Selling Space, and paying for Mars

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This is a paper which is going to be presented by Red Planet Inc. founder John McKnight at the 1999 Mars Society Convention.

All of the below is Copyright 1999 Adrian Hon.


The human exploration and settlement of Mars will not take place until the price of access to space drops substantially. Governments have little incentive for massive cost reduction, as the rising price of human access to space over the past generation indicates. Commercial enterprise, on the other hand, is driven by a desire to minimize costs: it is commercial enterprise, therefore, that will develop and field the technologies necessary to enable the settlement of Mars.

The typical view of cheap commercial access to space is that it will not occur until two main prerequisites are met. Firstly, the technology for reaching space must be affordable. Secondly, there must be some kind of economic justification for going into space in the first place.

This paper attempts to debunk this view by introducing the notion that rather than the two above factors being prerequisites to commercial access to space, they are closely synergistic and accelerate each other in turn. Examples of this phenomenon in the PC industry are explained, and those lessons applied to the commercial space industry. Suggestions are put forth as to how the Mars Society can actively encourage the commercial utilisation of space, and consequently benefit a humans to Mars programme.

Selling Space, and paying for Mars

For decades now, we have been hearing about news of the latest ventures to launch humans into space quicker, cheaper and safer than ever before. Many of these proposals and projects are well known – using nuclear power, mass drivers, rotors and lasers. All are scientifically sound, and far more efficient than the dated old Space Shuttle we still have after years of use. Humanity could enjoy a second renaissance by fully utilising the resources of space, with these craft. If only we had enough money to build them…

The typical view of cheap commercial access to space is that it will not occur until two main prerequisites are met. Firstly, the technology for reaching space must be affordable. Secondly, there must be some kind of economic justification for going into space in the first place.

The problem grows worse. The technology for sending humans into space being developed by NASA is taking a notoriously long time and incredible amounts of money. The Future-X reusable launch vehicle program has suffered numerous delays and setbacks, even though it receives far greater funding than any private spacecraft developer. Clearly, government-run organisations such as NASA cannot be relied upon to develop spacecraft that will allow private organisations to go into space cheaply.

That leaves the other option: private research and development of spacecraft. By its nature, spacecraft research requires a large amount of investment. Any investors will be looking for some solid evidence that they will be getting their money back soon – so there must be some sort of economic justification for going into space; signs that people will actually buy these spacecraft. Perhaps this economic justification is in the form of the space tourism and orbiting hotels we have all been hearing about. Unfortunately, the companies interested in developing these (the least not being Hilton) are still waiting for cheap access to space.

So we think ‘Ah, that’s a classic chicken and egg problem. Those developing a cheap way into space require investment from people planning to utilise space commercially, but those very same people are unwilling to invest in space hotels and the like until at least the rudiments of an infrastructure are in place,’ all the while patting ourselves on the back for how clever we are to see that cheap commercial access to space will never happen (at least, not for another few decades, until they develop some sort of nuclear spacecraft, and the whole industry will take off, etc, etc…)

Even when, however infrequently, the two prerequisites meet, the partnership is extremely precarious. Recently, Richard Branson was reported to have grand plans for ‘Virgin Galactic Airways,’ and was seriously considering investing in the Rotary Rocket Company. Whether this will ever occur now due to Dan Goldin’s impassioned outburst on the so-called amateur spacecraft developers such as Roton and Kistler is doubtful. Politics? No, the problem is confidence, and perspective.

The thin end of the wedge

The need for the PC twenty years ago was nothing like what it is now. Its main (and only) uses, at first, were accounting and word processing. Today, we use it for world-wide communication, shopping, research, business and entertainment. The list is endless. Very few people predicted this would occur, and it is unlikely that the first developers of the PC did either.

What those developers did was fulfil the small, yet present, need for an advanced accounting and word processing device. From that, as the technology progressed, it became possible for us to have new needs. We required faster processors for more sophisticated programs and higher quality screens to display graphs and tables. These demands were quickly met, and competition between manufacturers ensured prices were pushed down, opening up the market to multitudes of more users. Even more demands for faster processors to cope with new entertainment and music software were made, so ever more sophisticated technology was created.

The PC industry is emblematic of the close synergy between demand and technology. New technology creates new demands, which in turn creates new technologies. Unforeseen pathways are opened by this new technology, creating ever more demands. The demand for entertainment on computers simply did not exist when computers were first developed as it does now. This does not mean that the demand materialised from nowhere, it means that it was a by-product of enabling technologies which allowed people to think ‘Well, since we’ve got such fast computers will great graphics, maybe we should make a graphic adventure.’

Take the situation with 3D graphics card accelerators today. Not more than five years ago, most computer users did not have a need for graphics accelerators, and most did not envisage them being developed. However, as the complexity of 3D games increased, developers created the first widespread 3D graphics card accelerator, the 3DFX. Suddenly, users could play games much faster and in greater detail than before. Games developers noticed these cards, and consequently increased the graphics complexity in their games yet again – creating a demand for even faster, cheaper graphics cards. Other graphics cards appeared on the scene, for example, Videologic’s PowerVR and the Nvidia Riva TNT. In less than half a decade, a multimillion dollar, highly profitable world-wide market had materialised, as if from ‘nowhere’. Instead of it being unusual to have a 3D graphics card accelerator, it’s practically mandatory.

How did this happen? As you may have guessed from the title of this section, it’s to do with the thin end of the wedge. The first PC and 3D graphics card accelerator developers perceived a need. It may have been a small need, and they may or may not have envisaged the potential of their products. But they took a relatively small gamble, and it paid off incredibly well.

