Guest Blog: Manned Spaceflight is Different

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The recent Space News Blog by Joan Johnson-Freese titled “Reality Bites: The 2010 National Space Policy” raises some interesting points. She makes a particularly useful insight that I would like to explore further.

“Space is a development anomaly, however, as the government made the initial investments but the private sector has remained largely reactive to the government, except in communications satellites, and especially regarding human spaceflight,” she writes.

I would agree with the broad observation, but not the underlying sentiment. I would suggest that the anomaly is not that communications satellites are unique within the space industry as a whole, but that human spaceflight is subtly different from the rest of a successful and commercially independent space industry. I believe that recognizing this difference is central to the problem of a sustainable manned orbital spaceflight industry.

The foundations of this argument rest with the industrial model presently applied to the space industry. This model draws heavily from the airline industry, which is a natural progression since spacecraft are easily comparable to planes, if at a higher altitude and in a more difficult environment. As a result, the space industry addresses problems using modified versions of airline approaches. Most notably, the industry handles safety and reliability through damage-tolerant design (DTD) practices and multiple redundancies.

This model works for communications satellite companies, which meet their private commercial demand by designing robust craft. This industry model also works for emerging suborbital space companies. Both these industries grow because the model adequately supports their activities, allowing them to generate revenue and create profit.

From a free-market perspective, industries succeed or fail based on their supporting models and underlying strategies. The fact that human spaceflight has been unable to nurture private commercialization suggests that perhaps the industry model is insufficient for that sector. Thus, we must examine human spaceflight to understand how it is different from its successful brethren.

From an operational perspective, suborbital craft operate quite similarly to airline craft, departing from a launch facility and executing a flight plan. Commercial satellites suffer some operational differences, though they clearly do not affect that industry’s success. Under examination, however, human spaceflight also operates slightly differently from its airline foundations, but within this sector these differences cause significant difficulties.

Human spaceflight operates in a similar environment as commercial satellites and applies the same industrial model as the rest of the space industry. However, with human spaceflight, craft can pause on-orbit in the middle of their journey, an opportunity unavailable to aircraft. Applying airline practices of DTD and multiple redundancies to ensure safety and reliability for human occupants (optimized for a nonstop journey) magnifies the complexity and costs to unsustainable levels. Faced with these difficulties, it is no wonder that private commercialization is slow to explore the opportunities of low Earth orbit.

As an example, we can view these difficulties from the perspective of a parallel industry. Consider for a moment that you were planning a trip across the country and back, and needed to buy a car for the journey. However, that car was a custom build, relying on technologies that weren’t yet in widespread use. Furthermore, it had to carry all of its fuel, supplies and air for the entire journey lasting a few weeks or possibly longer, and if anything went wrong, or the car broke down, you would die with the entire world watching in horror. The costs of ensuring a safe journey would have prevented the automotive industry from ever growing to a sustainable, profitable venture.

Fortunately, the problem also suggests an answer. The automotive industry operates similarly to human spaceflight, if one looks at the broad operational behaviors. A vehicle departs from a certain location, travels for a period of time that may be limited or indefinite (but the car may pause as needed), and can return to any number of locations. However, the automotive industry prevents DTD and redundancy costs from growing prohibitive using government or private means to render assistance in the form of ambulances and tow trucks.

We gain so much by adjusting the human spaceflight industry model to better support their operations. Creating a means by which aid may quickly be dispatched to space stations or vehicles on orbit is within the scope of the 2010 National Space Policy, reduces the costs associated with human spaceflight and makes it easier for private commercialization to grow. Instead of having to counter every possibility, known and unanticipated, private vehicles and stations need only ensure that if something goes wrong, their occupants will be able to safely wait for help. This is an improved response over escape pods currently under consideration, as it does not leave an abandoned asset worth billions of dollars to drift unattended in orbit, where it may easily be lost.

Furthermore, the capabilities of such a system support the commercial satellite industry by opening up the possibility of on-orbit repairs, removing the weight of overly redundant systems and reducing insurance costs. Most importantly, such a system provides a technology focus to meet our short-term needs, and lays the groundwork for a sustainable U.S. human spaceflight industry that generates government-independent revenue instead of siphoning off valuable resources.

 

Gordon Smith, Ph.D., is part of the DSER Strategy Group, a private resource dedicated to promoting a sustainable manned spaceflight industry by providing decision-makers with an independent view and analysis on relevant mid- to long-term strategic issues concerning safety in manned orbital space flight. He is the co-author of “Space Policy via Macro-Economic Analysis” and “Deep Space Emergency Response: An Example for U.S. Space Policy.”