Ever since the glory days of Gemini and Apollo NASA has struggled to figure out exactly what their goals will be with human space exploration. This is not to say that they’ve lost all direction, far from it. The majority of NASA’s robotic endeavours have been quite successful and they continue to push the envelope in this space. However when it comes to putting us fleshy beings into the great black vacuum of space they, and in the interest of full disclosure no one else, has managed to send humans any further than low earth orbit for the past 4 decades.
My regular readers will know that I put the majority of blame directly on the US congress as NASA makes for an easy target for budget cuts to spend on other policies. However NASA isn’t blameless in this either with nearly every program they’ve run coming in over budget, past deadline and not entirely to initial specification. The reason behind this is easily demonstrated when you have companies with employees totalling in the hundreds, ala SpaceX, managing to achieve what NASA has done with almost 18,000. A good chunk of that is dedicated entirely to the Shuttle program so NASA will look a lot leaner in the near future but the overwhelming amount of people and thus the bureaucracy that follows it have done nothing to help NASA in achieving its goals.
You might be wondering then what brought this rant on about NASA’s past when I only recently extolled the virtues of their new vision. Well it seems that NASA has failed to learn from its past and has set its sights on developing technology that it has already developed (and in fact, licensed out to a private company):
Astronauts may one day orbit the Earth in roomy balloons instead of cramped tin cans, now that NASA has made inflatable space habitats a priority.
The White House announced a change in direction for NASA on 1 February. Instead of the planned crewed missions to the moon, the agency intends to pour money into research and development (New Scientist, 13 February 2010, p 8).
The outline listed technologies on NASA’s wish list but provided few details. Now NASA has fleshed out its plans in a detailed budget proposal posted on its website on 22 February. One section notes that balloon-like habitats “can be larger, lighter, and potentially less expensive” than traditional ones made of rigid metal walls. They could be used as space stations, or eventually as moon bases. NASA may send inflatable structures to the International Space Station to test their mettle – including their ability to shield against space radiation.
Does that sound familiar to anyone? The technology in question was developed by NASA and called Transhab which was in essence an inflatable space station module that could fit atop of current generation rockets yet deliver almost 3 times the volume of the Columbus module. To say that they were a good idea was a bit of an understatement as not only did they deliver more space on the cheap they were also quite a lot more resilient to things like micrometeorite strikes due to the flexible nature of the material used.
They were such a good idea that space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA to develop his own line of space habitats under his own company Bigelow Aerospace. You could easily write these guys off as just another startup that had yet to produce anything but they’ve already launched 2 of their own modules with a third (which will be able to take humans on board) well on the way. It would make you wonder then that since the technology is viable, even from a commercial point of view, why did NASA drop it?
As always the blame lies with congress who passed House Resolution 1654 that effectively banned NASA from researching and building their own Transhab structures (as well as climate research, go figure). Luckily HR1654 doesn’t stop NASA from actually using inflatable modules on the station so we may just see some Bigelow hardware on the ISS sometime in the future, but only time will tell.
So you can see why I get all up in arms about the way NASA is handled by the US congress. They’re constantly meddling in their affairs which makes it extremely difficult for them to develop technologies that will make space cheaper and more pervasive than it is today. I’ll admit that this is out of a selfish desire to see cheap space access for myself and all of mankind but with the countless benefits of space technologies and exploration being reaped by us all you can see why I believe in it so much. Whilst the private space industry looks bright I still worry about our forefathers in NASA who’ve had their lust for being on the bleeding edge sated by the red tape of congress.
