Back to the Moon—For a Fraction of the Old Price
Gingrich is right that America needs to retain its lead in space.
By CHARLES MILLER
As a former NASA executive, I am saddened by the media response to Newt Gingrich's proposal that we return to the moon. The mockery and ridicule does America a great disservice. Space exploration and development is an important national issue. It's not only possible and necessary to safeguard our future—it can be a lot cheaper than anybody dreams.
To recap: During the Jan. 26 Republican primary debate in Florida, Mr. Gingrich proposed that we return to the moon within eight years to establish a lunar colony, asserting that the benefits to America would be tremendous. Mitt Romney retorted that if somebody came to him to ask for "a few hundred billion dollars" to return to the moon, he would say: "You're fired."
But what would President Romney say to me if I proposed to return to the moon for $40 billion, not hundreds of billions? And if I explained how that would fundamentally enhance U.S. national security?
In 2011, I challenged a team of NASA engineers to answer a simple question: "Can we send humans back to the moon, and to the asteroids, with existing launch vehicles?" The answer was, "Yes, we can." We concluded that it would cost about $40 billion, and that this could be financed out of NASA's existing annual human spaceflight budget (around $4 billion) over 10 years.
But we can also change how we structure our human spaceflight efforts. In the face of trillion-dollar deficits, there's no other option. Mr. Gingrich's solution is to allocate 10% of NASA's annual budget of about $18 billion to prizes that would challenge and entice our best innovators and spaceflight entrepreneurs.
I would add that we should target the most important problem first—the cost of space launches. Use the first year's prize money of $1.8 billion to create a Reusable Spaceplane Prize. Set the first prize at $1 billion, and the second prize at $800 million—and then get out of the way.
Total reusability is the holy grail of space development. We have known this for 50 years. With it, launch vehicles become like airplanes. With it, we reduce the current launch-into-orbit cost of $5,000-$10,000 per pound to about $500 per pound. With reusable spaceplanes we can establish and economically sustain an initial lunar base—and open the solar system to all humanity. We already have the basic technology. The X-37, an unmanned vertical-takeoff, horizontal landing plane that uses 1990s technology, was last reported (it is on a national-security mission) in orbit on its second tour in space. The X-37 is a Mach 25 reusable spacecraft.
So why are we not developing fully reusable spaceplanes now? In 2010, NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist concluded that the primary barrier wasn't technical. It was that there was not enough demand for flights, based on existing and provable markets, to justify the large and risky investment. We hired a Wall Street advisory firm, Near Earth LLC, to independently assess the same issue, and it reached the same conclusion.
A Reusable Spaceplane Prize would solve this problem. As Mr. Gingrich pointed out in a speech last month, in the 1920s and 1930s entrepreneurs like Bill Boeing, Glen Martin, Donald Douglas, Jack Northrop and the Wright brothers—with some help from the U.S. government—created the greatest aviation industry on this planet. America is still the home of the entrepreneur, and we now have space-travel pioneers like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Robert Bigelow, Burt Rutan, Paul Allen and Jeff Greason.
The race for a Reusable Spaceplane Prize would grab the whole world's attention. After all, the nation that builds the first true reusable spaceplane will be in a position to dominate the much broader global commercial space industry. The nation that leads in spaceplanes will capture new markets opened by this industry, such as satellite servicing, tourism and medical breakthroughs from zero-gravity research. From all this will flow even more innovations, businesses and jobs.
Spaceplanes will also transform U.S. national security. In 2001, for example, Congress sponsored a bipartisan Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization. In its report, the commission warned that the U.S. is in danger of a Pearl Harbor-type attack in space.
Our assets in orbit are strategically critical and yet vulnerable to attacks from our enemies. Commercial satellites, comsats, are part of the foundation of the world's economy. While our national-security satellites are hardened against irradiation and some other assaults, our commercial satellites are not. Across the planet, ATMs, remote-payment systems, television, radio, GPS, weather, Internet services and much more depend on comsats. Overnight, America's enemies could destroy orbital infrastructure worth tens of billions of dollars, with a sustained global economic impact in the trillions of dollars.
In January 2007, China successfully demonstrated an antisatellite weapon. More worrisome, both North Korea and Iran are developing ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. One nuclear explosion above the Earth's atmosphere could have a devastating impact on the Free World. While China is likely to be rational in its use of antisatellite weapons, the same cannot be said about North Korea and Iran. Spaceplanes will eliminate this weak spot. With their ability to rapidly replace our orbiting satellites, they will reduce the incentive to attack us in space in the first place.
Remember that when Newt Gingrich talks about five to eight flights per day to space. Don't ridicule him for that. Don't scoff. He's not talking about a luxury, he's talking about a necessity. He is talking about American leadership throughout the 21st century. He is talking about peace through strength.
