The idea of turning Earth-to-LEO (“low earth orbit”) into a commodity product for human access as well as for hardware opens a number of significant possibilities. As important is the idea of modularity of hardware launch: things done in large numbers become cheaper through mass production; things done in a structured market with multiple vendors become cheaper through competition and proper incentives. This was the topic of the last post on manned spaceflight. But the question is: what does this enable? If we have no big rocket (like the SLS), are we doomed to keep circling the planet? I would argue an emphatic “no” – this model opens up the opportunity to do revolutionary things at costs vastly lower than Apollo. And by the infusion of the commodity concept from inception, it inherently allows the NASA exploration to feed into more sustainable commercial activity. There was simply no way that Apollo could ever do this, and this is why Apollo was much more of an “Egyptian Pyramid” than an “Eisenhower Interstate System.”
Recently, interest has been stirred again in orbital fuel depots. This is a brilliant alternative to the NASA’s new and doomed big rocket project (the Space Launch System). Doomed because its Apollo style approach means it will be impossibly expensive to build and will consequently also kill any projects in the near term that could ever use the rocket. Fuel depots make vastly more sense because you can loft fuel on existing rockets. Placing depots in space also means that companies know there’s a market for certain types of launch. Fuel launch should be the cheapest of all. The fuel itself costs almost nothing, and thus the vast effort that goes in to making human rated rockets safe and comfortable for passengers can be completely avoided (only range safety needs be considered). Rockets can also be “right sized” for the market. Secondary effects of having fuel depots could be significant in terms of businesses that might to refuel commercial and scientific satellites from fuel purchased from these depots.
(NOTE ADDED IN PROOF: Here’s what the former head of NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center has to say on the topic – somewhat similar!)