SAS's View Of Things, As Of 2/15/06 

                           What Do We Believe? 

We believe radically cheaper space access (ten to a hundred times less 
than current costs) would be a massive public good.  It would enhance 
existing space markets and open up potentially huge new ones, creating 
new opportunities for research, exploration, commerce, and defense. 

We believe such radically cheaper access is practical without radical 
new technology. 

                   Why Do We Believe This Is Possible? 

Current US launch costs are dominated by large fixed development, 
personnel, and facilities overheads amortized over a very small number 
of launches, plus the direct and indirect costs of throwing away or 
completely rebuilding the vehicle every flight.  These are all legacies 
of the way we originally got into space, hiring small armies to inspect-
in adequate quality to hastily-converted ballistic missiles.  Fifty 
years later, we've institutionalized these methods into massive self-
perpetuating bureaucracies rather than abandoning them as obsolete. 

Somewhat counterintuitively, fuel costs are not a major obstacle to 
radically cheaper space launch.  Current US launch costs are on the 
order of ten thousand dollars per pound delivered to low orbit.  The 
total propellant cost for a generic liquid-oxygen/kerosene launcher is 
on the rough order of ten dollars per pound delivered to low orbit.  
Airlines, flying reusable vehicles at high flight rates, typically 
operate at overall costs of two to three times their fuel costs.  There 
is no law of physics that prevents reusable rockets from approaching 
similar cost ratios.  We pay the crippling current cost of US launch 
largely because of fifty years of entrenched bureaucratic bad habits. 

                   OK, How Do We Go About Fixing This? 

We believe that radically cheaper access is possible in the near term 
with current technology, by operating reusable rockets with sufficiently 
lean organizations at sufficiently high flight rates.  Rocketry has 
become more medium-tech than high, as witness (among other things) 
growing third-world missile proliferation.  At the same time, modern 
lightweight materials and electronics greatly ease combining the 
necessary high performance, ability to abort intact in case of problems, 
and fast-turnaround small-groundcrew reusability.  This lets us break 
away from the traditional expendable-missile "ammunition" design and 
"standing army" operations mindsets, with potential huge benefits to 
cost and reliability. 

What's been lacking to date has been the proper combination of 
reasonable goals (it's DC-3 time, not 747), sensible focussed 
management, inspired engineering (KISS!), and funding.  Much depends on 
a leap of faith - faith in the studies that show large new markets 
emerging at lower launch costs to support the necessary higher flight 
rates - "if you build it, they will come".

Market studies do strongly indicate that somewhere around one-tenth of 
current US launch costs, the market for space launch will reach a 
tipping point where demand for launches starts expanding fast enough to 
more than make up for reduced per-launch revenue.  The overall launch 
market will start growing rapidly at that point, as investment in 
further launch cost reductions changes from a leap of faith to a sure 
thing.  Further cost reductions will drive further market expansion, to 
the point where the space transport market will rapidly begin to 
approach the air transport market in economic importance.  (At least two 
such new markets, tourism and post revolution-in-military-affairs 
defense, are already growing steadily less speculative.  The chief thing 
we can predict about the other new markets that will appear as costs 
drop is that they'll surprise us.  Who would have predicted in 1952 
that, say, fresh flowers would be profitably airfreighted across 

                             Our Major Goal 

Our major goal at Space Access Society is to help bootstrap space 
transportation costs downward to the point where this virtuous circle 
gets underway.  We see this as the approach to humanity permanently 
expanding off this planet with by far the best chance of success. 
Government programs come and go, but if there's profit in a thing it's 
here to stay. 

(If you have to ask why humanity expanding off this planet in a 
sustainable manner is a capital-G Good Thing, consider trends in 
worldwide resource demand growth as billions of Third Worlders play 
economic catchup, or in scientific understanding of the degree of 
fragility of this planet and the lack of leverage we have over it while 

As for who might produce such lower-cost access anytime soon... 

