The Outer Space Undergroud

Arizona's quiet visionaries yearn to make the state a hub of commercial space travel

As long as the government is in control, Logsden adds, space tourism won't happen. And, he reminds overeager space activists, "It was a long time between the Vikings and mass travel across the Atlantic."

The technology used to launch people into space came about in the 1960s; it's both expensive and risky. Today, it costs $10,000 a pound to launch payload into low orbit--100 to 500 miles above the Earth's surface. That means that if you could devise a process to turn lead into gold simply by flying it into low orbit and back, it would be a losing proposition. Each flight of NASA's space shuttle--which drops its expendable boosters into the ocean as it rises toward orbit--costs $1 billion.

And NASA hasn't always been so crazy about opening space to Everyman.
NASA administrator Daniel Goldin supports the concept of commercial space travel, but the agency only recently has taken such a position. Astronauts aren't eager to give up the prestige of being the elite few allowed into space, activists say, and NASA brass--protective of an already dwindling budget--have been unwilling to acknowledge that space travel can be done at less cost and with fewer people.

Kumar Ramohalli doesn't understand why NASA's funding is constantly injeopardy. He is the co-director of theUniversity of Arizona/NASA Space Engineering Research Center for Utilization of Local Planetary Resources in Tucson. He's watched his annual budget dwindle from $2million in the early Nineties to a few hundred thousand this year.

Ramohalli and his students don't focus as much on cheap space travel as they do on a theory called In Situ Resource Utilization, the concept that man one day will utilize resources found in space.

The idea, Ramohalli says, is to take an empty fuel tank along and fill it up, rather than lugging the fuel along.

Steve Brod, a doctoral candidate in the program, is working on a way to create oxygen on Mars, by combining carbon dioxide--which is already on the planet--and energy. NASA is testing the device, and Ramohalli hopes it will be sent to Mars in 2001.

Similarly, planetary science professor John Lewis is analyzing the makeup of asteroids; he theorizes that allmining on Earth could stop if wecould capture asteroids' resources. (Just think about the ease of processing ore in a weightless environment.)

Ramohalli and his students have also built a prototype of a space robot--some call it a space janitor--that would remove space junk in low orbit and return it to Earth for recycling. Tons of space junk, from small objects to huge hunks of metal, are orbiting the Earth; in 1993, a paint chip cracked a window of the space shuttle.

With so many amazing advancements, Ramohalli can't understand why people aren't more excited about space.

"There's a very unfortunate but very wrong perception that space is very costly," he says.

"But is it really? Let's make a comparison. For the S&L bailout, with one signature, they took care of $150 billion. That's ten years of NASA's budget."

David Brandt-Erichson lives on Moonstone Drive in Sabino Canyon. These days, he figures Moonstone Drive will be as close as he'll ever get to outer space.

He wasn't always so gloomy.
Brandt-Erichson was a microbiologist working in the Bay Area and wasn't much interested in space until 1978, when he happened upon the book Colonies in Space by T.A. Heppenheimer--"a comprehensive and actual account of the prospects forhuman colonization of space." He saw afootnote about the L-5 Society, wrote forinformation and started a Bay Area chapter.

In 1980, Brandt-Erichson retired from microbiology and moved to Tucson to dobookkeeping and office work in theL5Society's small, run-down office justnorth of the University of Arizona campus.

Today he's the secretary of the National Space Society, but Brandt-Erichson has allbut given up hope of getting to space. The former L-5ers still gettogether everymonth, but now it's mainly social.

"We seem further away now than we did then," he says. When he first joined the L5 Society, Brandt-Erichson recalls, they used to say, "L-5 in '95."

Last year, the National Space Society held its annual convention in Ohio. The irony was not lost on Brandt-Erichson.

"I said, 'We only made it to Cleveland!' So,we were a little dejected.

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