A Department of Space to Enable Human Spaceflight and the Future Settlement of Space
July 8, 2013
Author: David Smitherman
Abstract: The United States has the technology available today to expand our civilization beyond our planet and into space. The resources of space are vast and could easily support more people living in space than on Earth. What we lack is the will to pursue space settlements, the understanding to recognize their importance, the organization to implement their development, and the funding to support this grand endeavor. The human spaceflight program should continue to expand human capabilities in space that will ultimately lead to the settlement and growth of a permanent civilization beyond Earth. Our planet is often referred to as Spaceship Earth given that it is our only home. Preserving and protecting our planet and our species can only be assured by expanding our civilization beyond the Earth and into the solar system where there is an abundance of resources to support an ever-expanding and prosperous society. This paper will discuss these far-reaching goals and how a Department of Space can be developed to enable the growth of human spaceflight into space settlements and a future spacefaring civilization.
The goals, core capabilities, and direction for the U.S. human spaceflight programs should be a continuous step-by-step expansion of human activity in space leading to the eventual settlement of space. Endeavors to date by NASA have been highly successful in developing methods for journey to and exploration of our Moon through the Apollo Program and the establishment of a permanent presence in low-Earth-orbit through the Space Shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) Programs. Through these activities the NASA human spaceflight program has learned how to travel to distant locations and how to construct, operate, and service large facilities in space. It is important that these capabilities be expanded into the commercial sector and carried forward into the next generation of human spaceflight systems.
Human spaceflight is also emerging within the U.S. commercial sector in the form of microgravity flights, suborbital flights, tourism aboard the ISS, commercial cargo flights to the ISS, and current developments for commercial crew systems for human spaceflight to the ISS. The expansion of commercial access to space makes it important for the U.S. Government to better define and coordinate the overall goals for the various Agencies involved in space and explore how these organizations can develop infrastructures that will promote new commercial activities and economic growth.
In addition, there is intense international interest in human spaceflight through the participation of many nations in the ISS Program, and separate endeavors by China to develop their own human spaceflight capabilities. All these developments signal a need for a more thoughtful path for planning and coordination of our efforts in space to maximize capabilities and build infrastructures in a productive and cost efficient manner.
The Importance of Human Spaceflight and Space Settlement
Human spaceflight is expensive in comparison to observation and robotic systems that can carry out scientific exploration remotely. The issue of cost is real and so is the need for the collection of scientific data in an efficient manner. But, the collection of scientific data is not the only mission for human spaceflight. Developing the capabilities to live, work, and travel in space are important to our planet and to our species. Our Earth is filled with an abundance of resources to meet our needs. For the first time in human history however, we can see the limits of Earth-based resources and the impact their use is having on the habitability of our planet. Recognizing the limits to growth available on this planet is the beginning of humanity’s recognition of the importance of expanding our civilization into space. The space frontier has unlimited power and resources, as well as the potential to support the expansion of our civilization to benefit people living permanently in space and to enhance the protection of our planet.
Developing organizations that can expand our current human spaceflight programs into large-scale space settlement programs will be challenging. Today, as noted in the introduction, there are basically four active human spaceflight programs embodied within NASA, the U.S. commercial sector, and internationally including the ISS international partners and China, with Russia and China being the major international investors in human spaceflight. There are hundreds of other space programs that are indirectly linked to human spaceflight. These include commercial companies and government organization that build and operate launch systems, communications satellites, observational satellites, and robotic exploration systems. Within the U.S. Government these systems are developed and managed primarily by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and various organizations within the Department of Defense. Other government organizations involved in space include the Department of Transportation, the Department of Interior, the Department of Energy, and Agencies like the National Reconnaissance Office, the Central Intelligence Agency, and others. Key questions to consider in regards to human spaceflight include:
- What are the important benefits provided to the United States and other countries by human spaceflight endeavors? The human spaceflight programs have demonstrated through the Apollo Program, Space Shuttle Program, ISS Program, and the Hubble Space Telescope Program that humans can travel to distant bodies and operate on their surface, live and work in space, construct and maintain large systems in space, and repair large space systems to expand their capabilities and extend their life for decades. All these accomplishments have been demonstrated in the human spaceflight programs but have not been transitioned into the commercial sector for their benefit and the realization of the economic potential that these systems could provide. Human spaceflight has servicing capabilities that need to be integrated into a satellite servicing industry and all commercial space-based systems. Such integration could make the entire space industry more efficient and responsive to new business opportunities. Part of the reason integration has not occurred in the U.S. is because responsibility and oversight of space is scattered among the many government organizations cited above.
