Is there anything that the U.S. technology community, with an assist from the federal government, can do that would simultaneously achieve the following: a) help hone our economic edge to help us prosper a bit more over a long term; b) maintain and improve upon the technological advantage we have with the rest of the world in space and aeronautics; c) help us on the military side; and d) maintain, retain and sharpen the technological minds of some of our smartest citizens?
Such a thing does exist, but a case for it has not been made — because it was not possible to make it until now.
Earlier this month, a private company, SpaceX, successfully launched an American-built rocket vehicle system, docked with the International Space Station, and returned successfully to Earth with an intent and hope of commercializing orbital access. Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration organized its annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, where I presented a paper on the possible business case for routine orbital access. Harvard Business Review published earlier this year "A List of Audacious Ideas for Solving the World's Problems," an article suggesting NASA find ways to reduce the cost of access to space.
There is a common path in all of these developments. Such a scenario can be realized if NASA expends its immense talents to develop the technologies required for fully reusable, quick-turnaround rockets and hypersonic vehicles.
This is the missing link. It may do for space transportation what jet engines did for air transportation 60 years ago, when people never imagined that more than 500 million passengers would travel by airplane every year and that the cost could be reduced to current levels, all because of passenger volume and reliable reusability. That is, if we can design such vehicles and rockets to last, safely, for at least 200 flights.
If the ticket price for space tourism can be reduced from the current $30 million to $60 million down to $500,000 or $250,000, this will increase the potential customer base from a few today to 50,000 to 800,000, with average revenues up to $10 billion per year. That is where NASA comes into the picture. NASA needs to restore its recently canceled hypersonic program and should divert some of its funds — perhaps 4 percent to 5 percent of its budget — for starting its own blend of mini-Manhattan and National Highway System projects to develop fully reusable technologies for vehicle and the propulsion systems. Such a vehicle would have military applications as well, justifying the Department of Defense and NASA working together on its development.
But space tourism as a potential business that can help the U.S. economy is only part of the equation — and surely not a strong enough reason to change the paradigm on its own. What else would such an initiative do for the country?
It can open up a multitude of avenues. It would enable point-to-point hypersonic travel to transport us from here to the Far East in two to three hours, using Ramjet or Scramjet high-speed propulsion technologies. It can clean up defunct satellites (there are about 10,000) or service the ones in need of repair (about 3,500). More importantly, it can build much-needed fuel depots in orbit, and the space entrepreneurs can supply them with 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of fuel at a time. It can build a way station for future travels to the moon or Mars requiring less fuel. Then there are all those businesses that the space station was supposed to create — but didn't, thanks to the high cost of going to orbit. That could change too.
Many small companies (like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, XCOR and Armadillo) with big, exciting dreams are champing at the bit to play in this field. One thing is for sure: A lack of such capability will wreck any chance of a fruitful realization of such businesses and hamper our national space goals. Development of such a capability by NASA, preferably in cooperation with DOD, is a necessary condition, to bring about the goals and promises outlined above. For the sake of our future, it must act.
Ajay P. Kothari, Ph.D., is CEO and founder of a small, space-based company in Maryland that has done research and development for orbital access vehicles for the Air Force and NASA. His company has received no funding from NASA in recent years but could potentially benefit financially if the proposals in this op-ed were enacted. His email is email@example.com.