I received this email from Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation. He is very pro-space, in the sense of getting private companies to finance it. He thinks NASA has its place, but has lost its way, and needs outside thinkers to steer America back on course.
I post this article in its entirety (with permission) with no implied endorsement or criticism. I'm just curious what people here think. I have my own opinions, but I'll wait a while before posting them, so as not to bias the conversation.
Originally Posted by Rick Tumlinson
This email is being sent to my private list, the Foundation's list, the media
and will appear in Space News Monday morning.
It is completely my responsibility. Enjoy, and pass on to anyone you wish.
Feel free to forward the addresses of anyone else you believe should get
this mailing, and, if offended or afraid of corporate or management issues
that might arise due to reciept of these emails, please feel free to let
me know and your name will be removed from future mailings. Also, if
you think someone else should hear these opinions I urge you to
forward them this piece and any and all future mailings you might wish to send.
I appreciate all of the wonderful feedback to date, including those few who
have had issues with my words. I learn from them all.
Our goal is the stars.
Private Industry Can Help NASA Open the Space Frontier
By Rick Tumlinson
Space News Feb. 14, 2005
There are three initiatives from 2004 that if built upon the right way will
rapidly accelerate the human breakout into space.
The first was U.S. President George W. Bush's vision of permanent human
presence beyond Earth orbit, which was endorsed by congressional funding
and clarified by the Aldridge Commission.
The second was the flight of SpaceShipOne, the first major triumph of the new
space movement and its goal of opening space to the people. This was
solidified by a multi-million-dollar contract from Virgin Galactic to build a fleet of
Finally, the passage of legislation in Congress that begins to create re
gulatory certainty in the New Space transportation field clears the way for the
long-term development of this nascent industry.
Thus we have both a mandate for our government to explore and open space to
permanent habitation, and the birth of a private sector space industry which
can power, sustain and capitalize that expansion of our civilization beyond the
Earth. But of course, this means they will have to work together, which is a
bigger challenge than the physical act of opening space itself. But I believe
it can be done with benefits to all.
However, there is one point that needs to be made early in this discussion
that clearly is not understood by the traditional space establishment. I believe
the new space frontier movement can survive and even begin the opening of
space completely on its own, even if NASA vanished tomorrow.
I am not expressing a desire, just a reality that should be part of all
future discussions of national space policy. Momentum is building, and the
funneling of several independent fortunes into the cause is creating networks of
mutual support and interest.
For example, we will soon witness the launch of Bigelow Aerospace hotel test
articles on a SpaceX rocket. Projecting this trend further, we arrive at
another critical milestone on the way to an open frontier, when the first private
space facility is serviced and supported entirely by a private transport firm
or firms. This is a real take-off point, for when this happens if we should
lose the government space program entirely the frontier will still be at hand.
I am not stretching reality. At some point in the next 10 years the private
sector will attain the ability to transport relatively large numbers of people
and payloads to and from low Earth orbit on its own, to house them while they
are in orbit and to develop the infrastructure needed for industrial
development. This part of the frontier formula is simple: Transportation + Destination
= Habitation + Exploitation + Industrialization.
As SpaceX and Bigelow begin to develop their infrastructure, Richard Branson,
who created Virgin Galactic, will have been flying suborbital commercial
space flights for years, as will have Jeff Bezos, the Amazon.com founder who just
announced a new commercial spaceport in West Texas. Branson and Burt Rutan,
the man behind SpaceshipOne, already have said they want to go to orbit and even
beyond, as do Bigelow and Bezos, including trips to and around the Moon.
Again, this is serious stuff. I am not wildly chanting L-5 in '95 as the
early followers of the late Gerard O'Neill of the Space Studies Institute in their naivete
used to do. I am not betting on some pie-in-the-sky magic
product like Iridium and the mythical little Leo constellations to fund start up rocket
companies. I am certainly not betting on some magic government X vehicle
like the X-33 space goose.
These new O'Neillians have their own money, their own business models and the
ability to finance what they are doing all by themselves.
The new imperative that must be faced by our government space leaders is not
just to carry out a formal national mandate, and do so on a tight budget, but
to maintain their relevance in a field that may well be moving faster than
How does NASA justify its intention to spend tens of billions of dollars in
taxpayer funds to build what will probably be a far less efficient space
transportation system than what the commercial space industry is developing for its
Look at the contrasts. Bigelow is assuming that his $50 million dollar America's
Prize will result in a safe and reusable passenger capsule for roundtrips
between Earth and low Earth orbit. NASA is expecting to spend over $10 billion
dollars to develop the same sort of capability. Yes, Bigelow expects the
winner to spend far more than the actual prize amount based on hopes of follow-on
markets; and yes, the winning capsule will have fewer bells and whistles that
anything NASA builds, but the magnitude of difference in the development costs
NASA, the White House and Congress are being driven more by the power of
traditional aerospace lobbying and the need to maintain political constituencies
than practical and common sense understanding of the changes at hand. NASA must
be made to grasp this now and stop all of its current plans for the Moon/Mars
initiative, or it will fail.
Although the current Crew Exploration Vehicle plans incorporate a very small
wedge of new space players, the new White House space transportation policy
and the bulk of U.S. government funding is still targeted at the old space
How do self- and investor-funded innovators compete against government
subsidized systems? How does this help America compete in global markets in the long
The government is ignoring the need to grow a wide-ranging and robust space
transportation and low Earth orbit industrial base to support all of our
activities from here to the Moon in favor of drawing up monster space vehicles such
as a new heavy-lift launcher.
