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.

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As they say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

In space flight, close means a violent explosion and a return to the drawing board. So it went with Space X's CRS-6's attempt to land a reusable rocket on a platform in the ocean. For a brief moment, the rocket seemed to settle on the barge, then it toppled and exploded.

It almost looks human as it is struggling right at the end to compensate for the bad angle. It seems to touch down and it looks like it might just hold its balance. If it had arms you know it would have been windmilling them to try to stay up, and then sadly it goes down and explodes.

It is easy to look at the explosion and the failure of the previous attempt of CRS-5 and think the entire mission was a failure. Space X is doomed. Elon Musk is a fraud. Let's just pack up and stop sending things into space. We'll spend the money on feeding the planet or world peace, or even new Air Jordan's for every person on the planet.

But you have to remember a few things. The mission was to resupply the International Space Station, which it has done. The secondary mission was to try to recover the first stage of the rocket for quick redeployment. That was the icing on the cake.

When a multi-stage rocket lifts off, it uses the rockets of the first stage to get off the ground. At some point the stage separates from the rest of the rocket and the next stage takes the rocket further. In the case of Space X, this rocket has two stages. Traditionally, when a rocket separates, the stage falls into the ocean or some other place that avoids hitting humans. What Space-X was trying to do was land that stage safely back on earth entirely intact.

(Image: Space X)

(Image: Space X)

This saves money -- fewer rockets to build -- and time, specifically less construction and shorter recovery time to find the rocket and ready it for re-use.

The cost of a flight like this is about $57 million. And the flight will bring about 4,300 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station. That's about $13,000 per pound of supplies on the station. Some estimates of the Space Shuttle's costs range as high as $27,000 per pound, depending on how much administrative cost you want to assign to it.

If Space X could routinely reuse its stages, it could slash the price of cargo in space immensely.

This all looks especially interesting considering that in 1972 Richard Nixon funded the Space Shuttle program with the idea of reducing the cost of cargo to space to $1,000 per pound, an amount we've never come close to attaining. The shuttle was supposed to make 24 flights per year -- instead of the five it sometimes reached -- and make space so cheap that smaller companies could afford to do experiments and send satellites into space.

It never happened.

So while Space X didn't perfect the landing yet, it is getting close.

If you want to make fun of a failure, I've got one for you instead. With the Hubble Space Telescope reaching its 25th anniversary, everyone is getting ready to celebrate. But as Science 2.0 points out, Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is a massive failure that shows just how expensive space can be.

The James Web Space Telescope is a beautiful concept. The advantage of the Hubble was that it was

Next Page: Webb's sky-high costs.

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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mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
4/19/2015 | 1:16:40 AM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
when that goal of $1,000 dollar a pound was set, it might very well have been met by some other system by now,

According to my calculations, $1000 in '72 is roughly $6000 in 2015. Space X is really not far form achieving that goal.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
4/18/2015 | 10:42:34 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
The good think about Elon Musk is that he is willing to learn from his mistakes and he has the money to support such endeavor.  I don't see other institution or individual taking such approach.  In the long term, this will serve as a foundation making space travel most efficient and cost effective
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
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4/17/2015 | 11:16:07 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
It's said that the Space Shuttle was the classic "bridge too far", designed in the early 70's with 60's components, it was just too far ahead of its time. And, when that goal of $1,000 dollar a pound was set, it might very well have been met by some other system by now, but for one unforeseen event – the end of the cold war and the resulting de-emphasis of all things military and space.

All of us here are techies of one stripe or another, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that I really don't care what it costs – I want us to devote money and effort in space. Sure, I wish it would come faster and cheaper, but I'm willing to wait a bit longer if I have to for Mr. Musk to succeed in his amazing effort to perfect a reusable first stage. Maybe, just maybe, close can also count in rocketry, too.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
4/17/2015 | 5:33:02 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
I'll start by saying this; we're definitely too jaded these days. I'm not one to blame the kidz and their Youtubez, but how can living in an age where a commercial company develops reusable rocket ships evoke anything but pure wonder? The Hubble still amazes me. Streaming HD video still amazes me. I remember having to download the movie and carry an external hard drive to my friend's house for movie nights - having that instead (sort of) of phsyical media amazed me. My point is the same as yours - we shouldn't take all this wonder for granted. Elon Musk might say some pie-in-the-sky stuff (killer AIs and vacuum tube trains), but there's no doubt he's a pioneer, and the world would be a better place if your average person was more like him and less like *insert shady political pundit here*. I'll toast my magic space coffee cup to that.

As for the recent space headlines, thanks for the roundup. The one about the space coffee cup got way over my head talking about 'seperating multiphase fluids', but it's cool to know that someone understands what that is and is working on it. To those skeptical of uber-budget space programs, proponents are quick to say 'but think of all the scientific benefits for us back here on earth!', and they're right - but it can be hard to see how a multibillion dollar project funded with taxpayer money can produce any tangible benefit for you and me that's worth the expense. It's not hard to see, though, how the aerodynamics of that coffee cup or the manufacturing processes on that espresso machine could be applied to consumer goods or used to help those in need. This all goes back into driving that entrepreneuria spiritl, which goes back into driving innovations on the level of SpaceX. Everyone wins.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
4/17/2015 | 4:55:40 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
@David it does take time and a certain amount of trial-and-error to get a process perfected. That's why Edison said, ""I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."  And supposedly, it took a couple of thousand attempts just to find the filament that would work for the light bulb. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/17/2015 | 4:30:44 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
@Tom- I don't know about an arm which seems just as likely to accidentally damage it. But I'm surprised they can't deploy a net or inflatable bags or something. But I think they will learn to compensate for the lateral forces soon.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/17/2015 | 4:29:13 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
@Ariella- Yes, I've looked high and low to find a reason why they don't do this on a bigger, not moving target like a desert. I planned on asking them for a future story. It seems like one of the advantages of a wider target is that you don't need as many last second compensations. But clearly, they have a reason. They didn't just decide to make it harder for the heck of it.

I think they'll pull this off. The first time they tried, they ran out of hydaulic fluid before touchdown. The reasons for the second time aren't known yet, but they'll learn from it.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
4/17/2015 | 3:51:59 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
If SpaceX can't compensate for the lateral velocity, I expect the company will be able to rig a landing pad with some kind of support arm system that swings into place to prevent the rocket from tipping over after touchdown.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
4/17/2015 | 12:11:00 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
On SpaceX, I shared the report of its failure from Smithsonian on G+ and got some interesting comments in response. 

One pointed out that this was not really the third time it made the attempt but only the second, as one of the scheduled attempts was scrubbed. Another said, "Considering what they're trying to do, I'm willing to give them a few chances. And this attempt was /so/ much closer." As for future plans, they offered this, "Rumor has it that the next try will do away with the barge and try to land back on the coast or perhaps a small island offshore. The barge is just proving to be too small and to unsteady a target. "
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/17/2015 | 10:32:41 AM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
@jastroff- I'm no NASA insider, and I certainly wasn't in the 1970's when the Space Shuttle program was put together, but honestly, I think the real problem was keeping too much institutional memory from the Space Race days. I think they failed to transition to a more business-like mindset. At some point in the Space Shuttle delivery cycle someone should have said, "this is never going to deliver on its promises" and they should have stopped. But the "failure is not an option" mentality kept them pushing against a bad premise.

That said, Space X is standing on the shoulders of giants. If it wasn't for NASA, both past and present, SpaceX couldn't exist. But this is part of any business cycle I guess. Governments and university do the foundational work for most big science. Then business come in to make it a commercial success. Nothing wrong with that on any level.
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