Space, playing the long game

If you follow the space sector, and maybe even if you don’t, the unavoidable impression is there’s so much happening fast. Space stuff and that AI shows up at every party. The days when only an occasional Shuttle mission, Hubble picture, or a Mars rover made headlines are in our rearview mirror. Today, it’s always something, from Starship to a stuck antenna or a failed lunar lander. It appears someone births a new space project promising to change life on Earth as we know it, every week. So much drama, and we love it.

The ispace mission control room in the moments before the failed lunar landing.

There’s also catching up with old friends. We hear the new US Vulcan and the European Ariane 6 rocket debuts are delayed. These rockets, like too many others, are close to joining the Blue Origin are we there yet club.

There’s sheer ambition and innovation too. To make you feel like getting to orbit is easy, try returning a stage from orbit. For this we have Stoke Space. And even as Virgin donates its organs in bankruptcy, Astra and Firefly’s nascent small launch offerings still have a pulse.

For some non-rocket rockets, going with brute force, we have two companies when one alone would be surprising. So SpinLaunch and LongShot Space are both building facilities to hurl cargo to space, one using a centrifuge, the other gas guns.

For a welcome dose of hypersonics we have Hermeus building a Mach 5 airplane. Is this part of a long and winding road to spaceplanes? After Mach 3, it’s no moving parts (almost) – the reason future historians will wonder why we took so long to figure this out. Be kind. We are trying.

Uncertainty has never been so exciting, though some of these projects (okay, let’s say most) will not make it. No matter, all over the world, not just in the US, getting to space or having something in space sending back images, or providing broadband, is turning old, tried, and true business models on their heads. Now it’s Europe proposing a Starlink competitor – IRIS2. Tomorrow it will be something equally significant. It was time.

Yet in all this, we forget to ask – why?

Suppose you are on the rocket or spacecraft side of that tyrannical equation about mass and gravity, as I was. In that case, confessing to a certain obliviousness outside of transportation is natural. NASA’s spaceflight budget reinforces this fixation, as most dollars go toward getting to space or simply staying there. A big rocket? Transport to orbit. A capsule? More transportation once you are in space. A future lunar lander? Transportation again, to get as far as the surface of the Moon. Plans for private sector space stations after the ISS? Staying in space, a facility. (For some context, the ISS R&D budget this year is only $306M, or 9.4% of the ISS budget. The rest goes toward getting to it and keeping it running – transportation and infrastructure, not use.)

The private sector worldwide continues with this lop-sided emphasis on transport. We’ll all worry about what we do at the destination and what we carry back and forth after we figure out the cars and the trucks. Let’s first figure out how to get to space and return easily, cheaply, and often.

In this view, the road trip was the point.

In a presentation some years ago, but not the first time, a presenter looking back at the Shuttle program asked the audience to think of people in space as an end in itself. Forget, for a moment, the experiments. Put aside the satellites we deployed, retrieved, or repaired. Fixing the Hubble Space Telescope? Not easy to graph, though the pictures were a blast. Also, put all we learned over on another pile for later consideration. Now focus on the people who went to space. NASA went from a narrow band of US astronauts in a previous generation to hundreds of men and women of diverse personal, national, and professional backgrounds going to space.

That time three astronauts on a Space Shuttle grabbed a misbehaving satellite. STS-49. Credit: NASA.

In this view, the road trip was the point. With the Shuttle era, the arrow on the graph pointed in the right direction – more people going to space more often than ever. There was the science, of course, and the learning to live and work in space, paving the way to build an International Space Station, now with people aboard it continuously since 2000. But here, the means held value regardless of the result.

Down on the ground, we knew getting to space was part of a progression. Routine transportation to space is a means to ever-growing numbers of people continuously in space. And more facilities and people in space were a means to deliver benefits for everyone back on Earth.

In 2023 Keytruda became the highest-revenue drug worldwide, a monoclonal antibody effective against an increasing list of cancers. As the wording suggest, this antibody does what antibodies from your immune system do – they go after a target, here cancers. ISS research has shown that “conditions producing crystalline suspensions of homogeneous monomodal particle size distribution (39 μm) in high yield were identified.” In other words, a costly cancer drug could be turned into a cheaper, longer-shelf-life subcutaneous injection (it’s currently delivered by infusion, an “IV.”) This is just one example of the “demand” that would need a “supply” of routine, low-priced transport to space, and low-priced labs and manufacturing facilities too.

From Dr. Savin, “In Space Production Applications with a Focus on Crystals,” April 2021. From the NASA Commercial Space Lecture Series.

The path from getting to space to staying to direct, everyday products and services that benefit people worldwide has not been easy. Satellite communications, imaging and sensing, and many indirect benefits have been with us for decades. Imagine the results if getting to space and staying there were much more accessible. Beyond broadband anywhere and anyone ordering satellite images lies the unimaginable. New materials? Medical advances? Cures? AIs helping point us in the right direction for all these? (Imagine better protein crystals made in space, antibodies, with AI more quickly discerning structure from the improved diffraction grade crystals.)

As NASA looks beyond the ISS, there is a huge opportunity and grave risk. On the one hand, the ISS could end as we see many private space stations in orbit and more coming. Product is shipping back and forth from Earth and public-private orbital factories. NASA declares victory, its investments in Commercial LEO Destinations and In Space Production and Applications transforming the space sector – again. Here, for a twofer, the simple view of more people in space, more often, also screams success. It’s no leap to say ever more tangible results likely follow.

But imagine an alternate scenario, not rosy but quite possible too.

But imagine an alternate scenario, not rosy but quite possible too. Here the ISS ends around 2030, and at best, a small private module in space gets business from the occasional NASA astronaut. Occasionally some tourists drop in too. By the numbers, even after adding in NASA’s lunar mission here and there, fewer people, less often, are leaving Earth than during our Shuttle and ISS eras. The arrow on the graph is pointing the wrong way.

Space is the ultimate long game. After going to space often, at great cost in human life, with the ISS we set up shop and stayed. Transportation is clearly a means to an end, the getting to space and back. Staying in space was another monumental step. At the risk of repeating myself, which I’m told will happen if you blog long enough, the exploration of our little solar system (and beyond) must not lose sight of the plot. The R&D, the results, the product that one day says “Made in Alpha” could become the MacGuffin of space projects. Or try, try again, and try what has not been tried, as all the latest efforts are doing, and keep our eyes on the prize – the wonderful everyday benefits ahead for people here on Earth.

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