What the Space Frontier Needs Now


Once again, NASA is taking space enthusiasts for a ride. For 15 years we were told that the shuttle was the only way to get into space. It was high-tech, multipurpose, and the way to open up the high frontier. That hype was blasted to smithereens two years ago.

Now NASA is telling the same tale about its proposed space station. And space buffs are falling all over themselves flacking for NASA, urging Congress to spend $32 billion on the necessary infrastructure for living and working in space.

Only thing is: it's a con. We don't need a $32-billion orbiting Disneyland to live and work in space. NASA's station is, in truth, a gigabuck public works project.

Several years ago, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center gave the game away. Its report, "Technology Required for Space Station," claimed that the following would be needed to build such a facility: advances in propulsion, materials, sensors, solar arrays, mass memories, momentum management systems, energy storage, computer architectures, high-voltage systems, millimeter-wave communications, and trash management.

Nonsense. We already have the technology to build a space station. We already did it in the 1970s with Skylab, a station larger than the Soviet Mir now orbiting the earth. The shuttle itself serves as a mini–space station, especially when equipped with laboratory modules.

Almost nothing needs to be designed from scratch to have a functioning space station. As space analyst Eric Drexler pointed out in 1984, from a design standpoint a space station resembles a building more than it does an aircraft. It does not need to be designed to minimize weight—the major cost-increasing factor in most aerospace projects. (That's because it only has to be lifted into orbit once, unlike an aircraft or the shuttle.) Much of it could be designed and built with industrial hardware and techniques.

Given these insights, it's hardly surprising that several proposed private space platforms have projected costs orders of magnitude less than NASA's baby. First off the mark is the Industrial Space Facility, the brainchild of former NASA designer Max Faget. The ISF is less ambitious than NASA's station. It provides, to be sure, about one-tenth the pressurized volume and would be man-tended rather than permanently manned. But its cost is one-hundredth that of NASA's station—just $300 million providing 10 times the volume per dollar.

Far more ambitious is Labitat, the proposed station from External Tanks Corp. ETCO is proposing to employ the space shuttle's huge external tank (ET), a $30-million asset normally jettisoned and burned up as it reenters the atmosphere. Engineers have long suggested that the ET be lofted into orbit along with the shuttle, so it could be pressurized and used for living and working in space.

ETCO has designed Labitat to consist of two ETs mounted side-by-side, with an auxiliary utility unit and solar panels mounted at the ends. With 140,000 cubic feet, it would have five times the volume of NASA's space station, and it could be expanded indefinitely. ETCO estimates the cost of a minimally outfitted Labitat to be just $100 million. Even if that's low by a factor of 10, it's a tiny fraction of what NASA needs to build a space station.

ETCO is still in the early venture-capital stages, while Faget's company, Space Industries Inc., is much further along, having attracted support from Boeing and Westinghouse. Still, both have had credibility problems, and NASA's coolness toward low-cost competitors hasn't helped.

In this context, President Reagan's new commercial space directive has to be seen as a plus. NASA has been ordered to become the lead tenant on a man-tended facility such as the ISF, leasing $140 million of space a year for five years. This will give NASA-funded scientists access to orbital working space years sooner than NASA's station—and also gives Space Industries the revenue needed to pay back its investors.

In addition, NASA has been ordered to loft future external tanks into orbit and make them available at no charge to "all feasible U.S. commercial and nonprofit endeavors" for research, storage, manufacturing, and other uses. This gives private firms the key resource they will need.

Yes, these measures amount to modest government subsidies. But their tab is a far sight lower than $32 billion. Predictably, NASA fought tooth and nail against these new policies. Because even though Reagan is trying to have it both ways—endorsing both NASA's station and the private ones—the space agency can see the implications.

It won't take members of Congress very long to figure out that if the private sector can provide both man-tended and manned, pressurized living and working space in orbit, why should the hard-pressed taxpayers be asked to pony up $32 billion to do the same thing?

Space buffs should welcome both the breaking of NASA's space station monopoly and the probable demise of its station project. Living and working in space will never become routine as long as it depends on one-of-a-kind, exotic, budget-busting projects. What the space frontier needs is low-cost, cost-effective, industrially produced hardware. That's the opposite of NASA's way—and it's what the private sector now has to offer.