A New Plan For Space
“The NASA budget is still quite sufficient — if you start leaning on private industry. You’ll free up the resources to push humanity further and further into space.”
– Richard Garriott
entrepreneur, space adventurer
In our last issue of Fiscal Notes, entrepreneur and adventurer Richard Garriott discussed the beginnings of the private space industry, and the entry of a new generation of entrepreneurs into the field. Our conversation continues with the administration’s plans for greater reliance on private space vehicles.
I’d like to ask your opinion of the new direction at NASA.
I’m a big fan. Having lived on board the International Space Station for two weeks and studied it to some significant degree, it really is a phenomenal laboratory. But it also has been stunningly expensive to build and maintain. Personally, I can’t think of research that’s valuable enough, or commercial activity that would return enough value, to [justify] the kinds of costs we currently pay for our space program.
But if you drop the price by, say, one order of magnitude, I think there are lots of things that are valuable to do on the space station and in space in general. And that’s exactly what I believe can and will happen through the new plan for space.
“[Aerospace] contractors have to reinvent themselves into being competitive companies, not government-handout companies.”
– Richard Garriott
And I think that the NASA budget is still quite sufficient — if you start leaning on private industry. You’ll not only succeed at exploiting low earth orbit in a way that is valuable to humanity, but you’ll free up the resources that are necessary to push humanity further and further into space.
End of an era: space shuttle Discovery being prepped for its last flight.
Now that we’re at the end of the space shuttle program, what would you say that it has meant for space exploration?
Well, the shuttle has been an astounding success, but also has shown some stunning weaknesses.
It allowed us to build the space station. Without something like a shuttle, it truly would not have been possible. And the vast majority of people who have flown into space have done it on the space shuttle. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the reusability plan originally envisioned for the space shuttle — where it was going to fly every week or two and the cost would come down to $100 million a launch or so — never materialized. It still costs a billion dollars a launch. Generally, it flew three or four times in a year.
Richard Garriott goes on vacation, Oct. 12, 2008.
So it’s time to bring that era to a close.
But in the future — as I look at the vehicles under development, there are a few I’m particularly excited about. For suborbital activities, I’m particularly excited about Texas’ Armadillo Aerospace, because I think they’re going to prove to be the cost, safety and launch-frequency winner by a long shot.
For orbit, not only do we have early entries like SpaceX, but also the [existing] Atlas and Delta rockets, which I think can be reconfigured for people and be very competitive.
Sierra Nevada is developing a crew capsule they call a Dream Chaser, which is basically a tiny little shuttle just for crew — no cargo, just a crew compartment — that I think can be made safely and cost effectively and bring people back down to a runway, which would be mighty nice.
In England, there’s a group called Reaction Engines building a vehicle called Skylon that, if they succeed at tackling a number of still very tough engineering problems, will be a single-stage-to-orbit space shuttle — no external tanks or strap-on boosters — and it could take 10 tons of crew or cargo up to the space station and land again with 10 tons.
And if that actually works, and it’s truly reusable, that would bring the cost to orbit down by 10- to a hundred-fold. So there’s some truly game-changing economics that are coming to space — as long as we do the new plan for space, which calls for commercialization.
In Texas, we’re looking at layoffs with the end of the shuttle program. And this is part of the state’s technical knowledge base. What do you think is going to happen to it? Some people are throwing around the figure of 7,000 layoffs. What’s going to happen to that brain trust around Clear Lake, or rather, what should happen? What should be done with that very important part of the economic mix here in Texas?
If you look at the way the space program is structured, the vast majority of those people work for contractors.
And so in my mind the responsibility is not NASA’s. It’s with the prime contractors. And those companies, when they go talk to politicians, I would be saying, “I don’t care whether you’re building shuttles or Atlases or Deltas — what I care is how you’re paying for it.” Again, instead of government buying the orbiter and the boosters and setting it up themselves, we should pay a contractor to put it all together and buy it as a launch service. And by doing that, we’ll introduce competition.
And so one solution is that one of these big primes should say, well, I’m going to compete. I’m going build a shuttle Mark II, and I’m going to find a way to make it cost-effective. They should put their money where their mouths are. The only reason they should need NASA is to give them a contract for a launch or two, to prove they can put a launch together. They’ve just got to decide to do it.
And so I don’t think we need to lose Texas’ brain trust, because of the activity that we’re going to have within five years on the commercial side. As costs go down, launch frequency is going to go up. There will be more launches in the new era than there have been in the past by a significant margin.
Senior managers in these companies are going to have to decide, “Am I going to do layoffs or am I going to reinvent my company?” Those contractors have to reinvent themselves into being competitive companies, not government-handout companies.
What do you see as the likely course of private space efforts over the next 10 to 15 years?
Well, for example, the Russian Soyuz is right now the cheapest and safest way to go to space. If you were to go to Russia and say, “I want to buy a launch,” they would sell you one for somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million.
Most of the Soyuz rocket is basically just a fuel tank that is discarded. And the fuel, which is kerosene and liquid oxygen, costs about $800,000 out of that $150 million. So the cost of going to space has nothing to do with energy, relatively speaking.
The real reason why it’s so expensive is because you’re throwing away the rocket and have to build another whole new one. It takes 5,000 people about two years to build this rocket that you throw away, and about 5,000 to operate it while it’s in space.
And so as we get to reusability, this price is going to come down fast. To get off Earth, all we’ve got to do is quit throwing away the rocket. The shuttle was hypothetically reusable, but of course, we still tear it apart and rebuild it at almost the same cost as a new one, each time.
[Rocketry] has got to become as simple as filling up the car with gas and pressing Go again — which, by the way, Armadillo Aerospace up in Dallas is doing very, very well.
But here’s what interesting about the cost calculus.
I paid tens of millions to ride on Soyuz. It’s a lot of money no matter who you are; that’s a ton of money. And so I wanted to find work that I could do that would offset that cost as much as I could because, you know, I was having a hard time paying for this.
And so I was willing not only to do anything anybody wanted me to do in space, but I was looking for businesses I could build in space, not only to pay for this flight but maybe to have the opportunity to go again some time in the future.
And so for a flight that cost me tens of millions, I managed to find millions of dollars of work to do. While it didn’t pay for my flight, if it had cost me one-tenth of what it did, I actually could have paid for my flight to space. And if you don’t throw away the rocket — you just refuel it and go — it’s well below a tenth of the cost.
And so, as prices come down, if I can make a profit with my flight, I’m going every day I can. And I’m not the only one who will feel that way.
We are literally one or two generations of private rockets away from the moment where the cost of access to space falls below the amount of money you can easily generate with your time in space. And when that day occurs, we’re going to go from space travel being rare to it being extremely common. FN