Space Exploration Technologies’ () success in orbiting a privately developed launch vehicle is one of the seminal achievements of the space age. We now know beyond any doubt that private individuals can achieve orbital spaceflight with little government help beyond commitments to buy their services.
Unfortunately, that is not the entire story. Developing the Falcon 1 took longer, cost more and was more technologically difficult than SpaceX founder Elon Musk probably imagined when he started out. He is not alone. There is a tenacious myth in the community of space advocates and entrepreneurs that persists in the face of decades of experience to the contrary and precious little evidence in its favor. It states that orbital spaceflight should be far easier and cheaper than it appears today.
A generation ago, the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) helped Orbital Sciences develop the Pegasus as a low-cost, small launch vehicle. After a rocky start with an upgraded version of the rocket, the project became a resounding success – in everything but price.
Repeating the history of Pegasus, the great difficulty and cost of developing the Falcon must ultimately end up in a commercial vehicle’s launch price. In this light, it is worth asking: how do we proceed if spaceflight with chemical rockets cannot successfully be achieved at greatly reduced cost?
First of all, we should not give up. NASA appears to have done just that, turning away from new launch technology and setting its sights on returning to Earth’s Moon using adaptations of existing designs. For political, institutional and technical reasons, NASA chose an architecture that is not inexpensive. Civilian hypersonics that might lead to second-generation space planes has been reduced to basic research and a few relatively small flight experiments.
On the military side, the U.S. Air Force and DARPA are funding a number of experiments with hypersonics and small launch vehicles which someday could prove applicable to cheaper spaceflight. Rumors of black-world projects abound and entrepreneurs continue to try new approaches. Nonetheless, the experiences of Orbital Sciences and SpaceX make the road ahead look difficult, expensive and very slow.
If so, is high cost alone an insurmountable barrier to opening a new frontier, or even to commerce? History suggests not. After all, the commercial satellite communications industry started, and thrives, in the presence of very high transportation costs.
Another industry that appears able to withstand high launch prices is orbital tourism. With surplus seats to the international space station in shorter supply, the recent price has almost doubled, yet the world’s super-rich continue to sign up. Space Adventures even sold a dedicated Soyuz flight with two tourist slots.
The trick appears to be finding products that weigh little or nothing (communications) or services that have extremely high values (information, tourism). Success may also be a long time coming. The satellite communications industry industry took decades to mature, and orbital tourism, while surprisingly successful, remains far from becoming the next explosively growing Internet.
In the long term, it is important to realize that high transportation prices could have benefits, as well as the obvious costs. It is far less expensive to move mass over the surface of the ocean by boat than by air, yet few people and low-value cargo travel great distances in a ship. The extraordinary success of the airline industry was achieved by trading relatively high costs for speed – but only if you leave the heavy stuff behind.
Expensive transportation encourages good habits. If it is cheap and easy to haul water up from Earth, rather than mine oxygen on the Moon and manufacture water on site, why learn to live off the land? Without living off the land, we will always be visitors in space, not permanent residents.
If equipment can be delivered cheaply from Earth, we may not learn to adapt old tools to new uses, do without, or invent new tools on site – all essential skills if we are to venture far from home.
Low costs to orbit would make spaceflight easier, but as any successful student knows, making things easy early on does not necessarily pay off in the long term. High transportation costs will make establishing the first space industries and colonies very hard. They will cost more and the time required may be measured in many decades or even centuries.
The toeholds we do establish should be much more secure. Early bases and growing towns that can recycle, adapt and live off the land would be more independent and flexible, with fewer critical resources at the ends of long and vulnerable logistics trains.
If exploring and colonizing the solar system is an important goal, we must keep trying and practicing until we get it right. We must not give up when the going gets tough – which is the real lesson we should learn from developing Pegasus and the Falcon 1. We are lucky that so many people like Mr. Musk seem determined to succeed – whatever the price.
Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in
. He has a small amount of stock in Orbital Sciences.