They want to be able to toss giant elements of government-designed space
facilities and craft into orbit all at once, a la Saturn 5. This may have been
necessary when we were in a race to the Moon, but a much wiser, long-term
solution now would be to use smaller vehicles over time to get the people and
infrastructure to where they are needed.
If the goal is to have a thriving Earth-Moon-Mars economy as an end point, it
makes sense to begin creating the low Earth orbit anchorage and industrial
port element as early as possible.
Pay for delivery contracts and prizes tied to tax incentives for investment
in space transportation would greatly accelerate the growth of New Space
transportation systems. On orbit assembly would teach us how to really operate in
space, while developing expertise and potentially profitable orbital businesses.
Fuel depots in space could be developed now using new space and old space
transportation systems to fill them and preparing a technology base for the day
when we begin to harvest and refine propellants from space resources. Breaking
payloads down into small elements expands the pie greatly. It also mimics how
we do things on Earth, which seems to have worked very well so far.
If handled the right way, even the dinosaurs of aerospace could be coaxed
into evolving or spinning off innovative space transportation divisions to
service this new mixed private- and public-sector market. After all, Boeing,
Lockheed and Northrop Grumman are not doing their stockholders any favors by clinging
to a dying market, when an expanding frontier-based market would not only be
potentially huge, but by definition infinite.
The president has said we should go back to the Moon and on to Mars, this
time to stay. Of course from his mouth to the ears of NASA is a journey far
greater than the distance to the Moon.
Already, the concept of permanence has been redefined by those who are
mono-maniacally focused on the end point of Mars. They have jettisoned lunar
development, instead opting for touch-and-go missions to the Moon on the way to a
grand-flags-and-footprints mission to Mars. They prefer Apollo redux rather than
the careful build up of an Earth-Moon infrastructure that can teach us how to
go and live anywhere in space forever.
Yet there is hope that some in NASA and the space community are shaking free
of old ways of thinking. I have met many, including the oft maligned and yet
ignored planetary scientists who really are beginning to get it when it comes
to frontier-style thinking. At recent NASA sanctioned meetings, I was stunned
to hear many of them rejecting a return to the Moon based on scattershot
landings for so-called scientific purposes as some at headquarters had been
Apollo on steroids, as it was called, seemed to be roundly trounced in favor
of a careful build-up to one community on the south pole of the Moon.
There are those who fear we will get bogged down on the Moon, that NASA will
simply be replacing the Albatross of the international space station with a
large grey boulder called the Moon, weighing itself down so much with lunar
infrastructure it cannot proceed to Mars. This is a completely valid point. We
must learn from the mistakes of the space station and not repeat them on the
NASA must never again tie itself to facilities or buildings, or to trying to
manage transportation and other infrastructure. NASA will need not an exit
strategy from the Moon, but rather an entrance strategy to open the Moon, and the
basics of this new way of doing business must be locked in this year.
The actual construction and operation of the lunar community must be carried
out by the private sector. Meanwhile, NASA can develop its own pure Mars
analog base a few kilometers around the other side of the Moon, using what it
learned from the first buildup and focusing purely on studying the elements needed
for Mars. The Mars analog can be placed outside of the view of Earth, where
the astronauts there can be isolated, delays can be simulated, and yet supported
and backed up by staff at the main community-whose facilities and habitat
rentals can feed into the economy.
This will require revolutionary thinking on the part of the U.S.
government, especially in its relationship to the private sector. These changes will
have to extend far beyond technologies and operational considerations, to the
legal, regulatory and contractual aspects of space.
The United States must develop a package of tax and investment incentives to
open the spigots of Wall Street and other capital sources. The normal methods
of cost-plus contracting -- awarding contracts to develop capabilities rather
than paying for provision of services -- must be done away with. But it will
not be sufficient for the government to simply pay for the delivery of goods,
people and services if we want to kick start the space economy. The nation must
go further. We must create a package of incentives that together make it
irresistible for private investors to want to get involved on the frontier.
One example is what I call a Catalytic Contingency Contract. Let's say NASA
needs a laboratory for long-term research. The government, rather than
building or contracting a module as was done on the international space station
program, would instead offer to lease a certain number of square feet for an
extended period from the first private developer who demonstrates the capability to
This lease would be part of an overall package designed to make it so sweet a
deal that the firm and its investors would be able to see past any potential
risks. Such a contract would include: The right of the developer to rent out
any volume beyond the government's to anyone it pleases at whatever rate it
chooses; the right to own all intellectual property it may develop while building
the facility; the right to sell any advertising based on its contract and
involvement in the project; and freedom from any taxes it might be assessed on
profits realized from any activities generated by the project.
The privately funded new space firms will push into space if the money
continues to flow and it doesn't turn out to be a billionaire's fad. NASA
eventually might be able to spend billions and get something or someone to the Moon in
a couple of decades -- if politicians and presidents continue their support.
For now NASA has billions of dollars and a mandate to push outward into
space, but it needs a partner that thinks outside the box. The new space firms live
outside of the box and if given the right support they could accelerate the
push into space and make it permanent.
Last year both the government and the people said they want to open space.
Working separately the public and private sectors might be able to stagger and
stumble into the future, or they might trip and fall back into the past.
Together, using the strengths of each, we can create an amazing future and take the
first strong steps now. I don't know about you, but I don't want to wait any
Rick N. Tumlinson is the founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.