Opening the High Frontier – When is it going to Happen?
When will we finally have orbital industries, space hotels, and spaceports where anyone can buy a ticket to the high frontier?
I grew up with the space program and these are questions I have asked myself many times over the years. In 2018 it will be 50 years since Apollo 8 flew around the Moon and 46 years since anyone has gone further than low Earth orbit.
Compared to all the dreams of space that we have all read about and seen in movies, the last 45 years appear fairly boring by comparison. Yet if viewed from a historical perspective our slow rate of progress is pretty much the norm. After all, it took over 100 years after the discovery of the Americas before the Jamestown colony was founded on the east coast of North America.
The reason for the delay was the lack of a compelling economic reason to go there. It lacked the weather for growing sugar and it lacked the gold and silver of Central and South America. On top of that, it was far away, the cost was high, and the risk was great. This is also why we stopped going to the Moon. There was no compelling economic reason to go there, it was far away, the cost was high, and the risk was great. Like it or not, this also applies to going to Mars or the asteroids.
Fortunately, compelling economic reasons change with the cost of transportation. An activity that produces a product that is worth $1,000/lb is not going to be profitable if it costs $10,000/lb to ship it. Yet that same product will be very profitable if the shipping cost is reduced to $100/lb. This is what a Combination Launch System makes possible. It lowers the bar on what constitutes a compelling economic reason.
But transportation costs and compelling economic reasons are not the only issues. Another concern is the buy-in cost, the amount of investment that is needed to start a project. The larger the buy-in cost the more difficult it is to earn that money back. In other words; a large buy-in cost requires a product that everyone is going to want and that has enough total profit in it to pay for the initial investment and then some. If the projected total profit for the product is not enough to repay the buy-in cost, there will not be many people who will be willing to put up their money to start the project.
An example of this is the first transcontinental railroad. The first steam locomotive was built in 1803.
It didn’t take long for the economic advantages of this new invention to be proven and for people to realize the incredible wealth that would be generated by building one that would cross a continent. Yet it took over 65 years before the first transcontinental railroad was built.
A big part of the reason for that delay was the size of the buy-in cost. It finally took the US government to fund the first one to get the ball rolling, but after that, the railroads took off on their own.
So how can this information be applied to assist in opening the high frontier?
Compelling Economic Reasons
There are 4 immediate compelling economic reasons for making spaceflight more affordable.
- to serve the existing launch market (commercial satellites, military satellites, NASA, and the International Space Station)
- to reduce the cost of the planned Outpost Space Station program
- space tourism
- zero-g manufacturing
After those have been addressed there are:
- return to the Moon for water, raw materials, and regolith for shielding
- asteroid mining for strategic materials for Earth and for additional raw materials for the zero-g industries in Earth orbit
Are these reasons enough? While most pro-space people would say yes, it is the opinion of the people in charge of NASA, our leaders, and the people who have money to invest that count the most.
The buy-in cost for building a combination launch system is a 200 km long non-rotating skyhook, a reusable Mach 6 X-15 style first stage, a reusable upper stage rocket, and a reusable spacecraft. The only new technology on this list that hasn’t flown before is the non-rotating skyhook. As a result, it might be necessary to fly a skyhook flight experiment on the International Space Station and dock some unmanned suborbital spacecraft at the lower end before starting to build the full-size 200 km long skyhook.
In dollar terms, the buy-in cost for all these items should be in the neighborhood of $2 billion assuming they are all built by commercial companies working on fixed price contracts. Since all of these items will be profitable for the owner/operators, it should also be possible to build all of them as joint government/industry programs which will further reduce the buy-in cost.
Dealing with politics is probably the most difficult part of starting any space project as there are so many factions in the space community with so many different and opposing positions. Considering how long these groups have been competing with each other, it is also unlikely that they can be enticed to finally start working together. More likely, it will take someone in a leadership position at NASA, in the government, or someone who has the funds to make a decision to build it.
So what would entice someone to make such a decision?
The answer to that will most likely be a combination of both stick and carrot. The carrot being all the economic advantages, the stick being the fear of someone else building it first.
The reason for that fear is that there is room for only one skyhook around a planet. That is because the skyhook will be constantly changing its orbital altitude and its orbital eccentricity in the process of launching and receiving spacecraft at both the upper and lower ends of the skyhook. This constant change of orbital altitude, position, and period would lead to a collision between multiple skyhooks. This means that whoever builds the first one will end up controlling access to the high frontier. Whoever does that will also establish the political and social standards for the spacefaring civilization that will come into being as the result of affordable access to space. In addition, the wealth brought home by those space activities will make the country that controls the skyhook the wealthiest nation on the planet. I suspect that the only way to keep the peace with this will be to build the skyhook as part of a multi-national program as was done with the International Space Station. It won’t be an easy sell.
Writing the book Opening the High Frontier, this blog, the video, the other websites  , and presenting this idea at conferences has been a very interesting experience. The growing level of interest as shown by the increasing number of people who read these sites, buy the book, as well as the interest and comments at the conferences, is both enlightening and gratifying. I have no doubt at this point that a combination launch system with non-rotating skyhook will be built someday. The only remaining questions are who will do it, and when they will do it. As to the when, I hope soon as I would dearly like to use it. As to the who, that is anybody’s guess. While I hope it is the United States that takes the lead in building this, I can’t help but notice in the website statistics that there are a growing number of people from all over the world who are reading about this. I hadn’t realized just how much interest there is in the idea of building a spacefaring civilization by people from all around the world. I hope all of you who read this will consider writing a letter to President Trump and tell him of your support for making this happen. It can’t hurt and it just might help speed things up.
Index of Articles
- Opening the High Frontier
- Skyhook, a Journey to Orbit and Beyond
- In the Beginning . . .
- Why do Rockets Cost so Much?
- Combination Launch Systems
- It’s All About Speed!
- Visions of the Future
- The Call of an Unlimited Future
- Combination Launch Systems, part 2
- Outward Bound: Beyond Low Earth Orbit
- and someday . . . Starships!
- Mars: how to get there
- Outpost Space Stations
- Dreams of Space
- The Moon or Mars?
- Skyhooks and Space Elevators
- Stratolaunch and the X-15
- Starship Congress
- Making Spaceflight Affordable
- How a Combination Launch System Works
- Starship Conference 2017
- New Worlds Conference 2017
- Opening the High Frontier
- Building a Spacefaring Civilization
- Space Exploration and the Future
- Skyhooks, Space Elevators and Space Exploration
- Vertical Accelerator Launch Tower
- Combination launch system
- Opening the High Frontier (the Book)