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.

3 Comments:

At 12:16 AM , Blogger renwuying said...

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At 5:58 PM , Anonymous Ferris Valyn said...

David,

What about looking at a the sub-orbit vehicles as a starting point? While Im not convinced this will be a huge draw for the super wealthy, there might be real potentiel, espcially if its a single stage sub-orbital craft, to sell to the super wealthy. While I don't think it would necassarily be practical for a 2 stage vehicle (ala SpaceShipTwo), I wouldn't rule it out, and for a single stage sub-orbital, I definatly imagine there would be some interest.

 
At 4:06 PM , Blogger David Riseborough said...

Suborbital definitely has potential. It would be interesting to know how much Burt Rutan and Richard Branson's Space Ship Company are offering for their White Knight/Spaceship2 combo since I read somewhere that they are also willing to sell it to other buyers apart from Virgin Galactic. The main drawback is that the buyers will most likely already have considerable interest in spaceflight, which shrinks the market quite a lot.

 

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