I accidentally started a Twitter conversation with Sandy Mazza as a result of this nice piece on markets being enabled by lower-cost launch, including space burial. I noted to her that it made no sense for the California Department of Public Health to be regulating it, and then mentioned that they shouldn’t have anything to do with cryonics, either. In the course of the discussion, I dug up an old piece I wrote for Cryonics Magazine back in 1990 (ctrl-F “Simberg” to find it). Given that things are finally looking promising for reducing cost of access to space in general, and likely the moon as well, I decided I’d resurrect it here. Note that I’ve been talking about the need for markets to drive down launch costs for three decades. Note also that it’s somewhat dated, in terms of its discussion of the NASP and American Rocket.
The Frozen Frontier
We cannot currently afford to do what many of us would like to do in space. Now that I’ve gotten your attention (with what I hope is almost as enticing a statement to many cryonicists as the headline SEX DURING SUSPENSION in great big 48-point, what publishers refer to as “secondcoming,” type would be) I will explain what I mean and why it is relevant to readers of this periodical.
First of all, many cryonicists are interested in exploring and living in space because they are interested in eventually experiencing all that the universe has to offer, and most (like 99.999999 . . .%) of the universe lies beyond this tiny planet where we happen to have evolved. Also, with the population problem which indefinite lifetimes will inevitably engender, space offers a safety valve for the excess population and a fertile environment for the growth of new societies and economies.
However, space enthusiasts, many of whom are cryonicists, have a problem. The current cost of launching stuff (people, cargo, whatever) to orbit is too high to make many nifty space activities (solar power satellites, tourist resort hotels complete with zero-gee you know what, asteroid mines, space colonies) financially feasible. The primary reason for this is the current low launch rates, as determined by government payload requirements. Many studies in recent years, most of which I have played a principal role in, have determined that one of the key reasons that launch costs are so high is that the amount of traffic is too low. Any launch system represents a significant fixed cost per year to maintain and operate it, and if it is not flown very often, the proportional cost per flight of this fixed cost, which must be charged to each launch, is very high.
In other words, we do not have a technology barrier — we have a market barrier. The Space Transportation Architecture Study, performed for the Air Force and NASA in 1986 and 1987 by Rockwell International Corporation, Martin Marietta Corporation, Boeing Aircraft Company, and General Dynamics, showed that even the Space Shuttle could reduce the cost of launch to low Earth orbit significantly if it could be flown at a high (100 per year plus) flight rate. An entirely new launch system with modern technology, flown at an equally high or higher launch rate, could dramatically reduce costs, perhaps down to the region of one to two hundred dollars per pound. All we need is sufficient launch demand to require high rates, and an intelligently designed launch system, and the costs will come down. Now, you ask, besides the general reasons already stated, why should cryonicists, particularly those who are not
space buffs, care?
The answer is very simple.
Cryonicists need space.
And spacers need cryonics.
You see, cryonicists also have a problem (at least one). Assuming that one is comfortable with the current technical credibility of the concept, the biggest concern a cryonicist should have is a societal one. To wit, will society allow Alcor and other cryonics organizations to keep me from thawing out?
There are two issues here. One is purely financial. While the cost of liquid nitrogen is low (roughly equivalent to milk, even at current artificially high rates, as determined by price props from the Department of Agriculture), because of the usage rate, it is not zero. Thus, it is not inconceivable that your friendly neighborhood cryonics group may run into a budget squeeze down the road (due to legal battles or fines or inflation or other statist harassment) that prevents them from topping you off, converting you from a nice crisp corpsicle to a not-so-reanimatable slushie.
The other problem is what Jim Bennett, director of the Foresight Institute and president of the American Rocket Company, calls the “peasants with pitchforks and torches” scenario. This is the analog to the scene from Frankenstein in which the local neo-Luddites decide that not dying is against the laws of nature and God and decide to help out their omnipotent deity (whose powers are presumably limited from handling the job himself in this particular instance for some reason which passeth understanding) by destroying you and your fellow time travelers by means either sophisticated or crude, the choice of which, of course, being a matter of supreme indifference to the perpetrators of these untender ministrations.
Storage in space has the potential to solve both of these problems simultaneously. The economic issue is dependent upon how long one postulates the necessary duration of storage to be. Depending on launch cost assumptions, there may be some period of time beyond which the initial costs of launch will be paid for by the reduced cost of nitrogen top-off. This would be done by storing the suspension patients in passively radiation-cooled units on orbit, or possibly in caves at the poles of the moon. The former would have shields from the sun and albedo of the earthshine, while presenting radiators to the three degrees Kelvin of deep space to maintain the appropriate storage temperatures. The caves on the moon, if at sufficiently high lunar latitudes (i.e. almost polar) to preclude any sunlight from reaching them, would also maintain the desired low temperatures. Either way, a passive system could be developed which would require little or no maintenance. It may be that this is not economically justifiable in itself, once the future cash flow is discounted back into current dollars and weighed against the up-front launch costs, but it will certainly enhance the chances of survival if events prevented your cryonics organization from attending to your needs for some unspecified period of time. Also, these locations, particularly the moon,
would be very difficult and expensive to access by unauthorized persons, with the exception of governments. Private security and defense systems
may have to be considered at some point to deal with the latter. The viability of defending such installations will make for a very interesting future article.
