Tuesday July 5th 2011

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Space: ‘Let’s Just Do It’

When Peter Diamandis talks about the emergence of a ‘let’s just do it’ mentality about spaceflight, anyone interested in getting our species off-planet will listen up. Diamandis, after all, as chief executive of the X Prize Foundation, has been a major force in making commercial space ventures newsworthy. Who can forget the first flight of Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne? Diamandis firmly believes we are no longer content to watch government astronauts work in space. It’s time for the commercial sector to take off.

In a new article in the Wall Street Journal (thanks to Erik Anderson for the heads-up), Diamandis lays out our biggest challenge in getting a space-based infrastructure into operation: The cost. Ponder the fact that as the US space shuttle fleet is closed down, American astronauts will need to hitch rides on the Russian Soyuz at a cost of over $50 million per person. That sounds high, and it is, but compare it to shuttle costs of between $750 to $2 billion per flight, depending on the launch schedule. Why so expensive? Oddly enough, the major cost isn’t fuel or payload:

Most people don’t realize that the major cost of a launch is labor. Fuel is less than 2%, while the standing army of people and infrastructure is well over 80%. The annual expense NASA bears for the shuttle is roughly $4 billion, whatever the number of launches.

Image: Astronauts Robert L. Curbeam (USA) and Christer Fuglesang (Sweden) work to attach a new truss segment to the ISS and begin to upgrade the power grid. Will the next fifty years see such operations in the hands of private companies? Credit: STS-116 Shuttle Crew, NASA.

Without the shuttle, we move into a more redundant launch marketplace, one whose competitive nature should ultimately drive down the cost of getting into orbit. Diamandis is co-founder of Space Adventures, which brokers the process of getting private citizens into space. The eight deals it has cut so far have wound up costing roughly $50 million per person. Within five years, that price should be below $20 million, and soon after below $5 million. As prices drop, we can expect a flowering of new space activity:

Within the next several decades, privately financed research outposts will be a common sight in the night sky. The first one-way missions to Mars will be launched. Mining operations will spring up on the moon. More opportunities we have yet to even comprehend will come out of the frontier. One thing is certain: The next 50 years will be the period when we establish ourselves as a space-faring civilization.

That’s a vision that begins to square with the future in space that I used to imagine as a kid instead of the frustrating series of stops and starts we’ve seen in recent decades (though eased by triumphs like Voyager or Cassini). As private capital looks toward space in terms of investment, public/private partnerships pave the way for serious commercialization. S-type asteroids, for example, are composed of iron, magnesium silicates and, as Diamandis points out, various other metals including cobalt and platinum. A half-kilometer S-type asteroid could be worth more than $20 trillion. Diamandis again:

…companies and investors are realizing that everything we hold of value—metals, minerals, energy and real estate—are in near-infinite quantities in space. As space transportation and operations become more affordable, what was once seen as a wasteland will become the next gold rush. Alaska serves as an excellent analogy. Once thought of as “Seward’s Folly” (Secretary of State William Seward was criticized for overpaying the sum of $7.2 million to the Russians for the territory in 1867), Alaska has since become a billion-dollar economy.

It’s always been my contention that we will be forced into building a space-based infrastructure extending to the outer planets because of our need to protect our planet from Earth-crossing asteroids. But Diamandis’ essay reminds us of the key role private industry has played in converting technologies created by the government, from air mail to the Internet, and turning them into robust industries. There is, in other words, abundant opportunity to be found in space much closer to home, with government focusing more on pure science while remaining a major customer of newly energized private operators.

I’ll also buy Diamandis’ timetable of the next fifty years being the period when we either establish ourselves as a space-based civilization or fail in the attempt. Success would inevitably produce the kind of technologies that make exploring the outer fringes of our Solar System, deep into the Kuiper Belt and one day to the Oort Cloud, a workable possibility. We don’t know what propulsion systems might in the next century take us even further, but it’s surely in the process of developing our tools one step at a time — ad astra incrementis — that we’ll one day push our first probes into solar systems other than our own.

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This article was originally posted on Centauri Dreams