Category Archives: Economics

Dawn of Modular Spaceflight Revolution

John Carmack’s announcement of a modular rocket that can reach suborbital space for $25,000 per module is revolutionary. Each module can independently reach suborbital space. Group the modules together and any size or shaped payload can reach suborbital space. The cost to get to space is $250 per module in fuel costs.

In a video that John said will be posted to his web site, he showed the modules being hooked together in a square arrays. These arrays can then be stacked for staging.

He predicts that he will produce the Armadillo orbital “Sputnik” which John also referred to as Mitchell Burnside-Clapp’s DYANN–Do You All Notice Now?

There are two revolutions here. The first is an open source garage revolution. With a small warehouse and a budget closer to Charlie Farmer’s in Farmer Astronaut than COTS winners RpK and SpaceX, Armadillo in a humble, matter-of-fact tone is brashly announcing an orbital program.

The second is the price of the revolution. At $25,000 per module, the capital cost per delta V is unprecedented and substantially lower than RpK or SpaceX.

This revolution was incrementally developed in plain sight and demonstrated in plain sight. No one thought Carmack’s Pixel and Texel were minimum concept proofs for a 64-module version. No one thought that by looking at the specifications they were seeing the ultimate cheap first stage and second stage and third stage.

Carmack thinks he can get the mass ratio down from 27 to 15 with some low cost evolutionary modifications. At 15-1, he can loft “Pixel 2” onto a suborbital trajectory with a 64-module first-stage lifter made up of 16 Pixels arrayed in a 4-4 grid or 8×8 single modules. Pixel 2 will be full of fuel and be the second stage. On top of Pixel will be a single module with a 25 lb. payload that will make it all the way to orbit. The cost for this delivery? The capital costs would be about $1.7 million if he can stay under $25,000 per module. If only the first stage is reusable, the cost per flight would be $150,000. If the first and second stage are reusable, the cost per flight would be $60,000. For a three stage system, that is a not very revolutionary price of $2400 per pound to orbit (albeit revolutionary vs. old space of $10,000+ per pound though.)

If they achieve a two-stage to orbit system where the second stage is also reusable, that would deliver a 100 lb payload to orbit for $35,000. That is roughly half fuel and oxidizer and half capital assuming a 100 flight lifetime. $350/lb is revolutionary. If this could be scaled up to Spacex Falcon IX payload size of 22,770 lbs., that’s $8 million or $22 million for a Falcon IX heavy sized payload of 62,500 lbs. An array of 100×100 modules supporting a second stage array of 25×25 modules boggles the mind and would cost $265 million in capital costs at $25,000 each. The flight rate assumptions would not be invalidated, however, because the vehicle could be broken up to support the suborbital tourism industry and smaller orbital payloads.

On the optimistic side, this price is before mass production. This mass ratio is before switching to methane (a 10% improvement in ISP over alcohol and a 50+% fuel price drop too). Google revolutionized servers by using modular white box CPUs. Now Carmack is making a bid to do the same thing. Nevertheless, Henry Vanderbilt cautions me that there is a long way to go from a view graph to orbit.

———Update 3/24/07 7:00 MST———

A wide plane requires a bunch of successively stronger connectors moving inward and results in very little additional payload delivered by the outside modules. This is especially true with a square grid which require more connections moving in from the corners than a hexagonal one. Other possibilities are more stages so connections are shorter and more vertical and larger, taller modules for lower stages.

Carbon LOX Stock and Barrel

Clean coal which was a $10 billion subsidy issue in the last election is developing. It involves capturing carbon dioxide by first burning it with liquid oxygen. Buy LOX stock. I like Air Liquide. There are two technologies: one rich: they inject steam, use heat to split off the oxygen to burn the coal and use the hydrogen to generate more electricity. The other lean: just use more LOX.

Both are idiotic from an economic standpoint. To add a hydrogen system and make the coal crazy hot enough to split water will use a lot of LOX at $1/gallon or so. Clean coal is an attempt to minimize the carbon output per electricity instead of the carbon output per money. Better than producing 1,000,000 barrels of CO2 via clean coal, would be to generate 3,000,000 barrels of carbon dioxide enriched air. Underground storage of air is a lot cheaper than buying hundreds-of-dollars-a-ton of LOX to burn $20/ton coal. We ought to be able to achieve sequestration for under $5/ton of CO2. And the plant modification is low-tech. Just direct the exhaust into a pipeline to inject it into the ground.

Going To School

…with Arnold Kling. One example:

Few people appreciate what a profound and disturbing puzzle the Depression posed. The non-economist has no trouble getting her mind around the notion of a shortage of jobs. But for an economist, such a shortage is nonsense. If there is an excess supply of, say, construction workers, then the wage of construction workers should adjust downward. As the wage rate sinks, the demand for construction workers rises, and the supply of people willing to work in construction falls. As the competitive process unfolds, bidding down wage rates, eventually supply and demand will balance.

In theory, at any rate, unemployment — an excess supply of labor — should accordingly be self-correcting. But evidently, as the Great Depression showed, the labor market lacks in practice the adjustment mechanisms that are supposed to work in theory.

There are hundreds of theories that try to explain the apparent inflexibility of labor markets. But I have never forgotten a suggestion made by Robert Solow. He pointed out that you never see an unemployed worker walk up to an employer and say, “If you let me have that guy’s job, I’ll work for 10 percent less money.” There are self-imposed ethical limits on competition.

If you think about it, there are probably countless self-imposed ethical precepts that affect our economic behavior. Chances are, without the habits incorporating these ethical precepts, our market system would collapse altogether. Like the water in which a fish swims, our commercial morality is invisible to us. But it is essential.

A Cheap Lesson At Twice The Price

If only it worked. Robin Hanson has a brilliant solution to stock market volatility:

Congress could give some well-regarded “best and brightest” regulators a big pile of cash, say $100 billion, and have them correct prices by trading, buying when they think prices should rise and selling when they think prices should fall. If regulators really do know how to choose good price pushes, then not only will they correct “biased” stock prices, they will increase their pile of cash, and we won’t need to give them any more.

If, however, regulators lose their pile of cash, let them come back to Congress begging for more, explaining how they had it all wrong before, but now they know when to push prices up versus down. And after very some public hang-wringing, let Congress give them another $100 billion to work with. And if regulators come back a few years later asking for even more money, explaining how they had it all wrong again, but now they know how to do it right, let Congress given them another very public scolding, along with another $100 billion.

And if regulators lose that pile, maybe Congress and the public will have had enough, and will quit the price fixing business. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me thrice, shame on me. The $300 billion will have been well worth it to clearly show regulator inefficiency, especially since that money would just have been transferred to financial speculators, the people who really rationalize stock prices.

Sadly, though, I suspect that many still wouldn’t get the clue.


Lileks writes about his trip to Trader Joe’s:

I bought some sauces, including a pasta sauce that turned out to be too brackish for my tastes, and a bottle of three-buck Chuck

I could swear that just last year, on my many trips to CA, it was still two-buck Chuck. When did it go up, and why by fifty percent? I know, it’s only a buck, but still.

[Update in the afternoon]

And speaking of Trader Joe’s, when are they going to start opening stores in south Florida? I’d think there’d be a huge market for them in Boca. I wonder if it has something to do with the state liquor regs? Looking at their site, it appears that the closest one is in Georgia.

Five Hundred Points?

Sounds like a bad day for the market. Of course, it never helps when the exchange for a major trading partner starts the day down almost ten percent.


This is not investment advice (oh, no) but this is probably a buying opportunity.