Status Report

Testimony of Rick Tumlinson at Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Hearings: “Future of NASA” (part 3)

By SpaceRef Editor
October 29, 2003
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Part 1|2|3

What to Do Now?

I believe that the space aware (us) have a duty to point out such threats as those posed by NEO’s, after all, the potential destruction of our home world is a great argument for getting our eggs out of this one basket. By the same token, and why we should care about such things as sky searches and asteroid shield plans is that it makes little sense to try and expand the human race into space if we are going to be wiped out by some careening solar iceberg while getting our act together.

Valiant sweaty Bruce Willis’s saving the Earth and spectacular “we all gonna die!” scenarios aside, the promise of the resources such rockpiles might contain that excites us from a frontier perspective, and it is here where we focus our attentions. Many believe that long term, such resources are integral to the human break out into space.

The threat from asteroids and comets is often the focus of the media, highlighting the need for a much expanded search for these objects, which could wipe out life as we know it. But the same rocks which could kill us can help us live better lives due to the resources they contain. Many of these objects are literally floating gold mines, continuing amounts of gold, platinum and other precious metals that would stagger the imagination. They also offer us the chance move environmentally destructive mining operations from the living Earth to the dead emptiness of space.

The search itself, with its broad societal implications, is the proper domain for the government to provide support. As with the Moon, NASA should support early exploration now and later, transitional missions, with large commercial participation in the form of partnerships or outright purchases of data. But eventually, it is the private sector that should lead the actual exploration, characterization, sampling and utilization of these important resources. I would like to see the Federal government offering prizes for the location of potential threats and acting as a clearing house for NEO information.

It could also offer to buy data from those who can mount missions to NEOs privately, thus saving tax dollars and catalyzing a potential new industry. The government has an important role in updating laws regarding ownership of such data, and of course the thorny issue of mining and ownership rights must all be clarified before anyone seriously tries to stake a claim on one of these floating goldmines.


I and the Foundation have always been for the exploration of Mars, particularly as a prelude to permanent settlement of Mars and the rest of the solar system. But we are against dead-end stunt type missions to Mars that do not provide stepping stones to possible future settlement.

However, although we may support the concept, as mentioned above, the idea of settlement was and is still not our national goal in space. In the past NASA’s planned paper missions to the Red Planet have simply presented it as a place to perform the Apollo Program Mark II. For government planners, flags and footsteps are the goal for Mars, as they were for the Moon. In fact, all of the official plans so far introduced for sending humans to Mars fall under the category of stunt. Somehow, the lessons of the past failed to reach the ears of this group, and they do not understand that we simply cannot afford another let down like that we have seen since the end of the Apollo era.

To advocates of human settlement “Das Mars Project” used to represent all that was bad about our government space program; centralized in the traditional government/aerospace cabal, stunt oriented, elitist, vastly overpriced and with no long term growth plan for growth from first missions to settlements. Unfortunately, thanks to the NASA attitude that all space is theirs, this entire debate is based on confusion between the roles of government and the private sector. What both sides have missed is what I have laid out in the Near Frontier/Far Frontier paradigm. The government is never going to succeed in developing space businesses, and those planning space businesses are not going to propose going to Mars in a business plan.

The Settlement of Mars

We must greatly expand and accelerate the exploration of Mars, particularly as it enables the settlement of Mars and the rest of the solar system. Money’s saved from space station shuttle and center operations should be used to fund the development and demonstration of pioneering technologies that will enable the exploration and settlement of Mars. And yes, humans should go to Mars, as humans should go everywhere that it makes technical, economic, scientific, environmental sense to go. That’s what an open frontier means.

The drive to open Mars to human settlement will fire the imaginations of our youth in a way that the more routine operational aspects of settling the Near Frontier will not. It is a symbol that will have a positive effect on all space activities, if it is part of the agenda I have outlined here. It will be seen as a national endorsement of space as a frontier, and it will be the most visible aspect of the government’s role in the new space partnership I suggest. In frank political terms, human exploration of Mars also provides the carrot needed to pull NASA’s management, human space flight centers, the astronaut corps and its cheerleaders away from the Near Frontier.

If NASA needs public support, it need not fly members of the Senate in space. The camera shot from the helmet of the first woman to peer down the vast depths of the Valles Marinaris canyon will be enough by far.

