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January 11, 2015


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Seeing the Enterprise in person is perhaps the sole reason for a visit to the Intrepid museum. My son was not particularly impressed at the time, but maybe now.

I'm neutral on the reusables -- but I will note that if I were writing that 2012 post today, I'd be striking a (slightly) less optimistic note.

First, world spending on space has stayed pretty steady in the last 2.5 years. It hasn't gone down, which is great, but it hasn't gone up either.

Second, we're about to hit the end of the golden age of Solar System exploration that we've been in for the last dozen years or so. I can pinpoint the moment of its end pretty precisely: October 15, 2017, when JUNO does her suicide plunge into the clouds of Jupiter. By that time the much-longer-lived Cassini will have been dead for about a month, having done its own kamikaze into Saturn after thirteen (!) years in orbit.

At that point the Outer Solar System will go dark -- we will have nothing in orbit around any of the outer planets, or en route to them. Various missions will still be active on and around Mars and in the asteroid belt, and interesting things will be happening, but the exploration of the Solar System will slacken quite noticeably for the next decade or so.

There are various reasons for this, but the single biggest is the James Webb Space Telescope, which has run far over budget and will dramatically reduce NASA's ability to do other science for years to come. But that's its own sad story. Anyway, meanwhile we do have things to look forward to in the next 34 months. In this year, we'll have Dawn's arrival at Ceres and the Pluto flyby, followed by perihelion for Rosetta, while Cassini continues to do amazing science at Saturn, JUNO creeps ever closer to Jupiter, and Curiosity keeps climbing that mountain on Mars.

Doug M.


First off, reusability. We're going to need it for significantly reduced pricing to orbit.

The Europa Clipper Mission is going to happen: NASA has requested the official restart for program funding. The Euros may pull off JUICE. I have a hunch Europa is about to get a 'Mars Program' treatment. It will be congressionally driven though.

Titan has some hope. If TiME can make it through or a Congressional advocate steps up.

JWST and SLS are causing serious problems in the current budget environment. All hope is not lost though.

Admit it, Doug, you're sad that we couldn't make a giant spaceplane work. For all the "It was a politically-compromised nightmare idiot design from the beginning" and "we've got robots doing cool shit" and all that, in your heart you're melancholy that we're not flying big giant spaceship-looking spaceships anymore.

Just for cheerfulness:

"We must refocus our investment on the hard sciences, on getting men and women into space, on exploring low-Earth orbit and beyond, and not on political distractions that are extraneous to NASA’s mandate."

- Senator Ted Cruz


Will, assume reusability works as planned. How much reduction are we talking here?

I'm reasonably optimistic that JUICE will go as planned, but let's note that we're talking a 2022 launch and a 2030 arrival in the Jupiter system. Europa Clipper, if it happens -- and I'm no more than mildly optimistic about that -- is a 2025 launch time at the earliest. Cruise time to Jupiter could in theory be as little as four years if SLS is used, but 6-7 years looks like a better bet. So, very unlikely there'll be news from the Jupiter system before autumn 2030. Since JUNO will go down in October 2017, that means thirteen years of dead air.

Saturn is even worse. At the moment, nobody has a mission to Saturn on the books -- and even if one somehow got funded, we wouldn't see a launch before the middle 2020s, meaning no arrival until well into the 2030s. We could easily go 20 years between Saturn probes.

Not to overstate; Outer Solar System exploration will come back at *some* point. But the late 20-teens and the 2020s will be a blackout period.

Doug M.


It really depends. :D

If you could reuse the rocket, you could see things get down significantly. SpaceX 'claims' it can get an F9 down to $5 to $7 million/flight with a 10% to 20% hit on their current F9 v1.1 payload. Based on personal experience, I'd bet they could get that down to $15M rather than the advertised amount.

Even so, then you're looking at $600/lbs within 5 years. No magitech and using a TSTO. If you can get a reliable SSTO, I get you could get it down to $100/lbs.

Just curious was there a time when aviation travel was, adjusted for inflation, at the same price?

Let's see. $100/lb would be $15,000 for a 150 lb. adult. For five and a half years, 1936-41, the Pan Am Clippers flew trans-Pacific from San Franciso to Manila and Hong Kong. Googling, I find that the fare in 1937 was $950 one way and $1,710 round trip. Checking the CPI inflation index, the one-way fare works out to about $15,670 in 2015 dollars. Ping!

Now, the Clipper passenger service was always pretty marginal. They were making most of their profit carrying mail. The market was small. First and most obviously, in the Depression only a few very rich people were ready to drop that kind of money. It was a four day flight (overnights at Honolulu / Midway / Guam) and it was competing with steamships that could carry the rich person there in luxury and comfort, at a lower price, in just 15 days or so. So the market was rich people /in a hurry/. Sort of like the Concorde yeah? It was a prestige thing for Pan Am, not a big money maker.

OTOH, it was a very successful prestige thing -- they had that market to themselves, and it attracted a lot of attention, and helped associate Pan Am in the public mind with exotic destinations, wealth, and glamour.

Doug M.

Now I should note here that I don't believe we're anywhere remotely close to $100/lb. SSTO.

Generously taking the $600/lb figure, a 180 lb. male plus luggage, food, water and associated payload is going to run... say 300 lbs? So $180,000 for the ticket. But presumably you're not shooting them up there alone, and there are operating costs for your orbital Hilton. If we're going with the Pan Am analogy, note that Pan Am went as luxurious as they could, given the weight and technology limitations; they went to considerable trouble to build lovely hotels on Midway and Guam, and the planes had wide seats, fine meals, and impeccable service.

So, generously, half a million/person for a long weekend in LEO. Are there people who would pay for that? Yes, certainly. There'd be a lot of marketing, mind -- Silicon Valley types may get damp palms at the idea, but Gulf sheikhs and Russian oligarchs have shown absolutely zero interest so far. (The whole "relentless drive outwards into spaaaaaaace!" thing is massively culturally mediated. But that's a story for another comment.) Anyway, I don't doubt there'd be *a* market -- not just rich SV nerds, but wealthy retirees, celebrity weddings, "event" broadcasts and the like. Think a sixtysomething Jimmy Fallon doing the Tonight Show's 75th Anniversary Live From Straylight, yeah? And like that.

So, sure, at that price point you'd have at least a niche market. But first catch that rabbit.

Doug M.

Commentary later today.

In the mean time:


There's video and I wish it was good enough to put on the projector here at work.

Hell, there's a niche market even at the gigantic prices the Russian Space Agency has been charging! But it's not a very big niche.

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