Tonight I will make another of my many appearances on the Space Show with David Livingston. What makes this particular appearance special is that it will be the tenth anniversary of my first appearance on the show. Ten years ago tonight, on December 3, 2003, I appeared with David to discuss both the history of space exploration as well as its future — as we saw it then. (If you want to listen to that first appearance simply go to this link.)
During the second half, our conversation began to range far and wide, speculating about the future of manned space exploration and what would be the best ways to jump start the American effort. Though I did not get everything right, what I said then has turned out to have been a remarkably accurate prediction of what has happened since.
To set the context, this appearance occurred only six weeks before George Bush’s January 14, 2004 speech where he announced his vision for space exploration. At the time we did not know what Bush would say, or even if he would propose anything, though there had been a lot of rumors that Bush was about to make a Kennedy-like speech proposing another Kennedy-like NASA mission to explore the solar system. David Livingston asked me what I thought would happen.
It’s hard to predict what George Bush Jr will do, because he can be surprising. I am skeptical that he will do anything that innovative. And even if he does, I am skeptical anything will come of it. The political atmosphere is not very enthused for this kind of thing. …
I then added,
Anything Bush proposes will be difficult to achieve unless he structures the concept not around a big government project like the moon missions but as something that will spark private enterprise to do things.
As we know now, this prediction turned out to be exactly right. Bush did not rely on private enterprise. He was not very innovative. Instead, he proposed retiring the shuttle and replacing it with another Kennedy-like big government project which would return us to the Moon by 2015. Eventually dubbed Constellation, that program spent about $9 billion dollars over the next six years and accomplished nothing. We are not going back to the Moon in 2015. In fact, at this moment we can’t even launch humans into space. Thank you George Bush!
Earlier in this same interview David and I discussed the risk aversion of NASA, which prompted me to point out how unwilling NASA was to dole out any money to newcomers, partly because of the agency’s aversion to risk and partly because of the agency’s desire to maintain control over its turf. I then gave a specific example.
In the 1990s there were a whole bunch of private companies trying to build reusable spaceships, rocket ships of all kinds. They were doing it because there was a predicted demand for launch services. People thought that [new communications companies like] Teledesic, Iridium, and Globalstar were going to require something like 1500 launches a year. Because of that expected demand there was going to be need for many new kinds of rocket companies. …
Unfortunately that demand went bust … and because that industry went bust the new rocket companies lost their venture capital. … Starving for capital and desperate to stay in business and develop their rockets — they were building their new spaceships very efficiently and cheaply, they were even building hardware and making test flights — they went to NASA in the very late 1990s, around 1999, and said we’re here, we’re halfway developed, we can give you an alternative method for getting crew and cargo to ISS. Why not siphon some of your money to us? …
NASA did not respond. By going to them it would have taken money away from NASA’s own pet projects and own control. As a result all those 1990s private launch companies went bankrupt.
The tragedy is that had NASA instead said to them: We need a craft that can bring three men up to the International Space Station and bring three men back and we need another vehicle to bring three tons of cargo to the space station and bring three tons back. Those are the only specifications we’ll give you.
Had [NASA then] bid it out to the lowest bidder [at least one of] those companies could have built it for far less than Lockheed Martin spent to try to build the X-33. And the X-33 cost almost a billion dollars and was not finished. … because it wasn’t a private project but a giant government project with a big bureaucracy. It had no incentive to be efficient.
What the new rocket companies, Kistler, Roton, Pioneer, were trying to do was simple and quick and easy. Granted some would have failed but more importantly more would have succeeded and done it well. [emphasis added]
The idea wasn’t my idea alone, but there I was, proposing precisely what NASA eventually did, though reluctantly. At the very end of the Bush administration in 2008 NASA issued two contracts for the construction of two cargo vessels able to bring cargo up to ISS. Five years later, under those contracts SpaceX and Orbital Sciences successfully launched unmanned cargo freighters to ISS, with one capable of bringing cargo back. And the cost to the government to get both built was cheap, about $3 billion total, far less than what was wasted on Constellation.
NASA is also spending a similarly small amount of money to get three different manned vehicles built. And the only reason I can see for this new private manned effort to fail will be if Congress decides to deny it funds.
And because NASA was finally willing in the past half decade to gamble a small part of its budget on several new private space companies we today finally have an exciting and booming space industry. Things are happening, and they are happening in places and in ways no one expected a decade ago when George Bush made his very uninspiring speech.
Consider for example the launch schedule for December as well as the next three months. Something interesting and important is going up almost every other day. Not only does the United States have multiple companies launching cargo to ISS, the country now has multiple companies competing to launch commercial satellites into orbit. Furthermore, the United States is not alone in this booming business. A variety of other nations are in the mix, several of which had not been considered serious competition ten years ago.
And everything is competing against everything else, since if one launch company is unable to do the job the customers now know they have many other places to go to get that job done. That competition is lowering the price for access to space. It is forcing innovation which means new ideas and better technologies.
And it is infusing the entire aerospace community with new energy. Thus, we not only have a new burst of activity in private space, we have a new burst of energy in government space. New nations such as China and India are coming forward, trying to make their mark. What they will achieve in the coming decades can hardly be imagined, other than it will be exciting, interesting, and good for humanity.
So, tonight I will once again appear on the Space Show with David Livingston. We will once again talk about some history, but mostly I think we will talk about the future. For, after a long long pause that began around 1975, the human effort to colonize and settle the solar system is about to begin in earnest.