Defining the Roles is the Key to Mars

The key to making Mars a real frontier is to understand the separate and very different roles the government and the private sector must play to make it so. These roles are not only differentiated by the area or location, but by the activities themselves. Just as on Earth we see the government’s role in this new field of human activity as one of catalyst, cheerleader, guarantor of safety and lawful behavior. Right now, and until Earth’s governments either begin to divest and hand over Near Earth space and we see the development of low cost space transportation, there simply is no money to even begin talking about large scale plans for Martian exploration, let alone settlement. However, if the nation adopts the Near Frontier/Far Frontier model, NASA can release its grip on the Earth-Moon system by privatizing and commercializing all operational activities such as the station and space transportation systems and move its focus to the exploration of the Far Frontier. If structured correctly, government could prime the pump for the creation of leading edge technologies to aid in that quest, and be a good customer for the private sector to provide the bulk of needed services for such a program. If this happens, enormous resources would then become available to begin the quest, IF the taxpayers can then be persuaded to do so.

Continuity and economic viability must be designed into any exploration program from day one. Remember Lewis and Clark. Just as Jefferson’s mandate was not just to explore but also to survey the Louisiana Purchase, so to on Mars we must explore for both science and development. The Reagan appointed 1986 National Commission on Space report did recognize the need for permanence to be built in to any Mars planning, but it too was based on a massive infrastructure and in-space transportation build up, and would not allow any permanent development to occur on the Red planet for decades.

The Space Exploration Initiative presented during the Bush administration not only didn’t build on the permanence idea presented by NCOS, it retreated to the old flags and footsteps approach to space exploration. With its unspoken mandate to rationalize then current NASA projects such as the space station, it called for the station to be used as a port of departure. For their money, the taxpayers would get to watch three to six people plant a flag, and once again leave our spoor behind in the Martian dust with no plan or promise of anything of substance coming from the adventure. Needless to say, it was DOA in Congress.

Even the smallest humans to Mars missions will require a substantial investment and to spread out that investment across an entire culture is not a bad idea. I believe in democracy, and if the taxpayers can be persuaded and the goal remains the first permanent human settlements on the Red Planet, we support the concept – as long as all aspects of the project utilize commercially provided data and support systems to the maximum extent possible. Any agenda that includes the Moon and Mars should be designed to create infrastructure that will support long term access and transportation to and from those worlds, and be carried out in a way that leverages one off of the other and all off of the activities of the commercial sector – as well as the taxpayer funded specific missions and programs along the way.

The Right to Own New Land in Space

Finally, for all of these new areas in both the Near Frontier and Far Frontier (including the Moon, Mars and the NEOs) to become the great sources of wealth and possibility they can be, we need to begin putting in place the rights of those who explore and develop such new “lands” in space to own them. Throughout history, it has been the ability to gain and hold land which has driven them forth, and given them the will to carve new human domains out of wilderness. Space is no different. If people are going to invest their wealth and lives in opening the frontier, they should have the right to pass what they have done down to the next generations. When the time is right, the US should stand up and recognize that in space, the same rights to won property exist as on Earth.
Earth to LEO

The primary goal for the nation in this decade must be achieving cheap access to space. Because if you can’t get there regularly and cheaply to develop, test and manufacture your product you can’t make a profit. If there is no profit, there will be no frontier.

Unfortunately, costs about the same today to put a human in space on the government shuttle as it did 30 years ago thanks to the incestuous, self preserving and self feeding institution that our shuttle program has become. And according to NASA the new OSP program will not help that situation and may make it worse, while costing us billions of dollars we need not spend.

The development of cheap, reliable and regular transportation to and from space is THE key requirement for opening the space frontier. Once again, there are strong mutual interests between the private and public sectors to be satisfied, once again, there is a chance for a partnership, and once again there is the chance to create new industries and jobs. And unfortunately, once again we are faced with a government controlled monopoly – this time operating the only human capable space transportation system in the United States.

It is time for change. NASA and the US government need to get out of the trucking and passenger carrying business as represented by the shuttle and OSP programs, and back to supporting exploration and scientific progress. NASA and its parasitic contractors must no longer be allowed to manage the designing, building and operation of what are essentially glorified government space trucks/vans. Can you imagine if the government had done the same thing with an airline? It is as if the FAA owned our single national air carrier. With no real competition it would never get cheaper, better or more efficient…and no one would be able to afford to fly on it. That’s the socialist monopoly we have in space flight. It has not improved safety or access and wasted billions of tax dollars. And with the announced plans for the Orbital Space Plane (or what some call the Orbital Stupid Plane) our nation will be pouring even more billions into a giant step backwards when it comes to access to space.

