Space Privatization

In our discussion above, concerning manned space programs, we have painted a picture of huge sums of money being spent over decades of time, where the payoff comes mostly in terms of the advancement of scientific knowledge and possibly political prestige for the participating nations. Put in this way, it is easy to appreciate why it is hard for private industry to get involved, given the normal requirement of a good financial return on investment and within a reasonable time scale. Private industry's need to make a fast buck is a philosophy that does not fit well with the overall enterprise of manned space activity. Perhaps the only way around this roadblock is through the development of space tourism, and this is something we will come back to in a moment.

Despite views to the contrary, there is a good deal of private industry involvement in space activity, and to find out where this is happening, you just need to ask which bits of space turn a profit. The most profitable space application over many years has been that of satellite communications. Over time, intercontinental telephone traffic has increased greatly, and one of the best ways of doing this is through satellites, predominantly in geostationary Earth orbit. And there is a good return on investment to be had by the spacecraft owners. Earth observation is another contender that shows promise in this respect. The idea is a simple one—that of selling satellite images of Earth to users who need the data for a variety of reasons, including searching for Earth resources, weather forecasting, disaster assessment and management, the planning of large civil engineering projects, map making, and even agriculture. A number of private ventures have tried to turn a profit doing this, but this is generally only possible if the costs of the spacecraft and the launching are removed from the equation. Earth observation is not strictly a profitable activity at present, but the potential is there for the future if we can drive down spacecraft and launch costs.

Beyond communications and Earth observation, perhaps the next most promising commercial candidate is satellite navigation (satnav), which we discussed briefly in Chapter 1. We are all familiar with satnav systems these days—for example in cars—that operate using the American military Navstar GPS system. However, in around 2012 a civil system will be launched by the European Union called Galileo, and the intention is to charge users for access to the system. There are some issues here that muddy the waters regarding Galileo's profitability, such as convincing people to pay to use it when there is a perfectly acceptable and free alternate system in the form of GPS. There are some fairly long-standing political and financial issues with Galileo that people are grappling with at the moment, but if these can be resolved, there is great potential for turning a good profit.

Finally, although the list is perhaps not exhaustive, the provision of launch services is the last obvious example of commercial space enterprise. There are a number of commercial launch companies in the U.S., Europe, and Russia that market and sell launch opportunities to governments and private customers. Arianespace, which operates the Ariane family of launch vehicles, became the first such commercial space transportation company in 1980, and continues to be one of the largest providers of rides to orbit.

So, currently there is good evidence of commercial activity in unmanned

Figure 10.12: The X-prize winning SpaceShipOne on its descent after reaching in excess of a 100-km altitude in 2004. (Copyright © 2004 Mojave Aerospace Ventures LLC. Photograph by Scaled Composites. SpaceShipOne is a Paul G. Allen project.)

space applications, but what of the privatization of human spaceflight, given the issues of cost, time scales, and return on investment? A first step was taken in 2004, when a piloted vehicle called SpaceShipOne (Fig. 10.12) won the so-called X-prize of $10 million, which was set up to stimulate private investment in the development of manned spaceflight technologies. To win the prize, SpaceShipOne had to demonstrate the first human spaceflight to an altitude in excess of 100 km (62 miles) in a privately developed and operated vehicle. Although this is a considerable achievement, one very important point should not be missed here: the vehicle reached orbital height but did not achieve orbital speed. As we discussed in Chapter 2, to enter orbit at a 100-km altitude requires traveling horizontally at about 8 km/sec (5 miles/sec), and in terms of technical achievement it is the attainment of orbital speed that is the difficult part. Acquiring this speed demands the input of huge amounts of rocket-powered energy, which makes conventional launch operations so risky and expensive. So in a way you could say that the X-prize competition missed the point. However, as a consequence of this first privately funded manned spaceflight, a number of commercial companies have jumped on the bandwagon, and are proposing to build a number of such spacecraft to take people to orbital height. The motivation for this investment is tourism, and in the first instance, seats will be sold to passengers at around $200,000 each. For this fee, paying customers will experience the view of Earth from 100-km altitude, and a period of a few minutes of weightlessness at the top of the trajectory when the vehicle is in unpowered free-fall. So here, finally, we begin to see a motivation for private investment in manned spaceflight—that of space tourism.

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