NASA Ames Research Center,  NASA public domain  image, ID # AC75-1086

Creating a Space Age

Imagine history if ocean ships had cost as much as dozens of times their mass in gold like the International Space Station. The ISS will mass several hundred tons and cost $100+ billion at planned completion. There can be little future in space until its economics change. Congress has not set reducing launch costs as a major priority for NASA. Progress over the past several decades is lacking.  The Space Shuttle launches one-fifth as much as the Saturn V for proportionally almost triple the total cost relative to payload mass, adjusted for inflation.[1]

The preceding Space Shuttle launch costs are $26000+ per pound of payload..[1] The electrical energy equivalent at $0.05/kw-hr of sending an object to orbit is $0.20 per pound, a hundred thousand times less, before inefficiencies.[2] Energy/fuel costs are not the problem, not 1% of launch costs. Propellant is mostly liquid oxygen costing cents per pound.

Studies suggest present costs are unnecessary. For example, NASA verified that the Sea Dragon proposal might drop launch costs several times or more. There are even alternatives to rockets alone, such as a Sandia National Laboratories study on an electromagnetic launcher, a LLNL study on a gas gun, and more (SNL & LLNL studies, LEO on the Cheap).  Normally all transportation systems from ships to aircraft only cost a few times energy expense. One need not assume a particular proposal is the solution, but trying almost anything could be better than continuing the status quo, decade after decade. No proposals like the preceding have ever received a single billion dollars of funding.   The miniscule portion of the total population who know what is wrong with treating space as unavoidably expensive do not overlap sufficiently with those having enough money to do the right development projects.

The present commercial launch market involves too few tons of satellites annually to make private investors interested in spending even one billion dollars to develop a new launch system. Yet a single tenth of a percent of GDP, tiny compared to military spending alone, amounts over a decade to 10000 times the $10 million Ansari X-prize.[4] If enough funding was used to provide motivation, private investors might develop a system cheaper than present rockets, which are like throwing away a 747 after one flight. The government would not have to spend anything if success did not occur, instead just guaranteeing such a reward if one of the competitors succeeded. Unfortunately this is not happening. Congress cripples the space program with poor funding decisions.

If launching material into orbit no longer cost the unaffordable thousands of dollars per pound of today, enough equipment could be placed in space to utilize extraterrestrial materials for enormous leverage. A given mass of equipment can collect and process a vastly greater amount of material already in space.  For example, a 1975 NASA study for building a 10000-person spacestation considered a lunar linear synchronous motor (mass driver) system including nuclear reactor and mass catcher. Such with a mass of 8800 tons could launch many times its own mass of lunar material: 500,000 tons in a few years. Perhaps better yet, each 11-ton nuclear ice rocket could launch 3800 tons per year of lunar ice over repeated flights, helpful for radiation shielding and other uses.  Such would allow creating real space industry and agriculture, allowing an astronaut to eat a meal without its launch cost being the equivalent of the annual wages of a person on earth.

If the needed infrastructure is created, occupants can manufacture more space habitats and industrial facilities from extraterrestrial materials, reducing the costs of space operations by orders of magnitude.  In that case, the marginal cost of new residential areas depends primarily upon the time required for the workers on one space habitat to manufacture another.  Most terrestrial houses cost the equivalent of multiple times the average worker's annual income, like someone making $40,000/year getting a $200,000 house, and the eventual space habitat situation could be no worse, or even better in the long-term. With vacuum vapor deposition construction taking advantage of plentiful energy in space, a handful of workers can create a structure to house many times their number, and NASA estimated potentially"3 yr for the duplication of a habitat by a workforce equivalent to 12 percent of a habitat's population."

Success or failure of human civilization may  depend upon whether it goes the way of the dinosaurs or expands  into space for a future of freedom rather than stagnation.  Earth is like a speck of dust in the vastness of space. There is enough material in the solar system to create millions of times earth's land area in artificial worlds, although obviously economic factors would mean starting small in comparison.  The mass of Main Belt asteroids is around 3E21 kg, millions of trillions of tons, while objects in the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud amount to orders of magnitude more.  There are practically unlimited resources: quadrillions of tons of cometary objects with ice and oil (kerogen), nickel-iron asteroids including precious metals, and much more.  Few people fully know awesome it could be for the public to have the opportunity to visit space, to experience zero-g recreation, to realize the benefits of practically unlimited energy, and more.

NASA Ames Research Center (by Rick Guidice, 1978)NASA public domain  image, ID # AC78-0576

More from Sikon's web page:

Nuclear Power

Sci-Fi Speculation: Some Aspects of an Advanced Society

This site will be revised and much expanded over coming weeks...

[1] The Saturn V cost $430 million in 1967 dollars for a launch capable of putting 130 tons into LEO: $2.6 billion in 2006 dollars. The Space Shuttle launches a maximum of 25 tons of payload, yet it has cost $1.3 billion per mission in total.

[2] Aside from inefficiencies and losses, the minimum energy to reach low earth orbit corresponds approximately to the kinetic energy involved.  Low orbit velocity is about 7800 m/s. KE = 0.5 M V2 so KE / M = 0.5 V2 =~ 0.5 (7800 m/s)2 =~ 3.04E7 J/kg.  With allowance for gravity losses and atmospheric drag, a rule of thumb is that a typical launch vehicle needs engine and mass fraction performance giving the equivalent of 9 km/s delta v (change in velocity).  To put the tens of megajoules per kilogram in intuitive perspective, a gallon of kerosene has about 130 MJ of energy content( ~ 35 MJ/liter * 3.8 liters/gallon).  The problem is launch vehicles like the Space Shuttle costing tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram launched, not due to fuel costs but other costs.

[3] The 1975 NASA spacestation project costs averaged over the 22 year timeframe were $33 billion annually, including funds for development costs, converted to today's dollars. NASA's current budget is $17 billion, consuming only a bit more than 1/1000th of U.S. economic output, which is a GDP of $12.5 trillion: $12500 billion.

[4] U.S. GDP is $12.5 trillion: $12500 billion annually.  Even the military benefits of greater space access would pay for themselves, let alone other benefits in regard to space tourism, non-polluting energy, and the future of human civilization.