A Rocket Car Future (for some)

Blue Origin Rocket

Blue Origin Rocket

Currently I’m attending the Next Generation Sub-Orbital Research (and Education) Conference in Palo Alto, California. I’m staring at all my notes struggling with finding a coherent theme, idea, or even emotion that I can use to tie together my thoughts. I find that I just can’t; this is a conference that simply defies being captured in a straight forward manner.

My struggle to find a coherent message comes from half of my brain bouncing up and down shouting “this is so awesome” as it basks in all the goodness that is commercial space, while the other half of my brain says “But this is only for the 1% – and that’s not me…”

I’m going to try and explain this mental dichotomy, but I want to say upfront, I’m not an economist or a capitalist (I work at non-profits, doing open source / creative commons projects, just hoping donations and grants go to those who do good things.) I’m bound to offend some of you and say some things that are naive, and I apologize up front. That is not my intension. I’m simply trying to explain the mixed enthusiasm and sadness with which I meet the conferences content.

Modern commercial space exploration is the domain of a post-Apollo generation. Some of these new space agency leaders remember Apollo, but many, like Elon Musk, are Generation X, and while they may have been in diapers while the last men walked on the Moon, watching these missions on TV wasn’t to them what it was to our parents who were in-college or starting a career.

I am part of the same generation as these leaders, and I’m going to make some assumptions here, and say that if they’re like me, they grew up dreaming of rocket cars, but realized at some point in the mid-1980s that NASA wasn’t going to provide them… ever. Our source of inspiration, our beloved NASA, was starting a slow stagnation that advanced at the pace of the expansion of democracy. As Perestroika took hold, the need to race to space was lost. NASA is funded by congress. Congress is politically motivated, not scientifically motivated. Congress doesn’t fund people to climb a mountain because it’s there; they fund people to climb a mountain to put a listening post on top of it. As my generation realized NASA wasn’t going to make all our dreams come true, some of us (like me) abandoned our goals to be an astronaut and simply became scientists and engineers. Others – the leaders at this conference – said screw it, if NASA won’t do it, I will.

Let me be clear: We were inspired by NASA. Many of us still want to work with NASA, and I think everyone at this conference wants to see NASA’s science budget grow and continue to explore and produce scientific success stories like the Mars Rovers, Cassini, and Hubble. There are just some things NASA isn’t designed to do.

Our nostalgia for the (often before we were born) glory day’s of NASA was reflected in the standing ovation that Astronaut Neil Armstrong received when he took the podium yesterday to discuss his 1950’s sub-orbital explorations in the X-15. Listening to him talk about flying something that I can only describe as a horizontal rocket with wings glued to the side, all I could think was: they were brilliant, insane, took risks I can’t image people taking today, and because of this combo of mad risk-taking genius, they got us to space when computers were less powerful then today’s dumb cell phones.

As Alan Stern put it, “If we are able to see our dreams [of commercial space exploration] envisioned, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants.”

And Neil Armstrong acknowledged the impatience and frustration many of us sometimes feel – we want to see the 1950s and 1960s rate of innovation today! He acknowledged our impatience and frustration when he relayed that Scaled Composite’s Burt Rutan regularly mocks NASA because he developed WhiteKnightOne and SpaceShipOne (and Two) much faster and much cheaper than NASA could have.

And then Armstrong, as did June Scobee (widow of Challenger astronaut, Dick Scobee), talked about risk. Going to space takes risk. To advance new geographic frontiers you really do need to be prepared to die…. or at least to blow up spacecraft. That said, modern culture is risk adverse and even when you do something kind of expecting to blow up a rocket or two, the media treats you like you did something really bad when your spacecraft fails and dies.

This was articulated by Bretton Alexander of Blue Origin. They recently lost one of their prototypes – these are the decidedly cute rockets that have both a vertical launch and vertical landing (link). They new as they were testing that eventually, as they pushed their systems, they’d find its limits and it would break. This was planned. But then, when they finally had a spacecraft die an expected death, the media jumped all over them, and the press was all bad.

And here is were we start to see the divide.

When Blue Origin loses a spacecraft and gets bad press, they make sure their staff and financial backers know this really wasn’t a big deal. They bitch about the bad media, and they move on, continuing to innovate awesome rockets that look like something out of a comic book.

