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In Space, Can the Question Provide the Answer?

By       Message Gordon Smith     Permalink
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These are exciting times for the space industry. The Administration has released a budget proposal that redefines the direction of our national space program, placing launch responsibilities on an untested but capable commercial sector. This shift has raised considerable concerns in Congress surrounding safety, technology, and our overall global leadership in human space flight. These concerns are valid, and in fact offer a valuable alternative for the future of NASA undertaking a noble mission ensuring the safety of emerging commercial ventures in space, akin to the role of the Coast Guard in space.

An independent commercial space sector holds great promise for economic revenue, as has been shown by the successes of the satellite industry. It is too soon to say what promise manned orbital space flight holds, but it may certainly be agreed that such promise can best be explored through private enterprise. The Administration's intent to move launch responsibilities opens opportunities for this exploration.

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This shift, however, must be made responsibly. As with any industry, the government has a responsibility to this emerging commercial space sector in the form of regulation, research and development, and asset protection. In other transportation industries, the government provides support to diverse companies in the form of ambulances, the Coast Guard, and other agencies.

How important is this to an independent commercial sector? Consider for a moment that you were planning a trip across the country and back, and needed to buy a car for the journey, from an immature auto industry. However, that car was custom-built, relying on technologies that weren't yet in widespread use. Furthermore, it had to carry all of its fuel, supplies, and air for the entire journey lasting a few weeks or possibly longer; and if anything went wrong, or the car broke down, you would die with the entire world watching in horror. How much would that car cost; compared to one with access to a tow truck?

We have an interesting opportunity in front of us. Instead of choosing between NASA and an emerging commercial sector, let us instead task NASA with the responsibility of supporting this sector. Existing resources may then be reallocated rather than downsized as we develop the necessary commercial regulations and technologies for answering on-orbit emergencies. Incidentally, we also provide the infrastructure private companies need to best expand into space.

There are many secondary benefits to this capability. In addition to reducing risk to the commercial sector in manned orbital space flight, we also would be laying the technological groundwork for more expansive and farther-reaching scientific missions. Many of the skills involved in answering on-orbit emergencies also lend themselves to orbital assembly of complex craft. This removes the limitations of how much can be launched at once for a given mission, and allows for larger modular craft, with expanded capabilities, to be launched to the Moon, Mars, or other points of scientific or commercial interest.

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A capability for answering on-orbit emergencies also improves the competitiveness of the US satellite market. Over the last thirty years, we have faced ever-increasing competition from international opportunities for manufacturing and launch. With a capacity to repair assets on orbit, US companies would no longer require as many redundant systems. This translates to either reduced launch weights and costs for a given satellite, or expanded capabilities for the same weight. Additionally, the insurance rates for satellites reduce with a capacity to effect repairs.

The very questions raised by Congress in response to the Administration's proposal to expand our commercial sector into manned orbital space flight lead us to an appropriate compromise. Tasking NASA with the mission to answer on-orbit emergencies supports the industry instead of competing with it, and answers the concerns expressed by Congress.

All that's left is to commit to this path.

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Dr. Gordon Smith, PhD Physics and Mr. Alan Thompson, BSME have researched the space industry from a business investment perspective for fifteen years. More information about their research and findings can be found at (more...)

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In Space, Can the Question Provide the Answer?