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Access to Space: It’s as Cheap and Easy as it will get for a Long Time

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Throughout most of our lifetimes, there has been a lot of talk and speculation about Human colonies beyond Earth. I personally grew up reading about how we would send people back to the Moon, then to Mars and beyond. We would establish settlements and on other planets and build spacious habitats out of metals mined in the asteroid belt. We would send our grandchildren to the outer planets on nuclear powered rockets and reap the bounty of the Solar System!

All we need is cheap and reliable access to space. The Space Shuttle was going to launch every week and only cost $20 million per launch. It would ride atop a carrier craft above the atmosphere where it would blast into orbit, deliver it’s payload and any passengers, and glide back to earth, to be refit, refueled and mated to it’s carrier plane for it’s next trip a few weeks later. It just had to be approved by Congress, which they did: after making it one of the biggest jobs programs since the New Deal. The Space Shuttle had been repurposed from a space transport system to a massively expensive vote buying scheme. The extreme decentralization and patronage, to the point of leaving a Krushchev era Soviet planner in shocked amazement, drove the per launch cost close to a billion dollars by the time the program was finally shut down.

At least we have cheap and reliable Russian Protons now that the Soviet Union has fallen and the Russians are desperate for hard currency, except that they aren’t really that cheap or reliable. Well, we have some startup companies who are going to get us into space on the cheap using old NASA surplus hardware (Huh?). Only in the past decade are we seeing any real practical alternatives, in the form of Dot Com billionaires putting their own money into spacecraft development. The most promising is SpaceX founded by Elon Musk. He has had his eye on Mars for a long time and finally developed a cheap rocket that will soon carry humans into space. He did so by using the same technology that has been available for the past three decades, only without the political interference, and shown how cheap space travel can be. The base price: $53 million for a cargo capacity comparable to the Space Shuttle. Interestingly, this amounts to around $20 million in 1980 dollars. We are finally at the point we were supposed to be 30 years ago!

Unfortunately, it looks like this is about as good as it will get any time soon. The Space Elevator is going nowhere, with the laws of physics getting in the way and all, not to mention the problems posed by micrometeorites, space junk, and monatomic oxygen if it does get built with some as yet undiscovered wonder material. Theoretically, carbon nanotubes have the strength needed. Maybe. With no significant safety margin. Other alternatives such as space guns and space piers have the same problems of prohibitively massive initial costs, fragility, and they are still useless for carrying people into space due to either long travel times (= high radiation exposure) or high acceleration.

Back to the subject of colonies in space, the main obstacle is carrying enough cargo to sustain a group of people in the most hostile environment imaginable for an indefinite time. We have to bring our own air, water food, and shelter, and it has to be enough shelter to live in full time. No going outside for a breath of fresh air. The solution would seem to be a concept commonly called ISRU: In Situ Resource Utilization. We would go to another planet and use locally available materials to produce what we need on site. We now know that water ice is abundant on the Moon, Mars and probably even the asteroid belt. We can electrolyze water to produce oxygen and hydrogen for life support and fuel. We also have rovers and an imaging satellite on Mars that can be used to find useful ores before we get there to aid selection of an initial colony site. We can use locally available minerals to build habitats and eventually grow our own food. We just need to bring the tools to take advantage of locally available resources.

Taking the case of a proposed Mars colony, a lot of thought has gone into the construction and supply of a colony. Since beginning my own research, I have found that little has been done on some very important details. One of these “little details” is the nature of construction materials. I just completed my Civil Engineering and my senior project was a study on the curing properties of magnesium oxychloride cement in a simulated Martian environment. This looks like a promising material for construction of large structures on Mars that can be made with a minimal amount of energy input. I assumed that similar research had been done before and was surprised to find otherwise. Rudimentary studies have been done on “mooncrete”, but it has little utility in building a Mars colony. While there are many ideas on how to build all sorts of space habitats, little research has been done on the production and fabrication of basic materials. The proponents of space colonization have focused on the big picture, but nobody has gone through the effort of the boring basic research needed to make their dreams a reality.

My study showed promising results and my paper has been posted on the Mars Foundation web site. I am now working on a design study for a Mars habitat that can be built within a reasonable time with locally available materials and equipment that can be carried on a single SpaceX Dragon. This is not complicated stuff and does not require any great genius, just a lot of hard work. The technology is here, we just need to develop appropriate equipment to get the job done. If anyone else is actively engaged in research along the same lines please contact me so we can compare notes or collaborate.

