Sustainability Drivers within Manned Orbital Spaceflight

With the question of sustainability raised in human space flight, we looked for an appropriate tool to answer it. The space flight industry had been long examined from the perspective of technologies and destinations, as well as detailed budgetary analyses, and yet the question remained. We instead chose to examine the industry from a broader perspective of macroeconomics, which looks to the more fundamental issues of why money is spent (as opposed to how much parts cost).

Our analysis reminded us that affordability is key to sustainability, and that commercialization is the means by which something is perceived affordable (which is different from being inexpensive). Looking at the fundamental drivers, the issues of safety and reliability are overwhelmingly responsible for the high costs associated with the human space flight industry. These issues are further magnified by the role of government as the sole consumer in the manned human space flight industry.

However, safety and reliability are cost drivers in other transportation industries that have proven themselves sustainable. We then began to consider that something could be gained by considering alternative industrial models for the human space flight industry.

Alternative Industry Models

At this point, we had established that, at the surface, the interrelationships appeared to be correct, and the primary cost drivers to the space flight industry revolved around safety and reliability. The operational strategy behind the space industry was modeled after the airline industry, which seemed a natural extension. However, manned orbital space flight seemed unable to develop an independent commercial sector, as had already occurred with the satellite industry and was beginning to occur with manned suborbital space flight.

Examining the differences a bit deeper, we found operational differences separating manned orbital space flight from the other space markets, and also the airline industry model. With manned orbital space flight, the system strives to operate with zero-failure indefinitely while on-orbit (isolated from assistance, in an incredibly hazardous environment). Though the costs in simply launching and attaining orbit safely are impressive, applying the airline solution of damage-tolerant design (DTD) methodologies to handle safety and reliability while on-orbit drives the costs further to unsustainable levels.

Looking at other transportation industries, we found analogues in the automotive and maritime industries that also had to address safety and reliability while operating indefinitely. These industries, however, utilize government-operated agencies tasked with handling mechanical and medical emergencies. The presence of these agencies reduce the extent to which DTD methodologies must be employed, encourage the advancement of independent commercial ventures, and allow the government to fulfill its natural industrial role through regulation, advancement of technical innovation, and protecting consumer assets.

It’s difficult to predict the specific cost impact this driver will have on the space industry, but it is much easier to consider the effects of its absence on the development of an already-successful industry, such as the automotive industry.

Consider for a moment that you were planning a trip across the country and back, and needed to develop one of the first cars capable of making the journey. However, that car was custom-built, relying on technologies that weren’t yet in widespread use. Furthermore, it had to carry all of its fuel, supplies, and air for the entire journey lasting a few weeks or possibly longer.

Up to this point, these are all manageable costs; however, add to that the requirement that if anything went wrong, or the car broke down in any number of simple yet critical ways, you would die with the entire world watching in horror. How much would that car cost; compared to one that is designed knowing there would be access to a tow truck or other emergency services, and how would that affect the sustainability of an emerging automotive industry?

Sustainability lies in the Support Mechanisms

Other transportation industries rely on a government capability for addressing mechanical failures in isolation. This capability reduces the degree to which private companies must address safety and reliability on a single vessel, as well as reducing overall costs within the industry. Such a capability is missing in the present approach to manned orbital space flight; and even with increased budgets, new technologies, or increased private contracting within government programs, it is doubtful that independent commercial ventures can sustainably expand into manned orbital space flight without this support.

Creating such a capability reorients the industrial model that supports manned orbital space flight, allowing this struggling industry to finally realize independent and sustainable economic and global advantages for the United States. Furthermore, the technologies this capability will require can positively contribute to the rest of the space industry as a whole. With this capability in place, the long-term exploration plans for NASA are enhanced; we can ultimately go farther, faster, and with a faster payback to the nation.

This is the core of our proposal, presented to policymakers at the national level as well as key leaders in the private and public industry. Further details may be found here.

Image courtesy Analytical Graphics, Inc.