All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2013:

Neubrandenburg Thoughts (I): OldSpace versus NewSpace (Nov.)

Highlights from the Starship Century Symposium in London (Nov.)

Alien Civilisations: Two Competing Models (Oct.)

Elysium, Earth; Elysium, Mars (Sept.)

The Futures We Love to Fear (Aug.)

Quotations from Sophie’s World (May)

Do I Really Exist? (May)

When will Voyager 1 leave the Solar System? (April)

Technological Singularity, or Plateau? The case for antisingularitarianism (March)

Space and Sustainability: Ecological Collapse versus Technological Growth (Feb.)

Manned spaceflight on the plateau awaits a new business model (Jan.)

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AE posts:

2022: What’s to do on Mars?…

2021: New space company Planetopolis…

2020: Cruising in Space…

2019: The Doomsday Fallacy, SpaceX successes…

2018: I, Starship, atheism versus religion, the Copernican principle…

2017: Mars, Supercivilisations, METI…

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…

Chronological index

Subject index

General essays:

Index to essaysincluding:

Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


Issue 97, 25 November 2013 – 44th Apollo Anniversary Year

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Neubrandenburg Thoughts (I): OldSpace versus NewSpace

Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK

Talking about starships at Neubrandenburg

The 29th annual Tage der Raumfahrt (Space Days) were held in this attractive town in northern Germany over the second weekend in November 2013. A wide range of people, including both space professionals and non-professionals such as myself, heard presentations on the past, present and future of space exploration.

As before, I was very happy to be overwhelmed by the generous welcome from my German hosts. I was particularly glad that this year I was able to contribute a few words to the conference, covering recent activity in interstellar studies.

Needless to say, the debate between OldSpace and NewSpace views of progress in the immediate future cropped up in several conversations. This got me thinking: what is the problem here? As clearly as I can put it, what the debate boils down to is this.

Spaceflight, particularly manned spaceflight, is after more than half a century of steady activity by government space agencies still too difficult, dangerous and expensive to form part of the normal economic activity of mankind. It remains an expensive luxury.

Therefore its expansion to the new projects of lunar and martian exploration which everyone involved wants to happen, and even its continuation at the present level of involvement, needs a clear justification which is broadly agreed, even by those with no interest in spaceflight as such (who, it must be admitted, constitute the majority of mankind), and this justification is currently lacking.

As a result, instead of being a stepping-stone to increasingly routine activities in low Earth orbit, the International Space Station is turning out to be yet another dead end project which ends up as scrap at the bottom of the ocean.

As Rand Simberg says in a recent op-ed in USA Today:

“Kennedy’s legacy in space is a NASA human-spaceflight program that has been rudderless for half a century, because its purpose was never articulated in terms that would justify the massive amounts of money expended on it. Had the goal actually been to open up the high frontier to humanity, an America operating on its traditional values of individualism and entrepreneurship would have gone to work on it much sooner, and much more effectively, than the centralized state-socialist bureaucracy that we established to beat the Soviets’ state-socialist bureaucracy to the moon. With the recent success of SpaceX and others, we are in fact starting to see this happen, half a century late.”

Two solutions to the current impasse are on offer, based on two contrasting concepts of what spaceflight is for.

The OldSpace solution is to continue as before with manned spaceflight limited to occasional special astronaut missions of exploration. The solution to the fact that the funding made available by governments is inadequate for their space agencies to conduct Moon/Asteroids/Mars missions is to draw more countries into the emerging global space exploration coalition; in other words, to extend the collaboration behind the International Space Station to include developing economies such as India and China.

The NewSpace solution is to attack the problem of high costs directly by reducing those costs through growth in economic activity. This is possible because the cost of rocket fuel is a small fraction of the total, most of which is spent on hardware, ground preparation and infrastructure. The latter are grossly cost inefficient in comparison with a mature industry such as sea and air transport. The Space Shuttle, for example, spent several months to a year on the ground between each flight, and large parts of the Shuttle system were – and the entire Soyuz rocket and capsule still are – discarded after every flight.

The Neubrandenburg speakers gather for a group photo

But costs can only be reduced if a market can be found for space launches essentially two orders of magnitude higher than at present, so several times a week rather than a few times a year. This inevitably focuses attention on the development of large-scale space tourism, both for its intrinsic economic value, and as an enabler for exploration further afield.

On the one hand, then, continuing high costs must be borne by increasing international collaboration among governments. On the other, costs must be slashed and shared more widely, in an environment featuring both collaboration and competition.

On the one hand, manned spaceflight remains restricted indefinitely to a tiny, elite group of specially selected heroes who train for years for each mission. On the other, it is progressively broadened to a wider public, until after say 50 years of growth any successful middle-class professional who can pass a basic physical fitness exam can book a trip to a space hotel online, and travel at a few days notice.

On the one hand, manned spaceflight remains a government monopoly, maintained by an international cartel of space agencies funded from the public purse. On the other, it develops into a normal economic activity serving a broad market of governments, universities, manufacturers and private travellers who pay their own way.

On the one hand, we are offered a “permanent” foothold in space which turns out not to be permanent at all, but just another mission which is to be dumped into the Pacific Ocean when its owners get tired of it some time in the 2020s. On the other, the rhetoric of permanence needs to be replaced by the reality of economically sustainable exponential growth.

Which view of the future is more realistic to attain, more sustainable once it has been attained, more valuable a contribution to increasing the general wealth of mankind and more suitable as a springboard to more distant explorations remains, however, controversial.

Why so? Because at bottom this is a political debate, between free market capitalism and state collectivism. This question was not settled when Apollo 11 landed at Tranquility Base!

With the debate intensifying at the British Interplanetary Society, expect to hear more on this in the coming year.

Some links to useful discussion about the management and engineering of space projects: