The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Presidential inauguration
The inauguration of a new president in January 2009 provides the best opportunity propose a major new initiative to create a new, low-cost space transportation infrastructure. (credit: White House photo by Paul Morse)

Becoming a true spacefaring America

<< page 1: infrastructure and economic growth

March, 2009: Responding to the public’s expectation for rapid action, the new administration acted promptly to further define the specific policies and actions that will be undertaken. Emphasizing that the new administration would not be single-issue focused, as the Middle East continued to dominate American foreign affairs and news reports, the President chose to make revamping the American space enterprise a priority with specific proposals for establishing new public-private partnerships to better harness America’s aerospace technological capabilities.

The President announced that proposed legislation was being sent to Congress to establish a new Federal Government Corporation to be charged with building and managing an integrated spacefaring logistics infrastructure to provide Americans and American enterprises with access to the entire Earth-Moon system. The President emphasized that building the new spacefaring infrastructure would create the new intellectual understanding, technical expertise, and industrial capabilities needed for America to lead in tapping the knowledge, wealth, and security of space.

The President noted that space contributes only about one hundred billion dollars annually to the nation’s economy. New infrastructure will significantly expand commercial and governmental use of space, add high-tech jobs, enable American space entrepreneurs to introduce new products and services worldwide, and create new companies to help build, operate, and make use of the new infrastructure. The President emphasized that infrastructure building, through public-private partnerships, is one way that government primes the economy to produce new jobs and wealth and increase national security. This investment approach has paid off well for the US here on Earth; there is no reason why it will not pay off for the nation in space.

Now: The immediate challenge is that the American pro-space movement must join together to propose a bold new space initiative that will attract broad bipartisan support, both from Congress as well as presidential candidates. I propose that building an integrated spacefaring logistics infrastructure is the right proposal for this time and for this presidential campaign.

Using the criteria discussed earlier, let’s evaluate this proposal.

1. Can the problem or challenge be perceived by the public as important? From the current US National Space Policy: “In this new century, those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not. Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power. In order to increase knowledge, discovery, economic prosperity, and to enhance the national security, the United States must have robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities.” (Emphasis added)

The immediate challenge is that the American pro-space movement must join together to propose a bold new space initiative that will attract broad bipartisan support, both from Congress as well as presidential candidates.

Today, the United States does not have “robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities.” This threatens our world leadership, as the Aerospace Commission highlighted, and prevents us from entering a new era of the space age devoted to mastering operations in space, as the Space Commission noted. There is a clear case to be made to the American public that other nations are increasing their national space enterprises to reap the knowledge, wealth, and security of space. If America is to sustain its world leadership position, it must push forward to establish “robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities.” It must lead in becoming a true spacefaring nation or risk being left behind as other nations also gear-up to become true spacefaring nations.

2. Is the time for change clearly evident? America’s current human space activities are ineffective and future planned human space operations clearly will not enable America to cross the threshold to achieve “robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities.” While human and robotic exploration and discovery should remain a vital part of America’s space enterprise, America’s space enterprise must now be redirected toward building the spacefaring logistics capabilities—fully-reusable space access, in-space logistics depots, and in-space reusable space transportation—needed to safely open space to routine human and robotic operations.

3. Have reasonable solutions been identified? Building new infrastructure to open new frontiers to American enterprise has been a constant theme throughout America’s history. It has been a major reason why and how America became a world leader with the economic and security strength necessary to prevail against the economic and security challenges of the 20th century. Building a new spacefaring logistics infrastructure will now extend this successful historical model into the 21st century with several important benefits.

First, building new national infrastructure is clearly seen as an important public-private enterprise that broadly benefits the nation by creating new jobs. In the case of space, these are new jobs that emphasize math and science—an important key to world leadership in the 21st century.

Second, building new national spacefaring infrastructure will enable existing companies to expand and new companies to be created. This provides the opportunity for the incorporation of new technologies and innovations—coming from our universities and laboratories—and creates the opportunity for rapid individual advancement through personal initiative to solve the new challenges that building and using the new spacefaring infrastructure will create.

Finally, building new spacefaring infrastructure will send a strong positive message about the nation’s future to America’s youth. In this case, it will provide the motivation to students in middle and high schools to study the harder topics of math and science so that they can participate in this new national adventure that will be comparable to the opening of the American west two centuries earlier. For students entering college, it will provide their motivation to major in engineering, science, and similar technological studies so that they can fully participate in transforming America into a true spacefaring nation.

4. Are the needed resources available? The primary challenges in building a near-term integrated spacefaring logistics infrastructure are not technological, but organizational and fiscal. Creating a Federal Government Corporation—to lead in establishing the public-private partnerships and the government agency-to-agency agreements that will be needed to build and operate the new spacefaring logistics infrastructure—is clearly within the government’s power and has been frequently used for such purposes, e.g., Communications Satellite Corporation and Tennessee Valley Authority. This proposed undertaking is fully consistent with the findings of the Space and Aerospace Commissions and addresses the nation’s needs for “robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities” as identified in the US National Space Policy.

