06 April, 2011

Space flight commercialization – where are we? Part 1

I've seen a number of interesting web postings on commercial space flight lately, mostly driven by release of and subsequent reactions to the Aerospace Corporation's report to the NASA administrator. Here are some links worth examining if you're curious and have some time:

You will notice that some of the material is not quite recent. I find it a handy reality check to revisit predictions made a few years ago to see how they've held up. It seems that in some aspects, commercial human space flight is akin to limitless clean power from nuclear fusion: just about to happen, but perpetually “X” years in our future. The passage of time appears to be a reasonable filter for what is possible, practical, and feasible from an engineering, scientific, and economic perspective. It allows the decoys and red herrings that are politically and ideologically driven to naturally fall away. And we can't neglect Yogi Berra's seminal observation on the subject: “It's hard to make predictions – especially about the future.”

Over the next few entries, I will discuss some of the issues surrounding the general topic of “Space Commercialization”.

The first observation is that space flight is already commercialized and has been almost from its inception. Private firms have been designing and building communications spacecraft since the early 60's. Other firms have bought them and financed their launch and operations. The big jump is to human spaceflight, which itself dates back to an era when it was politically and socially acceptable to call it “manned space flight”. Because of the complexity, costs, and inherent risks and liabilities associated with human space flight, it had always been the exclusive realm of governments. But even at that, commercial, i.e., “profit driven” private concerns (the industrial half of Eisenhower's Military-Industrial Complex) at a minimum collaborated on the system designs and delivered the hardware to the government in the form of NASA or the DOD. Even in the Soviet Union, the mysterious design bureaus behind their space program behaved as much like entrepreneurial ventures as any other segment of their command economy.

So “commercial” doesn't really hinge on any sort of distinction about pursuing a profit in the classical capitalistic manner, right? In fact, we can easily imagine a commercial entity anxious and enthusiastic to shed the shackles of the limited profit margins and growth prospects imposed by having the government (any government) as a sole or major customer.

Commercial human flight then becomes the application of market-driven discipline in what you design, build, and offer for sale; how you select, target, and market to your highest value customers; the use of best commercial practices and processes driven by a time-to-market imperative in design and implementation of your product line; and a clearly explainable value proposition both internally for your board of directors and shareholders, and externally for your prospective customers. I will examine the various possible business models for commercial human space flight (CHSF) in the next installment.

But first, I need to dispel the biggest red herring concerning CHSF. This is our second observation. The news media makes much of announcements about opportunities for suborbital flight to the topmost reaches of the atmosphere, and they do so almost totally uncritically. Don't get me wrong: suborbital flight is wonderful and cool. I'd love it if I got a ticket as a birthday present, in the same sense that I'd get a big charge out of taking a ride in that F-4 Phantom II that I see (AND HEAR!!!) shooting touch and goes at Ellington Field. What each person reading these words needs to do is to ensure that everyone you speak with understands that flying a suborbital ballistic arc above the stratosphere, while impressive, is not space flight in the “where the heck are all those bucks we've spent on NASA going to?” sense. The amount of energy invested in reaching and maintaining orbit is on the order of 50 times that required for the suborbital ride, and most challenging, it is all of that energy that has to be safely managed and dissipated on the return to earth. That's what makes it rocket science.

Closely related to this lack of understanding on the part of much of the public, and apparently eagerly embraced by much of the media, is a very important and widely used commercial practice: announcing your desire or intent to do something (design, build, deliver, make economically viable...) and treating it as precisely synonymous with actually having done the thing itself. Funny how something that doesn't quite exist always appears far more attractive and technically superior to that which does exist.

Please stay tuned...

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