Saturday, November 22, 2008

Where is Commercial Space in the Planetary Society Roadmap?

GLXP vs. The Planetary Society (aka "Jupiter-Size Potholes In The Planetary Society's Space Exploration Roadmap" - Jeff Krukin from STELLAR on the Google Lunar X PRIZE Teams site - I agree with Jeff that the Planetary Society should feature commercial space more in its roadmap. I also think it should do so in its programs (perhaps in partnership with suborbital ventures). However, I also think they've been slowly getting more and more interested in commercial and private space over the years. For example, they're a Google Lunar X PRIZE supporter (see Planetary Society Joins Private Effort for Moon Mission from SpaceRef), they've worked on their own private space missions, they've held the Apophis Mission Design Competition that SpaceWorks and SpaceDev won, they've featured the Regolith Excavation Challenge and the White Knight 2 rollout in their radio and web programs, and more.

To me that seems like a positive change in emphasis compared to the Planetary Society of 10 or 15 years ago. I don't expect them to completely change overnight. Certainly I think they should keep their planetary emphasis, with private space as an important means to achieve their goals (as opposed to, say, the Space Frontier Foundation, which already exists to support private space as a defining goal). I think it's up to groups like STELLAR to demonstrate the private space efforts can play a more central role in the type of exploration the Planetary Society advocates as much as it's up to the Planetary Society to encourage such private efforts.

As for the Roadmap, I certainly would like to see commercial space featured more prominently where appropriate. However, in contrast with NASA's Constellation program, I actually do see at least the possibility of commercial participation in the Roadmap. The Roadmap emphasizes more detailed lunar robotic exploration before any human landings, which potentially could fit quite well with Google Lunar X PRIZE teams like STELLAR. The initial emphasis on Lagrangian point observatory servicing missions for the human program allows the opportunity for commercial modules according to Aviation Week (on an earlier meeting as the Roadmap was being developed):

The alternative vision would also include far greater private-sector incentives for participation at all levels, an area public surveys cite as very important. Missions to asteroids and Lagrangian points, for example, are likely to carry along Bigelow-type commercial inflatable modules. A recent informal space program survey by The New York Times found substantial public frustration about NASA’s doing what entrepreneurs could do better.

If nothing else a NASA switch to the Roadmap plan might stir up Constellation a bit, which I consider a feature. Even if Constellation were kept, having a non-LEO mission for Ares 1/Orion in the near(er) term (the Lagrangian point mission) might make it more politically possible for commercial space to take care of the ISS crew and cargo transportation role. I also see a possible role for propellant depots in the Roadmap, and these could be run and/or serviced by commercial space. Finally, the Roadmap's emphasis on satellite Earth observations adds a potentially huge opportunity for traditional and New commercial space participation with small satellites, satellite launches, hosted payloads, and Google-Earth style data processing.

Of course most of these opportunities are not spelled out as such in the Roadmap. It would take a lot of business and political work to make such a Roadmap, if adopted by NASA, realize the potential mutually beneficial increased commercial space emphasis I see possibly being enabled. Hopefully the Planetary Society will communicate about opportunities for private space to participate in their Roadmap as part of this process.