A Peoples' Space Programme

by Michael Martin-Smith 

Editorial note: This article was written by Dr. Michael Martin Smith few days before the catastrophe of the Asian South East. Other thoughts will surely come by Michael during next days or weeks.

2004 has been a remarkable year for those looking for a more hopeful and enterprising future for our troubled civilisation; I say this not because of the complexities of the Middle East, which remains riven by strife. The worst possibilities continue to elude us; moreover, the advent of a new Palestinian leadership and the steps towards forms of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq do offer some grounds for hope - but certainly not euphoria.

However the really exciting events for us this year must surely be those which have taken place off the planet!

We have, in effect, two space programmes in operation. 

First the "official" space programme, largely driven by science, astrobiology and national prestige; we have final in situ proof that Mars was supported large areas of liquid water and still carries a large cargo of water ice. We see Europe using new technologies- ion propulsion - to explore the Moon. We have seen the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes work in concert to show the early and late stages of planet formation around other stars. Missions are on their way to Mercury and on their way back from a comet (Wild 2). Europe's Rosetta is on its way to learn finally if comets played a role in the birth of Life on Earth.

Soon we will have a direct impact (or in medical terms, a biopsy) of a comet, while missions to visit and orbit two main belt asteroids, Mercury, and visit the Kuiper Belt are either in the works or at advanced planning stages. China is building and readying for launch a Solar Observatory which will do for the Sun what Hubble has done elsewhere.

Human Space, grounded by the Columbia tragedy, is heading for a return to flight- while NASA itself is being restructured and President Bush's plans for a return to the Moon, and on to Mars, has taken its first direct steps in the shape of a full approval for the 2005 NASA Budget. 

China is preparing its second human space mission - a two man flight for 5-7 days in Shenzhou 6,later next year, while India is planning more robotic missions to the Moon, and beginning to debate the issue of a manned space programme for herself

These developments will all afford interest and excitement for all those who wish to see the expansion of human culture and learning, and continued exploration, and will help to further define our place, and that of Life, in our Universe but, nevertheless, will be essentially, for most of us, a spectator activity.

However, the Second Space programme offers potentially something far more-an actual participation in our great adventure.

We should remember that in 1969, when official Space achieved its crowning triumph of landing astronauts on the Moon, we also saw the launch of a second, People's, space programme by the late Gerard O'Neill who proposed the construction of great cities in Space with thousands- eventually millions- of inhabitants, built from raw materials beyond the Earth .It would be fuelled by solar energy, and contribute to the welfare of all Mankind by supplying Space-generated clean solar energy beamed to the Earth by large solar power satellites built from Extraterrestrial materials.

The aspect of his Idea which appealed to many was the popular element- Space would no longer be for elite scientists and astronauts but for ordinary folk.

The flaw in the whole scheme was of course its reliance on grossly exaggerated claims for the capabilities of the then unbuilt Space shuttle. As the 1980's wore on, it became obvious that the O'Neill scheme in its original form was simply no going to happen- or at any rate not for many generations after his proposed timescale. And so, after O'Neill's death in 1992 from leukaemia, his grand Idea faded from public view al together; however like all truly visionary ideas it has not been lost and continues to inspire a whole generation of space engineers and professionals of various fields - many of whom are now in key positions.

More practically O'Neill's vision gave rise to three distinct and active Institutions, which are playing significant parts in the space programme of Tomorrow:

a/ The Space Studies Institute (SSI), founded in 1977 and based at Princeton University, continues to conduct experimental work aimed at realising the scientific and engineering base needed to open up Space for settlement if and when access to Space becomes more economic- examples include the Electromagnetic Mass Driver, extraction of useful materials from the Moon and asteroids, closed loop life support systems and intensive hydroponic agriculture, solar power generation and so on.

b/ The International Space University was founded by three Senior Associates of SSI, in order to offer Undergraduate and Postgraduate courses in all aspects of space development- ranging from Engineering and Astronautics to Law and Psychology to students and professionals from all over the world. Many of the graduates of ISU are now carving their way to significant careers in Space related fields and all owe a debt of inspiration, ultimately to the O'Neill vision. They could be said, in a way, to be evolving into an ideological cadre from which even if only gradually Humanity will be able to expand outwards. The motivation may in fact be all the stronger for being, to a degree, subliminal.

c/ The X Prize Foundation was launched in 1996, again by Senior Associates of SSI, with the expressed aim of smashing the obstacle presented by the failure of the Space Shuttle. Back in 1996 we should remember most commentators did not believe that the $10 million Prize would even be available as a sum of money-let alone actually won by real Spaceships!

