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I recently took a trip back home to Washington, DC with my 5-year old son. I love that town, having grown up in its Northern Virginia shadow, and I’d like my children to come to know it as well. The city is one of the most beautiful in the world: a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture and rationalist French city planning, courtesy of Pierre Charles L’Enfant. The city’s profile has been kept low to better accentuate the verticality of the Washington Monument and the linearity of the Mall, with its endpoints at the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol. The Mall is indeed the showcase to the world of American power and prosperity and it is no more than a 20 minute stroll from the White House to the Capitol and then to the Supreme Court: the greatest concentration of political power in any 20 block area. The fact that millions of visitors still walk through those buildings every year, despite the additional security necessitated by the random acts of violence and premeditated terror that have afflicted us over the decades, is a testament to our commitment to freedom and liberty – one we need reminding of at times.

For a 5-year old, these symbols are still meaningless. The glories of the Capitol were viewed through sleepy eyes from my arms. What the Potomac City does offer for all ages is the glory of its museums. The Smithsonian Institute maintains along that same 20 block strip of the Mall some of the finest museums in the world. The National Air and Space museum is the second most visited in the world after the Louvre[1].  The National Gallery of Art competes with New York’s Metropolitan for the designation of the best art collection in the country[2]. The Museum of Natural History has the finest collection of dinosaur fossils anywhere on display. And this entire collection devoted to the progress of science and culture is entirely free and open to the public.

So it was to the Air and Space museum we first turned. How could such a collection of air- and spacecraft fail to fire the imagination of any 5 year old boy? Or 45 year old boy for that matter?

The Smithsonian Institute maintains two Air & Space museums: the original and best known facility on the Washington Mall, and the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport in Virginia. The Washington exhibition is more compartmentalized, more interactive: the exhibits are separated in themed exhibition halls while even the central exhibits are often screened from view by the second floor walkways or walls of the Einstein Planetarium and the IMAX Theater. The Dulles facility, on the other hand, overwhelms in the vast open spaces of two large aircraft hangars filled end to end with aircraft and spacecraft of every description. The Space Shuttle Discovery dominates the far hanger, while the collection of World War 2 German Wunderwaffen is not to be missed. Together with the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, this represents the greatest collection of air and space technologies on the planet.

It is marvelous.


The reason is simple: the United States has dominated the development of these technologies since their inception. That is not to diminish the important, even leading, achievements of other nations: the British fathers of aerodynamics like Sir George Cayley, Horatio Phillips and Francis Herbert Wenham; the French aviation pioneers Jean-Marie Le Bris, Alphonse Penaud, Victor Tatin, and Clement Ader; the Germans Otto Lilienthal and Octave Canute: or Enrico Forlanini, the Italian inventor of the first working helicopter. Or in rocketry, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, Werner von Braun. But always there were Americans at the front of the pack: Robert Goddard, Samuel Pierpont Langley, Charles Manly, Hiram Maxim, Wilbur and Orville Wright. American science, in its infancy during the XVIIIth and XIXth century, rapidly caught up with the leading European states; and America stood second to none in her ability to develop practical, functional inventions out of the discoveries of others and of those at home.

Competitiveness turned to dominance after the Second World War. Although other nations retained the technical and scientific bases to make important contributions – and the Soviets made immense advances in ballistic rocketry and space exploration at least in part with German help[3] (3) – it was the United States alone that had come through the war unscathed and with the industrial base and riches that permitted it to dedicate unchallengeable resources to push the boundaries of aviation: breaking the sound barrier, developing a generation of air- and sea-launched ballistic missiles, and the supreme, glorious challenge of placing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. The United States remains the only nation to accomplish this epochal feat, not once but six times.


The Air & Space Museum is a testament to this proud history, but it is also a mute challenge to visitors and to America’s leaders: what is next? In the heady days of the 1960’s when NASA had completed the Mercury and Gemini programs and was getting ready for the Apollo program, Americans boldly yet confidently predicted that there would be a permanent space station by 2001, a permanent Moon base as well, and regular traffic between the Earth and Mars. Today, only the International Space Station exists, and only just: bereft of funding, without a purpose. No moon base, no Mars colony, not even a glimmering of one. NASA no longer even has a rocket that would be capable of sending a man to the moon; the US space agency depends on Russia of all countries for the heavy lift boosters it uses[4]. The American space program has fallen low, very low.