If NASA loses a rocket they are innovating, there is a good chance congress will convene an inquiry; funds and programs will be frozen, and new system constraints will be added that increase costs in the name of preventing future spacecraft from blowing up.

This difference in consequences means that Blue Origin can essentially innovate through experimentation – they are allowed, with their private capital and grants funds/contracts, to try things, take risks, and have failures. If you are a tinkerer or a programmer, you know that the fastest way to success is often to build something part way, try it out, see where it breaks, fix it, and then build the next part and try it until it breaks. NASA on the other hand has to complete something and spend all the time needed to make sure it never breaks. This means they have to make sure there are no issues through inspection rather than trial and error. If you write software, you know it is far harder to debug by reading your code rather then by adding alert messages and die() statements. At the end of the day, NASA can’t fail – no alert or die() statements allowed – and have to do everything the hard way.

Throughout all of yesterday, it became more and more clear that a lot of commercial space flight is being driven by millionaires and billionaires who decided they will step in and innovate where NASA can’t, and in ways that NASA can’t. NASA in turn has recognized the potential of the companies and have embraced them as being the future. While, as Bretton Greason pointed out, the media often refers to commercial space, and space tourists in particular, as rich playboys jet setting purposelessly to space, the reality is, these are people who are spending their “money and time paving the way forward for the future of [space exploration] for humanity.”

Yes, commercial space is the playground of the millionaires and billionaires, but the thing is, they are using resources to research and develop what it takes to make space an industry, and it is going to take thousands of test flights to work out all the issues needed to work out what is needed for space to be economically viable. At a certain level, commercial forums can’t be limited by the time scales of NASA research. As Greason pointed out, companies can’t wait 6 years for a single launch that might suddenly get cancelled by an out-of-funding NASA. As an academic, I don’t understand the phrase instant gratification. Working with NASA, it’s all about the delays.

Let me say this again: Commercial space is doing good things.

But when space becomes something done by millionaires and billionaires, you end up with some really strange social/customer mis-conceptions built into the system.

One of the biggest problems all these companies are trying to figure out is who will purchase the seats and cargo space on their launch vehicles. Each of these companies have dreams of building pretty amazing capacity – we’re looking at potentially a couple launches a day – and they see their seats and cargo bays as places for tourists, for researchers, and for educators. One person mentioned that as part of her audience research, she is surveying people who typically have a leisure budget equivalent to the cost of a vacation to space.

Let’s look at those numbers (taken from US census unless otherwise stated). According to the Virgin Galactic website, deposits (per person) start at $20,000 and tickets cost $200,000. This means that for a couple to fly together, you’re looking at a >$40,000 deposit, a $400,000 flight price, plus costs associated with training, traveling, and housing. For comparison, an average teacher in Utah earn’s $40,000 a year (US median household income is $51,914). This means that the deposit price for some couples will be the same as the US median income (or more). The cost of the flight, well, it’s more than the $188,400 median US home value. To add further context, to be in the top 1% in the US, you need a household income of $506,000 (Wall Street Journal). Since people spend (depending on source) 6-8% of their income on leisure, this space journey is actually beyond the reach of most of the 1%.

Many of the school teachers I work with can’t afford paper. 92% of teachers (from talk by Sanlyn Buxner) use their personal money to get materials for their classes.

Within this context, imagine my reaction when I heard commercial space company after commercial space agency talk about educators and educational programs as potential customers, and how they want to see teachers flying to sub-orbit with student experiments. They weren’t discussing donating the resources, they were talking about a paying customer base.

From the people that I talked with, this was simply a lack of comprehension about the limits many of us work within. These are mostly really awesome, well-meaning people who just don’t understand small budgets. To give you an example, one high-energy younger fellow came up to me after my talk asking if I’d talk at a conference this summer. I gave him my standard answer, “I’m sorry, but I can only go if you have funding.” He actually made me embarrassed as he badgered me about how it didn’t cost that much (conferences cost ~$1200-1600 normally), and in exasperation he asked “But how are you here?” (This is a conference with no funding.) The truth is, I’m staying at a friend’s condo, paying some of this trip out of pocket, paying some of it out of scraps of funding left over from last year, and the generosity of strangers has really gone a long way. My total receipts will add up to about $400, and I could beg, borrow, find that amount. Funding is tight, and as I tried to explain to this confused person, I struggle each month to pay my staff. Graduate student’s cost $1000/month, and students cost about $800/month. This means that every trip I go on that someone else doesn’t pay for costs me the equivalent of 1-2 months of student salary. I like my students more than I like travel, and I’m not in a position to add unbudgeted conferences to my “things to do” list just because someone thinks I’d be a good speaker.