As we all know now, against enormous odds and difficulties, the Prize was won last October, and the Billion Dollar paradigm of human spaceflight has gone the way of the Dodo and Diplodocus.

The interesting question is-what are the lessons and where do we go from here?

Looking at the historical and philosophical routes of the Xprize- as I have done, above- we can suppose that the Foundation sees this as just the beginning ; and so, sure enough, even before the Prize was securely won, plans for future annual events beginning in 2006,were put forward by the Foundation. The goal would be to ensure continuing advances towards higher, faster, more capacious and more frequent space achievements by a growing body of international competitors, These would attract sponsorship money , perhaps from sporting, media or touristic interests - and so generate business, leading to full orbital flight .

Within days of the "October Revolution", the entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson opened negotiations with Scaled Composites to develop an advanced SpaceshipTwo which would carry 5 passengers to 120Kms for $200,000 starting in 2007/8 , while another businessman , Las Vegas based hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, put up a Prize of $50 millions for the first private reusable spaceship to reach Earth Orbit- by 2010, and , even more boldly, is fabricating inflatable space habitats as a destination! The first prototype- Genesis -is to fly in a year's time-launched by another privately developed rocket, Falcon 5.

The Falcon series of rockets ( prototype due for lift-off early in 2005) is the creation of another entrepreneur Elon Musk. He sold his IT companies 3 years ago and started designing his Falcon series of low cost launchers in the summer of 2002. His company, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, explicitly aims at undercutting the new Boeing expendable launchers, cost by a factor of 5-10 by 2010.

If successful, the Second Space Programme will surely make a major impact on the entire space industry and its methods. SETC is going for simplicity, low cost, and reliability- not technological diamonds or gold plated paperclips!! Typically a Falcon 5 ( due by 2006) is expected to charge $16 millions to orbit 6 tons ( c.$3000 per kg) in LEO initially with prices falling off rapidly after that.

The engine for SpaceshipOne ,designed and built by a small space enterprise, SpaceDev headed by Jim Benson, is also a radial new design-hybrid- being cheaper simpler and above all, safer to make and operate than the usual solid or liquid fuelled suspects. We should assume that Branson's Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwos will likely be powered by such engines.

Next year March 2005 should also seethe debut of another alternative space programme; the Planetary Society- the largest space interest group on the planet is due to inaugurate the first totally new propulsion system ever developed entirely by an interest group; using a converted Russian ICBM they are to launch a solar sail-fully inflatable and controllable into orbit in order to demonstrate an old but untested concept- of using photons as a propulsion system.

The aim is to demonstrate on a small scale the ability to launch, unfold, steer and power a spacecraft without fuel-and furthermore to beam microwaves to it from a radiotelescope here on Earth as additional propulsion. If successful, this will open the way, eventually to transmitting large payloads across the solar system economically and the ability to use the power of a star to reach another one! 

It seems logical as well as poetic to propose that the best source of the vast energies required for flight to the stars will be-the stars themselves! The Planetary Society's solar sail, if successful will demonstrate the potential at a cost of little over $4millions.

In summary we can see the emergence of an alternative, Peoples', space programme which can achieve significant results over short lead times (3-5 years) at costs of the low tens of millions rather than 10-20 years and billions. The whole perception of Space development as expensive tax guzzling and beyond the reach or concern of ordinary folk is set to change - as O'Neill originally hoped

We now have several opportunities over the next few years to help bring about our ideals- I have written and lectured on these subjects for 25 years- but now have a more powerful tool for human space development at my disposal- it is called a wallet!

It is possible to join and help fund such groups as the X Prize Foundation, Planetary Society, Mars Society and SSI in the knowledge that even quite small sums of money can actually do something - especially if even only a few thousand, plus wealthier sponsors are involved, and, more radically, perhaps to actually buy shares in SME companies such as Space Dev.

After all space tourism is expected to grow to a billion dollar industry within a few years - why not invest , and make some money too? 

Over the next 3-5 years we should look out for promising companies and buy shares in them- there can be no more powerful driver for change than conviction allied to profit.

Thought for 2005?

A forward looking shares portfolio should have 3-5 % of its stocks off the planet!

Over coming years we at TDF could perhaps post the names and contact details of Space companies likely to be of interest to potential -insofar as this is legal, of course!

Happy New Year,

Michael Martin-Smith.

[001.MMS.TDF.2005 - 25.12.2004]