28 Comments so far

  1. The cost to LEO per kilogram claimed by SpaceX for the Falcon-9 Heavy is 5 to 10 times lower than current launchers (e.g. Delta, Atlas). That is already a potential game changer. [Even if we should have gotten there 30 years ago.] But it is by no means the end of the line. Of the US$53M launch cost for the F9Heavy, how much is fuel (and so an irreducible cost)? Just $200,000. That means that, with the right incentives, the cost/kg to LEO could come down another 50 times and fuel cost would still not be important. Achieving these cost savings means taking a for-profit approach, like SpaceX, and avoiding a monopoly. But we don’t need a new technology.

  2. The cost of putting a tonne to LEO, though much improved by Elon Musk, is still bound to be too high if the vehicles are single-use only. A re-usable launcher called MUSTARD was designed by the British Aircraft Corporation using NO new technology at all. We in the Spacefleet Project are proposing an updated version of MUSTARD to replace, say, Atlas-5, etc. Take a look at the picture on to see what we are talking about.

  3. I agree that SpaceX is a game changer, as Musk has shown just how economical existing technology can be. First, Martin you are mistaken on the launch cost. $53M is for the base Falcon 9, and the estimate for the Falcon 9 Heavy is $85M to $125M, still a big improvement. Second, I believe that the cost savings from re-usability is greatly overstated. Watch the videos of the Grasshopper” vehicle on the SpaceX website and you will notice that the landing gear, heat shield and fuel required for landing will add a lot of weight, and therefore will greatly reduce payload capacity. Additionally the hardware will need to be overhauled and reassembled after each launch, and this will cost at least a few million. The engines, pumps and airframe are all subject to a lot of wear on each launch and will perhaps last 5 to 10 flights. In a best case, launch costs could be reduced perhaps 50% to 75% with reduced capacity. It can help a lot, but let’s not forget that the cost of hardware is only one part of the picture. Beyond that, we run into the same problems that have plagued nuclear fusion research, that going from theory to application ends up being much more complicated than originally thought. My point is that rather than wishing for some far off technology or hoping for a breakthrough that may never come, we should plan using existing technology. In short, we will get into space with the equipment we have, not with the equipment we wish we had.

  4. During the cold war, the Russians maintained a pretty impressive launch rate, using large vehicles, by exploiting a production line approach and economies of scale. Any analysis of this topic needs to address these issues.

  5. Hi Brandon, might want to take a look at “The Flexible Path Flim Flam.”

    I have been following the private space scam for a couple years now; it is not what you think it is. It is basically just taxpayer subsidized LEO tourism courtesy of political contributions.

    You want to know what it takes to get us into the solar system? I suggest you read both Water and Bombs and How to Build a Spaceship.
    You can get to all my articles by clicking on my name on the top 10 author list.
    Regards, Gary

  6. Hi Keith
    ”-low cost powerful lasers is a game changer. ”

    I think Kevin Parkin and Escape Technologies is on a more promising path with Microwaves using gyrotrons from fusion research. But I say go full speed with lasers also; beam propulsion is the only way around the rocket equation and the only way close to the “cheap lift” everyone is always screaming about.

    IMO there is no cheap; space flight is inherently expensive. We might cut costs but it will always be expensive. So be it. We have to accept reality; something most people are not willing to do. The big example of this is the radiation problem- no one wants to talk about it. Cosmic radiation is the showstopper for beyond earth orbit human space flight. The problem can be solved but it will not be easy. Denial is not a solution.
    Regards, Gary

  7. Brandon, I’d like to encourage you to consider the Moon first. From a Lifeboat perspective, achieving a self-sustaining off-Earth colony is one of the highest priorities. The Moon’s ice contains water, ammonia, and methane and so has volatiles necessary for life support.

    Between the Moon and Mars, the Moon should be far less costly to achieve a minimally sufficient self-supporting colony (MSSC). Primarily this is because the humans controlling teleoperated equipment can be on Earth if we are developing the Moon whereas they would have to be in space (e.g. Deimos) if developing Mars. We all agree that people will need to go if we are going to have colonization, but initially, the landers can be proven by delivering hardware. If that hardware includes teleoperated mining robots, robonauts, solar panels, electrolyzers, containers, inflatable habitats, etc then they can do useful work in preparation for the arrival of humans.

    Also, the following picture from Bigelow Aerospace illustrates how regolith covering can be achieved simply by pouring it into a series of bags.

  8. Gary,
    I have already read your post you referred to and it sounds like you have a lot of information the rest of us do not have. Could you provide some specifics and sources for your arguments? First, what is the “one spacefaring nation” you mention? Is it Russia, which stands to lose a lot of business to SpaceX, or perhaps the Islamic Republic of Iran?

