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To Open The Sky

The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter

Things Worth Doing in Space

(That We're Not Already Doing)

Just for comparison, here's the briefest rundown on the current uses of space, followed by a summary of revenues from one segment:

  • Communications satellites (worldwide news and sports broadcast, among other uses)
  • Weather satellites
  • Imaging satellites
  • Solar storm warning
  • ELB monitoring and locating (aids rescue of downed pilots, foundering ships, lost hikers)
  • Global Positioning System
  • Photoreconaissance and ELINT (ELectronic INTelligence — eavesdropping on radio communications)
  • Science probes

Satcom Revenues

A study by the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) and the Futron Corporation found that the commercial satellite industry generated $65.9 billion in revenues in 1998, up nearly 15 percent from 1997. Nearly half of that — $30.7 billion — was generated by American firms.

The largest fraction of the total, $26.2 billion, came from the sale of satellite services, such as leasing transponders on satellites and subscriptions to satellite programming. Satellite manufacture accounted for $17.6 billion, and launch services $7 billion. The rest came from the manufacture and sale of ground equipment.

By comparison, a parallel study of government space programs, performed by Henry Hertzfeld of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, found that civilian space programs worldwide spent $19.5 billion in 1998. That total excludes Russia, the Ukraine, and China, where data is hard to come by or properly interpret, but the addition of those countries would only slightly increase the overall total. The figure rises to $36.5 billion when military space programs are added.

The studies show that the commercial space industry is already spending more to build and launch satellites than the total budgets of the world's civilian space programs. This continues an existing trend that saw commercial spending cross over civilian government spending within the last few years, depending on the figures used.

This trend is expected to continue for at least the near future, according to Futron senior analyst Ethan Hasse. "While the survey results indicate that the launch and manufacturing sectors of the industry are cyclical," he noted, "the long-term prospects for revenue growth remain strong thanks to expanding demand for communications and entertainment services."

Source: Utah Space Association

Except for GPS, I expect the above items are either old hat to you, or below your notice. But listing them is worthwhile as a comparison to the novel uses. The 1998 satellite communication revenues hint at the possibilities of much less expensive access to orbit. Here are brief descriptions of some possibilities.

Rocket Freight

First on the list of novel activities is rapid package delivery. Think of this as a sort of "Super FedEx" 1. Items that are critically needed halfway around the world would be placed aboard a small cargo rocket. That would fly a ballistic trajectory to a spaceport near the destination, offloading the item and ideally enabling a portal-to-portal time under two hours. This assumes a small fleet of ships based at dispersed locations for quick global coverage. They probably would not need to be capable of making orbit. Economic analyses of this concept have shown that it can be profitable under quite conservative assumptions. For more information, see Halfway to Anywhere by G. Harry Stine.

Fixing Satellites

Satellite recovery and repair is job two. The targets are satellites which break down, wind up in the wrong orbit due to booster malfunction, run out of propellant or other consumables, or simply exceed their design lifetimes and become useless junk. In all such cases, the satellite would either be repaired in place or brought back to Earth for proper disposition. The job requires a considerably more capable class of ship than package delivery, but only a small number would be needed — certainly less than ten.

Space Tourism

Now we come to the real goody: tourist jaunts into space. Interest in tours to space (as opposed to missions) goes back a long way. In 1986, there was a tour company based in Seattle, called Space Expeditions, that had plans to use a modified SpaceHab module to carry 20 or so tourists aboard the space shuttle. Some deposits, typically $5,000, had been taken, but this plan fell through and they were returned. Additionally, a number of architecture and design studies on orbiting tourist facilities have been done — notably by the American hotelier Barron Hilton.

Interest in Japan has been strong for some time. Last year, a prototype of a Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) was tested in a flight of about 30 feet. The Japanese Rocket Society has been studying the use of such an RLV (called Kankoh-maru) since 1993. (Their publications can be found on the Space Future site.)

More recently, a number of companies have been organized to promote space tourism. (See links below for more information.) There is even an industry trade organization which has held two annual Space Tourism Expos, in 2000 and 2001. (There is no mention of a Space Tourism Expo this year. I assume it was cancelled due to the state of the economy.) And there has been substantial research, by private companies and individuals, into the market potential of such ventures.

However, it has been hard approaching impossible to get any US government agencies involved. In particular, NASA, in whose bailiwick facilitating space tourism would naturally fall, has been wary to hostile to the subject. A tourism workshop, suggested in 1996 by congressional activity, was performed in February 1997 at Georgetown University by STA personnel with NASA involvement. This workshop organized a study which continued for some time, and released its report at a joint NASA-STA press conference on March 25, 1998. (The Executive Summary is online at Not much has been heard about this since.

Dennis Tito, who rode a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station early in 2001, received a less than whole-hearted welcome from NASA. There is some justification for that, since ISS was then (and is now) under construction, and in any case is not designed for casual visitors. However, NASA handled the matter poorly from Dan Goldin on down.

First of all, Dennis Tito was not a typical tourist. Before making his fortune in the financial services realm, he had been a trajectory engineer at JPL, calculating the paths future Mars probes would follow. Second, he took all the training required of him, a total of about six months. Indeed, it was NASA that balked at training Tito; when he showed up in Houston with the cosmonauts who would fly the Soyuz, NASA barred him from entry. They relented only because the two cosmonauts backed him up with an "all of us, or none" ultimatum. Then, once he was aboard ISS, he had to stay in the Russian portions unless a NASA astronaut was free to escort him — and they are kept quite busy. It is a complicated story, and I don't know all the facts. However, it is clear that NASA has regarded tourism as a hot potato.