In this space-storage scenario, the market potential for space transportation, either to orbit or to the moon, could ultimately be tremendous. For instance, say that the average weight of a cryonically suspended patient is around 120 pounds. Let us assume that the additional requirements for radiation shielding, cooling during launch, etc., add another thirty pounds per client. If launch costs can be reduced to $150 per pound, as some proponents of concepts such as the National Aerospace Plane or the Space Ship Experimental claim, this would represent a cost of $22,500 to launch the patient into low Earth orbit. (The marginal costs of going on to the moon would probably roughly triple this value.) While this may seem to be a lot of money, it is only an additional 22.5% over the $100,000 which Alcor currently charges for a whole-body suspension. Many patients will be willing to pay this premium for the additional security which space-based storage would provide, even when taking the launch risk into account. (Though there will almost certainly be a subset of clients who insist on remaining on Earth, just as many people refuse to fly.)
As more people become aware of the cryonics option, let us suppose that five percent of the population will avail themselves of it, including space storage. With current mortality rates for the United States alone, this would translate into a market of roughly 100,000 clients per year, for a total launch mass of fifteen million pounds per year to orbit, approximately twenty times our current total NASA and DOD launch requirements (and capabilities), with yearly revenues for the launch provider of at least $2.25 billion. Adding in demand from the other industrialized countries and the rest of the world could increase this by a significant factor (Double? Triple? Order of magnitude?). If this market potential is even partially realized, there will be more than enough demand to justify the development of low-cost private launch services, not only to low Earth orbit, but perhaps to the moon and beyond. This does not include, of course, the market for space tourism, which could add considerably to the demand, particularly when you might be able to combine your two-week weightless orgy with a pilgrimage to visit Uncle Elmer and Aunt Mildred in their orbital dewar built for two. Thus, the combination of cryonicists and tourists could provide both the demand and the financial resources to privately develop space in the near term. While it is possible that either group alone could do so, adding them together provides the redundancy of market demand that may be
needed to warm a venture capitalist’s heart and open her check book.
So, what needs to be done to make it happen? First of all, the numbers should be refined to better quantify the market. Second, design concepts should be developed for both orbital storage and launch packaging. This will obviously be more of a challenge for whole-body patients than neuros. In fact, neuros may be very cheap to launch, assuming that they can take intense accelerations. This might be an excellent application for some sort of electromagnetic launcher, lofting the patients, (suitably protected from atmospheric drag, of course, perhaps by some spray-on ablator) like so many cannonballs into a suborbit in which a giant catcher’s mitt awaited to capture and store them. However, if this offends sensibilities, more conventional means should work just fine, if somewhat more expensively. Mike Darwin has suggested that a serious consideration for the design of an orbital long-term storage facility will be radiation protection. On orbit, this could be done either actively with superconducting magnetic fields, or passively by piling several feet of shielding on the outside, using perhaps water from the Earth or dirt from the moon, whichever is less costly. In the lunar storage case, the dirt surrounding the polar caves or lava tubes should be more than adequate to provide radiation protection.
With a solid market clearly identified, and basic cargo and storage designs defined, money could then be raised for producing the needed launch system. For example, one of the best near-term candidates for reducing launch costs is the American Rocket Company’s hybrid propulsion concept, which uses a solid fuel with liquid oxygen as an oxidizer. Despite the recent setback in their first launch attempt at Vandenberg Air Force Base on October 5, in which the vehicle failed to develop enough thrust to lift off and burned on the launch pad, this technology holds a great deal of promise for reducing launch costs while increasing safety. Significantly, although the rocket was essentially destroyed, the company reports that the payloads survived intact, an almost unheard-of outcome for a launch vehicle failure, and one which demonstrates the inherent safety of the concept. For those cryonicists who believe that opening up the space frontier is important, either for reasons stated in this article or others which were not, this company is worthy of consideration as an investment in the future, not only of space, but of cryonics as well. Those interested should contact Jim Bennett at ***-***-**** in Camarillo, California.
Despite the slightly tongue-in-cheek tone, I hope that this article has gotten some synapses firing, and I would welcome any comments and ideas that people have on this tremendously important subject. These concepts should be developed further in the coming months and years, to ensure not only a future, but a space future, for all of us.