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Space, an expensive frontier
May 26, 2010 8:08 AM   Subscribe

Can the free market save the space program?
posted by Brandon Blatcher (41 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
If The Space Potty can't save it, I have no idea what can.
posted by greekphilosophy at 8:18 AM on May 26, 2010


tl;dr, but I would be more apt to see the medical industry be saved by free market, instead of NASA.
posted by digdan at 8:18 AM on May 26, 2010


"Instead of spending billions a year on shuttle launches, the agency can simply book astronauts on commercial flights for $20 million or so a pop. With the money it saves, NASA can redouble its research and development efforts to acquire the technology it needs to push the boundaries of exploration once again."

Has NASA really just been "wandering in the desert for forty years"?
posted by numbskeleton at 8:21 AM on May 26, 2010


Okay. Here's the plan. What we need is a private space program willing to use its resources to jump-start NASA again. They secretly make some rockets in, I don't know, lower Chile. Hire some designers and science fiction artists. Paint the ship up all cool, add some random greenbling. Have it do a really, really public daytime flyover of the Nevada desert and drop a bomb. Not a nuclear one, but made in such a manner that it could not have possibly come from Earth. Everyone goes "oh shit!" and suddenly trillions of DoD dollars are dumped into NASA to find these space fuckers. Obviously, we don't find them but we do get into space and find a whole bunch of other awesome stuff that leaves NASA with at least a percentage of that funding. Everyone got it? Battlestations! ...wait, hang on, I got Alan Moore on line 3 for some reason.
posted by griphus at 8:24 AM on May 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE WITHOUT THE EXPRESS WRITTEN CONSENT OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.
posted by Atom Eyes at 8:30 AM on May 26, 2010 [23 favorites]


For the free market to save anything, there have to be dollars at the end of it. Dollars that are easier to get at than dollars elsewhere.

Mining for raw materials is out — what can we fetch from space and safely lower to Earth that wouldn't be ludicrously more expensive than, say, mining our own landfills? Helium-3, perhaps, if we ever invest enough in fusion to get it to work at a sustainable breakeven or better. Exotic substances? Strange lifeforms? Yeah, we're still fuzzy on a lot of stuff here, and we're far more likely to find something biocompatible at the bottom of the ocean than out on some Saturnian moon.

Microgravity? Really great vacuum conditions? Hostile amounts of radiation? Even something as intangible as "knowledge" could be done cheaper, faster, and more safely right here.

We're a long way from space being all that usable in the sense of economic payback beyond the odd space tourism stuff. We'd need a Beanstalk (or, looking more likely, a dynamic structure) to get people/stuff up and down reliably and in an affordable manner. Short of putting satellites into orbit, I'm scratching my head trying to come up with something besides "because it's there."
posted by adipocere at 8:36 AM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


What market?

That's the core problem. The vast majority of launches aren't free market, they're government, who are either going to pay what it takes or cancel -- and there just aren't that many launches.

Commercial launches are few and far between. Indeed, launches aren't that common -- 21 so far this year, so call it 45 in a year. That's not a lot of work, and the payload varies enough that it's hard to establish a standard launcher, and lord, we haven't -- Delta II & IV, Atlas V, Ariane V, Proton, Soyuz, Zenit, Dneper, Long March 3 and 4, HIIA & B - and those are just the ones with 10+ launches. Now add it things like Taurus (OSC), Falcon 9 (SpaceX), Kosmos 3M, Brazil's VLS, and on, and on, and on.

How do you support some 20+ active launchers with 45 launches a year?

When the world was talking sat phones, where Iridium alone wanted to maintain over 80 sats in LEO, plus GPS/GONASS/Galileo, plus a competing sat phone system, now you were talking launches. But by the time the current launchers were ready, Iridium was dead, GPS needed only 24-32, not 72 sats (and was getting much longer lifetimes on them) and so forth.

The commercial sector crashed. The government sector won't launch on foreign sats, so you're not going to see USAF using Ariane, or the Russians using a Delta IV for spy sat launches.