That is not to say there have not been successes. No one doubts the importance of the Hubble Telescope or the Chandra X-Ray Observatory; the technical brilliance of the Mars Rover or the Cassini mission to Saturn[5]. In all of these purely scientific endeavors, NASA remains at the forefront[6], and all of these missions have greatly exceeded expectations. Yet for all of this, NASA is failing at what it was formerly best at: working boldly, with a sense of urgency, rising to the challenge of the times, and doing “the hard things”:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

– President John F. Kennedy, Rice University, 12 September 1962

Gone is the fire of the Space Race, the challenge to go faster, fly higher and get there first before the Russians. Victory does not sit well with America.

We look on with complacency as other nations build their own space programs, forgetting how much of the modern world we owe to the technological and scientific breakthroughs made possible by the space program. We fail to heed the lesson of history, that it is not the first nation to sail to the New World, but the most persistent that eventually reaped the benefits. We are like Columbus who, upon reaching the islands of the Caribbean, remarks: “Yup. Knew they were there,” and then never took to sea again[7]. For there is another part of President Kennedy’s Rice speech, less well-known than the one I already quoted, but equally important to my mind:

“Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.

And finally, the space effort itself, while still in its infancy, has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs. Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel.”

If NASA continues to lead the way in the area of unmanned science missions, the human spaceflight component of our space program, if it can be so dignified, is a shambles. The Space Shuttles, which were only one component of a more complete Space Transportation System, have now been honorably retired after reaching design limitations and simple obsolescence. Every single replacement idea has been axed for a variety of reasons that boils down to budgetary constraints or developmental mismanagement.

  • The cargo-only Shuttle C was cancelled in 1990 due to budgetary competition from Space Station Freedom[8];
  • The National Launch System, proposed by President H.W. Bush in 1991, which never got off the designer’s table, though it was the forerunner of the Ares series of rockets;
  • Ares I and IV series of heavy lift rockets, meant to return Americans to the Moon and send us to Mars, suffered from constant project delays and cost overruns until eventually being cancelled in 2010 by President Obama;
  • The current proposal is for the Space Launch System (SLS), another “family” of rockets with a high-degree of commonality with the proven Space Shuttle components and infrastructure. The four “blocs” of rockets would provide a greater degree of flexibility and lift capability than the US has ever had and would enable numerous beyond-LEO missions, including a circumlunar navigation (EM1), a near-Earth asteroid rendezvous (EM2), and a Mars mission (EM3): if it is ever completed.


That seems increasingly unlikely. An independent cost assessment in 2011 conducted by Booz Allen Hamilton called the planned development schedule and budget “optimistic”.[9] More recently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the initial SLS launch in 2017 is unlikely to take place because NASA is not receiving the necessary funding[10] – a victim, not of the sequester, but of NASA’s inability to manage procurement. They are in good company, with the DoD being filled with similarly bloated programs; but our politicians consider the F-35 and Ohio Replacement Sub to be national security priorities, whereas space exploration is not.


The developments are not all negative, of course. The gap in NASA capabilities to LEO has led to a proliferation of private efforts to service this $100 billion a year industry. By far the majority of this business is in the form of government contracts and payloads. In this space, national champions dominate: Lockheed and Boeing in the US, Arianespace in Europe, RSC Energia in Russia and the former Soviet states.  The purely civilian market is much smaller, valued at approximately $3 billion per year. More than half of this market is held by Arianespace, with the Russians taking up most of the rest. US firms account for only 6% of the value of purely commercial contracts[11].

In the US, traditional players like Lockheed Martin and Boeing developed new rockets like the Delta II, Delta IV and Atlas V under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles initiative. These rockets continue to fly, mostly for the US Air Force and NASA, but Lockheed and Boeing are keen on capturing a larger share of the commercial launch market. For the same reason, Lockheed and Alliant are bringing back the Athena I and II rockets, which were discontinued in 2001 due to “unfavorable market dynamics”: apparently the market dynamics have improved.


