Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Virgin Galatic

Richard Branson unveiled his 'low cost' option for getting into space today. I have been surprised how long it is taking given that it is three years since Burt Rutan proved his technology by winning the X Prize. There seems to be a large market for the $200 000 ticket to hop up inot space for a few minutes.

It has taken us almost 50 years to get to over 500 people having been to space. Once Virgin Galactic begins to operate, that number of people will get into space each year. I suspect sub-orbital space flight will no longer have much status at all.

Meanwhile I have been doing some reading about commercial expansion in space.

Space Adventures has been getting people up to the ISS for week long trips for some years now, though you need something like $20 000 000 to get there, an extra $15 000 000 if you want to take a spacewalk. They are now also offering a trip to the moon for $100 000 000.

Bigelow Aerospace
is in the process of developing a private space station. They have their first two test modules in low earth orbit and will launch the first one that can host people in two years. At the rate they are talking about developing things, they are likely to have a space station larger than the ISS in terms of internal volume in less than five years. By 2015 it is realistic to see six people on CSS Skywalker.

Space Adventures seems to have no immediate shortage for people that want to go into space for a week, I am sure they can keep CSS Skywalker filled for several years. The private station also makes is much cheaper for non-governmental research bodies to get into space. Bigelow Aerospace has offered an eight week stay for only $18 000 000. This is cheaper than what it has cost to be on the ISS.

It is quite realistic to see a huge expansion of people in low earth orbit over the next ten years. We have only just reached six people permanently in space at any given time. In ten years that could be a hundred. Bigelow makes it affordable for even a small country to start a space program with a space station for less than $200 000 000 per year.

The idea of a single international space station starts to look sort of odd. I suspect we will see national based space stations in the next ten to twenty years. China is developing one and Russia sounds like it will build one as well after the ISS is decommissioned.

Two other companies are suggesting they will come up with some sort of space stations, but their details are sketchy.

The biggest problem at the moment is how to get to low earth orbit. The Shuttle is being retired and the Russians do not seem to be able to ramp up their Soyuz service. There are a number of private companies stepping into this gap. SpaceX is the furthest along with the Dragon capsule. There are seven other companies working on ways to get to low earth orbit. SpaceX has managed numerous successful launches and has remained a small company, it is not some governmental behemoth.

With all these companies working ways to get to low earth orbit and the new demand from private sector clients will drive the price for getting into low earth orbit down. I would not be surprised if costs did not fall to about $2000 per kilo within ten to fifteen years. This would mean the $200 000 of today that hops you into space would get you into low earth orbit by 2024.

Once we get more and more people into low earth orbit, there is going to be the infrastructure in place to get people going to the moon and points beyond.

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