Private Enterprise and Space Travel

(Picture from here.)

I’m at Arisia this weekend and my first panel is “The Man Who Sold the Moon: Private Enterprise and Space Travel.”

To reprise the Heinlein story, Delos Harriman is a successful businessman who is obsessed with going to the Moon. He’s already made his millions in obscure or high risk technologies. He attacks going to the Moon the same way and is ultimately successful in that he manages to get spacecraft to the Moon.

The story has been an icon for those who feel private enterprise should pursue space travel and not government and this panel is to revisit that idea in light of recent private space travel efforts, notably Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Inevitably, libertarian ideals are brought into play and, eventually, somebody will say government should get out of the space business and leave it to business. That will get it done right.


First, let’s look at the story. Harriman uses every con in the book to get to the Moon. About every other scheme is pretty much fraudulent. If he weren’t pursuing such a laudable goal (in the SF community how could space travel be anything but?) he’d be operating about the same level of honesty as Enron.

Musk, on the other hand, is a sound and fairly honest businessman. However, they do have a common ground between them. Harriman views getting to the Moon as a personal quest and according to all accounts I’ve read so does Elon Musk. In both men, this personal goal above and beyond business is their fundamental motivation. It happens that the tool they use to bring this about is business. Were they born in another time they might have used the church or the monarchy. Those mechanisms are not useful here but business is. You can argue that SpaceX is a triumph of moral ambition using capitalist tools but patronage is not free enterprise. It just uses it.

In addition, SpaceX is a direct beneficiary of public largesse. The initial funding of SpaceX is interesting. About half of the 1 B$ comes from NASA. The remainder comes from private entities, one of which (about 10%) is Elon Musk’s personal money. Like Harriman, he cajoled other people to join the cause. However, I would argue it would have been absolutely impossible to get SpaceX off the ground without both NASA’s initial money and promise of business. The clients of all space systems companies are 1) civilian government, 2) military government and 3) private satellite individuals. Of the three the last is a much smaller piece of the pie. This could change in the future but that’s the way it is now.

I am not belittling Musk’s efforts in any way. SpaceX is a magnificent achievement and it is largely due to the work of one man: Musk. I am trying to put it in honest perspective.

And it is appropriate to look at SpaceX. They are addressing the single biggest cost item in general space travel: earth launch. (James Webb Telescope not withstanding.)  Getting a big payload off the ground into orbit is a huge physical problem. That said, so far SpaceX (and the other players like Orbital Science and ATK) are just trying for low earth orbit. It is better than space tourism (which doesn’t get us anywhere) but it is still low hanging fruit. Space travel starts at low earth orbit.

SpaceX is trying for more with the Falcon Heavy. That should be able to get a 12K Kg payload into transfer orbit. The Saturn V had a capacity of 41 K Kg to the Moon. The Falcon Heave is a little more than one quarter the Saturn V. That doesn’t mean SpaceX is out of the game. But it does mean that we’re not going to the Moon on a Falcon Heavy. A better way might be to use the FH to get materials into orbit and assemble a lunar shuttle.

There are some companies that are looking at bigger things: Planetary Resources is discussing mining asteroids. They’re talking about using robots. They don’t say on their site what they’re intending to use as a launch vehicle. I expect they’ll send up what they need as high as they can and go on from there. I expect the Falcon Heave might be used to get them up to transfer orbit and they’ll use their own technology after that.

Golden Spike is advertising itself as developing a commercial cislunar highway, a commercial transport system to and from the Moon for two people, 750 M$ each. They plan on using existing launch facilities and rockets and only plan to build a lunar lander and specialized space suits. Their planned clients are, according to wikipedia, they “expect to sign up as many as 15 to 20 countries or foreign space agencies as well as companies and individuals who want to explore the Moon for science or adventure.” We’ll see. Certainly, if they can manage it at that cost they’ll get some ridership.

I consider space travel as infrastructure just like roads, bridges, the SEC and the NIH. Publicly planned and privately carried out. The government plans for a bridge but private contractors build it. Science and engineering that is required for the infrastructure but not profitable for industry to create is the province of the government. This is why SpaceX is a good thing. It’s also why the Apollo program was a good thing– in the sixties no one but the government wanted to do it or could afford it. That said, it wasn’t the government that built the Saturn V; it was Boeing, North American Aviation, Douglas Aircraft Company, IBM and their sub-contractors.

I’ve spoken about getting back to the Moon at length (see here.) I’m tired of one shots to places. Exploration is fine and I love it. Science is fine and I love it. But we need a space traveling culture. A space based industry. And we’re not going to get that as long as we have to crawl out of the earth gravity well every time we turn around. Until that happy day we carve a hole in Vesta and use it to move around, the next best place to work is the Moon.

But putting a real live colony anywhere is expensive. Really expensive. Imagine populating the Moon with a thousand people at .75B$ apiece: 3/4 trillion dollars. Exxon is the most profitable company in the world (see here.) at 41 B$. They could manage to send 55 people. If the largest revenue producing company in the world, Wal-Mart (See here.) put all of its $348B$ into sending people to the moon and spent nothing on stores or employees they could send 464 people.

Try making that fly at the next board meeting

Clearly, we’d have to get that price down. If we were able to cut that by 90% to 75M$/person. That’s still 75B$ for your population. Doable in two years by Exxon. That’s a possibility. But who would want to send a thousand people to the moon? Not Exxon or Wal-Mart. SpaceX? They don’t have the money.

But what’s 75B$ to China? About .01% GDP. United States? .005% GDP.

I have high hopes that commercial space travel will get us back to the Moon. But I suspect though it might be a SpaceX rocket that lifts us off the ground and Planetary Resources robots that do the work, it will be government funding that pays for it.




Private Enterprise and Space Travel — 1 Comment

  1. I gave up on waiting for reality (and NASA) to catch up, and just began writing about it. Unfortunately this forces the works into fantasy, not SF, but what can you do?