The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

lunar ilustration
With a giant federal subsidy for space access, what ingenious space applications will people be able to implement? (credit: P. Smith)

Don’t wait for cheap orbital access

The Nation’s highway system is a gigantic enterprise, one of our largest items of capital investment. Generations have gone into its building. Three million, three hundred and sixty-six thousand miles of road, travelled by 58 million motor vehicles, comprise it. The replacement cost of its drainage and bridge and tunnel works is incalculable. One in every seven Americans gains his livelihood and supports his family out of it. But, in large part, the network is inadequate for the nation’s growing needs.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, February 22, 1955

President Eisenhower proposed spending $31 billion on the Interstate Highway System over 10 years in 1955. That is $213 billion in 2005 dollars and not too far off the current six-year highway plan’s $284 billion. I propose a ten-year, $150-billion federal subsidy to bootstrap space development.

Space is integrated into the world economy. GPS, telecommunications bandwidth, direct broadcast media, and imagery and other space services are making our economy ever more efficient and productive. Comparing current services to what could be enabled by extensive space development is like comparing ice to steam.

A $15-billion-per-year subsidy even at $5,000/kg would be able to launch three million kilograms into space per year for ten years. That is the equivalent of 133 shuttle flights worth of payload per year for ten years. If launchers such as the Falcon 5 prove to be feasible at the quoted price of $2,600/kg, it may be that a $1,500/kg subsidy will achieve ten million kilograms payload into space per year for ten years. That would be the equivalent of 440 shuttle flight’s worth of payload per year. If a few companies build Saturn 5-class launchers, prices could drop to about $260/kg. Then a $150/kg subsidy might garner 100 million kilograms of payload per year or 4,400 shuttle flights worth of payload. That 30—1,000 million kg delivered with a federal subsidy over the course of ten years would likely induce sufficient economies of scale that afterwards the market could adequately function without subsidy.

This is the same kind of bootstrapping that the US government provided to aviation when it passed the Airmail Act of 1925 and the McNary-Watres Act of 1930. These provided about $70 million in federal subsidies for ten years. That is about $800 million in today’s dollars. Orbital travel is harder than air travel so a bigger subsidy is needed to spark a space commerce rush.

A $15-billion-per-year subsidy even at $5,000/kg would be able to launch three million kilograms into space per year for ten years. That is the equivalent of 133 shuttle flights worth of payload per year for ten years.

The subsidy level should be set on a sliding scale so that the US government is not risking busting the budget by oversubscription to the subsidy. If the US committed $15 billion to commercial launch subsidies for ten years straight, there would likely be a flurry of activity. With the drought in heavy-lift demand and the production lines still open for far too many launchers, the market has the ability to rapidly expand capacity. Several vendors would step up to provide hundreds of launches each. Boeing, Lockheed, ATK Thiokol, SpaceX, and a half a dozen new names would compete. The subsidy could be awarded as an annual pool with the division of the $15 billion pro-rated by mass of payload.

Regulatory reform, insurance reform, and a major upgrade and streamlining of the federal ranges would be in order. The level of activity would be about six launches per day of super-heavy-lifters carrying 50,000 kilograms payload in the billion-kilogram case.

With vendors willing to lift anything for any reason to qualify for the subsidy, they will rapidly exhaust all existing sources of demand in all but the lowest tonnage scenario. The International Space Station would be full up every week with the subsidized cost of access down to $100–$1,000/kg. Ticket prices would be $150,000–$1.5 million. Bigelow Aerospace would have to get into high gear and launch a number of Nautiluses (Nautili?) to keep up with demand at that level. If there were ten space hotels, with a Falcon 5 every week (2,500 orbital tourists per year), that would still only be three percent of tonnage in the high volume scenario.

Maybe someone could take the remaining tonnage and colonize the Moon and Mars. Von Braun’s 1948 calculations for his 1953 book, The Mars Project, required 785 tons to orbit for ten ships carrying 70 people. That would take another 0.8% of annual capacity one year. A Mars Direct approach would cut that to 0.2% of annual capacity every other year.

Islands in the Sky? Moon Base Alpha? It would require someone with imagination and a big checking account, but there are hundreds of billionaires who could afford 10,000 tons at $100 a kilogram.

The launch companies may be able to justify many millions of kilograms of traffic in the tens, hundreds or thousand over ten years even if there are no customers but themselves. Those kinds of dramatically lower prices and expanded capacity could spark interest in new products and services:

  • 100% optical and signals coverage of the entire globe all the time with off-the-shelf solar cells, computers and telescope equipment that are only modestly engineered for weight, but instead for low per-unit cost;
  • Personal space stations and emigration;
  • Permanent rapid response teams stationed in orbit ready to drop into trouble spots on 30–120 minutes notice;
  • Conferences;
  • Novelty manufacturing;
  • Art;
  • Dance;
  • Corporate global com nets;
  • Novelty space grown food;
  • Zero g surgery;
  • Races;
  • Entertainment;
  • Cemeteries
We do not need to wait for a bridge to space like the space elevator to open space for commerce. Ferry service would be more than adequate to get going.

Maybe the rest would bootstrap a new suborbital point to point service if the subsidy is written more generally. As Eisenhower might have put it, that creates a global commerce system that make the “ceaseless flow of information throughout the” world become “matched by individual and commercial movement over a vast system of” suborbital routes.

We do not need to wait for a bridge to space like the space elevator to open space for commerce. Ferry service would be more than adequate to get going. We don’t need to have a breakthrough to create a self-sustaining space economy, we just need consistent high demand pumped by a subsidy at first. That’s how the highways became what they are. That’s how the airlines became what they are.



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ISPCS 2015