If someone thinks it is reasonable to ask me to spend ~$1400 to do them – a stranger – a favor by speaking at their conference, they clearly don’t understand normal person budgets.

Space is going to become a rich person hobby.

Just like around the world ballooning, trips to climb Everest, and on-foot explorations of the South Pole, wealthy individuals with time and resources to spare are going to begin to train and travel as journeymen astronauts on missions above the majority of the Earth’s atmosphere. As costs drop and abilities expand, they are going to utilize spacecraft that travel point to point, carrying them from the US to Australia in under an hour. Eventually, it will become like the Concorde – something for elite business travelers, the press, and people with money to spare – and sometimes it will be something the little guy saves up for across a lifetime.

Yes, there is the chance for research and education, but the research will be from big commercial firms, and the education – they need a different model or it is only going to be education available at elite institutions.

This isn’t our everyone-has-a-rocket-car future.

With NASA, with tax dollars, educational programs are free or the cost of equipment. Space travel is only for astronauts, but that is at least a competitive, “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and everyone likes you,” process.

I think becoming a pilot for the commercial space agencies will be the same meritocracy as with NASA, but their scientists (payload specialists and mission specialists) will be “who has the money?” and the message I’m hearing is their teachers too will be “who has the money?”

And it hurts to hear the divide between the haves and have nots widening.

But, the wealthy are the ones building commercial space. They are using their money to do what NASA can’t. They are building, innovating, blowing things up, and successfully visiting a place above the clouds where you can see daytime stars. A corollary to the American dream is that while hard work and drive should allow anyone to rise above their surroundings to succeed (but note), if you don’t (as I didn’t) actually try to become wealthy you really can’t whine if you don’t have access to the play toys of the rich.

But, as I sit here not whining, I would say NASA has done one thing really right that the commercial space community needs to learn from: NASA spends a meaningful (albeit decreasing) amount of its budget on education and outreach. Dear commercial companies – Dear XCOR, Blue Origin, Armadillo Aerospace, Virgin Galactic, and Dear Masten – As you build the rocket car future for the 1% and for high dollar research programs, can you please consider endowing non-profits who can use a few percent of your budget to make space accessible to the classroom through disturbed systems that share data while creating a shared space-age future?

(For context, my entire program – all my staff, travel and servers for Astronomy Cast, CosmoQuest, and everything else – costs less then sending a couple into space.)

The dream is alive. Commercial space is coming. I’m glad this conference is giving me a front row seat. I just wish the cost of getting out of the front row and getting onto the frontier of space was hard work instead of hard currency.

4 Comments

  1. Romero Cavalcanti February 28, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

    Thank you for sharing.
    In an era of constant change, organizations face enormous pressure to optimize performance and maximize results. It looks like NASA today are faced with some profound questions a wider variety of choices and easy price comparisons. NASA today will need to examine what is meant by reach and engage and whether. Modern commercial space exploration have developed to a new level of communication more global. Multi-channel, it will be a main component, will have substantial business impact.
    Greetings from Brazil.

  2. Steve Locher March 1, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    Good article Pamela, with some sobering points. It does seem that the commercial space program in America is another sign of the growing gulf between the 1% and the rest of us. And it is interesting to note that the United States is moving away from space exploration as a nation, while other countries around the world are moving more and more towards space exploration as a nation. We should consider what this says about where the United States is at this time in terms of priorities and values, and we should consider where this will position the US in the future compared to other nations.

  3. Richard Gay March 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

    Did I tell you that your blogging rocks?

  4. Heliochromo March 19, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    Your candid thoughts from an educator’s perspective are greatly appreciated. I hope industry and government take them to heart.

    We are not the country we were in the 60’s, especially financially, but the spirit remains. Perhaps the Chinese efforts will help awaken our prevailing slumber within government. Otherwise, only piecemeal efforts are likely, I fear. The nascent space associations might help here in there with things like scholarships, for instance. Yet only a motivated country citizenship will inevitably advance the advance. Of course, that’s why true leaders, like Kenedy, are needed. Hope they surface soon.

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