Mr. Miller is president of NexGen Space LLC in Arlington, Va. He served as NASA's senior adviser for commercial space from Feb. 2009 through Jan. 2012.
Ex-NASA exec: Gingrich moon colony lost in the laughter
By Charles Miller, Special to CNN
updated 3:11 PM EST, Tue February 7, 2012
Editor's note: Charles Miller is president of NexGen Space LLC in Arlington, Virginia, a space industry consulting firm. Although NASA is not currently among the firm's clients, Miller previously served as NASA's senior adviser for commercial space from February 2009 through January 2012.
(CNN) -- Lost in the laughter over the past two weeks has been GOP presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's core point about America's future in space. We shouldn't just explore space, we should develop and even settle it, using the same enterprise-friendly approaches that helped open the West and the skies.
As a former NASA executive, it is clear to me that most commentators don't understand this is now possible, let alone necessary.
David Frum's recent CNN viewpoint is eerily similar to what critics have said about other visionary ideas during America's history.
In 1844, Asa Whitney (cousin of cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney) proposed to the U.S. Congress that America build a transcontinental railroad. U.S. Sen. Thomas Benton of Missouri responded that it was "an imposture, a humbug; it could have emanated only from a madman ... science was unequal to overcome the Allegheny Mountains -- and now Whitney proposed to scale the Rocky Mountains, four or five times as high! Why sir, it's madness!"... "You are one hundred years before your time."
The golden spike was pounded into the ground in Utah just 25 years later.
In 1867, Secretary of State William Seward proposed that America purchase Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune mocked Seward, calling it "a frozen wasteland." Alaska became known as "Seward's Folly." It was one of the best investments America ever made.
David Frum: A moon colony is a waste of money
To be fair, Frum makes a point that must be addressed:
"With the greatest respect," Frum wrote, "'the wonder and glory of it' is not a very compelling answer to the question: 'What do I get for my hundred billion bucks?'"
The answer is that we shouldn't spend that much, and certainly not for "wonder and glory." Gingrich's core point is that we must change how and why we do space by leveraging the power of free enterprise.
Whatever misgivings you might have about Gingrich, in this case he is right.
American history proves that smart, focused action by the U.S. government can jump start entire new industries that open new frontiers -- from western railroads, to the air, to the Internet - and that is exactly where we are today in space.
In 2011, I led a NASA team that designed a strategy that could return America to the moon in 10 years for $40 billion. We can do so by using existing launch vehicles. More importantly, this strategy could also enable a new commercial space-plane industry and fundamentally enhance U.S. national security.
Space launch today costs about $10,000 per pound. Our national security space systems are dominated by small numbers of multibillion-dollar satellites. Innovation is slow. It takes over a decade to plan, develop and introduce new systems.
A large army of people watches over each satellite. If this reminds you of mainframe computers in the mid-1970s, then you know this sector of our economy is ripe for innovation.
Reusable space planes will forever change the space industry. The ability to launch frequently, reliably and at much lower cost will promote experimentation and enable new solutions.
NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist concluded that America has the basic technology to build space planes now. The primary problem is the proven market is not large or certain enough to justify the investments required. A Wall Street investment advisory firm, Near Earth LLC, independently validated our conclusion.
We've been here before.
In the 1850s, it was not possible to close the business case for a transcontinental railroad. The size, cost and risk of the private investment was too large. Then Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862.
American entrepreneurs connected a continent and provided rapid, reliable, low-cost access across the country. They quickly accomplished what had been deemed impossible two decades earlier. America was never to be invaded again; no one would dare. We were firmly on the path to become a world superpower.
What do I get for my hundred billion bucks? The answer is that we shouldn't spend that much.
Fast forward to the 1920s.
Airline entrepreneurs were unable to raise the capital to purchase new airplanes because the passenger travel market was considered speculative. Then Congress passed the Kelly Airmail Act of 1925. With airmail contracts in hand, private airlines sprouted up all over America. Passenger travel grows exponentially. Less than two decades later, U.S. airpower helps win World War II.
Today, we are at a similar juncture. We have lost world leadership in commercial space transportation. But we can recapture it with totally reusable space planes.
Space planes are the transcontinental railroad of our generation. Space planes will open the next frontier -- the greater Earth-moon system -- to economic activity and bind it together. Space planes will radically lower launch costs leading to new applications, new industries and new jobs. The growth in demand will lead to even higher flight rates, lower costs and new opportunities.
As this virtuous cycle takes hold, America's role as the preeminent world leader in space will be assured for the next 50 years. U.S. national security will be permanently enhanced.
And we will get a little wonder and glory, too.