Zubrin's Transorbital Railroad proposal
The Mars Society has posted Robert Zubrin’s op-ed in Space News this week in which he lays out his Transorbital Railroad to space concept: [“Transorbital Railroad” Proposed – The Mars Society].
Basically he takes the commercial launch services approach to the max. NASA would buy medium and heavy launch vehicle services in bulk from commercial companies and provide the payload space to private and public users at heavily discounted prices. He suggests rates that work out to $100/kg to LEO. The annual cost of 6 MLV and 6 HLV launches would actually be less than what the annual Shuttle budget has been. Launched on a fixed schedule, routine low cost access to space would encourage a wide range of new users and applications.
It sounds like a pretty good idea to me, though there would need to be some tweaking of the details. For example, say one of the suborbital space transport companies develops a second generation two stage orbital system that can profitably place a small payload, e.g. a ton, into orbit at $500/kg. That is, “profitably” if it has a sufficient market. If the Transorbital Railroad is undercutting that price and taking away all the customers, it would stifle such technical innovation. So there should be some modification of the plan so that small launch vehicles and, in general, new technical approaches are not inadvertently discouraged.