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How did you get into space cost estimating?
I have a background in rocket science, so I’m a rocket scientist by education. In my graduate course I did a lot of system studies, which involved a lot of cost estimating – cost of space transportation, cost per unit of raw materials manufactured, the cost per kw generated by extra terrestrial power generation.
“…it’s energy. Transportation is nothing more than getting from point A to point B. This also applies to space flight.“
What has changed over time related to cost?
I grew up during the Apollo missions. In 1969 it was expected that space tourism would be a normal thing in the 1980s. When the space shuttle succeeded, people compared it with a bus or a lorry, transporting stuff into low orbit routinely. People assumed it would be possible to book on as a passenger.
But operating the space shuttle was eventually seen as expensive and quite risky. After the Challenger disaster in 1986, all of a sudden people using the shuttle for space tourism became impossible.
I ended up in space tourism research towards the end of the 1980s. A small travel agency in the US – Society Expeditions, were offering flights to take passengers to space in 1992. Twenty passengers, $50k per seat, booking seats from 1985. Too good to be true. They hit some roadblocks and ended up having to pay back the down payments. But this project proposal got me in to space tourism research.
What were the cost drivers?
In the early 90s space tourism was considered too risky and too expensive. My professor was interested in the economics of these projects, what was going well and not so well. He issued requests for proposals for masters thesis on the technical and economic feasibility of space tourism.
In those days, what we did comprised the global knowledge on the technical and financial requirements of space tourism, commercial passenger travel to space. The bottom line was that it wasn’t a technical challenge, it was a financial challenge. We saw it as unlikely that government would pay for this. There was no private space travel in those days, and it looked insurmountable.
We crunched a lot of numbers, one of the first learning points was that if you want to go to low earth orbit, a 20 passenger vehicle is too small. 50 is needed for economies of scale. The average cost per unit of mass in your payload is reduced.
So what were the next steps towards space tourism?
There were other proposed solutions in the 90s. Japan, for example, did a number of studies. They created a concept for an orbital hotel by the Shimizu Corporation. The problem was that you needed a lot of capacity to bring up the modules and incorporate into a hotel. Kawasaki Heavy Industry, a private initiative, wanted to develop space transportation.
In Europe, hypersonics, such as the German Hypersonics programme, had reference vehicle called Saenger II. This hypersonic vehicle was capable of carrying a space plane into low earth orbit with 40 passengers. We did feasibility studies to look at commercial marketability, the ticket prices for the vehicle. These were significantly below $1 million per seat, but the market demand didn’t seem to be there. This was purely the cost of getting into orbit, not staying at the orbital hotel.
In 1996 the X prize was initiated, conceived to support the development of sub orbital, commercial passenger flight. A cash prize was available for the first team succeeding in travelling to an altitude of 100km or above, carrying the equivalent of 3 passengers, and repeating the feat within 2 weeks. This prize was won by the scale composites team with Spaceship 1 in 2004. Virgin Galactic bought the advertising rights in the last stages of the effort.
All of a sudden, at the end of 2004, Richard Branson was promising to start commercial space flights within 4 years. Everyone started focusing on sub-orbital space tourism. We thought about the early history of US space flight, going into suborbital space. The astronauts then weren’t even deemed as astronauts by their colleagues. In 1990 we thought suborbital space tourism wouldn’t be feasible.
How has SpaceX changed the game?
It has changed the game massively. They are doing things right, as it seems. They have been around for 20 years. Seemingly they are optimising their supply chain, thinking about doing as much as possible in house. It’s a perfect example of optimised design focused on industrialisation. So much in the past in space has been artisan. Cost in government space flight was not so much cost, but performance. Things in space in the first 40 years were not optimised for lifecycle cost. SpaceX have designed their flights for lower recurring costs.
I really admire what they have been doing in the last couple of years. The cost data is proprietary, but when you look at the cost of tickets its a factor of a 100 less than the space shuttle. Space shuttle $7000 dollar per kwh of energy injected into the space load. But with the SpaceX Falcon rocket, they are looking at below $100 if not $10 per kwh.
What do you think the future is for humans going into space?
My prime candidate for putting humans there is the moon. I think it has a lot of opportunity for development and science. Observatories on the dark side of the moon can look at deep space, radio and optical telescopes.
You could do a lot of things on the lunar surface keeping in mind the future energy supply for Earth. There’s lot of aluminium and silicon which you could mine and use for building up solar space power stations. The TU of Berlin in the 1980s and 1990s did research on this. I think this would be worthwhile. The moon is pretty close, I see potential for some industrialisation. Maybe this comes from my growing up in the 60s.
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