So, everyone wants a launch system for other-than-market reasons. Thus, there are too many launchers, and not enough launches to support all of them.

There's no market. Best way to get cost-per-launch down is to pack all the launches onto one launcher, which will let you spread out the fixed costs, but everyone, for other reasons, will have their own launcher if possible.
posted by eriko at 8:38 AM on May 26, 2010 [8 favorites]


The free market killed basic science R&D at most of the country's biggest corps. I'm just saying.
posted by DU at 8:39 AM on May 26, 2010 [11 favorites]


There is a race to put secret stuff into space, the space wars, as nations seek a hold on the newest frontier...many of the things we send into space are not what they are really referred to or are also carrying secret cameras to be tested etc., so perhaps what is really needed is a private sector to take care of all the stuff the govt cares little about as it directs its major effort and money for military "needs." Or, as someone said: Government is the entertainment division of the Military-Industral Complex.
posted by Postroad at 8:40 AM on May 26, 2010


That was an excellent article. Way better than the "gosh-wow, the private sector can do sub-orbital hops, so they must be able to reach orbit much more cheaply than those government dinosars" I was expecting.
The biggest hurdle Musk and others have to clear, however, isn’t technical. After all, aerospace companies have known how to build rockets for half a century—they just haven’t found people to pay for them. Although its plans are still unsettled, NASA is unlikely to need more than a few flights a year to bring astronauts to the International Space Station, and a few more to bring cargo there. A single commercial launch company, however, needs more—possibly many more—launches than that each year to stay in the black. That means it will have to find other customers.
...

All in all, these are not terms that make investors salivate: initial capital in the high hundreds of millions, wildly unpredictable long-term costs, an unproven and possibly nonexistent market, the threat of gargantuan liabilities, and reliance on a single customer that is subject to the whims of Congress and the White House, and might not need the services for more than the next ten years—after all, there’s no guarantee that the International Space Station will stay in orbit beyond 2020. Which may be why, for all of NASA’s optimism, the people who are willing to sink money into commercial spaceflight are the same as they’ve always been: existing contractors assured of government backing, and idealistic billionaires.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:44 AM on May 26, 2010


This means that NASA won’t have a vehicle to reach the International Space Station it has spent eleven years and $48.5 billion building...The moon base, to say nothing of Mars, receded into the distant future. What had begun as an audacious bid for NASA’s past glory was quickly becoming a very expensive means of continuing the dull obligations of the present, the perfunctory trips to and from the International Space Station—something Griffin had long scoffed at as a waste of time and resources.

At some point, NASA really ought to recognize that the ISS is a sunk cost. The money spent servicing it would be better spent on almost anything -- orbital telescopes, mars landers, Spaceguard, moonbases, mars landings, anything but the most expensive object ever constructed.

The military spends as much on combat-simulation video games each year as NASA spends on the space shuttle.

That's insane.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:48 AM on May 26, 2010


I thought I knew what "greenbling" would be - some kind of ornamentation that evoked a degree of environmental awareness. Turns out the link goes to a page about greebling, and greenbling is some other things.

Reading the article, I had this foreboding that one of the private contractors would be Halliburton. When i could no longer stand it, I searched the article, and Halliburton is not in it. My relief was so great that I stopped reading. I'm sure they'll find some equally-ept company.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:49 AM on May 26, 2010


I doubt the free market can do much more, or is willing to do much more, than it is now.

NASA built itself up into a monopoly by supporting and through the support of large defense contractors, and that kind of environment is hard to dismantle or replace.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:01 AM on May 26, 2010


Mining for raw materials is out — what can we fetch from space and safely lower to Earth that wouldn't be ludicrously more expensive than, say, mining our own landfills? Helium-3, perhaps,
In the 2,900 cubic kms of Eros, there is more aluminium, gold, silver, zinc and other base and precious metals than have ever been excavated in history or indeed, could ever be excavated from the upper layers of the Earth's crust.

