SpaceX Prediction

I predict that regardless of the outcome of SpaceX’s inaugural Falcon 9 launch, nobody is going to change their opinion. If it’s successful, Ares-huggers will suddenly begin to understand the concept that a single successful flight doesn’t prove anything about a vehicle’s overall reliability (while most on the pro-commercial space guys will start sounding like NASA guys post Ares-IX).

If it fails, commercial space people will switch back to “it was only a test” mode while to Ares-huggers, it will prove, prove, prove that all commercial vehicles (including those with existing proven track records) are all death traps. After all, imagine the national security risk of flying our astronauts on private launch vehicles! I mean, if we’re going to turn LEO crew transportation over to the private sector, we might as well all start learning Chinese and reading the little Red Book, cause them Commies are going to come and sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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75 Responses to SpaceX Prediction

  1. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Ha! I am not missing the point. I agree that throwing money at the problem is not the answer. Competition, even government sponsored, is not “throwing money at the problem.” Throwing money at the problem is what has been happening at NASA since it started being called “NASA.”

    Why limit HSF to LEO? I agree that there’ not a heck of a lot of reason for humans to go to LEO if we never go beyond LEO. We don’t build ships just to sail around in the ocean forever. We build ships to bring us to new lands.

  2. Martijn Meijering says:

    We don’t build ships just to sail around in the ocean forever.

    We do for cruise ships. And similarly LEO tourism looks like a perfectly fine goal for commercial space.

    For governments it would be different. In my opinion governments should not be doing manned spaceflight in LEO unless they 1) intend to go beyond LEO eventually and 2) intend to blaze a trail for others to follow. Maybe not even then. Googaw has said he doesn’t think even those are good reasons and I can’t really argue with that. Government funding for manned spaceflight is hard to justify, much as we space enthusiasts like manned spaceflight.

    But it seems to me that googaw is looking at a very different question than we are: what are the most promising economic activities in space vs what would be the best government policy to stimulate manned commercial activity in space.

  3. Pete says:

    I agree that there’ not a heck of a lot of reason for humans to go to LEO if we never go beyond LEO. We don’t build ships just to sail around in the ocean forever. We build ships to bring us to new lands.

    Once you’re in low Earth orbit (LEO), you’re halfway from anywhere!

    I can not think of a better and more central location from which to collect terrestrial and extra terrestrial resources, develop space infrastructure and generally lean how to live in space. 🙂

  4. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Exactly, Pete. LEO is a great location for all sorts of activities if we’re going to the Moon, Mars, Phobos, Deimos, NEOs, Ceres, etc. Just the inner solar system would preoccupy us for centuries (millennia?) of exploration and exploitation and development and colonization.

    I think there is a sizable LEO tourism market, and a lot of research and manufacturing (once costs are somewhat controlled) can be done in LEO that can’t be done anywhere on Earth. In the far future, rich people will be taking vacations _to Earth_.

  5. googaw says:

    What LEO has going for it is that it’s the easiest orbit to get to. That’s it. It allows NASA to put on its astronaut shows at the lowest cost. Real commerce makes far more use of higher orbits and especially of geosynchronous orbit (GEO) because real commerce is about serving real needs on earth. Locating so that your spacecraft or at least part of your constellation stays over your customer’s location is quite important for most real space commerce (e.g. comsats, GPS). Some real commerce needs to conveniently reach any spot above earth and for that polar orbit is the orbit of choice. LEO by contrast is dominated by NASA and fake commerce. LEO is where you go when you don’t really have anything useful to do.

    As for the suggestion that we confine our attentions a priori to HSF, that’s like pretending to have a general discussion of ships but confining our attention to cruise ships while ignoring cargo ships, naval ships, and every other kind of ship. Worse, because the “cruise ships” in space are at least 99% funded by government, we confine ourselves to thinking about government-dominated economic fantasies.

  6. Martijn Meijering says:

    @googaw:

    There is no need to limit ourselves to one question. It’s just that some people are more interested in one question than the other. This is partly a value judgement and partly a judgement of the likelihood of various potential consequences. Reasonable people can disagree on this. It’s just that it is useful to know if we’re discussing the same question. It could help avoid needless confusion.

