Human Spaceflight: Being Taken for a Ride

There are two topics I’m looking at this week, both involving human spaceflight. The first is a look at the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration’s (CDSE) recommendations to the new administration. Those recommendations, as you’ll see, have everything to do with keeping spending focused on projects the CDSE’s members tend to be deeply involved in. Also, it’s good for the nation’s prestige and for science. Because the CDSE’s board consists of large, military-industrial companies, these recommendations may carry some weight to congress critters of all stripes.

Juxtaposing the CDSE’s recommendations with the other topic–SpaceX’s and Axiom Space’s commercial space tourism initiatives, which seem to be gaining some traction. That traction is likely just a blip, but it still represents more progress in human spaceflight than the programs the CDSE is pushing to the new administration.

Let’s Do it For Our Country

Let’s acknowledge that CDSE’s mission doesn’t appear to have anything to do with commercial space interests. Instead, and as the pamphlet states, the CDSE is “focused on ensuring the United States remains a leader in space, science and technology.” That noted, the CDSE is pushing ideas that happen to be financially beneficial to its commercial members.

The organization released a three-page pamphlet (CDSE calls it a roadmap) full of illustrated and rendered spacecraft and launch vehicles. The pamphlet covers four topics (with associated recommendations) to help the new administration understand what the U.S. space industry’s priorities should be (some of my bullets are tongue-in-cheek, they are also more honest):

  1. NASA’s Moon-to-Mars Vision
    1. If the U.S. doesn’t become serious about working in cislunar space (space between the Earth and the Moon), it
      1. risks losing “technological prowess.”
      2. loses face internationally
    2. To achieve getting to cislunar space, the administration must work with Congress to spend more on Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion
      1. Since they represent “the world’s only human exploration systems destined for deep space.
      2. Also great for International partners, who can fund them, too
  2. Science
    1. Earth observation with satellites is hard because of
      1. Human activities
      2. Mother Nature
    2. Instead, why not look away from Earth to deep space to understand
      1. nuclear winter
      2. climate change
    3. Spend more money on the James Web Space Telescope (JWST)
  3. Space Activities in Low Earth Orbit (LEO)
    1. Humans in space need a space station
      1. Keep spending money on the International Space Station (ISS)
      2. Not spending money on the ISS means
        1. relinquishing LEO leadership
        2. relinquishing Moon colony prospects
        3. China’s inevitable takeover of space (because fear helps override nasty spending questions)
  4. National Efforts in Space Require National Coordination
    1. The U.S. is a leader in space
    2. More nations are working in space
    3. Congress and administrations working together can:
      1. give money to the afore-mentioned activities
      2. distribute ‘Merican values by supporting U.S. deep space activities

The “spend more money on program X” messaging isn’t surprising considering the CDSE’s board of directors is the usual cast of legacy space industry characters: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Jacobs. Commercial companies all, their intertwining with government programs gives them an incentive in keeping those profitable NASA programs alive–the longer, the better. If international partners contribute to those programs, so much the better for them.

The idea of SLS and Orion representing U.S. technological prowess is cute and quite wrong. The technology used for both is decades old because the programs’ origins are that old. NASA’s Constellation program (Orion and SLS were extended from that program) was conceived of BEFORE the iPhone’s introduction. The SLS’ rocket engines are older–refurbished from the ancient space shuttle program. Just because a rocket is large doesn’t mean it’s superior to other launch systems.

If U.S. technological prowess is the worry, then perhaps the best way to show it off to the rest of the world is to get rid of International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and let U.S. companies get busy. Also, beefing up the U.S. Commerce department’s space arm would help. But SLS and Orion are more like a return to roots and not a look to the future of space.

It’s odd to see the CDSE explain that looking at the Earth with satellites is somehow less insightful about how the Earth works than looking out at planets millions of kilometers away. While there is some validity to that observation, it’s also a bit like arguing airplanes are a fantastic way to explore the ocean’s depths. So, logically, buy more planes with expensive sensors instead of submarine probes. It’s an interesting argument to base funding hopes upon, especially funding for the beleaguered JWST program.

