Commercial space stations begin shifting the conversation to “why space”?

The familiar refrain “it’s impossible to keep up with so much happening” has come to the space sector. Though this could be said in all walks of life. As we join the club, it’s a good time to ask “why space”? Our aerospace industry is not unique, carried along in a wave, wondering if there is a rhyme and a reason.

HOW

As an engineer, I found myself in the company of other engineers day in, day out. Surprisingly, asking “why” about much anything was not the most popular question. If Yoda were an engineer, he would say, “How, or how not. There is no why.” This is our mission as engineers – to figure out how to get it done. “It” being someone’s requirements. In this world, figuring out how to meet a customer’s requirement may be the only question that matters.

We had invited some new faces to the kickoff meeting. That’s NASA lingo for the first big meeting, but not the first-first meeting. The project was half architecture and half technology. So, we needed those rare characters who intuited the laws of physics, knew their way around the labs and could work with the imagineers on how the pieces might fit together. Realizing we had been stood up by one of the new team members, we dropped by to inquire. Calendar glitch, life, the kids, a last-minute conflict? It was none of these. “I just want to do engineering. When you have your requirements, I’ll help design the solution.” In English, we’d just been lectured – “Come back to me when you know what you want.”

WHO (and sometimes WHEN)

If you are higher in the food chain, it turns out how to get astronauts to orbit, or a probe to Jupiter or land a car-sized robot on Mars is not such a big deal. Instead, NASA project budgets depend on Congress and the Whitehouse. If this process were the eye of Sauron, it never turns its gaze too far from “who.” Once upon a time, “when” was also important, so it was possible to create a space program and put men on the Moon in under a decade. National pride and clearly showing the superiority of a way of life was too important to leave to just someday. But in a world where budgets are tamer, it’s now fine if when means whenever.

The planet Askiruh, or as close as the pronunciation comes, missing other guttural sounds, and a nuanced color display as the natives say it, was larger than Earth. Like Earth, it was small enough to have lost its light gases, but unlike Earth, it was larger enough that getting anything to orbit was practically impossible. When Askiruh technology was finally up to the task, a launch vehicle larger than any ever built on Earth was constructed to great fanfare. The tiny satellite, about the size of a Ronafor, a native rodent-like creature, barely made it to low orbit. For Askiri, when the film returned, seeing their world for the first time, as a whole, was a defining moment. The task done though, driven mainly by rivalry among certain Askiri, further efforts languished. Reasons for again expending significant resources for orbital dreams have waned in council debate, though limited sub-orbital space exploration continues.
“Orbital is hard.” Askiri engineers saying.

It’s no wonder that getting to orbit and staying in orbit, with roots in how and who, persist and satisfy as ends in themselves. In most any industry though, transportation and facilities are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. That is unless you are a transportation company, a FedEx, or the JetBlue, or the owner of the facility promising certain amenities. Everywhere else, you worry when transportation is more than about a fifth of your costs. And your facility costs should be even less.

Yet in NASA, one glance of the Human Spaceflight budget reveals that nearly all its resources go toward getting to space, followed by the place to stay. Only the smallest part of the NASA Human Spaceflight budget does what might be called “production” once you are in space. These are a smattering of budget lines, like a few hundred million for research and development on the ISS. That’s out of an over $10 billion-dollar Human Spaceflight budget, or 3 percent.

WHERE (as destination)

The presentation about getting to Mars was the customary 10 pounds of information jammed into a quart Ziplock bag. Then followed the 15 minutes, no wait, 3 minutes, no wait, “just time for a couple of questions.” The first question was more a statement, proving the audience member also knew a way to get to Mars. The second question was about costs, so unwelcome. “We have plenty of resources. They’re up there, right now, just going around in circles. The ISS.” There was a moan or two in the audience (the questioner included.) Somehow going in a straight line to Mars was just better than going around in circles, and no reason was necessary.

As if getting to Earth orbit and staying there are of late resolved, NASA is now focused on returning to the Moon. It’s easy to consider exploring a destination to be an end in itself, producing scientific knowledge. This would be knowledge beyond getting there, or operating facilities there (or thereabout, in lunar orbit). It’s easy to allow a means to an end, the transport, or the facilities, mostly how and where, to again captivate the headlines.

In the same vein, of late, we have sub-orbital and orbital tourism, with the usual fanfare about how these may lead to cheap fares for everyone else. The analogies to air travel, once the domain of the barnstormers and then the wealthy traveler, must strain themselves to explain current events. Climbing Mt. Everest as a discussion about risk, individual achievement, or inspiring others soon enough runs out of oxygen, running to still other analogies.

Finally, we are forced to come full circle to “why space?” Commercial space stations may be the first and best chance to shift the conversation. A trip and a place are merely the start of the talk, not the end as if no further questions are required.

Weather satellites and communications satellites provided the earliest widespread benefits of getting technology into space. Credit: NASA.
Images of human insulin crystals grown in 1-g (left) and microgravity (right). Crystals grown in microgravity are larger and of higher resolution. Credit: NASA.

WHY (finally)

The small-batch run was invaluable. Like the starter for bread, it would now go back to Earth, where the company would cook endless copies. This was a monoclonal antibody, and not just any protein either. It was a crystal perfect for imaging as well. This would save lives, targeting cancers with the precision that made prior therapies seem like random shots in the dark. The impressive commercial space station would leave anyone wondering how such a concoction could be affordable at all until they realized the facility cranked out hundreds of these small batches for all manner of disease. And that was just half of the space station.

We could see this conversation shift sooner rather than later. Inverting the pyramid, most of the energy and effort (and cost) will no longer be the ride or the stay. Instead, most resources will revolve around results once you are up there. If Mars is always 20 years away, perhaps so too this moment, until now. We may soon look back and see the answer to “why space” was clearer as the focus of it all became less about the trip and the stay. Space is hard. Developing new products that benefit everyone’s life on Earth will be even harder. But it will, like communications and weather satellites, again answer such a good question – “why.”

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