Posted by: spacewritinguy | March 20, 2008

Conservatives in Space – Chapter 6

Space Benefits I: Transportation, Defenses, and Energy

Bottom Line: Private demand for space will create a diverse economy capable of developing the transportation, defense, and energy technologies needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The technologies I will describe in this chapter are vehicles or machines that are on the drawing board now or in development. My point in listing them is not to specify how technological developments should be built–I’m not an engineer–instead, I hope to give the reader an idea of how these technologies might work and, more importantly, how they can benefit life on Earth.

Reusable Spacecraft

I will not argue here that space transportation isn’t dangerous or complicated; it is. However, the reason we don’t see more of it is that it is also expensive. Space launchers today are all derived from ballistic missiles. Missiles are designed to fly once, deliver a payload (a bomb, if you will), and crash somewhere. In short, they are not designed like aircraft, which can be flown again and again, thus spreading their out costs across multiple flights. The Space Shuttle attempted to overcome this weakness by being at least partially reusable.

The big challenge today is to build a spacecraft capable of operating (somewhat) like a commercial airliner: a reusable launch vehicle (RLV). A commercial airliner like the 747 has a limited ground staff, standardized fuels and fittings so that it can be flown and serviced nearly anywhere, and operate on a regular flight schedule. All of these attributes keep operating costs low, enabling airline companies to operate at a profit, at least theoretically.

Right now the cost to launch one pound of payload to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) can range from $3,000 to $5,000 per pound; the cost of launch a pound of payload to geosynchronous orbit (GEO) is between $5,000 and $10,000 per pound. These prices are based on a number of factors, including the size of the rocket, the size of the payload, and the size of the ground support staff, but these prices all have one thing in common: they are all dependent upon expendable launch vehicles (ELVs). The key to the space economy is to reduce this price; and the entrepreneurial private sector is more likely to achieve this technical goal before the government or the major government contractors, such as Boeing or Lockheed-Martin.

The current goal of the upstart rocket builders is to reduce space launch costs by a factor of ten, bringing the price per pound to orbit down to $1,000 or better. That price becomes more realistic when you consider that a theoretical “space line” charging to launch a 200-pound person into orbit would have to charge that person around $2,000,000 just to break even. If costs were reduced as intended, that same ticket would cost $200,000 if costs were reduced by a factor of ten. If the price-per-pound-to-orbit dropped to $100, that one-person ticket would cost $20,000, which is a price that brings it within the range of possibility for middle-class vacationers willing to save for a few years.

Aside from reducing costs, reusable spacecraft would also fly more often, thereby allowing more things and people to be flown into space more frequently. An RLV with the Space Shuttle’s capacity flying once every two weeks could have all of the ISS components delivered to orbit in a year and two months. Flying every week, all ISS components could be launched in under three months on a reusable launcher with comparable capacity. In addition, lower launch costs make more other projects and equipment more feasible.

RLVs could come in one of many possible forms, from horizontally launched aircraft fueled in midair before going into orbit to single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft that both launch and land vertically. There are many intriguing ideas being developed in the private sector–many of which are seeking funding for a variety of reasons–but until a proven market develops, Wall Street is still skittish about investing in them. As I stated in Chapter 5, the best thing government can do to encourage these ideas to be developed would be to offer incentives in the form of prizes, but otherwise get out of the way and see what happens. More than one solution might present itself, and competition can only hasten the decline in launch costs.

Defenses for Earth-Based Threats

Space began as a military matter, and it still is, for the most part. Indeed, if space were not important, why are China, India, and Iran in such a rush to build their own space capabilities? What follows is a description of current and future space technologies our armed forces need.

Current Military Space Capabilities

Space satellites are a critical part of America’s defense efforts. Communication satellites keep our forces throughout the world within easy contact of all the others. Those same satellites, in cooperation with Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and service members on the ground, ensure battlefield awareness and provide a significant “force multiplier” for our naval, air, and ground forces.

Global positioning satellites (GPS) do more than tell soldiers or marines where they are on the ground. Those same satellites help guide missiles and bombs to their targets with frightening accuracy. As Operation Enduring Freedom proved, the GPS-directed generation of “smart bombs” can strike one specific building while leaving others around it relatively intact.

Space-based communications and weapons provide a major battlefield advantage to our armed forces. Any nation or group that does not have space capabilities finds itself seriously vulnerable to those that do.

Therefore, the Chinese ability to destroy satellites is a disturbing threat that needs to be taken seriously. If they can destroy our satellites, they are not necessarily killing our troops directly, but they are making it much easier for them to be killed by others.

