Becoming Spacefaring: America’s Path Forward in Space

IV.    Becoming Spacefaring will be a New Public-Private Enterprise

The depletion of America’s technically recoverable fossil fuel endowment began in the mid-1800s and has been accelerating ever since due to population growth and an increasing energy need per capita. The previous calculations showed that with the most likely level of immigration, the remaining fossil fuel endowment will be depleted within 60 years. White’s Law of Cultural Survival, buttressed by historical precedent, indicates that the consequences of this on America will be devastating unless sufficient replacement sustainable energy sources are built in time. With space-based power being the only practicable sustainable energy solution with the capacity to meet US 2100 energy needs, building an effective space-based power industry is a matter of national security of the highest importance.

National security needs transcend the commercial marketplace because the Federal Government—not private enterprise—bears the final responsibility for assuring national security. This does not, however, mean that the Federal Government would or should itself undertake this transition to space-based power. What it means is that private enterprise will undertake building this new space-based power industry and enabling spacefaring logistics infrastructure within a framework of public-private partnerships defined by national policy and federal legislation.

A.      The benefit of new grand national energy engineering projects

Americans have not been exposed to a grand national engineering project with a definitive goal since the Apollo program of the 1960s. Throughout American history, such projects have inspired the nation—the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, nuclear-powered submarine Nautilus, etc. America is a country with substantial, often world-leading, scientific, engineering, and technological industrial capabilities that have largely been underused since the 1960s—nearly three generations ago. Other countries now build the biggest dams. Other countries are erecting the largest buildings—ironically often designed by American companies. Other countries are digging the longest tunnels. Other countries build the biggest aircraft, the biggest ships, and the most modern cities. Far too many Americans now appear to be socially conditioned to ignore, if not outright deny, America’s technological strengths and to be content with America’s increasing national insignificance. This social trend is dangerous to America’s future, as it creates a national sense of indifference leading to political hesitation in addressing key problems requiring technological solutions. When addressing America’s current and growing energy insecurity, hesitation will bring disaster.

Building the vitally needed space-based power industry and the enabling spacefaring logistics infrastructure will require grand new national engineering projects surpassing all undertaken previously. Assume, for this discussion, that each 5-GW space power station in GEO is equivalent to a new aircraft carrier—the most complex military weapon system built in the world. The United States builds these aircraft carriers at a rate of about two per decade. Now imagine needing to build 1,200 of these by the end of century—delivering 15 each and every year—and having to assemble these at the top of a mountain 26,000 miles tall. This is but the tip of the iceberg of what will be undertaken as America becomes a true human commercial spacefaring nation to secure its sustainable energy future. This grand undertaking will define the 21st century for America.

B.      America’s current space enterprise is obsolete

Insignificance has overtaken America’s government human space enterprise. With only a few exceptions, it has become technologically timid, focused on job self-preservation rather than bold but sound technological advancement. Inexplicably, for the first time in US history, a major national infrastructure—the Space Shuttle—ended operations in 2011 without a new and far better replacement coming into existence. As a consequence, NASA now has to depend on Russia to fly our astronauts into space on Russian expendable launch vehicles first designed in the 1960s. Now, embarrassed and trying for a quick fix, the federally funded solution is to go backwards to 1960s-era space capsules in an attempt to recapture the faded glory of the Apollo program.

On the aerospace commercial side, startup space companies are finding that there is no shortcut to safe human spaceflight. It really does take careful design, experienced engineering, a sound systems architecting and engineering approach from the beginning, lots of testing and evaluation, and lots of money to make complex aerospace systems function with acceptable operability, economics, and human safety. It has been more than ten years since SpaceShipOne won the suborbital Ansari X-Prize. Immediately after that success, the public was led, with great fanfare, to believe that only a few years would be needed to start commercial suborbital passenger spaceflight. Experienced engineers knew better, and were ignored, but have been proven right. Human flight systems are never easy, quick, or inexpensive. This is why effective public-private collaboration will be needed to achieve safe commercial human spaceflight.

C.      Effective public-private collaboration will be the key to success

For important national programs, collaboration and, quite often, formal partnerships of the government and private industry have been required to produce a successful outcome. Private industry brings competition, design creativity, industrial capability, customer engagement, and product-focused technical skills and experience to the partnership. Government brings broad scientific expertise, multi-program system engineering experience, substantial unique test capabilities, and anchor funding to the partnership. This partnership arrangement has been used to make operational, for example, jet-powered aircraft, nuclear energy, interstate highways, major ports and airports, large hydroelectric power plants, the first satellite-based telecommunications, and the entire manned orbital space program. In many of these areas, as the technical risk subsided and the experience and expertise of private industry grew, future efforts became completely private as the level of risk fell to be within the range suitable for private funding. Government, at that point, steps back to maintain only regulatory oversight if this is needed. This historically successful public-private model now needs to be used to start building the spacefaring logistics infrastructure and the new space power industry.

