A meeting of minds?

Militant space enthusiasts may seem like an odd phrase but they are out there and for them NASA is the enemy and the likes of Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne (SS1) vehicle, the great white hope.

Despite the Apollo programme and over a hundred successful missions for the world’s only reusable spaceplane, Space Shuttle, the militants – who are largely US taxpayers – feel failed by the US government and industry.

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Where is the promise that one day we could all go, they cry.

Admittedly this frustration led to the $10 million Ansari X Prize and ultimately the flights in September and October of 2004 of SS1.

Quite an achievement. No other country nor region has produced a Rutan and a Paul Allen, who funded SS1’s development, and an X Prize.

Proof, if proof were needed, that a deeply rooted sense of personal freedom, a culture of pushing frontiers and a huge domestic single market, that is America, can bring about extraordinary change.

But SS1 is still only suborbital. For all Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism start-up Virgin Galactic’s bravado about $200,000 trips into space, you’ll get weightless for just a few minutes.


Enter Robert Bigelow owner of the Budget Suites of America Hotel Chain. He’s proposed an orbital competition called America’s Space Prize, with a $50 million golden purse.

To win this prize the orbital vehicle must be 80% reusable; with five or more crew; it must reach a minimum altitude of 400 km (250 miles); be able to complete two orbits; demonstrate an ability to dock with an orbiting facility (Bigelow has plans for space hotels); and do all this twice within 60 days by 10 January 2010 – in less than four years time, so not much to ask then. Oh yes and all the participants must be US citizens. Unlucky Sir Richard.

Unsurprisingly there has been no news of teams lining up to win this.

Instead the companies that are the tip of the militants’ spear are lining up to bid for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Demonstration (COTS) announced on 18 January this year by their enemy NASA.

COTS offers $500 million to fund companies efforts to demonstrate the ability to deliver 5000kg (11,000lb) of cargo to low Earth orbit (probably 400km because that is the International Space Station’s altitude) per year, spread over eight flights a year. Easy? The European Space Agency (ESA) has been working on such a capability, its Automated Transfer Vehicle (see picture), for almost ten years and has recently delayed the maiden flight to 2007.

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So while $500 million is big money its a fraction of what ESA has spent and what NASA would normally spend on developing a launch vehicle. Another big change with COTS is the readiness of NASA to pay per milestone and not its usual generous cost-plus contracts.

What was that contractor? You’ve already spent the $1.8 billion you originally estimated it would cost? Oh OK, here’s another $300 million.

For the militants this generosity is at the heart of NASA’s large spend, lack of achievement (as they see it) problem. And they’ve probably got a point.

What is NASA’s real mission? Sending people into space or providing a huge research and development pot of money to an industry that employs many thousands of voters in key electoral states.

US President Lyndon Johnson, successor to John F. Kennedy’s presidency and space programme, made sure mission control was in his home state, Texas.

The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, is today at the centre of development for the new multi billion dollar Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) programme (see picture – a CEV mock up is put together at JSC).


Like America’s Space Prize COTS requires a demonstration by 2010. Fortunately it’s for this cargo delivery, not human travel. COTS for People could happen, its option D, while cargo is option A; but it will only be funded if companies demonstrate cargo delivery first.

In this the militants and NASA might be coming to an understanding.

The X Prize Foundation published a study at the end of last year that examined what it would take to get people into orbit privately.

Bigelow would not have liked the answer. The Human Orbital Vehicles Challenge study concluded that $250 million was an appropriate level of prize. It also concluded that the expendable vehicle would only carry 2-3 people, compared to Bigelow’s 80% reusable craft and five plus crew.

The rule of thumb on orbital flight is that it takes 50 times more energy than a suborbital flight to get you there.

Ten million dollars, 250 million dollars, the difference is just as stark.

A quarter of a billion, even for a trillion dollar plus economy, its a big chunk of money.

X Prize was a great achievement and the militants rightly feel vindicated because of what private enterprise achieved but perhaps its time to admit that orbital human flight is still going to be a largely government funded activity.

Maybe COTS will mature technology currently on the drawing board at Militant’s HQ and enable another private prize in the next decade but let’s not pretend that history will be made again come 10 January 2010. 

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