I got a response to last week's column from the office of Rep. David Weldon, R-Fla., specifically from his staffer Brendan Curry.
He (and the congressman for whom he works) really is one of the good guys, if you're one of the many citizens (and voters) interested in a vibrant space program and getting into space yourself. But it shows how even the folks who sincerely want to make things happen inside the Beltway can often get into mind sets that continue to constrain us.
I responded in detail at my weblog, and those interested can read the letter in full there. It prompted this week's rant. To lead it off, I'll just quote the last paragraph.
Rand, there is no vehicle on the drawing boards anywhere that has a chance of flying anytime soon that will not need the facilities and capabilities that reside at either Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or the capabilities of our existing West Coast launch facilities. Third generation vehicles may indeed possess the capability of airline-like operations, but for the foreseeable future we are wed to more traditional launch vehicle technology.
I doubt if Mr. Curry has access to all drawing boards everywhere, and when it comes to the "foreseeable future," I'd imagine that his crystal ball is at least as cracked and cloudy as mine. I suspect that what he means is that NASA has no plans to build one. There are a couple of implicit (and in my opinion, mistaken) assumptions in his letter that shape our current space policy, and not at all for the better.
One is that NASA (as an agency--not the individuals within it) knows how to reduce launch costs, and that their judgment in such matters is of non-zero utility to decision makers who sincerely want to achieve that goal. Well, actually, I suspect that it does have such utility, but only in a negative sense, just as, in the absence of any other information, I occasionally base my vote in elections on the exact opposite of whatever the New York Times and Los Angeles Times editorial boards recommend.
The other (which is a result of the first, and NASA's advice) is that the primary barrier to low-cost launch is a lack of technology (as stated in the last paragraph of Brendan's letter). This is an article of faith (unsupported by any empirical evidence) among those who support programs like the Space Launch Initiative, in which the purpose is for NASA to develop "technology" which will then somehow become incorporated into new vehicles by industry.
Since NASA is a technology agency, it's natural for them to want billions of dollars to pursue technology, but I would like to think that policy types, who are supposed to look at the bigger picture, would know better.
The real barrier to low-cost launch is lack of funding applied toward that purpose, which can be attributed, more fundamentally, to lack of market. While we've ostensibly spent billions of government dollars on the launch problem for the past couple decades, it's almost all gone toward "trade studies" and "technology development," and very little of it has gone toward either understanding or addresing the real problem. Thus, it's not surprising that launch costs, years and gigabucks later, remain high.
When I worked on one of those many trade studies in the mid-1980s (this one was called the Space Transportation Architecture Study), I saw something very interesting in the data, but it was a story that never made it into the multitudinous official policy discussions that resulted from it.
It turned out that, for a given set of mission requirements, there were minor differences in cost from one vehicle design to another, or from one technology choice to another. But there were huge differences in cost when you went from a small market size to a large one.
The simple lesson was that, no matter what you built, due to economies of scale, it would reduce costs tremendously if you flew it a lot. Even the Shuttle could be flown much more cheaply (on a per-flight basis), if you invested in the facilities and vehicles necessary to fly it hundreds of times per year instead of a few.
Conversely, no matter how spiffy the design, if you only flew the official "mission model," which was simply an extrapolation of the minimal things that we were planning to do in space (based on the assumption of high launch costs in perpetuity), you couldn't reduce costs significantly.
Markets--not technology-- are the key to low-cost access. Provide the technologists with a market, and the technology will happen, for the most part automatically, as needed to build the vehicles to satisfy it. This is because the dirty little secret is that most of the technology necessary to build low-cost space transports, at least a lot lower cost than anything currently flying, is already available off the shelf.
What NASA is doing with SLI may be useful, if it isn't allowed to turn into another disaster like the X-33 program, in which all the eggs are placed in one fragile basket, and then we run down a rocky hill with that basket in pursuit of a single Shuttle replacement based on hyper-advanced technology.
But to the degree that SLI proves useful, it will be in the development of what technologists call enhancing technology--not enabling technology. That means that the technology that we have in hand is already sufficient to dramatically lower launch costs--enhancing technologies will just allow things to become cheaper still down the road, and the continued promotion of the notion that we can't do anything with technology in hand is simply a recipe for delay and discouragement of both private and public investment.
What's currently lacking is not the technology, but the will to employ it, and to utilize it on a large scale. Fortunately, private enterprise is starting to recognize this, and those companies that tap the unfulfilled desires of millions of people to go to space themselves, and raise the money to do so, will leave the government launch efforts (including government launch facilities) in the dust.
If the government itself were serious about lowering launch costs, rather than simply giving NASA more money for more technology studies, they'd be creating markets--not technology. They would put the billions of dollars currently spent on technology instead in escrow as a prize, to purchase thousands of launches from the private sector. It would use as many of them as it needed for its own purposes, both military and civilian, and then auction the rest back on to the market, providing an industry-creating incentive akin to the airmail program of the 1930s.
And it wouldn't care where they were launched from, as long as the FAA approved, and the price was right.
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.