Saturday, May 19, 2012

Adam Frank is better at science than business

This is Falcon 7, not Falcon 9

Astrophysicist Adam Frank is what you might call a fan of SpaceX:

So what's the big deal? Well, the Falcon 9 is a private spaceship, fully developed and owned by the private company SpaceX. And SpaceX is the brainchild of Elon Musk, the Internet billionaire who made his fortune from PayPal. With contracts from NASA to develop new launch platforms, SpaceX and other companies are poised to make space the domain of profitable businesses. And Musk has been explicit about his intentions to go beyond Earth orbit, to build commercially viable ventures that might take people to Mars in a decade or two.

His timing couldn't be any better or any more urgent. Even without the space shuttle, America needs to remain a leader in space. Now, when I was a kid, the U.S. space program fueled my imagination and led me into a life of science. But as I got older, it became clear that the real business of getting a human presence across the solar system was going to have to fall to business. Governments might get the exploration of space started, but the vagaries of election and budget cycles meant they could never go further.

Now, we've reached the point where it's the exploitation of space that matters. And while exploitation might seem a dirty word to some folks, they should stop to consider how dependent we are already on the commercialization of that region of space we call low earth orbit. Think of the billions of dollars in commercial activity tied to weather prediction, global broadcasting and global positioning. All this business depends on satellites orbiting overhead right now.

But if, as a species, we want to go beyond the thin veil of space directly overhead, then the basic principles of private venture and risk will have to apply. These are the ones that have always applied. While Queen Isabella may have given Columbus his ships to cross the Atlantic, it was private companies that built the seagoing trade routes and brought folks across to settle - for better or worse. Likewise, it's only through commercially viable endeavors that large numbers of humans are getting off this world and into the high frontier of space.

It's no small irony that the billionaires bankrolling the new space entrepreneurship built their fortunes not in jetfighter aerospace manufacturing but in the dream space of the Internet.
Frank's enthusiasm is understandable but his thinking about the business and economics of space ranges from the wishful to the hopelessly muddled, particularly when it comes to "the basic principles of private venture and risk."

Private space travel has not, if you'll pardon the phrase, taken off in a serious way because there is no credible business model to support it. No one has figured out a way to make money going beyond earth's orbit and until we see a major technological breakthrough, it's likely that no one will.

There's an important distinction that needs to be made, the economic forces Frank is alluding to only come into play when markets efficiently allocate resources where they will have the greatest return (and the markets have decided that doesn't include trips to Mars). What we're talking about here is having the government contract with an independent company. We can discuss the wisdom and practicality of that decision later, but claiming that this "the basic principles of private venture and risk" are behind SpaceX is like claiming that the hiring of Blackwater meant that the markets decided we should invade Iraq.

To salvage the Columbus analogy, before he returned with information about the existence and location of the new world, people didn't attempt voyages because the expected return on investment was negative. After people had that information the expected return was positive.

Giving some contracts to companies like SpaceX might be a good idea (that's a discussion for another time) but it will do virtually nothing to shift the economic fundamentals.

There are things that the government could do to improve those fundamentals -- research initiatives, mapping out resources, setting up infrastructure (ground and/or space based)* -- but they require lots of upfront money. Our only other option is to wait for technology to bring the costs of launching materials way down, but that is likely to take a long time.

When it comes to the exploration and exploitation of space, those are our realistic choices.

* This is a topic for another post but aerospace researchers are exploring some technologies that could shift those expected returns from negative to positive, such launching components and supplies by railgun.

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