On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Matt McCleskey
Some say 2012 will be remembered as the year the private space race truly took off. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin’s Richard Branson are investing heavily in private space companies. And NASA will invest over $400 million dollars just this year in private firms working on the next generation space technology.
- Scott Pace Director, Space Policy Institute, George Washington University Elliot School of International Affairs
- Leonard David Space Insider Columnist, SPACE.com; and Correspondent, Space News
Virgin Galactic Space Tourist Animation:
Biguelow Space Hotels
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. You could say the future is here. According to the experts, 2012, when all's said and done, will be a crucial turning point in the commercialization of space. Sure, the last few years saw NASA's cancellation of the Space Shuttle and its successor program Constellation. And today, our American astronauts need to ride Russian rockets to get to the International Space Station.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYBut don't mistake those developments for thinking that nothing is happening in space exploration. Private companies, many owned by familiar names like Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Microsoft's Paul Allen and the adventure-seeking billionaire Richard Branson are on the cusp of changing everything you think you know about space. Before the year's out, we can expect detailed news about new types of rockets, new escape vehicles and, yes, even details on space hotels and space tourism.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYJoining me now for the rest of the hour to talk about private space exploration or the private space race is Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs, also professor of the practice of international affairs. Thanks for being with us.
MR. SCOTT PACEThank you.
MCCLESKEYAnd joining us by phone, Leonard David. He writes the Space Insider column for Space.com and is also a correspondent for Space News newspaper and a contributing writer for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Aerospace America magazine. Thank you for joining us.
MR. LEONARD DAVIDGlad to be here.
MCCLESKEYWell, let's start with you, Scott Pace. Since the beginning I understand that NASA has partnered with the private sector in various ways. But what we're talking about here is something quite different, right?
PACEWell, yes. I mean, NASA has relied on the private sector to build almost all of its spacecraft and systems over the years. So, what's really being talked about here is a change in degree to rely on the private sector for much more of the responsibility and leadership rather than simply being contractors.
MCCLESKEYAnd how much of this is funding related? I imagine -- we've had talk of shrinking budgets here in Washington across the board for the last few years. Is this a result of NASA having less money to spend?
PACENot really, because the idea of having commercial services for carrying cargo and people to the space station was actually an idea that began in the last administration. In part because there were some cost deficiencies and savings that could be done. But in the current administration, they've kind of doubled down and placed much more of an emphasis on accelerating these programs. But, unfortunately, I think taking some greater risk in doing so.
MCCLESKEYAnd, of course, part of it, I would imagine, the space shuttles were getting old. As we look to the end of that program, we needed to figure out what was going to be next.
PACEAgain, yes and no. The shuttles actually were in a quite good shape. I mean, they're somewhat torn down after every mission. They had a lot more life in them. I think what you saw with the shuttle was after the Columbia Space Shuttle accident in 2003 that the conclusion was that there is a certain level of safety and reliability that they were never going to meet. And so, the outcome of the accident investigation board was that the U.S. needed to move to a much more safer vehicle for getting people to and from orbit. And that the shuttle program really needed to come to a close for that reason.
MCCLESKEYScott Pace worked for NASA as an associate administrator for program analysis and evaluation from 2005 to 2008. Before that, he was chief technologist for space communications to NASA's Office of Space Operation, where he was responsible for issues related to space information systems. And now, he's director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs. But Leonard David, let me turn to you now. You write the Space Insider column for Space.com. Give us a brief rundown of some of the things we're talking about in terms of this private space race and some of the companies that are looking to get involved.
DAVIDWell, from my view, I've had a lot of fun in the last few years watching numbers of these entrepreneurial small groups blossom. We're probably -- this is a, I've been writing, pivotal year, you know, for the last few years. But I think 2012 is it, because it's a make or break type of situation for some of these smaller groups. Entrepreneurs like Robert Bigelow, and then the billionaire Richard Branson.
DAVIDAnd we're definitely at a kind of cusp of something happening. But I think the cynical side of me is I love these people and I write about them. But at the end of the day, it's, you know, three, two, one, you push a button and it has to go up in the air. So, the rhetoric is about subsiding, and I think we're going to see some roaring rockets go off and hopefully they'll be successful and we'll see an emerging private sector.
