1. First, we could set up a small transorbital railroad office in NASA, and fund it to buy six heavy-lift launches (100 tonnes to low-Earth orbit) and six medium-lift launches (20 tonnes to low-Earth orbit) per year from the private launch industry, with heavy- and medium-lift launches occurring on alternating months. (A tonne is a metric ton — 1,000 kilograms, or about 2,200 pounds.) The transorbital railroad office would pay the launch companies $500 million for each heavy launch and $100 million for each medium launch, thus requiring a total program expenditure of $3.6 billion per year — roughly 70 percent of the cost of the space shuttle program.
NASA would then sell standardized compartments on these launches to both government and private customers at subsidized rates based on the weight of the cargo being shipped. For example, on the heavy-lift vehicle, the entire 100-tonne-capacity launch could be offered for sale at $10 million, or divided into 10-tonne compartments for $1 million, 1-tonne subcompartments for $100,000, and 100-kilogram slots for $10,000 each. The same kind of pricing could be offered on the medium-lift launcher. While recovering only a tiny fraction of the transorbital railroad’s costs, such low fees (levied primarily to discourage spurious use) would make spaceflight readily affordable.
As with a normal railroad here on Earth, the transorbital railroad’s launches would occur in accordance with its schedule, regardless of whether or not all of its cargo capacity was subscribed by customers. Unsubscribed space would be filled with containers of water, food, or space-storable propellants. These standardized, pressurizable containers, equipped with tracking beacons, plumbing attachments, hatches, and electrical pass-throughs, would be released for orbital recovery by anyone with the initiative to collect them and put their contents and volumes to use in space. A payload dispenser, provided and loaded by the launch companies as part of their service, would be used to release each payload to go its separate way once orbit was achieved.
As noted above, the budget required to run the transorbital railroad would be 30 percent less than the space shuttle program, but it would accomplish far more. Since its inception in the early 1980s, the space shuttle program has averaged about four launches per year. Given the shuttle’s theoretical maximum payload capacity (rarely used in full) of about 25 tonnes, this means that the shuttle program could be expected to deliver no more than 100 tonnes to low-Earth orbit per year. By contrast, the transorbital railroad would launch 720 tonnes per year. The U.S. government would thus save a great deal of money, since its own departments in NASA, the military, and other agencies could avail themselves of the transorbital railroad’s low rates to launch their payloads at trivial cost. Much further savings would occur, however, since with launch costs so reduced, it would no longer be necessary to spend billions to ensure the ultimate degree of spacecraft reliability. Instead, commercial-grade parts could be used, thereby cutting the cost of spacecraft construction by orders of magnitude.
If we want to make real progress in space, progress beyond sending a few astronauts on short visits to places we have already been at a cost of billions of dollars per ticket, we must adopt an approach aligned with core American ideals. We should prefer robust, redundant commercial capabilities to fragile, expensive, government-designed ones.
Rather than avoiding technical risk by repeating what we did five decades ago — “Apollo on Steroids” was how NASA’s then-administrator Michael Griffin described the revamped lunar program in 2005 — and thereby starving technology development, we should prefer an agency that is aggressively pursuing technological advances that will increase our reach while reducing costs.
The Apollo program was succeeded by programs in the same government-centric mode: the space shuttle and International Space Station, both of which have utterly failed to meet their stated goals of making access to space affordable, safe, and routine, and providing a stable site for performing valuable science in low-Earth orbit (the worth of which has always been oversold, relative to other federally-funded science). The reason for these failures is simply that, while those were the stated purposes of the shuttle and space station, they were not the politically relevant purposes for those programs.
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