically produced at the point of use. An example for space would be the initial large pressurized space hangars that would enable many space maintenance operations on satellites and smaller spaceships to be undertaken in a pressurized shirt-sleeve environment. These space hangars will be large; perhaps, as in my concept, 33 feet in diameter and over 100 feet in length. Trying to fabricate this large pressurized structure in LEO or assembly it from smaller components would be too difficult in the near future. A Shuttle-derived launch system would enable this entire space hanger to be fabricated and certified on the ground and then launched into space for incorporation into a space logistics base. A Shuttle-derived launch system also provides a useful transition of much of the current Space Shuttle infrastructure into a vital component of an integrated spacefaring logistics infrastructure.
For the LEO space logistics depot, the primary elements would be a space logistics base, a space habitat, and a space propellant depot. The space logistics base includes twin space hangars as well as a large space dock to assembly larger space facilities and spaceships. The space habitat is a combination space hotel and space business park to support the initial government and private space operations. The space propellant depot stores and processes the propellants used in the in-space transportation systems
The final set of new systems is the space-based transportation systems. This includes space tugs, space ferries, and, eventually larger spaceships – all designed to transport passengers and cargo, provide materiel handling, and provide logistics services support throughout the Earth-Moon system with “aircraft-like” safety and operability.
7. How do we get started?
The starting point is to focus on improving space access with the development of two types of two-stage aerospaceplanes. Two types are needed for assured space access. Establishing practical redundancy has always been a key element of building useful logistics infrastructure.
If we start in 2009 with the development of the first-generation aerospaceplanes, they could be operational by the end of 2016 – by the time the next presidential administration would be ending. By 2020, or so, when these systems reach full operational capability, a modest fleet of four systems of each type or 8 systems total, would have the capacity to fly about 150 missions per year. This would provide a significant improvement over today’s launch capacity.
Generally, when infrastructure improvements are made, it has been beneficial to add capacity. For example, two-lane bridges are replaced with 4 or 6-lane bridges. Copper lines are replaced with fiber optic lines for higher capacity communications. The same need for capacity increase exists for space access. Today, we have a practical U.S. capacity of about 15-25 missions per year, including both the Space Shuttle and the U.S. expendables. Establishing useful in-space logistics capabilities will require more than this. As we upgrade to passenger safety and operability with fully-reusable aerospaceplanes we also need to increase the capacity of the systems to accommodate growth. Improved safety and improved operability will also bring about lower costs which will stimulate growth in demand.
8. What might these capabilities look like by 2025?
By 2025, the first LEO space logistics depot could be operational, constructed of large facility modules launched using the Shuttle-derived spacelifter and logistically supported by the fleet of new two-stage aerospaceplanes.
I would expect about 60 flights of the aerospaceplanes and 3-5 Shuttle-derived spacelifter missions would be conducted each year. 10-15 of the aerospaceplane missions would be to transport satellites while the remainder would be for transporting workers, general cargo, and supplies, such as propellants.
By 2025, about 20 space logistics operators may be working in space at the space logistics base. The “astronaut” core would grow to about 150 to 200, but would also become diversified with people with a broader set of skills, especially those associated with logistics operations. If the space habitat is built, then the number of people in orbit may grow to over 100 leading to an increase in the number of aerospaceplane missions each year. This would probably warrant the introduction of a second-generation aerospaceplane or an upgrade to the first-generation aimed at transporting more passengers per mission.
9. What is the role for the government and what is the role for private industry?
Both the government and private industry have very important roles.
An important national objective is to establish an industrial mastery of space operations – designing, building, operating, and logistically supporting the infrastructure systems. The primary role of government is to facilitate industry’s growth of expertise in spacefaring logistics operations. This starts with the government leading the establishment of new public-private partnerships to build and operate the initial spacefaring logistics infrastructure.
While some advocate an ad-hoc approach to developing this infrastructure, I do not believe this is the best approach at this time. Our lack of spacefaring logistics infrastructure has America’s back against the wall, so to speak, in space. Through a new public-private partnership, perhaps a new Federal Government Corporation, today’s industry capabilities can be organized and focused on building the types of infrastructure systems and facilities I discussed earlier.
There are also important secondary roles for the government in terms of achieving acceptable passenger and public safety, in ensuring system interoperability, in establishing the financing for the new infrastructure, and in ensuring that any government funds are used with appropriate safeguards against fraud, waste, and abuse. The government also has a role in promoting business development and economic growth.