Much has been made about the Bush Administration’s National Space Policy, which was released just before Christmas 2006. However, while the Policy might have a stern tone, it does not call for the militarization of space. Instead, it insists on our right to defend ourselves in the event others try to prevent us from having free access to space. Other nations could do this by directly destroying our satellites or launching harmful chaff in the way of our launch corridors and satellite orbits.

A space war would be bad for everyone, both the attackers and the defenders. If enough debris is blasted about our planet’s satellite orbits, no one will be able to launch satellites, much less human spacecraft or space stations. Despite complaints about our supposed belligerent attitude, the United States, in fact, has the most to lose from a space war.

The primary space-based capabilities of today’s military include:

  • Communications, Command, Control, Computing, and Intelligence (C4I).
  • Weather observation.
  • Missile launch detection.
  • Search and rescue (SAR).
  • Satellite launching.

Future Military Space Capabilities

So what does the U.S. military stand to gain from a diverse, active space economy? As in their air operations, the armed forces benefit from the ability of the private sector to develop a wide range of specialty vehicles. The more competitive and diverse the market is, the less money taxpayers will have to pay individually for their own defense. And as more research and development (R&D) money is poured into new launch technologies, especially RLVs, the more likely it is for our military to continue holding a technological edge over others.

Our standing army is not as numerous as some nations’, especially China’s, which puts a premium on the quality of our boots on the ground and on the training and technologies they use to fight. More so even than nuclear weapons, which are almost useless in battle, space technologies are a critical advantage our forces can use to counteract superior numbers.

In the future, as our world economy grows into a space economy, our current capabilities will have to be greatly expanded, both to detect and avoid threats from other nations and to defend against those threats, if necessary. The U.S. Air Force’s future space needs include:

All of these capabilities are made more feasible, better, and cheaper by having a large, capable, and growing space economy.

Complementing a New Foreign Policy

Jerry Pournelle, a renowned science fiction author and political thinker, has observed that our national ends determine our means. In military terms, this means that if we wish to go on remaking nations in our own image and confronting every evil in the world, we will have one type of military–an imperial one–and another if we wish merely to defend our legitimate interests abroad and protect our citizens reasonably at home, which would allow us to remain a republic.

Long-range aerospacecraft and strike weapons like Thor reflect the strategy of a republic. They enable us to mind our own borders; keep more forces at home; and strike at times and places of our own choosing. If we want to invade and occupy, we will have to build a completely different, much smaller, and less expensive military and security apparatus. To date, we have shown little stomach for the role of occupiers or nation-builders. It might be more useful, as Machiavelli said, to be feared than to be loved, but nations that are feared are also hated and more likely to attract coalitions of enemies willing to attack us. America is at its best when we stand forth as an example of liberty and accomplishment, not military prowess and force.

Pournelle sums up this approach to foreign and military policy by quoting John Adams: “We friends of liberty everywhere, but guardians only of our own.”

Defenses for Space-Based Threats

Up to now, I have discussed only human-based threats from other nations attacking from Earth. However, these are not the only threats that space technology can combat. Science fiction writer Larry Niven once said that “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program.” Space travel provides us with two important advantages that the dinosaurs did not have against asteroids and comets: a means of escape and a means to defend ourselves. I will discuss the defense aspect here.

Two big-budget science fiction films in the late ‘90s addressed the problem of defending Earth from objects in space: Armageddon (asteroid) and Deep Impact (comet). These visual extravaganzas, whatever their technical merits, showed the Earthly effects of such impacts: tsunamis, massive fireballs, and possible extinction of all life on Earth. Fortunately, unlike the dinosaurs, we do have a space program.

Of course, before we start worrying about how to stop incoming asteroids or comets, we first must be able to find them. Just in the last few years, our astronomers have detected several asteroids that have come very close, in astronomical terms (i.e. within 500,000 miles) to striking the Earth.

A space-based asteroid detection system would go a long way toward improving security for our entire world. A dedicated system of space-based asteroid-seeking telescopes could detect 90 percent of all objects bigger than a kilometer within ten years. What’s so special about rocks that size? If one were to hit the Earth directly, it would destroy a city the size of Chicago. Still, other, smaller rocks will be detected as detectors get better; the 4,000-foot-wide, 500-foot-deep Meteor Crater in Arizona was made by an object 150 feet across.

