The Age of the Space Transport Infrastructure is Dawning
A rapidly developed intellectual consensus often precedes a major sea-change in how we go about activities in a certain industry. I don’t think it’s necessarily about numbers of people saying something (although eventually all voices come around to state that it was obvious all along), but more about the absolute rock-solid foundation that those thoughts are based on. Sometimes, a certain thread of thought is so strong that it eventually… it wins.
I love to read space blogs, among broader technical media. The belief in rocket re-usability is no longer just voices the media, but the concepts been proven in genuine activities taking place in the real world. But there is more to this revolution that just reuse. In the end game, we can predict a universe of interconnected components of an infrastructure to move people and materials throughout the solar system.
We are coming to the end of the age where we think about space in terms of spaceships. There’s something I can feel happening deep in my bones where we are on the cusp of the inflection point where this change in thinking hits a point of no return. Now, I encounter articles that basically say the same things that I’m already trying to articulate in my own drafts.
NASA Should Build a Superhighway in Space
Donald Trump will take power any minute now, and we need to take advantage of the change in the White House to change…
For the most part, this is a good piece, with the core point mostly standing solid. I have one minor comment that the author seems to have misunderstood absolutely everything about the broader space philosophy of Jeff Bezos, saying that he has no plans for space infrastructure. One could nit-pick that what he really said is that Bezos has not announced specific plans for the details of that infrastructure, but this is pedantic. A space superhighway is exactly what Bezos is dreaming of.
My only comment on the core point is that the private sector is capable of building out the things that he mentions. However, I’m in agreement that there is a very different role that NASA will assume in the future. Whether it leads the way there, or the organization is dragged there kicking and screaming, is up to the prerogatives of our political leaders.
Resources Going to Science vs. Launch Services
I will tell the situation here, as I see it in my own opinionated way.
In the first phase of space development through Apollo, the engineering reigned supreme. Through the era of the Shuttle and the ISS, science was the main focus. These two things bob back and fourth, and the space advocates of today are intrinsically predicting a new kind of pivot to a massive investment into the operations of the business of space.
The problem lies in the R&D spending being split between payload and launch services. Focusing so little of those costs on directly launch volume spending has locked us in an economic death spiral that has consumed our budget and the public appetite for space over the last 4 decades. I want to talk about a few of those components of the death spiral.
Too Many Requirements
When we launch something, we are almost always sending up the full package, because there will not be any servicing of the payload in space. That means the all the metrics like max allowable g-forces and the acceptable risk level are all dictated by the most restrictive item on-board.
The Risk Factor
Consider a beyond-Earth-orbit mission. There is a departure stage which contains engines and propellant. There is no reason to launch this component with anything other than the minimal cost option, but it’s not possible to separate the two with one-off missions and low launch volume.
This was the central insight to past proposals for sea launches — that launches need to be designed with a base failure rate in mind. This is both to promote advancement of technology and lower cost. The Shuttle was the perfect example of a vehicle that had (due to circumstances at the time) to be able to do everything. Trying to do this made costs vastly greater.
In addition to the fact that propellant is the perfect example of a commodity non-sensitive payload, there are other reasons that dedicated propellant runs would have economic benefits. Some progressive lunar architectures involve bases either in LEO, LLO, or the lunar surface that have long-term propellant storage. By using those, missions avoid the need to carry excess propellant for each stage of the mission.
Before we have a complete “superhighway” infrastructure, we will be faced with a multitude of logistical challenges in order to make cross-mission or cross-purpose propellant reuse practical. John Hare wrote about a few of these possibilities. But this is a present-day focused proposal. The very point of a developed space infrastructure would be that missions regroup at the orbital propellant depots and exchange whatever makes sense for its mission.
In order to keep launches fungible (to satisfy the previous point), you need to keep the ratio of vehicle launch mass to the sum-total yearly payload delivered to LEO as small as possible. This also needs to be done in order to keep the churn of innovation going. Bets on too-large ventures is a bad idea. When a rocket blows, subsequent launches are postponed for months while the root cause analysis proceeds. This is not sustainable, and the nuclear industry shows exactly what happens when supersizing for better economy-of-scales implodes after some point. One accident can (and has in the past) cause the entire global market to choke.
