Innovation will cut space travel costs, experts say
by Eli Kintisch of the Post-Dispatch, STLtoday.com, September 24, 2004.
Rocketeers are seeking a breakthrough to revolutionize the industry, much the way microprocessors turned mainframe computers into dinosaurs.
A stream of surveys has shown that hundreds of millionaires would spend $100,000 for a brief trip to space.
Eventually, experts figure, the cost of a trip to space will plummet so that everyday people can go as well.
But there's a lot of work to do before then.
The cost of getting a pound of cargo into low orbit hovers around $10,000 - what it has been for decades. Rockets still use 30-year-old technology to put satellites and people into orbit. And the risks are still great. More than one in every 100 rockets fail during their mission - the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1 last year being only one example.
Your best chance of getting to space right now is to pay Russia $20 million to visit the space station, as Dennis Tito did in 2001.
Burt Rutan created some excitement when his relatively inexpensive SpaceShipOne reached space in June. But getting such a craft into orbit will require much more velocity. SpaceShipOne reached 2,150 miles an hour to get 62 miles above the earth. To achieve a higher space shuttle orbit, a ship must go about eight times faster - which translates to a need for at least 64 times more energy.
To make space tourism a reality, argues rocket builder Pat Bahn, the market needs what Harvard economist Clayton Christensen calls a disruption.
In his influential 1997 book, "The Innovator's Dilemma," Christensen explored how what he called disruptive technologies could overturn existing markets. Such innovations, he wrote, often lead to poorer performance on the short term but end up changing the way people think. They could be as simple as the move to discount stores - which has led to Target's dominance over Sears. Or they could be more technological - like the microcomputer revolution that shocked IBM.
"Every field of endeavor gets 5 percent better or 5 percent cheaper year after year - look at consumer electronics," said Bahn, chief executive officer of TGV Rockets. To make his point, Bahn is working on a rocket engine that can be used 100 times without being replaced.
Experts say a central reason for the high cost of space has been that NASA doesn't mind spending billions. Engineers consider reliability, schedule and cost as three corners of a triangle. Critics say NASA focuses on the first two. In his famous call for a moonshot in 1962, President John F. Kennedy challenged NASA to get a man to the moon and back, and do it by 1970. So the focus was on safety and schedule, not cost.
Two hundred thousand people worked on Apollo. The total cost in paychecks in 1960s dollars was about $25.4 billion.
"There's a mindset at NASA that 'it will cost what it will cost,'" said Roger Launius, chairman of space history at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
To be sure, NASA looks at it differently. "We're certainly mindful of cost," said agency spokesman Allard Beutel, pointing to NASA budget restrictions.
In any case, it takes deep pockets to get into space, and that in turn limits the market. The big firms that can compete, such as Boeing, Orbital Sciences and Lockheed Martin, are paid to launch satellites using a giant vat of tax dollars.
And since getting to space costs so much, space-bound satellites or vehicles are built so carefully - and expensively - that it's unlikely they'll fail.
The result? Putting a satellite into orbit can cost upward of $150 million - and the technology is decades old. Some entrepreneurs are hoping that as new companies build rockets, they'll disrupt the cycle of spiraling costs. But cheaper rockets probably will be more dangerous, at least initially.
In aerospace research, "risk is acceptable and may actually be required," said Stuart Witt, general manager of Mojave Airport, where Rutan's Scaled Composites operates.
But it's not necessarily the more sophisticated innovations that lead to changes.
SpaceDev, a company based in Poway, Calif., is betting that its reliable but unexciting hybrid engines could be scaled up to work for affordable orbital flight.
Rocket scientists are skeptical, pointing out that a rubber and nitrous oxide combination is less efficient than liquid hydrogen or kerosene. Desktop personal computers too were far slower and less powerful than room-size mainframes in the early 1980s. But they quickly rendered the dinosaurs obsolete.
SpaceDev CEO James Benson, whose firm is building suitcase-size satellites, relishes the comparison.
"Look at this $100 billion industry. It's the mainframe mentality," he said. "It's the risk-averse belief that bigger is better, using existing technology. . . . Ours is the microcomputer mentality."
Another rocket entrepreneur hoping to transform the market is Elon Musk, 33, whose firm SpaceX is developing a small rocket called Falcon, which Musk hopes will cost $6 million per launch.
In any event, the big aerospace companies aren't sweating over their fledgling competitors. Lockheed's vice president for space exploration, John Karas, said his company has looked for customers who would pay for cheaper launches, but can't find them. Steve Oswald, manager of Boeing's space shuttle program, is skeptical that Musk will have much of a niche market for under-sized rockets.
But Christensen warns executives of established companies against being too smug. In 1976, few at IBM - or the rest of the world, for that matter - had heard of Apple computers.
And in the 1930s, airplane manufacturers saw little potential in the then-futuristic technology of jet engines.