One reason they’ve improved is that gutsy entrepreneurs are demonstrating the ability of the private sector to get into the LEO business without the back-stop of massive government contracts or a huge defense business to subsidize the space operations. The most well-known of these are SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Of the two, SpaceX has demonstrated the greatest capabilities, with the successful development and evolution of the cost-effective Falcon family of rockets, as well as the Dragon space capsule, which is being used to resupply the International Space Station. Virgin Galactic, under the flamboyant leadership of Richard Branson, is more focused on the emerging space tourism sector, using an air launched, reusable rocket to take wealthy (and not so wealthy) customers into the edge of space and bring them back in an expensive ballistic joyride. Mr. Branson, who is not one to foolishly waste money, believes in this concept enough that he has built a space terminal in the Mojave Desert and is actively participating in the flight tests.

At $250,000 per passenger per trip, space tourism is not yet for the middle classes, but it is easily within reach of the top 5% of wealthy citizens in the advanced economies. That is still a very big market. And as the technology becomes proven and the large up-front investments are amortized, expect operating costs to fall by an order of magnitude. Within a decade of starting commercial operations, this sort of transatmospheric flight might cost $25,000: still a lot of money, but absolutely affordable to the middle classes. Which is why Branson already has competitors, like the Sierra Nevada Space Ship Corporation: they offer a lift on an Atlas V rocket in a Dream Chaser re-entry vehicle that can land at any commercial airport, significantly reducing costs and complexity for the business.

Bigelow Aerospace also believes in the future of LEO space tourism, and they are building space stations to prove it. They are partnering with SpaceX to launch and service the modular stations, and then also to ferry customers into and out of orbit. Moving people into LEO is a much more expensive prospect than the purely up-and-down ballistic trajectory offered by Virgin and Sierra Nevada, which is why Bigelow is charging $15 million for a four week vacation in their not-yet-built station. That sort of price tag means only the top 1% or even 0.1% of affluent customers could afford a stay on the station, but that is still a market of tens of thousands. Bigelow also offers to rent out space to governments and corporations and there has been significant interest from both sectors. It is interesting to note that        founder Robert Bigelow is neither an engineer nor an aerospace guy, he owns the Budget Suites of America hotel chain.

These are very encouraging developments. NASA has rightly outsourced LEO operations to the private sector; having paved the way in the 1960’s, the technologies and markets have matured to the point where a government monopoly is no longer needed or desired. There are some things the private sector just does better, and managing low risk commercial operations with proven technologies is one of them. So long as NASA and the USAF keep a reserve capability in case of war or emergency, there is no point in competing with the more efficient private sector.

What the public sector does better is undertake those high-risk, unproven ventures which require substantial investment without a guarantee of an immediate pay-off. It is NASA’s job to go up, ever onwards, pushing the frontiers out. The private sector will follow later, but they are unlikely to lead the way[12]. We already know NASA does the science better than anyone, but does a really poor job at managing an orbital freight company: so let’s play to NASA’s strengths and give them ambitious goals:

1. Establish the components of an LEO propellant depot by 2018. One of the problems of getting to a place like Mars is that you have to take the entire mass of fuel and mission equipment out of the Earth’s gravity well in one go, which is a very complicated and expensive prospect. It also severely limits mission size and duration because every pound of equipment requires hundreds of pounds of fuel to get it to its destination, and there are limits to how big a chemical rocket can be.A propellant depot would allow you to get all the bulky equipment into LEO, reassemble it in orbit, refuel, and then shoot it to Mars (or the Moon, or Jupiter) in two stages. That would allow you to send much more equipment or take a much higher energy transfer to get there sooner, or some combination of the two. It would allow you to use existing rockets and equipment rather than building the “Battlestar Galactica”, reducing costs enormously and allowing you to start that much sooner on your next goal;

2. Set up a permanent base on Mars. Human habitation of the Red Planet is inevitable, assuming we don’t kill ourselves first. But precisely because humanity faces large tail risks from nuclear annihilation, catastrophic climate change, emerging plagues, asteroid impact, or other Black Swan events, it makes sense to establish a viable human colony outside of the Earth as soon as possible. I won’t go into the details of how this could be done, because there are plenty of excellent books on the subject[13], but suffice it to say that we are perfectly capable of colonizing Mars with our existing technologies.Once NASA has established the orbital fuel depot (multiple fuel depots, actually) it would begin launching Mars missions in the same year, 2018. The initial launch would be an unmanned mission to deposit the base camp material and robotic fuel processors that would create the necessary propellant to get the next, manned Mars mission home. Since the trip to Mars on a low energy Hohmann transfer takes approximately 12 months, the first manned mission would not be until 18 to 20 months after the initial launch, in 2020. Once these two missions had been successfully completed, NASA would establish a launch schedule of alternating manned and unmanned launches approximately every 6 months. The unmanned launches would deliver new scientific equipment, necessary expansion modules for the colony, and replacement parts. The manned missions would bring the relief crews to the planet, so that any given mission for an individual astronaut would last only 24 months (6 months transfer to Mars, 12 months on the surface, 6 months return to Earth)[14];

