When will spaceflight be commonplace?

(Originally posted on March 15, 2010 on the Space Tweep Society Blog.)

Over the weekend I pondered this question, “When will spaceflight be commonplace?”  For this exercise, lets assume spaceflight = to/from a destination in Low Earth Orbit.

Once again I’d like to offer up some questions to the #SpaceTweeps to share their responses and I’ll come back and post my answers as well.

1) When will spaceflight be commonplace (like airline travel)?

2) What government “help” is required to achieve routine spaceflight?

3) What role (if any) does technology play in making spaceflight routine?

4) What will the minimum acceptable level of risk be?

5) At what point (if any) will spaceflight to Low Earth Orbit be profitable?

*Comments have been ported over.

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8 responses to “When will spaceflight be commonplace?

  1. 1. It’s coming up with the suborbitals, although that’s not LEO — for the moment there’s no destination in LEO for civilians like you and me, so when is any number of decades from one to three or five
    2. First, safety and supporting safety through standards and technologies. Second, we have only some fraction of the work NASA has done in the public domain (accessible) and need to work on that.
    3. Safety and Cost
    4. For me it needs to be safer than commercial air travel — that is, the safety record for commercial air travel is rotten and not acceptable. People understand imperfection, but pricing lives as is done today commercially is immoral. The industry will start out “safe as possible” and then — as in the air — will “adapt” to pricing lives.
    5. When it happens. When non NASA folks can go the price will make it profitable. I assume the space tourism that has occurred in the past has been profitable, so there’s a continuum from there into the future.

    @jdpsyntelos

  2. 1) Between 2015 and 2025 (Next Maslow Window)

    2) Massive education programs to prepare our workforce for a space faring society and increase interest in STEM and space. Our government need to switch to focusing on long term goals, instead of short 4 year cycles of goals.

    3) Assuming we handle radiation in LEO none, we only need to modify public priorities/perceptions and we could limp by with today’s technology. But, speed would made everything epic and profitable

    4) 0%, the PR fallout from another space disaster will delay any action.

    5) If I can grow corn on Mars and haul it back to Earth without treating it and the corn will still be fresh, then it will be profitable. The major limiting factor is speed.

    @AronSora

  3. txflygirl, methinks you are going to write a book 😉

    1. Commonplace spaceflight? Not anytime soon. We must first achieve the transition to becoming a space faring nation. This will affect all aspects of our lives and productivity. We can then begin real progress. The road to achieving that goal is through a joint effort of NASA, the private sector and international interests. Right now we are on the verge of backing away from that effort in my opinion.

    2. Government will continue to play both a financial and regulatory role in all aspects of spaceflight. Additionally, despite the eagerness and craft of the private sector, government (NASA) must set and maintain the standards that apply to all ventures.

    3.Spaceflight is never going to be super safe because of the inherent risks, but it can be far safer than driving a car on any road in any country. As for costs, if we can get to the point of in-orbit assembly, fueling and launch of deep space vehicles then costs could decrease. HLVs are expensive and we need them but less than now.

    4.Despite some other comments, as safe as the majority of commercial air travel would be ideal; however, the rad hazard for any travel beyond LEO is a major challenge for “tourist” type spaceflight. LEO travel for now is OK, but our rad shield will change over time. Luxury hotels in LEO? Maybe some day linked by space elevators, not spacecraft.

    5. Like in 4 above maybe LEO resort hotels connected by space elevators possibly profitable. Costs are still high and liability extreme. Deep space profitability is more realizable and will come from asteroid and moon mining of rare metals such as uranium and others. Resorts on our Moon a possible, but not sure of sustainable profitability, yet.

    6. High speed, high altitude transport using spaceplane concept is a likely development. NY to Paris in 12 minutes or less. Around the world in about 2 hours. High altitude would mean in excess of 20 miles high, High speed, would mean just below orbital speed. Space plane a combo of Turbojet and scramjet plus rocket. Turbojet/Scramjet =+/- 60% Rocket (VASIMR type) would cover the balance. Spaceplanes would have to be quite large to carry enough passengers and cargo to be profitable. 600 passengers minimum.

    7. Re-entry hazard from LEO or even from spaceplane altitudes must be considered and provided for. Safety and maintenance costs for profitable commercial flights will be high thus high ticket prices. High ticket prices limit total tourist population. Based on either a 300 or 600 passenger population per/spaceplane flight, tickets would average about $5,000 to $2500 depending on whether passenger capacity was 300 or 600.

