Reason, Liberty, & Culture

Bigelow Aerospace BA330

Off-the-Shelf Technology for Space Exploration

by Lewis Loflin

Above: Proposed Bigelow Aerospace BA330 Inflatable Space Habitat.

News update: The Voyager 1 probe has become the first man-made object to enter interstellar space, NASA announced on September 12, 2013.

Scientists report they have strong evidence that the unmanned spacecraft has crossed the magnetic boundary separating our solar system's sun, planets and solar wind from the rest of the galaxy. The announcement comes more than 36 years after the unmanned spacecraft lifted off on a journey that gave humans close-up views of Jupiter and Saturn before heading toward deep space.

The probe is still operational after 36 years! What can we build today?

Technology, even what I call garage technology, is widespread, dynamic, and growing. We are building robotics, 3-D printers (that makes actual plastic objects without molds and can cost less than $1000 to setup) the ideas are even invading NASA.

More signs of success are the Mars Rovers. They aren't built in a garage, but instead employed the garage technology mentality of the creative use of off-the-shelf technology. NASA has wasted staggering sums of money on specialty built hardware even abandoning it's earlier technological successes.

The Mars Rovers lasted six years or more instead of the mere three months they were designed for. Rovers Spirit and Opportunity touched down on Mars January 2004. Rover Opportunity is still going while Spirit failed not due to hardware, but getting stuck in soft sand with its solar panels pointing in the wrong direction in 2011.

The other is the recent success of private built, developed SpaceX Falcon rockets that recently supplied cargo to the Space Station. "Founded in 2002 by former PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, it has developed the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launch vehicles, both of which were from conception designed with a goal of eventually becoming reusable.

SpaceX also developed the Dragon spacecraft to be flown into orbit by the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, initially transporting cargo and later planned to carry humans. On 25 May 2012, SpaceX made history as the world's first privately held company to send a cargo payload, carried on the Dragon spacecraft, to the International Space Station." (Ref. WIKI)

They used off-the-shelf parts and/or proven technology as opposed to proprietary one of kind hardware NASA was so used to. SpaceX got away from costly liquid hydrogen so beloved by NASA on their over-priced and dangerous Space Shuttle and used kerosene as a fuel. The problem was politics, not engineering. Thus we used creative thinking and proven technology, not politically motivated re-engineering the wheel.

Yes NASA did fund this project and did most of the initial R & D, but SpaceX got away from NASA politics. NASA was forced to change facing budgetary reality with both the Mars overs and SpaceX. The SpaceX website is at

Another company leading in space innovation has come to my attention. Bigelow Aerospace has put into to orbit two inflatable habitats in 2004 and 2006. Launched from Russia, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 will greatly reduce cost with inflatable habitats as opposed to the aluminum can idea so dominate for years. Both test units are still in orbit and still functioning. See To quote Bigelow:

Although NASA initially developed the concept of inflatable space habitats, any substantial fabrication work was curtailed by Congress in 2000. Therefore, Bigelow Aerospace had to go through the process of re-designing much of what had been done before, developing, and eventually launching the world's first expandable space habitat prototypes.

Again success using and improving off the shelf technology without political meddling or big contracts to military contractors, which is why the project was canceled for being over-budget. This military contractor mentality has to end.

And that is the big point. Technology outside the medical field (now to be heavily regulated by Obamacare) when free of government meddling and interference does perform and saves money most of the time. It doesn't matter that China may have very smart people or they steal our technology, their autocratic and controlling culture acts to throttle advancement. Thus they simply can't keep up in my opinion.