Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The new shape of space

Two quick items that reveal that the major players in the space sector have not only realized that the paradigm is changing, but they're finding the confidence to say so publicly.

Here's a video from United Launch Alliance (the Boeing/Lockheed joint venture) describing the near-term development of Cis-Lunar space, leading to an in-space population of 1,000 people (plus tourists) and $2.7 trillion in space-driven economic activity within 30 years. Personally I think that's conservative, because they don't want to sound crazy. But note that they are predicting that the in-space population will grow from 6 today (the astronauts on ISS), to 20 people (on a mix of commercial space stations built by Bigelow Aerospace) just within 5 years. Robotic prospecting of resources will also begin with the same period.

The key part of this video is focusing on economics. The current amount of activity in space is driven by the cost of lifting propellant from Earth to orbit. Propellant sourced from the Moon and Near-Earth Asteroids would be 1000x cheaper. Processing aluminum and other bulk materials in space would further reduce the amount of material that needs to be lifted from Earth. These sort of cost reductions are what will allow a greater number of private businesses with venture capital to engage in space-based activities.

The second item is an admission from NASA that the Senate Launch System (SLS) has no purpose. Basically, NASA is now scrambling because it's no longer able to ignore what the Augustine Commission told them years ago: the SLS is so expensive, that even if they build it they can't afford to maintain it and fly it. And now they are approaching the steps where they start building the rocket, but they still don't have any missions for it (because no mission with SLS's price tag can survive budget review).

It's not clear how much longer this farce will continue. SLS was never a rocket program - it was from the beginning a jobs program for the NASA centers to produce endless paper studies, and the third-party contractors who would allegedly eventually build the rocket to do likewise. This make-work attracts tons of government funding, some of which is recycled back into the campaigns of the Senators who pass the funding bills in the first place. As a funding tool for political campaigns, the SLS mission continues to perform nominally. But SLS development money is crowding out high-profile missions that the public actually likes, like the Mars rovers, and eventually this funding competition will come to a head. Once SLS is actually here, and the per-flight price tag is sitting on the Budget Committee's table, someone in DC (who isn't a Senator from Florida, Alabama, or Texas) will eventually ask why SLS exists when launch services from SpaceX and ULA (and maybe Blue Origin by that point) are available for 1/100th the price.

And when that day comes, hopefully, NASA will finally get out of the launch business and focus on the exploration and science missions for which they are uniquely suited.

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