The New Mexico Space Technology Applications Research Group
(With apologies to LIS for the title of this post).
Neil Armstrong's famous step and giant leap for mankind was a great inspiration for a generation of potential future space travelers. For us, it was the end of a beginning. Others viewed the Apollo lunar landings as wasteful government spending on what was essentially nothing more than a publicity stunt. For them, instead, it was the beginning of the end. In the tug-of-war that typically defines national politics, the space program was decimated. Valuable science and engineering talent rotted on the vine. In many respects, it was a shameful period in US history.
Throughout this inglorious period of time, however, some visionaries tried to revive the ailing space program. These individualists seemed to settle on the same themes of earth orbit and lunar surface colonization, with the one unifying and recurring motif being the re-usability of space vehicles. But sometimes dreams fall in mid-flight; theirs certainly did. However, we, of the New Mexico STAR Group, have picked up the challenge. We can finish what these dreamers started!
What we discovered was a shocking truth: every one of these well-intentioned ideas for a space program consistently ignored one of the most important equations in all of rocketry: funding. Funding is what makes rockets fly; it is as important an equation as any Hohmann Transfer Orbit equation. To ignore this fundamental truth is to doom any space endeavor to never leaving the ground. No bucks, no Buck Rogers! It’s as true today as it was back then.
So what if there was a different way of doing business? And what does the solution to the funding equation look like?
This diary attempts to answer these questions. Our research will be substantiated and corroborated; it will be laid out step-by-step and in a logical manner. You do not have to be a rocket scientist anymore to understand the space business. And if you do happen to be a rocket scientist, then you will appreciate what we have done.
Continued below the Not-Quite-Red-Shifted DKos Elliptical Galaxy...
Many aerospace and astronautics companies have excellent ideas within their particular niche. These companies, and their ideas, would indeed flourish if the infrastructure were there to support them. Alas, many great ideas never leave the ground, so to speak, for lack of a way to get to space cheaply, and/or for lack of a vehicle that can orbit the moon, let alone land on it.
This diary addresses those concerns, and more. Instead of developing ideas related to one particular astronautical niche, ALL ideas are presented. One great idea cannot work without an underlying infrastructure to support it. Like any society, everything depends upon everything else in order to function smoothly.
For example, the idea of mining the moon for valuable commodities such as aluminum and oxygen might sound great, until it is realized that you need some kind of permanent structure on the lunar surface. But before you can have have a permanent structure on the moon, you must first be able to land on the moon. But before you can land on the moon, you must first be able to orbit the moon. But before you can orbit the moon, you must first be able to orbit the earth. To ignore these truths is to doom any space endeavor to failure.
To create a business model leaving the infrastructure to other businesses or to any government is to be dependent on them. If the business or government fails to deliver on their end of the bargain, then what?
A company may be able to come up with a new way to extract oxygen from the moon, but the device will always remain earth-bound if there are no vehicles capable of delivering the device to the lunar surface. Sometimes, especially in the space business, you just have to do it yourself. To be able to do ANYTHING in space, you must be able to do it ALL in space. This is the only way to assure success for any space endeavor.
But as everyone in the space industry knows, to take these endeavors to its logical conclusion, which is, paying for it all, is undoubtedly a very challenging proposition. Ergo, trying to make a profit in space is even more difficult, if not impossible.
Unless you know the secret...
This diary outlines how to achieve the seemingly unachievable: making quite a tidy profit in space. Specifically, we will see that any start-up costs would be paid back within the first year that our shuttle becomes operational. That payback would amount to 500% of the initial investment. No, that is not a typo - five hundred percent! No other diary can claim such an astonishing fact, especially in the field of astronautics.
The payback will be high, and it will come at a fairly expensive price. However, we will get quite a “bang” for our “buck”, which is to say, there will be a substantial return on investment. For example, before any great achievement can be made in space, there must first exist an economical and easy way to get to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The old saying is still true today: LEO is half way to anywhere in the solar system. Cost is the key to success or failure! The Space Shuttle that the USA had operated for 30 years had an average cost that was closer to what some expendable rockets cost to operate. On top of that, the Shuttle could only muster a handful of flights per annum. This is an excellent example of how not to run a shuttle fleet.
Part of keeping the cost down is that our shuttle will be totally reusable, unlike the Space Shuttle which discarded its fuel tank after every launch. Our shuttle will have the ability to launch 200 flights per year, which comes out to the amazing rate of 4 launches per week! This means that each shuttle will have a one-month turnaround time. True, a turnaround time of less than one month would be deemed by some as a near-impossible task. But make no mistake: it is possible to build such a vehicle; they designed this very vehicle back in 1971!
Therefore, there really is one (and only one) thing stopping all of this from going forward: money.
Funding is what makes rockets fly. Yes, yes, you need liquid hydrogen tanks and Hohmann transfer orbit calculations and other such things; but really, it is funding that make rockets fly. The funding equation is just as important as any delta-v calculation. To ignore this is to doom a rocket to never leaving the ground.