- What are the greatest challenges to sustaining a U.S. government program in human spaceflight? The greatest challenges to the human spaceflight program are the lack of long term goals and objectives that can be sustained over multiple Administrations, and the constant budget pressures of special interest groups from competing Congressional districts. Human spaceflight cannot operate efficiently in this manner, and so the results are fragmentary with numerous false starts on multiple programs. As a result there is no consensus among the many Departments and Agencies as to the importance of the goals and budget priorities initiated by human spaceflight and the other related space programs.
- What are the ramifications and what would the nation and the world loose if the United States terminated NASA’s human spaceflight program? Loss of NASA’s human spaceflight program would be a major step backwards in our advancement as a species and in the technologies human spaceflight has produced. Space development in general has done much to help identify the issues facing humankind including the impact we are having on our environment and the limits to our resources on this planet. Human spaceflight has the tools we need to move beyond Earth orbit, and at the same time has developed new technologies that enhance our health and quality of life here on Earth.
So, how can human spaceflight gain the attention it deserves? The President’s Cabinet consists of the heads of the Departments of State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health & Human Services, Housing & Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security; and the heads of the Cabinet Rank offices consisting of the Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Management & Budget, U.S. Trade Representative, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Council of Economic Advisers, and the Small Business Administration. The point of this exhaustive list is to simply note that Space in general and Human Spaceflight in particular do not even have a seat at the President’s table. We must pull from within these Departments and develop the organizations needed to focus our efforts on space development. A way to do that is to organize a new seat at the table with a Cabinet-level position from a Department of Space. Such a position would provide the advocacy needed to solicit support from all the other Departments and Agencies to secure long-term goals over multiple Administrations and appropriately address the budget issues from competing Congressional districts. Consensus among the Departments at the top level will open the space frontier to real economic development and secure human spaceflight as an evolutionary program moving toward the eventual settlement of space.
The Department of Space
The Department of Space will have as its primary mission the expansion of our economic sphere into space. It will act to expand U.S. capabilities in space both physically and economically such that human spaceflight can eventually be self-sustaining and expanding. This expansion will increase the U.S. economy and its tax base to support continued infrastructure development beyond Earth while promoting preservation of Earth-based resources. Government and industry roles will follow traditional routes with government focused on infrastructure development, regulations, technology development, and scientific exploration; and industry focused primarily on commercial services, support systems, and new business development. Among the many goals that the Department of Space could have would likely include:
- Developing space systems that will protect the Earth from asteroid impacts
- Developing space resources to preserve the finite resources of Earth and support new developments in space
- Developing space infrastructures to promote safe transportation, satellite servicing, and human habitation systems
- Develop new technologies with industry for reusable transportation, radiation protection, and artificial gravity systems
- Develop long term infrastructure strategies that will enable our society to become a multi- planet/spacefaring civilization
The Department of Space should develop basic space infrastructures for future commercial ventures in space, and transition to private industry those infrastructures as they develop commercial potential where appropriate. This includes incentives for private development of new space transportation and servicing systems to help create and support new commercial space markets. Such initiatives by the Department of Space could include the following:
- Develop strategies to build space infrastructure similar to the way the U.S. Government has been involved in the interstate highway system, air traffic control system, railroads, power, water, and other basic transportation and utility systems.
- Leverage tax revenue from mature and profitable space industries to fund space exploration and space infrastructure development initiatives. This could include legislation that will use tax revenues from profitable space-based industries such as the communications satellite industry to feed back into space infrastructure developments.
- Demonstrate proactive space industry initiatives through consideration of actions such as anchor tenancy, tax credits, consortium support, trade promotion, education, and endorsement to promote private investments in space development.
- Facilitate the creation of innovative financing opportunities, such as a space development bank, limited liability insurance, and Government-guaranteed loans to reduce the risk and cost of new space investments.