                           Very Unlikely NASA 

In the best of all possible worlds, we'd have long ago dismantled the 
NASA "human spaceflight" empire for being a massive inflexible 
bureaucracy neither able nor willing to make any real changes in what 
they do: Flying a half-dozen people on a handful of missions a year at 
billions of dollars a mission.  We'd have put money into low-cost access 
demonstration projects and investment incentives, and once the results 
started flying we'd have rebuilt NASA as a far smaller leading-edge 
research and exploration agency flying dozens of times a year on other 
people's rockets at less cost than it now (in a good year) flies a 
handful of times on its own. 

Alas, in this imperfect world NASA JSC/KSC/MSFC and their contractors 
represent a volume of Federal white collar jobs funding just about 
impossible to redirect with the limited political capital available.  
The loss of Columbia and the CAIB report's damning revelations of 
institutional dysfunction shook things up enough that the White House in 
January 2004 called for major change at NASA:  Finish Station and retire 
Shuttle by 2010, then use the annual billions saved to transition to a 
sustainable program of manned deep space exploration, beginning with a 
return to the Moon to stay. 

The first major hitch emerged last summer, when Discovery needed blind 
luck to avoid destruction by essentially the same foam-shedding problem 
that doomed Columbia, despite two years and billions of dollars spent 
"fixing" things.  Obviously the bureaucratic sclerosis identified in the 
CAIB report hadn't been cured.  No surprise - much of the "reform" so 
far has been manager-shuffles and pious declarations of good intent.  
NASA human spaceflight still awaits serious reform. 

The latest problem is the new plan to implement the President's 
orders, the Exploration Systems Architecture Study or ESAS.  This plan 
is crippled from the start in that it doesn't contemplate more than 
trims and reshuffles of the current Shuttle/Station standing army.  It 
calls for development of not one but two major new NASA-proprietary 
Shuttle-derived launch vehicles, rather than working with existing and 
future US and world commercial launch assets.  The combination ensures 
costs will stay far too high for the program to have any chance of doing 
sustainable deep-space exploration over the long term.  Possibly too 
high to allow NASA to make it past even the first major hurdle, 
simultaneous winddown of Shuttle/Station and development of the 
oversized new "CEV" Shuttle-minus-the-payload-bay and the large new CLV 
launcher to lift it. 

Even if NASA can pull off winddown of Shuttle/Station in parallel with 
development of CEV/CLV, we have grave doubts about any "minor" programs 
aimed at our concerns surviving the funding crunch this will produce 
over the rest of the decade.  Even with the best will in the world at 
NASA HQ, Congress will be looking hard for potential cuts - programs 
already described as outside the main effort will have a hard time 

                          What Should NASA Do? 

What do we think genuine reform at NASA would look like?   We have three 
broad guidelines for what the agency should do to fix itself: 

 - NASA should let go of controlling their own space transportation from 
start to finish.  They should make an exploration plan based on a 
variety of commercially available boosters, then put the entire ground-
to-orbit leg of their new deep space missions out to commercial bid.  

 - NASA should lay off and/or BRAC large parts of their Shuttle/Station 
establishment as Shuttle is shut down and Station completed, rather than 
once again compulsively trying to "keep the team together".  It's been a 
long time since this team had a winning season, the payroll is 
crippling, and the game has changed.  Rebuild from the ground up. 

 - NASA should let go of numerous arbitrary and/or dated "this is best" 
prejudices the organization has accumulated over the years.  Old NASA 
(as someone once said of a notoriously inbred european royal house) 
forgets nothing, and it learns nothing. 

                            How To Fix ESAS? 

More narrowly, the core problem we see with NASA's current Exploration 
plan is the way every part of it depends on every other - if one element 
among CEV, CLV, SDHLV etc fails, the whole plan fails.  Therefore, no 
element can be allowed to fail, which is a recipe for spending years 
shovelling good money after bad to solve the inevitable development 
problems.  We went down this road already with Shuttle/Station; we're 
still paying through the nose for the deathgrip interdependence of all 
elements of those programs. 

We strongly recommend ESAS be altered as follows:

 - Maintain an option to launch CEV on EELV, as a hedge against CLV 
development or cost problems. 

 - Add a serious commercial orbital propellant delivery component to the 
COTS program demonstrations, as a hedge against SDHLV development or 
cost problems.

