Everyone must have heard that Richard Branson unveiled the design of SpaceShipTwo in New York on 23 January.
For details, see the Virgin Galactic Newsletter, issue 7.
The following quote from Sir Richard particularly caught my attention:
The fact that this system will have the capability to launch small payloads and satellites at low cost is hugely important. As far as science is concerned, this system offers tremendous potential to researchers who will be able to run experiments much more often than before, and help to answer key questions about Earth's climate and the mysteries of the universe. Consider research -- it is currently just too expensive to be able to do most of the things in space from which industries like biotechnology could really benefit. The beauty of WK2 and SS2 is that they can help change the paradigm of our relationship with space, achieving an era where space accessibility becomes a commercial and scientific norm, rather than an exception.
These vehicles "help change the paradigm of our relationship with space" -- isn't this exactly what the world needs, and exactly what NASA's and ESA's grand projects are failing to provide?
On 5 March at 6:30 p.m. at the British Interplanetary Society in London, I shall be presenting ideas about a sustainable, growth-capable infrastructure suitable for supporting a substantial lunar colony -- Selenopolis.
Four years ago I set myself a challenge. In a couple of letters which were published in Spaceflight magazine (Oct. 2004, p.404; Nov. 2004, p.442), I argued for economic growth as the prime motivation in space, on the Moon and Mars. I said it would be interesting to see whether the latest Bush policy could return to the Moon with "an efficient, intelligent and above all economic mission architecture".
It's easy to criticise from the sidelines, and hard to create! Any space official reading those letters would have told me to put up or shut up. The challenge is whether I can offer a detailed architecture which is more affordable, sustainable and growth-capable than can the pros.
Selenopolis is the first draft of my attempt to do just that.
It differs radically from the Apollo-Saturn system, and equally from current official plans for a manned return to the Moon.
Does anyone really believe that the current Orion-Ares architecture is immune to cancellation by an incoming US president who, like Nixon, does not share the priorities of his/her predecessor?
Come to the BIS next Wednesday and let's talk about a realistic alternative!
Sir Richard Branson, in the quote I printed above, claimed that the SS2/WK2 system would offer tremendous potential to scientific researchers, by having an alternative use as a small satellite launcher.
Er, excuse me? Surely those researchers now have the (ta-ra!!) International Space Station?
One of the main functions of the ISS is to do science in space. How could the puny SS2/WK2 possibly hope to compete with the majestic product of tens of billions of dollars and decades of labour by most of the world's space agencies, the temple of government-sponsored science represented by the ISS, the Shuttle, Soyuz, Columbus, Kibo, the ATV?
For an insight (on this as on many other questions), I strongly recommend a visit to the musings of the mind of propulsion engineer Jonathan Goff.
Scroll down to his posting of 7 Feb. 2008, "LM/Bigelow Atlas V Deal". A few paras into this piece, he says:
The good news is that if they're [Bigelow] really providing 12 missions per year, that's a monthly flight. While that still isn't phenomenally great for a microgravity research program (see Ken's last post, and my last space post and these posts from the ACES conference two years back for why flight rate is important for such programs), it's substantially better than the existing state of practice. As was stated in the first of those two ACES posts, when people know that there's going to be a flight every month to the station, it's a lot easier to slip last minute experiments or small hardware on-board at the last minute. Scientific research often lives or dies on iterations--on how fast you can experiment, analyze, reformulate, rehypothesize, and get to your next experimental step. What this means is that while 12 flights a year at $15M per seat isn't perfect for orbital microgravity research, it might actually be good enough to start generating some real demand--ie the "tipping point" where orbital microgravity demand starts picking up might be a little higher than orbital tourism, and possibly high enough to fill up at least a chunk of those 10 remaining flights.
Note particularly the words "flight rate is important" in the second sentence, and the number of links they connect to.