Our shuttle will be very expensive to build, but it will be very inexpensive to fly. In contrast, the USA Space Shuttle was (relatively) economical to build, but was very expensive to fly. Even then, our development cost should be relatively inexpensive. The trick here is to use 1960s ideas with 2010s technology. It would be like we were in the 1960s and, all of a sudden, this futuristic technology was dropped on our laps. Think of the machines we could build!
This off-the-shelf technology is the absolute key to success; it helps to drive down the development costs. For example, we would go to the McDonnell Douglas and Martin Marietta companies, and tell them to dust off their reusable space shuttle design that they had in 1971. Most of the initial design studies have already been completed, and most of the technological development needed has been completed in the last 30 years with information gleaned from the now-retired Space Shuttle. Therefore, our cost should be reduced, even if they still remain at astronomical levels (pun intended). The less development necessary, the less it costs. Coupled with reduced launch costs due to re-usability, our shuttle would revolutionize the space industry.
Once the shuttle has been developed, other space vehicles would then need to be added to the fleet. Each vehicle will function within its niche. For example, a reusable Orbital Transfer Vehicle that can deliver passengers to the moon, or satellites to a higher earth orbit. Or an Orbital Utility Vehicle that will work around the space station (and yes, we’ll have one of those too). These vehicles obviously imply that the art of orbital refueling will have to be mastered, a must for any space-faring civilization, and one that humans have so far little experience with. Everything else humans already have experience with, from orbital rendezvous to landing on the moon.
Putting everything together, a solid foundation on which to build a complete space program emerges...
Once the foundation has been laid, there will then be three (very) different revenue streams:
1. The Satellite Launching Industry
2. The Space Tourism Industry
3. The Lunar Commodity Extraction Industry
Satellites would be launched as separate parts (reducing insurance costs), then assembled in LEO. An Orbital Transfer Vehicle would then place the satellite into their proper orbit. One hundred satellites per year
multiplied by $40M dollars to launch each satellite means $4B annually.
If Virgin Galactic can charge $200K for a 15-minute ride into space, wouldn't the same customer pay $2M to stay a week in a hotel in Low Earth Orbit? I think so. Six tourists per shuttle multiplied by 200 shuttle flights per year means $2.4B annually.
Just between the first two revenue streams alone, the company is already generating around $6.4B a year in sales, and it hasn't even gotten to the moon yet!
Doubtless that this will be very expensive to pull off. And it is also true that the satellite launching business along with the space tourism business is not going to generate enough income to pay back the enormous start-up costs, yet alone pay for the annual costs of running the business. Nevertheless, the claim made earlier of a payback to investors of 500% of their initial investment is not retracted. So how is this possible?
The third revenue stream is the most lucrative, and will be, paradoxically, the least used. There exists a substance on the moon that is very uncommon on planet earth. By uncommon, I mean less than a ton exists on the entire planet. Indeed, it is so rare that there are reports of this commodity fetching a fair market price of around $10K per carat. As it turns out, this substance is very easy to extract, if you happen to be on the moon, of course. So mining costs are virtually negligible, once you get there.
Our spacecraft will be capable of transporting over 90K pounds of this material back to earth very easily. Therefore (assuming we use one-fourth of the aforementioned minimum fair market price), our company would generate about half a trillion dollars. Let me pause here to let that sink in. By the way, that figure is in USD. This is more than enough to pay back investors 500%.
For those still skeptical, consider this: even if this commodity fetched only one-tenth the minimum fair market price, the company would still generate over $200B in revenue. Of course, it is then a very simple matter of going back and getting more: just refuel the already orbiting (and waiting) spacecraft, and go!
So, no matter what, we would generate enough revenue to not only pay back the investors, but also pay for a few years of operating cost of running the business (including shuttle launches), complete the space infrastructure so that we could start up the satellite and space tourism businesses, invest in the local New Mexico community (such as hospitals and schools), and fund an engineering research group to design and build the next generation of spacecraft to replace our (by then) aging fleet.
We could try to keep the price of this commodity high by restricting the amount returned, since the more material that is brought back to earth, the less it will sell for, but, eventually, the price would be reduced to about its weight in gold. If that ever happened, would we allocate sufficient resources to extract it? In other words, if the moon were made of gold, would we spend the money to go get it? I believe the answer is yes, as long as the quantity extracted is sufficient.
Space is an interesting place to live and work. Still, to become a true space-faring civilization, two hurdles need to be overcome: orbital cryogenic refueling, and lunar commodity extraction. Once we master these, space exploration and profits will finally be able to go together. Once profits become the norm in the space business, the potential is virtually unlimited (aren't you glad I didn’t say “astronomical”?).
I mean, if a person would pay two million dollars to stay a week in LEO, wouldn't they pay ten million dollars to stay a month on the moon?
This is an exciting opportunity to try and do it right this time in space. It’s also a win-win scenario for everyone. We get to inspire the next generation of potential future space travelers, all while making history. Wouldn’t it be nice to (finally) make some money while we’re doing all that inspiring and history making?
A version of this diary was cross-posted at NMSTARG.