Transportation is Key and the Lock is Turning

Space settlements will follow the same rules of economics and logistics that terrestrial settlements follow: in order to be successful they must generate and transfer value. People only settle down in a certain place if they can thrive there. And people can only thrive if they can exchange goods and information easily with other people.  In short, before you can build cities, you have to build roads (hat tip to Cake, great band).

We will discuss how settlements will generate value in another post. This post will discuss the roads part: space transportation.  Because it’s hard to build a city you can’t get to.

In late 2017, transportation to space sucks. It’s infrequent, unsafe and way, way too expensive to build a space settlement. The poor state of space transportation is a big reason why our most important space station – the International Space Station – cost almost $100 billion to build. And that thing only holds seven people, not a very impressive population. If space settlement is ever going to happen transportation has to be much cheaper, safer and more frequent.

The good news is that space transportation seems to be improving. The price to send both people and cargo to orbit is falling.

Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 6.42.57 AM
Price/cost to send one kilogram of cargo to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), in 2017 USD. Bottom two rows are not yet real. See here for source information.


Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 6.37.02 AM
Price/cost to send one person to orbit, 2017 USD. Shuttle, CST-100, Dragon 2 all assume 7 seats. Bottom three rows are not yet real. See here for source information.

If Elon Musk has his way with his BFR super-rocket, the cost will fall even further (bottom rows in the charts above). The way Musk and SpaceX achieve such low costs is through very high launch cadences. So not only will the price go down but, presumably launch frequency will go up as well. And, as anyone knows, the more you do something, the better you get at it so reliability will improve as well (although people may die before we get to airline-like levels of safety).

But Elon Musk is not the only wild-eyed billionaire with plans to improve space transportation. In fact, there are a bunch*:



Achievements to date (2017)

Paul Allen “I think it’s going to be great if people can buy a ticket to fly up and see black sky and the stars.” Built largest-ever airplane to air-launch rockets to any orbit at any time, increases flexibility to access space
Jeff Bezos “Our ultimate vision is millions of people living and working in space” Suborbital rocket reusability, autonomous “robot” rocketships, rocket engine development
Robert Bigelow [We’re planning for] “…a permanent settlement on the lunar surface.” Inflatable commercial space station modules
Richard Branson “…we’re going to start a whole new era of sending people into space.” Crewed commercial launches to suborbital space
Elon Musk [Becoming] “a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species…is the right way to go.” Orbital rocket reusability, autonomous docking and reentry, lowered price to orbit by $hundreds/kilogram

Since so many billionaires are so committed to opening up the cosmos to humanity, it is inevitable that space transportation will greatly improve in the coming years. When exactly and whether it will improve enough to enable settlement remains to be seen, but I’m cautiously optimistic. You don’t drop a billion dollars a year on something if you’re not serious about it.

*This chart is an excerpt from the upcoming Space Settlement Book. The source information for these quotes and information will be in that book.




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