Transportation Session

Gary Hudson, chairing session, thanking Robin Snelson and Lee Valentine for reviving the conference series. Sobered by the fact that the last time he chaired a session at a Space Manufacturing Conference was almost three decades ago. He leads off with a discussion of advances in space transportation over the past three decades.

Nothing else matters as much as low-cost, routine and reliable LEO access — once in orbit, halfway to anywhere else.

Biggest challenge not technology. It’s market demand, financing and naive regulation. Don’t need “destinations,” or “heavy lift.” This building was built in pieces weighing less than ten tons at a time. Historically, NASA opposition was a concern, but that is the case no longer. Now it’s Congress.

Space launch expensive because we throw the vehicles away, and we fly them only once (reduces reliability). Don’t fly often enough, don’t climb learning curve, to amortize development costs. Everything has been tried, and nothing has worked. Nowhere close to a breakthrough (in terms of propellant costs becoming significant), because of the standing army. ULA, Orbital and SpaceX have developed “commercial” vehicles, but still haven’t fundamentally reduced cost of access to space.

Problem is the gap in market elasticity. Reducing price doesn’t increase revenue in current region of price. Reducing cost to a thousand or five hundred dollars a pound reduces revenue, because demand doesn’t increase fast enough until price far below that. Incentives are to maintain status quo. Need new markets, near-term “affirmative action” missions from NASA to get us over the hump (ISS resupply, prop depots, debris cleanup, exploration support). Not necessarily inappropriate, since past government policies have put us in this box. Medium term, tourism will provide useful markets, but long term goal must be settlement.

Technical roadblocks: no breakthroughs needed, but risk and cost reduction via NASA tech development can be useful.

Political: end to cafeteria filling, and recognizing role of private sector.

Legal: should be based on sensible engineering and science rather than emotional regulation (example of having to watch for desert tortoises on the runway for Burt’s spaceplanes, but not airplanes).

Financial: question not whether or not we can finance, the issue now is global economic collapse and whether the dollar will be worth anything in three months.

No social breakthroughs needed — we’re ready.

Needed breakthroughs:

Patient risk capital (this is where NASA can help).

Paradigm/Perceptual change — need to fix broken regulatory regime (e.g. ITAR), NASA brother-in-law problem.

Technical — highly reusable engines, innovations such as tethers, which is a “good cheat.”

What we don’t need: scramjets and airbreathers.

RLV technologies neede: active sluid cooling for entry, highly operable engines.

Achievable price goals: $500/lb within five years, $100/lb within ten to fifteen. Assuming RDT&E amortized through public/private partnerships, and that standing army is sized for business, not government pork.

Introducing Dallas Bienhoff of Boeing

4 thoughts on “Transportation Session

  1. Karl Hallowell

    Achievable price goals: $500/lb within five years, $100/lb within ten to fifteen.

    What? Cost to LEO? Sounds wholly unrealistic to me. To do that so quickly, you first need to burn a lot of money, which drives up the development costs per launch, and subsidize demand, which drives up the cost per launch.

  2. Rand Simberg Post author

    Short hand (I was trying to keep up with him) for the phenomenon of an investor doing due diligence by going to talk to his brother-in-law who works for NASA, who must therefore be an expert on the technical/economic viability of commercial space ventures.

  3. Pete

    Karl, $100/lb is not unrealistic, design a reusable vehicle that can be turned around and flown every day and it is actually kind of inevitable. Base fuel cost only being ~$10/lb.

    To repeat the old adage, one can not achieve low cost access to space by spending lots of money. A few good hundred million dollar programs should now do it – look at the Lynx.

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