The role of private industry—for both existing as well as new businesses—is to develop, build, and operate the systems and facilities to meet the government’s needs for improved spacefaring logistics capabilities and to logistically support growing private space operations.
10. How can we break the current “space access barrier” thinking that is the primary limitation on the U.S. becoming a true spacefaring nation?
While the U.S. has struggled to improve its space access operational capabilities since the Space Shuttle design was first stated in 1972—almost two generations ago—the technological capabilities of the American aerospace industry have continued to make significant progress. The U.S. should have replaced the Space Shuttle in the 1990’s with fully-reusable systems and, had this occurred, then, today, second generation fully-reusable systems would be in development.
Instead, the life of the Space Shuttle was prolonged and it is now planned to be replaced by, in my view, a system with less capability. This lack of progress, combined with the two tragic Shuttle failures, have created a public myth of a technological barrier to space access that is reminiscent of the public’s belief in the myth of “sound barrier” in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The way to break the current space access barrier myth is for the primary U.S. aerospace companies to provide the public with an understanding of how the nation’s vital needs for substantially more “robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities,” as defined in the U.S. National Space Policy, can be addressed with their current technological capabilities.
11. Why is it important to shift transportation to fully-reusable space access systems?
Setting the issue of passenger safety aside for the moment, a straight comparison of space access economics indicates that, for medium class payloads of about 25,000 lbs, the total life cycle cost of ownership and operation of the reusable aerospaceplanes becomes less expensive when the flight rate exceeds 15-25 missions per year. With a growing spacefaring economy, the space access flight rate will quickly surpass 15-25 missions per year.
The more important issue, however, is the need for safe passenger transport to space. If we are looking at the industrialization of space, comparable to the industrialization of the American west in the 1800’s, then we are talking about people traveling to and from space with today’s expectations for their safety. This then requires the development of a spaceflight system with acceptable passenger safety. The way we approach this on every terrestrial public transport system that I can think of is to use fully-reusable systems. Human transport on expendable systems has generally only been undertaken for space access and then only because of the political demands of meeting the challenge of human spaceflight started by the Soviet Union. Fully-reusable systems are needed because the safety of each production system must be demonstrated, to independent inspectors, prior to the system being placed into public use. For aircraft, this is called airworthiness. A successful spacefaring logistics infrastructure will be comprised of systems and facilities that receive the equivalent of airworthiness certification.
All of these systems will be fully-reusable; certainly all of the systems that are used by humans.
12. What might these fully-reusable space access systems look like?
First, I would like to introduce the concept of the “third best” solution.
Sir Robert Watson-Watt, the British father of radar in World War II that led the development and installation of the coastal radar systems that was extremely important for the protection of Britain during the air Battle of Britain, explained how he was successful in developing and deploying these vital capabilities in a fairly short period of time – about four years. He called it the “Culture of the Imperfect;” others refer to it as the Law of the Third Best. Quoting from his autobiography, “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late; the best never comes.”
The third best solution is the one that engineers can start developing today that provides the desired operational characteristics without unacceptable cost or delay. If, as I believe, the needed improvement in passenger space access to support a general opening of the space frontier is a fully-reusable system, then today’s third best solution is a rocket-powered, two-stage system. I refer to them as aerospaceplanes.
A scramjet-powered single-stage aerospaceplane, such as we tried to develop in the National Aerospace Plane program, is a first-best design. The scramjet propulsion technologies are too immature today to start actual system design. A single-stage, rocket-powered aerospaceplane, such as we tried to develop in the X-33, is a second best design. This approach may be possible, but not without significant remaining technology maturation efforts.
The third-best approach is a fully-reusable, two-stage, rocket-powered system comprised of a first stage booster and a second stage orbiter. The system could takeoff vertically and land unpowered on a runway like the Shuttle orbiter. Such a system could transport about 10 passengers to space or about 25,000 lb of cargo. The passengers may be carried in a separate passenger shuttle, carried externally on the second stage orbiter, while the cargo would be carried in a container, also carried externally on the second stage. I am just painting a picture of the general design characteristics of these near-term systems. The prime contractors would determine the actual design to propose responsive to general requirements for safety, operability, cargo weight and volume, number of passengers, etc.
13. Can these aerospaceplanes be developed now?
A fully-reusable, two-stage, rocket-powered system was the American aerospace industry’s preferred space transportation system configuration in 1970 to replace the Saturn/Apollo combination – only the year after the first lunar landing. The change to the partially-reusable hybrid design, which is today’s Space Shuttle, was driven primarily by budget constraints placed on the cost of the system development, as I understand the circumstances.