    In my opinion development of LEO type space-elevators that link directly to LEO resorts stands a better chance to be profitable.

    @Xineutrino

  4. 1) When will spaceflight be commonplace (like airline travel)?
    Human spaceflight “is” common place “for NASA” and ROSCOSMOS and has been for years now with the help of the international community they have had a few humans in space at all times. Just three so far, but soon to be six. Once all the human life support issues are resovled. But this takes months of training to be
    an astronaut. Although common ,not easy.

    I dont think common and easy access will happen until at least 2017-2020, unless it is ROSCOSMOS they will be upping their human payload count many times over than what they are now, due to the shuttle program going offline. Although, I dont call “spam in a can” a futuristic or comfortable way to get to space. I would like to see something like the Skylon rocket airliner take flight This would take around 10-15 years to facilitate its creation and wish this is what we where working on 10 years ago so it would have already been taking test flights today.

    http://www.reactionengines.co.uk/

    2) What government “help” is required to achieve routine spaceflight?
    I see NASA taking on the same role as FAA but for space travel.

    3) What role (if any) does technology play in making spaceflight routine?
    Its more the other way around , its space that will play a large part in the
    creation of and advancement and testing out new technology.

    4) What will the minimum acceptable level of risk be?
    Russians have not lost one tourist but loose a capsule each flight. So starting from the Russians direction and growing would be the best option. I would want far more complexity than the Russians but far less than the Space Shuttle.

    5) At what point (if any) will spaceflight to Low Earth Orbit be profitable?
    It already is, I think.. the Russians cut cost by augmenting thier trips to the ISS. Once commerical spaceflight companies get it down people, governments and companies will make use of thier options at a profit. In fact they have been waiting.. hurry up already.

    @icarusfactor

  5. 1/ I would argue that it is commonplace! Like airline travel in the 1930’s on the Hindenberg/Graf Zeppelin. Ie. for the super rich! For it to become commonplace, in the manner of the jet set of the ’60s, we will need cheap access to space via reusable STTO or TSTO in the manner of Hyperion or SKYLON. As for the cheap airline travel for the masses we have today, whilst contending that THAT is not compatible with a sustainable planet, we will need a space elevator or anti-gravity!

    2/ An internationalist approach to the utilisation of space resources by revisiting or revising the Moon Treaty. The ownership of lunar and near earth resources in a mutually acceptable fashion will provide an impetus to become a space utilising society and hence a space faring one. However until we start to build the Cole BubbleWorlds and O’Neillian Habitats, the vast bulk of the human population will remain on Earth. Robots will do the faring for us! Similarly an Internationalist approach to the cis and trans lunar infrastructure will smooth out the ‘bumps’ of individual governments as they carry out what is laughably called “Space Policy”: vide the Gap and current VSE ‘crisis’ or, historically, the assistance the US gave to USSR whilst it was collapsing. By putting everyone in the critical path, everyone feels of value; leading to better cooperation. A virtuous circle.

    3/ Whilst the technology for routine spaceflight exists already: Soyuz. Capable of landing safely in a metre of snow in a blizzard with temperatures (with wind chill added) of -17 deg C! Mass production and adoption of the system would lead to further savings and technological improvements: better safety. If America were to lease the Soyuz technology, as ESA has done, it would solve a lot of problems! However…

    National pride aside without a new paradigm eg Sabre, we are already up against the limit of the conventional rocket engine. Thrust augmentation and Aerospike technology may provide a small gain in efficiency. However the elephant in the room is a Nuclear first stage and that is environmentally untenable. At least on this planet!

    4/ A variable depending on circumstances. The dangers of crossing the road for example, driving at speed on the motorway,… We take risk on a daily basis and even enjoy risk! Tourists routinely climb Everest and roughly 5% die in the process! Space will never be as safe as a Fairground ride and people die on those too!

