America and the Space Frontier

by Dale M. Gray

Of late when it comes to technology, America has been acting more like a spoiled child than as a world leader. As we enter into the dawn of a new commercial space frontier, America boasts of a large variety of technologies well in advance of the rest of the world. When it comes to humans traveling to space, our venerable Shuttle far outstrips out nearest rivals, the Russians, who are barely holding on with 1960s technology. The Chinese, the next competitor are rapidly advancing their technology in hopes to orbit a manned capsule that would put them on par with Glenn's first flight. With this huge gap in technological development, it makes Americas recent actions all the more confusing.

The American State Department among others is concerned with the threat of transfer of critical technology to unstable or hostile powers-- specifically China, North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Charges have been made that US satellite companies Hughes and Loral allowed information to transfer after launch failures in China. The Chinese have been less than forthright in their investigations of the crashed American satellites. Another leading American company, Boeing's SeaLaunch Venture, has had to pay a $10 million fine-- the democratic equivalent of a demanded bribe -- to the US for having ill-defined limits to technology transfer in a joint venture with companies in Scotland, Ukraine and Russia. Meanwhile, the American companies and the US government are buying former Soviet technology as fast as it comes on the market.

Congress is pointing its fingers at these American companies and offering threats and have uttered indignant remarks. Ironic since the US Congress of the early 1980s caused the problem. Further, it is a situation that only they can truly resolve.

The problem, that Congress fails to understand, is that America is in the midst of a space-based frontier explosion ignited by the communications satellite industry. The flames of this rapidly expanding frontier are being fueled by the Internet, remote sensing, GPS industries and weather monitoring. There are now far more American satellites waiting to be launched than can be handled by the American launch systems. More satellites than the American and European Space Agency launch systems can handle. In truth, there are more satellites waiting to be launched than American, ESA, Japanese, Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese or Indian launch systems can handle. In a time when billions of dollars are at stake, companies trying to get their satellite systems in orbit are desperately seeking any means to get them launched. Corners are being cut, unproved launch systems are being used, and dubious governments are being approached for rides. We are now in the midst of the frontier in space that we have always wanted, but America can't handle it on its own. And for that we have only the US Congress to blame.

The problem stems from what is arguably the greatest machine ever created -- the US Space Shuttle. In the early stages of the space-based communications frontier, the demand was so light that Congress, in all its well-meaning wisdom, mandated that all US satellites had to be launched from the Shuttle. In theory, the increased business would drive down the cost of shuttle launches and lead to the 1980s version of Cheap Access to Space. The premise was flawed in that bureaucracies, even those staffed by brilliant over- achievers, do not make for marketplace efficiency. Further, with an investment in the billions of dollars for each orbiter, the Shuttle fleet could not hope to pay off its own development costs, much less finance the next generation of orbiters. The governmentally operated enterprise could not even meet expenses and had to rely on heavy governmental subsidies just to keep flying. Finding itself competing against the heavily subsidized shuttle, the infant US expendable rocket industry withered on the vine. Then came Challenger. Following that terrible day in 1985, America awoke with the realization that it had NO way to get into orbit.

Into the launch service gap stepped the European Space Agency with its Ariane 3 rocket. The Ariane 3 rocket, which first flew in August of 1984, was capable of launching two 1,200 kg satellites into orbit. As with the Shuttle, the Ariane development was heavily subsidized, as a result the rocket could offer reasonable launch rates and most importantly it was the only commercial rocket available. In the words of Forrest Gump, "After that (the storm), shrimping was EASY!"

Even as investigators began to sort through the wreckage of Challenger, American companies were dusting off antique ICBMs to press them into service as satellite launchers. In 1988, the ESA had introduced the Ariane 4 doubling the lift capability of the Ariane 3. The Shuttle had by then returned to service, but Congress reversed its earlier mandate -- in the post-Challenger NASA there would be no commercial Shuttle missions. But the damage to America's launch share had already been done, Arianespace had come to dominate the world launch market. For the next decade American launch companies offering rides on the Delta and Atlas rockets would be playing catch-up to Ariane. With the commercialization of the former Soviet launch systems and the Chinese entry into the world-wide launch services market, America found its market share further eroded even as the demand for launch services skyrocketed.

Ironically, in the years that the American rocket business was side-lined, a new American-based computer frontier emerged -- pushing the country to the fore-front of the commercial satellite business. With no domestic launchers available, the major players were forced to utilize Ariane rockets. As Delta and Atlas came on-line, the back-log of governmental payloads quickly filled their launch manifests. While American satellite manufacturers have seen their market share drop in recent years, the vast majority of commercial satellites in orbit were built and are continuing to be built by Hughes, Loral, TRW, Motorola, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences. Their foreign clients feel little reason to utilize American launch systems whose manifests are filled to overflowing with American commercial, governmental and scientific payloads.

Market-place forces generated by the thriving communication satellite industry have begun to shape the design of the Ariane, Delta and Atlas rockets. Four years ago, America finally ran out of cold-war rockets and began to build anew -- allowing evolution of the design of expendable rockets to resume. The early ICBMs design was pushed to the limits of performance -- prompting the development of new models that appeared only two years after the last Cold-War vintage Atlas was flown. Now, a third generation has flown with a fourth generation in late stages of testing. Market pressures have also spawned unique international hybrids -- International Launch Services (ILS) markets both the Atlas and the Russian Proton rockets and the recently launched SeaLaunch system that has successfully combined American management, Scottish ship-building, Ukrainian boosters and Russian upper stages.

As a frontier historian, these are exciting times to be recording the future history of our collective race. The pace of frontier development in space is quickening as commercial rocket launches begin to outnumber governmental and scientific launches. There is no mistaking the fact that commerce is now driving the space industry -- pumping tax dollars into to the governmental coffers instead of depleting them. Each successful launch is providing incentive for further satellite and rocket development; spurring further reduction in the costs associated with manufacturing and launching satellites.

One of the few dark spots on the radar is the American Congress and its support bureaucracies incessantly whining about commercial technology transfer. It is understood that this is a dangerous world and some people can't be trusted with advanced technology, however the Congressional whining is especially annoying considering they were the ones that created the situation. It is also embarrassing in light of the way America has plundered (okay purchased) former Soviet space technology while inhibiting similar transfers to other countries. If Congress is looking for a guilty party in the technology transfer issue, they should look at the cause and not place band-aids on the symptoms. They should be doing all in their power to create a free- market launch industry in America.

American start-up companies are at this moment scrambling to create the first single-stage to orbit vehicle -- funded with private capital. They are seeking to end the need for American satellites to go abroad for launch services. They hope to significantly lower the cost of getting payloads into orbit and thereby spawn even further space-related development. They have the money, they have a market, they have the technology. All they are asking is that the government keep the playing field level.

Next Issue: How the American Congress is now working to help the launch industry succeed.

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