Comic-Con: Private Space Flight Ain't the Miracle It's Cracked up to Be

By Eric Wolff | July 23, 2010 9:29 am

300.comic.con.logo.052708One of the marvels of Comic-Con is that when a panelist asks the people in the room whether they’d be willing to risk a fatal mechanical failure for the chance to go into space, everyone raised their hands. It’s the kind of place where nerds roam free, geeks can be both predator and prey, and the answer to the question, “How about going to space?” is foreordained.

The panel I’m referring to focused on the question of whether private companies are better suited to taking humanity into space, or whether NASA is doing awesome work and we, as a society, should just keep on keepin’ on. To help answer the question, the panel featured Mark Street (from XCOR), John Hunter (Quicklaunch), Chris Radcliff (San Diego Space Society), Dave Rankin (The Mars Society), Molly McCormick (Orbital Outfitters) and was moderated by Jeff Berkwits (editor and writer).

The group  did praise NASA for the Mars Rovers and the Hubble space telescope (referring to the beautiful Hubble pictures, Rankin said, “let it not be said the federal government doesn’t fund the arts”) but generally they brought the hammer down on NASA and its private counterparts like Boeing and Lockheed Martin: NASA is too big, too old, and is constantly trying to perfect old ideas rather than introduce new ones.

And the group praised small “new-space” companies for being willing to fail and try, try again as they strain to bring space tourism to everyone.

But perhaps most interesting was the almost uncontested assertion that space flight will never really be profitable.

“Ninety percent of mass is propellant in space, and it $5,000 [to get pound of a pound of material into space] with rockets. SpaceX is $2,000 a pound,” Hunter said. “Going to Mars, that’s one million pounds per person. Each person is going to cost $5 billion.”

But for all that Hunter threw cold water on the proceedings, he also said money really isn’t why we go into space.

“The only thing that makes money in space is communications satellites. Mining doesn’t pan out,” he said. “You have to go to space for manned exploration for the human spirit. You’re not going to make money there.”

And the members of the panel sagely nodded their heads. For all that these folks recognize the challenges of space flight, and the amount of money and smarts that will be required, they’re generally optimists: Every single one said they expect space tourism will become reality…eventually.

* This quote added later to correct a paraphrase of mine. Thanks to commenters Jadon and eyesoars for the correction.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Space Flight

Comments (11)

  1. Don Glover

    “One of the marvels of Comic-Con is that when a panelist asks the people in the room whether they’d be willing to risk a fatal mechanical failure for the chance to go into space, everyone raised their hands. ”

    Actually ask that same question at a majority of Science Fiction conventions and you see the same result. It is not a ‘marvel’ of comic con, it is marvel of the Fan community.

  2. eyesoars

    Bad numbers. The cost of rocket fuel is NOT $5k/pound. That’s more-or-less the cost to get a pound to orbit. Kerosene and LOX are both cheap. LOX is less than $.25/lb in bulk, and kerosene less than $.50/lb. You’ll prob’ly need about 100 lbs of fuel+oxidizer to get 1lb of payload to orbit. Maybe twice that to leave earth’s immediate environs. Plus lots of money for engineers, tanks, engines, pumps, electronics, fairings, &c.

  3. Jadon

    Yeah, liquid oxygen is a few dollars per gallon, and refined kerosene is more like $6-10 per gallon. That number given (in the thousands of dollars range) is usually per pound of *payload*. That’s always a marketing trick to try to bring the cost of a flight down to the level of easy understanding. But when you design the whole *program*, it’s: how much did it cost to develop (sunk cost), how much will the next rocket cost to build (marginal cost), and what can it do (how much weight to which orbit)?

  4. JohnD

    Don’t forget that with the recent successes of both ion propulsion and solar sailing, the old “We’ll use LOX/LH to get there” is obsolete.

  5. @Don Glover: You’re probably right, but since I don’t go to so many cons, I thought I’d highlight the one I’m at!

    @eyesoars and Jadon: Here’s Hunter’s quote from my notes that I paraphrased: “90% of mass is propellant in space, and it’s $5,000 a pound with rockets, SpaceX got it down to $2000 a pound. Going to Mars will be 1 million pounds per person. Each person is going to cost $5 billion in propellant alone.”

    I guess I can see how he must have been talking about payload, but I hope you can see how I misinterpreted. I’ll go fix it.

  6. Space tourism is one of those things that is inevitable. While I don’t necessarily think it is unavoidable during my lifetime (humans have an almost sublime ability to put off advancement), as Carl Sagan said “if we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.”

  7. Lee Valentine

    The total propellant cost to put a pound of payload in orbit is about twelve dollars for SpaceX or the efficient Russians. The flight cost is high because the spacecraft are thrown away after one use.

    To lower the cost of space transportation, you need highly reusable, highly efficient pump fed engines, something only XCOR has, and you need a reusable spacecraft.

    Mark Street will be a flight test engineer for the XCOR Lynx piloted spacecraft set to begin flight test in mid 2011. The Lynx will be the world’s first fully reusable spacecraft.

    These $5,000 per pound numbers are not likely to last long.

    Put your faith in rockets.

    XCOR’s CEO Jeff Greason projects under $200 per pound for XCOR’s reusable orbital system.

  8. mason storm

    I think this is one of the few times imo when privatization is a really good idea. Whether we think it’s necessary or not, we need to continue to develop new forms of space travel and technology to facilitate it. What the ppl whose only argument is “we have too many problems down here to be worrying about this,” they fail to understand the two most important implications of aeronautical research. The first is for national defense… it’s bad enough that nasa has to rely on Russia to ferry them to the ISS. If we keep going at this rate, our disadvantage will only grow as they continue to develop new technologies in their space program while we pump the brakes on ours. Is air and space superiority something you really want the Russians to have? It doesn’t seem like a good idea for any one country to have, let alone one whom we have a sketchy history with. The second is that with aeronautical research comes a flood of new technologies, most of which are very applicable to us down on earth. For example, if it wasn’t for nasa, we wouldn’t have the chips that we use for non-invasive biopsies, solar energy, and a whole litany of other things (http://www.thespaceplace.com/nasa/spinoffs.html#Top has a good number of inventions that most of us don’t know came from our space program). And if you’re one of those ppl that are so skeptical (or cynical imo) that you still don’t think that any of the things on this list warrant a larger investment in a privatized space industry, just remember that while you sleep at night, you most likely have nasa to thank for that, too. If you use any type of home security system, chances are they use infrared and laser technology that came out of nasa’s research (just look at the adt wireless security system infrared camera page. They even admit that the technology came from nasa!)

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