There’s one part of my brain that seems to sit there quietly until I get into the fun situation of wanting something to happen and it being too good to be true. It’s like a cognitive dissonance detector which springs into action whenever I have conflicting thoughts about a matter and it’s served me well in the past. I remember once being asked by a gentleman, who was cleanly dressed but seemed rather panicked, that he needed a lift into town to get to his girlfriend who was in a car crash. I wasn’t going where he needed to go so I had to decline him, but that part of my brain felt the story was bull. After picking up my fellow blogging friend I went to said location to check, and lo and behold there was no crash to speak of. As it turns out this person was known to my friend and he has been pulling that scam for years now, but apparently he usually asks for bus fare instead of a ride. That same part of my brain flared up when I read this article:
Some forward-looking vacationers have already booked a stay at the first space hotel, which is on track to open in 2012, according to the owners of the planned orbital resort.
Spacefarers can book a three-night stay at the Galactic Suite Space Resort for $4.4 million, the Barcelona-based company planning the hotel has said. So far 43 paying guests have already reserved a spot, while more than 200 have expressed interest, Galactic Suite Ltd’s CEO Xavier Claramunt told Reuters.
Despite Claramunt’s confidence, critics have questioned whether the hotel can really be ready so soon, and whether the company has enough money to see the plan through. Claramunt said an anonymous billionaire has fronted the company $3 billion to finance the project.
Let’s be generous and say that 2012 can mean December 31st and that gives them around 3 years to design, build and flight test a new space habitat. That’s an exceedingly aggressive timeline for any kind of space craft, especially those ones that are designed to support human life for any amount of time. Whilst I’m excited at the prospect that there’s a potential competitor in the world of space tourism I can’t help but look at this with a healthy dose of skepticism.
First off there’s already a company that’s been planning to do this thing for a long time, and that’s Bigelow Aerospace. These guys are the real deal, founded by chain hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow they were founded back in 1999 after Robert achieved his dream of making enough money to found his own space hotel company. They took the ingenious way of creating a space hotel, licensing technology from NASA. Specifically it was the transhab design which is in essence an inflatable space capsule that allows you to create very large structures in space whilst keeping the payload size small and light. The reason I say these guys are the real deal is that they have already launched 2 of their transhab modules into space, Genesis I and II. What really makes me all giggly when I hear about them is that they’re already in cahoots with SpaceX for launching their next module Sundancer which will form the base of their first commercial space station. Bigelow and his team really have the whole idea down pat and will be the first private company to have a fully functioning space station.
Can you see the difference between Bigelow and Galactic Suite? Bigelow has been at this for 10 years and have still yet to put a livable habitat up there. The earliest references I’ve seen about Galactic suite are from 2007, meaning that they’ll just be celebrating their 5 year anniversary when they’re ready to take paying customers. Since all we’ve seen from them so far is pretty renders and small scale models I can’t believe that they will be ready in time for the deadline they’ve set themselves.
That’s not the only problem with their idea either. The article makes reference to them using “Russian rockets” to get their guests to the hotels. Now this isn’t a bad idea per say, the Russians have always been pretty accommodating to space tourists in order to get some cash flow into their operations. In fact Space Adventures recently managed to up their capacity by purchasing some extra capacity from Energia who said they could build 5 Soyuz craft per year rather than 4. But that’s also their problem, the only “Russian rocket” that would be available to take space tourists into space would be the Soyuz and currently the company making the flights is maxed out supplying Rosaviakosmos and Space Adventures. Unless they have some in with a Russian program that I don’t know about and the Russians aren’t speaking about their plan to get people to their hotel isn’t going to work. I would’ve cut them some slack if they said they were going to use Dragon capsules from SpaceX as that has enough unknowns in it to make it slightly possible but with them supplying Bigelow and NASA I’d still be casting a skeptical eye their way.
Just like with the Neptune launch system I’ll happily eat my words should these guys ever actually launch anything. I’m all for competition in space as in the long run it means cheaper access to space for us all, something which I believe that everyone should experience in their lifetimes. Still every time one of these stories crosses my radar I can’t help but feel a little bit of disappointment, as promises that never materialize do nothing but damage the wider worlds’ view of the space tourism industry. They say no publicity is bad publicity but in this case, the emerging industry suffers greatly at the hands of the vaporware peddlers.