Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I Bet I Will Go To Space One Day.

I may be buying too much into this article by Reuters, buy I take from it I may go to space one day.  Here's why:
  1. People should start flying into space by 2013. (Testing starts next year, 2011.)
  2. The entire project will cost ~$450 million dollars.
  3. Tickets go for $200,000.
  4. They claim 100,000 people have expressed interest.  If even ~2500 actually do it, the program will pay for itself.
  5. I'm betting much more than 2500 will go if 100,000 have expressed interest. (Only ~1%!)
  6. # 5 implies there is a real profit to be made.
Given how economics works, major profits are sure to lead to major competition.  Furthermore, after the initial technology is developed, further development should be much cheaper.

For these reasons I expect the ticket prices should half at least about every ~10 years.  This means in 40 years, I should be able to afford to go. (I'll be in my sixties and hopefully this being a commercial thing means my body could still handle it. )

And if the price could somehow half somehow every 5 years, I could go even sooner. :)

NASA, maybe it's good your human space flight budget is being cut.  Sir Richard Branson looks like he can do it much cheaper and in a way that normal Americans can really experience it. (Once the cost drops.)


  1. Oh I'm planning on going to space too, but in a small tube, a la James Doohan. Meanwhile the Superman ride in Valencia will have to do.

  2. I can really see what you're saying, Joe. I do, however, see a few holdups that might slow things down.
    1. There's currently no inherent purpose for people to go to space except for tourism. Most other travel technologies benefit from tourism, but almost none can survive long-term on tourism exclusively.
    2. Say you get all 100,000 people signing up. After you send them all to the moon, I don't know how much repeat business you'd get. Sure, you have a great initial profit, but I'm not sure it's sustainable. If it doesn't last, the prices aren't going to come down very fast because the business model remains stalled in development phases. There's no impetus to keep pouring money into the project because the prospects for continuing business are poor.
    3. This business model is heavily based on luxury spending. That is one of the more fragile industries if the economy hiccups. A lot of investors could easily back out if they have to tighten their belts, public opinion could turn against you if the economy goes south, and it would be easy for engineering support to get discouraged if we hit technical or governmental hurdles (like what happened to us in the 1970s). I would have a hard time banking on it to be stable for 60 years. I'd have to take it a year or so at a time.
    4. You're also going to have a bit of trouble convincing the masses that the technology is safe, reliable, etc. There will be a lot of concern, especially with people remembering recent shuttle accidents. Public confidence will be important for this to be sustainably marketable.
    5. Some of the largest hang-ups will probably come from government intervention. This can be worked around, but most governments will be hard-pressed to give up their monopoly on space travel. Not only that, but you could run into all sorts of trouble if people suspect it could be used for terrorism or something similar. This could cause trouble with your profit margin.

    Personally, however, I agree. We're getting to the point technologically where commercial personal space travel is a realistic option. Where we're at is a lot like the development of air travel in the early 20th century. Even after the Wright Brothers, initially everyone still traveled by boat (think the Titanic). Most planes were military (think Snoopy as the WWI flying ace and the Red Baron) or barnstormers. This was until about the 1930s and 1940s (thank you Lindbergh and WWII) when things really started catching on. It was after there was (1) sufficient available technology (again, thanks to WWII), (2) economic interest (already present -- we've had practical reasons for air flight for centuries), and (3) enough public confidence in the technology (this took a few decades) to make it widely marketable, that the industry caught on.

    I also think that these issues I've listed here will all work out, but they still need to be dealt with. I agree with Buzz Aldrin when he said that for space flight to be sustainable, it has to be commercialized. We could have had commercial space flight a while ago, but we gave up on the endeavor. Most current space flight is either (1) scientific or (2) commercial. When you think about how much "stuff" we have up there, most of it is for commercial reasons (communications satellites, etc). This is just like the CCD. The technology really never came down in price until there was a non-scientific, commercial application. Once they got the idea to put CCDs in digital cameras, the technology was much more readily available. If we can find a more sustainable commercial purpose for going to space (say orbiting colonies, moon colonies, 2-hour flights from New York to Tokyo, or something like that), then I would almost guarantee that we could each go to space in our lifetimes. Unless that happens, I'll just have to see...

    Sorry to get long-winded. Once again, great post Joe.

  3. Wow! Once again, I get long-winded and post a comment that's longer than the original post. Sorry.

  4. Bill. You bring up some good points and your comments are very appreciated.

    I guess with stuff like this: only time will tell.

  5. One important part of the discussion that's missing here is the distinction between sub-orbital and orbital flights. Virgin Galactic is only talking about sub-orbital flights: up and down. I'm sure these are awesome, but they're not very long and I agree that the repeat value is low.

    Orbital flights are much much harder. (Naively, this can be seen as requiring an additional speed up to and slow down from orbital velocity in low Earth orbit, which is a serious ~7 km/sec.) Not to join the nay-sayers, but orbital commercial flights aren't likely to become inexpensive and there may be no unforeseen way to significantly decrease the cost through improved technology or design (a la Burt Rutan).

    This means that Virgin Galactic is not doing anything close to what NASA does by sending people on orbital flights. Those still cost ~$20 million a year and are actually launched by Russians.


To add a link to text:
<a href="URL">Text</a>