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Race To Space: Exploration, Commercial or Tourist Driven?


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Initial post: Jun 2, 2009 8:33:26 AM PDT
A British tycoon, and maybe a dozen others, are working on private spacecraft for tourists.

China has announced that they want to build a factory on the moon in the near future.

NASA still has a lock on longer, unmanned space voyages, (like to Mars), and their long-lived, outgoing probes.

So which of the three do you think will "boom" first? And how will it affect the other two? (If the Space Tourism bunch find a better, cheaper kind of propulsion, will NASA take it away from them? If China does eventually build a moon-factory, will they "stake out" at least part of the moon as belonging to China? Maybe a mining consordium starts "mining" our asteroid belt, and what if one well "mined" asteroid falls out of the belt and comes hurtling toward Earth?)

Posted on Jun 2, 2009 11:31:21 AM PDT
Ronald Craig says:
Floating ideas for feedback for a new book or something? :)

Where did you read that about a Chinese factory on the Moon "in the near future"? They were saying just a few years ago that they wanted to send a manned mission by 2020. They have to get there first. (And factory for what?)

I'm not sure, but there might be an international treaty dealing with "land claims" on the Moon. I assume you haven't checked, either.

And why would a "well mined" asteroid be more likely to "fall" towards the Earth than any other? (Or than before it was mined.) Mined = mass removed = less drawn towards Sun and inner planets, no?

(What's a consordium?)

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 2, 2009 1:06:54 PM PDT
Mrs. Garside says:
I'd rank tourism AS a commercial use-one of many.

Sadly, it appears that too many governments (and the taxpayers who fund them) no longer see any point in space exploration for the sake of discovery and knowledge. No profit, no point. I really hope I'm mistaken here.

But look at the moribund state of our own space program.

As for commericial uses, the cost will limit the number of tourists (and the first shuttle that blows up with a tourist on board could sink the whole, um, enterprise for a decade). As for mining, factories, etc, the technology for that does not exist-and won't for many, many years. Maybe never at all, the way things are going.

I don't mean to sound so pessimistic; the idea of space exploration has always thrilled me. But the entire world is in a terrible rut right now. There must be some major shake-up to get things moving again.

Posted on Jun 2, 2009 4:15:03 PM PDT
Ronald Craig says:
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Posted on Jun 2, 2009 4:33:16 PM PDT
Which of the three will boom first? Well, government-run exploration has already boomed, and isn't entirely busted now. I mean, NASA does still send probes to Mars and Saturn and stuff.

Commercial... well, other than communication and observational (weather, spy, land-management, etc.) satellites, there isn't much. The reason this doesn't "boom" a lot is that you only have to launch a very few satellites a year, and that neither provides enough launching to make launching stuff a big industry in and of itself, nor does it make it achingly necessary to get those launch costs down.

Tourism would be a part of commercial, and for that to be successful you DO have to launch a lot, and reliably. That means that there is a lot of pressure to get those launch costs DOWN while keeping reliability HIGH. As soon as you do that, a whole lot of other things, both commercial and exploratory, become practical. Think how easy a manned mission to Mars would be if you're already sending two thousand people a year into orbit, and for a lot less per-person than today.

Posted on Jun 3, 2009 7:17:09 AM PDT
I'm not sure that space tourism will have a significant effect on space exploration.

All of these ventures are sub-orbital. Basically, they just arc into the technical region of space and the brief weightlessness is reached at the apogee of the arc.

Going orbital is another matter completely. These little rocket planes don't have enough thrust and fuel to really get into space. It takes a lot of fuel to inject any significant amount of mass into orbit - that's why rocket third stages are so big.

I don't see that as being affordable to anybody. But seeing celebrities and the self-indulgent rich don spandex "spacesuits" and rocket to near space may even have the opposite effect in that the general public may see it as frivolous.

As for China, I think their ambition is greater than their abilities. China's economy has boomed due to unbalanced trade, American Consumer spending and job outsourcing. That is not a sustainable basis for an economy for the long run. It is basically parasitic. Even Chinese economists argue that their economy is a castle in the sand.

If Joe and Betty American, need to tighten their belts and not buy little Suzie a Barbie this Christmas - China goes in the tank. Or, if Americans realize that they need factories here - China either builds its own internal consumer market or eats it .

And since building a Chinese consumer market will create a middle class, that will want rights and democracy - the old Politburo will have to give up on Communism and I don't see them going quietly into the night ( not without shooting and riots).

Our present recession is hitting China and the rest of the world hard - they all have trade surpluses with the U.S. - but that means when we don't buy - they don't make money for government health care, long vacations or Space Programs. The same goes for Europe.

With China's massive burdens of population, pollution, military modernization, resources - Their surplus can get eaten up pretty quick.

