When Newt Gingrich proclaimed that the United States should establish a base on the moon, he was right: We need a major inspirational goal for space exploration. When Mitt Romney attacked Gingrich’s proposal as failing the rational business test, he was right, too: The cost would be enormous. But what neither presidential candidate discussed were the reasons why space travel is so costly or how those costs might be reduced.
The question both men should have asked was, “Why, after 55 years of launching rockets, does it still cost so much to reach orbit?” Launching a satellite today costs approximately $10,000 a pound, or tens of millions for a heavy satellite. That high cost, not bureaucratic timidity, is why fewer than 600 people — the number of passengers on one Airbus 380 — have orbited the earth since 1961. Space travel cannot become cheap until the age of rocketry is replaced by an age of new propulsion technology — and only government investment can make that happen.
Since the founding of the American republic, many large-scale, capital-intensive technologies such as canals, railroads, aviation, and the interstate highway system have depended on government support and funding for development and construction. The long time and large capital investments needed to turn these technologies from dreams to feasible applications proved beyond the scope of private business. Space flight was no exception.
Newt Gingrich is not the only child of the 1950s and ‘60s who expected a dazzling future in space exploration. But that future never arrived. Where are the orbiting hotels, bases on Mars, missions to asteroids, telescopes on the moon, and other building blocks of the human steps beyond the Earth’s surface so optimistically forecast in the 1960s? The short answer is that these hopes never got off the ground. They were condemned by the great expense of reaching and operating in the demanding environment of space.
Rockets cost so much because most of their weight is fuel. Usually 1 percent or less of launch weight is the actual payload. Nor are rockets fully reliable. To launch a communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit demands an insurance premium of 10 percent or more for a single one-way trip! Contrast that to the premium for your car insurance.
Yet rockets have launched every satellite and space probe since Sputnik in 1957. The entire space infrastructure, governmental and private, has grown around building and launching rockets. What rockets have not and cannot do is make the cost of reaching orbit low enough that Gingrich’s lunar base could pass Romney’s financial test.
To truly encourage private enterprise in space a radical reduction of the cost to reach orbit must become a national priority. Several promising technologies, such as beamed energy propulsion and space elevators, could reduce the cost of entering space from $10,000 to as low as $100 a pound, radically changing the economics of spaceflight.
If these technologies are so attractive, why aren’t they being built? First, given the long-established infrastructure for space flight, rockets still perform well enough to deter the development of alternatives. Second, the proposed systems are technologically immature. Moving them from the laboratory to practical application will require billions of dollars over many years. Furthermore, the infrastructure to build, maintain, and operate these systems must be created. Only the federal government can provide this massive and sustained investment.
Such government funding created the rocket industry. When enthusiasts tried to build their own rockets in the 1930s, they quickly discovered that rocket technology needed expertise and resources unavailable in the private sector. Between 1945 and 1957, the American military spent over $12 billion ($90 billion in current dollars) developing rockets. Besides providing a nuclear deterrent, these rockets created the foundation for the NASA and commercial rockets of the 1960s and beyond. Even today, commercial development of rockets depends heavily on the government as patron and customer.
Large-scale, affordable space exploration and exploitation will not occur until the cost of reaching orbit is drastically reduced, just as widespread ownership of automobiles in the United States did not occur until Henry Ford started mass producing the Model T — and governments started building better roads and raising taxes to pay for them. If Ford had had to pay the total cost for the infrastructure that enabled his cars to transform America, the cost per car would have been vastly greater.
Instead of proposing or attacking an expensive and unrealistic moon base, Gingrich and Romney should challenge NASA and the Obama Administration to develop by 2021 launch systems that radically reduce the expense of reaching space. It is low launch costs that will create unprecedented opportunities that may finally usher in a true space age. But low launch costs will require large-scale government investment up front.
Jonathan Coopersmith is a historian of technology at Texas A&M University.