Monday, 24 May 2010

Come fly with me: private industry and future of manned spaceflight

As Major Tim Peake undergoes training as the first British citizen to join the European Space Agency's (ESA) Astronaut Corps, it's an interesting time to consider to what extent manned spaceflight will migrate from the state to private sector over the next decade or two. With the International Space Station (ISS - you can see the acronyms mounting) soon to be without the shuttle fleet, not to mention short of an emergency escape vehicle following on-again/off-again Crew Return Vehicle projects, some form of return to earth vehicle will surely be needed. Back in the 1980s at least one Soviet cosmonaut is supposed to have required a prompt return to Earth following a medical problem, but the ISS crew is too large to squeeze into a single venerable Soyuz ferry. It looks like NASA has managed to resurrect the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle as a lifeboat, eventually…but in the meantime, will the ISS be forced to look to the private sector?

The current centre of attention as far as private manned spaceflight goes is Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, with its $200,000 price tag for a suborbital hop in a SpaceShipTwo. The flight plan is nothing new - NASA's first two astronauts did something similar nearly half a century ago - but for a private company to achieve this is, or rather will be, astonishing. Any attempt to compare the development of spaceflight to commercial air travel is a failure: the differences in scale and logistics are too profound to allow any meaningful comparison. The margins for error are that much smaller with spaceflight, and whilst the cost of astronaut training is considerable, the cost of a space vehicle that much more. Unfortunately, and ironically, the success of science fiction has led to a widespread ignorance concerning the practicalities and dangers facing astronauts. For example, low Earth orbit has the mounting danger of man-made junk and debris, ranging from lost tools to frozen ejected fecal matter, with estimates for 'detectable' objects alone put at 10,000. According to NASA, this constitutes a 'critical level' of debris. One Soyuz mission in the 1980s suffered minor impact damage to a window, although this could have been a micrometeroid rather than man-made. Nonetheless, seeing as Star Trek deflectors aren't yet fitted as standard, at some point someone is presumably going to have start clearing up this mess.

In variance to Western capitalists looking to make commercial achievements in the human spaceflight sector (unlike say the existing success with communications and other unmanned satellites), both China and India are developing state-led programmes. The first Chinese manned spacecraft, a souped-up Soyuz clone, launched in 2003, whilst the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans, with Russian aid, to launch its first astronauts circa 2015. Whether politics and national pride will push American and European entrepreneurs to compete is open to question, but it's possible they will sit alongside raw commercialism as a driving force, with science taking a poor fourth place. Then again, President Obama's speeches have contained arguments along just these lines. Following on from the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, NASA instigated several ISS-orientated programmes such as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS), the intention being to free NASA from mundane day-to-day operations thus leaving more resources for R&D (research and development, if you weren't sure). Although initially intended to be cargo craft only, the potential for private sector crewed spacecraft, such as the SpaceX Dragon, is seen as the obvious next step. The problem is that some of the potential private contractors have very little experience of space operations. Or indeed, none. For every Boeing or Lockheed Martin there are an awful lot of small companies looking for a piece of orbital pie; if the success rate matches that of earlier attempts, there are going to be a lot of aerospace corporations filing for bankruptcy.

As early as the 1970's private companies attempted to build satellite launchers, such as OTRAG (go on then: Orbital Transport und Raketen AG, if you must know), only to founder due to technological difficulties, funding shortfalls and political pressure. More recent failures include the now defunct Rotary Rocket company's Roton crewed transport, and NASA's dropping of Rocketplane Kistler in 2008, but in these cases the lack of technical success was the primary cause. It would appear the future, at least for the USA, lies in cooperation between state and industry. Whether the latter will gain riches from microgravity research in pharmaceuticals and smart materials remains to be seen; as Carl Sagan once argued, many of the so-called Apollo breakthroughs could have probably been made for far less money than was spent on the moon landing programme. Perhaps a decline in fossil fuels may lead to new exotic energy projects, such as the mining of lunar helium-3, but the global economy may have to be on much more steady footing for anything as epic as this to be considered. Otherwise it's difficult to identify just where a private contractor could be certain of potential returns from manned spaceflight. Perhaps Richard Branson's quick thrills approach may be the best bet for now!

But are there any indicators as to what the near future might hold? SpaceX Dragon and the recently curtailed Orion are both conventional capsule designs. More advanced projects such as the (initially unmanned) Lockheed Venture Star were cancelled due to difficulties with the engine design, perhaps a primary reason for NASA deciding to play it safe with the Constellation programme's Orion and the Altair lunar lander. Speaking of the latter, President Obama's speech earlier this year placed human expeditions to the moon and Mars in the 2025-2030 time bracket, a safe distance from his White House tenure. I seem to recall all US presidents since, and perhaps including, Reagan, have taken a pot-shot at a manned Mars mission (acronym: mmm - speaks for itself, really.) I would take any such timescale with a large pinch of salt. Admittedly, Obama has proposed large budget increases for NASA, guaranteed to generate more than 2,500 jobs in Florida alone. But like many aspects of the Soviet Union's Five Year Plans, is the intention to promote economic growth, the outcome of the projects themselves being on secondary importance? US presidents of the past few decades have not exactly been known for their scientific acumen. Competition between private companies is an ideal way of generating R&D whilst minimising tax payers' investments, but if these corporations don't succeed in establishing a comprehensive level of interaction with NASA there could be trouble afoot. After all, it isn't so many years since a software contractor mixed up imperial with metric units, causing the in-flight loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter.

One potential benefit of increased manned space travel that has been advanced by both the White House as and NASA is the promotion of spaceflight to the general public. With digital entertainment and web empowerment, along with environmental and economic concerns, having taken centre stage in the minds of the post-Apollo generations, an increase in space tourism may have greater impact on the public than the lacklustre coverage of the ISS. If Virgin Galactic can pull off it's enterprise (N.B. that's a joke - the first Spaceship Two will of course be named VSS Enterprise), then perhaps spaceflight will become cool again. This in turn may inspire a new generation of engineers and designers, especially to seek much-needed alternatives to fossil fuels. In an idea reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's children's novel Islands in the Sky, last year the brewery company Guinness announced a competition prize of a seat on a Virgin Galactic craft. So although it may be a far cry from the Pan Am Orion spaceplane in 2001: A Space Odyssey, nonetheless it's very much a case of "watch this space..."

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