guest blogger john hare
Most concepts for the opening of space seem to fall into a few scenarios, most of which invoke the major infusions of cash and risk from one source. Some seem to be so focused on one object, be it Mars, Moon, or SPS that they are willing to risk everything (that somebody else has) to get to that one destination. The idea seems to be that if that one big objective is reached everything else will fall into place. These are a few of the scenarios I notice regularly.
1. The government must invest massive amounts of cash in a new launch system and then hand it over for almost nothing to stimulate exploration and settlement.
2. Some rich fool investor must invest (see#1).
3. SPS is the future of the worlds energy and it is only the short sighted that don’t want to spend whatever it takes to make it happen.
4. Helium 3 is the (see#3).
5. PGMs will repay any investment made to get to the moon or NEOs.
6. Tourism is the only market that justifies the new RLVs that we must have.
7. A large number of short term goals for by a large variety of players working for their own reasons or a reasonable profit will open the solar system.
I happen to hold the philosophy that a single goal hits the whack a mole problem. Any single goal or business plan is vulnerable to a single point failure. 1 through 6 of the scenarios has this problem. Tourism could easily be regulated to death or the government could go broke for a couple of possibilities that don’t pan out.
If you are on the beach in California and your single goal is Hawaii, you might sell everything you have for a one way ticket. If you do that though, you will have to figure out how to have all that fun when you arrive broke and with no return ticket. A smart person is more likely to get a job so they can afford round trip tickets, spending money, and a furnished house to return to. The second person would also be able to go to Acapulco, Japan, and Tahiti on later vacations while the first one is starving in Honolulu.
For the purpose of this post, the assumption is that no investments will be made by any entity without some expectation of a return on investment. Also, the assumption is that no major products will ever be found that can be returned to Earth for a profit. Several people I respect believe that man will never expand into the solar system for these reasons. I want to see if I can do an honest scenario of settlement and expansion under those conditions. A century ago it would have been just as hard to believe that professional sports would be a trillion dollar industry today. Can anyone make the claim that pro sports returns a product to the economy other than entertainment?
In 2010 there are at least four companies developing a credible suborbital vehicle for tourism or research. These vehicles are all looking at flight rates of several times per week per vehicle. Some at multiple flights per day. The current price per seat for a suborbital flight seems to be in the $200,000.00 range. All the players know that can’t last long. If just two of the companies are successful and keep just two vehicles in service each , then the annual flight rate will be at least 500 flights. This is clearly on the low side at revenues of $100M per year. With the vehicles developed and proven though, additional tail numbers are relatively cheap and you can expect a minimum of fifty vehicles flying in ten years, if the market warrants. With 10,000 or more customers per year though, you can reasonably project that the price will come down to $25,000.00 or less. For now, the assumption is that the market peaks here at $250M per year for this service.
Other suborbital vehicles are going after the research market, or reconnaissance. These markets may be bigger or smaller than the tourism market. Time will tell.
If in 2020, there are several dozen suborbital vehicles in service, it is certain that some of them will be idle much of the time just as check out lanes at the market are frequently idle. Some operators are going to be looking for more markets. With the operational experience some of them will have built up, it seems reasonable that one of them will be able to get financing for orbital vehicles. If SpaceX, ULA and company are still using ELVs, a suborbital company might think in terms of making a profit from a higher flight rate vehicle that doesn’t have to be built or rebuilt after each flight. If ISS passenger seats are still in the $50M range, then $200,000.00 per pound of delivered astronaut should give a good ROI if the space transport company can deliver. These vehicles could be flying in the 2025 time frame.
By 2030, space transports could be flying each airframe at least once per week and cutting prices to keep those seats and cargo bays filled. If prices get down to 100 times propellant costs, then $500 a pound for cargo, and $150,000.00 per passenger to LEO becomes possible, even allowing forinflation and high RLV structural masses. At this point the inflatable hotels and research stations should really take off. Massive GEO birds could be completely assembled and checked out at in LEO a fraction of today’s prices for smaller satellites. Many things become possible at this price point combined with convenient transportation on demand.
By 2030, Lunar cyclers will be a likely new market using excess capacity from the launch transportation companies. A flight around the moon should cost about what a Soyuz did several years ago to ISS. At $20M for a Lunar orbiting experience, several dozen people would probably go for it. Researchers would fill many of those seats.
By 2035 Lunar orbiting experiences could be in the $1M range with surface stays at perhaps $5M for a couple of weeks.
All this is technically and financially feasible given a reasonable flight rate from a good customer base. In my opinion though, the Lunar surface is close to the end of the line for conventional tourism. A few NEOs might be made attractive, but Mars or Venus and beyond requires either a very large time commitment from the tourist, or very high performance transportation systems that are not in reasonable view at this time.
With short Lunar surface stays increasing in quantity in the mid 2030s, it is reasonable to assume that researchers, prospectors, and resort staff will increase in both number and duration on the moon. When this happens, there will be a small market for anything that can be made on the moon for local use. If water can be extracted, it can be sold to astronomers and other permanent residents if it is cheaper than lifting it from Earth. Construction people that can figure out how to build with local materials will compete with the inflatables and solid modules from Earth. Greenhouses should be an early profit business, or at least hydroponics. If the permanent residents can reduce the imports required to live they will, if it makes economic sense. A few tourists per year and research data from a variety of groups provide the money for the required imports.
Some of those prospectors will be looking for PGMs or concentrations of helium 3. Some of the residents will be figuring out how to do solar power with local materials. The possibilities of finding a profitable export rise in proportion to the cost of searching for them. The more the residents can produce locally, the less support they need from Earth, and the more likely it is that they will find a variety of legitimate exports.
By 2040 or so, there could be excess capacity in the LEO to Luna ships with prices dropping to a marginally profitable level. With the experience gained in Lunar living and frequent spaceflight, it seems likely that National Geographic or Elon Musk could afford to take a modified Lunar cycler to Mars because they wanted to. Lunar companies might well be in a position to sell them their consumables by this time. At this point, it seems likely that many groups could go to many places through the inner solar system for their own reasons, on their own dollar. Once they reach these places, a natural progression of build, prospect, and recycle could hold the permanent resident costs down to something they or their sponsoring groups could afford.
Self supporting off Earth settlements will happen eventually. We won’t make them happen faster by concentrating on one destination on some one else’s money that may have other priorities. The true settlements will happen in their own good time for their own good reasons. Many of the early settlements on North America were wiped out because the people were unprepared. Lets go prepared even if it takes longer.