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New Golden Age of Spaceflight

Richard Garriott thinks we are heading into a new golden age of human space flight. One of the first things he mentioned in his SXSW talk was that just over 500 people have left the planet in 50 years of space flight. While he’s happy to be one of those people he agrees that number is dismal. When you factor the costs involved of sending those 500 people to space, the number is especially bleak. Just look at the overview of the International Space Station (ISS) it cost tens of billions to develop and a couple billion to maintain each year. The Shuttle was a couple hundred million per seat and the Souyoz, while cheaper, is about $50 million per seat. These enormous costs are one of the barriers to advancing human space exploration.

Garriott sees two steps that will dramatically bring costs down. One is that NASA move away from owning the spacecraft and components for the human spaceflight program. With the Shuttle, NASA contracted much of the construction but owned the craft after it was built. So much of the effort went into maintaining the vehicle instead of advancing the technology. If NASA switches to purchasing launches, like they do with the SpaceX cargo missions, they have the option to move to another company that has developed a more affordable, safer launch option once those launches are completed.

The second step is rapid reusability. We’ve heard a lot about reusability from SpaceX. Their Grasshopper project just flew a 24-story “hop”, which is a controlled take off, hover, and vertical landing of the Falcon first stage rocket. Garriott also mentioned that John Cormack, of Doom and Quake fame, is testing a suborbital rocket that can also land vertically. The reusability concept has each rocket stage and the spacecraft landing vertically on the launch pad with landing gear. The vehicle gets restacked, refueled and is ready for take off. Pushing technology past disposable vehicles could drop the costs of space travel by as much as 100-fold.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFAfF1aTjNI&feature=youtube_gdata_player

A factor to consider beyond finances are political and economic cycles. Garriott sees that cycle being roughly 10 years and suggests we need to plan with those blocks of time in mind. He presented a 3 decade plan that includes asteroids, moons of planets, and homesteading other planets.

The focus of the first decade of his plan includes the continuation of low earth orbit research, suborbital tourism and research, and asteroids. He sees low earth orbit and suborbital research being increasingly handled by commercial companies and NASA handling astroid mining then passing it off to commercial. Mining orbiting asteriods would allow us to dock with them, get samples, and easily pull away to bring samples back to earth. Knowledge would be gained about the content of the asteroids while developing the technology and skill set to work in orbit. Docking with and departing from asteroids will help test techniques to deflect asteroids that could be a threat to earth. As asteroid detection technology has increased on land and the oceans, and there are more people on the planet, we are realizing asteroid events are not as rare as we once thought.

The focus of the second decade is building outposts on moons and holding competitions for commercial supply chains for Mars. The gravity well, same as with orbiting asteroids, is a key benefit to working on moons because you need just a little bit of thrust to take off from the surface. Garriott thinks moons, like Europa that has water under its icy surface, are great places to search for life. Moon stations will also make great outposts for planetary landings. Garriott has worked extensively with Xprize so he understands the benefit of competition-based technology advancement. His ideas for competitions include developing air, water, and fuel depots; and gardens and habitats.

The third decade focuses on homesteading a new world.

Garriott recognizes this plan sounds ridiculous but he, and other space pioneers, are used to what he calls the “giggle factor”. He runs into that frequently when he describes Xprize competitions. But he’s also the guy who runs the space company that is number 6 on the list for sending the most humans into space.

His plan seems to encompass the voices I’ve heard in other SXSW space sessions and from my recent trip to the Kennedy Space Center. A combination of government, private, and citizen groups believe humanity needs to be a space fairing civilization and it’s going to take the combined efforts of these groups to achieve that goal.

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