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Alumnus sheds light on reusable launchers, private space stations, space billionaires

Joseph N. Pelton

Nearly 60 years after graduating from The University of Tulsa, alumnus Joseph N. Pelton returned to campus to talk about revolutionary advances in the space industry.

Pelton (BS ’65) spoke to a room full of students, faculty, and members of the public at TU’s College of Engineering & Computer Science on April 4. Pelton, Ph.D., is the chairman of the board of the Alliance for Collaboration in the Exploration of Space.

He discussed how space exploration is being privatized, with companies like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s Space X, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic leading a new chapter in space exploration.

Pelton said that for many years, NASA used a model similar to the Department of Defense model, which put together technical specifications and then hired aerospace contractors to develop projects under cost plus fee contracts rather than fixed-price contracts that only used “performance specifications.”

“The longer it takes to develop, and the more money you spend, the higher the fee. So, what’s the incentive to doing the work quickly or to minimize costs? Well, what we now have is a better way forward. These are new NASA-Space Act partnership agreements, where the partner works to develop new systems under a fixed cost agreement with ‘performance specifications’ rather than ‘complex technical specifications.’ A partner puts money into development and then has the commercial right to use it later on,” he said.

For a mere $54 million per person, Pelton said, someone can pay to go to the space station. It’s called space tourism, and it’s growing in popularity. This is the way that new private space stations will be able to pay for themselves. NASA is planning to be the “anchor tenant” in two new smaller commercial space stations when they deorbit the International Space Station into the Pacific Ocean in 2030. These are under development and the first elements of these two U.S. private space stations will go up starting in 2027

“We see all of these things as new opportunities,” he said. “It also brings dangers and problems. We’ve already talked several times about space debris and financial problems – the need for better space project management. We need to defend against cyberattacks and possible misuse of artificial intelligence on all of these systems. As usual, regulation is always behind the technology and the abuses that can come from dark web in modern society. And today, space is kind of like the Wild West in that there is no really effective regulatory system,” Pelton said.

He also spoke briefly about the Artemis Moon Exploration Program and the planned astronaut landing on the Moon in late 2026 as well as the Gateway Lunar Space Station that will have participation from the European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency, and Japanese Space Agency. This will be 1/7th the size of the International Space Station and much more cost effective due to the privately developed and reusable launchers being developed by Space X, Blue Origin, and other companies such as Sierra Nevada.

These “new space” companies are finding better ways to design, build, and operate launch systems. This is fueling the rebirth of space commercial business. Pelton said commercial space industries will become a multitrillion-dollar business by 2050 and that the commercial space industry is three times bigger than governmental space programs. New giant low-Earth-orbit satellite constellations such as Space X’s Starlink with 7,500 satellites and Amazon’s Kuiper satellite constellation with over 3,000 satellites will bring Internet service to billions of people that currently are underserved in Africa, Asia, South and Central America, the Middle East, and island nations.

Pelton is dean emeritus and former chairman of the board of trustees of the International Space University. He is the founder of the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation and the founding president of Space and Satellite Professionals International. Pelton currently serves on the executive board of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety. He is director emeritus of the Space and Advanced Communications Research Institute at George Washington University.

Recalling his time at TU, Pelton said he enjoyed learning from his instructors and taking part in the Boomerang Club, where people gathered and threw boomerangs. He was president of the Student Senate and brought in many famous entertainers, including Bob Hope. Pelton met his wife, Eloise (BA ’65), at TU and has fond memories of his physics professors and then-President Ben Graf Henneke.

Pelton was named a TU Distinguished Alumnus in 1986 and was inducted into the college’s Hall of Fame in 1999. It’s been about a decade since he has been in Tulsa, he said, returning this month to accept an honor from his beloved Will Rogers High School just a few blocks east of the university. Tulsa “has changed tremendously in the last 10 years,” he said.

Andreas A. Polycarpou, dean of the College of Engineering & Computer Science, was grateful for Pelton’s visit and the generous amount of time the renowned space expert spent with ECS students and faculty. “We are always pleased to welcome alumni back to campus,” Polycarpou said. “In this case, Joe is an incredibly accomplished scientist, author, and leader in the space industry. We appreciate him sharing his knowledge and experiences with the TU and greater Tulsa communities.”

Additionally, Pelton supports the Interdisciplinary Senior Design Capstone projects in the College of Engineering & Computer Science.