Comsats, commercial crew, Congress, and the future of American space exploration
by S. Alan Stern
|Are the complexities of comsats and commercial human transport to LEO really so different? Not fundamentally.|
Consider: At the dawn of the Space Age, all satellites were built and launched by governments. But very early on, communications satellites were encouraged to go commercial. The result: an over $100-billion spinoff industry that employs thousands of workers to build the satellites, their ground stations, launchers, and associated command and control infrastructure; and launches more satellites annually than any other form of spaceflight, opening up NASA resources to do other things with the money saved.
But equally importantly, the commercialization of space communications has also generated tens of thousands of direct and indirect private sector jobs, and a strong innovation cycle that’s produced continuous improvement across the industry for more than four decades.
In contrast, nearly 50 years after the first human flights to orbit by Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn, no commercial human spaceflight yet exists. Few in our parents’ generation would have believed this, for at the outset of the Space Age, the commercialization of human transport to low earth orbit was widely expected. Remember the Pan Am shuttle in 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Why has the commercialization of human transport to low earth orbit been stymied? Are the complexities of comsats and commercial human transport to LEO really so different? Not fundamentally.
Are governments the only entities that can build human spacecraft? No, actually every human spacecraft ever built for NASA was built by private industry.
Is the scope of the investment required for human spaceflight too large for private industry? No—large comsat constellations cost more than the commercial crew systems envisioned to take astronauts to and from LEO.
Of course, there are human lives at stake in space missions with crew, but commercial firms have lives at stake in industries as diverse as trucking, oil exploration, aviation, and nuclear power. Why should space travel to destinations closer than most transcontinental airline flights be considered so different?
|It is only by freeing up NASA from routine human transport to low Earth orbit that we can afford to once again see American astronauts exploring distant worlds.|
In fact, there really is no fundamental reason that human orbital transport to low Earth orbit must remain the practice only of governments a full half century after it began. To the contrary, there are many reasons that the development of private, commercial human space flight vehicles in the US is desirable for the nation. These include:
It is only by freeing up NASA from routine human transport to low Earth orbit that we can afford to once again see American astronauts exploring distant worlds.
For this reason, if Congress doesn’t adopt the Administration’s more economical commercial crew to LEO strategy, there is little chance we—rather than the Chinese, Russians, and Indians—will be exploring worlds and making history in space in the future in coming decades.
What are we waiting for?