December 26, 2015
We Are Still Not In The Space Age
If it meets its design goal the SpaceX Falcon 9 will cost $250 per lb to put into low Earth orbit (LEO). That is about a tenth of the price of competing alternatives.
Suppose Elon Musk succeeds in getting the price done that far. Suppose he goes even farther and hits $100 per pound. Will we be in the space age yet? Nope. Why not? Well, compare to traveling around here on Earth by jet. Suppose you get a $2000 flight to somewhere distant and you and your luggage weigh 200 lb. That's $10 per lb. Much cheaper. Plus, the airplane ticket price includes the cost of a comfortable temperature and breathable atmosphere in the main cabin.
But wait. The difference in cost is much greater than $100 vs $10 per lb. If you fly to Hawaii you don't need to carry your food, water, oxygen, energy, and a hotel to keep you alive while in Hawaii. The islands are supplied far more cheaply with food, construction materials, cars, home appliances, and many other items by ship. Also they get their oxygen and water effectively for free. They've got many miles of areas suitable for humans to walk around, sit around, build homes, build swimming pools, and the like.
Going into space means you bring along your entire life support system and living and working and recreation space. Remember, the new cheap SpaceX rocket costs are only for LEO. If you want to go to, say, Mars then your costs go up by orders of magnitude. You need a much more durable housing module, shielding against radiation that is much higher outside the Van Allen Belt, and a lot of food to consume during the many month trip.
We entered the jet age decades ago. To enter a space age in the same sense in which we entered the jet age would require much cheaper energy to power the rockets, better propulsion systems for moving between planets, and an assortment of technological advances to make a space colony viable on another planet or moon. So we aren't in the space age yet.
Randall Parker, 2015 December 26 09:55 PM
I really do feel that we need a space elevator in order to rapidly reduce the cost of transporting basic material goods like water, air, food, etc. Space ships should also be constructed in orbit in order to reduce the cost of getting the ship to space.
My prediction is that the destinations of Mars and the moon will always be remote backwaters. The space stations built as the modern trading posts will explode in size and be the new megalopolis.
Airline long-haul ticket prices in the 1930's were $400-1500 in then-dollars. Trips took days and airplanes had sleeping and dining areas. This is a more valid comparison, because it was the first time airplane travel attracted a mass market with enough elasticity to cause a positive R&D feedback loop that continually lowered prices. There are a few ways to compare this to today's prices - it is $5000-20000 inflation adjusted. $1000 was about a 4th percentile income tax return in the US at the time, about equivalent to $6000 today. Leisure spending has increased faster than income, its accounts for about 2x as much of our total household spending now so that would suggest something more like a $12000 fare.
These are all fairly consistent then, somewhere from $5000 - $20000 might be a reasonable breakeven point. This tranlates to 50-200lb to orbit at $100/lb. So you're right, it's not *quite* at the level of 1930's air travel. But we're talking a factor of 2-5 (assuming some extra charge for support equipment and the like), much more favorable than comparing it to a $1000 long haul plane flight.
Considered another way, much of the attraction of orbit is being on orbit, which is relatively cheap to provide compared to launch and return. It is conceivable that $100/lb launch would allow a few-week vacation on orbit to approach the cost of some on-Earth analogs. Around the world cruises commonly go for upwards of $50,000. Climbing Mount Everest is similar, and while that is a few dozen or hundred people per year it is the tip of a much larger industry with several price echelons well into the 10's of thousands. High end hotels and resorts can get well into the thousands per night, safaris, purchasing an RV, first class long haul airfare, and so on. Delivering a space vacation under $100,000 at a modest profit, especially if it is an extended stay on orbit, seems almost certain to be at least a stable business case even if it is not quite mass market.
No one has gone above low Earth orbit in over 40 years. Hmm... wonder why.