    Purely personally speaking, large scale manned activity in space excites me much more than large scale unmanned activity. I also believe government exploration could lead to commercially viable manned activity in LEO whereas a purely market-based strategy would take a very long time. We clearly differ on this, since you consider the government road a Rube Goldberg-esque strategy. By contrast I find unmanned activity much less exciting, I don’t think it has much potential synergy with exploration and I also believe it will take care of itself without government intervention.

  7. Pete says:

    Purely personally speaking, large scale manned activity in space excites me much more than large scale unmanned activity.

    Me too. If current human civilization is anything to go by, the moon mines will not be large population centers, they may even be largely automated. LEO will become the first primary off planet population center, that is where initial space R&D, manufacturing and general living will occur – because it is halfway from anywhere.

    It amuses me when people talk of LEO (the gateway to Earth and the solar system) as uninteresting – it seems they have not thought it through. Mining towns are called mining “towns” for a reason.

    People also tend to forget that Earth will be the greatest source of off world infrastructure for a long time yet to come. Indeed humanity does not even really need extra terrestrial materials to substantially settle in space. If I wanted to settle a hundred thousand people in space in a hurry, my first step would not be to go to the Moon, it would be to develop cheap access to space and large orbital habitats.

  8. I really don’t see how you equate the size of the HSF budget with SpaceX’s revenues from NASA. At most, NASA will want 12 flights a year from commercial crew vehicles, and most likely only budget for 4.. depending on who you talk to, that’s 28 or 24 seats. SpaceX is unlikely to get all those seats, at least not in the long term.

    Pete, if you don’t develop some in-space resources, be they lunar materials, asteroids or even solar power, you haven’t got a space settlement, you’ve got an outpost.

  9. googaw says:

    Flights of imagination to future space settlements are fine as far as science fiction goes, but they tell us very little about what are the best things to do in the meantime.

  10. Pete says:

    Pete, if you don’t develop some in-space resources, be they lunar materials, asteroids or even solar power, you haven’t got a space settlement, you’ve got an outpost.

    A very big outpost which has solved the day to day problems of living and doing stuff in space and from which mining missions can be much more cheaply launched. Note space solar power is currently at something like 150W/kg and thin film 5kW/kg is suggested – I do not really see this as the constraint you suggest.

    Assuming CATS at say $100/kg and habitat at say $100/kg and 10,000kg/person that is $2m/person for habitat. This is not incomparable to expensive housing on Earth. A few thousand people in LEO on such terms and I think some very interesting things would happen. Hundreds of small businesses would start up and some people would no doubt start complaining about over crowding and wander off to mine something.

    I am thinking the pioneer village in LEO can actually come first. There are no shortage of people who if given access to a staging post in LEO, will go off exploring and prospecting – but they first need that staging post that can supply them with all the experience and equipment that they need at low cost. Supplying these dreamers is perhaps the major economic model for this LEO pioneering village. It also worries me how many people think they can wander off into space without first learning how to live there.

  11. john hare says:

    My SpaceX prediction. The first flight will be successful. The third flight will have a problem.

  12. Pete says:

    Flights of imagination to future space settlements are fine as far as science fiction goes, but they tell us very little about what are the best things to do in the meantime.

    I would think quite the opposite, the ISS demonstrates that bad space settlement is already possible. I would also note that the Augustine Commission sort of stated that the intent of the NASA manned space program was to open up space to human kind.

    Personally I would like to see NASA with an objective of having say a 100 people in space doing science, R&D and launching missions – using commercial launch vehicles and commercial space stations to do so. I think that would be value for money, get things moving, and be within their existing budget.

    To me the best things to do in the mean time are to start figuring out ways to make very large low cost space stations, including cheap solar power, large inflatable habitats, hanger workshops, food production, somewhat closed life support, tugs, high ISP rocket engines, cheap access to space, etc. All of these technologies are also kind of needed for exploration and mining.