In contrast to this dinosaurian penchant for repeatedly getting stuck in quickly evaporating swamps of old ideas, a new lean, mean set of alternative space firms are out there building truly innovative systems for carrying paying passengers and payloads on sub-orbital flights for what may turn out to be less than a hundred thousand dollars a flight. Unencumbered by traditions, bureaucracies and structures designed to siphon tax dollars rather than realize profits, these firms are where innovations and new ideas can be born and tested on the anvil of the market system. But they face enormous challenges on the road to success. Often self funded and working close to the economic edge they have waited and watched as our government hasn’t done the job and are now going to open space their way – if they survive. These little mammals are doing their best to dodge the smothering feet of government regulations and paranoia and hold out hope for a whole new path into space, but they need help to survive. And if they are truly to contribute to our national space efforts they need the current system changed dramatically to acknowledge them, to support rather than hinder them, and to let them in.

Rise of the Alt. Space Firms

Several years ago in writings and talks I pointed out that I thought the new so called “robber barons” of space would come from the computer world. I saw these people as pre filtered for technological savvy, comfortable with new and innovative ideas, definitely out of the box thinkers, and raised on the space program, science fiction literature, and media such as Star Trek, B-5 and Star Wars. Oh, and also – although I was saying this before the dot-com melt down – they have lots of money in a culture where they will feel the need to do something great and important. In other words they would want to give something back. Well, some of them made it through the rough times in their own industry, and have done as we hoped, and jumped into the space field.

I call these new players Alternative Space Companies, or to put it into techno speak, the Alt.Space movement. They do have the money and the dreams, and yes, in their hearts they want to see the human species expand into space, of this I am sure. Or as Paypal founder and rocket builder Elon Musk said in meeting in his living room recently, our job is to “Back-up the Biosphere.”

The first shots of this revolution were fired when telecom millionaires Walt Anderson and Chirenjeev Kathuria joined with the Jeff Manber (former Executive Director of the Space Business Roundtables) myself and other Foundationers to go to Moscow and found MirCorp, with the goal of transforming the old Russian Mir into the world’s first commercial space station (which led to Dennis Tito and others flying aboard the ISS). Shortly afterwards, the X-Prize was founded. (Which directly influenced Rutan to finance and build his spaceship.) These activities began to fire up the imaginations of private citizens, who had thought themselves shut out of the space game. Within a couple of years, several new firms had been founded by those wanting to leverage off of the potential for flying what I call “citizen explorers” into space.

Within the last few months we have recently seen the first ripples that will be caused by the new Alt.Space “barons” and their own rocketship projects, in the form of Scott Bezos of’s Blue Horizons, Elon Musk’s Space-X, and John Carmack (owner of Id Software – created the hugely popular video games “Quake” and “Doom”) who owns Armadillo Aerospace. The recent highly publicized roll out of famed aircraft builder Burt Rutan’s test vehicle, which was apparently financed by a major software firm’s founder gave the world it’s first Alt.Space poster child, yet there are also many other firms working in this field.

Serious, business oriented, successful survivors of a tough industry, with big dreams and deep pockets these sole source funded projects join with other not so new players in the field with funded firms like Bob Bigelow (sole owner of Budget Suites of America) whose Bigelow Aerospace is building a prototype space hotel, Charlie Chaffer’s Celestis and Team Encounter whose Solar Sail Project just contracted with NASA to collect data on its voyage out of the solar system, and Constellation Services Incorporated, whose cargo containers promise to reduce cost to re-supply ISS at this critical time. Others, like Dennis Wingo’s SpaceCorp., Walt Anderson’s Orbital Recovery, John Powell’s JP Aerospace, Pioneer Aerospace, and X-Cor Aerospace complete a mix that is wide and deep in its potential to profoundly change the space transportation habitation and services field.

These are real firms, and are poised to transform space access and operations as we know it – if they get the right breaks, and the support of the nation they call home.

According to some experts, $1 in market potential offered to the private sector will produce $10 in the type of technological and operational breakthroughs we might get from the current government -centric approach we have today. Some put the ratio even higher. If Burt Rutan can build a re-usable sub-orbital space ship system for under $40 million, what can he and the other alternative firms out there do for let’s say the $10 billion we are about to waste on OSP? (The equivalent of 3 or 4 shuttle flights.) Rather than waste that money on yet another specific-use dead end program, let’s offer that money to the private sector to carry humans and cargo to and from space and get $100-200 billion of innovation and common sense. A few billion dollar a year market for separate payload and passenger flights to and from ISS and to fulfill other NASA and DOD needs would produce a huge change in our nation’s space access capabilities. Imagine, rather than one or two inside firms working on cost-plus contracts to fulfill single use needs they helped develop in the first place, we could have a dozen space delivery and transportation firms. NASA and DOD would no longer fund multi million dollar studies, multi-billion dollar development programs or prop up aging technologies, but would simply pay on delivery when their payloads were delivered…just like the rest of America and most of the world does on Earth. These new commercially oriented space trains, trucks, buses and taxis would carry not only government payloads, but also compete to carry commercial passengers and payloads to what could become a rapidly expanding human frontier in space.

