The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

NSRC 2020

 
Model rocket launch
Model rocketry competitions can stimulate students’ interest in space, helping develop the next generation of scientists and engineers. (credit: J. Foust)

Space sports and space power

One little often overlooked aspect of both seapower and airpower is the way that popular water sports and air sports help a nation maintain a useful group of people who can be trained to perform militarily useful jobs in an emergency. In World War 2, both in Britain and America, amateur yachtsmen became naval and Coast Guard reservists. At the time, John F. Kennedy would never have been given command of a PT boat if he had not been an experienced amateur sailor. Today, thanks in part to the thousands of flying enthusiasts who gather each year at Oshkosh, America has maintained a vibrant and creative small aircraft industry that remains a very important element in the national aviation industrial base.

The emerging space sports industry, including orbital space tourism, suborbital space tourism, rocket racing, and amateur rocketry, all help support the US space industry in ways that the big commercial players and parts of the US government may not really recognize. Instead of encouraging these activities, it sometimes seems as if Uncle Sam is more interested in making it as hard as possible for those who want to participate in space sports. Amateur rocketry, for example, has been badly hurt by requirements that make it almost impossible to buy the chemicals needed to make propellants without a permit.

The emerging space sports industry, including orbital space tourism, suborbital space tourism, rocket racing, and amateur rocketry, all help support the US space industry in ways that the big commercial players and parts of the US government may not really recognize.

The International Trade In Arms Regulations (ITAR) have been hurting the small “NewSpace” companies who are build the space sports/space tourism industry far more than they hurt the established bigger firms. London-based Virgin Galactic could afford to pay enough lawyers to put its relationship with the California-based Scaled Composites on a solid basis. Entrepreneurs without such deep pockets will find it far more difficult to overcome the ITAR problems.

NASA’s efforts to support space commercialization have been well intentioned over the years, but have almost always been unrealistic. This is partly due to the fact that helping small businesses get started in exotic space industry niches is not very high on their priority list. NASA is a government agency that operates within legal limits and with policy guidelines that cannot be changed overnight to adapt to new realities. The difficulty they had accepting Dennis Tito’s visit to the International Space Station (ISS) is a good example of the way they automatically resist any change that has not been subject to a policy review and, in the case of the ISS, international negotiations.

There are exceptions: the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has done an excellent job helping the space tourism industry get started. The principal that space tourists and space sportsmen can risk their own necks but cannot be allowed to put the public at unreasonable risk makes it possible for the whole NewSpace industry to operate without having to pay insanely high insurance rates or be subject to levels of regulation that could kill the whole endeavor.

If they do flourish, space sports will play an important role in fulfilling the first guideline in the White House’s just-released National Space Policy: “Develop Space Professionals”. The need for “highly skilled, experienced, and motivated space professionals” is obvious. Where these people will come from is not.

Much has been written about the need to recruit, educate and train the next generation of space professionals both inside the government as well as in academia and industry. All the kids who build model rockets may not grow up to build orbital launch vehicles, but some do. Kids who want to travel into space may find they have a chance to buy a trip on a Zero G flight, or, if they are lucky, they may buy (or win, if some of the lottery proposals that are floating around come to fruition) a trip on a suborbital rocket. Others may be inspired by watching a rocketplane race.

Excitement can lead to ambition and that, in turn, can inspire young people to work hard at engineering, science, and math. Space sports by themselves are just entertainment, but as part of the national economy they are a great asset. Not only will they support the educational goals that everyone claims to want to achieve, but they also open up new roles for imaginative businessmen and women to create new technologies and new applications.

Just as motor sports helped develop cars that eventually brought mobility to millions, space sports have the potential to bring space travel to a public with undreamed of results.

The video game industry is rarely seen as a part of America’s military strength, but over the years it has created a cadre of software engineers and graphic designers that has, for example, led to a new generation of relatively low-cost, high-fidelity flight simulators, allowing pilots to do more of their training on the ground and less of it during expensive flying hours. The same industry has helped develop complex but user-friendly displays that are everywhere from the command centers at the Pentagon to the back seat of a hummer: pretty good for an industry that started with Pong.

Playing games at the edge of space is not going to get us back to the Moon any sooner or solve bandwidth problems. Over time it is going to make the space industry a greater and greater part of the US and world economy. Just as motor sports helped develop cars that eventually brought mobility to millions, space sports have the potential to bring space travel to a public with undreamed of results.

Just as the automobile democratized the world’s transportation system, low-cost space flight will democratize access to orbit and then to the whole solar system. The new national space policy speaks of “extending human presence across the solar system.” The government might be able to blaze a trail, but only private citizens with all their individual ambitions, imaginations, and limitations will be able to make that goal a reality.


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