    But as for SpaceX? I would probably give their odds at a first launch success at ~50%, maybe 95% for their second launch and 98% for their third. Unfortunately I think they are caught halfway between old and new space, and the market they are following I think leads them back into being a traditional launch vehicle supplier. Ten years out I see a small low cost reusable launch vehicle that is safer finally coming along and stealing their lunch. They will initially move to larger more profitable payloads, but payloads will quickly adapt to the initially smaller, cheaper and more responsive reusable launch vehicles. I do not see them making that transition. 10-20 years out I see them going the way of the dinosaurs, though in the interim they will I think accomplish a lot.

  13. Eric Goldstein says:

    Googaw said “What LEO has going for it is that it’s the easiest orbit to get to. That’s it.”

    Googaw, there is also the radiation issue beyond low Earth orbit.

    (Sorry and please ignore if this is too much of an off-topic diversion, but if anyone can recommend any good sources for info on the risk from cosmic rays on a trip to Mars, and how that risk can be abated, I’d be very interested. Googling on the subject, I see some sources say that using plausible near-term shielding techniques (such as surrounding the habitation module with lightweight plastic as well as with liquid hydrogen and water tanks), you’ll still end up with dead astronauts, while other sources which predict only a doubling of the lifetime cancer risk. Thanks!)

  14. googaw says:

    Pete, this is the first time I’ve ever heard of the ISS referred to as a “space settlement” bad or otherwise. Usually that term refers to permanent, i.e. physically or at least financially self-sufficient entities involving families, i.e. ones that have long-term viability without continual charity. More meaning inflation, I guess. “Outpost”, “base”, and the like refer to lesser entities (e.g. temporary stay work camps like the ISS or lunar bases that NASA has planned).

    Physically or at least financially self-sufficient space settlements as I define above are, for a variety of reasons, far-out science fiction. We don’t even have sea settlements yet (i.e. there are no communities where people live and raise their children full-time at sea). We do have many who temporarily stay (crews on ships and offshore oil platforms, tourists on cruise ships, etc.) and a small minority of these may some time in this century evolve into permanent sea settlements — a far easier task than permanent space settlements.

    All sorts of things are possible in physical theory, and thus pass the test of hard science fiction, but are nevertheless economic fantasies. Space settlement while the costs remain within three orders of magnitude of today are among them. (For example, it costs about $200,000/kg today to get stuff to the surface of Mars. Even at $200/kg full-time settlement would probably not be affordable, as importing either the contents or the ability to manufacture the millions of products made out of billions of parts that we find in Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Fry’s, etc. would be prohibitive). And NASA and its contractors are not going to reduce the costs anywhere near three orders of magnitude. Probably not even by one order of magnitude during this half century.

    Space settlements are an important goal of mine — a self-sufficient “backup” of human civilization and earth life in general — but I recognize that this is a very long-term goal. We have a long, long, way to go in space economics before full-time communities with families in space become economically viable. Probably at least a century of economic progress from where we are today is needed. But meanwhile real space commerce thrives today and continues to grow. So the useful questions to ask today are about real space commerce, not about the possibilities of space settlement in the radically different world of the far future.

  15. googaw, that’s the best I’ve ever seen you write.

    There would be extensive ocean settlements by now if the Declaration of Principles Governing the Seabed and Ocean Floor treaty hadn’t gone ahead in 1970. In one fell swoop the entire abundant resources of the ocean were delegated the Common Heritage of Mankind and private exploitation immediately became impractical.

    Thankfully, the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, which tried to enact similar common heritage of mankind principles has not been signed by any space visiting nations.

  16. Mike Lorrey says:

    googaw

    Real commerce (beyond telecommunications, navigation)

    “I do believe you are missing the point. The telecomm, nav, etc. is the real commerce ”

    Actually were not, you are. You are doing the business equivalent of the military error of fighting the last war. Telecom and navigation are TODAYs space commerce. So what? Business growth and innovation is about figuring out what commerce will be in 10 years and investing today for that business environment. You, on the other hand, are arguing for investing for last decades space market.

  17. Mike Lorrey says:

    googaw

    “Flights of imagination to future space settlements are fine as far as science fiction goes, but they tell us very little about what are the best things to do in the meantime.”

    Investing in yesteryears business model isn’t going to tell you the best things to do..