MCCLESKEYWhen is that three, two, one countdown going to come? What's the next big launch on the horizon for the private space race?
DAVIDWell, things have been actually happening out in the -- I live here in Colorado, so I do a lot of trips over to New Mexico. And, you know, they're building a Space Port America out there. And there are a couple of other places that are ginning up space ports. They had some suborbital test flights out of there. But the big ticket item and the flare of it all and the kind of PR pizzazz is, as you noted, Richard Branson, this is the spaceship to Enterprise that he's got going.
DAVIDAnd this year -- they've had a number of drop tests in the last few years, this vehicle. But what's coming is putting an engine in this thing and having the pilots kick this thing into high gear and go up to the edge of space. So, for them, 2012 is a big year. It's got to work. It's got to show, you know, commercial sensibility. Also, safety has to be the number one issue here. And the FAA is looking in on all this. So, they're there with all kinds of rules and regulations. But this is the turning year for them.
MCCLESKEYI want to get to that issue of regulation in just a little bit. But I also want to ask when could we see some of these private companies ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station? Is that something realistic in the next couple of years? Or is that a little further down the line?
DAVIDNow, it's evolving with SpaceX, you know, Scott can pipe in on these things. But SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are two companies that are working with NASA, you know. One of the things that's intriguing, though, is the tension between some of these private groups and about rules and regulations. I mean, there is decades of NASA safety and understanding of technology that they don't put people and even cargo in harm's way or to lose cargo and put people in harm's way.
DAVIDSo, to make things less expensive, in some ways, some of these rules and regulations are being looked at very, very hard. And we'll see what the balance is between what the private sector, these smaller companies, the entrepreneurs and then some of the even larger aerospace firms how they play that balance between rules and regulations after decades of NASA doing it. And we'll see.
MCCLESKEYWell, Scott Pace, I'd like to ask you, given that these are businesses, presumably they're working for profit, are there dangers of cost cutting as you try to put a private enterprise into space? Will it be as safe as NASA say?
PACEWell, that's a really good question. And the answer is you don't really know until you actually fly. That's why the thought had been that we would get some experience flying cargo to the Space Station and actually get a track record down of having that succeed before putting people up. The joke was, they said I'd like to see them deliver a pair of socks to the Space Station, then we'll think about putting somebody in the socks.
PACEAnd it would take actually some years of routine flights to prove that out and actually get comfortable. What the current administration has done is they've somewhat put that in parallel. They've had the cargo development happening and then they've accelerated the crew development programs in parallel. And I think this is somewhat dangerous because, you know, it's difficult to get insurance even for a satellite if you haven't had at least three successful flights.
PACEYou're probably not going to put something really expensive until you've seen seven successful flights. And you really don't have a sense of the long-range reliability of the vehicle until you had about 14 flights. So, the discussion of bending the rules a bit or accelerating the rules means that you will be taking risks by potentially putting people or high value cargo on before you've established a real track record.
PACEAnd I think that's the approach that I think has a lot of people worried, particularly those of us who remember the results of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which said we should try to build things that are much, much safer. And that admonition seems to be getting less attention, I think, than it should.
MCCLESKEYThat seems like certainly with the challenge in Columbia disasters. Inherently, there's a danger to going into space. It's very complicated. Of course, the shuttle performed very admirably over long term. But there is that chance, of course, for catastrophic failure. When we're looking at developing cargo versus something that would carry a crew, you're talking about the same type of machines, same type or rocket and launcher facility or would you have to do one and then the other?
PACECompanies have taken different approaches. The launch vehicle, in many respects, can be the same. SpaceX is taking the approach where they're trying to prove out their cargo vehicle and with the high degree of commonality to what their crew system would look like. Orbital Sciences is taking a different approach. They're looking at proving out their cargo system and they would likely pick up something slightly different for their crew system.
PACESo there are different strategies that these companies can employ. I think that the real answer is the proof is in the pudding of actual flight test and how well do the flights work, because anybody can come up with a piece of paper that says they're reliable. But having a track record is something else.
MCCLESKEYWhere do you think our space priorities should be? Do you think human space flight is more important than unmanned space exploration, why or why not, and would you travel into space if you had the chance? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can join in the conversation. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org to take part. What -- Scott Pace, I'd like to stick with you for just a minute. What does this development mean for NASA, the development meaning the private companies getting more and more involved.
