Space Odyssey

Tom Moser wants to put Texas on the map as a commercial launch pad for cargo-carrying rockets

Lockheed promotes VentureStar as an express air-freight service that will bring "the expense of accessing space down to earth." About $375 million is spent for every space shuttle launch. VentureStar's per-launch cost should be in the range of $25 million to $50 million, said VentureStar's Williams. Looking at it another way, VentureStar would reduce the cost of orbit satellite delivery for communications companies from $10,000 per pound to $1,000 per pound.

While VentureStar is considered the top of the RLV class, it is not the model farthest along in development. Kistler Aerospace, headquartered in Kirkland, Washington, plans to launch its rocket-like K-1 early next year at a new spaceport being built in South Australia. The 115-foot-long K-1 would shed its booster base two minutes after liftoff, after reaching an altitude of 135,000 feet. Its free fall would be interrupted at 10,000 feet, when parachutes would open. Air bags would be activated shortly before the craft touched down on land. The orbital vehicle, powered by a single rocket engine, would deliver its payload and return to Earth, also with the aid of parachutes and air bags.

Moser said that if VentureStar doesn't choose Texas for a spaceport, other companies, such as Kistler, might. But Robert Wang, Kistler's chairman, said the company is close to finalizing an agreement to build a spaceport in Nevada, which would open in 2000. The Australia and Nevada spaceports should be sufficient for Kistler's fleet of rockets, Wang said.

At least four other aerospace companies are developing RLVs, with each design more bizarre than the next. One has rotary blades on its nose cone, takes off like a rocket, but lands like a helicopter. Another is a needle-nosed space plane that spits out its payload from a forward hatch that opens like a Venus's-flytrap. Another space plane reaches an altitude of 20,000 feet while tethered to a modified Boeing 747 or other commercial airplane before disconnecting and zooming into orbit on the strength of its own engine. Although none of these other RLVs is as far along in development as VentureStar or K-1, Kistler's Wang said he believes the commercial satellite market can only grow, which would necessitate more RLVs.

Tens of billions of dollars have already been invested in global satellite communications networks. Motorola's Iridium, for example, is up and operating, allowing callers to use a wireless telephone from anywhere on Earth. On the horizon for a 2003 launching is Teledesic, a $9 billion effort initially financed by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, that is to offer businesses Internet access at speeds 2,000 times faster than a 28.8K baud modem and the unlimited ability to teleconference and link computer systems. Iridium uses 66 satellites; Teledesic would employ 288.

Satellites must be replaced about every five to seven years, and industry experts estimate that 1,400 low-orbiting communication satellites will be launched in the next ten years. That's a conservative estimate based only on satellite networks already in place or in planning.

"As we lower the launch costs dramatically," Wang said, "we can only expect that to be a catalyst for more to get into the market."

Moser spent the last 12 years in the Washington, D.C. area, working at NASA headquarters and, later, for two different aerospace companies, ANSER and Fairchild Space. At NASA headquarters, Moser had two jobs: to salvage the shuttle program after the Challenger explosion and to promote the $22 billion International Space Station. He made sales pitches to Congress for both. Despite his personal fashion preference for suits, Moser hated Washington and was all set to retire this year in Texas, where he and his wife are building a ranch home in the Hill Country. That's when Cunningham, the commission chairman, recruited him to lead the agency. "This is not an aerospace job, it's a political job," said Cunningham, who traveled to space in October 1968 as the pilot of Apollo 7, the first NASA mission in which on-board crew activities were televised. "Tom dealt with enough politics at NASA with Congress to know how to work in that area."

Tom Moser is facing a tough audience again. In a hearing room on the eighth floor of a nondescript state office building near the Capitol in Austin, he is about to break the news to some of the 30 or so local boosters that their bids to have a spaceport in their region have failed to get passing grades in a technical evaluation.

Of the seven regions bidding for the spaceport (two proposed more than one site), three will walk away hopeful from this meeting and four will be disappointed, having realized that their $14,300 investment toward the technical study produced no yield for their communities. Moser's meeting has created an atmosphere much like that of a courtroom before a verdict is read. This, too, is by design. Moser wants Texas's bid for a spaceport to be all-for-one and one-for-all: Cooperation should be emphasized over competition. When Moser began soliciting proposals from regional economic development groups in March, he told them that they would have to support the winner, even if they weren't it.

At first blush, his corny approach seems to naively ignore the selfish nature of political types. But when he puts them all together in one room like this, his strategy works masterfully. They sit and listen as representatives of a consulting firm that studied each of the proposed sites report how the sites fared, on a scale of zero to 16, on 56 different assessment criteria -- everything from the weather to environmental sensitivity. Some local officials squint at the overhead projector that reveals the scores in color codes. Some on the same team whisper and shrug their shoulders, not understanding why they were graded yellow in a certain area when they so obviously should be blue. But few are so bold as to object out loud. That's because for every official who haggles to increase the overall score of a particular site, there are six others who view the interference as hurting the chances for their own site to emerge as the favorite. Every official in the room is outnumbered, six to one.

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