The conference runs all weekend, 8:30-5:30 Pacific time. As readers may know, I've been involved with the Foundation since 2005, was chairman 2008-2009 and was just re-elected to its Board of Directors. Here's the Foundation's credo:
The Space Frontier Foundation is an organization of people dedicated to opening the Space Frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible.
Our goals include protecting the Earth's fragile biosphere and creating a freer and more prosperous life for each generation by using the unlimited energy and material resources of space.
Our purpose is to unleash the power of free enterprise and lead a united humanity permanently into the Solar System.
Obama Champions Private Enterprise in Space over Bipartisan Support for Socialist NASA Program
Last Thursday I shared my thoughts in two short (<5 min) RussiaToday interviews on on President Obama's big speech about NASA and his long-overdue cancellation of NASA's white elephant known as "Ares I" rocket. (See Jeff Foust's analysis here and here.) I was sorry to see the Administration decide to preserve the Orion capsule as a lifeboat for the International Space Station, but as I indicate below, I can't really blame them for feeling they had to "throw a bone" to the Congressional lions defending that program and the jobs it created (using tax dollars that killed far more jobs, of course--a classic "seen v. unseen" problem).
But as I note below, the far more important good news is that, if Obama gets his way, NASA would finally buy crew launch services to ISS and for future deep space missions from the private sector (expanding its limited COTS program) instead of building its own rockets and capsule for this purpose. This decision is easily single best thing the Administration has done thus far. They have a tough fight ahead with the few members of Congress who actually care about this--who just so happen to be the ones whose districts will face job cuts when dead-end, wasteful make-work programs are canceled. The irony here is just too thick: Many of the same kinds of folks who've been decrying Obama as a socialist (not unjustly, in my opinion) now attack him on nationalist grounds for trying to turn part of our ultra-socialist space program over to the private sector.
Beware Of Space Junk: Global Warming Isn't the Only Major Environmental Problem
by James Dunstan & Berin Szoka* (PDF) Originally published in Forbes.com on December 17, 2009
As world leaders meet in Copenhagen to consider drastic carbon emission restrictions that could require large-scale de-industrialization, experts gathered last week just outside Washington, D.C. to discuss another environmental problem: Space junk. Unlike with climate change, there's no difference of scientific opinion about this problem--orbital debris counts increased 13% in 2009 alone, with the catalog of tracked objects swelling to 20,000, and estimates of over 300,000 objects in total; most too small to see and all racing around the Earth at over 17,500 miles per hour. Those are speeding bullets, some the size of school buses, and all capable of knocking out a satellite or manned vehicle.
At stake are much more than the $200 billion a year satellite and launch industries and jobs that depend on them. Satellites connect the remotest locations in the world; guide us down unfamiliar roads; allow Internet users to view their homes from space; discourage war by making it impossible to hide armies on another country's borders; are utterly indispensable to American troops in the field; and play a critical role in monitoring climate change and other environmental problems. Orbital debris could block all these benefits for centuries, and prevent us from developing clean energy sources like space solar power satellites, exploring our Solar System and some day making humanity a multi-planetary civilization capable of surviving true climatic catastrophes.
The engineering wizards who have fueled the Information Revolution through the use of satellites as communications and information-gathering tools also overlooked the pollution they were causing. They operated under the "Big Sky" theory: Space is so vast, you don't have to worry about cleaning up after yourself. They were wrong. Just last February, two satellites collided for the first time, creating over 1,500 new pieces of junk. Many experts believe we are nearing the "tipping point" where these collisions will cascade, making many orbits unusable.
But the problem can be solved. Thus far, governments have simply tried to mandate "mitigation" of debris-creation. But just as some warn about "runaway warming," we know that mitigation alone will not solve the debris problem. The answer lies in "remediation": removing just five large objects per year could prevent a chain reaction. If governments attempt to clean up this mess themselves, the cost could run into the trillions--rivaling even some proposed climate change solutions.
Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin used to refer to commercial alternatives to NASA's Ares rockets as "Paper Rockets," but commercial vehicles like Atlas V, Delta IV and Falcon 1 are quite real and available today, while Ares 1 and 5 are grossly over-budget and way behind-schedule:
NASA should buy commercial space services whenever possible from NewSpace companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Bigelow Aerospace. The Commercial Spaceflight Revolution is happening now!
Congress has very wisely cancelled the National Reconnaissance Office's proposed Broad Area Space-Based Imagery Collection (BASIC) satellite system. The proposal to build two new imaging satellites at a cost to taxpayers of $1.7 billion would have represented a major break from what is possibly the U.S. government's most successful effort to promote space commercialization to date: buying the imagery it needs from commercial providers, who can also sell imagery to other buyers.
Five years ago, the idea that Internet users could pull up a satellite image of just about any location on the planet at a whim would have seemed ludicrous. Yet that's precisely what websites like Google Maps and Microsoft's Live Search offer today--for free! Desktop applications like Microsoft's Virtual Earth and Google Earth offer even more advanced geospatial tools--again, for free. But of course this library of incredibly rich imagery didn't just "fall out of the sky," as they say. It was collected by a handful of expensive commercial remote sensing satellites whose construction was made possible by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's (Wikipedia) extraordinarily successful "Nextview" program implemented under the Commercial Remote Sensing Policy of 2003. Rather than having the Federal government build its own satellites--and pay for the entire cost of the satatellites--the NGA very wisely chose to buy imagery from commercial providers in two ~$500 million, 4-year contracts with U.S. satellite imagery companies: DigitalGlobe in 2003 and OrbImage (now GeoEye) in 2004.
These long-term purchase agreements essentially made the U.S. Government the "anchor tenant" in a new class of remote sensing satellites, providing the initial funding for both companies to build and operate their satellites. But because the companies sell roughly half of imagery to foreign governments and commercial buyers like Google and Microsoft, these deals have saved U.S taxpayers money for the purchase of imagery for a wide variety of needs, ranging from agricultural monitoring to military intelligence. At the same time, the Nextview contracts have given birth to a vibrant geospatial industry whose immediate benefits should be obvious to anyone who's ever pulled up a satellite map online and whose macroeconomic impact is potentially enormous. So why mess with success?