Friday, February 24, 2006

OK. Good. And Then?

The good news is that Sir Richard Branson and company are coming up with a way for us (relatively well to do) mortals to experience spaceflight. This is great stuff, and we have every reason to be ecstatically happy. Starting in about 2008, people will start queueing up outside the gates of the New Mexico Spaceport to take a ride with Virgin Galactic. The lucky/wealthy participants allowed in will hop into the SpaceshipOne derived ship and be shot to the edge of space, where, for a few short minutes, they will trod the high, untrespassed sanctity of space, put out their hands and touch the face of God, or something along those lines.

I don't mean to be flip, as I would dearly love to have the chance to give it a go, but something worries me a bit about the general sub-orbital business. That is, it doesn't go anywhere, per se. Yeah, it goes up to the edge of space allright, but only for a few minutes. Then it comes down and lands on the same field it left. That's the whole ride. You get your astronaut wings, maybe eat dinner, and then go home. It's great stuff to tell your friends and family, but the problem is that after about a thousand or so people have done the exact same thing, then what? You don't really want to be the 30,000th passenger paying $200,000 to take that ride, do you?

One of the things the Apollo program taught me was that the public loses interest in great adventures once the novelty wears off. So my fear is that this is what will happen to sub-orbital flight. It may also happen with commercial orbital flight when that gets here. "So what is to be done," I asked myself, and this is what I came up with.

Creating a Space Destination - The Space Resort/Spa/Casino

So here's the deal. People want to go somewhere in their rockets, not just shoot up and come back down. So give the people what they want - a place to stay in space. In this case, a low earth orbit space station. And given that a space tourist will to have some serious dough, they're not going to want to go to a bunch of tin cans duct taped together, they're going to want to spend their time in a full service establishment. They're going to want big windows to look out of. They're going to want to float around in zero-g, but at other times they'll want the firmness of a floor beneath them. So the space station will be spun to simulate gravity. Then, they're going to want something to do, like take a spacewalk/tour; be entertained in various ways; or buy souvenirs and other items available only in space -- moonrocks for instance.

A few economic considerations come to mind at this point. Firstly, if the station is big enough, and provides food through its own greenhouses, fish ponds, etc. Then the biggest price the hotel would charge is the transportation up and back. Staying in the hotel for an extended period would be possible (insanely expensive by earth standards, but much less than the ride up), and as long as the guest didn't over do purchases of earth manufactured food, drink, etc. He/she would be able to get by on a few tens of thousands of dollars a day. People with lots of money will start spending prolonged periods in space and start becoming acclimatized to the idea of space as a destination/place to live, not just a temporary adventure. Some might pursue permanent accomodations. Depending upon how it was legally implemented, a space hotel/condominium could offer many tax and legal advantages to the uber-wealthy.

Once things get going, the ever adventurous tourists will begin clamouring for tours to far off destinations, which means that lunar tourism is next. Lunar adventures will lead to lunar settlements, just as the space hotel led to low earth orbit settlement. By this path, we will settle the solar system.


Blogger Juan Suros said...

Any idea why there's no talk of crossing an ocean in a suborbital spacecraft? Is it an IFF issue, or is there more to it than that?

February 25, 2006 9:11 PM  
Blogger bill said...

Good question. I don't know how the customs people would adjust to getting flights into their airports from overseas in a little less than an hour, but this is one of the challenges. I would also be a bit worried about fuel costs. I'm not sure, but I was somewhat of the impression that the fuel differences between going sub-orbital across the pond and going orbital aren't all that different, but I could be wrong.

February 27, 2006 10:29 AM  
Blogger bill said...

A few more ideas came to mind that I didn't feel I could comfortably fit into the blog itself. Because the space hotel is not part of earth, there is the opportunity to create a place where earth rules need not apply. Since everyone going up to the space hotel would have a full medical checkup prior to the trip up, the chance of spreading communicable diseases could be eliminated. It wouldn't be unexpected that a space hotel could be designed cater to the sexual appetites of its clientele in ways that would be normally illegal on earth. Various drugs not normally legal on earth might also be sold. Think "Amsterdam in Space", if you're looking for an analogy.

"Why would you suggest such a thing," you might ask. Simply this, it's all about keeping the customer engaged. Ultimately, its the customer that determines what is and what is not part of the space hotel.

March 06, 2006 11:24 AM  
Blogger Michael Mealling said...

Just a nit:

The 30,000th passenger wouldn't pay $200,000. They would probably pay around $10,000. Suborbital flight is a way of getting from what we have now to orbital tourism without having to risk the $$ necessary to build an orbital vehicle. And even with suborbital flight you have significant tiers: a 500km suborbital flight is a very different experience from a 100km suborbital flight. As companies start out at 100km flights you build up as prices drop to higher and higher capability. While at the lower end you are increasing your flight rate and understanding of commercial operations at the lower end as the number of people who can fly increases as the price drops.

The issue of point-to-point is the insurance costs of landing where people are. In launch licensing there is the concept of MPL or Maximum Probable Loss and the requirement that a launch provider have the financial wherewithall to pay the MPL. This is usually done with third party liability insurance. The MPL for someplace you would want to do do a point-to-point flight to is horrendous.

As far as doing it over the ocean that means doing it between countries and the ITAR related issues for that are also horrendous.

March 06, 2006 11:55 AM  

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