Becoming Spacefaring: America’s Path Forward in Space

III.     Building a New Spacefaring Logistics Infrastructure Will Be the First Step

010216_1750_TemptitleBe2.jpgFigure 2. Low Earth orbit space base/space dock with spaceship departing. Source – US Government.

In this exciting future, tens of thousands of Americans will travel to, live, and work throughout the Earth-Moon system to build and operate this space-based power industry. When opening any frontier, the first enabling step is to build infrastructure providing safe, routine, and frequent access to and movement within the new frontier. The initial—repeat, initial—new spacefaring infrastructure will involve:

  • Airline-like passenger transport to and from Earth orbit and throughout the Earth-Moon system using airworthiness-certified, fully reusable space transportation systems.
  • Medium-class payload and freight transport to Earth orbit using fully reusable or expendable space transportation systems. The fully reusable systems will likely be space cargo versions of the airworthiness-certified, fully reusable passenger space transportation systems. (These will be similar to the air cargo versions of passenger airliners.)
  • Heavy and oversize unmanned transport to Earth orbit using the new expendable Space Launch System being developed by NASA. Payloads can include large components for space power stations, entire small and medium-class spaceships (e.g., Space Guard cutters), and large components of large spaceships and space habitats assembled at the low Earth orbit (LEO) space dock.
  • Space logistics bases/space docks, space habitats/hotels, and space fuel depots in LEO. These will be the primary destinations for passenger and payload traveling from the terrestrial spaceports to LEO.
  • Space tugs to provide cargo and passenger transport between LEO facilities and to provide auxiliary transport at other locations in the Earth-Moon system (e.g., GEO, the Lagrangian points, lunar orbit).
  • Space ferries to transport passengers and cargo from LEO to GEO, the Lagrangian points, and lunar orbit.
  • Space Guard cutters to provide law enforcement and emergency support throughout the Earth-Moon system.
  • Space logistics support bases in GEO and lunar orbit to support industrial operations on the lunar surface.
  • Lunar landers for cargo and passengers.
  • Lunar hoppers to move about the Moon.
  • Large logistics support spaceships providing payload and passenger transport and on-site logistics services at GEO, the Lagrangian points, and lunar orbit.
  • Lunar bases to support lunar resource extraction, processing, and transport.

A.      The feasibility of building this new infrastructure is right above your head

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Figure 3. Snapshot of the airliners flying the sky above America. Source – NASA.

While many will express doubt about the feasibility of building this new spacefaring infrastructure, consider that on any typical morning or afternoon several thousand commercial airliners are flying above America carrying roughly a half million passengers and quite plainly demonstrating what America is capable of achieving. Think of what someone would have thought a century ago in 1916 of airliners capable of flying at near the speed of sound for thousands of miles carrying hundreds of passengers and of having thousands of these flying every day. If you time traveled back to that time, what would you have said to try to convince them that this is possible?

The reality is that the technical depth of the American aerospace industry is quite strong and everything listed above can be achieved using available technologies—yes, available technologies. Certainly, the initial spacefaring operational capabilities will later appear to be primitive, just as aircraft a century ago were primitive compared to those built today. But, it is important to understand that getting started with building a substantial initial capability does not require any major technical hurdles to be overcome. In other words, the American aerospace industry is primed and ready to proceed with the engineering development of the initial capabilities—most importantly, the fully reusable space access systems, the Space Launch System, and the LEO space base.

B.      Putting some financial numbers to this undertaking

Establishing a new space-based power industry capable of delivering, with needed reliability and security, 6000+ GW of electrical power will not only be a significant technological undertaking, but also a major economic undertaking. From the previous discussion of a hypothetical all-nuclear terrestrial energy infrastructure to replace fossil fuels, 6,180 1-GW nuclear power plants would need to be operating in 2100 to meet the energy needs of 617.5 million. The ballpark cost of this is $7 billion per GW for a total cost of about $43 trillion through 2100.[16] Starting in 2020, the average annual cost of this is $541 billion each year.

6,180 1-GW plants × $7 billion/plant = $43.26 trillion

$43.26 trillion ÷ (2100-2080) = $541 billion/year

A reasonable expectation is that this ballpark cost estimate is at the low end of the cost of building 1200 space-based power stations and 60,000 square miles of ground receiving stations. Hence, at least $500 billion to $1 trillion will likely be needed each year for the rest of the century, on average, to establish and build out this industry to meet the energy security needs of America in 2100.[17]

How does this compare to other federal expenditures? NASA’s current entire annual budget is in the range of $18 billion, while the Department of Defense’s budget is in the range of $600 billion. The NASA budget, at its peak during the Apollo program, was roughly $44 billion a year in current dollars. Thus, the effort to undertake space-based power will require annual expenditures, for the rest of the century, in the range of 10 to 20 times the Apollo program. It is apparent that a substantial percentage of the US GDP will become directly engaged in building and operating this new space-based power industry.

While these substantial expenditures at first appear alarming, in reality they offer a substantial new economic opportunity for America. Not only will America become energy secure with sustainable energy, thereby decreasing trade losses, but America’s national security obligations related to imported oil imports will diminish. Properly undertaken, this program of space industrialization can have a broad beneficial national economic impact leading to a resurgence of domestic manufacturing. At the same time, the new spacefaring industrial technological revolution will bring broad ΔT advances across the board as improved technologies “invade” other industries, increasing America’s industrial and commercial competitiveness.[18]

From White’s Law of Cultural Survival, it is clear that this investment in space-based power is a fundamental war-avoidance undertaking. There is no choice but to do this as space-based power is what will be required to transition to sufficient sustainable energy to replace fossil fuels and ensure America’s energy security without either resorting to war or sliding backward in terms of the standard of living. Thus, the cost of building this new industry is America’s anti-energy war cost. The cost of energy wars, likely with nuclear-armed adversaries, will certainly be far higher.