Out With the Old, In With the New

The year 2003 will be viewed by historians as a crucial year in the development of space, though not for the reasons that many present-day commentators might suppose.

For those who support America's national space program, the year started out with a tragedy, and a seemingly major blow to NASA's manned spaceflight endeavors, with the loss of the space shuttle Columbia on the first of February.

The conventional wisdom is that this will be seen as the key space event of the year, one that set off a major investigation into the catastrophe, resulting in recommendations that would ultimately lead to a reform and revitalization of the space agency, with new goals. The cynic in me (that part of me that has, unfortunately, been much more prescient than my more idealistic side) is unsurprisingly skeptical about the prospects for such an outcome. Bureaucracies have remarkable inertia and staying power, particularly when their status-quo activities benefit powerful political interests, and sending humans to other planets, lofty a goal that as seem to many, is not now, and never has been such an activity.

Such skepticism is borne out, so far, by the fact that many in the space community were disappointed a couple of weeks ago in hoping for an early Christmas present from President Bush--that the administration would announce some bold new goal for NASA on the centennial of flight. Such a goal may still be announced, perhaps at the upcoming State of the Union address next month (and close to the first anniversary of the loss of Columbia), but simply announcing a new destination, as many hope, will not solve the fundamental problem.

Already, it seems clear that, in pursuing and even accelerating the Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program, those running NASA plan to stick with business as usual, if the administration allows them to, and there are no indications as of yet that it won't. The Gehman Commission on the Columbia accident misdiagnosed the problem, thinking that our faltering manned spaceflight program is a symptom of a simple design issue, rather than a fundamental institutional and philosophical one, in which we designate NASA to build and operate a single vehicle type (of whatever design) to accomplish its paltry goal of sending a few government employees into space each year. That was the fatal flaw of the shuttle program, and it will be just as flawed an approach if we replace shuttle with OSP, because it will remain a fragile monoculture, with too little activity to ever make it cost effective.

OSP won't cost any less, and while it may be slightly safer, as the old inspirational management poster says, a ship in a harbor is safe, but that's not what ships are built for. Sadly, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe apparently neither made nor kept any of my suggested resolutions for this past year.

It wasn't just NASA that seemed to be on its last legs in the past year, however. The existing commercial launch industry is in dire straits as well, with a huge glut of launchers on the market, and no prospects for an increase in demand any time soon, given the proliferation of new technologies that are supplanting orbital telecommunications. This was the year that Boeing announced that it was dropping out of the commercial launch market for the Delta program, leaving only one remaining provider of large commercial expendable launchers.

Both NASA and the traditional launch industry remain mired in a vicious cycle: they do too little, because it costs too much, because they do too little, because it costs too much, because... In retrospect, this past year may be seen as the beginning of the end for the space program as we've known it over the past four decades of its existence, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

More hopefully, there were other events this year that may have marked the end of the beginning of a nascent, but far more vibrant and dynamic space industry that will more likely characterize the remainder of this young century.

The regulatory situation with respect to reusable launch systems (or as I prefer to call them more simply, space transports) became much more clear this past year, significantly reducing the uncertainty that has been a major barrier to private investment.

Legislation to explicitly authorize the FAA to license passenger vehicles, and to define suborbit for the purposes of launch licensing was introduced in the Congress this past year, and the FAA has already started to implement new rules in anticipation of its passage. More importantly, at least one company's license application has been declared by the FAA to be "sufficiently complete," meaning that they will likely be granted such a license within a few months.

One of the other companies seeking such a license, Scaled Composites, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' achievement by accelerating a rocketplane beyond the speed of sound (a first for a privately-developed aircraft), with funding provided by Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen. This was one of several test flights that are planned to ultimately culminate in an attempt at two consecutive flights to a hundred kilometers altitude, to win the X-Prize. The prize expires next year, but whether by Scaled or someone else, the chances that someone will win it are looking increasingly good.

Paul Allen wasn't the only investor to come out of the space-entrepreneur closet in 2003. John Carmack, developer of Doom, Quake and other best-selling video games, is funding his own X-Prize entry, and may win it should the Scaled attempt falter. Jeff Bezos, founder and owner of Amazon.com, is now directing some of his own riches to a life-long passion as well, with the announcement this past spring of a project to build a suborbital tourism vehicle.

Elon Musk, founder of Paypal, announced the development of a new small commercial launcher, on a fast-track schedule, with first flight next year--a breakneck development pace unseen since the dawn of the first space age in the fifties and sixties. Dennis Tito, the first man to buy his own ride into space, has declared that he plans to invest in the space tourism industry. He was only awaiting a clearing of the regulatory fog and, given the welcome news from the FAA, described above, may be announcing specific investments soon.

There's an old saying in commercial space circles that the way to make a small fortune in that business is to start with a large one. These are all very astute businessmen, and at least one of them is likely to turn a small fortune into a larger one. When they do, it may set off a new investment trend, one that will finally break the monopoly of NASA and big aerospace on the new frontier, both manned and unmanned, allowing not just dozens, but thousands, and perhaps even millions to seek their own adventures and fortunes there. Ultimately, historians may in fact view 2003 as significant a year for spaceflight as 1903 was for aviation.

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.

Respond to the Writer