All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2012:
Growth Options (1) (Feb.)
New in 2015:
Short story The Marchioness
2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…
2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…
2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…
2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…
2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…
2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…
2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…
Index to essays – including:
The Great Sociology Debate (2011)
Building Selenopolis (2008)
|SpaceX: what their successful Dragon flight means, and why the critics are wrong!|
All content is by Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK,
unless attributed to a different signed author.
SpaceX: what their successful Dragon flight means, and why the critics are wrong!
This is a great achievement. But in and of itself it is only the beginning. It is not yet a breakthrough. It is only a demonstration that a breakthrough is possible...
The only thing that really matters in manned spaceflight right now is broadening the market. After half a century of government exploration, the monopoly of the global space agency cartel on manned activities in low Earth orbit must now be broken!
The collaboration between SpaceX (transport) and Bigelow Aerospace (in-orbit infrastructure) is critical to this breakthrough (see their recent announcement).
This point is widely misunderstood or ignored. For example David Baker, the new editor of Spaceflight magazine, with a lifetime of experience in the space industry, offers in the latest issue an entire two-page article “Is space commercialization a myth?” (June 2012, p.206-207) without even mentioning the critical issue of whether or not the market for manned space travel can be broadened to increasing numbers of non-space-agency customers.
The article contains errors such as the statement that NASA’s COTS programme has “spent almost $1 billion dollars encouraging companies to do what NASA field centres were doing in the past, transferring government cash, going previously to government facilities, to contractors working for government projects.” This is wrong twice over: in the past, too, it was the contractors who were actually building the government ships, not the field centres. Meanwhile the implication that using government money to give work to industry is somehow a waste of public funds is nonsense: those funds were used inefficiently in the past by going to contractors whose only interest was in supplying NASA, but are now better employed by going to companies who will use the money not only to supply NASA, but also to expand the market for their products, creating an entire new space transport industry independent of NASA.
Baker further assumes that after the ISS programme ends there will be no low Earth orbit space stations any more (or none accessible to the West). Wrong! If SpaceX, Bigelow and their collaborators and competitors are successful, then by the early 2020s there should be growing numbers of space stations with monthly or weekly passenger-carrying visits to them, dominated by passengers from small countries with no space programmes of their own, manufacturing companies researching zero-gravity processes, universities, and increasingly and overwhelmingly private space travellers who pay for their own personal tickets into space as ticket prices fall and technologies and markets mature.
Again, Paul D. Spudis, a well known senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, has blogged on the Dragon flight as follows.
“Launch to orbit is an inherently difficult and risky endeavor. [...] spaceflight is never routine” – That is not the issue, the issue is: can it be made incrementally more routine? Look at it this way: crossing the Atlantic Ocean is “inherently difficult and risky” (think of the Titanic and the Hindenburg, or indeed of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas); flying in jet airliners is “inherently difficult and risky” (think of the multiple crashes of the De Havilland Comet in 1953-1954). Now how many passengers/year do these things today in comfort and safety? Millions.
Shuttle/Soyuz/ShenZhou were and still are not making any progress towards a situation where thousands to millions of people fly in space every year. Therefore if progress is to be made some other system must be introduced, and the only likely and flight-proven system available at present is Falcon9/Dragon. (Ultimately, of course, it will be Skylon, or something very similar to Skylon.)
“The real issue with commercial human spaceflight is the existence of a market. Right now, such a market does not exist.” – This statement would amaze Space Adventures, who have demonstrated the existence of a market at one flight per year at around $30 million ticket price over the past decade. The “real issue” is whether the existing market can be grown, and while Shuttle/Soyuz/ShenZhou are unsuitable (not least because their owners were and are not interested in tourist traffic), Dragon may well be able to do this.
Market surveys, reported for example by David Ashford in his book Spaceflight Revolution (Imperial College Press, 2002), indicate widespread interest in space tourism at the right price, but Spudis dismisses such an expectation with the throwaway comment “hope is not a business plan”. At the same time he harps on “the likely consequences following the first fatal accident in commercial human spaceflight, after the ambulance chasers get their teeth into the flesh of every company who ever had anything whatsoever do to with the flight” – in other words: in his view, governments should legislate in order to require commercial space travel to be 100% safe from the very beginning, in defiance of their own less than saintly record in crew safety, and in stark contrast with the history of every other transport system ever invented.
“True commercial space firms exist [...] They do not rely on government money to support their R&D costs” – But why not? They should be relying on government seed money to get started in the “inherently difficult and risky” environment of space!
If NASA and ESA are not spinning off workable technologies to the commercial sector, then what the hell are they spending public money for, other than providing entertainment and national prestige, buying votes with jobs paid for at public expense (“pork”), and concealing these realities under the fig leaf of science? Look at all the billions that went into developing the Shuttle: do you mean to say that none of this public investment in reusable space vehicles is making its way through into growing the economy and serving the needs of the wider public who also want to fly in reusable space vehicles?
NASA’s predecessor NACA used its funds to stimulate the growth of the air travel industry, and at least NASA’s COTS programme is doing the same for spaceflight, though more slowly than necessary. But why is ESA not pursuing a COTS programme of its own?
“The process of contracting with ‘commercial’ firms to carry payloads into orbit is not a space policy. [...] Even if SpaceX is completely successful, all we will have done is to add another player to the existing roster of supply vehicles that enable the occupation and use of the ISS.” – Utterly wrong! It is not only a space policy, it is the best possible space policy at present. The whole point of SpaceX is that they are different from the other ISS suppliers, in that their goal is to expand the market to the point where manned space travel becomes as commercially self-sustaining as manned air travel. NASA and its clones in other countries are institutionally incapable of doing this, therefore their monopoly must be broken before a large-scale space travel industry accessible to the public can emerge.
Furthermore, this must be achieved before sustainable exploration beyond low Earth orbit can commence, otherwise we are forever stuck with the Apollo model: space as a quasi-military government preserve for a tiny elite of official scientists and test pilots on infrequent missions, whose emphasis on safety leads to minimal flight experience and consequently Shuttle-type disasters, and whose escalating costs lead to their speedy cancellation.
So let us be clear: SpaceX is making good progress, but the real breakthrough point is yet to come.
That breakthrough will only be when the number of passengers to orbit who are commercial and private space travellers visiting commercially run orbital stations rises to exceed the number who are government officials flying on public programmes to the ISS!