Finding the incentive to settle space…

19 05 2011

To many, the outward expansion of humanity into the cosmos is inevitable.  It seems that a portion of our population is (and has always been) innately possessed of a drive toward the frontier, wherever that might be at the time… 

The Antarctic exploration ship Endurance locked in ice, 1915. (Credit: The Royal Collection/2009 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

Whether venturing to the New World, exploring the farthest reaches of the Earth’s poles, probing the abyssal oceanic depths, or rocketing our way to the Moon – there have always been people who have emerged with the deep-seated desire to expand our horizons.  The exercise reaps clear benefits to our cultures, our societies, and our knowledge of the universe at large, and some part of our ancient psyche knows it.  As Johannes Kepler eloquently put it (nearly four centuries ago!):

“When ships to sail the void between the stars have been invented there will also be men who come forward to sail those ships.”

Clearly, the problem with exploration hasn’t historically been finding the desire to explore.  It’s been finding the commercial incentive. 

Human exploration is necessarily expensive; by definition it is  set away from convenience, requiring feats of transportation and logistics no matter the era.  Even more than survival on the frontier, history has shown that convincing financiers that the endeavor is a worthwhile (and often, also potentially lucrative) one has been an explorer’s paramount challenge.

So sits the human exploration of space today – idling on the runway.  Technologically, we are capable of venturing outward, well beyond the Earth.  Many of the risks of the space environment are now (at least partially) known, and we’ve nearly completed the first-order exploration of all of the major bodies of the Solar System. 

We’re ready to start getting out there.  We just need to find an economically-compelling reason to get out there.

Space tourism will help further the technology needed to expand our footprint into space, but such trips will be initially limited to those seeking largely intangible returns.  And, while there are fairly obvious economic and environmental benefits to utilizing extraterrestrial resources, we lack the infrastructure to justify the incredible expense of making a practical go of it.  We need something with a narrower field of view – something to help us build the first waystations that will open the doors to commerce off-world.

As it so happens, the space policy think tank Space Settlement Institute has developed such a plan.  -And it just might work.  Called the “Space Settlement Initiative,” it floats the idea (so-to-speak) of turning percieved international space law on its head by challenging the U.S. Congress to recognize the ownership of land on the Moon and Mars (or any other extraterrestrial body) by those who “settle” it (read: physically visit and claim).  This ownership, in turn, could be bought and sold on Earth.

View of the Taurus-Littrow Apollo 17 landing site, 7-19 Dec. 1972. (Credit: NASA)

Suddenly, extraterrestrial commerce is in full swing, with lunar and Martian land being optioned, sold, and traded just as mineral rights attached to land a person has never seen are regularly incorporated into his or her investment portfolio.  Now, the business model for building the initial waystations and transportation systems to Low Earth Orbit, Lunar Orbit, and the lunar surface is baited with the very real return of saleable physical property.

Various uses have been proposed for extraterrestrial land, from ecosystem lifeboats and knowledge repositories to low-gravity retirement communities.  Were the Space Settlement Institute’s plan to be adopted and a pioneer to venture out and stake a claim, each of these uses would suddenly have potentially real locations with a demonstrated means of transportation.

-And as we know, it’s a short period of time between when new locations show up on our maps and when we find a way to reach them.

I’m totally jazzed by this idea.  It seems to me that all the plan needs in order to gain traction is steady promotion to Congressional leaders, policy-makers, potential venture capitalists, and the public.  Who knows?  If they’re right, perhaps the next Rockefeller will be made in the pursuit of lunar real-estate. 

Food for thought.

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Congress strikes back: The REAL Space Act

3 05 2011

U.S. Congressman Bill Posey is at it again, this time indirectly taking aim at President Obama’s new commercial space initiative.  With a cohort of cosponsors, Posey has introduced a new bill, (H.R. 1641,) entitled, “REasserting American Leadership in Space Act,” a.k.a., the “REAL Space Act.” 

It’s aim?  To send us back to the moon in a decade – this time to stay.

In addition to the traditional “preaching to the choir” statement about the necessity of returning to the Moon from a planetary science and space exploration logistics perspective, (which I endorse wholeheartedly,) the bill also makes a powerful case from a number of other standpoints: 

  • Legally, it outlines that the 109th, 110th, and 111th Congresses all made a return to the Moon an integral priority of NASA’s mission, which the 112th Congress has a mandate to continue.
  • Domestically, it claims that a sustained human lunar presence (read: moon base) would inspire a new generation of Americans to study math and science while stimulating technical, scientific, and medical advances that are rich with applications back here on Earth.
  • Internationally (and politically), the bill also states that because China and Russia understand the importance of a lunar presence and have announced their intentions to colonize the Moon, we have a pressing strategic impetus to return ourselves. 

Now, we don’t yet know how this bill will fare.  In all likelihood, any plan to return to the Moon would be in direct funding competition with NASA’s push to help develop a commercial space transportation system.  At this point, we have to hurry up and wait to see if NewSpace vs. Lunar turns into anything other than a glancing blow.

As for me?  I’d prefer we do both, really.  (It’s hard for me not to notice that doing so would be a drop in the bucket compared to the annual defense budget expenditures.)





Paradigm Shift

28 02 2011

The Next-generation Suborbital Researcher’s Conference (NSRC) is in full swing, and the momentum here is staggering.  We’ve had a very good showing to start and have gained invaluable feedback… and it’s only the first morning.  As was mentioned by Dr. Alan Stern earlier this morning, this is Silicon Valley, the year is 1979, and commercial spaceflight is the personal computer.