PACEWell, I think if they're successful it's quite advantageous for NASA because if they can hit some of the price points that have been discussed, NASA will be able to deliver cargo and eventually people to the station at lower cost, and therefore will have more funds available to do R & D and exploration and the things that NASA is really about.
PACEOn the other hand, if these companies fail, then NASA will find itself reliant on the Russians for a much, much longer period of time. You know, the motivation in part that the administration puts out for these programs is they want to get away from reliance on Russia.
PACEBut I don't think that they really have enough back-up options if you will, space term, that if these companies have delays and problems, where is the backup on the government side if they don't work. So it's really great if it works. They're really in trouble I think if they fall.
MCCLESKEYWell, Leonard David, you've done some consulting work with NASA, particularly in getting out a message about space flight. How do you preserve the symbolic value NASA has in science and for Americans, given this shift more towards private companies perhaps taking the lead on some of these efforts to get to and from the space station and do other things in space?
DAVIDWell, you know, I think Scott hit on it. The premise here is that by turning over some of these operations that NASA has been doing in the past, that they money will become magically available for it to explore beyond lower earth orbit, and that's -- I've written a lot about, you know, exploration Mars, exploration beyond Mars, asteroids. I mean, there is a -- the Obama administration has put out a kind of call for action beyond lower earth orbit where, you know, you go to an asteroid or you go to the moons of Mars or, you know.
DAVIDUnfortunately, I'm getting older and I always wonder whether I'm gonna see any of these things happen because I've gone to the political whims of administrations over the decades, you know, from Kennedy on, and, you know, some of these things do come into fruition. Apollo was a good example of landing people on the moon and returning them safely back to earth. We just celebrated last week the anniversary of John Glenn riding in a capsule, you know, a one-seat capsule, going the earth three times.
DAVIDThat was America's first foray into earth orbit, and when you look at the span of things that have happened, it is exciting. I mean, there are -- I try to be cautiously optimistic. There are days when I'm cautiously pessimistic, but I think, you know, exploration, you can go into this kind of built (unintelligible) or whatever. I think we have the technological wherewithal to do a lot of different things.
DAVIDWe've got a hundred billion dollar space station up there. If it only cost a dollar, people wouldn't be so angry about it, but it cost a hundred billion. But it's been a cultural landmark in the sense of 15 nations in the U.S. working together to build the thing. Now you're looking at what did we do with it? So, you know, my -- today I -- I've had a cup of coffee a little early, so I'm kind of on the optimistic side about the future of the space program. I think there's a lot to do and I'm hoping to see it all happen.
MCCLESKEYLeonard David writes the Space Insider column for SPACE.com. Scott Pace with me in studio is director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. I'm Matt McCleskey sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi, and we'll continue this conversation about the private space race just on the other side of a short break. You can join in the conversation. Give us a call 800-433-8850. You can also email us at email@example.com, or send a tweet to @kojoshow. We'll be right back. Stay with us.
MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of Morning Edition here on WAMU 88.5, sitting in today on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Speaking with Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, and Leonard David. He writes the Space Insider column for SPACE.com. We're talking about private investment in space exploration and the private space race.
MCCLESKEYScott Pace, I'd like to turn to you to ask about some of the reaction from other countries around the world, and particularly the partners with the international space station and their reaction to some of this outsourcing of space flight, particularly the space taxi services as it's sometimes described to and from the international space station. How are other countries reacting.
PACEWell, I think that there is a great admiration for sort of the American entrepreneurial community. I mean, they really admire the energy and new thinking that does come though the community. And at the same time, I think there's a great degree of skepticism that this is gonna really work in the near term, and as a result, with the end of the station -- space shuttle program, they, like us, are reliant on the Russians for human access to and from the station, and they don't really like that.
PACEThey don't like being reliant just on the Americans, and they didn't like really being solely reliant on the Russians. So I think there is -- while there is admiration, it's mixed in with skepticism that this will work on any time soon, and as a result, they're interested in what sort of governmental programs could come together that maybe are more expensive, but could be assure of really truly providing that access to the international -- to the hundred billion dollar facility that Leonard mentioned.
