The Private Sector Returns to a Leading Role in Space Exploration

In the earliest stages of space exploration the private sector actually played a leading role.  That changed after WW II and during the Cold War.  With that change came a technology base better suited for a one way trip.  Now, with the private sector resuming its leading role in space exploration, a more practical approach may be possible.  This exciting new development was covered in a Freeman article that was published on Friday:

Both space exploration and space development are, and have been, both public and private. The question is how this mix will evolve.

A peculiarity of space transportation, as opposed to every other form of transport, is that it was developed from a technology base suitable only for a one-way trip. Throw-away engines only make sense for missiles. No other form of transportation, on which so much of the economy depends, uses throw-away vehicles.

This peculiarity was a direct outgrowth of World War II and the subsequent Cold War mentality—in which rocketry was developed primarily for war. Nazi Germany developed the first ballistic missile capable of reaching space at a cost of billions of dollars. The United States and the Soviet Union then built larger and more capable rockets for intercontinental nuclear war. Those rockets became the first space launchers. Cold War exigencies dictated bypassing the development of a reusable space transportation system in favor of winning the Moon Race using existing ballistic missile technologies.

At the very beginning, however—in the United States, Germany, and even Soviet Russia – space development was privately financed. Ordinary citizens financed the German effort, e.g., members of the VfR (Organization for Spaceship Travel). Daniel Guggenheim funded Goddard’s work in the United States. A Brooklyn subway conductor’s wages funded Reaction Motors Incorporated, the company that built the engines for the X-1.

So, after a hiatus of nearly 70 years, private enterprise has now resumed the leading role in development of rocket propulsion technology. So, no more throwaway or partly salvageable vehicles. And for sound economic reasons, safety must improve by a factor of a thousand.

Space has become an important part of the global economy. Much of that importance is now telecommunication. Privately owned telecommunication satellites are a multi-billion-dollar annual business worldwide.

The real opportunities for people on Earth, however, lie in businesses that do not yet exist because the cost of space transportation is so high. One of those is satellite solar-power stations, which would transmit clean base load electrical energy to Earth from geostationary orbit. For the present design of power satellites, a cost per pound to low Earth orbit of less than $250 should allow them to be economically competitive with ground-based sources of electricity. That transportation number is a factor of ten lower than the present cost, but is well within the range of costs estimated for a mature system. Propellant costs are roughly ten dollars per pound to orbit for a LOX/kerosene launcher.

Just as the national imagination and attention was captured by the efforts to put a man on the mood, the imagination of a new generation of Americans may be captured by the latest push for space exploration.  The push to put an man on the moon encouraged an interest in the natural sciences.  Perhaps that will happen again.  Another possible result is that, since this push for space exploration is led by the private sector, it just might spark a renewed interest in entrepreneurism.