Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Korea's astronaut selection intended to inspire public

There has been some talk lately about recent survey results show that NASA is considered largely irrelevant (space review) by about half of under 25's in the USA. It's interesting to compare NASA's PR culture with the way Korea selected their astronauts. The whole process was broadcast on commercial TV over a period of several weeks like a kind of reality TV show. They started off with over 20 contestants who were then gradually whittled down to 8 then 6 and then the final 2. The final 8 had each contestant from a different walk of life, for example there was a policeman, an airforce pilot and at least one scientist (I think the scientist was eventually selected). They also had approximately equal numbers of men and women. In each TV episode the contestants had to face various challenges such as underwater EVA training. After the challenge the contestants were interviewed and described their experience and estimated their chances of advancing to the next round.

The process seemed pretty funny to me at the time, but that's probably because I've been preconditioned by the US/Russian space programs to think of astronauts as being larger than life superhumans rather than ordinary talented people.
At least they made it to the front page of the newspapers.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Super Wealthy - Part 3

So how do we resolve the problems I described in my previous post that prevent the wealthy from being interested in space travel? With great difficulty of course, but the stakes are high enough that it's probably worth trying at just to see how far we can get. The challenge is to design a luxury space system that meets the extraordinarily high standards of someone who is willing to forgo a $150 million custom built luxury yacht for your space vehicle or station so that they can impress their equally rich friends who have no interest whatsoever in space travel. Mission Impossible? You be the judge.

Starting with the objection, first of all someone has to offer a system at an obtainable price. The Super Wealthy appear to be interested in owning stuff themselves rather than renting it. It seems likely that such an individual would be interested in purchasing either an entire space station or RLV. (lets assume their budget is under $200 million) Are there any companies in existence capable of offering an RLV (an actual vehicle, not the entire design project) for sale for under $200 million while still preserving some kind of profit margin? Perhaps not today, but I personally think it will be achievable in the not so distant future, perhaps a decade or two from now. Alternatively if the customer just wants their own space station I would expect that Bigelow Aerospace will be quite capable of offering an excellent system to them as long as the means of getting there is acceptable.

The second objection is that space travel is unsafe. Of course this is as much about perceptions as reality. It would be interesting to know how the market for luxury submarines evolved, since submarines presumably didn't start out with a reputation of being particularly safe or comfortable either. Perhaps luxury space travel will have to evolve down a similar tortuous path, presumably starting as military transport, then as science labs, followed by miniature civilian versions that gradually increase in size and opulence until eventually they are capable of carrying 50+ passengers in luxury. Alternatively the best way to overcome the customer's fear of being blown to smithereens in the icy vacuum of space is probably by repeated demonstrations of a safely operated of crewed spaceflight program by a private company. (On the other hand, any accidents that happen on privately funded space programs will make the perception of space travel more unsafe than ever.) I suspect also that dressing up the system being offered to make it look more user friendly while hiding as much as possible of the nitty-gritty technical details will tend to allay customers fears by presenting them with a more familiar environment in which to travel.

Making the experience more comfortable and less demanding on the passengers is very much an engineering problem. With a little work, bathroom facilities can probably be improved to the point where the customer doesn't have an anxiety attack whenever they have to use them. Friendly decor will probably go a long way toward helping the user cope with the unfamiliar fittings and equipment.
Zero gravity is a harder problem. It is quite possible that the Super Rich customer's friends that are invited along for the ride are not so crazy about the whole floating around thing, and are quite adamant they never want to have any kind of holiday that involves getting sick. Ideally the design would aim to allow the individual to decide when they want to experience zero-g themselves. On a space station this could be possible using a rotating structure that provides artificial gravity but on a launch vehicle, this would seem to be completely impossible because at some stage the engines have to be powered down or the vehicle will keep accelerating until it runs out of fuel or leaves the solar system altogether. Clearly some compromises will be needed just for the short period when the passengers approach their orbital destination. It may even be possible to cut the period of weightlessness down to a few minutes after engine cut-out while the passengers wait for the tether based artificial gravity system to be deployed. How such a system could then dock with a space station I leave as an exercise to the reader's imagination.
The acceleration forces themselves are going to be an inevitable part of space travel much as limited mobility is an unavoidable aspect of air travel. They can however be reduced somewhat by careful use of engine throttling and a passenger friendly launch trajectory. Coming back to Earth is a bit trickier. Design a better capsule and the luxury space industry will beat a path to your door.
If your RLV gives the passengers less room than their private jets the proud owner will have to apologize to them for the cramped conditions. Better make it as roomy as possible.
Finally, the passengers will, quite frankly, reserve the right to get drunk all the way from blastoff to touchdown. If there are emergency procedures, make sure they can be carried out by the well trained attendants.