    I also find your criticism of the design, using multiple small engines and RP-1/LOX propellent. That combination has worked very well for the Soyuz rockets (which has 20 engines on the first stage). Yes, kerosene is not as efficient as hydrogen, but it has a lot of advantages over hydrogen that we should all be familiar with.

    I am also puzzled by your criticism of the escape/deorbit system. Whether it has enough thrust to safely abort remains to be seen when it is finished and tested. The idea of using this system to raise the orbit of an orbiting hotel sounds strange since that would make the Dragon unable to deorbit afterward, so I would like o hear where you got that idea. As for the amount of hypergolic fuel being a hazard, it is the same type of fuel used in the deorbit engines on the Space Shuttle and other spacecraft, yet I do not believe there has ever been a problem in past flights.

    If you have any specific information to back up your claims then please share it with us.

  9. Keith,

    Are you referring to the lightcraft concept? It looked like a good idea but I haven’t heard anything about it in a few years. I haven’t had time to read of the link you posted, so has any more progress been made on that? From what I saw the main problem with that idea was the lack of fault tolerance in the alignment of the beam and craft. If that could be made to work it would make this whole discussion pointless.

    Also Stuart, the Soviets achieved what they did through a command economy, slave labor and devotion of a huge portion of their GDP to their space program. Their current low rates are mainly due to a huge difference in PPP and Russia’s need for hard currency.

    The problem with relying on mass production and economy of scale here is that for it to work requires enough demand, and the demand will probably not materialize without the lower prices brought about by economies of scale.

  10. Brandon,
    I am not going to waste my time explaining all of this to you. Your little quip about Iran tells me you are not taking me serious so why should I?
    Your remark about 20 engines is enough to demonstrate you are not well informed on space technology; 5 turbopumps are not 20 engines any more than the engine on the Atlas is considered a double.
    I am more than willing to join forces with you in advocating space travel and colonization if you can open your eyes to the truth and think about the private space agenda and what these “entrepreneurs” are really after. But if you are just another space clown wannabe- you will get nothing but scorn and scathing commentary from me on any private space propaganda you regurgitate here.

  11. Apparently the “one spacefaring nation” Gary was hinting at was China. This is from Aviation Week and Space Technology, April 15, 2011:
    “Declining to speak for attribution, the Chinese officials say they find the published prices on the SpaceX website very low for the services offered, and concede they could not match them with the Long March series of launch vehicles even if it were possible for them to launch satellites with U.S. components in them.”

    I am not an expert on space hardware, and if I am wrong about something I am willing to be corrected. You say that I am regurgitating “private space propaganda” and call me a space clown wannabe, but you will not even give specific information on why you think it is a scam? Why should anyone take you seriously when you expect us to take your opinions on faith? So I was wrong about one detail of the Soyuz design, how about educating us all on the rest of your arguments. If you want to have a dialog on access to space I am open to any ideas. If, however you want to “regurgitate anti-capitalist propaganda” and insult anyone who disagrees with you, then I will ignore you. The only reason I believe SpaceX is because they have working hardware and a series of launch contracts. The only way you will convince me otherwise is with specific facts showing otherwise.

  12. “I believe that the cost savings from re-usability is greatly overstated.”

    As Elon emphasizes, a reusable rocket system must be “fully” reusable and “rapidly” reusable to achieve big cost reductions. That is, no high cost parts are thrown away and turnaround between flights is quick and done with a modest size workforce — not the 10k standing army used for the Shuttles. With fast turnaround, the smaller payload size, i.e. because of the landing gear, etc that you mention, is more than made up for by a high launch rate.

    There are no deep physical laws preventing fully and rapidly reusable systems. For example, if robustness is made the top priority over absolute performance, engines can be run hundreds of times. There have been tests of some large engines where they were fired for hours. XCOR’s smaller engines for the suborbital Lynx are expected ultimately to run without wear for thousands of flights.

    What is needed, but has never been attempted by NASA or DoD, is a systematic, incremental development process for reusable space transports. That is, start with modest size systems and multiple designs and let a survival of the fittest battle take place. That is the normal way that successful technologies are developed.

    Thankfully we are finally seeing this come about in the private sector. There are multiple companies developing fully and rapidly reusable suborbital transports of multiple designs. All of them have plans in mind for orbital systems but they need to learn from suborbital spaceflight first. Blue Origin, for example, has shown a sketch of a reusable orbital booster design but it plans first to do suborbital (plus fly an orbital crew module on an expendable booster.) As noted here, SpaceX has both reusable boosters and a reusable crew module in development.

