I have been a member of the National
Space Society for only about two and a half years now, and I’ve
already been inspired by the organization to attend two of their
International Space Development Conferences
and start a local chapter.
One of the first things you learn at these meetings is that they
have been doing this for rather a long time, and still have trouble
agreeing among themselves what goals and next steps we should reach
for. The merger of the two founding societies was not entirely
harmonious; the von Braun NSI contingent were strong advocates
of NASA’s programs and continue as proponents of the space station
and shuttle, as well as NASA’s space science activities. NASA’s
achievements are certainly awe-inspiring, but for the grass-roots
space advocates with
in mind, the last few decades of NASA activity in space have been
very disappointing. The leadership of the organization has veered
between the two contingents, probably a little more heavily on
the NSI side than the L5 side over the years, and frustration
with NSS leadership quiescence on NASA’s wrong direction seems
to have led many people to abandon the organization over the years and in
some cases start
But many of the grass
roots advocates have reached prominent positions on the NSS executive committee and board
Chase, the energetic new executive director, has a background
with the major aerospace companies (he worked with the
for a while) but also seems to have reasonably balanced his
goals between the two competing arms of the organization. The rather
strong libertarian bent of many space advocates does tend to lead to
conflict over NSS support for government space efforts – but as we’ll
see below, NSS also is a strong supporter of private enterprise
in space, and the two sides seem to be learning to get along better.
This year’s meeting was titled “Roadmap to the Stars”, and a portion
of the meeting was spent on the NSS
the Settlement of Space, a document developed about three
years ago primarily from the grass-roots side, but debated extensively
enough within the organization that much of it was actually accepted by
the society as part of what
it is about. Friday evening at this year’s ISDC, after an opening
talk on the SETI institute and a hello from Brian Chase,
(who works at Boeing in Huntsville, and is active in the
Huntsville, AL L5 Society (HAL5) which
has spawned, among other things, the
propulsion system for Burt Rutan’s
went over the roadmap in some detail for those present.
The roadmap was first published and discussed in
the January 2001 issue of the NSS magazine
and has been evolving since then. The centerpiece is a list of
milestones and barriers; the starting point is the NSS vision and
related goal statements described
The stated mission, the purpose of NSS, is to make the vision a
reality – “To promote social, economic, technological, and
political change, to advance the day when humans will live and work in space.”
The stated rationale for this covers the usual
justifications for space activity, including survival, growth,
prosperity, and humanity’s natural curiosity. The guiding
principles lead to this summary of what NSS stands for:
“In support of its Vision, NSS stands for the active pursuit and promotion of
human settlement beyond the Earth, with scientific inquiry and exploration
as important precursors. NSS advocates any and all methodologies that
support achievement of our Vision in an ethical manner consistent with
the preservation of fundamental human rights.”
A lot of this may sound like boilerplate, but the combined historical
experience of NSS members from both the grassroots and traditional
aerospace sides justifies paying some attention to this. The consequent
list of NSS beliefs also sounds pretty straightforward, but a
surprising number of outsiders seem to mischaracterize space advocates
as naive or mono-maniacal to the exclusion of one or more of these
positions. Listing points each of which could be greatly expanded
upon, NSS believes in: Individual Rights, Unrestricted Access
to Space, Personal Property Rights, Free Market Economics, Government
Funding of High Risk R&D, International Cooperation, Democratic
Values, Enhancement of Earth’s Ecology, and Protection of New Environments
Which gets us to the
and Milestones list itself. On the milestones side, first
up is the commercial launch market – and there they have in mind launch of
people, not just cargo. Right now the only way to get people into space
is through massive government-sponsored programs, but that seems to
be starting to change. We’ll know we’ve hit the first milestone when
there’s an actual competitive market for getting people into orbit.
The suborbital efforts of the X Prize
(announced by Peter Diamandis at the
1995 ISDC) promise
a new start in that area.
Second on the list is legal protection for space property rights. The
Outer Space Treaty of the 1960’s leaves things rather murky with regard
to rights on behalf of private entities to make use of space resources;
the NSS believes private property rights should be the basis for
a free society in space; individuals and corporations will only invest
significantly in space activities if they have some legal guarantees.
NSS has a seat as a “non governmental organization” at the United Nations
and has been working with the
Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Alan Wasser’s
Space Settlement Initiative
is another attempt at resolving space property rights issues,
starting from the US legal end. We’ll know we’ve hit this milestone
when people can actually legally sell one another real deeds to land on
the Moon, rather than the current
Milestone three is technology for self sufficiency. Obviously, once you’ve
left Earth, you’ve left behind most of the things that we usually take
for granted in keep us alive. Closed-loop life support systems for recycling
waste, long-lasting power sources, more direct use of solar energy.
I don’t see this actually as a single milestone we will pass;
rather our space settlements will be forced to become gradually more
and more self-sufficient – getting to the point where we can practically
sustain a multi-year Mars mission or lunar base with water,
air, and food will be a first major milestone here.
