Monday, January 21, 2019

What I’m waiting for in space

On December 13, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity flew to a definition of space.  It was a big moment in the history of civilian spaceflight, and congratulations to everyone involved.  However, while I clapped for them, the flight didn’t do much for me.  Part of it was I kind of expected such a flight ten years ago.  SpaceShipOne flew in 2004, and at the time there was talk of it being only “a few years” until the bigger version would be flying passengers into space.  And yes it is rocket science, and yes there were accidents which set everything back, but for almost the last ten years the joke was that Virgin Galactic was just “six months out” from flying.  After years of this, it’s difficult for me to get excited about Virgin Galactic.  I mean, after the December flight there was talk that it might be about a month before the next one, and they might start flying passengers in the summer.  I’ll believe it when I see it.

But it’s not just Virgin Galactic.  Five years ago I felt like we were on the cusp of the real Space Age.  Private rockets would be flying passengers to private labs and hotels and we’d be building a lunar base.  It turns out all that was six months out.

I am a fan of SpaceX, but it does seem like they bite off more than they can chew.  A couple of years ago I came up with a list of the four things I was waiting for them to do.  I wrote a blog after they did the first two – refly a booster and fly twelve times in a year – and since then they’ve done a third: fly the Falcon Heavy.  I’m still waiting for them to fly humans.  But the reason I was waiting for the Falcon Heavy is that when it was first proposed, it seemed like we would soon have a big rocket that we could start doing big things with: space stations, moon bases, etc.  Instead of the decades and tons of money to design a new big rocket, they’d just bolt three Falcon 9s together.  It seemed simple.  But, it’s rocket science.  The test flight kept being pushed back, but it finally flew last February.  It hasn’t flown since.  And this big rocket that would launch us into the real Space Age, as far as I can tell there are only like five scheduled flights in the next few years.  I have the sneaky feeling that when it was initially proposed it was seen as a workhorse that would be flying every other month or something.  But for whatever reason the development drew out and now this powerful rocket is being eclipsed by the Super Duper Falcon, or whatever they’re calling it this quarter.  And I’m sure we’re just six months from a test flight of that.

Anyway, I was thinking about all this and I came up with a list of the four things I’m now waiting for in the space industry.  While these will be milestones, instead of just being a first they will be more a sign of a matured technology.  And that’s what will truly take us into the Space Age, not just the first flight of a big rocket, but when the big rocket is flying routinely. 

Number 1: The first orbital class booster to successfully fly ten times.
The biggest hurdle to space right now is that it is expensive.  Being able to reuse a booster is a great way to reduce the cost: if it works.  As I write this in January 2019, SpaceX has flown one Falcon 9 booster three times.  That’s great, I just hope the success last.  My worry is that perhaps the stress of launching and landing might take a toll after five or six launches.  I know they’re designed to fly more often, but simulations and tests are one thing, real world experience is another.  Don’t get me wrong, if we can only fly a booster five times before it has to be retired, that’s still a remarkable achievement in reducing the cost to space.  But I think ten flights is when we can say that the concept of a reusable booster has fully been proven.  And if it flies ten times in a year, that will really be something.

Number 2: Flying passengers to space four times in as many weeks.
I have no doubt that eventually some company will fly people on suborbital flights.  Ten years ago, I could see these happening a couple times a week.  Now, I worry if there will be weeks – even months – between flights.  I’d still gladly go on one, but I think the only way to show that the technology is mature is if it’s regular.  Four flights in as many weeks, I’d say that’s regular.

As I was typing this up, I realized that these passengers don’t have to just go on suborbital hops.  If a company launches four orbital flights in as many weeks, not only will that count, it will be super amazing.

Number 3: A private company flying people to a private space station.
When I first learned of Bigelow Aerospace’s Genesis modules (tests for expandable space stations launched in 2006 and 2007) I was excited, thinking we were “a few years” away from private space stations.  I’m still waiting.  Of course, I think part of the problem is why put up a space station if there isn’t a way to get people there?  So hopefully once the private taxi services for taking astronauts to the ISS get going, they’ll also be going to private space stations.  These could be labs, hotels, brothels, I really don’t care. 

Why I think this one is really important is that I view bureaucratic bean counters as one of the biggest challenges in space right now.  The best way to overcome that, is for private companies to start making money.  Because once Company X has worked most of the bugs out of an orbital hotel, Company Y will come along with a bigger and better hotel to get more customers.  And then Company Z will be like, “Why just orbit the Earth when you can go to the moon?”

Number 4: A human presence on the moon for one year.
At first I was just going to put when the next human steps onto the moon, but it is possible a program to do that – especially if run by bureaucratic bean counters – might be cancelled.  A continued human presence on the moon for a year is a strong sign that we’re going to stay. 

If you’re curious on my thoughts of what could be done with a moon base, then check out my Kindle essay collection, “The Moon Before Mars: Why returning to the moon makes more sense than rushing off to Mars.”


So that’s my list.  I know it’s not super exciting, but basic infrastructure will take us further than flashy publicity stunts.

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