Back to the Moon–For a Fraction of the Old Price

By SpaceRef Editor
February 10, 2012
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Back to the Moon–For a Fraction of the Old Price

Gingrich is right that America needs to retain its lead in space.

As a former NASA executive, I am saddened by the media response to Newt Gingrich’s proposal that we return to the moon. The mockery and ridicule does America a great disservice. Space exploration and development is an important national issue. It’s not only possible and necessary to safeguard our future–it can be a lot cheaper than anybody dreams.

To recap: During the Jan. 26 Republican primary debate in Florida, Mr. Gingrich proposed that we return to the moon within eight years to establish a lunar colony, asserting that the benefits to America would be tremendous. Mitt Romney retorted that if somebody came to him to ask for “a few hundred billion dollars” to return to the moon, he would say: “You’re fired.”

But what would President Romney say to me if I proposed to return to the moon for $40 billion, not hundreds of billions? And if I explained how that would fundamentally enhance U.S. national security?

In 2011, I challenged a team of NASA engineers to answer a simple question: “Can we send humans back to the moon, and to the asteroids, with existing launch vehicles?” The answer was, “Yes, we can.” We concluded that it would cost about $40 billion, and that this could be financed out of NASA’s existing annual human spaceflight budget (around $4 billion) over 10 years.

But we can also change how we structure our human spaceflight efforts. In the face of trillion-dollar deficits, there’s no other option. Mr. Gingrich’s solution is to allocate 10% of NASA’s annual budget of about $18 billion to prizes that would challenge and entice our best innovators and spaceflight entrepreneurs.

I would add that we should target the most important problem first–the cost of space launches. Use the first year’s prize money of $1.8 billion to create a Reusable Spaceplane Prize. Set the first prize at $1 billion, and the second prize at $800 million–and then get out of the way.

Total reusability is the holy grail of space development. We have known this for 50 years. With it, launch vehicles become like airplanes. With it, we reduce the current launch-into-orbit cost of $5,000-$10,000 per pound to about $500 per pound. With reusable spaceplanes we can establish and economically sustain an initial lunar base–and open the solar system to all humanity. We already have the basic technology. The X-37, an unmanned vertical-takeoff, horizontal landing plane that uses 1990s technology, was last reported (it is on a national-security mission) in orbit on its second tour in space. The X-37 is a Mach 25 reusable spacecraft.

So why are we not developing fully reusable spaceplanes now? In 2010, NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist concluded that the primary barrier wasn’t technical. It was that there was not enough demand for flights, based on existing and provable markets, to justify the large and risky investment. We hired a Wall Street advisory firm, Near Earth LLC, to independently assess the same issue, and it reached the same conclusion.

A Reusable Spaceplane Prize would solve this problem. As Mr. Gingrich pointed out in a speech last month, in the 1920s and 1930s entrepreneurs like Bill Boeing, Glen Martin, Donald Douglas, Jack Northrop and the Wright brothers–with some help from the U.S. government–created the greatest aviation industry on this planet. America is still the home of the entrepreneur, and we now have space-travel pioneers like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Robert Bigelow, Burt Rutan, Paul Allen and Jeff Greason.

The race for a Reusable Spaceplane Prize would grab the whole world’s attention. After all, the nation that builds the first true reusable spaceplane will be in a position to dominate the much broader global commercial space industry. The nation that leads in spaceplanes will capture new markets opened by this industry, such as satellite servicing, tourism and medical breakthroughs from zero-gravity research. From all this will flow even more innovations, businesses and jobs.

Spaceplanes will also transform U.S. national security. In 2001, for example, Congress sponsored a bipartisan Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization. In its report, the commission warned that the U.S. is in danger of a Pearl Harbor-type attack in space.

Our assets in orbit are strategically critical and yet vulnerable to attacks from our enemies. Commercial satellites, comsats, are part of the foundation of the world’s economy. While our national-security satellites are hardened against irradiation and some other assaults, our commercial satellites are not. Across the planet, ATMs, remote-payment systems, television, radio, GPS, weather, Internet services and much more depend on comsats. Overnight, America’s enemies could destroy orbital infrastructure worth tens of billions of dollars, with a sustained global economic impact in the trillions of dollars.

In January 2007, China successfully demonstrated an antisatellite weapon. More worrisome, both North Korea and Iran are developing ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. One nuclear explosion above the Earth’s atmosphere could have a devastating impact on the Free World. While China is likely to be rational in its use of antisatellite weapons, the same cannot be said about North Korea and Iran. Spaceplanes will eliminate this weak spot. With their ability to rapidly replace our orbiting satellites, they will reduce the incentive to attack us in space in the first place.

Remember that when Newt Gingrich talks about five to eight flights per day to space. Don’t ridicule him for that. Don’t scoff. He’s not talking about a luxury, he’s talking about a necessity. He is talking about American leadership throughout the 21st century. He is talking about peace through strength.

Mr. Miller is president of NexGen Space LLC in Arlington, Va. He served as NASA’s senior adviser for commercial space from Feb. 2009 through Jan. 2012.

Originally published inthe Wall Street Journal, Provided courtesy of the author.

SpaceRef staff editor.