Russia, on the other hand, has lots of oil and is supplying China with space technology anyway. Those Chinese rockets and capsules are mostly Russian. China has been basically buying its space program.

I think we might be right back competing with the Russians just like in the good old days.
Maybe we can forge a good relationship with Russia this time and we can then do some great things together.

Presently, Russia has lots of burdens too and has tremendous corruption problems to overcome.

So, real space exploration is basically still in the court of the American Government - for now.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 3, 2009 9:33:26 AM PDT
Yes, Virgin Galactic and several other companies are planning to sell a suborbital experience. The whole experience lasts a bit over an hour, and only five minutes of it is weightless and in Space (they really will put you in Space... barely. It isn't "near Space," it's "barely Space").

But if we can get three or four such companies competing, we can have the equivalent of a Hamburger War. One company offers to put you in Space for five minutes at a cost of $200,000, but then the other company says, "We can put you in Space for TEN minutes, for $190,000," and the next says, "How about FIFTEEN minutes for $175,000? Um, sorry you'll have to stay strapped in the whole time; the ship's too small to float around in."

Eventually, somebody comes along and says, "I'll give you thirty minutes for $125,000, OR I can send you to Bigalow's Space Hotel (such as it is) for a cool million."

I agree with you about China, but I think that the switch to democracy is inevitable at this point. It'll probably involve riots and shooting (America's own birth had plenty of both), but they've gone too far down that road to turn back now. Really, Cina even now is pretty much CINO - Communist In Name Only.

Posted on Jun 3, 2009 9:34:27 AM PDT
Thank you one and all for your thoughtful comments. (And, no, I'm not researching a book. I just enjoy hearing people's opinions on controversial topics, from scientist to layperson. Just to "research" a topic like this would be one-sided, since it would all be written by scientists. Give me an intelligent layperson who reads widely any day!)

The consensus seems to be that our spaceflight technology still seriously lags our ambitions. I was surprised, however, that no one seems very optimistic about private spacecraft. (But, then again, NASA is retiring their shuttle fleet next year, and has no replacement craft. So we'll be paying the Russians big bucks to tag along in their craft just to get to the space station.)

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 3, 2009 11:29:53 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 3, 2009 11:31:52 AM PDT
Oh, I have a lot of optimism about private spacecraft! I don't think we'll go from five minutes suborbital for 200 grand to orbital for 100 grand in one fell swoop, but we'll get there. And this reduction in launch costs makes a LOT of things more likely.

Suppose that we could send ten tourists to orbit for a million dollars. Not counting the cost of the space hotel, that's just launch. That means that for what Dennis Tito payed, two hundred people could go. Well, make it a hundred fifty, because they'd be charged something for accommodations. Suddenly, a space station for fifty people starts looking good. A manned Lunar base looks doable, and even Mars starts to beckon like a half-forgotten lover.

And whatever it costs to put people in Space, it'll cost half as much (or less) to put the same mass of cargo up, because an unmanned cargo rocket doesn't need to have life support, doesn't need to be even marginally comfortable, and doesn't need to be *quite* as reliable. Now those Moon bases and satellite solar power stations and Mars mission start looking REAL GOOD!

Posted on Jun 3, 2009 1:39:40 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 3, 2009 1:42:26 PM PDT
I think it we would be crazy not to build a base on the Moon - at least.

The Moon is a great place from which to observe the Earth and the rest of the sky.
A lunar base has tremendous potential for military, environmental, and communication applications.

It should be ours primarily, and international secondly.

The base would also serve as a real study in space habitat living and provide a base camp for deep space exploration to the Asteroid belt and Mars. Solar flare shielding is a challenge.

The problem is that we live in a high-tech age and our leaders are a bunch of lawyers and accountants.

The public, in spite of its love of gadgets, is getting less science-tech savvy.

( I need to get my website back up. I intend to post some of my space and underwater designs on there.

But, I also want to post the designs of some of my readers - ideas are fun, especially drawing them. )

Posted on Jun 4, 2009 9:18:01 AM PDT
Thank you, Sailor and Will! You both said a lot of things I'd been thinking about.

I think this less science-saavy country of ours became that way gradually, due to the media. The NASA Apollo Program portrayed our astronauts as heros, risking life and limb to venture to the moon and back; with Walter Cronkite breaking into broadcasts whenever there was something newsworthy about whatever rocket was then in-space. ("Apollo Thirteen" is still one of my favorite movies.)

Today the media is awash in endlessly stupid, barely-celebrity tidbits, over-cooked economic forecasts, and overly-dramatic stories about controversial subjects. All the media says anymore about our space program is when they launch and return. It's like the weather (during launch and return) is the only dramatic component of our Space Program anymore!