    Contrary to your original thesis, we are for the first time on track towards low cost access to space. There will be lots of setbacks and disappointments (see “survival of the fittest” above), but, if the funding and willpower hold up, it will happen.

  13. How can you claim that space launch is “as cheap as it will get for a long time” when the facts show otherwise? The prices for the Falcon 9 include amortization of development costs and a substantial profit margin. After the development costs have been paid off and manufacturing has smoothed out the per flight costs will drop. More so, there is the Falcon Heavy design which is largely an incremental improvement of the Falcon 9 hardware. It offers 5x the payload capacity of the Falcon 9 at only around 2x the cost (a 2.5x cost reduction). SpaceX is also developing a fully reusable version of the Falcon 9 (which would naturally lead to a fully reusable Falcon Heavy as well), which could potentially lower launch costs by another factor of 10 to 100x within the next few decades.

    A 60% cost reduction within the next year or two and a 90–99% cost reduction within the next decade or so after that are far from inconsequential and will dramatically affect the prospects for off Earth colonization.

  14. SpaceX is to be commended. They are on track to drive LOE costs down.
    Bigalow is up there waiting for customers.

    I am currently reviewing ballistic launch for supplies and fuel.
    This would involve having fuel depots in space and allow many companies to bid to lift supplies and fuel to LOE.
    With balistic launch, leave the first and second stages on the ground and use the 3rd stage to circularize the orbit. Costs could come down by a factor of 10.
    Political NASA seems to have driven us into a deadend.

  15. Mr.Larson: I could not find the comments and I would like to read them. I worked as a NASA employee (GSE design engineer) from 1958 until my resignation in 1977. Nothing in your article offends me at all.

  16. If you want practical space exploration, people will need to get over their irrational fear of nuclear based propulsion systems. While laser may be a decent intermediary step. If you really want to get speed out of a spacecraft, nuclear is the way to go.

    The saddest part is we could have been working on this 50 years ago.

  17. Two eternal engineering truths:
    1) Possible–>Practical ~ always
    2) Naysayers never admit 1 is true.

    Possible cost reduction technology:
    SSTO reusable — Will be large, if possible; build one and find out.
    Polywell fusion — One variant produces high ISP deep space propulsion
    The ’ Dumbo’ design — a fission powered thermal rocket

  18. Note that the SpaceX cost quotes are for the *expendable* versions of designs that they intend to eventually make *reusable*. Although it turned out that the first stage of cost reductions involved improvements in business organization rather than improvements in technology, that doesn’t mean the improvements in technology aren’t going to be important too. If Musk can produce nearly an order of magnitude cost reduction while still throwing rockets away and building new ones for each flight, imagine what he might be able to pull off when “build new rockets” has been replaced by “refuel the old ones”.

  19. The point of my post is that after decades of trying, big dumb chemical rockets are the best we have for getting into orbit. While it is true that advanced propulsion systems will be useful for getting around the solar system and beyond, they are useless for launch from the Earth’s surface. The infrastructure for a multiplanet economy will not come into being until there is a permanent presence in space, so initial colonization will need to be done with existing technology. The inescapable fact is that space exploration is expensive, and a promise of public funding is only good for the current election cycle, and most of the public does not and will not care. A viable pan will have to be created that is achievable on a reasonable time scale with available hardware and facilities in order to get enough funding from the private sector.

    I am doing research on doing exactly this, starting with basic industrial processes. I am involved with the Mars Foundation and may be able to get some industry backing. If anyone is doing the same thing or wants to collaborate, please contact me. There is a link to my Linkedin profile on my bio page.

    On reusability, the problem is that a rocket is not comparable to a car or airplane. You can not just “refuel it and go”. Take a look at the Spacex website and they show everything that is involved in preparing a Falcon 9 for launch. The transportation and assembly is not trivial, and it will need to be repeated for each launch. Before that happens, it will need to be recovered from the landing site and put through a thorough inspection and overhaul. I would expect this to cost at least a few million. Additionally, the expected service life would only be 5 to 10 flights. I think Spacex is only claiming a service life for the Dragon of 10 fights, and that is a fairly simple and robust piece of hardware. Then look at the videos of their reusable rocket in operation. The landing gear, heat shield and extra fuel will add weight and reduce payload. I do not doubt that it can be done and it may greatly reduce launch costs, but to expect an order of magnitude reduction in costs is far too optimistic.

  20. “- how about educating us all on the rest of your arguments. If you want to have a dialog on access to space I am open to any ideas.”

