Opening a Railroad to Space

Space News, October 4, 2010Robert Zubrin

In the history of the American frontier, the opening of the transcontinental railroad was an epochal event. Almost instantly, the transit to the West Coast, which had previously required an arduous multi-month trek and a massive investment for an average family, became a quick and affordable excursion. As a result, the growth of the nation accelerated exponentially.

How can we today deliver a similar master stroke, and open the way to the full and rapid development of the space frontier?  We need to open up a transorbital railroad.

Here’s how it could be done.

First, we could set up a small transorbital railroad office in NASA, and fund it to buy six heavy-lift (100 metric tons to low Earth orbit) and six medium-lift (20 tons to LEO) launches per year from the private launch industry, with heavy- and medium-lift launches going off on schedule on alternating months. The transorbital railroad office would pay the launch companies $500 million for each heavy launch and $100 million for each medium launch, thus requiring a total out-of-pocket program expenditure of $3.6 billion per year, roughly 70 percent that of the space shuttle program. It would then turn around and sell standardized compartments to both government and private customers at subsidized rates. For example, on the heavy-lift vehicle, the entire 100-ton capacity launch could be offered for sale at $10 million, 10-ton compartments for $1 million, 1 ton for $100,000, and 100-kilogram slots for $10,000 each. The entire 20 tons of the medium-lift launcher could be offered for $2 million, with 2-ton containers made available for $200,000 and 200-kilogram spaces for $20,000. While recovering only a tiny fraction of the transorbital railroad’s costs, such low fees (levied primarily to discourage spurious use) would make spaceflight readily affordable to everyone.

As with a railroad, the transorbital railroad’s launches would occur in accord with its schedule, regardless of whether or not all of its cargo capacity was subscribed by customers. Unsubscribed space would be filled with containers of water, food or space-storable propellants. These standardized, pressurizable containers, equipped with tracking beacons, plumbing attachments, hatches and electrical pass-throughs, would be released for orbital recovery by anyone with the initiative to collect them and put their contents and volumes to use. A payload dispenser, provided and loaded by the launch companies as part of their service, would be used to release partial payloads to go their separate ways once orbit is achieved.

As noted above, the budget required to run the transorbital railroad would be 30 percent less than the space shuttle program, but it would accomplish far more. Instead of perhaps 60 tons (three shuttle launches) delivered per year to orbit, it would launch 720 tons. The U.S. government thus would save a great deal of money, since its own departments in NASA, the military and other agencies could avail themselves of the transorbital railroad’s low rates to launch their payloads at trivial cost. Much further savings would occur, however, since with launch costs so profoundly reduced, it no longer would be necessary to spend billions to ensure the ultimate degree of spacecraft reliability. Instead, commercial-grade parts could be used, thereby cutting the cost of spacecraft construction by orders of magnitude. While some failures would result, they would be eminently affordable, and moreover, enable a greatly accelerated rate of technological advance in spacecraft design, since unproven, non-space-rated components could be much more rapidly put to the test.

With such a huge amount of lift capability available to everyone at low cost, both public and private initiatives of every kind could take wing. If NASA’s Exploration Mission Directorate were to desire to send expeditions to other worlds, all they would have to do is buy space on the transorbital railroad for their payloads. But private enterprises or foundations could use the transorbital railroad to launch their own lunar or Mars probes — or settlements — as well. Those who believe in space solar power satellites would have the opportunity to put their business plans into action. Those wishing to launch and operate orbital space hotels would have the low-cost lift capacity necessary to make their concepts feasible. Those hoping to offer commercial orbital ferry service to transfer payloads from low Earth orbit to geostationary orbit or beyond would be able to get their crafts aloft, and have plenty of customers. As such enterprises multiplied, a tax base would be created both on Earth and in space that would ultimately repay the government many times over for its transorbital railroad program costs.

While the implementation of a cargo-only transorbital railroad would be a great advance over our current situation, we should not limit it to that. As John F. Kennedy said at the dawn of the space age, “A new ocean has opened, and free men must sail it.” Thus the transorbital railroad’s compartments should be open to receive passenger capsules provided by private vendors, thereby making affordable trips to orbit possible for anyone. Some might say that such open access to human spaceflight would put people at risk, and this is true. But bold endeavors have always involved risk, whether personal or financial, and free men and women should be allowed to decide for themselves what risks they are willing to accept in order to achieve their dreams.

We don’t have to wait for years to implement the transorbital railroad. We can begin it straight away, with 12 medium-lift launches per year. This would cost only $1.2 billion yearly, leaving several billion dollars per year to support the development of heavy-lift vehicles through two or more fixed-price contracts issued to industry on a competitive basis. Once these heavy-lift launchers become available, they could be integrated into the program to enable the full transorbital railroad capability discussed above. With a guaranteed market, launch vehicle companies would be able to put mass-production techniques into action, thereby causing the costs of their rockets to fall over time. This, in turn, would allow the transorbital railroad to increase further the frequency of its service, from one launch per month to two, three or more, and result in a dramatic drop in the cost of launch vehicles bought outside of the transorbital railroad program as well.

Some might say that the implementation of the transorbital railroad would represent an anticompetitive subsidization of the U.S. launch industry. But the federal government has always subsidized transportation, supporting the development of trails, canals, railroads, seaports, bridges, tunnels, subways, highways, aircraft and airports since the founding of the republic. Rather than complain, the Europeans or others distressed by low American launch prices could create transorbital railroads of their own, thus multiplying humanity’s capacity to reach into space still further.

Within a few years, we could be sending not a mere handful of people per year to orbit, but hundreds. Instead of a narrow space program with timid objectives moving forward at the snail’s pace of politically constrained bureaucracy, we could have dozens of bold endeavors of every kind, attempting to realize every vision and every dream — reaching out, taking risks and proving the impossible to be possible. With the aid of the transorbital railroad, the vast realm of the solar system could be truly opened to human hands, human minds, human hearts and human enterprise, a new ocean for free men and women to sail, their creativity unbounded, with prospects and possibilities as unlimited as space itself.

Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, is president of the Mars Society (www.marssociety.org) and author of “The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.”