Next Year in Orbit

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for those interested in humanity's future off the planet.

It's customary for columnists to take stock at the end of a year -- to review the highlights of the year's events and put them into a context. For space enthusiasts, particularly human-in-space enthusiasts, 2002 had points both high and low.

Let's start with the bad news. Our current primary method of lofting payloads into orbit, expendable launch vehicles, once again demonstrated their intrinsic unreliability, with several notable failures, even of new systems that were supposed to provide more assurance of safety.

Perhaps the most notable was the recent embarrassing failure of the European (though really French) Ariane 5. It was only three for four this past year, but that was actually an improvement in its historical performance -- it only has a 70 percent success rate since its inaugural flight (which was, typically enough, a failure as well).

Combined with failures of other commercial launchers, the space insurance industry took it on the chin this year, and it's going to make it much more difficult to get insurance for launches next year -- the available investment pool is depleted. Reliability is expensive, but unreliability can apparently be even more so.

In the mixed-results category, the government showed some signs of starting to get its act together after the space-policy incoherence (and often outright disasters) of the Clinton-Gore administration. The Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry finally released its report, and it contained a bold call for radical changes in our national space goals and policies. It remains to be seen, however, if the policy makers will take it seriously, or if it will simply gather dust on a shelf, as almost all previous such commission reports have.

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe started to get a handle on the agency's budget problems, particularly the space station overruns, and has at least fenced off the problems of this ongoing agency white elephant from the rest of NASA and its planning. He's starting to develop a vision for both ISS and NASA future plans for manned space beyond earth orbit.

He also euthanized the Space Launch Initiative, which was threatening to become another budgetary black hole of sand boxes for technologists (at least in its prior flawed form) while continuing to dampen potential investor enthusiasm for private alternatives to the shuttle.

Unfortunately, there's still little sense that O'Keefe understands the real issues of the cost of space launch and how to solve them. While it's not necessary for him to do so (as long as the agency can stay out of the way), progress could occur much more quickly on this front with an administrator who's up to speed. Perhaps 2003 will see him become so.

Fortunately, there are some promising developments on the military side. Despite the adherence of the Air Force to the old expendable-launch paradigm in the form of the EELV program, DARPA (in defiance of the old, disastrous Clinton-Gore dictum that NASA pursue reusables and DoD focus on expendables) has a new program for a small, mostly-reusable launcher that, if successful, could utterly alter the way the world thinks about space launch--in cost, responsiveness and reliability. They will be downselecting to a small number of the existing contractors in the next couple months to further investigate some promising concepts, most of which could probably be scaled up to provide low-cost access not only for significant payloads, but perhaps passengers as well.

President Bush authorized the construction of an initial defense against ballistic missiles this past year. This will have no immediate impact on the space industry per se, but the long-term effects of deploying large numbers of interceptors will surely drive down the cost, and increase the reliability, of delivery systems for them. It will also get people to start thinking of space as just a place to do things (including warfare), rather than as a pristine sanctuary, fit only for scientists and weapons passing through.

Perhaps the most exciting news this past year for Mars enthusiasts was the discovery of vast quantities of easily-accessible water there. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of this discovery will be, but it's already caused major rethinking of plans for human missions and settlement of the Red Planet.

Both the threat and the promise of asteroids became more recognized (including a couple close calls) in the past year, and this may result in some promising near-term policy to address both, if nothing other than increasing the paltry resources currently devoted to looking for them.

Finally, in what is to me the most encouraging developments in my experience of following space activities and advocating a vigorous and muscular space policy, comes the news from the private sector.

TransOrbital, a private lunar exploration/exploitation company, had a successful test launch last week, a key milestone toward an eventual money-making lunar enterprise. Low earth orbit is not the moon, but it's a good confidence builder, and companies like them should be encouraged.

On the affordable-access front, the focus is clearly shifting toward the suborbital market. This is a welcome development, because this market has been neglected, and it's one that promises much more affordable ventures. These will be able to prove out the concepts that can provide routine, reliable, low-cost space launch. The existence of a market for such vehicles means that they can then be bootstrapped up to orbital ventures, once the principle is accepted.

The process will be greatly aided by recently released reports from the Aerospace Corporation and Futron that actually quantify the suborbital market.

The development of this market (particularly the passenger portion of it) may be greatly aided by the fact that, over six years after its founding, the X-Prize is finally fully funded, with 10 million dollars available to the first person or company to fly a successful suborbital vehicle.

Overall, we saw both some setbacks and advances this past year. NASA and the rest of the government continue to flounder to a degree, but things are improving with the new administrator and administration. Meanwhile, private enterprise is starting to pick up some of the slack, and such activities will continue to accelerate into 2003.

To paraphrase the old Jewish toast, "Next year in orbit..."


I got little mail this past week, but a couple of people did correct my skepticism about the Japanese centrifuge, expressed in last week's letters section. Apparently, if successfully launched, the U.S. will indeed own the facility -- it is part of Japan's contribution to the International Space Station.

Have a happy and prosperous new year.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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