Home > Real Life > Money and Space, Part 1

Money and Space, Part 1

I recently had a conversation with my father, which elicited from me a great deal of vehemence I didn’t know I held for this particular issue. The topic under debate was the commercialization of space.

The basic underpinning of my argument is two-fold, based on the two current uses for space. The first, most obvious, and entirely unexplored side is that of space tourism. Sure, the Russkies are asking a cool $30 million and more than two years of waiting for a shot at hitting the Kármán line, but that is almost irrelevant for a few reasons.

First, the price tag, slow schedule, and long training regimen make it only an option to richest hundreth of a percent of the world. I agree with Rand Simberg’s sentiment that, at this stage of the game, sending a few people isn’t good enough.

But the more important problem with flying high-rollers into micro-grav in a Soyuz capsule is, well, the Soyuz. These things entered use half a century ago. As an aside, the Soyuz despite its age, is slightly suited for space-tourism in one respect: partial re-usability of components; the whole stack doesn’t have to be replaced for each launch a la Apollo, et al.

See, space tourism is going to require radically different thinking. The idea of having a giant rocket of which less than 5% splashes down in the ocean with people inside is utterly impractical for any kind of economic venture. The X PRIZE Foundation realized this when they set up their rules for space competition: the winner had to reach 100 kilometers twice in a two-week period with the equivalent of three people on board, and no more than ten percent of the non-fuel weight of the craft replaced between flights.

Both the mention of radically different thinking and the X PRIZE dovetail nicely into something of great interest to many of us: SpaceShipOne, the craft that handily won the X PRIZE.

If you’re like me, you still get the warm and fuzzies when you think about it, because it is the locus of so much hope for space exploration. Just as Von Braun took 14 men to the surface of the moon, Burt Rutan very well may be the man who takes 14 men into space every week.

But the problem with SpaceShipOne is that it has terrible writers: after kicking down the door to space and earning the first two civilian astronauts their wings, it disappeared. Since the winning flights three and a half years ago, so little has been heard of this little spaceplane that could, I ended up acquiring a sense that it was sitting in a warehouse somewhere just molding.

SSO in the Smithsonian

As it happens, SpaceShipOne was actually retired from service to prevent damage and was immediately stuck in the Air and Space museum between the Spirit of St. Louis and Yeager’s Bell X-1 (“Glamorous Glennis”).

And while I don’t begrudge Rutan and company their spot in the museum, the idea of sticking this craft in the museum and calling it a day irks me. It’s like they’re saying “Good job, guys, let’s go home!” And I’ll fully admit I’m a little over-sensitive to this sort of pat-on-the-back-and-prop-up-your-feet mentality because it’s happened before. It is almost this exact reason that Dick Gordon never went to the moon on Apollo 18, or Fred Haise on Apollo 19, or Pete Conrad on Apollo 20. After Neil took his small step (and Pete his long one), the American public stopped caring.

And this lack of public attention, more than anything, I believe will be what condemns any given space tourism program to the scrap heap. Luckily, however, there are a number of projects going on behind the curtain, where the public need neither see nor care.

The first is one that I mentioned earlier, as the company flying those who can pay millions: Space Adventures. According to that link, they have a number of pokers in the fire, developing both sub-orbital and circumlunar craft, although I was unfamiliar with either and am wary of neither coming to fruition. On that topic, we’ll have to keep our eyes open.

The second, and more promising next step, is the aptly named SpaceShipTwo, for which the wait claims to be almost over. According to public statements, we should be hearing from Rutan and company this month, unveiling the final design of the ship, and launching it into a series of test flights (fifty to one hundred of them), before the fleet of five SpaceShipTwos enters commercial service “late” next year.

Now, if you’re like me, reading that “late next year”, you think that’s a long time to wait. But then you may, as I did, realize that that figure isn’t nearly so bad. That’s when paying customers (i.e. almost certainly not you or I) will begin taking rides in this thing. What’s more exciting, in the grand scheme of things, are these test flights, which promise to be like winning the X PRIZE every week. To me, it’s mid-2004 again, and it’s almost time to see some new civilians with those astronaut wings.

But to bring everything back down to Earth, the incredible number of test flights (relative to, say Apollo) hammers home the idea that this is a business. And the business has to be proven safe, the pilots have to be expertly trained, and the infrastructure must be shown reliable.

Viewed differently, there is an enormous wealth lying untapped, far and above the “mere” $10 million X PRIZE purse, which can be shown by the fact that there is a two-year wait to pay $30 million to go into space. See, a waiting list is a sign of a shortage (obviously, in this case), and in the free market, such conditions are remdied by increasing the price.

There were 26 competing teams in the X PRIZE, and Scaled Composites is the only one we’ve heard from since. What gives?

To put it another way, with an untapped billion-dollar industry waiting to be opened, why are there only two games in town with any hope of turning a buck?

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