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 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.


At 9:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


BTW, glad to see you back in the swing of things. You pose a very interesting question. You're right that Bigelow isn't looking into providing his own passenger transport to his facilities. That will definitely need to be funded, and if orbital space tourism is to become a decently robust market, a lot of thought will need to be taken into reducing the "privations" associated with getting to and from the destinations. There are some possibilities--as George Herbert points out it is possible to do very fluffy capsules, since the higher frontal area greatly eases the reentry situation, while at the same time making a less cramped environment.

That said, to me the more important question is how do we get funding for such a beast? Who funds it, how, and is the market big enough to bring a profit? One interesting option that I'm looking at is trying to *partially* integrate launch service providers with the capsule provider. Take SpaceX for instance. They can get by and be cashflow positive off of only ~3-5 Falcon I flights per year, and the Falcon Vs are mostly gravy for them. However, at realistic flight rates, it's still going to take them a long amount of time to pay back his initial investment. If you could offer them a new market (delivery of people or supplies to a space station or hotel), that could potentially bump their flight rate up significantly. This would allow for lower per flight price while simultaneously making them more profitable--a win-win situation for both SpaceX and any potential customers. So, they'd have some vested interest in helping a sufficiently credible "capsule startup" like say the one George Herbert is going to be spinning off of Retro Aerospace. As it is, Musk has already mentioned intentions of offering manned flight capabilities on their Falcon V, so this would be a pretty good fit for them. In this case, they wouldn't necessarily need to provide all the financing, just enough to have a decent stake in it.
That initial financing should be enough for a tech demonstrator or something similar. At that point it should be a lot easier to get more money from more traditional sources (or from other Angel investors). At that point you'd have reduced some of the technical risk, you'd have some of the money you need to finish the project, and Bigelow would be getting pretty close to orbiting Nautilus (read as launch demand), all of which look good to investors.

Anyhow, I'm rambling a bit, but do you think this idea has any merit?

At 10:47 AM, Blogger Derek said...

Hmm... There are some interesting bits in there worth thinking about Anon. For a first cut though; I am of the firm opinion that builders and operators need to be seperate entities. Maximal long term growth and health comes from multiple operators vying for the public's dollars, and multiple builders vying for the operator's dollars.

It's unlikely to be that way in the near term, but it's a goal to keep our eyes on. The opening shots of the revolution have been fired, but sadly little attention has been paid to strategy and much to technology.

(BTW: I would be nice if anon posters would sign their articles. [g])

At 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Sorry about that, I forgot to sign at the bottom. I'm not signed up on blogger yet, so I have to post under the "post anonymously" botton.

Anyhow, I do agree with you. Separating the market into manufacturers and operators is a good medium to long-term goal. Might even make sense in the near-term occasionally. I think though that having a launch service provider, a different capsule provider, and a different space station provider is at least a step in the right direction, even if the capsule provider is also the capsule operator. But I agree that tieing them all too-tightly together is asking for trouble.

The good news is that once one set of providers (for example the SpaceX, GHerbert, Bigelow set mentioned previously) has shown profitability, it becomes a lot easier to enter the market and compete. For instance, you also have SpaceDev with their streaker launch vehicle, you have HMX with their AAS capsule design, I'm sure Constellation Services wouldn't mind getting involved, and even Armadillo Aerospace is aiming at orbital markets (though we have no idea how long it will take them to get from here to there).

Just some more thoughts.

~Jonathan Goff


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