3. While the Martian colonization program is underway, NASA should plan and execute two additional, ambitious missions: one to Jupiter and one to Saturn. These missions would carry the drilling equipment and robotic submersibles that would then land on the Jovian satellite Europa and the Saturnian satellite Enceladus, drill through the surface ice, and then explore the vast, planet-wide oceans that scientists believe are the best environments for extraterrestrial life in our Solar System.This is a mission even more complex than the Mars Rover: the development of new robotic drilling equipment that could pierce a crust of ice potentially miles thick, as well as the development of a robotic submersible probe that would need a high degree of artificial intelligence to react to the utterly unknown conditions and explore the potentialities of these distant undersea realms. Yet not only could these probes make discoveries that would utterly transform human civilization and our concept of the universe; on the more practical side, they could send back data that would allow us to understand the potential of these satellites to act as colonies and way stations to the Outer Solar System. After all, liquid water is the basic necessity of life as well as the most easily transformable element into chemical propellant (H2O can be transformed into hydrogen, oxygen and hydrogen peroxide very easily, all of which make excellent rocket fuel: this is essentially how our Martian colonists will survive and get back home, by tapping into the polar ice caps of the Red Planet). Understanding the composition and dynamics of Europa and Enceladus would allow us – eventually – to set up refueling points on them, even habitation modules, and provide the means of sending human beings to the Jovian system and getting them back to Earth cheaply, quickly and practically.

An Enceladus mission should be scheduled for 2024 and a Europa mission for 2026; the mission to the moon of Saturn has further to go after all.


All the while, NASA should be exploring ways to cooperate with the private sector. Once the LEO Propellant Depots are set up, why should NASA run them? It is not in the business of running an orbiting Exxon station. Private firms will operate these platforms at much lower costs and much greater efficiency and find many more profitable uses for them once the necessary infrastructure has been developed and launched. Of course, the government should get its money back, and some sort of public-private partnership for a decade or so could be one means of achieving this. Similarly, once the Mars colony is a going concern, NASA should cooperate in the commercial exploration of the Red Planet – finding economically exploitable materials would ensure the success of a Martian colony and its continued organic growth. The scientific community would grow along side of a commercial community, which would eventually create a new frontier for human settlement by “homesteaders”.

Having NASA waste time, effort and resources on building a new heavy-lift vehicle doesn’t make any sense. Of course NASA needs such a rocket; but the private sector has already proven that it is perfectly capable of building and operating rockets. Why not use this proven skill to our advantage? NASA could just as easily offer a fixed price tender for a new heavy lift rocket to the private sector and select the best of the designs that meet the criteria. The winner would know that they are guaranteed 20 or 30 Mars missions over the next decade and a half, as well as participation in the Enceladus and Europa shots. Losers would still be able to compete for provisioning, servicing and operating the orbital propellant depots. NASA could then focus on the mission critical equipment and preparation, which it excels at; leave the orbital bus service to the bus companies.

This is similar to the model used by the cash-strapped European governments to explore and colonize the New World. These voyages were rarely undertaken by the Crown; they were outsourced to wealthy private individuals, or joint stock companies later on, who put up the equipment, the crews and the ships and bore most of the risk. The state would defray part of the costs of the voyage in return for the sovereignty rights over any discoveries and a share of the plunder…err, commerce….that resulted. Once the business model was established, the Crown issued monopolies and exclusive rights to trade or exploitation that spurred further private investment without the need for public financing, which was always in short supply anyway. These were capitalist enterprises, with profit as the goal, not voyages of pure discovery and science – those would only come later. Without taking the analogy too far, modern space exploration should be a public-private partnership: and science can coexist with profit for the furtherance of human activity in space.

