Earthport Rediscovering A Space Bound Startup Society

Consider a proposal: a rocket launch facility near the equator.  Rockets would launch at latitude zero, allowing for heavier payloads to be launched into space at lower prices due to the extreme rotational speed of the earth. Participating rocket companies, using modular designs and mass production, can drive down the costs of delivering payloads by a factor of ten. The founders of an attempt at such a facility believe that the “final frontier” will begin a process of commercialization in zero-gravity manufacturing, tourism, and science.

If readers believed this was NASA’s plan for 2027 or Elon Musk’s fevered dreams, they could be forgiven. With SpaceX’s plan to visit Mars it would seem that the private space industry has only recently begun their transition from science fiction to science fact. Surprisingly, these concepts are not new. The proposal was made, not for the year 2027, 2037 or even 2047, but 1977.

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In the mid-1970s, Mark Frazier was a graduate of Harvard and a journalist for Reason Magazine. He was travelling and working in New Zealand when he received a call from Bob Poole, then editor of Reason. Bob suggested that Mark travel to the New Hebrides islands to speak with the leaders of the Nagriamel Independence Movement who recently led a failed attempt secede from their colonial government [1]. After speaking to the Nagriamel, Mark realized that the best way to bring about these ideas was not through conflict but through programs that would commercially incentivize cooperation and policy reform [1].

Mark recalled that future space faring companies would likely launch from the equator due to the extra speed it would provide the ship [1]. Running with that idea, he began to imagine the creation of a unique Special Economic Zone in the lower latitudes. The zone would be specifically designed to allow a developing nation with advantageous geography to offer cost-saving launch services to global superpowers and private launch companies alike[4]. In addition to building a center for industrial activity to transform areas of low economic output, the zone could be used to incentivize policy reform [4]. Furthermore, Mark believed the zone could preemptively minimize technological rivalries between antagonistic nations [4]. With an international policy framework for cooperation, competing nations could collaborate on rocket technology, or, at the very least, build them more transparently.

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There was already a precedent. In 1975, as part of an effort to produce the lowest cost launch system ever, the German aerospace company OTRAG (Orbital Transport and Rockets, Inc.),  finalized an arrangement with the Congolese government to establish a rocket launch facility in Zaire[2].The company also developed a groundbreaking design utilizing small, simplified, and mass-producible modular rocket systems. Due to their innovations and the facility’s location OTRAG had the potential to deliver payloads into space at a tenth of the cost of their competitors[2].

With the promise of drastic reductions in the cost of space exploration it is not surprise that individuals like Mark began to envision an age of commercial space travel. Harnessing this momentum, Mark, Bob Poole, Robert Heinlein and noted polymath Buckminster Fuller began to organize an advisory board of notable individuals to formally develop the concept[1]. The board was comprised of sixteen esteemed lawyers, intellectuals and engineers. It included famed rocket engineer Kraft Ehricke, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, former Astronaut Philip Chapman, co-founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratory Frank Malina and former NASA research director Raymond Bisplinghoff[4]. The project also received financial support from the Sabre Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting public policies for humanitarian goals, world peace and economic development4.

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The Earthport project began a “feasibility study” by reaching out to forty countries to gauge their interest. In exchange, the host country would earn the opportunity to harbor an international spaceport. Twelve of those countries indicated interest, but none as enthusiastically as Liberia. By 1978, the government of Liberia had identified and proposed up to 200 square miles of territory for the launch facility [1].

The project was gaining serious support, but two unfortunate events effectively ended it. The first was a coup in Liberia which violently ended the life of Liberian President William Tolbert and began an era of political instability which continues to this day. The second was the US State Department’s passing of the International Traffic in Arms regulations, which prohibited US defense contractors from exporting space launch services to foreign nations [1].

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In the face of these new challenges it was decided that further investigation would be fruitless.  As a result, the Earthport project was gradually wound down. In the years since, space faring technology has certainly advanced, but one could certainly argue that it has been at a much higher cost than necessary. According to The Economist, ITAR and related regulatory burdens have, since 1999, halved the United States’ share in the commercial satellite market. Art Dula, founder of a company which uses retrofitted Russian systems to give tours of space claims that complying with regulation costs his company as much as their technical innovation[3]. Lack of competitive pressures in the space industry has given a virtual monopoly to defense contractors. Their “cost-plus” method of budgeting has been cited by Elon Musk as one of the key reasons current launch costs are so high[5]. However, the economic fundamentals of space travel identified by Lutz Kayser of OTRAG still apply more than 30 years later.

Perhaps building a space faring startup society was too ambitious during a decade embroiled in a cold war and unyielding economic stagflation. However, the dream of a commercial space industry is progressively more likely today. As private space travel becomes more of a reality the need to revisit Earthport will grow in importance. Explorers of the final frontier would be well advised to learn Mark Frazier's lessons and about his quest to build a bridge from earth to the cosmos.

Sources:

  1. Caprio, A. (Producer). (2016, April 25). Interview with Mark Frazier [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from http://podbay.fm/show/1066951324
  2. Wade, M. Otrag. Retrieved from http://www.astronautix.com/o/otrag.html
  3. Information about ITAR and Art Dula (2013, June 1). Stuck to the ground by red tape. The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/news/technology-quarterly/21578517-space-technology-dozens-firms-want-commercialise-space-various-ways
  4. Frazier, M. (1977). The Industrialization of Space: Planning for Profit at the High Frontier [White paper]. Retrieved September 19, 2017 from Frazier, M.
  5. Berger, E. (2017, July 19). Elon Musk knows what’s ailing NASA--costly contracting. Ars Technica. Retrieved from https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/07/elon-musk-knows-whats-ailing-nasa-costly-contracting/