That is just in one asteroid and not a very large one at that. There are thousands of asteroids out there.
That article, written in 1999, places the mineral value of that asteroid at $20 trillion. Gold has risen by about 600% since then. I think it is safe to assume that at current prices, that asteroid is worth about $80-$100 trillion. You can keep your helium-3.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:02 AM on May 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


So, the "free market" isn't willing to invest in an industry unless it can get in for next-to-nothing, and be guaranteed mega-rewards? Even though the public sector has already done the heavy-lifting R&D? This is my shocked face...
posted by Thorzdad at 9:08 AM on May 26, 2010


All we have to do is establish slave trade with Venus and the free market will do the rest!
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:11 AM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


That article, written in 1999, places the mineral value of that asteroid at $20 trillion.

Of course, such a large expansion of supply would have a significant downward effect on the price. Depending on the cost of bringing it back to Earth, of course, but build a space elevator and soon the full containers coming down are helping you send the empty ones back up again.
posted by Electric Dragon at 9:21 AM on May 26, 2010


Oh, sure, Pastabagel. So ... we can land it in your backyard?

It's not the value of the thing, it's about the cost of getting it home. Just think of how valuable all of the Fiji Water we could make out of Europa is. Sulfuric acid, that's worth a few hundred bucks per ton. All it rains that stuff on Venus!

To do this in a manner wherein people wouldn't panic, you'd probably want to refine the whole asteroid in space and send it home in carefully targeted slugs. Refining would be interesting in space, as you couldn't count on gravity to do separation. You'd either have to settle for slugs composed of precious metals, mixed together, or do something wacky, like heat up the whole asteroid and spin it for some kind of separation. You'd need a space refinery, something to power the space refinery, and then a system to send these puppies home.

The relative costs on this are what kills it, not the lack of value. We would need massive advances in robotics, power generation, and control systems to drop our costs.

And then you'd have to negotiate some fairly massive treaties, because anyone who controlled such a delivery system would implicitly also have a weapons system of enormous precision and devastation at their fingertips. It's the Rods from God all over again, allowing you to send a few hundred tons of dense matter per minute to most points on the globe, with enormous kinetic energy. Who needs nukes when you can just fling ingots of nickel-iron as fast and as often as you like?

The politics forces us into a Space Elevator/Launch Loop/Space Fountain Design, all over again.
posted by adipocere at 9:36 AM on May 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


At some point, NASA really ought to recognize that the ISS is a sunk cost. The money spent servicing it would be better spent on almost anything -- orbital telescopes, mars landers, Spaceguard, moonbases, mars landings, anything but the most expensive object ever constructed.

Well, except for the fact that it's hard to jump right into things like moonbases and Mars landings. Even Apollo had all the Gemini flights before it to test out new technologies as well as procedures like rendezvous and docking, and to learn more about the physiological effects of spaceflight. Likewise, you could do some useful things at the ISS to prepare for even longer journeys away from Earth. Aside from preparing for future exploration, there's good science that can be done on orbit - now that we've built the place, we might as well use it. (Though it would have been nice if they'd actually built that centrifuge module they were planning on...)

And besides, even though the U.S. is definitely the largest backer of the ISS, Russia, ESA, Canada, and Japan have contributed too, both money and scientific/technological effort. I'd rather not see all that international cooperation dismantled unless we've got something lined up to replace it.

The ISS for sure isn't the best thing we could be spending our resources on. But it is what we have right now. And it will take time to build up any other manned spaceflight program. Like the article said, that's what tends to get people the most excited about space, even though unmanned missions bring greater returns from a science perspective. How long do you think NASA would last just funding things like Spaceguard? Heck, it's hard to find people willing to spend money to keep Arecibo running. Even giant telescopes just aren't that sexy. Humans in space bring more public support. So I'd rather see some kind of gradual transition instead of deorbiting the ISS right now with nothing ready yet to replace it.
posted by sigmagalator at 9:43 AM on May 26, 2010


Well, SOME giant telescopes are damn sexy.
posted by hippybear at 9:55 AM on May 26, 2010


"Can the free market save the space program?"

Sure, as soon as it's done plugging the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, stabilizing the financial sector, and solving the health care crisis.