A paradigm shift is happening right now.

The future many of us have been working toward is truly nigh.  More to come soon.





Chinese satellite makes a move

11 11 2010

According to a story reported yesterday by the Associated Press, China has demonstrated nimble maneuvering of its satellites in orbit, a feat few other nations have been able to achieve.

The rendezvous between two of its orbiting craft, which occurred on August 19 and was not declared by China but was instead observed by international tracking stations, has set off alarm in some circles.  This capability must be employed by China in order to successfully launch and dock with their future proposed space laboratories, yet it may also double as the ability to intercept and sabotage enemy satellites and spacecraft.

Regardless of the potential military applications, the certain reality is that China’s space program is moving ahead at a determined pace.  This demonstration of their growing space capabilities is another reinforcement of just how serious they are about becoming a player in the future utilization of space.





Thinking outside the circle

6 11 2010

There’s a new coalition of businesses and organizations on the block.  Called the Coalition for Space Exploration, the group recognizes the many benefit of space exploration to society, and they’re going to take the message to the people.

According to their mission statement, the Coalition plans to “ensure the United States remains the leader in space, science and technology by reinforcing the value and benefits of space exploration with the public and our nation’s leaders, and building lasting support for a long-term, sustainable, strategic direction for space exploration.”

I think it’s high time someone took up this cause!  I’ve personally always taken issue with NASA’s PR machine, and though NASA does a great job in producing material for the public, it’s never been so great (in my opinion) at getting it out to them.

The Coalition for Space Exploration is currently shopping for interested members and partner organizations.  Sporting a cool position video, a news clearinghouse, and a blog, there’s a fair amount of content for an organization that hasn’t been around long.  Check them out if you get a chance.

Considering how important I think space exploration is to our future, I can’t imagine a more worthy cause.





China’s space lab rising

5 11 2010

Chinese National Space Administration. (Credit: CNSA)

As arguably the third most powerful space agency in the world, the China National Space Administration, which already has successful manned launches and a confirmed spacewalk under its belt, continues its determined drive starward.  In early October, the CNSA signed a cooperative space plan with Russia for the 2010-2012 timeframe, the contents of which are being held close to the vest but no doubt include the joint Russian-Chinese exploration and sample-return mission (Fobos-Grunt) to the Martian moon Phobos next year.

Now, as reported last week, China recently announced (confirmed) plans for a series of orbital space stations, beginning with the launch of an unmanned test module within the next five years and a fully-crewed, Mir-style station by the year 2020.

This places proposed CNSA activities right in the thick of NewSpace (e.g., U.S., U.K., Russian,) commercial space station and launch vehicle flight tests.  Now, it’s no secret that advanced space technology has dual military applications, and China’s military made everyone nervous with their anti-satellite (ASAT) test in 2007.  So, what are their intentions?  I’d like to believe the olive branches on CNSA’s logo are sincere.

-And, I should mention, if U.S.-Soviet space relations during the height of the Cold War are any precedent (Apollo-Soyuz), China’s space laboratory ambitions are sincerely peaceful.  Some of the most meaningful international olive branches have been traded in space.  Take the International Space Station, for example, which is the largest international cooperative effort in human history.  So, in that light, Godspeed CNSA.  The more permanent presences we have in orbit, the better it is for our space infrastructure in general.

And perhaps, working shoulder-to-shoulder off-world, the most effective Far-East/West bridges yet may be built in orbit.

Plaque commemmorating international coorperation assembled in orbit by astronauts and cosmonauts in 1975 as part of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Apollo Soyuz Test Project. (Credit: NASA)





Virgin Galactic hints at Orbital Domination

2 11 2010

Virgin Galactic astronaut aboard a SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. Credit: Zero G

At the recent dedication of the main runway at the world’s first devoted commercial spaceport, Sir Richard Branson (of Virgin Galactic fame) slid in an apparently innocuous but Hiroshima-sized comment.  While Virgin Galactic has practically cornered the space tourist market with the successful suborbital space flights of SpaceShipOne and upcoming flight tests of SpaceShipTwo (the larger, tourist-rated version,) apparently Branson has his sights set much higher.

According to reporters in attendance at a press conference following the dedication, Branson said, “We plan to be in orbital travel within the next few years.”

I would be shocked if this didn’t set off a tsunami through the NewSpace circuits.

Furthermore, Branson said that Virgin Galactic is in talks with some of the serious commercial orbital space transportation contenders, (SpaceX, Orbital, Boeing, Lockheed, Armadillo Aerospace, etc.,)  and will soon decide whether or not to partner up to pursue NASA and commercial orbital contracts or fly solo, so-to-speak.  Official word is due in early 2011.

What does this mean?  Well, Branson’s formidable Virgin brand carries with it an overriding seriousness, even considering the intrinsic unknowns of commercial spaceflight, (as their clinching of the Ansari X Prize proved all-too-well.)  At this point, however, I believe a statement like this is a declaration that it continues to be a great time for the promise of free-market spaceflight.  It is only fitting that the comment was made at the dedication of the country’s first spaceport launch and landing lane.

Let’s hope this competition continues to force NewSpace innovation and the acceleration of hardware to orbit!

VMS Eve and VSS Enterprise circle New Mexico's Spaceport America. Credit: Mark Greenberg








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