To get there we must make radical changes, not just operationally, but most importantly, mentally, and in the structure and management of our current system. To that end I offer a ten point plan to turn our space agenda around. This plan will assure the maximum science and commercial activity in space, while creating an expanding wedge of human activities that will lead to a prosperous and growing human frontier in space. (It will also save the tax payers a huge chunk of change!)

* NASA should immediately be ordered to begin planning the retirement of the shuttles, and all human oriented shuttle and Earth to low Earth orbit (LEO) vehicle development offices, centers, programs and studies should be canceled as soon as possible.

* Congress should kill such projects as the Orbital Space Plane and its current space capsule program immediately and transfer the $10 billion it was about to waste to a set of new activities to open LEO to the people and new industries that should by right follow our 30 years of federal exploration of this area. To do this, while also seeding the agency’s return to real exploration beyond the Near Frontier, the following things should be implemented ASAP:

* The agency should be mandated to begin creating new procedures that will allow it to sign multiple payload and passenger delivery contracts at some date certain in the future, just as it does today when it uses Fed-Ex, UPS or American Airlines to move its valuable cargo and employees around on Earth.

* At least $1 billion of former OSP/capsule related funds should be transferred to the Alternative Access to Space program immediately to begin the re-education of agency managers away from exclusionary cost-plus contracting methods and start implementation of commercial LEO freight delivery.

* A set of National Space Prizes (NSP) should be created. – To incentivize the development of the vehicles needed to serve the former shuttle/OSP/capsule market and to assure multiple players and real competition down the road, several billion dollars of the saved OSP/capsule/shuttle money should be used to fund four/five prizes for the first teams to fly four people (or relative mass) safely to and from LEO at the lowest demonstrated cost, with the shortest turn around period. (Perhaps funded using a portion of current OSP/capsule development money, as a means of helping.)

* To provide an ongoing market for the NSP winners, all federal entities needing access to LEO should be mandated to use their current multi-billion dollar budgets (such as that about to be wasted on shuttle flights) to buy their rides using roughly the same criteria as the NSP. They must begin creating new procedures that will allow them to sign multiple payload and passenger delivery contracts at some date certain in the future, just as they do when using Fed-Ex, UPS or American Airlines to move valuable cargo and employees around on Earth.

To further assist their new partners in the national space effort, all federal space transportation regulations should be streamlined to allow the maximum freedom of development for the alternative space firms. This includes giving them the same regulatory over-rides now given to government systems such as government space launches, the space shuttles and the airline industry.

* As this space revolution is implemented, near term access to ISS should be purchased from the Russians, using Soyuz, Progress and other very capable vehicles.

* NASA and the Department of Defense should implement a series of X programs in cooperation with the private sector based on the old NACA model of enhancing commercial and military capabilities. And this effort must not be allowed to morph into development programs for government vehicles. Potential areas of research might involve thermal protection systems (TPS), and robust (airline-like) engine development projects.

* We should mothball or give our very capable Russian friends managerial leadership of the current high inclination space station and use the remaining elements still on the ground to build a lower inclination, more commercially accessible station.

* In either case, the ISS management structure on both should be changed to an Airport/ Seaport Authority model, not a scientific institute, which will be too narrow in focus, expertise and bias. A Space Station Authority can do a much better job at creating a safe, efficient and productive environment for all users, commercial and scientific. This ISSA will be encouraged to lower station costs in all areas of operations, and not just allow, but encourage access to the station and its airlocks by the widest range of commercial space transporters and suppliers.

* All NASA vehicle and habitat development activity should be re-focused from Earth to LEO operations to in-space missions aimed at the Far Frontier, such as a permanent Return to the Moon and the long term exploration and opening of the Martian frontier.