    5/ Soyuz already is profitable. Soyuz TM-8 (1989). Hopefully Falcon 9 will be too. Government rockets on the other hand…

    @brobof

  6. Space travel will become commonplace when it becomes advantageous to do so. Every organism, organization, or system must bring in more resources and energy than they expend in their activities, in order to thrive and grow. If it is an advantage for someone or some organization to have commonplace spaceflight to LEO, then it will happen. In human economy, that accounting is usually expressed in monetary terms. The Apollo Moon expeditions were motivated by political advantages. If it costs more in resources and energy than it returns, the activity will cease – either by choice, or by the organization becoming too weak to continue. I don’t see trips to LEO being so advantageous that they will ever become commonplace, unless they become a stop on the way to somewhere else. The problem with travel to somewhere else – the Moon or Mars or the asteroids, is that the current space treaties – 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and the unfortunate Moon treaty, practically defeat any commercial organization from developing resources in space. No legal department would allow their corporation to spend corporate time or money in developing facilities they don’t own, stipulated in the 1967 treaty, nor will any lending agency loan money to an endeavor where the facility, research and proceeds must, by the UN Moon treaty, be shared with all the nations on Earth. If you want to know why large corporations haven’t tried to develop Moon or asteroid resources -and never will -, now you know. The treaties must be changed to allow commercial entities to own their property in space, and be entitled to garner the returns their investments develop, before anyone with the appropriate technology and resources will be able to go after space developments that will make space travel commonplace.

    I suggest we cede the ownership of the Moon to the UN, with the mandate to grant every nation on Earth a 10,000 square kilometer plot on the Moon, so no one will be left behind, and then establish a homesteading-type regime to sell the remaining property to anyone or organization able to land a facility on the Moon and develop it. That will allow clear legal title to ownership of the property and facilities, and allow organizations to benefit from the return on their investments. And that is what will make space travel commonplace.

    Oh, and we are also running out of the window where fossil fuels to do space exploration are relatively inexpensive and readily available. If they run out before space travel becomes commonplace, it never will.

    @spacedad2

  7. It’s long overdue for me to post my answers to these 5 questions about when spaceflight will be common for us.

    1) When will spaceflight be commonplace (like airline travel)? When I first thought of this question I used a linear timeline to answer it. First airplane flight was in 1903 and airplane travel became common in the 1960’s for everyday folks. So, about 60 years. Extrapolating that for spaceflight, our first manned flight was in 1961 so theoretically spaceflight should be common for us all to travel into LEO (at least) by 2021. Wow. It’s 2010 now. Can it be done and with the cost the thousands if not millions can afford to pay? My guess is it will take longer than 60 years since spaceflight is “harder” and “riskier” than commercial airplane travel. My crystal ball tells me 2035.

    2) What government “help” is required to achieve routine spaceflight? In the beginning companies will need cash like the $6B in the NASA plan (2011-2015), however it won’t be nearly enough. Besides infusing cash into companies to develop their own capabilities they will also need to buy the services for many years until the costs come down in order to get a variety of customers in which the companies can survive on their own with the need for a NASA contract. In addition, the government will need to offer indemnity to the companies that offer spaceflights for a signficant number of years until the insurance industry feels comfortable insuring the flights (and the cost is not prohibitive to do so).

    3) What role (if any) does technology play in making spaceflight routine? In order to bring the cost down, the weight must be reduced based on current chemical propulsion. So we need to either develop new ways to orbit (propulsion technology) or lighter materials.

    4) What will the minimum acceptable level of risk be? I don’t think the country will accept a high level of risk approximate to those of automobile accidents, it will have to be at a less risk than current airplane travel. Why? Just a hunch.

    5) At what point (if any) will spaceflight to Low Earth Orbit be profitable? It will become profitable when spaceflight becomes routine. My guess is 2035.

    @txflygirl

  8. 1. I don’t think spaceflight will ever be as common as airline travel, but it may be as common as taking a cruise. I am hard pressed to put a date on it, but I think it will be in my lifetime.

    2. There are several areas of national space policy that need to be addressed. ITAR restrictions will need to be reformed and eased, so as to allow US launch companies to better work with international customers. NASA needs to include commercial efforts in their efforts (like COTS and the proposed budget do). The FAA will have to continue with reasonable regulation, gradually tightening up the regs as the industry grows and matures.

    3. The key technology enabler is *reusable* launch vehicles, by which I mean between flights the vehicle gets a quick inspection and re-fueled, much like modern aircraft.

    4. For common space travel, the risk level will be somewhere between automobiles and airplanes. BTW, airliners are the safest mode of transportation in existence.

    5. It is already mostly profitable. The key is how much can launch providers bring down costs while maintaining the necessary profit margins.

    @dmasten