The whole coordination between industry, congress, and the administration seems like nothing other than an attempt to keep things the way they are. The legacy space industry members in CDSE move at glacial erosion speeds. Congress’ inherent bickering, even on the most straightforward of tasks, is about as slow-moving. If coordination among these groups becomes a necessity, it guarantees that U.S. companies who do move quickly, such as SpaceX and Rocket Lab, move away or shut down. Note that one of the U.S. most profitable and successful business sectors, the tech sector, is renowned for its lack of coordination. And still it dominates.

Hilariously, the CDSE’s members appear to believe someone (or someone’s constituents) will buy the fiction that SLS and Orion are “the world’s only human exploration systems destined for deep space.” It’s hilarious because that system is still fiction…not close to being operational. This is in part because of the glacial pacing of the companies involved (also, because NASA accepts that pacing). SLS has yet to launch and may not even launch in late 2021, based on the latest engine test issue. It seems that, yet again, the launch will move to the schedule’s right. That the CDSE outright ignores other companies making quick inroads towards launching humans to deep space adds to the irony.

One of those companies, SpaceX, a company that has launched humans safely–twice, basically turned to the CDSE this week and said, “Hold my beer.”

Commercial Human Spaceflight and Orbital Tourism

Earlier this week, SpaceX found a few millionaires willing to pay for a ride into space. One customer and some lucky lottery winners will ride to space on a Falcon 9 sometime late in 2021. The other four people unburdened with poverty are involved with Axiom Space’s AX-1 mission, riding up to the ISS (and staying a while) on a Falcon 9 sometime in 2022. All of them are paying tens of millions for the privilege. That’s two rides to space (admittedly not deep space) for about nine people–probably before SLS gets stacked for its first launch.

And the beauty of SpaceX’s commercial ride program to space? If the missions are canceled or delayed, no one cares except the parties involved. Okay–some nerdniks do care–but it’s not as if the U.S. taxpayers are paying billions of dollars for those SpaceX missions. Not like the missions the CDSE is pushing.

The sudden flurry of announcements concerning millionaires paying for rocket rides is interesting but perhaps not unexpected. Once SpaceX showed its first successful NASA crew launch wasn’t a fluke, it was only a small logical step for SpaceX to try its hand in the commercial space passenger business. Two missions aren’t a business but better described as beta tests. Commercial human spaceflight services are more narrowly focused than the already niche launch service market, an observation made in “Flying Humans to Space, for Fun, Science, and Profit.”

There is just one type of steady-paying customer for that service–NASA and government agencies from other nations. The DoD hasn’t publicly expressed any interest in flying humans to space. And SpaceX can’t leverage these human spaceflight launches by simultaneously carrying humans and satellites together. At least, not yet.

The question comes down to how many people are willing AND can afford the service’s price? The AX-1 mission and Axiom Space’s business are a subset of the commercial human spaceflight business (which isn’t a business yet). As an FYI, Axiom Space is a CDSE member. You can bet the company embraces the “Space Activities in LEO” bullet, which is currently critical to Axiom’s business plans. The nature and costs of the company’s plans narrow the already small customer-base of those who can afford to fly on a Falcon 9.

For defraying the costs of staying aboard the ISS, that customer-base is too small. In “Examining Realities in ISS Commercialization,” I noted that, at least based on NASA cost estimates, around 240 passengers would need to book with Axiom annually to pay what NASA typically budgets to run the ISS (~$3 billion). The ISS certainly couldn’t support 240 people going through it each year, which is perhaps one reason why Axiom eventually wants to build its space station. Whether Axiom’s bet on a commercially-run tourist space destination is something the marketplace desires will soon become apparent.

Again, the success or failure of SpaceX’s human spaceflight service and Axiom’s on-orbit tourist business doesn’t quite matter–even to the global space sector. Both human commercial space flight and orbital tourism appear to be solutions looking for a problem. They aren’t offering services that address real-world problems. The fact that it takes so much money to use their current services gives them a veneer of luxury while catering to the ultra-rich.

The markets SpaceX and Axiom are attempting to create are tiny when compared with the business of launching satellites alone. A single disaster could prove fatal for at least one of the two companies. For SpaceX, if the industry doesn’t work out, the company can keep on launching government-sponsored astronauts to the ISS. It can continue on with its core business of launching satellites.

Axiom doesn’t have that kind of fallback position. Maybe that’s why it’s a CDSE member?

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