All of this sounds like a lot of money and Americans don’t feel particularly wealthy at this point. The government is hamstrung by a sequester; the Republicans continually threaten to shut down the government; not even the DoD is getting the money it needs for what it considers minimum National Security requirements. The political environment is not the best, to put it lightly; yet space exploration is popular on both sides of the aisle. There is gravy to go around; large defense contractors and billionaire entrepreneurs can be found to back these initiatives; and they play well with the American public. If Mr. Obama were to propose this – he won’t, he has shown rather scant interest in NASA – he would fail; he could say the sky was blue and the GOP would contradict him. The next American President, not tainted by the current poisonous relationship between Congress and President Obama, could create a bipartisan commitment to fund these ambitious goals.

And the price tag is not one that Americans should balk at. It is perfectly within our means to colonize Mars at this time. Consider the following chart:


Even if we take NASA’s “Battlestar Galactica” approach to Martian colonization, the price tag of $720 billion dollars over 10 years pales in comparison with the $4.4 trillion that we have spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over a comparable period of time. The 10-year impact of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts were 5 times greater than NASA’s estimate of a mission to Mars, and the benefits to society of a Mars program would not be felt exclusively by the wealthiest 1% of Americans. Even granting that the cost overruns and project delays that would be inevitable if we adopted the all-NASA approach to Mars would substantially inflate the cost above $720 billion, there are other ways of getting to Mars better, faster and cheaper.

What is really lacking is vision, political will and a sense of urgency. Our politicians are too worried about the sorry mess they have made of the world, and our citizens too busy looking down at their smartphones. But humanity is not going to be stopped and someone eventually is going to take up the challenge. It ought to be America; it must be America. It’s time to look up: the stars are within our reach like never before.

Sources and Notes:

[1] Aylin Zafar, “The World’s Most-Visited Museums,” Time, 05 January 2012

[2] I doubt many New Yorkers would agree with me, and I might not be entirely impartial.

[3] Of course, so did we. The last days of the war were characterized by a race to see which of the Allies would nab the greatest number of German scientists, test facilities and experimental weapons.

[4] Technically, the Delta IV rocket currently in service is a heavy-lift transporter, but at 23,000 lbs to LEO, it is not in the league of the Saturn V’s.

[5] The Cassini-Huygens mission is a partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI); I have included it in this list because NASA has had primary responsibility for overall project management, the Cassini orbiter itself (minus the ASI build antenna) as well as the launch (Saturn V) and the mission control.

[6] There is no doubt that the European Space Agency is a close rival, but to my mind, still in second place.

[7] The Native Americans would have been much the better for it, of course.

[8] Space Station Freedom was never completed, also due to lack of funding; it was eventually transformed into the International Space Station by President Clinton

[9] “Independent Cost Assessment of the Space Launch System, Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle and 21st Century Ground Systems Programs: Executive Summary of Final Report”, Booz Allen Hamilton, 19 August 2011

[10] “Space Launch System: Resources Needed to be Matched to Requirements to Decrease Risk and Support Long-Term Affordability,” United States Government Accountability Office, July 2014

[11] Andy Pasztor, “Changing Trajectory: French Firms Vaults Ahead in Civilian Rocket Market”. The Wall Street Journal, 25 June 2007

[12] That is not entirely true, since there are already a number of private ventures ambitiously looking at finding and exploiting lunar wáter (Shackleton Energy Company), mining asteroids, or reaching Mars (Mars One, Inspiration Mars Foundation).

[13] I highly recommend Robert Zubrin’s “The Case for Mars” as a highly readable book on the subject written by a former NASA engineer.

[14] The unmanned vehicles could follow a low energy Hohmann transfer, which minimizes the fuel costs at the expense of a much longer time in space – approximately 300 days. But robots don’t care about time in space, whereas humans do for many reasons, including radiation exposure and bone decay. So human crews would go on a high energy transfer that takes about 150 days; hence the desirability of the orbital propellant depot to ensure that the adequate amount of fuel is available for this transfer without blowing up costs or sacrificing mission essential equipment. Astronauts returning from Mars have a much easier time of it, because the Martian gravity well is so much shallower than Earth’s, allowing them a direct ascent and transfer without the need of an intermediate refueling. Eventually an LMO refueling depot will still make economic sense, when there is enough interplanetary traffic to justify it.

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