If we recognize that – considering that industry believed this was possible in the 1970’s — two further generations of technology advancement – nearly 40 years worth – leads me to believe that the prime aerospace contractors can now develop such systems with good confidence.
14. Why do you refer to them as aerospaceplanes?
I think it is very important to recognize that the success of these systems will come from the use of aircraft-style system engineering processes to develop the safety and operability that will distinguish these systems from current launch systems. However, the name “aerospaceplane” is not new. The first aerospaceplane program was undertaken in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s – at the dawn of the space age. It focused on the conceptual design of single- and two-stage flight systems and evaluated a wide range of system concepts.
The term “aerospace” in used because these systems fly both within the atmosphere as well as in space – they must have safe flight characteristics and good performance in both of these operational environments. The term “plane” does not imply that the flight system must have wings or takeoff from a runway; rather it implies a system design, production, certification, and operations environment that is comparable to what is used very successfully for airplanes. For example, a helicopter is a perfectly safe and operable aircraft but it does not have traditional wings and does not takeoff and land on runways in a conventional manner.
15. Why is it important that the development of the aerospaceplanes start soon?
First, the time to start such a development program that involves substantial government participation and requires 6-8 years to develop is at the start of a new presidential administration. With good planning and efficient execution, the new aerospaceplanes can come into operation by the end of the next president’s administration.
An important second reason is that improved space transportation is on the critical path for most new space efforts – whether space tourism, space solar power, a return of humans in reasonable numbers to the Moon, as examples.
Some will argue to skip the third-best solution and proceed to a second-best solution or even try again for a NASP-like first-best solution. I support renewed research and development of such future solutions, but we must remain focused on the immediate success criteria of providing improved passenger and cargo transport to LEO so that the in-space logistics capabilities can be established and supported. A third-best solution fills this operational need. The bottom line is that there is a very narrow window of opportunity with the next presidential administration to start an aerospaceplane development effort that can be completed within the 8 years of that administration.
16. Why should all pro-space organizations support the development of an integrated spacefaring logistics infrastructure?
To make a transition to a true spacefaring nation, we need to think about space strategically. Most pro-space organizations are pursuing tactical goals such as space tourism, lunar settlements, manned Mars missions, or even space solar power. The ability to undertake any of these depends on an underlying spacefaring logistics infrastructure. Without an infrastructure, all that we can do is talk and study. With an infrastructure, we can plan and execute.
I recognize that some wish for another Kennedy-type pronouncement for a new national space exploration goal; but is this really what is now needed? I think back to the 19th century parallel to the Apollo program, the historic Lewis and Clarke overland expedition to the west coast of North America. They returned in 1806 national heroes with substantial scientific discoveries and accomplishments. Yet, the very next year, the first river steamboat was operating on the Hudson River and within five years, the first river steamboat was operating on the lower Mississippi River. These riverboats, because of their ability to move upriver, against the current, as well as downriver, completely changed the economic potential of the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. For the next four decades, steamboats were the key to opening the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys to settlement and industrialization. America’s significant progress in opening the western frontier came through the nuts and bolts of building logistics infrastructure. This is the historical lesson that I think pro-space organizations should take to Congress and the next presidential administration. It is an approach that has been clearly shown to work well.
17. How does consideration of the role of a spacefaring logistics infrastructure play into the current interest in space-based solar power?
Space solar energy represents a significant and largely untapped fundamental energy source for the Earth. Like the natural resources of the American west, it can only be practically tapped if the necessary logistics infrastructure is available. This past summer, we looked at this issue as part of the National Security Space Office’s assessment. I believe that we have all of the needed technologies to develop and deploy the infrastructure needed to make use of space solar power, but it will take 15-20 years of hard work to scale up the logistics capabilities to the level needed to start deploying the first space solar power satellite.
We are talking, however, about space industrialization on a scale that many now believe to be impossible in the next century. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson stated that he thought it would take one thousand years to settle the new American territories. When he drew that conclusion, he could not imagine moving about within this vast territory on steamboats or railroads – the practical application of steam power to transportation had not yet been demonstrated. Well within Jefferson’s lifetime, Americans and new immigrants were moving westward in vast numbers, first aboard river steamboats and then railroads. The same degree of logistics transportation can happen to support the industrialization of space.