Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The New Economy

The "next generation" employees at SpaceX react to the historic launch of their Dragon to the International Space Station in May 2012. Video source: SpaceX.

One day, soon, Man is going to be able to harness incredible energies — maybe even the atom. Energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds in some sort of spaceship. And the men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way to give each man hope, and a common future. And those are the days worth living for.

Joan Collins as "Edith Keeler"
Star Trek, "The City on the Edge of Forever"

In the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, many find it hard to look up. They won't even look at the horizon. They look down at their feet, perhaps blaming themselves or blaming others.

How can they look up, how can they look to the horizon, when they've lost their home and can't find a job? When their skill set is obsolete? When they can no longer earn an income at the level they once enjoyed?

Asking those with such immediate needs to look up might seem harsh, even insensitive.

But I believe that better times are almost here.

If you're looking down, you're going to miss it.

In the 1960s, an entire generation was witness to one of the greatest feats in human history. For the first time, humans left the Earth to walk on another world.

Looking back through their own eyes, many in that generation forget why Americans went to the Moon. And they forget that over half of their fellow Americans thought the Moon program was a waste of money.

That generation now leads in Congress. It has spent almost ten years trying to recreate Apollo. They ignore the circumstances that led to Apollo — the Cold War, the perceived need to create American "prestige" abroad, the fear that the Soviet Union had more powerful boosters capable of bombing American cities with nuclear weapons.

None of that exists now. The Russians are our space allies, and have been for twenty years.

Despite that, the United States wasted seven years on the failed Constellation program, and threatens to do the same now with the Space Launch System. Both are Apollo-style vehicles with no missions or destinations approved by Congress. They exist primarily to perpetuate Shuttle-era jobs and contracts in the states and districts of key elected officials in the House and Senate.

The supporters of these programs invariably claim that spending billions on a heavy-lift rocket will "inspire" future generations without explaining how. I've yet to run into anyone who's told me that SLS, or Constellation before it, has "inspired" them, whatever that word is supposed to mean.

I'm inspired — not by the latest Congressional black hole for taxpayer dollars, but by the new industrial revolution taking place in the American economy.

Private sector investors are creating new space vehicles that by the end of this decade will make access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) all but routine.

It's not just adventure tourism, although that's certainly part of it.

Watch a Virgin Galactic promotional video. Their spaceship is named the VSS Enterprise.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson recently estimated that in the next thirty years, millions of people may visit space.

"It's going to be an explosion of people having had the chance to go into space and enjoy the marvels of space travel. In the past 30 years, only 500 people have been to space. I suspect in the next 30 years there may be something like 5 million people who will have had the opportunity to become astronauts."

"Space" is defined by international standards as 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, above the Earth's surface.

The vast majority of those going into "space" will be on suborbital tourism flights offered by Virgin Galactic, XCOR and other companies.

The first Virgin Galactic commercial flights may occur in 2013, and are certain to be the top story in U.S. media. If you're looking for "inspiration," I'm sure thousands of wealthy people will eagerly pay the $200,000 to fly into "space" with Virgin Galactic.

They will return to Earth and tell their families, friends and neighbors about the experience — what they saw, what they felt, maybe even what made them upchuck. But they will be talking about space, the final frontier.

This will be a uniquely American enterprise. No other nation has private entrepreneurs investing in commercial space. If you're on Planet Earth and want to fly into space ... you'll come to the United States and spend that money here.

Beyond adventure tourism, the United States will have an entirely new economy based on scientific research and production in microgravity.

We've known for decades the incredible commercial potential for microgravity. It was proven in the 1970s on Skylab, and in the early 1980s with the Space Shuttle.

Few know it today but, in the early 1980s, the U.S. space program already had its first commercial astronaut. Charlie Walker, a McDonnell Douglas engineer, was designated a NASA payload specialist. He trained astronauts to perform the Electrophoresis Operations in Space (EOS) experiments, and eventually flew three times on the Shuttle himself. Walker performed early protein crystal growth experiments and acted as a test subject for several medical studies.

An artist's concept of Leasecraft. Image source: SciencePhoto.com.

Fairchild Industries had planned to place in LEO a permanent orbital platform called Leasecraft that would be deployed and retrieved by the Shuttle. It would have been used to process pharmaceuticals and materials, and support NASA's astrophysics programs.

Leasecraft was scheduled to launch on the Shuttle in 1988. The orbiter would rendezvous with the platform every six months to collect experiments and deploy new ones. The New Economy was within our grasp.

But for political reasons — mostly due to the Challenger disaster — commercial use of the Shuttle was phased out in favor of prioritizing strictly government uses such as satellite deployment and space station construction.

Twenty-five years after Challenger, the International Space Station finally has been completed. Commercial microgravity research can begin again.

In the last decade, LEO research has led to potential vaccines for salmonella and MRSA, a type of Staphylococcus bacteria resistant to certain antibiotics. Those vaccines are now undergoing clinical trials with the Food and Drug Administration.

