If all goes according to plan today [Friday], the Space Shuttle Atlantis will lift off on the Shuttle program’s 135th and final mission in 30 years. As NASA–working with a drastically reduced budget–retools for a different kind of mission and private companies take over the bulk of space flight, what happens next is anyone’s guess: space hotel chains? Asteroid mining? A carbon footprint so high it single-handedly melts a tenth of the polar ice caps?
Two weeks from today, NASA-as-we-know-it will be gutted by layoffs–3,200 out of 6,700 employees and contractors will be let go–with the best and brightest engineers expected to stream toward the exits. And why not? They have little to look forward to following April’s official cancellation of the Shuttle’s hopelessly late and underfunded successor, the Constellation moon-shot program, which President Obama has replaced with the goal of a Mars landing circa 2035, well past their retirement ages.
In May, Atlantis launch director Michael D. Leinbach vented his frustrations to his staff in a speech that was widely circulated within NASA. “Throughout the history of the manned space flight program we’ve always had another program to transition into,” he said. “And we had that, and it got canceled and now we don’t have anything, and I’m embarrassed that we don’t.” (Cue wild applause.)
With American spacecraft grounded for the foreseeable future, NASA has been forced to pursue a strategy it arguably hasn’t tried since the Apollo missions: innovation. A key piece of Obama’s plan is to outsource low-Earth orbit to private companies, paying-as-we-go for launches while letting them keep their intellectual property, hence motivating them to innovate rather than check the boxes on NASA’s specs. The goal is the same as the Shuttle program’s more than 30 years ago: to drive down the costs and increase the incentives of space flight until it becomes routine.
Technically, commercial spaceflight is nothing new. The French firm Arianespace (a spin-off of the European Space Agency) pre-dates the Space Shuttle. In 1984, President Reagan signed the Commercial Space Launch Act, legalizing private satellite launches. But military-industrial complex behemoths like Boeing and Lockheed Martin had no real reasons to innovate when NASA engineers wrote all the specifications for them, and paid them cost-plus contracts that practically guaranteed overruns.
That began to change in February 2010 with the creation of the Commercial Crew Development program (CCDev). Closer in spirit to its defense and energy department cousins DARPA and ARPA-E, CCDev awarded $50 million to five companies to fund spacecraft designs of interest to NASA, with strict performance milestones. In April, NASA awarded another $269.3 million to four companies–Boeing, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada (formerly SpaceDev)–instantly vaulting them to the front of the commercial space race.
But the real competition begins this fall, when NASA will solicit proposals for complete systems capable of launching passengers into low-Earth orbit–essentially a privatized successor to the Shuttle. Depending on how the federal budget impasse is resolved, NASA will have as much as $850 million to spread around a handful of companies–a pittance compared to the Shuttle’s nearly $150 billion budget, but perhaps enough to seed a new industry. All it will take is NASA transforming itself from Ma Bell to an angel investor.
“It’s like the Internet in so many ways–you turn it over to the private sector and amazing things happen,” says Esther Dyson, an investor in several space companies, including XCOR Aerospace and Space Adventures, and chair of the NASA Advisory Council’s Technology and Innovation Committee. “It’s hard to change the law of gravity, but if you can reuse this stuff and fly people once or twice a month instead of a year, you’ll get massive savings because your capital costs are spread out. Simply sending things up into space more often will drive progress.”
The bigger question is whether there’s any money to be made in space beyond NASA’s (shrinking) budget, and if so, how. The U.S. space business generated $40 billion in revenue in 2010, according to the Aerospace Industries Association, but breaking into a market dominated by the military-industrial complex is always hard. In the short term, the answer may just be the novelty of going up there and back.
Tom Shelley, the president of Space Adventures–the tourism agency that has sent seven multi-millionaires into orbit and back for $35 million apiece–predicts there will be 140 orbital astronauts and “thousands” of sub-orbital space tourists by 2020. “It’s going to be five minutes in space, you’re going to pull three or four Gs, and really feel like an astronaut,” Shelley says.
Leading the pack in this market is Virgin Galactic, the partnership between Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Burt Rutan’s aerospace concern Scaled Composites, which has already collected $20,000 deposits from 430 would-be astronauts, and three other companies–the Jeff Bezos-funded Blue Origin, XCOR, and John Carmack’s Armadillo Aerospace–are all developing sub-orbital spaceplanes as well.
Dyson, who happens to be a trained cosmonaut courtesy of Space Adventures (she was the earthbound backup of Mircosoft executive and space tourist Charles Simonyi on his second mission to space in 2009) believes Shelley’s estimates are too low. She believes that space will become the preferred vacation destination of again cash-rich/time-poor moguls and plutocrats who can spare the mid-six figures on a brag-worthy family vacation but doesn’t have a month to spend sitting around acclimating at Everest Base Camp. “You don’t want to go to Everest when you’re 70,” says Dyson (who turns 60 next week), “but you can go into space.”
Where will they stay? Yet another start-up named Bigelow Aerospace–founded and funded by Budget Suites hotels owner Robert Bigelow–is busy building an inflatable space hotel on the edges of Las Vegas, which he aims to launch with the help of either Boeing or SpaceX by 2016. Bigelow has signed deals with six countries to house their astronauts at a per person cost of $28.75 million for a 30-day tour. His ultimate goal is to build a moonbase before China does.
Bigelow recently shared his suspicions with Forbes that Chinese leaders will ultimately be tempted to withdraw from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits lunar claims, and launch a land grab on the Moon. It’s our patriotic duty to get there first, he says, and “without the private sector, this country is not capable of doing that or getting there in time. It will be too little, too late.”
Bigelow may be onto something. The mineral wealth buried in the Moon or embodied in asteroids is so theoretically large that a single strike could send a Goldfinger-like shock through the commodities markets. In his book Mining the Sky, University of Arizona professor John S. Lewis estimated that an asteroid a mile wide contains more than $20 trillion in iron ore, platinum, and other metals. The trick would be getting it back to Earth in sufficiently large quantities to pay for itself.
But another unforeseen consequence threatens to strand commercial spaceflight on the launch pad: the potentially ruinous climate consequences of so much space soot remaining trapped in the atmosphere. A paper published last fall in the journal Geophysical Research Letters modeled the effects of 1,000 launches per years from Virgin Galactic’s future base at Spaceport America, near Las Cruces, New Mexico. Virgin’s spaceplanes burn synthetic hydrocarbons with nitrous oxide, producing a high amount of soot, or “black carbon.”
The models run by the paper’s authors found 600 tons of black carbon per year who linger in the atmosphere, causing temperatures at the poles to rise by as much as one-degree Celsius and shrink polar sea ice anywhere from 5% to 15%. In that case, the biggest threat to NASA’s future isn’t a shrunken budget or lack of vision–it’s a carbon tax or cap-and-trade.