The next four milestones concern development of the Moon. First,
robotic confirmation of lunar ice makes local production of water,
oxygen, and rocket fuel on the Moon a much simpler matter, and could
greatly advance our settlements there. A lunar south pole lander/rover/return
mission seems to be now on NASA’s schedule for the next decade, so
there’s a good chance this milestone will be reached (or eliminated)
in the next few years. A lunar research facility is next on the list –
whether for radio telescopes on the far side with it’s unique
characteristics, or for simple research on properties of anything
in low gravity (biology could be quite fascinating), or just to
explore further the possibilities for use of lunar resources, we’ll see this
milestone reached when a first crew of scientists settles in for a long-term
stay. Following on to the research facility, a government-sponsored
base with openings for commerce, tourism, and commercial research similar
to ISS is considered a next milestone. The idea here is that the government
can put up the initial investment and get other organizations to follow
along. Whether that’s a practical goal after the ISS experience remains
to be seen; nevertheless such a base would be a major milestone on the way.
The final and most important milestone on the Moon is the development of
an industrial base, mining the moon for silicon, oxygen, aluminum,
Helium-3, or any of the other commercially viable materials it has to offer,
and production of components for use in space applications.
Milestone 8 is a political statement: something that sets up the structure
under which space settlements will actually operate. Much like
“Northwest Ordinance” of 1787, such a statement should establish
the conditions of life on the space frontier. If we ever see such
a statement come from the US Congress or the UN, we will have reached
The next two milestone statements relate to Mars, and already have very
widespread support; first robotic exploration, designed to lay the
groundwork for, later, human exploration. These goals are repeated for
robotic and human exploration of the asteroids, which some people feel
are an even better candidate for human settlement than either the Moon
The final milestone statement is in the development of advanced
propulsion systems; NASA has actually already shown some enthusiasm
for this in the new
When the multi-year trip to Mars is cut to a few weeks, when people
start talking seriously about robotic exploration of other star systems,
then we’ll know we’re well on our way with this milestone.
Barriers – these are what seem now to be in the way to
reaching the listed milestones. Some of these (most clearly, number 10 –
“No Closed-loop Life Support System”) are simple converses of
a corresponding milestone (“Technology for self-sufficiency”).
Others are a bit more independent – I’ll comment on only a few of these:
Lack of Incentives for Private Capital Investment – incentives such
as tax credits or tax-free trade zones could make a huge difference.
Liability Insurance Costs and Conditions – insurance premiums are
apparently a large part of launch costs, and the need is questionable;
government requirements for liability insurance are based on worst-case
scenarios that have not happened in the history of rocketry.
Arbitrary passenger restrictions and the perceived risk of space activities
limit the extent to which people think they will ever be able
to go into space themselves, resulting in yet another of the major
barriers: a general lack of public interest in space development.
Personally, I think this has been turning around the past few years –
the space tourism jaunts of Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth showed
that space isn’t just for astronauts, and there seems to
be some excitement about the X Prize competition this year.
However, it’s hard for me to tell whether that has really penetrated to the
general public or not yet. What obviously did penetrate the public this
year was the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia – which has definitely added
to the “perceived risk” barrier, but with the upcoming investigation report
that may start to be transferred to the shuttle itself as a vehicle,
rather than space travel in general.
Which brings us to the barrier associated with launch vehicle reliability.
A catastrophic failure every 100 flights or so is not likely to be
acceptable except to the most adventurous of paying passengers.
The suborbital approaches based on experience with air travel (such
as Rutan’s Spaceship One, or the XCOR EZ-Rocket and Xerus vehicles)
promise greater reliability than vertically-launched vehicles seem
capable of, so there is some promise there. A radically new way to
get around this barrier is the Space
Elevator, now becoming feasible with carbon nano-tube technology.
The final barriers in the NSS Roadmap statement involve government
again – the US
National Space Policy statement of 1996 which
effectively forbids the US government not
only from funding any human mission beyond Earth orbit, but also
from funding R&D that might lead to such missions in future.
US space policy was supposed to be
last year by the National Security Council and the Office of
Science and Technology Policy, but their report (due by the end
of 2002) seems to be, at best, delayed. From what I’ve heard the
report will likely emphasize military uses of space in any case, and not
make any changes to the status of activities beyond Earth orbit.
The final barrier is the persistence of an attitude at NASA, despite
various pieces of congressional legislation, that belittles and ignores
private space efforts; a set of government or bureaucratic
obstacles to commercialization. The Federal Aviation Administration,
at least in recent discussions with the suborbital companies, seems
to be much more accommodating.
NSS is a mostly volunteer-run organization (the executive director has
a couple of paid assistants in Washington DC) and at times that can
mean a great deal of inconsistency in the message, or worse production
of a substantive document such as this Roadmap, followed by too little
real action. And yet, at least, NSS does now have a rough plan for what
needs to be done to make its vision a reality.
Overcoming the barriers and reaching some of these
milestones will take dedicated effort and focus over many years;
almost every one of them corresponds to another immense web of complex
tradeoffs. It’s not going to be easy. But I am convinced it’s worth it!