Not many people know that the United States has a National Laboratory aboard the ISS. A non-profit agency based here in the Space Coast called the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) has reviewed the most promising research to date and begun soliciting proposals from universities and the private sector to go further.

Watch a CASIS video on early research success with protein crystallization that may help with a cure for muscular dystrophy.

Protein crystallization, a CASIS research priority, might be the key to finding a cancer cure. How much do you think such a cure would be worth on the global market? That's why American private companies are now talking to CASIS about access to the National Laboratory.

But how will they get there?

That will soon be a uniquely American enterprise too.

Russia currently flies the only crew vehicle to the ISS. Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency fly automated cargo ships.

Those are owned by their governments.

But here in the United States, we are creating an entirely new economy based on the private sector delivering cargo and crew to LEO.

One has already flown. The SpaceX Dragon capsule berthed with the International Space Station in May. That was a demonstration flight to prove they could deliver cargo. That flight was so successful that SpaceX now begins a NASA contract for twelve cargo deliveries to the ISS. The first flight is scheduled for around October 8.

What's unique about the Dragon is that it will be the only cargo ship on Planet Earth capable of returning experiments and other payloads from the ISS. Other nations' vehicles burn up on re-entry. The Dragon will be reusable.

So in the New Economy, not only will the United States lead the world in microgravity research, but the U.S. will control the means of returning those experiments to the Earth.

By the middle of the decade, three American companies will be test-flying the world's first privately owned orbital crewed spaceships — the SpaceX Dragon, the Boeing CST-100 and the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser.

Two of those companies — Boeing and SpaceX — are partners with Bigelow Aerospace.

Watch a KLAS-TV news feature on Bigelow Aerospace.

Bigelow will construct the world's first private station. Its modules are made out of Vectran — ten times stronger than aluminum and five times stronger than steel.

According to the Bigelow Aerospace web site:

Although NASA initially developed the concept of inflatable space habitats, any substantial fabrication work was curtailed by Congress in 2000. Therefore, Bigelow Aerospace had to go through the process of re-designing much of what had been done before, developing, and eventually launching the world’s first expandable space habitat prototypes.

Two Bigelow habitat prototypes have been in space for five years, and are still functioning. According to the SpaceX launch manifest, Bigelow has booked a habitat construction flight from the Space Coast in 2015.

That's right around the time that Boeing and SpaceX should have their commercial crew vehicles in test flights.

Seven nations have signed agreements to use Bigelow habitats — Australia, Dubai, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In May, SpaceX and Bigelow announced a joint effort to market in Asia flights on Dragon spacecraft to Bigelow habitats.

They'll all be coming to the United States to reach space.

Perhaps the best aspect of the New Economy is that you'll no longer have to be a government employee to reach space. In the early years, you'll have to be rich, or have a wealthy benefactor, or perhaps rob your child's college fund. I suspect we'll see private companies leasing Bigelow habitats for research and eventually production, meaning that if you have a skill in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — your employer may pay the way for you.

For decades, the term "astronaut" was used with reverence. But by the end of this decade, it may become meaningless, as hundreds of private citizens will have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, if only for a few minutes.

The New Economy is so enticing that serious entrepreneurs are now investing in ideas once considered so outlandish they could be found only in science fiction.

Stratolaunch plans to build the world's largest aircraft for horizontal launch of payloads into orbit. That plane may take off and land from Kennedy Space Center, one of the few places in the world with a runway large enough.

Planetary Resources intends to mine asteroids for water and precious metals that could be returned here to Earth or used for deep-space missions and colonies.

Watch a Planetary Resources promotional video.

No other nation has the audacity to invest in such futuristic adventures.

No other nation has the ability to do it.

This will be the next Gold Rush. The gold will be microgravity.

The next generation of engineers, scientists and technicians emerging from today's universities will be the ones who seize this opportunity to take humanity to the stars.

It won't happen because the government flushed billions of dollars into obsolete technology as a monument to a long-faded Cold War memory.

It will happen because of a New Economy that restores America's ability to dream, to be the economic engine that powers the world.

And those are the days worth living for.

1 comment:

  1. "This will be a uniquely American enterprise. No other nation has private entrepreneurs investing in commercial space."

    You want to reconsider that statement? Here's a hint: What nationality is Richard Branson?

    About 80% of the investment to date in Reaction Engines has been from private sources. They expect to get around $300M in private investment to support the next phase of development of the SABRE engine.

    The UK commercial space sector has been growing by about 7.5% a year despite the global recession: http://www.bis.gov.uk/ukspaceagency/news-and-events/2012/Jul/uk-space-sector-trajectory-rises-through-the-economic-storm

    The next paying passenger to LEO is likely to be British (Sarah Brightman). Both Garriott and Shuttleworth hold UK dual nationality.

    The first commercial pilot of SpaceShipTwo will be a Scot by the name of David Mackay.

    I hope and expect that commercial space development will be an *Anglosphere* enterprise, not simply an American one.

    Best regards

    Duncan Law-Green