Once space objects like these are detected, their orbits must be calculated to determine how closely they might come to Earth or any of our outposts. If they are likely to become dangers to human life, they must be intercepted and-where possible-diverted. Asteroid deflection or diversion will require technologies we do not have at present, but they include:

  • Space-based lasers capable of heating the rock so that it erupts with enough gas or material to propel it in another direction.
  • A mass driver attached to the rock, which would slowly direct it out of the way or onto a safe or useful orbit.

The “big nukes” used in the movies are, in fact, the least likely to help us. Instead of one big cannonball hitting us, we would suddenly find ourselves facing thousands or millions of shotgun pellets spread over a wider area.

An asteroid or comet striking land would produce great physical damage to life and property. A land-based impact would also send a tremendous amount of debris and ash into the sky, creating a sun-blocking cloud that could produce something akin to a nuclear winter.

An impact in the ocean, which is more likely given the wet surface of our planet, would produce devastating tsunamis that would reach around the world. More than half of the world’s population lives in technically advanced cities, which are within 100 miles of an ocean. After the massive earthquake-based tsunami in South Asia a few years ago, we know the devastation that is possible from such seaborne threats. If a large asteroid (say, a mile or two across) were to strike off the U.S. East Coast, the waves that came ashore would likely break upon the Appalachian Mountains and sweep clear over the Bahamas and Florida. With our nation’s capital and many of our largest cities destroyed and millions of people killed, who would come to help us–especially since the same disaster would sweep over Britain and Europe?

Again, the more people and money and technology we have flowing into space, the more likely and quickly we will develop the ability to defend ourselves from these random wanderers in our solar system. This is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Space Solar Power

Fact: We are at war in the Middle East because of oil. This is not the same as saying that we went to war to protect Halliburton’s profits. Our economy’s energy and chemical feed stocks are petroleum based. If there were no oil in Iraq or other parts of the Middle East, we would not have spent nearly so much blood and treasure trying to keep the area stable or friendly to our interests.

Fact Number Two: Other nations of the world–particularly India and China–now have economies that aspire to our standard of living, which means adopting our means of energy production or consumption. That means more nations will be competing for Middle Eastern oil and, if necessary, will be willing to engage in military and political interference there to ensure a steady supply for themselves.

Fact Number Three: Despite the rash of announcements about America’s “addiction to oil,” the rise of $100-per-barrel oil, and the obvious need for “alternative energies,” the addiction continues and federal spending on alternative energy R&D is around $1 billion. While much has been made about a resurgence of nuclear power, “the hydrogen economy,” corn-based ethanol fuels, or wind power, little or no attention has been given to space-based power, which is most unfortunate because here, too, space technology offers a renewable, non-polluting, domestically grown answer: the solar power satellite or SPS.

Originally developed by Peter Glaser in 1968, and subsequently expanded upon by Gerard K. O’Neill and others, the SPS is simply a much larger space-based version of the solar cells now being used here on Earth. Placed in geosynchronous orbit above a fixed spot on the Earth, this structure would collect unfiltered solar energy almost 24 hours a day and continually transmit that energy in the form of microwaves to a ground station, where it would that energy be converted into electricity.

The advantages of the SPS should be obvious:

  • Once it is put in place, it can be left in place without much human intervention.
  • Pollution-free, non-invasive electrical power.
  • Not dependent upon fossil fuels.
  • Reduced dependence upon energy from the Middle East.

Given our nation’s current and no doubt ongoing energy problems, an investment in SPS is practically a no-brainer.

If SPS has one Achilles heel, it is cost. Greg Allison, Executive Vice President of the National Space Society, notes that aside from technology development, which we can start now, SPS requires a great deal of infrastructure to exist in space first to become competitive with Earth-based power sources.

Given that SPSs are expected to be as large as a mile across or wider, they obviously require many launches to get all of their components into place at geosynchronous orbit. They also will require occasional on-site maintenance by human beings, which means they will need businesses in orbit capable of reaching the power satellite and repairing it-again at reasonable prices.

As mentioned in Chapter 5, Helium-3 might provide an interim or final alternative to SPS. Fusion reactors tested on the Moon could eventually be built on Earth or provide the power necessary to fuel the space economy itself.

Professor John Lewis, author of Mining the Sky, suggests that SPSs could be built out of materials found in asteroids orbiting in near-Earth space. Again, before we can build a single SPS from space-based materials, we must first have the space economy in place to obtain those materials. However if the alternative to building multi-billion-dollar SPSs is even more expensive oil and half-trillion-dollar budgets for the Department of Defense to maintain our presence in the Middle East, space-based power just might be the best reason imaginable for putting that economy into motion.

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