A Viable Commercial Crew Market By 2016?

Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes - "Alias Smith and Jones"
Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes ("the two most successful outlaws in the history of the West") eventually quit their wild ways for amnesty and freedom. NASA faces a not dissimilar choice with its human space flight program - a decision that could reap substantial rewards and free it to return to the moon.

“There’s one thing we gotta get, Heyes.”
“What’s that?”
“Out of this business.”

— Outlaws Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes, realizing they needed another line of work
“Alias Smith and Jones”

One of the most intriguing presentations given during the Space Access ’10 conference came not from a “NewSpace” company but from one with an old lineage. The speaker was Jeff Patton from United Launch Alliance – a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, companies with over 50 years of space experience and 1,300 launches under their belts. Some of what Patton had to say has potentially staggering implications for the future of human spaceflight.

Patton reviewed ULA’s two main product lines, Delta IV and Atlas V. Both rockets were developed to loft satellites under the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. Either one could be adapted to fill NASA’s needs to send astronauts to the International Space Station. None of that was new. But, what Patton said about another project was fascinating…

Patton discussed how Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas is looking to use the Atlas V as part of its plan to build its private Sundancer space station. The effort would begin with the first of seven assembly flights beginning in 2014. Commercial operations would begin the next year, and in 2016 Bigelow would launch a second space station.

Exterior view of Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis II

If that sounds like a lot of launches, it is. Bigelow would need 20 launches or more annually by the late 2010s for assembly, supply and crew transport.

That’s a staggering number. It’s a couple of launches per month. That would require substantial production from American rocket makers. It would generate a lot of high-paying jobs. And Cape Canaveral would have a difficulty time launching all of them.

Bigelow has sent two prototype stations into orbit on Russian rockets. However, because of difficulties with export laws, it wants to buy American and fly from here. The company doesn’t want to be dependent on one provider and one location, so it’s looking at multiple launch vehicles and several launch sites, including Cape Canaveral in Florida and Wallops Island in Virginia.

With Atlas V and Delta IV already flying and two new rockets, Falcon 9 and Taurus II, in development, the assembly and cargo aspects of the plan are pretty well set. The rockets will have to be human rated for crew, but that is something that is achievable. What is missing in the equation is a crew transport, which is a pretty expensive item to produce. Bigelow is hoping that NASA will pay for developing one (or two) that are both affordable and can be placed on multiple launch vehicles.

NASA has the opportunity to not only get out of the orbital launch business but to help to create a viable commercial launch industry and to pioneer a new way of using space. Within six or seven years, we could have multiple commercial space stations orbiting the Earth with commercial support systems, built by Americans in America and launched from our spaceports. That would be a capability that nobody else in the world would possess. America would lead the world in commercial space, not only in orbit but in suborbital space, an arena in which U.S. based companies are far ahead of everyone else.

Bigelow’s inflatable modules – based on technology that NASA pioneered – have very large interior volumes. If they succeed, then projects like the International Space Station – which has taken 26 years to build – would be a thing of the past. Large orbiting facilities could be established with a relative handful of launches. Freed from having to building, maintain and operate facilities in orbit, NASA could focus instead on places like the moon, where Bigelow’s habitats could also prove very useful.

Are there risks in this? Absolutely. There are business risks, technology risks, you name it. Bigelow isn’t a sure thing. But, if it works…My God, the potential rewards are massive. It would change the way that orbital space programs are done, put America firmly in the lead in space, and open the door for going beyond LEO. Is that not worth taking some risk?

Much will depend upon what NASA does on crew transport. There must be a way of doing it that assures multiple access to orbit on several vehicles from different locations. It would be well worth it for the United States government to finance the effort properly, and to to make it work in a way that private sector companies like Bigelow can expand into space.

The whole debate over Obama’s space plan has been rather narrowly focused: Cancel or keep Constellation?  Keep shuttle flying or retire it? Orion or commercial crew?  The larger matter of how we move out into space -and the economic rewards involved – has gotten lost somewhere in the mix. This is a much broader investment in a future that is tantalizing close. One hopes we can reach it.