Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space - InformationWeek

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4/17/2015
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David Wagner
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Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space

Space is expensive, dangerous, and easy to get wrong. This week, news about Space X, the upcoming Hubble anniversary, and the price of astronaut coffee shows why we should think hard about future projects.

beyond the Earth's atmosphere, so it could see better than ground based telescopes. Webb is going to do it one better and go 1 million miles from Earth -- instead of Hubble's 375 miles. It will deploy a sun shield so it can see stars more than 1 billion light years away, and see them with a broader spectrum of frequencies.

It all sounds wonderful until you find this out:

It is 900% over budget, 10-years late, and no one is sure if it will ever get done. And let's say it is done. Does everyone remember when Hubble was considered a budget failure with a bad mirror? Hubble launched seven years late with multiple problems and ultimately cost $2 billion, when it was originally funded at $400 million. The only thing that saved it was expensive shuttle missions with multiple repairs.

How do you fix the Webb if it has similar problems when it is one million miles away?

Certainly, Elon Musk's Space X capsules can't get there, even if they can land on a little barge in the ocean. Do you see a pattern here?

For billions of dollars over budget you can have a space shuttle that never reduced the cost of cargo in space and never become the reliable multiple-use vehicle it was supposed to be.

For billions of dollars over budget you can have a Hubble Space Telescope with multiple problems that was supposed to solve the mysteries of the origins of the galaxy, but needed to be replaced by Webb.

For billions of dollars over budget you might have Webb, which may or may not work, and may or may not ever be finished.

Or you can lay off Elon Musk for not quite landing a stage of a rocket for the first time ever safely back on Earth to use again quickly. Since he's doing the most so far with the least, the Geekend calls this a success, bordering on a grand success. He's learning lessons in front of the world, and some people are making fun of him.

If you don't think Space X is a success yet, let me offer one more thing we can all relate to. One of the things that CRS-6 delivered to the International Space Station was the world's first space Espresso machine. Yup, talk about your Star-bucks. Developed by Lavazza and Argotech, the machine makes coffee that tastes just like the stuff on Earth.

You have to remember, most coffee-making systems use gravity in some way or another. Water is pushed or it falls over the coffee to pull the flavor out of the ground beans. Doing that in space isn't easy. They even had to redesign the coffee mug to make it work in space.

I don't know about you, but space seems a lot better with a morning cup of coffee. I bet our astronauts will be a lot more productive. But I'm not sure I'd want to do a spacewalk hopped up on a double espresso. Let's hope they don't get the jitters.

Of course, I'm being a little hard on NASA and a little easy on Space X.

There's room for both big and little projects in space. But one thing we're really learning from the commercial space experiment is that small, attainable goals at smaller prices that lead to more success are a good thing. And honestly, NASA should know this. We got to the moon with very methodical experiments in just that. But somewhere during the shuttle program, NASA's mandate changed. Instead of beating the Russians to the moon at all costs, the game changed to being all about controlling costs and they failed to adjust.

Space X is helping to inject a little sense into space, and it is long overdue. That's a success, and it will make it all the sweeter if CRS-7 successfully lands its first stage on a barge as planned when the group tries in June, again cutting the cost of putting cargo in space.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
4/22/2015 | 12:25:46 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space

While I understand the push to get private industry to support space exploration the focus would undoubtedly shift from exploration to monetary gain. We should still want to explore and learn about our solar system to learn about our own planet and how to address issues we have now and in the future. I agree focus is key based on the costs but I don't think we should just abandon the learning process.

David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/21/2015 | 2:18:40 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
@Gary_El- I think the focus is slowly switching to putting a person on Mars. I think NASA realized it couldn't get there without a cheap and reliable rocket. I think that's where we are. I could be wrong, but i think the next step is actually building rockets in space. I think we're going to build a rocket that can get a new and better space station together and then we're going to be launching from there to save fuel. Gravity is the real killer.

But regardless of what the nexxt focus is, making it cheap and reliable is the first hurdle. 
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
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4/21/2015 | 2:15:38 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
@David Wagner

I agree in that I think that technology has matured to the point that it is now time for private industry to take over the lead role in designing and building spacecraft. After all, the government doesn't build fighter jets or tanks, either! But it won't solve the problem of lack of focus. We still really don't know what we want to accomplish in space.