  18. googaw says:

    Sorry Mike, it is the astronaut fans who are stuck in the rut of obsolete ideas. For the example the idea, long discredited in practical space circles, and getting even further out of touch with every further advance in automation, that astronauts are somehow central to space development.

    The intense hype regarding these hypothetical markets for microgravity science and orbital tourism has been around for decades. This hype has been a very lucrative source of NASA contracts but of almost zero real commercial revenues. For example over a hundred billion dollars was spent on the ISS based in large part on the supposed rich prospects of microgravity science, and where is that “market” now? Sorry, but recycling long-obsolete ideas as new may fly among the astronaut fan faithful, but it doesn’t fly in real commerce.

  19. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Of course, the ISS is just being finished up. Just because an idea is old doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. How long did it take for telecommunications to reach where it is today? 100 years ago, people envisioned worldwide communication, personal communication, and interaction and information access. It took a long time for that to come to fruition, but come to fruition it did.

    Long-term goals _NEVER_ happen if you don’t invest in them. Using the fact that they are “long-term” goals as a reason not to invest in them is foolishness. Logic like that is much of the reason we are in the economic malaise we have now.

  20. googaw says:

    Long-term goals _NEVER_ happen if you don’t invest in them

    Hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in them. Microgravity experiments have been going on for decades on Skylab, Salyut, Shuttle, Mir, etc.. They have hardly had to wait for the ISS. The problem is not the age, the problem is the fact that these ideas have been tried repeatedly and quite often, and have failed the test of economics every time and by extremely wide margins. Unless your goal was to get fat NASA contracts, in which case they have often been remarkably successful. Since HSF fandom is religious dogma, not real science or real commerce, it doesn’t matter how many times these NASA economic fantasies fail, or by how ludicrously large margins they fail, the faithful remain faithful and remain supportive of NASA throwing billions of dollars into the same rituals that have failed more often than lemmings have died jumping over cliffs.

  21. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    What, pray, is your alternative?

    Ought we to take away all funding for all spaceflight? Wait dressed in white robes on rooftops for the singularity? What?

  22. googaw says:

    What, pray, is your alternative?

    I presented it above:

    Real commerce makes far more use of higher orbits and especially of geosynchronous orbit (GEO) because real commerce is about serving real needs on earth. Locating so that your spacecraft or at least part of your constellation stays over your customer’s location is quite important for most real space commerce (e.g. comsats, GPS). Some real commerce needs to conveniently reach any spot above earth and for that polar orbit is the orbit of choice.

  23. I find myself agreeing with much of what googaw has said.

  24. Pete says:

    Figuring out why a system is broken is relatively trivial compared to coming up with a breakthrough system that is not. Dinosaur markets lead to dinosaur products, and will not open up space.

  25. Danny Farnsworth says:

    Pete,

    Googaw’s point, I think, is that space already is open. We’re using it right now. What we’re not doing is living up there. Similarly, we’re not living in Antarctica, the bottom of the ocean, or the Mojave desert (wait, nevermind, some are)… Space is a ridiculously difficult environment to live in; it puts the harshest environments here on the surface to shame, minus perhaps the interiors of active volcanoes and the bottom of the Mariana trench.

    We tend to congregate in places conducive to human life, and we generally only use extreme environments in ways that enhance that life. For instance, in mountainous areas, most homes are built in the valleys, and we locate transmitters and radar on the mountain peaks. It’s certainly fun to go to Sunrise Peak overlooking Las Vegas, but quite conspicuously, nobody lives there.

    That is not to say that there can’t be an advantage to manned space flight. There are some very productive things I’d like to do in space that are not very conducive to automation with a 10 minute communication lag. Getting into space in creatively cheap ways could very well stimulate demand that we haven’t imagined yet.

    Settling low-earth orbit is kind of like settling Sunrise Peak. Unless you’ve got some real competitive advantage in LEO that justifies the cost of sustaining life, besides the fact that you like it there, you can’t sustain it. And the only way it will become cost competitive is with a huge breakthrough in access to orbit, which quite frankly will not happen by optimizing rockets. That doesn’t mean using other space-based resources can’t be economical within a much shorter timeframe. It just means that living there will be like living on an off-shore oil rig, rather than being a nice vacation. Like an outpost.

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