why luxury spaceships would be worth their price

August 27, 2013

space station concept

Not too long ago, Ars ran an article detailing proposals for modifying the proven and successful hardware built for Apollo for flyby missions to Venus and Mars.None of these plans are new by any means because they were actually made in the 1970s, when the lunar program was coming to an end and NASA’s big wigs wanted to show Congress and the American people how far their flagship spacecraft could go. Of course we know that nothing ever came form these plans, but in recent times, the Mars One idea, and the Inspiration Mars project, seem to be planned in much the same vein. Let’s use what we have, make the crew as comfortable as we can in an austere ship for about two years or so, and do some attention-grabbing missions to show we can do the kinds of things emerging space powers can only dream of attempting one day. As the sage and endlessly quotable Mark Twain once said, history might not repeat itself but it does rhyme and in the case of rushed, crewed flybys of other planets, the second go-around is likely to end like the first: we talk about it and nothing gets done because the ideas are just too rough and costly.

I have to say though, the notions of explorers cramped in tiny vessels braving the harshness of space in the name of our species’ progress have a romantic ring to them. But for the majority of the population, this is going to be something for someone else to do. If more people could work on space exploration and actually travel into space as a part of their job to clean up space junk, launch and repair scientific probes or spy satellites, and even go beyond to mine valuable parts of asteroids, allowing us to tap into the immense resources of the solar system, wouldn’t you see a lot more support for the space program? I’ve written more than I can count about the benefits of investing in space travel and exploration, from medical, to engineering, to energy generation, but the bottom line is that people have to see an immediate benefit to them from the program to pressure politicians to invest; a benefit like potential careers in space. For that to happen, we’re going to need to think beyond flybys and short excursions with long travel times. We’re going to need to think about launching interplanetary space stations with artificial gravity and a whole lot of creature comforts to help astronauts do their jobs and have fun as they’re traveling.

You could argue that we’d have no shortage of would-be explorers willing to travel to Pluto in a rusty, old, sardine can if given a chance, and you’d be right. But odds are, most of them will not be qualified to make that trip and the ones who do will face mental challenges for which we can’t really prepare them. Consider NASA’s latest astronaut class. Out of 1,500 applicants, only eight have been deemed worthy of living in a space station in LEO. What do you think will be the rate of selection for deep space travelers in spartan conditions for years on end with no hope of help from Earth in the event of emergency? We shouldn’t be focused on finding tougher people and billionaires who want to throw technology built for brief orbital travel into interplanetary space. It won’t help us in the long run. We should be focused on developing efficient and powerful means of propulsion, large, comfortable spacecraft, and setting up self-sufficient ready-to-go-anywhere ecosystems that will let us launch more people in space, keep them there longer with less risk to their muscles and bones, and enable them to do more and more jobs there.

Would the price tag be high? Absolutely. But the trade-off is that we could tell more than one in roughly a million people that they’re astronaut material and we have a job for them. Now, space travel would still be challenging, even with a lot of attention paid to the amenities, but it will make long term exploration missions more viable and generate more spin-offs we can apply right back on Earth while testing new generations of materials, medical devices, genetic engineering, and cyborg technologies for applications in space. We’ve been treating the Final Frontier as fodder for philosophy and romanticism for a little too long. We need to start seeing it as a business and an investment in new industries vying to make a real world difference, and old industries that will once again be needed to work as full capacity after they’re upgraded to meet the demands of a new space-faring age. As I said before, I can think of no nation that ever went bankrupt investing in science, technology, and education. But many have collapsed when they tried to cover for the shortfalls of their economy with bread, circuses, war, and zero-sum political brinkmanship…

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  • TheBrett

    Launch costs are the biggest barrier to that, so we need a lot more research and trial work funneled into in-space resource extraction and production. Even getting it to the point where all we have to do is send up Big Dumb Rockets full of raw materials and fuel to be turned into usable stuff would be a great accomplishment, since you could do a larger production run and more active launch schedule with those kinds of launches (meaning that it’s not as big of a deal if some of them fail, and they’re not carrying any fragile payloads aside from fuel tanks).

    Testing out simulated gravity would be a great idea. They actually did partially build a Centrifuge to test out simulated gravity for the ISS (the Centrifuge Accommodations Module, but it was cancelled and is now a museum piece. I’m not sure whether it would be better to test it out by rotating an entire spacecraft on its access, or doing the tether set-up like what Robert Zubrin does with Mars Direct.

    Not sure on the “Industries” thing. Aside from satellites, (potentially) tourism, and (potentially) asteroid resource extraction, most industries would arise up after you’ve got permanent populations living in space of sufficient size so that they become their own reason for economic growth (meaning that they become big enough to draw people with jobs for the same reasons that cities on Earth do).

  • gfish3000

    Well, I’m a big fan of seeing where SSTO goes. It’s going to be for people, not cargo because it’s going to be much more efficient to use the Big Dumb (hopefully SpaceX-made reusable) Rocket and pack 100 tons of cargo into it than make five flights to deliver that much.

    You could lower the cost with the recycle-able rocket concept and by not having to launch more rockets packing many tons of life support equipment and basic provisions on top of this cargo, cycling humans on a more flexible and frequent schedule.

    Now as for using tethers for artificial gravity, what worries me is that tethers can snap. If the entire structure is spinning around its own axis, it’s would take a lot more points of failure to be affected for the living modules to go zooming off into space, way off course.

    Finally, the industries I have in mind are 3D printing, private aerospace, and good, old fashioned construction and manufacturing. They’ll need to build all these spacecraft and innovate to keep them working. Eventually, they could move space-ward when — just as you said — there is a big, stable population of people living and working in space creating jobs openings. Personally, I’d love to do IT for a space station…

  • Bill Kemp

    United Space Structures (USS) has designed an in space manufacturing and construction system for building artificial gravity structures at the lowest cost. The structure on our website http://ussgaia.com/ is a medium size habitat but our smallest habitat, currently not shown on the site, is 30 meters in diameter and creates .6 gravity which we believe will safely sustain life for at least 2 years. We agree with you that space needs to be commercialized in order to be sustainable. The hurdle to overcome is not technical, it is the lack of commitment to see it through.

  • TheBrett

    I’d love to see SSTO work out as well, although prior attempts at it don’t fill me with optimism. Agreed on separating cargo rockets from people-carriers.

    After thinking about it more, I think spinning the whole structure would be smarter, too. One major additional reason for doing it would be to prevent parts of the spacecraft from heating up too much compared to others from exposure to sunlight, although that also depends on positioning.

    Interesting you should mention IT. One nice thing about being a heavily services-based economy is that your space colony could still be integrated into the overall human economy even at a distance. They could potentially pay for imports of technology and materials by remotely doing services for people back on Earth in exchange for a commonly accepted form of currency, never actually sending anything physical back to the mother world (unless you count information sent by radio and laser communication).

  • Paul451

    Speaking of luxury…

    The list price for Bigelow Aerospace’s proposed Alpha station, plus the cost of a couple of reusable Dragon launches per year, is roughly the same as the price and running-costs of a typical modern super-yacht. This means that a “private space station” is within reach of the sort of idle-rich who buy super-yachts, private jets, private islands, etc and initially much more exclusive.

    “What are you and the family doing this summer?”
    “Oh, we’re going up to our space station for a few weeks.”

  • gfish3000

    You’re absolutely on the same page with me here when it comes to wiring space stations into the rest of the world and integrating them into the global economy. Plus, the stations themselves could boost internet connectivity around the world and provide greater coverage to underserved areas, meaning that we don’t have to rely on huge fiber optic cables on the sea floor for the internet’s backbone.