Heavy Lift

If massive heavy lift is needed for such things as supporting a permanent human return to the Moon or a humans-to-Mars initiative, we have two choices. The first is to utilize the existing shuttle infrastructure investment in people, hardware and facilities. The current external tank and solid rocket stacks could be used as the basis of an automated re-usable cargo ship (near term this could easily be the existing space shuttles, as they apparently can be flown remotely) or grown into a very heavy lift vehicle. If this path is chosen, I would encourage the use of the external tanks that it would be carrying into orbit as part of any planned orbital infrastructure.

However, if I am to stay true to the idea that NASA should get completely out of the Earth to LEO transportation business – and that our goal is to grow a strong space transportation industry for all sorts of payloads – my answer in the area of heavy lift is a bit different. As I have been educated over time by my peers in the field on this issue, my preference has become more pure in relation to this cause. I believe the best way to get heavy lift to support a return to the Moon and a human mission to Mars is to have NASA stay out of it entirely and buy the rides in this area as well. Rather than a massive new NASA vehicle development project, the agency and its contractors should instead focus on the development and construction of the habitats and transportation systems it will need on and between those two worlds, and stay out of the Earth to LEO transportation arena entirely.

There already exists capability in the US Delta class and Russian Progress vehicles to loft many tons of payloads to LEO and Lunar orbit. Using the new and exciting concept of on-orbit assembly or in-space construction that the agency has been allegedly learning by building ISS, these components can be assembled into any size needed for either project. Although not available on the scale of a potential automated shuttle derived cargo vehicle, if one considers the development and operational costs of such a brand new system versus the eventual freight bill of a competitively bid delivery to space contract using modified current day systems or those in development already in the private sector, the taxpayers could save millions. Meanwhile, such an approach would continue to fuel, rather than compete with the space transportation industry.

The time is now.

It is time for America to step up and face the future.

Time for the United States to push into a new frontier of technology and leadership.
It is time for the White House and Congress to give the people of this nation a new and positive tomorrow.

It is time to show the world that America doesn’t just drop bombs, but can build dreams.

Let’s be frank. NASA as currently constituted cannot do the things I have outlined. It is bloated, self preservation oriented, and is spending it’s time wasting billions of our tax dollars re-inventing the wheel and re-reinventing the wheel and so on…without knowing why it even needs a wheel, and where it wants to go once it has a vehicle. The agency and its encrustation of existing contractors need to be totally re-vamped. This can be done by Congress and the White House via enacting new policies and changes over time, or by giving the agency a tough clear and hard to achieve goal, which may well force the needed changes. After all, as Kennedy said “we don’t do these things because they are easy, but because they are hard!”

Some call for the agency to be shut down, and I admit there are times I feel the same way. The private sector is already beginning its own space program, and the agency, especially its human space flight component, may soon be redundant. One former shuttle astronaut pointed out recently that the next American to ride into space on an American spaceship will be a civilian riding in a private rocket! Think about it! The contrast between the Alt. Space firms approach to space and NASA’s reveals a true split in the genetic line of the evolution of human space flight. Those who lead our nation can ignore this reality, try to stomp it to death, or embrace it, nurture it and leverage off of it for the greater good and glory of all Americans.

The Frontier is Open and On to Mars!

It is time for dramatic action…or the future will pass into the hands of others…

The Congress and White House should unite behind a declaration that the Near Frontier is open for business, and the nation is going to explore and open the Far Frontier of the Moon and Mars…this time to stay! No hesitation, no endless timescales, no wimping out for the greatest nation on Earth. We must do this hard and fast and do it now, and on a very tight and challenging time scale. (Don’t tell me we can’t do it quickly and well, this is the same nation that went from a standing start to the Moon in under ten years – forty years ago!)

As President Kennedy recognized in the middle of the darkest days of the Cold War, there is no perfect time to do something bold and beautiful. Or perhaps, such times as then and now are exactly the right time to take a stand for what is great and honorable in humanity. If such incredible boldness can be summoned in such a time, then it can be summoned now. And we need it now more than ever. America needs a shining light. The world needs a shining light. Space can be the place where that light can hang for all to see. And now is exactly when such choices must be called out by those of vision.

Within my lifetime I want to be able to cast my eyes upwards and see a string of pearls in the night above the Earth as the first orbital community of Alpha Town celebrates its first quarter century, while glittering lights shimmer at the South Pole of the Moon…as the first Lunar city celebrates its first decade. And shooting like a star across the night, the glow of nuclear motors in the night above, as the first regular space liners begin their service to and from Mars…where a whole new branch of humanity is being born beneath the amber skies of a new world they call Home.

SpaceRef staff editor.