So your RLV/Space Station lacks a polished woodgrain and leather interior? Better start adding those little extras into the weight budget, not to mention decent furniture all the way up to and including king size beds, which yes you will need because the entire station will rotate to provide artificial gravity (see above), although not necessarily at 1g. Clearly turning a space station or RLV into a luxury item will incur a significant weight penalty. Exactly to what extent customers will accept compromises in this area will be determined by the market expectations that develop over time. Just don't forget the space station exterior. It should at the very least be unblemished white with the name of the vessel clearly printed on the side and look superb in the photos taken by the guests as they approach in their transfer vehicle.

If a company is already offering space systems to the Super Wealthy, we probably won't know until the launch appears on a country's launch manifest. The people we are thinking of here don't want to be dragged into the public eye unless they are Paris Hilton. We should also assume that they have no interest in being role models to encourage children to pursue careers in science and technology. Nevertheless if we find out that someone has gone to the trouble of purchasing a space system purely for personal use and doesn't want to step into the limelight, lets not castigate them for wanting to keep the experience to themselves. They are the first genuine customer in a sense for the entire industry. Let's wish them safe travels and leave them to enjoy their system/vehicle/station in peace, even if we never find out who they are.

The Super Wealthy - Part 2

I feel that I'm on a roll today, so I'll keep going and make my original post into a 3 part discussion. In this second posting I'll hazard some guesses as to why the super wealthy are not investing in space travel, and in the final part I'll speculate about some remedies. Please keep in mind though, I have a job, I also have to work, so don't expect too much! :)

Here are the 5 main reasons I thought of for why really rich people don't invest in space travel.

1. Lack of credibility or 'the giggle factor'. There is a very obvious problem in the minds of most people - it can't be done for less than a few billion or the resources of a well financed national government. I'm talking about space stations and RLV's here, so there is some truth in this objection. Of course the space station problem is being taken care of as we speak, but launch vehicles are another story.

2. It's dangerous! You bet it's dangerous. No-one wants to take their guests up for a week of luxury on an orbiting space habitat only to have them go down in a blaze of glory without a chance to savour their guest's awe and envy for several months after the trip.

3. It's uncomfortable (and undignified). Martini's and zero-g don't mix (at least not in an open glass). Come to think of it a lot of things don't mix with zero-g, although some things might mix rather well in zero-g. Space sickness and the necessity for toilet training come to mind as potential turn offs. Also the acceleration forces between Earth and orbit would doubtless be unpleasant to some.

4. It lacks class. All those pipes and wires and tin foil are a bit dreary compared with the custom decor available for luxury yachts and hotels. The shuttle transport is cramped and the service on the shuttle is limited to bottled water and bathroom assistance.

5. Too public. There are 2300 megayachts operational around the world according to U.S. Submarines (see previous post) but we are hardly aware of them because the super rich generally want to keep to themselves and avoid those pesky journalists and photographers. That being the case, why would they then want to suddenly leap into the public eye with their brand new spaceship?

There may well be other objections as well but this is a start. Perhaps if a stray billionaire is reading this, he or she can let me know if I'm on the right track.

The Super Wealthy

A brief post on the Hobbyspace website gave a link to a PopSci article about an underwater hotel. I great idea, but if you are willing to explore a bit deeper (excuse the pun:) there is some very interesting background to this which gives some idea of the extraordinary amount of wealth that is sloshing about largely out of sight of the ordinary person.

I took the trouble to look up the website for the company which is planning on building the hotel. U.S. Submarines. Now take a look at their FAQ for luxury subs. It's worth reading!

Consider this quote "With 2300 megayachts operational around the world, some costing in excess of $150 million, the stakes in the game of one upmanship are rising. Some yacht owners like the idea of having a larger and more unique toy." By comparison, the Seattle 1000, a 500 ton displacement luxury submarine with all the trimmings is only about $19.7 million, a mere trifle.

The reader may possibly now be saying, well, so what, we already know there are a lot of rich people around. But look at it this way: Just think how much cash is being spent on luxury items by the wealthy compared with the amount they spend on space tourism and building space vehicles. Clearly, collectively and with very few exceptions, the rich are not interested in space. This is in spite of the fact that it is the super wealthy who have the most to gain. Want one-upmanship? Well, a fully furnished Bigelow space station is about as one-up as you could possibly get. Just imagine the look on your stuck up, so pleased with their $150 million yacht, billionaire neighbours when you blast them into orbit for a week of leisure on board a ship with full length window views of the entire Earth! Want to intimidate your acquaintances with the scale of your corporate empire? - well maybe the Earth isn't big enough for you? Time to start setting up business off Earth. Avoid all those taxation and regulatory hassles.

The super wealthy are passing up on these opportunities with scarcely more than a glance, and we need to know why. Perhaps its the credibility or 'giggle' factor, but there could well be other issues as well. I suspect Robert Bigelow knows more than we do.