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Death of future greatly exaggerated

Published by Robin on Mon Aug 22, 2005 9:23 pm
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HobbySpace RLV News August 22, 2005 12:35 pm – WSJ space post
Clark Lindsey writes: In response to Requiem for the Future: Where Are the Interplanetary Wonders We Read About When We Were Kids? – by Tim Hanrah & Jason Fry – Real Time/Wall Street Journal – Aug.15.05, I sent an email to the authors that offered a more optimistic view of space development. They received a record number of reader comments on the article and posted a number of them today and kindly included my entire message.

I can’t find today’s piece in the free section at WSJ, so I”ll show here what I wrote:

You are greatly exaggerating the death of the future; and wildly exaggerating the death of humanity’s expansion into outer space. While it’s true that space development is far behind where it could have been, please don’t hold to the false logic that “if it hasn’t happened by now, then it can’t happen.”

We are, in fact, well into the start of a private-industry-led revolution in space development. Like the PC revolution, it will take place in an evolutionary way, starting with very simple systems and applications. (Remember that for the first decade or so after the Altair, the main apps for PCs were games.) Private space will be mainly self-financed as it proceeds through step-by-step improvements in capability, each step paid for by profits from the previous one.

There are at least a half-dozen serious companies developing vehicles for suborbital spaceflight. Within two to three years they will be flying payloads and passengers routinely up to and back down from 100 km in altitude. The leading company, of course, is the collaboration of Burt Rutan and Richard Branson. Virgin Galactic (www.virgingalactic.com) will begin flying seven passengers at a time on their SpaceShipTwo vehicles in 2008. Already well into an incremental development process, this vehicle will be the second-generation of the SpaceShipOne that won the X Prize last year.

Even before the vehicle’s debut, Virgin Galactic has gotten deposits on or the full amount of the $200,000 price tag for tickets from more than 150 people. More than 30,000 people have indicated a strong interest in tickets when flights become available. Space Adventures similarly has gotten payments from more than 100 people towards a suborbital ride when it becomes available.

(With regards to space being only for “techno-zillionaires,” come on. You of all people should know that almost every product or service imaginable — cars, airline flights, DVD players, etc. — starts off being affordable only to the rich. Gradually, economies of scale bring the price down to where everyone else can afford them. The rich are essential to initiating the bootstrapping process that reduces the price.)

You may scoff at suborbital spaceflight as falling far short of interplanetary travel, but so what? PC’s were scoffed at as toys by top computer-industry gurus right up until the early 1990s. What is important is whether a big enough market will appear that can sustain the companies and allow them to recycle a portion of their profits back into incremental improvements just as the PC companies did. So far, the market for suborbital spaceflight looks plenty big enough to do that.

Suborbital spaceflight is not the only area, however, where private spaceflight development is heating up. For example, Elon Musk’s SpaceX (www.spacex.com) plans the first flight of its low-cost launcher early this fall. The company now has at least six customers for its first-generation launcher and is well into development of a second-generation vehicle. Though the company will start with spacecraft payloads, Musk has made it very clear that human spaceflight is a primary goal for the company and Mars is the long-term target.

T/Space (www.transformspace.com), a collaboration of several firms including Rutan’s, is proposing to NASA a cargo- and crew-delivery system for the International Space Station. They are offering to do this for one-tenth of what NASA expects to pay for its planned Crew Exploration Vehicle. Unlike the cost-plus approach of mainstream aerospace companies, t/Space wants a fixed-price contract and will only take payments incrementally as it meets each of a clear set of milestones.

Meanwhile, Bigelow Aerospace (www.bigelowaerospace.com), funded by Robert Bigelow of Budget Suites, is well on its way to developing low-cost but large and roomy orbital habitats using an inflatable-materials technology that it is working on with NASA. The first launch of a prototype module will take place early next year. Bigelow is also funding a $50 million prize contest for the first private firm to put a crew into orbit by 2010. Furthermore, the winner will get a contract to bring passengers to his orbital habitat, i.e. space hotel.

So the lunar fly-by mission proposed by Space Adventures is just the most ambitious of a wide range of vibrant and viable private-spaceflight activities now in gear. Things may not be advancing nearly as fast as you want, but things are definitely moving along. I once read an article about Alan Bean, who walked on the Moon during Apollo 12, in which he said he expected that lunar tourism wouldn’t happen for at least 200 years. Well, we now know that he was off by about 200 years. That seems like progress to me.

HobbySpace RLV News August 22, 2005, By Clark Lindsey

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