MCCLESKEYWell, I asked Leonard David earlier about the timeline when we might expect to see some of these flights going back and forth. From your point of view, when do you think we might see private flights regularly going to and from the international space station, and is it in time given that the space shuttle program just ended?
PACEWell, I think we'll see cargo missions to the space station in the next year or so. I'm very hopeful that SpaceX and Orbital Sciences will succeed this year in demonstrating cargo delivery. But I think it's gonna be some years after that before we'll see successful crew delivery because we'll need to build up a track record, and if you're flying to the space station say every six months on a cargo delivery mission, it's on the order of several years before you've built up enough track record. So I'm thinking it's gonna be about four or five years after this year before you see crew going up to that station and that's not a popular view with any advocates.
MCCLESKEYI'd like to go to the phones now and welcome some of our callers into the conversation. Aaron calling from Alexandria, Va. Aaron, good afternoon. You're on the air.
AARONHi. Hi, Kojo. First I wanted to congratulate Dr. Pace. I heard he was recently made -- he's in charge of Romney's space team. And then my question is, is he was talking earlier about how you want to build up a track record, and I'm curious as to why we're not considering the track record of the existing launch vehicles like the Atlas 5, because it tends to be the focus is solely on Falcon 9 and Antares, you know, but why is the, you know, at the same time you have the exiting launch capabilities, you know.
AARONWhy aren't we -- why is there kind of this narrow focus on only those guys as opposed to the broader base that's out there that is actually going after it?
MCCLESKEYWell, Scott Pace, so you're advising Mitt Romney on his campaign on space issues?
PACEI'm one of many people who get to provide input. Whether the candidate takes the advice is a whole 'nother issue. But we're privileged to have an input.
MCCLESKEYAnd then to Aaron's question about older systems.
PACEWell, actually, the Atlas 5 is a brilliant vehicle. Actually, one of my students worked on that for several launch campaigns, and actually, I think it's a great vehicle, and so it absolutely be a candidate. Part of the problem with the Atlas 5 is twofold. One is that it uses a Russian RD180 engine, which we don't really know how to produce in the United States, and generally when human rating a vehicle, you have to know how make every part and component.
PACENow, maybe we can waive that and get around that, but the Russian engine, you know, is an issue. And the second is, when you make something human rated, it's not just making it reliable, it's also making sure that it's safe, which is actually a different issue. Having an escape system on board, and integrating that escape system with the rest of the vehicle. So I think the Atlas 5 absolutely is a -- could be a candidate for taking people up, but you'd have to deal with integrating an escape system, and you'd have to deal with the fact that you've got a Russian engine that you can't produce in the U.S.
MCCLESKEYAnd when we're looking at private companies of course getting involved in the space race, I imagine there a number of different ideas about what's the best way to make it work. That's sort of the spirit of competition I would imagine. Leonard David, one of these -- and tell me if I understand it correctly, and this was I believe put forward by Paul Allen, or least his company, looking to have a very large plane with I believe six 747 engines used as a platform then to launch into space. So that's that rather than going from the ground trying to get up pretty high in the atmosphere to start with, is that right?
DAVIDYeah. And that's a very fascinating -- this is the like the Spruce Goose for space. This is a huge aircraft, never, you know, the size dwarfs things today. But again, you know, one of the attributes of these companies of today doing aerospace, this is built by scaled composites in the Mojave, and their name even kind of gives you a hint of why they do wonderful things. They scale up things, and with new composite material, this plane would be huge, but one of the attributes of it, at least in my view, and when you go talk to engineers is that you have a flying launch pad.
DAVIDSo it's -- and you have some kind of vehicle that would hang off the bottom of this thing, and then it would take off and go up into space, but having a flying launch pad, you can check things out. If something's wrong, you come back down. The rockets of today, which one hopes in the future will disappear because they're, you know, cannon-like operations, but getting a flying launch pad and being able to return to the -- a landing and takeoff site I think is a very exciting promise, and that to me is one of the innovative things we're gonna see in the next decade of these flying launch pads and using aerial vehicles to launch vehicles into space.
MCCLESKEYOne other idea that's been out there is the space elevator. I suppose that would be having an anchor in orbit that then could help things to tow up and down. Is that an active idea anywhere? Is anybody working on that?
DAVIDYeah. I mean, there are groups I've written about for, you know, quite a number of years. This is something that sort of that sort of has history with even Arthur Clark and some early Russian theorists about it, but the one thing that nobody could ever figure out was the unobtain-ium of how do you make one of these space elevators. Well, then all of a sudden carbon nano-tubes showed up, so there's been progress in the kind of material you use.
DAVIDI mean, I've gone to conferences where people are arguing about the music you put in the space elevators that you're riding up and down, so it's something to be thinking about, and I'm hopeful that progress will be made. I think Japan just a couple days ago a construction company is advocating a space elevator and plans to do some early tests of the concept. And there's been other work that's underway in different smaller companies to see if this is a -- because at the end of the day, the way the shuttle goes, rockets take off, this is gonna be very different as we close out the 21st century and I'm convinced breakthroughs are near at hand.
MCCLESKEYLet's go to Benjamin in Bethesda, Md. Benjamin, thanks for waiting. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENJAMINYeah, hi. Thanks. I just wanted to ask about something that always kind of bugged me. Whenever we hear plans talked about for man's space exploration, it always involves our astronauts going up and doing something, and they come back to earth after a short amount of time, and this is always talked about in the context of Mars as well. Are there serious plans that are looked at that involve sending someone somewhere, whether it's the Moon or Mars or an asteroid or wherever, and the plan is not for them to take gear that allows them to blast back off and return to earth and go through reentry, but to stay there and do research and live for 10, 20 years, and then one day maybe we are able to go there and bring them back?
MCCLESKEYThe idea of a colony. Scott Pace, anything like that out there?
PACESure. I think this goes to the question about what are you trying to sort of accomplish with the program. I mean, the science community is really good at asking really big questions. like is there life elsewhere in the universe, or how did the universe begin. In the human exploration community, the answer is human space flight, what was the question? And I think the question we probably might be posing to what your caller mentioned, is do humans have a future in space?
PACEAnd the answer could be either yes or no, and either of those answers is kind of interesting. Either we're here forever, or we have a future as a multi-planet species. And to answer that question, we have to figure out if we can live beyond the earth, and if there's anything economically useful to do to pay our way once we're out there. And if the answer to both those questions is yes, you get space colonies. If the answer to both of them is no, then space is some form of Mt. Everest, you go and you visit and that's it.
PACEIt's possible that we can live off the land, but we have nothing really economically useful to do and maybe space is like some form of Antarctica, you know, where we have a research outpost of we have tourists that come by, but no one really lives there in terms of what we think of as a permanent community. So those are some of the possible futures that we might see.
MCCLESKEYYou mentioned Antarctica. Of course, an agreement reached in Antarctica on development and no country is going to own Antarctica. Do you see something similar developing in space, or are we gonna have fights over who owns the moon?
PACETo some extent, that question's already been answered. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, negotiated during the height of the space race actually specifically rejects the idea of sovereignty in space.
PACESo you own your spacecraft, you own whatever you put out there, but you can't own the Moon or own a piece of an asteroid. You can own the material if you bring it home, so for example, the moon rocks we brought back are absolutely U.S. government property. People have been sent to jail trying to steal them.
PACEBut you can't own them if they're sitting out there, and that has given pause to some entrepreneurs who think that we should modify that treaty to provide for private ownership in space. That hasn't happened yet, but people do talk about it.
MCCLESKEYAnd then one thing I want to get in quickly before the end of the hour, earlier Leonard David you mentioned Robert Bigelow who is a hotel executive, and he is looking at potentially putting experimental hotels into orbit. We just have a minute or so left, but can you tell us quickly what that idea is?
DAVIDWell, no. It's an expandable structure, and he's spent -- I've been on the shop floor, it's an amazing amount of hardware that he's got. He's already launched two prototype habitation, small test prototypes on Russian rockets, and then proven the concept. I think the thing to watch there is NASA will most likely work a deal with him to actually have a Bigelow module on the space station, and that's coming up in the near term.
MCCLESKEYWell, whether it's hotels or mining of extracting various minerals, whatever else it might be to use space, there's gonna be a lot to follow of course in coming years on this. I want to thank Scott Pace, director of Space Policy Institute at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs for joining us. Also, Leonard David. He writes the Space Insider column for SPACE.com. Thanks for being here. I'm Matt McCleskey sitting in today for Kojo. Thank you for listening.
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