Neal Stephenson and space access costs

A reader points me to this essay by speculative fiction writer Neal Stephenson who lays out his view of the history of modern rocketry: Space stasis: What the strange persistence of rockets can teach us about innovation – Slate Magazine – Feb.2.11.

His basic thesis is that the unique circumstances of World War II and the Cold War led to the creation of big rockets. The availability of big rockets in turn led to big satellites for civilian communications. Though such rockets are expensive, launch costs are relatively small compared to the huge cash flows generated by commercial satellites. Expensive and infrequent launch also encourages development of even bigger and more expensive satellites. All of this has resulted in a situation where the entities with money, i.e commercial satellite firms and the government, have little motivation to push hard for lower cost space access and instead have pushed for greater performance and reliability.

This roadblock to development of lower cost space transport has often been discussed here and on many other space discussion forums. (Stephenson sites advice from Dr. Jordin Kare, long time space advocate and laser launch guru.) When someone claims that there have been 50 years of efforts to develop lower cost space access, it is just not true. Most of the rockets projects over that time that got significant money and built hardware were focused primarily on performance and reliability. The Shuttle program, for example, started out as a system to provide lower cost launch but it quickly devolved into a pathological situation where its budget was falling while its payload and cross-range requirements were rising. The result was a system that can carry a big payload but is stupendously expensive to operate.

Stephenson, though, seems to believe that rockets in general and not just expendables and the partially reusable Shuttle have reached an impasse in cost reduction. He says, for example, that any effort today to gain greater “efficiency or reliability, [or] to make any game-changing improvements is not merely expensive; it’s a physical impossibility”. It’s certainly true that ISP numbers for chemical rockets are not going to improve much. However, it is clearly true that the reusability of rocket engines can be improved significantly and that the vehicles they power can be made fully reusable. Reusable rockets along with high flight rates can bring space access costs down far below current levels.

His basic point, though, remains true. If cost reduction is not the top priority of space access development efforts, getting to space will remain extremely expensive. The companies pursuing commercial spaceflight have no choice but to focus on cost reduction and its quite possible they will succeed.


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