That situation may be changing. NASA headquarters has since issued a set of guidelines for tourist visits, and a second tourist, South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth, has visited the Station. Plans for two more are in work. And the space agency has, finally, sponsored research into the vital question of how many potential tourists there are and how much they would pay.

The study was conducted in May of 2002 by Futron Corporation and Zogby International. A telephone survey of 450 adults earning over $250,000 or having $1M net worth showed that 7% would spend $20M for a two-week stay in the International Space Station. The percentage rose to 16% at a price point of $5M. More were interested if their stay was to be at a commercial facility. The final report is to be released next year. But a press release with some details is on-line.

Medical Benefits

Medical research on human physiology in space may have great benefits. The primary one would be learning how to alleviate the harmful effects of long-term exposure to free fall. These effects include loss of bone tissue, muscle atrophy, and diminished immune functions. The International Space Station is the ideal place (indeed the only place) to solve such problems — and they must be solved if humans are to explore the solar system first-hand. Beyond this utilitarian aspect, it is quite likely that the answers will help us treat some of our Earthly ills as well.

Materials Science

Several other areas of science may benefit as well. One is materials research. Such processes as casting molten metals, alloying metals of different densities, and growing semiconductor crystals may be improved by research done on them under microgravity conditions. Another potential advance may come from the fact that crystals of pharmaceutical compounds grow larger in microgravity. To synthesize these compounds, we must know not just their chemical formulas, but the three-dimensional molecular structures as well. This is determined by x-ray diffraction, and the larger the crystal, the better that works.

There is no sharp line of demarcation, it is true. Pharmaceutical companies have learned to grow much better crystals in earthbound laboratories. Also, drop towers may be used to give a few seconds of microgravity — often enough to let a small sample of molten alloy solidify. By these and other means, many of the advantages of manufacturing in Earth orbit my be obtained — or at least evaluated — without the expense of space flight. Yet, without doing long-term research on microgravity manufacturing, we will never know on which side of the line a particular technique falls.

On-orbit Construction

Construction activities in space offer a wide range of benefits, commensurate with their magnitude. In the near term, assembly of spacecraft on orbit should allow them to be made less sturdily, and slash the expense of testing. Being intended for an environment without weight, a spacecraft such as a communications satellite could be quite flimsy — except for one thing: It has to be launched on a rocket. There it will be subject to one of the severest acceleration, vibration and acoustic noise environments industrial equipment is required to undergo. Therefore, each spacecraft is assembled on the ground and subjected to a battery of shock, vibration and noise tests. If this could be avoided, perhaps by packing the components in bubble wrap as we do with fragile parcels on Earth, many of those tests wouldn't be needed.

On-orbit assembly has another potential benefit. Recall how often you're heard of a spacecraft whose antenna failed to deploy, or whose solar arrays jammed up before they were fully unfurled. If only someone could get up there and jostle the mechanism! That problem goes away if the spacecraft is assembled on orbit, because it can also be checked out on orbit, by live people who can tweak and jostle and realign as much as necessary before sending it on its way.

Larger-scale construction activities, such as building habitats or mining asteroids, would give us proportionally greater benefits. But let me dispel one myth about mining. For a long time, it will be unlikely that anything mined or refined in space would be worth shipping back to Earth's surface. The shipping cost wipes out the profit. Even helium-3, potential fuel for fusion reactors (when we learn how to build them) is, given its low concentration on the moon, hardly worth bringing back to Earth. No, the profit in such materials will be in using them in space. For example, consider water. On Earth, we have plenty. On the moon, even a few swimming-pools' worth would be more precious than platinum. With recycling, they might supply a modest base for years. Or they might be electrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen, propellants for ships journeying farther out into the solar system.

Solar Power Satellites are a special class of large-scale construction task. They offer a substantial benefit — plentiful, pollution-free power — but also formidable problems. First, simply lifting the materials from Earth is orders of magnitude beyond our current ability. That is why Gerard O'Neill, who first proposed them, planned on getting most of the materials from the Moon or asteroids, avoiding the full 1-gravity lift penalty. There are also environmental concerns about the effects of the microwave beams that carry the power to users on Earth. These appear to be soluble, but at the cost of lowering the intensity of the beams. Then, larger receiving antenna arrays are needed, and allocation of land becomes a major issue — much as it does with getting large amounts of power from Earth-bound photovoltaic arrays.

Gerard O'Neill and his Space Studies Institute have taken a leading role in studying the construction and operation of manufacturing facilities in space. They have identified a number of candidates for which locating in space is a better option than Earth's surface — given only a suitably lowered launch cost. The rationale for this is two-fold: making use of the unique resources of space (hard vacuum, solar power for heating and electricity, microgravity) and removing from the biosphere substantial hazards (nuclear technology, semiconductor manufacture, pharmaceuticals and bio technology).

It all comes back to the cost of that first step. Because it presently costs so much to put a pound of anything in orbit, space is off limits to all sorts of industrial devices, processes and activities that we take for granted on Earth. Lowering that prohibitive cost significantly will not only enable much more of what we're already doing with such difficulty — it will change our outlook, bringing about a paradigm shift so that activities we now regard as senseless in space will become everyday occurrences — much as space travel itself did, only 45 years ago.

Here are some links for further investigation of these concepts, and especially space tourism. (Updated 4 Dec 2014.)

1 It's worth noting that during the recession of the late 1990s, while stocks in general dropped 40% in value, shares of Federal Express rose 29%.
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