Many in the pro-commercial space movement deny the need for such public-private partnerships. They believe that dogged determination will get it done. To counter this view, the emergence of the commercial jet aviation industry in the 1950s is a very pertinent example. Jet engines, originating in the late 1930s, were integrated into aircraft in the latter years of World War II. The thermodynamic operation of jet engines optimizes their flight for high subsonic speeds at high altitudes. Quickly, aeronautical engineers determined that fundamental design changes were needed including swept wings, pylon-mounted engines, and pressurized fuselages.

Immediately after the war, new types of jet fighters quickly entered service at a rate that today would appear truly amazing. The key advancement, however, was the need for a new jet-powered bomber. Piston-powered, propeller-driven bombers were simply too slow to survive encounters with jet fighters. Bombers needed to fly higher and faster. To achieve this, aerodynamics called for swept wings while propulsion engineers found that they needed to put the jet engines on pylons hanging below the wing. The reasons were the need for easy access to the jet engine for maintenance and the need to prevent a seized jet engine or engine fire from damaging the wing’s structure.

While these sound like fairly easy changes, they were quite complex, especially given the analytical capabilities of the time. The key engineering advancements were made during the development of the Boeing B-47 and Boeing B-52 jet bombers. These two military programs gave Boeing the engineering and manufacturing capabilities to develop its jet-powered transport prototype with swept wings, pylon-mounted engines, and a pressurized fuselage. Boeing offered this prototype to the military as the basis for a new jet tanker to keep up with the new jet bombers. This became the KC-135 tanker that is still flying today. As the KC-135 entered production, Boeing built on its design experience to produce the similar Boeing 707, one of the first successful commercial jet airliners. So successful was this design, compared to propeller-driven airliners, that the first operational Boeing 707, flying the 8-hour London-New York route, did not fly with an empty seat for the first six months. Everyone loved to fly jets and they still do. America took the lead in commercial jet aviation in the 1950s and 1960s because of the public-private partnership that enabled the needed technological advancements to be achieved. Done well, public-private partnerships accelerate the fielding of new capabilities—exactly what is now needed to begin to field the initial spacefaring logistics infrastructure.

D.      The space industrial boom is about to begin

The United States is about to embark on industrializing outer space because of the need to develop space-based sustainable power to preserve its national security, economic prosperity, and standard of living. As the scale of the effort grows to be in the ballpark of $1 trillion a year of economic activity, this new industry will be employing around 13 million people, at an average annual wage of $75,000, just to meet US needs. Secondary employment will multiply this by a factor of 2-3. Thus, just as the steam power revolution enabled substantial new commercial enterprises to be formed in the 1800s, America’s embarking on creating a new space-based sustainable power industry will bring comparable economic benefits throughout the 21st century. The proper descriptive word to use is “boom.”

The public’s “awakening” to the economic potential of space industrialization will reshape American politics. The public will come to understand the tremendous economic opportunity for technological creativity, entrepreneurship, business formation and expansion, job creation, and career development needed to build space-based power systems, a spacefaring infrastructure throughout the Earth-Moon system, and the many new enterprises making use of both of these. Further, the American public will quickly realize that much of this job creation will call for employees with critical science, math, engineering, technology, and vocational skills—the sort of jobs that create solid middle-class prosperity.

E.      The proven path to opening new frontiers—build new infrastructure

The initial focus of this spacefaring industrial revolution will be establishing the permanent infrastructure to reach and work within space routinely and safely. Many, even in the pro-space movement, do not recognize the profound change that will occur as this spacefaring logistics infrastructure is established. Space is now difficult, costly, and unsafe to reach. This forms the current paradigm of how space operations are undertaken. To understand why this paradigm will soon be obsolete, we need to go back to the early 1800s on the Ohio frontier to help envision the changes that will unfold this century in space.

Following the Revolutionary War, Americans moved in large numbers into the Ohio frontier along the Ohio River and its tributaries. Many had earned land in exchange for service during that war. Others bought land from the Federal Government. The land was rich in terms of the needs of an agrarian society—fertile soil, plentiful rain, moderate climate, extensive forests of wood for construction and fuel, and navigable rivers for reaching deep into the frontier.

