On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy committed the nation to reach the moon by the end of the decade. The goal was reached, but a half-century later, our space program is adrift. On this 50th anniversary of one of the boldest moments in America’s history, how can we chart a new course that truly sets us on the pathway to the stars?
In the history of the old frontier, the creation of the transcontinental railroad served as the decisive move enabling the settling of the continent. Can we today deliver a similar master stroke and open the way to the full and rapid development of the new frontier, space? Can we open a “transorbital railroad”? I believe so.
The core idea is simple. The space shuttle program is ending. So, instead of funding NASA to spend the next decade developing another white elephant to replace it, let’s just take a quarter of the shuttle’s budget and use it to set up a regularly scheduled launch service to orbit using the most cost-effective boosters on the commercial market.
One-quarter of the shuttle program would provide a budget of $1.2 billion per year. Right now, the choice of most cost-effective launcher is a horse race between the Boeing Delta IV, the Lockheed Atlas V and the Spacex Falcon 9. However, starting in 2013, Spacex will field the Falcon Heavy, which, with a lift capacity of 53 metric tons and a price tag of $80 million, will offer three times the amount of goods delivered for the price as any of its competitors. So let’s assume this is the initial base-line choice for the railroad. In that case, with a budget of $1.2 billion, the transorbital railroad could buy 15 launches per year, or one every 24 days, with a total lift capacity of 795 metric tons. This is nearly 10 times the annual delivery capability of the shuttle program - which over the course of its 30-year history averaged about 80 tons per year - at one-quarter the cost.
Having bought these launches for $80 million each, the NASA transorbital railroad office would then turn around and sell payload space on board at a steep discount price of $50 per kilogram. Thus, a 53-ton-capacity launch could be offered for sale at $2.5 million or divided into 5-ton compartments for sale at $250,000 each, with half-ton compartments made available for $25,000. While recovering just a tiny fraction of the transorbital railroad’s costs, such low fees (levied primarily to discourage spurious use) would make spaceflight readily affordable.
As with a normal railroad here on earth, the transorbital railroad’s launches would occur in accordance with its schedule, regardless of whether or not all of its cargo capacity was subscribed by customers. Unsubscribed space would be filled with containers of water, food or space-storable propellants. These standardized, pressurizable containers, equipped with tracking beacons, plumbing attachments, hatches and electrical pass-throughs, would be released for orbital recovery by anyone with the initiative to collect them and put their contents and volumes to use in space. A payload dispenser, provided and loaded by the launch companies as part of their service, would be used to release each payload to go its separate way once orbit was achieved.
As noted above, the budget required to run the transorbital railroad would be 25 percent that of the space shuttle program, but it would accomplish far more. The U.S. government could use it to save a great deal of money because its own departments in NASA, the military and other agencies could avail themselves of the transorbital railroad’s low rates to launch their payloads at trivial cost. Much greater savings would occur, however, because with launch costs so reduced, it would no longer be necessary to spend billions to ensure the ultimate degree of spacecraft reliability. Instead, commercial-grade parts could be used, thereby cutting the cost of spacecraft construction by orders of magnitude. While some failures would result, they would be eminently affordable and, moreover, would enable a greatly accelerated rate of technological advance in spacecraft design, because unproven, non-space-rated components could be put to the test much more rapidly. With both launch and spacecraft costs so sharply reduced, the financial consequences of any failures could be readily met by the purchase of insurance by the launch companies, which would reimburse both the government and payload owners in the event of a mishap.
With such a huge amount of lift capability available to the public at low cost, both public and private initiatives of every kind could take flight. If NASA desired to send human expeditions to other worlds, all it would have to do would be to buy space on the transorbital railroad for its payloads. But private enterprises or foundations could use the transorbital railroad to launch their own lunar or Mars probes - or settlements - as well. Indeed, three launches of the Falcon Heavy probably would be sufficient to launch a minimal-scale human Mars expedition, and with a price tag of $7.5 million for the three, the total cost of such a private-sector effort likely would be no more than that sometimes spent by wealthy backers of teams striving to win the America’s Cup yachting event.
Those with ideas for commercial space activities - ranging from space hotels to private orbital research labs - would have the opportunity to put their business plans into action. As such enterprises multiplied, a tax base would be created both on Earth and in space that ultimately would repay the government many times over for its transorbital railroad program costs.
While the implementation of a cargo-only transorbital railroad would be a great advance over our current situation, we should not exclude using it to transport human beings as well. As John F. Kennedy said at the dawn of the space age, “We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.” The transorbital railroad’s compartments should thus be open to receive passenger capsules provided by private vendors, thereby making affordable trips to orbit possible for anyone. Some might say that such open access to human spaceflight would put people at risk. This is true. But bold endeavors have always involved risk, whether personal or financial, and free men and women should be allowed to decide for themselves what risks they are willing to accept in order to achieve their dreams. This would free our space effort from the crippling constraint of excessively risk-averse government bureaucracy.
With a large guaranteed market, launch-vehicle companies would compete hard to create ever-more-capable systems. They also would be able to put mass-production techniques into action, thereby causing the costs of their rockets to fall over time. This, in turn, would enable the transorbital railroad to increase further the frequency and capacity of its service and would result in a dramatic drop in the cost of launch vehicles bought outside of the transorbital railroad program as well.
Some critics might argue that the implementation of the transorbital railroad would represent an anti-competitive subsidization of the U.S. launch industry. But the federal government has always subsidized transportation, supporting the development of trails, canals, railroads, seaports, bridges, tunnels, subways, highways, aircraft and airports since the founding of the republic. Creating an affordable transportation infrastructure is one of the fundamental responsibilities of government. Meanwhile, international competitors in Europe or Asia who might be inclined to complain about anti-competitive behavior could create transorbital railroads of their own, thus multiplying even further mankind’s capacity to reach into space.
Within a few years, we could be sending not a mere handful of people into orbit each year, but hundreds. Instead of a narrow space program with timid objectives moving forward at the snail’s pace of politically constrained bureaucracy, we could have dozens of bold endeavors of every kind, attempting to realize every vision and every dream - reaching out, taking risks and proving the impossible to be possible. With the aid of the transorbital railroad, the vast realm of the solar system could truly be opened to human hands, human minds, human hearts and human enterprise: a great new frontier for free men and women to explore and settle, their creativity unbounded, with pro-spects and possibilities as unlimited as space itself.
Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and of the Mars Society. An updated edition of his book “The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must,” will be published by the Free Press in June.