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The Rough Road to Space

The developmental road for NASA's new launch vehicles remains rocky, with apparent continuing weight and cost growth in the heavy-lift vehicle design, to the point that the vehicle, now planned to be much larger than a Saturn V for which the Mobile Launch Platform or "crawler" was built, is now too heavy for the roadway on which it's designed to travel. There is also no real solution to the vibration problems of Ares 1, the intended crew launcher.

A little over two and a half years ago, not long after unveiling NASA's concept for satisfying President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, the then-new NASA administrator, Mike Griffin, gave a speech to a workshop on space exploration and cooperation in Washington D.C., in which he made an analogy: "The Crew Exploration Vehicle, the associated Crew Launch Vehicle, and later the Heavy Lift Vehicle, will be the 21st century space equivalent of our interstate highways. This is the core infrastructure that will enable us to travel from the surface of the Earth to the Moon, Mars, and the near-Earth asteroids."

Sadly, the analogy fails in a way that would be laughable if it weren't so tragic. Perhaps this analogy might make sense if the Interstate Highway System (IHS) were capable of handling only one four-passenger car at a time (with the passengers only employees of the government) a few times a year at a cost of billions of dollars per cross-country trip, and the cars had to be destroyed upon return.

But as anyone who has used it knows, the IHS supports millions of short and long trips per year, at very little cost per trip (paid for with a small tax on gasoline purchases) and with fully reusable vehicles. Moreover, its use is not restricted to government employees -- the vast majority of its users are private citizens, making trips for their own private purposes.

Dr. Griffin is right that we need a functional equivalent of an IHS for space, in terms of making access to it affordable for not just government missions but private ones -- and on a large scale. But the notion that NASA's plans provide one is woefully misguided and misleading.

A key way in which opening up space differs from opening up the country to ground transportation is that the problem is entirely different. For the highway system, good vehicles already existed. What was lacking were smooth roads that would allow them to travel at high speeds, and service stations, restaurants, and motels along the way which could fuel and maintain the vehicles and provision their passengers.

Space is different. To paraphrase Doc Brown's line about the future in the movie Back To The Future, where we're going -- into space -- we don't need roads.

There are no rivers to ford or bridge, no mountains to cross, no rocky plains or mud to smooth and harden for comfort, speed, and safety. With the exception of the occasional piece of space junk or micrometeroid, the path is clear and exceedingly smooth, particularly once out of the atmosphere.

No, what the space equivalent of the IHS needs is better vehicle designs. And not just a single vehicle type designed, developed, and operated by the government (the true mistake of the Shuttle was not its reusability, but the notion that a single government-operated system could satisfy all space transportation needs of the nation). The extraterrestrial equivalent of the IHS would be a robust infrastructure of a variety of vehicle types operating at high flight rates, if we want to have any hope of making it affordable to open up this new frontier.

And while we don't need roads, part of the infrastructure that we would share with the IHS would be gas stations along the way to the various destinations: low earth orbit (at various inclinations), the earth-moon Lagrange points (places between the earth and moon where the gravitational pull of the two bodies cancel each other out), the lunar surface and, later, in Martian orbit. And the propellants that are warehoused in these stations will come eventually -- if not initially -- from extraplanetary sources such as ice on poles of the moon (if it really exists), earth-approaching asteroids and comets, or the Martian atmosphere.

Only such an infrastructure will make reusable vehicles practical. Not just for getting from earth to orbit, but from low earth orbit to higher ones, out to the moon, near-earth objects, Mars -- and return from all those places, without throwing hardware away.

Such facilities would also provide life support, not just for those who work at them, but for itinerant passengers, including food and sleeping quarters, to break up space trips with a little comfort, making trips to distant locales more pleasant.

That kind of infrastructure would be a true space analog to the IHS.

But NASA, at least Mike Griffin's NASA, has no intention or desire to really build an interstate highway system for space. Instead, NASA, in keeping with its tradition for the past half century, has opted to build a transportation system for NASA and its astronauts, and of little or no use to anyone or anything else. And maybe it's not NASA's job to build an interplanetary IHS.

But it ought to be NASA's job to encourage the development of such an infrastructure, which would enable not only many private activities but dramatically reduce NASA's own costs for space exploration and development. There are many ways in which it could be doing so. For example, it could incorporate orbital gas stations into its lunar plans and put out bids for delivery of propellant. It could be focusing on the development of the technologies necessary to build it, reducing the technical risk to the point that private funds can be raised for construction. It could be purchasing a lot more crew and cargo transport from the private sector, demanding reduced cost, thus nurturing a growing private space transportation industry with multiple providers so we aren't dependent on a single means of getting into space.

But if NASA's not going to do those things, if it is simply going to build another monolithic and costly space transport system for its own use, it should be honest, and at least admit that's what it's doing, rather than selling it under false pretenses.