Guest blogger Ken elaborates ("Microgravity Musings", circa 3 Feb. 2008):
Another post I've promised is one on microgravity science, and why it is not a failure as a research methodology. The basic thesis here is that the reason microgravity science hasn't been able to fulfill its promise is because it hasn't had the opportunity to fulfill its promise. It's pretty darn tough for a scientist to get good results when they can only get into the lab once every six months (at best) and in addition to doing all of the maintenance on the lab trying to run your experiment as well. In my view it is a fundamentally flawed approach, although one that has tried very, very hard to succeed. [...] The whole issue is of course transport to orbit. If you can't get to the lab frequently and regularly, it's difficult to make progress in your research. This is one way in which Bigelow balloons may have a competitive advantage."
To me, this was an eye-opener. My assumption has generally been that microgravity science and manufacturing has turned out to be a disappointment. But these people are in the mainstream of the US space industry, and they're saying that we don't know what its value is, because it's just not being done! The experiments that actually make it onto the ISS represent only a tiny fraction of what scientists and companies would actually like to try out in space, and the bulk of the work can't be done on the ISS at present -- because the transport isn't there!
They want regular monthly access, and preferably weekly access, and the Shuttle and Soyuz/Progress are incapable of providing this. The ATV is even worse -- one flight every couple of years, for goodness sake! What were the rocket scientists at ESA thinking of ?!
This only bolsters the business case for reusable spaceplane access to orbit.
Lots of people are saying that economical flight to orbit depends on opening up the space tourism market.
I sometimes add: the space tourism AND conferencing market -- think of the World Economic Forum in Davos, and it's not hard to see that kind of meeting taking place in a space hotel at some future date -- "Ladies and gentlemen, I should now like to discuss the economic problems of the country that used to be known as "Great" Britain ... and if you look out of the window right now, you'll see the British Isles passing by below us!"
But it must now be clear that the case for the spaceplane rests on space tourism and conferencing PLUS microgravity research and manufacturing. The broader the market, the stronger the business case, obviously, because the risk is spread over a variety of different kinds of customer.
"The [UK] government is to launch a formal review into whether British astronauts should take part in the international exploration of space." Full report from BBC news, by Pallab Ghosh, dated 14 Feb. 2008.
Of course, ministers know very little about space. In order to help them understand the debate, their civil servants have drawn up for them a Dictionary of Astronautics to explain some of the more technical terminology in use. I have obtained the following draft of the Dictionary:
Astronaut -- a government scientific or military officer who flies in space (nobody else can fly in space).
Astronomical -- the cost of doing anything in space is by definition astronomical, regardless of whether it's greater or smaller than the costs of social security, defence, education, the health service, Iraq, the medical malpractice reserve fund, etc. etc.
BNSC -- the British branch of ESA (q.v.).
ESA -- the European branch of NASA (q.v.).
Global Exploration Strategy -- NASA's global strategy for space exploration (q.v.). The cost will be astronomical (q.v.).
Great Britain -- a small island off the northern coast of Europe. Rumours about its having once been the hub of an empire on which the sun never set, the centre of global exploration and colonisation, the cradle of modern science and the industrial revolution, etc. etc., are mere popular legend and ancient mythology.
Mars -- the promised land, astronaut heaven.
The Moon -- a sort of purgatory, of no value in itself, but an essential half-way house on the way to Mars (q.v.), where sins are purged and respects are paid to sacred shrines (Tranquility Base etc.) in hope of a blessing.
NASA -- the permanent global leader in space exploration (q.v.).
Permanence -- a permanently occupied space station, lunar base, Mars base and so on is one which is permanently occupied by astronauts (q.v.), until the money runs out and it is abandoned, because its costs are astronomical (q.v.).
Space -- a place which is dangerous, expensive and difficult to reach, work in and return from, and will always remain so.
Space exploration -- a hobby for rich countries which gains scientific knowledge and educational and technological spinoff, but has no economic significance beyond that. Absolutely not to be confused with its pre-space-age sense of exploration for trade goods, minerals or other useful resources.
Space tourism -- this expression is obscene, and should never be used in polite company.
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