Big rockets are not a bad thing. But the launch rate first needs to rise to meet it. Consider the ratio. If the volume of launches goes up sufficiently, then you can both increase the average payload and the launch rate. But volume must come first.
Desperation of the Space Advocates
The facts of the launch-volume death spiral are not lost on the people who publicly advocate the dream of becoming space-faring or interplanetary. There quickly became a point where Elon Musk’s ambitions outstripped the launch orders of NASA. If you make the simple assumption that SpaceX succeeds in reducing launch costs by 70% with their first stage reuse innovations, then their capabilities would vastly outpace the demand for these launches. If we also assume that they do not have intentions of reducing the company’s size (of course they don’t, they want to grow it many times fold, and fast), then someone must adapt to the new market realities by increasing the number of launches.
Seeing no existing market for what they are building (low-cost launches), many have gone for a vertical-integration idea of building the application along with the launch system. This is why SpaceX has tried to partner with others to create an orbital mobile data system. This is also reflecting a perception that even if they deliver cheap rockets, NASA can not adapt their own operations to the new reality fast enough to consume the extra supply they liberate in the market.
This future scenario of low-cost rockets arriving without the science and aerospace consumers able to change launch cadence to match is the important emerging issue that the public discussion should focus heavily on.
I’m not exactly gaga over the ITS that SpaceX has proposed. I’m sure that they are getting a lot wrong about the right way to go about the problem. I’m also sure that I get a lot of things wrong, myself. But there is also a sane viewpoint that there are enough actors emerging in the current scene to keep everyone else mostly humble and honest.
One blogger looking at the launch manifests for 2017 remarked:
Hold onto your hats. The next few years in space should be quite exciting.
Decades of Stagnation and the Supercycle
Commodity valuations go in a supercycle pattern. In this pattern, there are decadal periods of bear or bull markets. The cycle can take an entire generation to go around. But when it does, it’s like a giant tsunami.
I believe that many other societal trends also follow a supercycle pattern, like politics for instance. What’s new is old. But I also think innovation follows the similar sort of pattern. Innovation has a more complex pattern with the dance of reality with expectations. The pattern we have seen with space development is truly awe-inspiring.
The space race led to such a tremendous amount of progress at such a tremendous pace, and then it peaked so high that that we haven’t surpassed that point for many decades since. In the years after the moon landing, the vision we had for expanding our species into space soared, while the reality gave way underneath. Now, we are revisiting a realistic feeling that we may see a massive expansion of human presence into space.
A Leadership Vacuum
The mandate for NASA has so consistently missed the target that it might as well be disregarded at this point. If a president says that we’re going to visit an asteroid in a new capsule carried by a new launch vehicle… it isn’t going to happen. Now we may be seeing a pivot back to a moon base… which also isn’t going to happen.
Unlike the past, the objective will not come before the capabilities in the story of the next decade. Our future development needs to be (and almost certainly will be) capabilities driven. We already have a plate full of locations we wish to visit, and the near-term options are all very well known and established. What we need is a funding mechanism to create a bridge between the rocket re-usability innovation happening now and a funding mechanism for those big-picture objectives.
Unfortunately, national space programs are the primary consumer in the market. The way congress asks for the big-picture objectives is not going to change, and the bureaucracy also isn’t going to change.
The bridge has a lot of components that have little to no foundation behind them yet. We need a propellant depot network, and then we need to have cheap rockets. Then, we need to combine these two things to create highly complex, interconnected, and non-linear mission architectures. What we need is something other than out-and-back planning of a single mission to a single destination… but again, this only matters if you’re buying in bulk.
What we need is for NASA to provide a hub that can (and credibly will) be used by 2 competing billionaires trying to go to the Mars and Moon respectively. There needs to be common standards and open use models for sharing of resources among all those competing (and consuming) space transportation services.
We will get there. It won’t happen next year, but a growing buzz of activity will start to show by that point. We won’t have a visionary president announce the details of how this is going to look. But eventually, what used to be our space program will be a broker that enforces rules for playing fair in the space industry, and which has a process to convert what industry has to offer into something palatable for congress to fund.
That process, and the figurative space railways that it maintains, will be the superhighway. I believe it will be a major feature of the 21st century.