Monday, 30 July 2012

Buy Jupiter: the commercialisation of outer space

I recently saw a billboard for the Samsung Galaxy SIII advertising a competition to win a "trip to space", in the form of a suborbital hop aboard a Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwo. This phrase strikes me as highly interesting: a trip to space, not into space, as if the destination was just another beach holiday resort. The accompanying website uses the same wording, so clearly the choice of words wasn't caused by space issues (that's space for the text, not space as in outer). Despite less than a dozen space tourists to date, is space travel now considered routine and the rest of the universe ripe for commercial gain, as per the Pan Am shuttle and Hilton space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or is this all somewhat premature, with the hype firmly ahead of the reality? After all, the first fee-paying space tourist, Dennis Tito, launched only eleven years ago in 2001.

Vodafone is only the second company after Guinness Breweries to offer space travel prizes, although fiction was way ahead of the game: in Arthur C. Clarke's 1952 children's novel Islands in the Sky the hero manages a trip into low Earth orbit thanks to a competition loophole.  However, the next decade could prove the turning point. Virgin Galactic already have over 500 ticket-holders whilst SpaceX, developer of the first commercial orbital craft - the unmanned Dragon cargo ship - plan to build a manned version that could reduce orbital seat costs by about 60%.

If anything, NASA is pushing such projects via its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme, including the aim of using for-profit services for the regular supply of cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). The intention is presumably for NASA to concentrate on research and development rather than routine operations, but strong opposition to such commercialisation comes from an unusual direction: former NASA astronauts including Apollo pioneers Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan deem the COTs programme a threat to US astronautic supremacy. This seems to be more an issue of patriotism and politics rather than a consideration of technological or scientific importance. With China set to overtake the USA in scientific output next year and talk of a three-crew temporary Chinese space station within 4 years, the Eclipse of the West has already spread beyond the atmosphere. Then again, weren't pre-Shuttle era NASA projects, like their Soviet counterparts, primarily driven by politics, prestige, and military ambitions, with technological advances a necessary by-product and science very much of secondary importance?

Commerce in space could probably be said to have begun with the first communications satellite, Telstar 1, in 1962. The big change for this decade is the ability to launch ordinary people rather than trained specialists into space, although as I have mentioned before, the tourist jaunts planned by Virgin Galactic hardly go where no-one has gone before. The fundamental difference is that such trips are deemed relatively safe undertakings, even if the ticket costs of are several orders greater than any terrestrial holiday. A trip on board SpaceShipTwo is currently priced at US$200,000 whilst a visit to the International Space Station will set you back one hundred times that amount. This is clearly somewhat closer to the luxury flying boats of the pre-jet era than any modern package tour.

What is almost certain is that despite Virgin Galactic's assessment of the risk as being akin to 1920s airliners, very few people know enough of aviation history's safety record to make this statistic meaningful. After all, two of the five Space Shuttle orbiters were lost, the latter being the same number intended for the SpaceshipTwo fleet. Although Virgin Galactic plays the simplicity card for their design - i.e. the fewer the components, the less the chance of something going wrong - it should be remembered that the Columbia and Challenger shuttles were lost due to previously known and identified problems with the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters respectively. In other words, when there is a known technical issue but the risk is considered justifiable, human error enters the equation.

In addition, human error isn't just restricted to the engineers and pilots: anything from passenger illness (about half of all astronauts get spacesick - headaches and nausea for up to several days after launch) to disruptive behaviour of the sort I have witnessed on airliners. Whether the loss of business tycoons or celebrities would bring more attention to the dangers of space travel remains to be seen. Unfortunately, the increase in number and type of spacecraft means it is almost certainly a case of when, not if.

Planet Saturn via a Skywatcher telescope

Location location location (via my Skywatcher 130PM)

But if fifteen minutes of freefall might seem a sublime experience there are also some ridiculous space-orientated ventures, if some of the ludicrous claims found on certain websites are anything to go by. Although the 1967 Outer Space Treaty does not allow land on other bodies to be owned by a nation state, companies such as Lunar Embassy have sold plots on the Moon to over 3 million customers. It is also possible to buy acres on Mars and Venus, even if the chance of doing anything with it is somewhat limited. I assume most customers treat their land rights as a novelty item, about as useful as say, a pet rock, but with some companies issuing mineral rights deeds for regions of other planets, could this have serious implications in the future? Right now it might seem like a joke, but as the Earth's resources dwindle and fossil fuels run low, could private companies race to exploit extra-terrestrial resources such as lunar Helium 3?

Various cranks/forward thinkers (delete as appropriate) have applied to buy other planets since at least the 1930s but with COTs supporting private aerospace initiatives such as unmanned lunar landers there is at least the potential of legal wrangling over mining rights throughout the solar system. The US-based company Planetary Resources has announced its intention to launch robot mining expeditions to some of the 1500 or so near-Earth asteroids, missions that are the technological equivalent of a lunar return mission.

But if there are enough chunks of space rock to go round, what about the unique resources that could rapidly become as crowded as low Earth orbit? For example, the Earth-Moon system's five Lagrange points are gravitationally stable positions useful for scientific missions, whilst geosynchronous orbit is vital for commercial communication satellites. So far, national governments have treated outer space like Antarctica, but theoretically a private company could cause trouble if the law fails to keep up with the technology, in much the same way that the internet has been a happy harbour for media pirates.

Stephen Hawking once said "To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit". Then again, no-one should run before they can walk, never mind fly. We've got a long way to go before we reach the giddy heights of wheel-shaped Hiltons, but as resources dwindle and our population soars, at some point it will presumably become a necessity to undertake commercial space ventures, rather than just move Monte Carlo into orbit. Now, where's the best investment going to be: an acre of Mars or two on the Moon?