29 May 2011
Announcements - Vehicles (Good)
Zubrin's Proposal to Fund "Pathway to the Stars"
Fueling the "transorbital railroad"
by Alan Breakstone
In an essay in the Washington Post on May 25, 2011, Dr. Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society wrote:

In the history of the old frontier, the creation of the transcontinental railroad served as the decisive move enabling the settling of the continent. Can we today deliver a similar master stroke and open the way to the full and rapid development of the new frontier, space? Can we open a "transorbital railroad"?

Zubrin's questions need to be answered with a resounding, "Yes," but in order to open this frontier, we also need to ask, "How to fund it?"

Fortunately, Zubrin came up with a simple yet effective plan:

The core idea is simple. The space shuttle program is ending. So, instead of funding NASA to spend the next decade developing another white elephant to replace it, let's just take a quarter of the shuttle's budget and use it to set up a regularly scheduled launch service to orbit using the most cost-effective boosters on the commercial market.

Under Zubrinís proposal, the US government would subsidize a new space transportation system through a NASA budget item of approximately US$1.2 billion/year.

This proposed budget would pay for as many launches as possible of the most cost-effective launch vehicle available. Zubrin favors the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, scheduled for first launch in 2013, with 15 launches per year possible.

Payload capacity would be sold to both government and private customers at a cost of $50/kg. The rockets would be launched on schedule, whether payload capacity is fully subscribed or not. Unsubscribed capacity would be used to launch tanks containing water, kerosene, and liquid oxygen. These supplies would be left in orbit to be available for use by anyone.

Of Zubrinís preferred launcher, the Falcon Heavy, he wrote in a slide presentation at the International Space Development Conference three days previous, ďAssuming it achieves good reliability, it will outclass all current launch vehicles by any reasonable formula.Ē

With Falcon Heavy as the centerpiece of the transorbital railroad, Zubrin expects 795 metric tons launched to orbit per year. That would be ten times the average yearly launch capacity of the retiring Space Shuttle, at a quarter of the cost to the taxpayer.

Zubrin believes his transorbital railroad will pay for itself, creating US$7.2 billion per year of space-based and associated economic activity. He thinks the system will create market demand to drive development of ever better launch systems.

How would a transorbital railroad affect space tourism? Regular flights at historically low prices might enhance the development of orbital and deep space tourism, including the establishment of tourist space stations of the Bigelow variety. Consumables left in orbit by the system can support these ventures in low Earth orbit ( LEO) and beyond, serving as already-existing orbiting supply depots. The predicted market demand benefits development of advanced New Space vehicles for low cost access to space. This in turn benefits tourism.

Space tourism proponents and New Space firms might want to examine Zubrinís transorbital railroad more closely.
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Alan Breakstone 29 May 2011
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