The Space Frontier Foundation caught up with Charles E. Miller to talk about the key to humanity’s future in space, depicted in movies like Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”, aka CATS (Cheap Access to Space). Charles is the president of NexGen Space LLC, co-founder of Nanoracks, former NASA Senior Advisor for Commercial Space, former CEO of Constellation Services International and Advocate of the Space Frontier Foundation.
CATS – A National Security Imperative
SFF: Briefly, what is CATS? Are we sending felines into space now?
CEM: CATS stands for Cheap Access to Space. It’s all about driving down the cost of launches from Earth into space astronomically (no pun intended), making them 10X safer and 10X more reliable. The ‘futures’ in space we see in movies, etc. are all made possible by Cheap Access to Space. If we achieve Cheap Access to Space, those dreams become a reality. And it all hinges upon one thing – reusable launch vehicles.
SFF: Why reusable launch vehicles?
CEM: The most expensive and risky part of getting into space is the nine minutes of terror on rockets. They cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars apiece and are dumped in the ocean after one use. SpaceX is one of the companies working towards developing a reusable solution.
SFF: Comparing this to airlines, basically you’re saying passengers on a Boeing 747 just touching down would hear something like this? “Ladies and gentlemen welcome to San Francisco. After deplaning we’re going to blow up the aircraft and go make a new one so your return flight might be a while.”
CEM: Essentially yes. Blowing up the jet after each flight gets expensive fast.
SFF: No kidding. At this point, people might be asking themselves…why do we need to go into space easily and cheaply in the first place?
CEM: Most immediately? Satellites. We rely on them for TV, GPS, national security operations and early warnings of deadly storms, just to name a few. Even your ATM transactions use satellites. Not only is it expensive to launch satellites into orbit, but there aren’t as many up there as most may think – not to mention they have a finite lifespan.
SFF: Since you mentioned national security, recently there’s been some coverage in the media around the militarization of Space, cited as stemming from Western tensions with Russia and China. How do you think this tense climate will affect the race to CATS in America? What does America stand to lose?
CEM: America risks becoming deaf, dumb and blind in one fell swoop without CATS. Imagine if the United States lost key satellites used in coordinating ground operations, gathering intelligence and targeting and then couldn’t launch replacements for six months or longer? China has already developed the capability to knock America’s assets out of orbit. Iran is looking at it too. Anyone seriously looking to take on the US military knows they need to take out US satellites first. Our satellites are truly a dominating military advantage.
CATS is the solution to this potential threat. If we have the ability to cheaply access space with a reusable spaceplane, then we have the ability to rapidly replace any assets that are taken out. Right now if US satellites were attacked, we could do nothing. With CATS, it would only take days or weeks.
SFF: Okay, the benefits of and reasons for CATS are obvious, but frankly, what’s taking so long?
CEM: The private industry is actually ready to go…right now. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman or SpaceX could build a fully reusable launch vehicle today, but it would take several billion dollars of private investment. These are shareholder-owned companies and they just can’t make the business case for it. Plane tickets are cheap because airlines amortize the cost of the seats over thousands of flights. Launch companies would need to contract about 40-50 launches per year to make the case for the necessary investment – currently there are only 15-20 commercial launches per year.
This is where government needs to step in and stimulate demand. Later this year, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) will introduce legislation proposing the government award several billion dollars in prizes to whoever achieves CATS, spurring the necessary innovation. It costs the taxpayers nothing if it does not work. But if it works, it will pay for itself very quickly. A prize based approach is a very good deal for the U.S. taxpayer.
SFF: Some would argue that America’s once great infrastructure is crumbling. How can we expect the country to turn to space when our bridges, trains and roads are in disrepair?
CEM: This is a legitimate and valid point of view. Many people in the space industry have mistakenly adopted the Apollo program as a model for spending money on things in space that have no direct benefits. But spending on space, as with anything else, needs to have direct, measurable returns to the people on the ground and this is our focus. Cheap access passes this test.
Most particularly, cheap access would create tremendous economic growth, job growth, and improve U.S. national security.
The American people have given NASA a flat budget and that’s okay, it’s actually enough if we are smart about how we spend it. Rather than asking for more, the focus needs to be on getting more bang for our buck.
SFF: So you’re saying that the space industry/NASA has the budget right now to achieve CATS without any more money from taxpayers?
CEM: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.
SFF: With all these topics on your mind…what keeps you up at night?
CEM: The inability to find a leader who cares about helping the American people, and humanity in general, get off his planet is what worries me. I share some of the same concerns that Elon Musk does…the fact that we haven’t discovered other intelligent life in the universe, and I wonder why. I believe we have to get off Earth within the next 100 years or something will happen that will destroy life on this planet. Its happened before and it will happen again. It’s the unknowns that keep me up at night. There’s some existential risk to human civilization, and life on Earth more broadly, that we still don’t understand. More importantly there is little urgency to do anything about it.
SFF: Can you paint a picture of what 2020 might look like if SpaceX successfully recovered their rocket on their next launch?
CEM: If SpaceX succeeds, they will build a constellation of 1,000 or more spacecraft creating global broadband internet over the course of many launches of the Falcon 9. Competitors will start to crop up and we’ll see science fiction start to become reality…all delivered by American entrepreneurs.
SFF: Finally, what are you most excited about as a result of CATS?
CEM: Once CATS gets going, many of the huge ideas you see only in the movies will start taking place, which will usher in a new period of innovation here on Earth. The possibilities are endless.