    I wrote my articles with sources cited (water and bombs) and plenty of expose on private space; you want me to do it all over again on this comment thread?

    ” If, however you want to “regurgitate anti-capitalist propaganda” and insult anyone who disagrees with you, then I will ignore you.”

    Well, let’s not ignore each other. I did not call you a space clown wannabe. You said I called you that which is basically insulting me.
    Now, IF.….you are serious about being open to new ideas, then write an article on a single issue we can debate. I will answer the article with my own. And write my own that you can then answer. This way people will read our discourse and we do not have to fill up our own comment sections and allow others a voice.

    To sum up my whole opinion of private space in points, I guess I would have to say that it is a scam because;
    1. The only profit as such to be had is “billionaut bordellos” in LEO. The “X” is space X is a lie. LEO is not space exploration and it is misrepresenting itself as such.
    2. Space Stations are a dead end and the inferior lift vehicles being hyped cannot support any BEO activity. Their whole house of cards falls with orbital depots and transfer. Which is just a smokescreen to allow tax dollars to flow into their tourist business.
    3. The U.S. spends vast treasure on the DOD and most of this is simply corporate greed. We have the most powerful launch hardware on earth and are not using it. Why? Not enough profit in space- spaceships have to work, unlike so many cold war toys that generate immense profit without doing anything except sitting there after rigged sham tests.

    Private space is a sideshow, a distraction, a smokescreen, and a scam.
    It is the worst thing that has ever happened to space exploration.

  21. “The idea of using this system to raise the orbit of an orbiting hotel sounds strange since that would make the Dragon unable to deorbit afterward, so I would like to hear where you got that idea.”

    I did not “hear” it. I read it. Both the Dragon and Boeing CST-100 are using these “dual purpose” systems for abort and station raising. The problem is they sacrifice all the excellent acelleration capability of the traditional solid fuel escape tower- which gets expended before the critical last phase of the burn where every pound counts.
    Private space sycophants complain that the solid fuel tower has too much pwer and could injure the crew. Ridiculous. Much like the arguments they use when saying kerosene is actually a superior propellant compared to Liquid Hydrogen. Ridiculous.
    Brandon, these people are peddling B.S. to the public trying to cash in.

  22. “In short, we will get into space with the equipment we have, not with the equipment we wish we had.”

    I agree completely; the 5 segment SRB, SSME, Boeing RS-68, and the J-2X are ready for heavy lift missions BEO.

    The junk being peddled by SpaceX to carry blow up tents into LEO as billionaut bordellos are not what anyone would wish for (except billionauts wanting an LEO bordello and those wanting to get paid for pandering to the obscene spending habits of the ultra-rich).


  23. To everyone claiming that launch costs can be reduced by 90% or more by reusability or calling me a naysayer, I am just trying to be realistic. I admit that there could be some cost savings, but the reduced payload, refit costs and short service life will limit the savings that can e achieved. Remember that the Space Shuttle was designed and built from the beginning to be completely reusable, and they still needed a complete overhaul after each flight. Additionally, the main engines were only good for 5 flights before being replaced. Even if Musk is successful the best we can hope for is for launch costs to be a significant fraction of what they are now. Even half or a third of current costs are very expensive.

    Don’t misunderstand me, I really hope I am wrong on this. I would be thrilled to be proven wrong on this. I am just trying to be realistic. Reusable does not mean “gas and go” as it sounds like some people think. It just means lower hardware costs, which are just a part of the total picture.

  24. “Are you trolling all of the discussion boards because they wouldn’t give you money to leave them alone?”

    You call me a troll again and we will not be friends anymore. Don’t be a jerk. Disprove anything I am exposing with facts (besides the dollar sign babble paragraphs that others try to pass off as fact) and then you will not be the troll.
    At this point you are just advertising like the rest of the space clown informercial crew and do not belong on this blog anymore than Mad Otto the conspiracy nut.

  25. “Their whole house of cards falls with orbital depots and transfer.”

    It would certainly help if you include some hard numbers substantiating why should this be infeasible. What is the boiloff rate during storage and transfer, why is it too much etc..

  26. “include some hard numbers”

    I believe the responsibility to supply hard numbers comes from the flexible path advocates. Cryo transfer in space has never been done because it is a nightmare.
    HLV’s were and are the solution but private space wants nothing to do with them because.…..I am not going to keep explaining it over and over. You can read my past comments and essays. I have found that most space clown wannabes just want to endlessly post their B.S. and I will not play that game anymore. (And I did not call you a space clown Brandon- I am still waiting for that apology).

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