Oh, wait.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 10:11 AM on May 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


Gold has risen by about 600% since then. I think it is safe to assume that at current prices, that asteroid is worth about $80-$100 trillion. You can keep your helium-3.

I think I would. At least, if someone is dumping more gold than has ever been excavated on the market.
posted by weston at 10:11 AM on May 26, 2010


The Market is not a panacea. Simply put, markets are driven by people, and their deep cognitive biases. Because of this, markets are myopic -- notoriously impatient, market-driven companies of any stripe are eventually reduced to making quarterly numbers, and unless they are run by genuine visionaries (or at least people who believe they are genuine visionaries), they will inevitably fall into "what's the next quarter" syndrome.

There are many things that the market is ill-equipped to manage. Long-term payoffs? The market won't wait a couple decades for that ROI. Difficult to define returns? Nope.

But hey, if you want things like compromised management and the brushing under the rug of high long term risks (I'm looking in your direction today, BP)? Sign the market up. It loves it. Hopefully, it believes, the current crop of investors or execs won't be left holding the hot potato when the music stops.

In many ways, that's PRECISELY what government exists for. Could private enterprise have made the Interstate Highway System? Nope. There's no ROI -- at least not on a short enough timeframe, and certainly NOT in low-traffic areas. Basic scientific research is done more at universities with government money, because businesses won't (and shouldn't, if they are subject to market forces) touch it.

The space program is another example. The ROI isn't great (for the next quarter) to put a 3 billion dollar spacecraft into Saturn's orbit. Nobody would make rockets if the government weren't the primary customer. However, once infrastructure is laid down, from then on, there is a place for the market. Space tourism, cheaper launch vehicles, people in LEO.

I say keep NASA on the cutting edge. Put people on every planet we can walk on, and robots to blaze a trail for them. Because in the long term, on timelines where the market (which really has the patience of a myopic toddler) can't tolerate, the ROI will not just be a few robots that go "beep" at us from a few billion miles away, the ROI will be getting us off our one little planet (talk about accepting long term risk if it doesn't pay off fast enough!) and if we're really, really lucky, we'll find someone to talk to so we won't be so god damned lonely anymore.
posted by chimaera at 10:15 AM on May 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


Oh, sure, Pastabagel. So ... we can land it in your backyard?
It's not the value of the thing, it's about the cost of getting it home.


Have we learned nothing over the last few years? You are talking about the free market. Private enterprise. Private enterprise can't print money like the government. So for any private enterprise project of even modest size, it is never about the value of it, or building it, or the cost of getting it home. It's not about "it" at all.

It's about financing it. It about expectations. You don't need to get the asteroid, or the raw or refined ore home anytime even remotely soon. You just need to be able to convince people today that you will have the ore at some reliable and credible date in the future. If you can put $1 billion worth of propulsion on the asteroid, and very slightly change it's speed or position enough to have it orbit gently decay so as to place it within say geostationary orbit (but not collision) in 100 years, that's all you have to do. Once it's there, just break off tiny chunks and drop them down to the ground, in the middle of the arizona desert.

Then, based on the fact that you will have $100 trillion worth of minerals in the future, you can start borrowing against it today. You could realistically borrow 20 or 50% of that right now. You use a portion of that money (say a trillion) over the course of X years to develop technology at a sufficient pace so that in any given year people continue to believe that the ore will be able to be reliably extracted when the asteroid arrives in 100-X years.

The rest of the money can be used on the typical things that private enterprises currently use profits for: dividends, golden parachutes, coke and hookers.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:46 AM on May 26, 2010 [14 favorites]


Q: Can the free market save the space program?

A: Yes, definitely!

Q: Will the free market save ________?

