Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Commercial Spaceflight Isn't About Sending Fatcats to Space

I've seen a fair bit of "hate the rich" sentiment toward various "space tourism" ventures out there, such as Virgin Galactic's White Knight 2, XCOR's Lynx, and other development efforts toward reusable suborbital spaceflight. I feel this is driven by the usual specious reports by the media about space tourism and seat costs in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars to drive the class warfare point home. Naturally, the first image that will come to someone's mind when seeing these reports is some overstuffed fat cat buying themselves a $200,000 joy ride at the expense of others.

The fact is, a point has been missed here. Space tourism is the economic model that's being used to draw investment for this work, but it's not the reality of where this work is going. In order to get money to do something new, without a proven business model, you have to build a business model from scratch. This means finding something that will presumably pay the bills and earn enough to pay investors a return at least as good as an investment in another proven economic activity, such as investing in a restaurant or manufacturing. In fact, the return needs to be better, at least on paper, to induce investors to take the risk of not putting their money into something proven.

For reusable suborbital launches, the case was made using space tourism. That's because none of the other potential uses is really well known, but a unique luxury offering could be pretty well characterized, and counted on to deliver a return.

But the real value in these quick trips to space lies elsewhere than in joy rides for someone with $200,000 burning a hole in their pocket.

It's Like a Reusable Mercury-Redstone for Suborbital Research

The Next Generation Suborbital Researchers' Conference is one group that's excited about the prospect of cheap suborbital flights. Currently, the overall cost of a sub-orbital flight on a sounding rocket is about $3.5M. The costs to the users are less, because much of that costs is subsidized by NASA, and by sharing of launches between institutions. It costs each institution about $50,000 to $500,000 per launch with somewhere from half a dozen to a dozen institutions sharing the costs between themselves. This gives them the chance to launch about a half a cubic foot to a cubic foot of payload on a short flight on a rocket. It will experience at least 25Gs of acceleration, with shocks of double that or more. Nobody can ride along, so the success of the flight will depend on the researchers' ability to automate their payload (adding considerably to the costs of building and testing the payload before flight.)

Flight on one of the new commercial launchers will cost the institutions about $50,000 to $400,000 per launch. They get to send a person to operate the experiment, and likewise to experience the ride, if they choose. They may also buy a package where they send their equipment, which will then be operated by a space tourist paying their own way who has been trained to operate the experiment, or the package may be activated by the spacecraft's crew.

The commercial space operators are already putting together special deals for the space researchers. They can buy into multiple flights at discounted rates.

Plus, their payloads can experience flight at human comfort levels, 3Gs or less, with controlled temperature, air, etc. This results in far less cost. The same instrument package used on the desktop at the university's lab can be the same one sent on the flight. It doesn't have to go through vacuum testing, extensive testing of the automation under different conditions, hardened against high shock loads, etc. Standard safety design and testing for not bursting into flames and filling the cabin with smoke will still be necessary, but that's a big step down in cost and effort from what's required for a sounding rocket flight. That drops research costs even more.

Another important point is that these flights will be far more available than sounding rocket flights. NASA launches somewhere around a dozen sounding rocket flights each year. The commercial flights will be more frequent, and easier for an institution to get a payload on board, deal with schedule changes, and so on.

Teachers in Space
Another purpose of the new commercial "tourism" flights is to send the sort of tourists I think most of us would want to send. Teachers in Space is a program that can't wait to use commercial spaceflight to send teachers into space with student research at all levels of education. Speaking as a part-time teacher myself, I can say that it helps the students a lot to hear about science and spaceflight from someone who's actually been involved in it. If we have a growing cadre of science teachers who can start a statement to students with, "When I flew in space...", work alongside them on projects they're building that will actually go into space, it will bring a sense of reality and engagement to their education that's so hard to get otherwise.

Other Desirable Space Tourists

There are plenty of other people we, as a society, would like to see get a chance to experience space travel. Make A Wish Foundation flights? Rewards for science fairs? Small companies doing their own research to compete against larger ones? There are many, many uses for these vehicles that have nothing to do with the ultra-rich burning off spare dollars.

Opening Up Space

That just happens to be the easiest way to show that there's a potential profit at the end of the long development process for those who invest in the companies making this happen. So don't be fooled by reports making the commercial space industry out to be nothing more than a new form of luxury for plutocrats. This is about giving little people the access to space that's so far been limited to governments and richer institutions. This is the same sort of revolution that we got with the microprocessor, which brought computers into our homes then into our pockets. Once upon a time, the computer was known to the average person as a tool of oppression. When your bank or government told you that their computer said you owed them so much money, you were stuck fighting a battle against the authority of a tool you didn't have. When we got our own computers, we got the power to tell them back, "Well, my computer says..."

Now, we're on the verge of having space access be democratized in the same fashion. Virgin Galactic, XCOR, and Blue Origin are not the end of this particular road, any more than the first heavy, balky, difficult to build and use microcomputers from before 1977 were the end of the process of democratizing the computer. But if early public sentiment had risen to kill off the early small computers as nothing more than toys for the rich, where would your tablet and cell phone come from today?

Be glad the rich are there, willing to buy tickets for a space adventure. Because they're there, the way is being opened for your kids and their teachers, their work and research.

In the words of Alan Stern, "The access revolution is about to happen. When these guys are flying all the time, and you can fly an experiment over and over and over and get different data sets all the time, close the loop and fly an experiment the next week and the week after, I think we're going to see the best applications be things we haven't thought of yet, because we're kind of looking at it through old eyes." (Aviation Week, June 17, 2013, "Suborbital, But Reusable" reporting on the 2013 NGSRC.)

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