Assuming that I reached the point of controlling enough resources to do a serious space effort, how would I do it? Note that the question is, “how would I do it?” Enough resources to me means that I either own a billion dollars in disposable wealth, or have a combination of personal wealth and targeted investments that I control.
The first thing I would do is invest most of the money in a relatively safe place while investigating what to do, how to do it, and who to do it with. There are hundreds of ideas per good idea, and hundreds of good ideas per idea that would be useful to whatever I came up with. First hire would be a librarian/researcher or several to search prior art on any avenue I happened to find interesting.
I would downplay information about my available resources as much as possible. I was at a conference in the early 2000s talking to somebody when he looked over and saw John Carmack. Instantly our discussion was over as he headed that way like a dog after a rabbit. There is a reason that many wealthy people stealth their net worth. I would have no problem being quite rude to people demanding that I follow their particular dream instead of creating my own. Many of the bad decisions I have made in business and life are because I assumed that some adviser knew what they were talking about.
I would start by having the librarians look for every potential revenue source that anybody has ever suggested. Everything from helium 3 mining, to tourism, to SPS, to interstellar probes, everything. Initial investment only lasts until it runs out, then revenue is required. Sorting the possible wheat from the probable chaff would start immediately and continue as long as the program lasted. Some seemingly lucrative concepts would be duds, while some stupid schemes would be winners. Keep a constant lookout for good and bad directions. Business steering is more important than technical steering.
Second would be research into potential suppliers, partners, and organizations with similar goals. The idea is that some things will need to be done in house while some thing are better outsourced. The criteria for dealing with an outsource would be integrity as well as technical competency. An outsource that has lived on phase one SBRs for decades with never a follow up is likely to be a bad one to deal with, not definitely, but likely. On the other hand, one that has been very productive but has a reputation for shady dealing could be even worse with them using a minor variant to compete against me and possibly destroying my portion of that market.
Third would be looking into technical solutions with the cheapest methods possible. Obviously I would prioritize my own ideas, but would attempt to be open to other concepts. On this blog I have suggested several compensating nozzle ideas, several rocket pump concepts with novel engine layouts, and a bunch of ideas with tethers, airframes, and other stuff I have little or no real world experience with. Research into prior art would be critical to this step with many ideas either busted in concept or patented by others, either of which would be a show stopper.
Moving to hardware, I would look for the least expensive ways possible to verify concepts. It may be that I would need to hire experienced people, or it may be that it would be better to partner with a group that is already up and running. An XCOR or Masten class connection would possibly be more cost effective than starting from scratch. Modest R&D money plus a percentage of ownership would prove or disprove a lot of concepts in a short period of time. It is my opinion that a compensating nozzle would be easy and fast while boosting payload by several percent and easing combustion chamber requirements. I also believe that a very high pressure engine is possible with some of the integrated pump concepts I have suggested over the years. The idea is to find out on the cheap without committing to risky tech ideas. Several airframe ideas could be checked out with the home built aircraft community. I supply materials including engines and they build the experimental aircraft that they own after I get my information.
After getting the information from the engine and airframe people a decision is made whether to build in house or buy launches. What destinations and business opportunities exist in LEO and beyond would influence the decision as well as costs and availability of transportation. Buy from ULA or SpaceX may or may not be a good business decision. It’s not a slam dunk either way unless internal capabilities are known. My opinions about engine and airframe design may give a major advantage, or they may be the ignorant fantasies of a dreamer. It is important to know first. Beal, Branson, and Allen come to mind at the moment as smart people that have spent large sums on questionable decisions.
If everything has been done properly to this point, expenditures should have been under $10M. The invested money should have returned more interest than that during this initial phase. The librarian/researchers should have a suite of possibilities worth looking into. Now the heavy investing starts.
Wherever the goals may be in LEO and beyond, humans will eventually be involved. On the ground, a high RPM test rig determines ability to adapt under various arm lengths, RPMs, and restraints to prevent head turns that tumble the inner ear. A partial gravity primate test rig in LEO should be early on the list of things to build. It is important to know if health can be maintained at 0.16 or 0.38 gee without an intensive exercise program. This has been neglected for far too long. If a short arm and low gee section could maintain health, it would make no sense to make bigger and riskier centrifuge wheels, and even less to crap shoot microgravity conditions for long trips. A probe to the moon with a drill and radiation detectors to determine the regolith shielding depth required for various duration missions. The drill hits a depth of ten meters with radiation detectors every few centimeters. Several locations to characterize dosage at various depths, sun/GCR angles, and materials. This information would be useful on Mars and LEOs as well. A greenhouse in LEO for intensive study of plants for food, oxygen, and recycling is needed.
There are a number of possibilities for in space propulsion that could save fortunes compared to current options. Depots, tethers, beams, pellet streams, and high ISP options all need to be checked out before the next steps are taken.
By now, it should be obvious which are the best available options for launch to LEO. The best available way to keep people healthy. Methods of travel beyond LEO have been narrowed down to more economical methods than conventionally available. Probes to Luna or NEOs or other planets have found useful and profitable reasons to go. It would be interesting to see what would have appeared by this time.
It is my opinion that Lunar development would be early on the list. A farside radio telescope is on several wish lists. Boots in dust tourism and exploration. Mining for volatiles and minerals useful in space. NEOs for many reasons. Check out a few competing SPS concepts. A rotovator slinging hundreds of small probes to every destination of interest. it could be interesting.