You may want to check out a March 5, 2007 article in TIME magazine, that discusses the leading "private space program" guys. They are not all aiming for tourism! Robert Bigelow already has a small-scale, inflatable space-hotel in orbit. Amazon boss Bezos has already bought up land near Van Horn, Texas to build a spaceport and aerospace testing center. And Jim Benson has the philosophy of "If we want to go to space to stay, space has to pay." He's got his eye on comets and asteroids in near-Earth orbits, that contain water and minerals (such as 100 times the gold of any mines on Earth today).

"Wherever there is an open mind, there will always be a frontier" --- Charles Kettering

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 4, 2009 10:14:42 AM PDT
You know, in one of my many, many never-finished stories, I feature a space hotel (more like a cruise ship). I was thinking that maybe all the faucets and such would be plated in gold, and maybe even the hotel itself would have a super-thin layer sprayed on. Why?

Because there's so much gold in asteroids that space miners aren't allowed to bring it to Earth. It would crash the market! Well, they have to do SOMETHING with it, so they sell it to the space hotels for the same price as aluminum (more abundant but also more demand), and the hotels use it to make themselves look more luxurious to tourists from Earth.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 5, 2009 6:57:23 AM PDT
A great story, Sailor -- you should finish that one!

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 5, 2009 9:19:01 AM PDT
heh heh
First I need to finish my 'naked schoolgirl in orbit' story. It actually has a bit of a following.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 5, 2009 2:55:45 PM PDT
Uh ... OK. Sounds like fanfic, if it's not finished and already has a "following". As my husband says, "Whatever trips your trigger ..."

But when you get around to that gilded-hotel-in-space story, let me know!

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 5, 2009 8:27:42 PM PDT
Not fanfic, exactly. It's a shared universe for those of us who write in it. I am, AFAIK, the first to set one of these NiS (Naked in School) stories in Space. My "following" is somewhere between fifteen and thirty people.

As for the Space Hotel thing, well, I sort of quit with it when it became obvious that I was writing _The Love Boat_ in orbit. Not that that couldn't be a fun TV show. Say what you like about TLB, it got ratings.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 6, 2009 10:51:16 AM PDT
CDaniels says:
From a more hard sci-fi angle, though, gold is too useful an element to make it just a substitute for aluminum. Highly reflective, soft, flexible, conductive. Resists corrosion (maybe not so useful out in space, but inside spaceships and for any vehicles entering atmospheres) I see a lot of potential stories for "gold in space." Back to the Topic, one thing we have slowly come to realize its that its much, much more cheap and efficient to not bring humans into space. Remote control cameras; robots; satellites all do more work for less maintenance. Space Tourism might be the only future for manned space flight. Everything else depends on robotics.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 8, 2009 6:08:15 AM PDT
Interesting thoughts, C. And I think you're right, NASA is moving away from human exploration. Remote-controlled robots/satellites/cameras are cheaper (no human environment to be maintained), and can keep going on outward, or stay out there for decades, instead of having to "come home". (It's also probably enormously expensive for NASA to maintain their Astronaut Corps, between extensive training, and paying them salaries to stick around, whether or not they ever get into space.)

Private space exploration will probably be "stealing NASA's thunder" by the next decade. If you read that TIME article I referred to earlier in this discussion, Tourism is only one of many areas the top "private space exploration" guys are considering. And most of their ideas or projects involve human-participation. (Let's just hope the media doesn't bury their efforts, like it now treats the shuttle program.)

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 8, 2009 8:46:53 AM PDT
Unmanned probes are better for SOME THINGS. You could probably duplicate the Apollo missions now without astronauts, as far as scientific value is concerned. You could not have in the early Seventies. Sorry, but no. The tech just wasn't there.

And today, you still need humans for some things. Granted, a Lunar base that needed 100 people in the Seventies could probably get as much work done now with 25, maybe even 10. But AI isn't as advanced as it would have to be to make humans superfluous. It isn't advanced enough for powersat construction, though you'd need far fewer people than if you'd started even fifteen years ago. Asteroid mining will need people, unless we make some big advances in AI (and we will... eventually).

Posted on Jun 8, 2009 9:25:01 AM PDT
Thanks for your interesting comments! C, I just read an article on my nextbigfuture.com subscription, that says that carbon nano-tubes can now make aluminium as strong as steel, but with only one-third the weight. So these types of advances in metullurgy will also be a big boost to space exploration.

And I agree with you, Sailor, that the Apollo missions to the moon HAD to be manned, since our high tech wasn't so high in the '70s. And I don't know if anyone would jump at a chance to work in a factory on the moon. (Unless it's a prison farm. Or, like our Contractors in Iraq, they make so much money in a "hazardous environment" that people would clamor to work there for a year or so, and make as much money as they would in five years in the U.S.)