 - Maintain and expand the COTS program overall while ensuring a level 
playing field and support of multiple options, as a hedge against cost 
or development problems with government space transportation elements in 
general, and as a way to eventually get far more commercial bang for 
NASA's exploration bucks.  This would make it far more likely the nation 
will get an enduring and productive deep-space exploration program for 
its money in the long run. 

Alas, given the systemic obstacles to real change at NASA, we're not 
holding our breath for anything much beyond but business as usual under 
a new name, absent ongoing pressure for reform from outside the agency. 

One useful thing we would like to see from NASA (though we're still not 
holding our breath) would be for them to publicly state that launch cost 
reductions impractical in the context of their large and inflexible 
organization, complex requirements, and miniscule flight rate may be 
eminently practical elsewhere.  NASA's repeated oversimplification of 
"it's impossible for us" into "it's impossible" seriously muddys the 
waters for commercial cheap-launch investment.  

                            Probably Not DOD 

The Defense Department is starting to get interested.  Discussing 
the military implications of near-term radically cheaper on-demand 
launch hasn't been career suicide for years now, DARPA and AFRL are 
funding some useful work, and the Air Force is putting some money into 
fast-response space access.  Unfortunately DOD's last reorganization 
consolidated space under USAF, which over the medium term is allergic to 
any serious development which might compete with F-22 and F-35 funding.  
We don't expect DOD to produce radically cheaper access anytime soon. 

                     Almost Certainly Not BoeNorLock 

The existing major aerospace companies may or may not still be 
organizationally capable of developing radically cheaper space 
transportion - recent signs are not good - but this is a moot question, 
since absent a deep-pockets government customer, none will try.  They've 
had that sort of risk-taking thoroughly squeezed out of them over the 
last generation.  It isn't going to happen. 

                              The Startups 
This leaves the entrepreneurial startups as our main hope for a cheap 
space transportation revolution.  Few of them yet look like much: 
Several have serious funding, a few have test-flown hardware, but most 
still tend to be a handful of engineers working on a shoestring with an 
ambitious business plan and a partially refined design.  But 
historically, every time there's been a revolution in transportation 
technology, new companies have taken over from the old established 
leaders.  The massively complex organizational structures that evolved 
to squeeze marginally acceptable reliability out of modified artillery 
rockets are more hindrance than help in dealing with the new high-
flight-rate reusable paradigm.  The startups should be supported and 
encouraged - individually they're long shots, but collectively they're 
by far our best bet for a spacefaring future. 

Practically speaking, this means we at SAS are supporting these 
entrepreneurial startups, while encouraging the Federal commercial 
launch regulators to strike a reasonable balance between public safety 
and not strangling this new industry in its cradle.  We have seen 
significant progress in this regard, though there's still a ways to go.  
We also encourage the parts of the federal government nominally charged 
with advancing US space launch technology - NASA and DOD - to do the 
right things, but especially in the former case, not with any great hope 
of near-term major results. 

                         So, What *Do* We Like? 

A brief word about our idea of "the right things": We don't trust X-33 
style all-in-one megaprojects.  Since these tend to concentrate all 
available R&D money in one place, they get zeroed-in on and captured by 
the Usual Suspects.  Since such a megaproject tends to be the only game 
in town, it gets overburdened with conflicting agendas.  Since nobody 
knows how to build rockets that fulfill all those different agendas (and 
the Usual Suspects seem to have a hard time building rockets at all 
anymore), advanced space launch megaprojects in recent decades reliably 
get sucked dry of money then abandoned with no useful result.  

We do like flight demonstrators - "X projects", if you will - but 
smaller more traditional ones that focus on taking one significant new 
technology at a time and making it ready for prime time.  We also like 
incentive prizes, demonstrably a great way to leverage a lot of creative 
talent for not so many bucks.  In both cases, we lean toward splitting 
up available funding enough different ways that the Usual Suspects can't 
be bothered to hoover it all up, so fresh new ideas get a chance and 
eager new development teams can build up their skills. 

Fortunately, as we've said before, the nature of our revolution is that 
it doesn't cost much.  Getting just 1% of the overall government space 
budget going to incentive prizes, flight demonstrators, and such, might 
be enough.  Between COTS, Centennial Challenges, and various DOD 
efforts, this might now be in reach.