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Friday, July 17, 2009


Brian Wang at Next Big Future recently did this article on how much the world is spending on space. It comes to $257 billion (£160 billion) which came as a surprise to me.

Most of the money is spent on
- satellite TV ($70 billion)
- maintaining ground stations ($74 billion)
- $17 billion fixed satellite services
- $26 billion Department of Defence (military satellites and the spending around it)
- $17 billion NASA
- $10 billion national reconnaissance office (spy satellites and spending around it)
- $8.9 billion missile defense agency

The foreign government spending looks undercounted. It does not look like the foreign military or spy spending has been taken into account.

$5.6 billion on commercial satellite building
$2 billion on commercial launch systems
That is 1 1/2 times Scotland's GNP. It also takes no account of secondary effects such as the fact that a 24 hour world financial market is only possible because of global telecommunications which means satellites. With world GNP about $70 trillion this comes to about 0.4% which, on the one hand isn't space shattering but on the other is significant. If space related industry were to expand by 20% a year (ambitious but not that ambitious since it is only twice what China is managing & China starts from thousands of years of development not 40) that would exceed the entire Earth's current GNP in 2050.

According to government programmes that is when we should have cut our CO2 release by 80% which gets us back to the level of CO2 production & probably comparable in industrial productivity to Victorian Britain.

I think that puts the options starkly.

Of course the real brake on space development is that we don't have a reliable & commercial way of getting there. We could develop one with a $1 bn X-Prize & with the amount already being earned that is not the sort of investment one puts into promoting new technologies. It isn't even the sort government puts into subsidising traditional business to locate here. Scottish Enterprise, the government department whose function is to encourage new business to locate in Scotland, has had a budget of £500 million so on that basis we should be putting about £800 million into X-Prizes to locate in space, ie £4 bn over 5 years. If that money had been put into such prizes we would have space industries far larger than this by now (& hence more money for investment in a virtuous circle). Meanwhile we spend billions on banks & windmills instead.

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Of course the real brake on space development is that we don't have a reliable & commercial way of getting there.

We do have a reliable and commercial way to get there, it is just too expensive for our purposes. I think the price of using the shuttle is $10k/lb and US private rockets are around $3k/lb. Those figure are from the inside of a book meant for kids that I flipped through a few years ago, but the shuttle figure seems believably wasteful.

Here is my short plan for NASA to trim its space budget and lead the way:

1. I mentioned this earlier, but have the Russians develop a shorter version of Soyuz that can stay aloft for 12-16 hours instead of 2 weeks. The entire craft should be about 20' long, 10' wide and should be able carry three men whose combined weight is under 750 lbs.

2. Since the US has *relatively* good relations with Latin America, we should work with the Brazilian government to develop an equatorial spaceport to lower the cost of launching rockets. This port should be open to all, with the exception of China. Brazil should be encouraged to privatize most of this, with appropriate oversight.

3. Once the Brazilian spaceport is open, US launching sites outside of the Arctic should be closed. This specifically includes Cape Canaveral.

4. The Soviet Union developed an autopilot system for freight rockets resupplying Mir and the system ended up in the Ukraine after the 1992 breakup. The tech is valuable enough that NASA has tried to develop their own version. NASA should simply license the Ukrainian tech, or even hire the Ukrainians and use it to pilot all freight rockets bound for the ISS. These Rockets would be launched from Brazil of course.

5. All climate research conducted by NASA should either be canned or turned over to the National Weather Service. NASA needs to focus on matters not on Earth. The NWS can put its credibility on the line for Global Warming.
The Shuttle's problem is that as a "reusable" ship it doesn't stack up with commercial carriers. It can be used once or twice a year & requires de facto rebuilding between each flight. It takes 25,000 people on the ground to launch it. Commercial carriers fly several times a day & have crew to planes ratio 1,000th of that. Pournelle's proposed X-Prize is for a ship that makes orbit 3 times in a month & if that was achieved, with no further savings, launch costs would drop by 10-100 times.
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