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What is the correct relationship between the space agency and private enterprise? How can the space mission and the space business work together, efficiently and creatively?
If space exploration is like the vanguard of an army, advancing into hostile territory, commercial business is like that army's supply train, generating new wealth faster than the vanguard can consume it.
If the vanguard gets too far ahead of the supply train, it will run short of food, fuel and ammunition. It will suffer defeat and be forced into retreat. This is what happened to the Ming treasure junks and to Apollo. It is what threatens to befall Apollo's successors -- in America, the Bush junior "Moon, Mars and Beyond" vision for space exploration; in Europe, ESA's Aurora programme.
I propose that the key to both affordability and sustainability is to ensure that the supply train advances in step with the vanguard. In other words, wherever astronaut explorers go, entrepreneurs, industrialists, adventure tourists and ultimately colonists are never far behind.
The solar system offers us a graded sequence of problems, like a giant staircase stretching out towards the stars: suborbital space hops, low Earth orbit, high orbit, lunar flyby, lunar landing, asteroid visits, Mars, and so on. Each step has greater energy and life-support demands than the preceding one. On the space agency model, after each of these steps has been scaled by government explorers, it remains subsequently under the exclusive control of the agencies. They are unwilling to relinquish power or property rights to the market. Private enterprise must be kept penned in on Earth -- or maybe if it is very, very good it will be allowed to carry out one or two very simple commercial activities in space, but only after many decades more of government research.
The model which I am offering here is quite different.
When horses are harnessed in tandem, or when cyclists ride in tandem, this means that the two are harnessed, or sit, one directly behind the other. They travel together. Like the vanguard and the supply train, where one leads, the other immediately follows. This relationship between the public vanguard, flying missions of exploration, and the private supply train, flying businesses into space, is what is necessary to achieve the goals of an affordable and sustainable space frontier. They must move together in tandem.
It follows that each step of the cosmic staircase should be colonised by the market before the next step is visited by human explorers. Agency astronauts should not be permitted to fly again beyond low Earth orbit until regular commercial access to low Earth orbit has been assured. They should not fly beyond the Moon until commercial access to the Moon has been assured. The space agency should always be in the position of giving a helping hand up to the entrepreneur, rather than making excuses -- space is too expensive, too dangerous, too fragile, for any but our highly trained astronauts to dare to venture out there!
If agency programmes of manned spaceflight are to achieve the reasonable goal of making a permanent addition to the material wealth of mankind, the agencies themselves need to be drastically reformed. They must be motivated to work with space entrepreneurs, rather than ignore or even actively frustrate them, as they have been doing in recent years. They must be forced to give up their natural tendencies to monopolise human spaceflight and to suppress innovation [ref. 3].
The ideally efficient space agency would create manned spaceflight capabilities with the explicit and deliberate purpose of seeing those capabilities taken over by others, who can employ them on an economic basis. This is so far from current space agency thinking as to require a revolution in thought. This can only be imposed from outside, by a combination of pressures from governments, exasperated at the waste of money which manned spaceflight has represented up until now, and from entrepreneurs, hammering at the gates of space with all the force of the market's demand for popular spaceflight and for natural resources from space.
In this ideal world, the plans for continued astronaut spaceflight, now in preparation by NASA, ESA and Rosaviakosmos, would only be politically approved and funded when they can demonstrate how they will transfer new capabilities for human spaceflight to the commercial sector within about ten years, to be operated thereafter as profit-making enterprises, contributing to the public exchequer rather than continuing to drain it.
How might this work in practice?
In the near term (2005-2015), governments, space agencies and investors should encourage commercial space companies to exploit three key market opportunities:
The principal mission of the International Space Station should now be seen as a destination which will encourage commercial access to low Earth orbit, delivering both supplies and private visitors (as Donald Robertson has already argued). This in turn should encourage the growth of privately built and operated orbital hotels. The partners in the ISS should offer substantial cash prizes to any private company which can deliver passengers and cargo from Earth on a prototype of an economically viable reusable spaceplane, or which can supply the ISS with asteroidal or cometary water more efficiently than hauling it up from Earth. Such prizes, in the manner of the Ansari X-Prize, should be followed by contracts, analogous to the early transatlantic mail contracts awarded to Cunard and other steamship lines.
The space agencies should also commit themselves to building a prototype solar power satellite, establishing in the process a much-needed and almost infinitely expandable clean energy supply for industrial mankind. It does not matter that oil is currently cheaper. The purpose of the satellite will be to prepare for life after oil, two or more decades ahead. It will answer the long-term political needs for a non-polluting power supply, and one which is independent of the Middle East.
At the same time, the agencies should demonstrate the use of asteroidal or cometary water to manufacture the propellants for lifting power satellite components to a suitably high orbit. Although again in the short term this will be more expensive than hauling propellants ready for use up from Earth, in the longer term such a supply line will, once it has been set up, make orbital refuelling, anywhere in the solar system, very much cheaper than at present.
But again we must emphasise: these technologies should not be used to create new space agency monopolies! They must be planned from the start in terms of a stimulus to economic growth, and should involve private sector investment at the earliest possible stage.
Almost all the universe's natural resources of power and raw materials are extra-terrestrial. This fact is inescapable. Therefore almost all our civilisation's opportunities for future growth and wealth creation lie in space and on other worlds in space. These cannot be developed by monolithic government departments. Government can show the way and prepare some of the technology. But only entrepreneurs can turn these capabilities into the profitable businesses of the future, or create an economy as diverse as that which has so enriched civilisation on Earth. Only in this way can we assure the taxpayer that his or her money is going towards a sustainable increase in their children's abilities to create new wealth and guarantee their security.
If human activities in space are ever to be genuinely affordable and sustainable, then government pioneers, who consume wealth, must be quickly followed by private entrepreneurs, who consolidate our presence in space by creating new sources of wealth. The government agency and the private company must travel in tandem at each step of the cosmic staircase.
Last revised 13 January 2005 / 36th Apollo Anniversary Year
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