Posted on Jun 16, 2009 6:17:57 AM PDT
M. Saddoris says:
it comes down to profit
once we get a cheap way of getting off the planet weather by conventional lift or space elevator it will be a short time before construction in space becomes the big game. once that starts youll start seeing moonbases and mars missions. right now, any mars missions would simply be a media stunt with the potential to go very wrong.

space tourism is at best a gimic at this stage of the game. a way of getting media attention, its not sustainable, as most who go up into space will do it once and thats it. your return customer is going to be pretty low at a 250,000.00 price tag.

in the end we wont see the major explosion into space that many of us hope for until we move beyond liquid / chem fueled rockets. i think that in the next 15-30 years theres going to be something beyond standard combustion that will fuel our needs both at home and in space i dont know what that will be, but it does make living in our times somewhat exciting.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 16, 2009 7:52:13 AM PDT
I totally agree with you, M.! This monstrous amount of dangerous liquid fuel needed to just get beyond Earth's gravitation field, and the total lack of solid-but-powerful fuel to fly beyond the moon, are the main impediments to space exploration.

We all fell in love with the "dylithium crystals" fueling the Enterprise in the Classic Star Trek series. But the idea is brilliant. We need something that is more-than-the-sum-of-it's-parts, like a crystal or small substance that can put out incredible amounts of energy for a long time.

We'll also have to figure out some kind of anti-gravity, since that would mean seriously less fuel on lift-off. And can be reversed to give our astronauts "gravity" on board their craft. (Studies on returning astronauts have shown that there is muscle deterioration if weightless too long.) I think the field of magnetics will one day yield the answer.

We also have engineers who view things backwards, I think. They have an engine, and look only for fuels to fit that existing engine. What they should be doing, is finding mighty-morph type fuels and building engines around them!

Posted on Jun 16, 2009 10:55:53 AM PDT
Even using today's chemical rockets, launch costs would be lower if we did a lot more of them.
Of course, we WOULD do a lot more launches if the costs were lower.

Chicken, meet egg.

A full-on space elevator of course would fix this, and wonderfully. But it's probably going to be a while. But in the meantime, there are things like:
Maglev boost. Maybe up the side of a mountain. Leave your first stage on the ground.

Rotating tethers. In the space elevator family, but doesn't require QUITE as strong materials.

Laser propulsion. Again, your power source is on the ground, and can thus be as big and heavy as is convenient (and cheap).

There are still improvements to be made in plain old chemical rockets, and in rocket bodies.

Posted on Jun 16, 2009 1:16:26 PM PDT
M. Saddoris says:
since you mentioned it. anti-gravity would be the holy grail of starting space travel. once your able to manipulate the gravity fields in a local area you open all types of enterprises up. suddenly you dont need lift engines or massive rocket boosters you simple create a null or negative gravity field and getting off the planet would be both cheap and easy. once space construction and other long term endevors start i think that you will have a technology / industry explosion that will make the last 100 years look like small change.

alot of people dont think of what getting off the planet would do to our society as a whole. suddenly you would have resorces available in plenty from local astroid fields, our system of material wealth would be forced to undergo a change. gold and other rare earths would plumet. area's that suffer from lack of water could bring in clean ice from saturn or even our poles. heavy industry that polutes would disappear as thier main sorce of energy would be solar or some type of antigrav engine or even moved out into local orbits (space factories)

beyond recreational, ships would no longer need to travel through our oceans as there would be faster/cheaper ways of transportation this would cause our oceans to slowly clean themselves back up, polution would become a thing of the past as combustion engines slowly died off. (and many many more types of benifits that i havnt listed)

( http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/science/05/30/space.solar/index.html cnn article about solar energy, apparently is going to take 1 trillion dollars to build .. and we said theres no money for something like that.. yet we .. the USA just threw away 1.X trillion dollars on "stimulus* heres a whole new industry available for us.. but we dont have the money.....) O.o

our politics would probally be the most massive change. especially for 3rd world countries. oil would no longer be needed for fuel (but still needed for the various other items it provides) funds would dry up for those countries and you would see massive starvations or political upheavals as they would want a piece of the action that the rest of the world would obtain from nearly limitless resorces. this would cause even some serious shifts in attitudes in major countries like the USA, CHINA , RUSSIA, ENGLAND, JAPAN, or any of the more developed nations.

For Good or Worse - Anti-Gravity would have such a profound impact upon us as a race that it would be beyond my ability to fantom the amount of changes that would be forced to take place.

Posted on Jun 16, 2009 1:39:42 PM PDT
I'm still holding out hope for antigravity.

I think we may be closer than we think. String theory has opened some interesting possibilities. It attempts to answer the question of "where is all the gravity?"

Gravity is a relatively weak force - why? Is it possible that part of the gravitational field exists in another dimension?

Let's hope CERN and some other research, being conducted right now, will shed some light on gravity.
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