- Initiate a comprehensive solar system geological survey to determine potentially profitable resources and to support asteroid detection, characterization, and hazard mitigation. Provide incentives for commercial identification and extraction of samples from near-Earth asteroids and the Moon.
- Establish policy that supports extraterrestrial mining claims and strengthens the property rights of industry for their investments in space. Establish goals and incentives for an industrial facility on the Moon that will support the growth of a space infrastructure for ongoing Earth/lunar traffic, propellant production, materials development, and scientific exploration.
- Contract with industry to the greatest extent possible for transportation services, equipment, products, and data, to satisfy space science, exploration, weather, and military needs.
- Establish safety, rescue, and escape system standards for the general public’s use of commercial space transportation and space habitation facility developments.
The Department of Space should work with industry to create new associations as needed to develop new space markets and infrastructures in cooperation with but independent of U.S. Government funding to the greatest extent possible. These initiatives by the Department of Space could include the following:
- Take a leadership role in the development of key ground-based and space-based infrastructure elements — especially the facilities and vehicle systems needed for low-cost reliable space transportation services.
- Seek new market opportunities in space as an evolving role from analogous Earth-based services.
- Conduct outreach to capital markets and begin to cultivate an awareness and confidence conducive to securing financing.
- Identify with industry the enabling technologies and systems that are not yet profitable enough to pursue commercially, but should be developed by Government.
The Department of Space should work with the Department of Education and academia to concentrate on advanced research in space and on educating the public about the inherent potential of space development. These initiatives by the Department of Space could include the following:
- Provide the fundamental knowledge base for future space development by injecting space development issues into K-12 and college curricula.
- Lead in aggressive educational programs designed to teach the general public and upcoming generations about the space environment and the potential that space development offers. These programs should include a focus on space development’s tremendous economic potential and the impact this growth and prosperity could have on peace and stability worldwide.
- Conduct research to investigate and resolve ongoing health issues for human spaceflight including the effects and mitigation approaches to prolonged space radiation and microgravity exposure.
The Department of Space should pursue the development of joint consortia to provide a mechanism for addressing many of the issues raised in the previous sections. Industry would identify barriers to the development of new space industries, and the U.S. Government would direct its considerable resources to removing those barriers. Government support could include commercial use of its facilities, changes to policy and regulations where appropriate, adherence to and development of standards, and advanced technology development. Specific recommendations for possible joint government and industry initiatives are as follows:
- Develop and demonstrate technology for large-volume construction systems, rotating artificial gravity habitation systems, closed-loop life support systems, and radiation protection systems.
- Develop highly reusable rocket engines with hundreds of flights between overhauls, and provide incentives for the development of more orbital and suborbital vehicles to demonstrate new technologies and new approaches to space transportation.
- Develop on-orbit propellant-refueling infrastructures for future commercial activities and government exploration vehicles to extend the range, payload capability, maneuverability, and reusability of in-space transportation systems and a robust satellite servicing industry.
A Department of Space can consolidate the resources from the many government organizations already involved in space and focus them in a way that will secure long term budgets to meet their goals. Human spaceflight is the essential part of space development with servicing capabilities that need to be integrated into the commercial sector. The U.S. has a profitable communications satellite industry today. It is certainly possible to have many more profitable space enterprises that will lead toward a growing space-based economy. The consolidation of government space resources under a Department of Space can create an expanding economic sphere that will grow capabilities in space for human spaceflight and space settlement. What we need is a human spaceflight program with a vision for space settlement and an economic plan that can reach that goal. A Department of Space is an approach that can lead in that effort.
The goals and responsibilities for a Department of Space were derived in part from recommendations identified in the following documents:
- Smitherman, D, “New Space Industries For The Next Millennium,” NASA/CP–1998–209006, December 1998.
- Smitherman, D., H. Everett, “Strategies for Human Exploration Leading to the Human Colonization of Space,” AIAA Space 2009 Conference & Exposition, Paper №6491, September 2009.
- Smitherman, D., G. Woodcock, “Space Transportation Infrastructure Supported by Propellant Depots,” AIAA Space 2011 Conference & Exposition, Paper №1073033, September 2011.