Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The die is cast...

Burt Rutan has given the required 60 day notice and announced that Sept 29, 2004 will be the date of his first X-Prize attempt. (Earlier reports indicate that they plan to fly not twice, but three times within the requisite three week period, thus allowing some margin for problems.) The countdown begins....

Also, the Da Vinci Project has announced they will roll out their craft on August 5th, and will make their own attempt at the Prize 'sometime in the fall'. (Some sites are reporting this announcement as a challenge to SpaceShip One. I don't see how that can be given that the DaVinci folks have not announced a launch date.)


Monday, July 26, 2004

Poets and Popularity.

In this weeks Space Review Dwayne Day argues that space exploration needs a new poet to replace Carl Sagan. Dwayne misses the point slightly, Sagan was not only a poet of space exploration, but something far more vital; he made science popular and accessible in the same way the Isaac Asimov did before him. If science in general becomes a topic for the average man, then the boat of space science rises on that same tide. With the loss of Sagan, Asimov, and Stephen Gould, science no longer has a public face, a public advocate, or a public voice. (The closest thing we have now to a national science spokesfigure is John Pike, and as near as I can tell his main activities are more in the realm of politics and naysaying.)

On the same note; commercial space development needs a spokesman of equal stature and gifts to these giants. Great things are coming and the space access community has difficulty in getting it's message across to the general public.

[Transterrestrial Musings has some interesting comments on my article of yesterday "Can we get there from here".]

Friday, July 23, 2004

Can we get there from here?

[Note: The genesis of this article is my experience last week with an MRI machine. Being a former submariner, I thought I was essentially immune to the effect of claustrophobia. Once I was inside the machine, I found out very differently. Maybe it was the pain I was in, but once in I just *had* to get out. Oddly enough, when they put me in a different machine a couple of days later, I had no problems at all. The only real differences between them was the tunnel was slightly shorter (thus the rim was just at brow level rather than 'above' my head), and slightly wider (while my shoulders touched the sides, they were no longer 'cramped').]

I find myself musing on the question, "what follows suborbital tourism?". I don't think there is any doubt that high flights will have a customer base, between the various existing aircraft and amusement rides, the interest of the public in such extreme experiences is well demonstrated. (And if you expect to make money there had better be public interest.) The hard part is following that act, and providing something more than just a transitory experience. (I.E. actual CATS.)

Just how uncomfortable is the paying public willing to be? On this simple question hinges the near term future of space tourism. So far as suborbital flights are concerned, this does not seem to be a great issue. The flights are short, and as various aircraft and amusement park rides abundantly demonstrate, folks are willing to pay to be in a state of discomfort that 'normal' people will go to great lengths to avoid. Arguably, this is even more extremely illustrated by the fitness and dieting craze. Folks will willingly endure pain and deprivation to attain what is, to them, a desirable goal.

Interestingly the mounting consumer credit problem shows that they are not willing to endure financial pain and deprivation for the sake of future goals. And as individuals go, so do investors and institutions. Nowadays the watchword is day trading, not blue chips, so much so that Microsoft paying a dividend is big news. Long term investments are out of fashion, replaced by short term gratification. (This has implications for financing the space revolution, but that's a matter for a different day.)

Tito et al. have shown that a market exists for floating around in a cramped space for a while. The question is, who builds and operates that cramped space? How do the paying customers get there? Bigelow is proceeding with the development of space structures, but leaves the question of access to them seemingly open. Destinations are important, as the vast majority of tourist dollars are spent on going someplace, not doing doing something. Even though they do something at the place they've gone, the emphasis for most people is on 'going to Disneyworld', not 'riding the $SUPER_RIDE'. For ride enthusiasts the emphasis is reversed, but that merely emphasizes the difference between the larger and smaller groups over the similarities.

The end result is the chicken-and-egg problem so familiar to those interested in space access. There is a market for destinations, but no clear market for access. Yet, without access the destinations are pointless. Who bells the cat? Is it healthy from a competition and economic point of view to have destination and access provided by the same company. (Not to mention the implications of the large amounts of capital required.)

While access, in the form of a private Apollo/Soyuz, is a reasonable extrapolation of near term capabilities, does there exist a large enough market willing to endure those privations for the experience of being in space? Here existing tourist experience seems silent. Ice hotels and underwater hotels aside, there seems to be no existing analog. Jeff Findley on sci.space.policy suggests that the answer is to seek aggressive reductions in the cost of cramped spaces (I.E. capsules) in the hope that people are willing to pay to endure them for short periods and once their operation is proven, that destinations will follow as a matter of course.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Unexpected absence / About News

My apologies for my extended absence; My computer's motherboard ate itself and it took a while to get a functional replacement. I've got houseguests for a day or two, and need to catch up on the news before I get back to regular postings.

It's interesting how little space news makes it to the mass media. The last two weeks have truly made me appreciate the web.