The one major disadvantage for early settlers was the lack of an established transportation infrastructure beyond Pittsburgh at the head of the Ohio River. There were no roads and the land was primarily dense forest, making cross-country travel difficult. River travel was the only practical means of movement within the frontier. Fortunately, the Ohio River and many of its tributaries were navigable much of the yea. However, trying to move cargo upriver to Pittsburgh and then back across land to the eastern cities was extremely difficult and generally unprofitable.

With the plentiful supply of timber, the primary means of travel was to construct a river raft called a flatboat. This was then floated downstream with St. Louis or New Orleans being the primary destination for selling farm produce. As a consequence of the impracticability of upriver travel, the flatboats were considered expendable, generally being used only once to reach a downriver destination and then sold for lumber or firewood. People, after completing their business and purchasing needed dry goods and farming supplies, simply walked home, perhaps over a thousand miles, carrying what they could on their backs or on pack mules.

There was some two-way passenger river travel, but with a high cost and long travel times. A round trip by keelboat in the early 1800s between Cincinnati and New Orleans took 78 days and cost $160, or about half a year’s earnings for a worker. To go upriver, men used long poles to push or ropes to pull the boat upstream. More prosperous people would sail from New Orleans to an eastern port, go cross-country to Pittsburgh by coach, and then float back down the Ohio River to reach their home. The difficulty of expanding the territory economically beyond subsistence farming, due to this primitive and difficult one-way logistics infrastructure, was obvious to everyone. This prevented the vast wealth potential of the western territories from being realized.

In 1807, just four years after the Louisiana Purchase, Robert Fulton commercialized the first steamboat on New York’s Hudson River, demonstrating the commercial profitability of fully reusable, two-way river transport of passengers and cargo. In 1811, a prosperous engineer, Nicholas Roosevelt, in partnership with Fulton, used this technology to build the first steamboat on western waters in the Pittsburgh area. This was a significant vessel of about 150 feet in length, displacing 371 tons, and having accommodations for 60 passengers in below-deck cabins. With Roosevelt at the helm, it departed Pittsburgh and traveled roughly 2,000 miles downriver to New Orleans over the 1811-1812 winter. Beginning in April, 1812, the steamboat—named the “New Orleans”—began two-way travel up and down the lower Mississippi, focusing on the growing cotton trade. It quickly became one of the most prosperous enterprises in America by making two-way river travel safe, comfortable, dependable, and affordable. The old paradigm of one-way, expendable river vehicle travel was destroyed with the new paradigm of fully reusable, two-way travel.

Competition adapted quickly to the new paradigm. Over 60 steamboats were operating within only two years—surprisingly, during the War of 1812. Some helped in the defense of New Orleans in 1814. By 1826, 143 steamboats were operating all along the major western rivers. Commerce and settlement exploded as new settlers and their equipment could be safely and affordably transported throughout the Midwest and farm products could be transported into markets serving the world. In the 1850s, 3 million passengers and 8 million tons of cargo were transported annually on just the Ohio River. In that same decade, railroads reached the Ohio valley. Passenger and freight began to switch to this newer form of transportation. By 1900, over 200,000 miles of track were laid, up from only 9,500 in 1850—about 4,000 miles were added each year on average. The paradigm shift from one-way, expendable transportation to two-way, fully reusable transportation made the Ohio-Mississippi River valleys the heartland of a rapidly growing, rapidly industrializing America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This prepared the United States for the trials of the two 20th-century world wars as this heartland was at the center of building America’s military capabilities.

History teaches that creating significant new infrastructure gives a shot of adrenalin to a nation’s economy. For engineers and entrepreneurs, the decision to build significant new infrastructure opens the door to applying their imagination to building the initial infrastructure, figuring out how to make it better to build market share, and figuring out how to make use of it in new wealth-producing ways. For example, consider the digital information infrastructure called the Internet. It started with simple e-mail with no conception of what was to come. Two generations later, how much of the vast wealth created by this digital information sharing infrastructure has come from e-mail? Very little.

While the objective of the coming American industrialization of space will be to build a space-based power industry, the critical initial operational advancements will be in building an integrated human spacefaring logistics infrastructure extending throughout the Earth-Moon system. Building this infrastructure will, in itself, not only create substantial new jobs and companies, it will also foster an explosion of new products and services making use of this new infrastructure. Space-based power generation will be only one of these. Today, we can no better predict what the others will be than those who saw the first e-mail had any inkling of what was coming. All we know is that major new infrastructure leads to substantially increased prosperity, large job creation, company formation and IPOs, intellectual property, and lots of new fun. Building major new—repeat, new—national infrastructure is one thing government can do that creates true opportunity and progress. For anyone understanding America’s current energy insecurity and the vital need for space-based power, the need to build a national integrated human spacefaring infrastructure should now be plainly obvious. The public will be asking why this has not already started.