January 13, 2004

Space thoughts 2

Wretchard writes:

....Whether Europe, Asia or America will first find the key technology necessary to make interplanetary travel an economical reality cannot be foreseen. Yet history suggests that the answers will be found by those who are looking for them....

.... Maybe the challenge is not to put men on Mars by a date certain, but the subtly different one of making investments to ensure that any technological breakthrough can be exploited rapidly and without hesitation. Clearly the day will come when nations will expand beyond the confines of the planet and our task is to be ready to mount the first real breeze for the distant shore....

"to mount the first real breeze for the distant shore". Yes

One of the points of his post was that there is no way that there is going to be reasonably priced space travel anytime soon:

....Rocketman points out that no available engine technology can boost payloads into space in economical quantities. Current launch costs are on the order of $8,000/lb, a number that will have to be reduced by a factor of ten for the habitation of the moon, the establishment of La Grange transfer stations or flights to Mars to be feasible. This will require technology, and perhaps even basic physics that does not even exist. Simply building bigger versions of the Saturn V will not work....
I would respectfully suggest that maybe, just maybe, that isn't true. One thing that is overlooked is that neither launch vehicles nor the launch process itself has ever been subject to the ruthless cost-cutting of mass production! In the manufacturing sector, reducing costs by a factor of 10 is routine. Happens when things go from small scale production to large scale. Launch vehicles have always been produced in small batches, and most of their components are produced in small batches. And they are built by companies that are totally geared to produced small quantities of expensive planes and rockets for government agencies rather than the marketplace.

No only is manufacturing in small lots very expensive, but development costs must be amortized over a small number of units. (It LOOKS like we are spending a lot on developing our spacecraft, but in fact I suspect spacecraft research is on a starvation diet. If we were producing any spacecraft in large quantities, management would instantly decide that more R&D would be a good investment.)

Think of those "factor of ten" objections. Imagine that (yes, I know this is visionary and won't happen´┐Żdon't bother to chide, it's just a thought experiment), imagine that a certain size of launch vehicle could reasonably be built and launched for $50 million each. Imagine that our government, (or some other entity with deep pockets) offered to buy vehicles+launches for only $5 million each. BUT, with a commitment to buy 400 launches a year for 10 years....I wonder if they would have any takers?

Most people have no idea of the cost-cutting that goes on behind the scenes in, say, the automotive industry. Every nut and bolt is scrutinized for possible cost savings. Every supplier is ruthlessly squeezed to lower prices and then lower them again. And they in turn squeeze their suppliers. Robots replace ever more workers. Software schedules the ordering and movement of every part, so they arrive at the factory just hours before they are due to be used.

I have a "hunch bordering on a certainty" that that "factor of ten" problem one hears of so often could be quickly solved by pure brute force. Won't happen of course.

Posted by John Weidner at January 13, 2004 12:55 PM
Weblog by John Weidner