The Case for Becoming a Spacefaring Society:
Recommendations for Space Technology Investment
by Jonathan Goff and Ferris Valyn
To become a spacefaring nation, there are critical infrastructure technologies and capabilities that are required to reduce the cost and risk of future operations. There are at least three critical technologies that can feasibly be developed and deployed in the near future: Orbital Propellant Transfer and Storage, Proximity Operations Vehicles, and High Flight Rate Reusable Launch Vehicles.
Developing these technologies with respect to commercial operations will provide benefits across multiple fronts: economic, foreign relations, national defense, scientific endeavors, just to name a few. While governmental involvement is necessary, so is private sector involvement, and it must be much more than that of a contractor. What is needed is a law that is the space development equivalent of the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991 or the Kelly Air Mail act of 1925.
Orbital Propellant Transfer and Storage Infrastructure aka Orbital Propellant depots
Traditional operations beyond Low Earth Orbit have required massive rockets bringing all of their fuel with them since there are no fuel stations beyond the surface of the earth. An orbital propellant depot that can refuel robotic and human missions allows for more missions with higher capabilities. They also create innovative new markets, by allowing the reuse of space assets. Although some capabilities have been demonstrated by the Orbital Express mission, as well as various Russian projects, more work is needed for proper commercialization. Finally, purely private sector development is unlikely because orbital propellant depots suffer from a chicken-and-egg problem, related to no existing markets.
Proximity Operations Vehicles aka Space Tugs
Proximity Operations is the ability to maneuver massive vehicles in close quarters to large expensive facilities, without damaging either object. It is the earth equivalent of moving large boats in busy seaports. Small, specialized, highly maneuverable vehicles that deliver the larger vehicles (like tugboats or space tugs) is preferable to requiring every vehicle to manage this on its own, as it allows the larger vehicles to focus on their primary mission – delivering cargo and people across distances. In addition, ancillary benefits through new markets and applications would also appear. Although key technologies have been demonstrated through government programs like XSS and Orbital Express, space tugs suffer the same chicken-and-egg problem that orbital propellant depots with regard to private development and private deployment.
High Flight Rate Reusable Launch Vehicles
While the original vision of the shuttle fulfilled this, the actual shuttle is substantially different, and is much closer to merely being salvageable, rather than truly reusable. To date, most government attempts at building reusable vehicles have been aimed at fielding "Shuttle Replacements"—Space Shuttle-sized operational vehicles such as Venturestar—in spite of the insufficient demand in this payload class and the expense of developing reusable vehicles this big. Most private ventures, while focused on more reasonable sized vehicles, have suffered from undercapitalization. While technical challenges remain, such as developing robust but lightweight thermal protection systems, business and economic obstacles must also be overcome, such as demonstrating sufficient flight rate.
These recommendations focus not only on fulfilling the technical aspects, but also on developing an economically sustainable infrastructure.
- Help Foster the Creation of Interface Standards: Have the Office of Space Commercialization sponsor workshops, run by a private standards body (such as ASME, AIAA, or UL) to develop standards for important inter-vehicle interfaces, such as orbital fluid transfer interfaces. These workshops should include industry and government experts on relevant topics such as proximity operations and orbital propellant transfer, as well as potential customers such as NASA, DOD and commercial providers. The goal would be to determine in each case if the technology is sufficiently mature to settle on a standard interface, and if so, to set an industry standard. For instance, while propellant transfer interfaces may be mature enough for standardization; other interfaces like docking may not. If not, the workshop could provide suggestions on technology maturation efforts in order to reach the point where a standard can be set, including recommendations on which public or private entities should be responsible for those maturation efforts.
- Invest in Research and Technology Maturation: While much of the technology needed for these capabilities currently exists, there remains research and technology maturation that needs to be done in each case. At the beginning of the VSE program, a Human and Robotic Technologies technology maturation effort was begun. This effort provided substantial funding for demonstrating technologies such as on-orbit propellant handling and storage, autonomous operations, ISRU, and many other spacefaring technologies. This funding was cut shortly after the ESAS study in order to help pay for the Ares-I launch vehicle. Restoring funds for technology maturation can significantly reduce the cost of future space programs. We recommend that a program similar to the H&RT program be reinstated with full funding. NASA and the DOD can also assist in technology maturation efforts by continuing to fund relevant SBIR research topics, paying for demonstrator missions, and funding suborbital and orbital microgravity research experiments.
- Prizes: One proposed prize delayed due to lack of funding for the NASA Centennial Challenges program was the Propellant Depot Challenge. This challenge was to demonstrate long-duration storage of cryogenic propellants on-orbit. Full funding should be restored to the Centennial Challenges program (as well as equivalent DOD-run prize programs) to provide money for prizes like this to incentivize demonstration of key propellant depot capabilities. Such prizes can also be used for demonstrating different space tug capabilities (such as deorbiting of space debris, relocating of space assets, etc), and for flight demonstration of robust and highly reusable thermal protection systems for reusable space transports.
- Reinvigorate the Office of Space Commercialization: This office, which is part of NOAA and the Department of Commerce, should be fully funded and staffed. This office can work together with the Small Business Administration to help encourage the entrepreneurial development of propellant depots, space tugs, reusable space transportation, and other space infrastructure technologies. This office could perform functions like sponsoring conferences and workshops, investor education events, providing business development mentoring for potential suppliers, and other important services.
- Fully-Fund COTS-D: While COTS-D doesn’t require reusable launch vehicles per se, it helps attack one of the key challenges in reusable transportation development—it demonstrates a customer base, which can help close the business case for higher flight-rate vehicles. Helping invest in the development of commercial manned orbital access will also aid other space infrastructure projects such as those being undertaken by Bigelow Aerospace. Lastly, having domestic manned spaceflight capabilities is worth having in itself.
- Technology Mandates: It is important that government agencies set an example and lead out as early customers of new space capabilities. One way this can be done is through the use of technology mandates. For propellant depots, once a standard exists for propellant transfer interfaces, the government could set a date by which all government flights beyond LEO require the stage and payload (if applicable) to carry one of the standardized propellant transfer interfaces, and require propellant to be purchased (if available) for missions that are too big to fly on existing commercial single-core launch vehicles. This is a low-impact method of reducing the market risk for fielding propellant depots without substantially impacting the cost of normal operations if propellant depots aren’t immediately available. Also, a similar mandate could be used for requiring government missions to purchase commercial crew delivery services if such become available.
We urge the Obama administration to invest in a spacefaring future by implementing these policy recommendations.