A: Generally no.
posted by tmcw at 10:54 AM on May 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Speaking of the free market space program, Spaceport America in New Mexico has been underway for a long time now.
posted by hippybear at 10:59 AM on May 26, 2010


Well, the Liftport Group blog hasn't been updated in about a year or so. So, you know, no.
posted by lumpenprole at 11:23 AM on May 26, 2010


If you can..very slightly change it's speed or position enough to have it orbit gently decay so as to place it within say geostationary orbit (but not collision)

Let's not put BP or Halliburton in charge of this one.

in 100 years

Can you give examples of investors thinking that far out? I'd be very interested to be proven wrong, but I suspect that the vast majority of investors (say, two standard deviations), even institutional ones, simply don't look farther than 30-50 years out, and I'd guess most of those (say, one standard deviation) are looking inside of 10 if not 5 years. Humans tend to be hill-climbers looking for local maxima. Institutions have potential for longer lifespans but are still run by humans. The only exception I can really see looking 100 years out is some kind of sovereign fund, but by the time you get here, it's debatable whether you're really talking about private enterprise.
posted by weston at 11:46 AM on May 26, 2010


Fact is, once the ICBM thing got finalized, the whole justification for the space program went out the window. NASA was always just a public relations front for building ballistic missiles. A few com and weather sats were nice, but seriously, what do we need on the moon?

The Space race never had much to do with space and a lot with the nuclear arms race.

So pre-millenium.
posted by warbaby at 12:05 PM on May 26, 2010


To lob things and people into space in a cost-effective manner we need advanced robotics, power generation, and control tech (as adipocere wrote). To develop advanced power generation tech, though, we need more engineers and scientists. To get more engineers and scientists, we need more students and more universities to train those students. Of course, we can't have university students if we don't have decent primary and secondary schooling, but to reach that goal we'd need to find a way for parents to earn enough to send their kids to school instead of sending them to work. Now, most of these parent's don't have jobs in the traditional sense, so we're going to need to improve local economies, which will require MASSIVE spending on infrastructure and the determined maintenance of a civil society that will power a sustainable government. But parents can't work and kids can't learn if they're sick, so we're going to have to eradicate malaria, acute respiratory and worm infections, AIDS, and a whole boatload of other diseases. This, again, will require infrastructural and other systems improvements. Which is all a roundabout way of paraphrasing John Adams and telling you that we oughta study medicine and civil engineering so that our kids can study aerospace engineering and their kids can fly around like the fucking Jetsons without worrying what's under the hood.
posted by The White Hat at 12:11 PM on May 26, 2010


If you can put $1 billion worth of propulsion on the asteroid, and very slightly change it's speed or position enough to have it orbit gently decay so as to place it within say geostationary orbit (but not collision) in 100 years, that's all you have to do.

And if you fuck up, you've just killed human civilization. Which is great, because nobody will be around to put your head on a pike.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:16 PM on May 26, 2010


If you can put $1 billion worth of propulsion on the asteroid..

That's a big if. Sounds like a plan for NASA.

Now, most of these parent's don't have jobs in the traditional sense, so we're going to need to improve local economies, which will require MASSIVE spending on infrastructure and the determined maintenance of a civil society that will power a sustainable government.

Maybe we should develop a massive space program that will need lots of various technical industries. oh wait.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:41 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


When the world was talking sat phones, where Iridium alone wanted to maintain over 80 sats in LEO, plus GPS/GONASS/Galileo, plus a competing sat phone system, now you were talking launches. But by the time the current launchers were ready, Iridium was dead, GPS needed only 24-32, not 72 sats (and was getting much longer lifetimes on them) and so forth.
I heard that Iridium's launch economics worked out really well because the Russians needed to get rid of a bunch of old ICBMs, and converting them to launch vehicles and blasting them into space was actually cheaper then other disposal methods. So Iridium used that method and that was that.

What we need is a sat launching gun.
posted by delmoi at 1:55 PM on May 26, 2010


What we need is a sat launching gun.

I bet the NRA would support that.
posted by hippybear at 2:20 PM on May 26, 2010


What we need is a sat launching gun.

People are looking at it. Problem with a gun launcher -- you need to be at orbital speeds at the muzzle, because you're not getting any more delta V from the gun.

