How we’ll get back to the moon

New from the MySociety genii:, capsule the curiously-capitalised PlaceOpedia. Think Google Maps ? Wikipedia. Brilliant. Except that, as I write, all the links read


  1. For the most part, yes, NASA’s new architecture is a bit underwhelming. But if that were the entirety of space exploration then you’re conclusions would be dead on. They aren’t, though. Take the conclusion about servicing ISS for example, sometime in the next five years the ISS will be serviced by neither the shuttle nor the CEV but by a couple of private companies doing it for a profit. The COTS program is a fixed price contract under NASA’s “other contract authority” for paying companies just for the service of sending stuff to the ISS.

    The point is that your article is about how “we” will get back to the moon, but throughout the entire thing you’re only asking how NASA will get back to the moon. We are more than likely to get back to the moon using profit as the motive, not “political, not scientific, reasons”. This has gotten lost since the president’s speach but the reason to go is not political or scientific. Its economic. Countries that explore for economic reasons reap the rewards of resources and discoveries and the general ‘dynamism’ of it.

    There is an entire space program out there that is building vehicles and missions without NASA’s involvement. The reason they’re doing it is fun and profit. Science and politics come last. Check ’em out:

  2. That’s a better-reasoned riposte than my largely nonsensical stream-of-conscious blether likely deserves!
    My instinct is to voice skepticism — even cynicism — that space is really amenable to private industry. But that’s partly because I’m British, and it’s easy for me to get stuck in the mindset of thinking laterally rather than thinking big.
    What I find interesting is that I have this week been directly involved in a prime example of a large, established, well-respected organisation being out-thought by a small, fleet-foot, cocky upstart. The two organisations are doing superficially similar projects, and while the upstart’s is unlikely to have quite the same sort of impact, it’s looking distinctly more cost-effective by being more focussed, and more clearly thought through.
    To deny that such a thing should be possible with NASA vs ‘the little guys’ would be hypocritical in the extreme. Indeed, NASA is such a monstrously vast organisation, it’s something of a miracle that it functions at all (but hey, I consider the British Civil Service one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World).
    I still find it hard to believe that there’s great commercial value in space beyond comms/nav/earth obs satellites and basic tourism, but I guess I have to admit the possibility that this is a limitation of my own imagination, and not a feature of the world itself. And you’re absolutely right, I do find what Rutan and others are doing exciting. Indeed, Rutan is one of the reasons I nearly took an astronautics degree, all those years ago.
    Yes, private space flight might well recapture that spirit of possibility that so charmed me about the Shuttle when I was young. I hope so. I’m not convinced, but perhaps hope is more potent than cynicism.

  3. Space at current launch prices isn’t very amenable to private industry other than very high ticket aggregate markets such as comsats. The key assumption that many of us in the industry are working on is that, if you can somehow start off suborbitally AND build a business with a high flight rate, that you will lower launch costs through operational savings. I.e. if you only flew a Boeing 747 once a year you would only have a handful of them and they’d cost many billions of dollars to fly.

    That’s why so many of us are fixated on suborbital tourism: there are lots of small payloads that have money. You can build a profitable business flying them once or twice a week. That flight rate drives down costs dramatically due to economies of scale and extensive flight experience with the hardware.

    Then, once the costs come down, other more futuristic businesses begin to become viable: lunar flyby tourism, orbital fuel depots, comsat rescue tugs, private space stations for tourists and scientists, etc. None of those can be profitable at current launch prices. But drop them by one order of magnitude and they all become profitable businesses.

    Take us for example: we can take a 350 gram, soda can sized payload into space and back for only $129. Its only suborbital but we will reach 400 km sometime in 2008. We can fly that mission about 4 to 6 times a day. Its cheap and reliable, but functionally its not as good as putting hundreds of pounds of mass on the ISS. But for a lot of people its good enough to start. So we get experience flying and we get our operations down to a fine science. That makes it a lot easier to build a human capable tourism vehicle in ’09 and then an orbital one in ’11. All at much lower costs and much higher reliability.

  4. Hmm, ‘soda can’, eh? I wonder what the Cola and Mentos experiment would be like in zero G…

  5. Damned hard to film, Kevin. But I like the way you think.

  6. Kevin,
    Put a nozzle on it and we’ll use it for our Reaction Control System. 😉

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