5. Is the cost on par with the public’s perceived importance of solving the problem or undertaking the challenge? Over the next twenty years, the space gross domestic product (GDP) will contribute, with no growth, over $2 trillion to the nation’s economy. With an effective spacefaring logistics infrastructure, in time, this level of contribution can grow significantly; adding high-tech jobs, creating new businesses, increasing national wealth, and increasing foreign trade.

At current levels of expenditure, the federal government will spend about $5 billion per year—about $100 billion over the next twenty years—on just government space access. This is about five percent of the space GDP. Making this level of national investment—$100 billion over 20 years—to establish fully-reusable, two-stage, “aircraft-like” space access capabilities for passengers and cargo is not unreasonable, especially when this will result in dramatically improved national space access capabilities leading to substantial growth in the space GDP.

The primary challenges in building a near-term integrated spacefaring logistics infrastructure are not technological, but organizational and fiscal.

A key advantage of using a Federal Government Corporation to build this infrastructure, rather than an existing agency, would be the corporation’s ability to use borrowing—perhaps, through “Space Development Bonds”—to cover the early acquisition costs of the new infrastructure systems and facilities while using future government cost savings to help to retire these bonds. This provides the fiscal means, at the start of the next presidential administration in 2009, to initiate building the improved space access elements of the infrastructure without requiring significant new annual federal appropriations. Hence, for the next president, this will enable the first elements of the spacefaring infrastructure program—focusing on improved, “aircraft-like” space access—to be implemented without taking fiscal resources away from other important national programs.

6. Will the implementation of the solution sustain needed public support? In the 1950’s, Wernher von Braun and his contemporaries, with the help of Collier’s magazine and Walt Disney, first established the American vision of becoming a spacefaring nation. This is a vision that Americans have not lost. A properly structured spacefaring logistics initiative, focused on near-term tangible results that motivate the nation’s youth, produce jobs, benefit the economy, improve national security, and increase America’s competitive position and leadership in the world, will rekindle this enthusiasm for space. The fact that we are not seeing such public enthusiasm for current space efforts highlights the need for change in the direction of the American space enterprise.

7. Will the solution draw sufficient political support to be enacted and funded? This proposal has several elements that, beyond the general public’s enthusiasm for space, will aid in gaining the necessary public and political support. First, it focuses on building infrastructure. Building new and economy-growing infrastructure is generally viewed as a worthwhile and critical government purpose.

Second, it focuses on building aerospace capabilities. The aerospace industry is broadly distributed across the country. Unlike infrastructure investments in new bridges, roads, or airports that create local economic benefits favoring a few Congressional districts, a national investment in building an American spacefaring infrastructure will be broadly distributed across the county, bringing economic benefits to most Congressional districts. The new president and members of Congress will be able to participate in ribbon-cutting ceremonies as companies expand facilities and new business and terrestrial space facilities are built. Space will again become a national enterprise as it was in the 1960’s.

Finally, through the use of government-backed bonds, and by focusing on first improving space access, these new national spacefaring logistics infrastructure investments in space can be initiated without requiring significant new federal appropriations during the early years of the new presidential administration. Thus, Congress does not need to give up something now to pay for the new space access systems while they are being developed and produced. When these new systems become operational, toward the end of the next president’s administration, government cost savings in space access will enable a shift in appropriated expenditures from operational costs to repaying the bonds over the next 20–25 years. Hence, using this infrastructure-style funding approach enables the total government-appropriated expenditures on government space access to remain about constant while, at the same time, it provides all American space enterprises with the substantial benefit of significantly improved passenger and cargo space access.

With a clear voice, we need to tell how and why this needs to be accomplished. We have less than 18 months to reach this goal. This must become the priority of the American pro-space community.

8. Is the solution likely to succeed? After careful examination, it’s clear that America’s aerospace industry has the technological and industrial capabilities needed to begin to establish the logistics foundation for America’s transformation into a true spacefaring nation. The first steps are: two-stage fully-reusable space access systems for passenger and cargo transport with “aircraft-like” safety and operability, permanent space logistics facilities in low Earth orbit to establish a base of operations for government and commercial space operators, and fully-reusable space transportation capabilities and logistics support services throughout the Earth-Moon system. By establishing a new Federal Government Corporation, a proven approach can be used to organize and fund the needed public-private partnerships to build and operate the spacefaring logistics infrastructure. So my answer to this question is yes: there does not appear to be any substantial reason why this proposal would not succeed.


January, 2009, needs to be a critical turning point in America’s future in space. The burden is now with the American pro-space community—the grassroots organizations, the professional aerospace societies, the aerospace industry, the individual aerospace engineers and scientists, and the space operators and customers—to focus on the strategically-important issue of America becoming a true spacefaring nation and to advocate the need for the next president to start building the spacefaring logistics infrastructure needed for America to have “robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities.” With a clear voice, we need to tell how and why this needs to be accomplished. We have less than 18 months to reach this goal. This must become the priority of the American pro-space community. Transforming America into a true spacefaring nation starts with our actions now.