The idea that research in space technologies is stood completely still and will not move until someone injects some money is not true. What is true is that space related technologies are slowly, yet surely, being researched and developed due to small amounts of government investment. Then again, just because it is believed that orbiting solar power stations might make money does not mean that someone will magically create the whole infrastructure to do so; the money has to come from somewhere, and so does the technology. Waiting for the government to develop the relevant technology will get us nowhere. Need-fulfilment does not work that easily.

Luckily, it is too hard, either. Let’s have another look at the PC analogy. While I wrote earlier that ‘very few’ people predicted that we would use the PC for, well, everything, there were some who did predict that. With hindsight, we can see that in the 1970’s, it would have been impossible for someone to go and try and make a virtual reality system, or just a 3D racing game. Certainly it was technically possible, but it was nowhere near economically viable. By starting off simple with ‘primitive’ computers, they managed to move, step by step, towards these more technologically advanced yet profitable ventures as the technology became available. This is not to say that a conscious decision was made to start off simple, but it admittedly did pay off.

Similarly, elements of the technology required to construct, say, orbiting cities in space are already available now. Even so, they are still not economically viable for the time being. First, we must identify a commercial venture that is related, however vaguely, to orbiting solar power stations, and also is economically viable. Take space tourism as an example. Space tourism is nearly economically viable – it might be seen as being ‘frivolous’ and ‘limited in scope’ but there are plenty of people willing to pay frankly extortionate amounts to travel in space for less than an hour. They have a need that can be fulfilled. Even so, not all the technology is in place for space tourism. We need to have relatively cheap access to space – this does not mean nuclear powered mass-driver launched spaceplanes, or spacecraft flying upwards on lasers. It means that we need to develop a spacecraft that will be just cheap enough to allow space tourism to be economically viable.

That’s not such as large jump, and it is achievable. As we can see, some people agree, including the ever-reliable entrepreneur, Richard Branson of Virgin. Once he (or someone similar) drives the thin end of the wedge in, he will try to reinvest the profits made into decreasing charges for space tourism. This will include creating cheaper spacecraft. Cheaper spacecraft may then allow people to construct space hotels that could just make a profit. And so it goes on.

One of the main follies of dealing with the commercial utilisation of space is the desire to oversimplify the situation. As demonstrated above, you cannot make huge jumps of logic in saying that ‘X needs Y, and Y needs X.’ After all, this does not apply in the real world. In the real world, advances occur step by step, and on the margin. Space tourism, or orbiting hotels, or orbiting solar power stations, do not have to very profitable for investors to commit themselves. In fact, they do not need to be profitable at all. They simply have to be viable (there is a difference). Once the thin end of the wedge is in place, the space industry will take on a momentum of its own.

It's interesting. I've talked to many people who take the construction of the hugely expensive and sophisticated International Space Station easily in their stride, but when I ask them about their opinion on space tourism, they either laugh or tell me that it won't happen for decades. It's interesting, because the cost and difficulty of developing a sufficiently inexpensive reusable launch vehicle is significantly less than the International Space Station. Even Helen Sharman, the British cosmonaut, believes that commercial spaceflight and space tourism will not be achieved for a number of decades.

People think that space is best left alone to the professionals, which means NASA or ESA. This attitude has lasted for many decades, but now that the Roton has just recently completed it's first flight trials, we should be seeing the last of that attitude. In fact, last fortnight the BBC reported about a football player who was forced to give back his ticket for a trip into space because his club was afraid it might interfere with an important game. This trip into space would have been in 2001 - space tourism is close than anyone thinks.

Are we nearly there yet?

So, what can the Mars Society do? And how does any of this help us get to Mars? The second question is probably the harder. At the moment, there are no major corporations that are seriously considering a mission to Mars, let alone setting up some sort of colony. For that matter, there are no governments willing to put up the money, either.

Yes, we can go to Mars today – yes, we can develop MarsHabs (and TransHabs), and ISRU facilities, and inflatable greenhouses. But this all requires a huge amount of money (in relative terms, I hasten to add), along with a fair amount of new technology. If cheap commercial access to space takes off, this money and new technology will come from other directions than governments – it will come from companies building new spacecraft, or orbiting space hotels. We do not need to pour billions into a humans to Mars mission when the money and technology will come soon enough of its own accord.

Of course, there is the infuriating question asked by all of those in the Mars Society. Why wait? We can go today, we just have to get the money. Ah, and there we have the problem. We cannot assume that this money will come from NASA, or from ESA (and of the Russians, we’ll say nothing). It might appear someday in the far, far future, but not any time soon. In any case, NASA will not be responsible for the colonisation of Mars; private organisations will. So, where will these private organisations procure investment from to go to Mars?

For one thing, they will not need to, at least, not as much as we would do now. If, and when, cheap commercial access to space becomes a reality, the entire industry will suddenly accelerate at breakneck speed, as the PC industry did. Spacecraft companies will be continually undercutting each other, allowing more tourists and companies up into space, who then provide the money for ever more improved spacecraft. Along the way, relevant technologies will be developed for use in a humans to Mars mission, and perhaps more importantly, people will have confidence in space. They will believe that space travel is possible, and believe it or not, profitable.

And so, they will be more confident in putting their money into a humans to Mars mission, or colony. By then, travelling to Mars would be a fraction of what it costs now, and there may even be a need for such a colony. Space tourism would have taken off in a big way, and other Earth-orbit industries would be burgeoning. Investors will be looking for the ‘next big thing’, and that will be humans to Mars – if anything, the Mars Society will see to that, by publicising the advantages that are to be had by settling Mars.

Answering the first question is not so difficult now. The Mars Society has to understand that we must consider the wider picture of getting humans to Mars – how it will be achieved, and how it will be paid for. When we understand that, we will understand that we have to encourage the growth of the space industry as a whole, not just missions to Mars.