What do we call an object traveling at orbital velocity in the atmosphere? Well, usually, we call them a meteor. Worse, unlike the meteor, which starts with the thinnest part of the atmosphere, you end up ramming your "spacecraft" into the thickest part of the atmosphere at about 10km/sec.

It'll be really cool to watch. From a distance.

But it's not useful in getting men to orbit.

Laser Launch is much more likely to work -- throw the craft up at a reasonable speed -- say, 1000kph, then use a laser to ablate a fuel block (say, oh, ice) on the back to produce thrust. This way, you leave most of the weight of the booster on the ground, where you get to use it against and again.

Big problems with this as well -- blooming of the laser caused by the turbulent atmosphere, made even more turbulent by the laser itself, and simply getting lasers big enough. Oh, yeah, and "You're going to shoot a huge laser at your spacecraft."

But it at least doesn't start with the instant destruction of the spacecraft by atmospheric friction.
posted by eriko at 4:59 PM on May 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Chimaera,

Thank you for making that argument so eloquently. We fund things like Lewis & Clark, development of the Mississippi, Panama Canal, highway system, aerospace industry, space program, etc. because the "sunk costs" for private industry to do so is astronomical but the benefits for all are significant, yet somewhat subtle, and take decades to realize.

Government can take these risks whereas private industry cannot. Let's task Musk, for example. I have a lot of hope that he can open spaceflight up, but I'm not holding my breath. His current project is only possible because of the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of research and infrastructure developed over the last 50 years of work by NASA, the DOD and other members of private industry. Musk is building upon work NASA and NASA contractors have performed.

Space is an expensive frontier, and trying to marketize is going to be rough for decades to come. Reaching for it has taught us significant things - from math and physics to advanced construction techniques and how to manage (or not manage) highly complex systems across international partnerships.

I think this is well worth pursuing.
posted by tgrundke at 5:15 PM on May 26, 2010


They just want you to think there's a space program.
posted by sneebler at 6:37 PM on May 26, 2010


eriko: Nice explanation of why a gun launcher is a bad idea.

When was the last time anyone did a solid analysis of costs/benefits of a space fountain? It still seems like the best way of getting stuff into LEO if you ask me.


MetaFilter: really cool to watch. From a distance.

posted by spitefulcrow at 6:50 PM on May 26, 2010


I've talked about this before, but why not another time? Here's how it should work: Richard Branson and Bill Gates and some Saudi Princes all put together a couple trillion dollars and build that space elevator. This will get the space economy started, with tours and space hotels and whatnot. New industries in which manufacturing in zero-g pop up and create some unique and profitable products. The elevator geosynchronous station will expand and construction will grow to planetary ring size, or at least multiple stations. Also, through various solar arrays, vast amounts of electricity from solar energy will be cabled directly down the elevator. By now other elevators will pop up around the world, effecting the economies of the nations they're based in. The orbital stations/ring will be base stations for either manned or unmanned ships to the asteroid belt. Metals and minerals that are rare on Earth and in great demand will be mined from the asteroids, and perhaps we'll find large amounts of even rarer, useful metals and minerals, all of which effects the economy.

All of this can happen in the next 100 years. Ok, fine, the next 200 years. But it's not really a matter of technology so much as money.

But yeah, there's a LOT of money to be made in space.
posted by zardoz at 10:40 PM on May 26, 2010


I am afraid that the only thing that will really get our space program going is the fear that someone else is going to get there first. The free market can't really harness nationalism nearly as well as a government.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 11:59 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Former NASA Flight Director, Space Shuttle Program Manager and current Deputy Associate Administrator for Strategic Partnerships, Wayne Hale, has an excellent blog. Over the last few months he has made a number of posts relevant to this discussion:

Human Rating a Spacecraft - Discusses the technical standards NASA apply to human spaceflight. If American astronauts are going up in a vehicle NASA did not build there is going to be a massive culture clash.

Civics 101 - Details how NASA's budget and direction is set.

Building The Railroad to Space
- Compares the building of the transcontinental railroad to the current push to move spaceflight into the private sector.
posted by IanMorr at 11:19 AM on May 27, 2010


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