For myself, I'm more interested in what we can do in our little part of the solar system. I'm more interested in rail gun launches into space than in deep cosmos astronomy. I hope I live long enough to read about the first scandals involving illegal garbage dumping in space!
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/21/2015 | 2:06:47 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
@zerox203- I suspect the tangible benefits of big ticket science is always an issue. The cost of the Large Hadron Collider was $13 billion and it costs $1 billion a year to operate. We found the Higgs Boson, but what will that mean for anyone anytime soon?

Personally, I think understanding the universe for the sake of it is worth the price. But I do get annoyed when someone says, "It will cost $1 billion to do this" and they come back a year later and say it will cost $5 billion and then a year later and it is $10 billion.

I feel the same way about the overbudget replacement to the Oakland Bay Bridge.

Obviously, we have the same problem in IT with projects going overbudget. So this isn't just a government thing, but I'd like to think we can do better and still learn the workings of the universe.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/21/2015 | 1:56:36 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
@Gary_el- Well, i think it might be a little too easy to blame the end of the Cold War on this. The Space Shuttle was flying years before the Berlin Wall fell and had already sort of been derailed from its mission. In fact, my feeling is that what the Space Shuttle really suffered from was a lack of focus. It was space for space's sake. And we've been there for decades now. 

I'm sue the folks at NASA at the time who ever more insight than me would disagree with the idea of a lack of focus. I'm sure they knew exactly what they wanted to achieve with each mission. But we lacked a national direction that NASA could grab onto and run with.

So here we are. We're trying to lower the cost of space and that's what the private sector is good at. So that's OK. And then NASA can put its pure research onto commercial vehicles that have been proven cheap and reliable and we all win.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/21/2015 | 1:44:14 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
@Mak63- The inflation argument is interesting. By the rate of inflation, you are correct that SpaceX is approaching it. But, of course, we'd have to check inflation on specific payloads. Clearly, when it comes to space telescopes, they seem to be getting more expensive faster than the inflation rate.

You'd also expect that the price of technology would drop. If you went, for exampple by the price of computer technology, the cost of space should have only gone done from 1972, not up.Even the cost of airline travel by percentage of a person's salary has gone done significantly. So I'm not sure inflation is the right way to look at it. But it is very interesting.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/21/2015 | 1:25:58 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
@pklittle- Well, all the better for the atronauts I guess that Lavazza knows coffee better than the Americans. That said, the issues are exactly the same, microgravity makes things behave differently in space. So learning how to move water, steam or anything else so that it mimics what happens on Earth is a big deal. 

The real fun, I suppose is if we start creating space cuisine that only can be made in microgravity and then we try to copy that cuisine on Earth.
pkittle
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pkittle,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/20/2015 | 5:29:39 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
Hi David..

With respect, this is Italian Espresso, not "coffee" as Americans know it (or "dirty water" as Italians call what we drink.)  This is compressed steam through the coffee to give a flavor American coffee cannot match which is "brewed" and requires the Wagnerian comment about dripping water ;-)

That being said... somebody got a lucritive contract, eh? Surprised Jura wasn't in there!  Now if we could get Cisco or HP to install some great Wifi on the ISS.... or how about on Mars?  
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
4/20/2015 | 7:22:30 AM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
Agreed. He's willing and able to dump $57 million into each launch - admittedly, funded by NASA contracts - into the Falcon 9 rocket design and it will eventually get there. Each launch gets closer to making that booster reusable. Once its been proven doable too, it can be landed on land, making it even cheaper again since it doesn't have to factor in recovery costs. 

It could potentially even land back near the launch pad, ready for refurbishment and another launch in short order. 
progman2000
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progman2000,
User Rank: Ninja
4/19/2015 | 10:38:34 AM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
Yeah I agree with you.  I don't know what makes guys like Elon Musk tick but it's hard to bet against him.  Guys like that are visionaries so it will be interesting to see where this leads us.
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