Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Commercial Space Travel: As Practical as a Mission to the Moon

This post is a bit off-topic, but:

  • I'd gathered this information for another blog
  • The information wouldn't interest my target audience there
  • It seemed a shame to let it go to waste
  • Space exploration and commercial development in space is something I'm very interested in
So, with that flimsy set of excuses, here goes.
There's a 'race to the moon' again: this time in Asia. Depending on which side of Earth you're on, India launched a spaceship bound for the moon yesterday, or early today. (Excerpts from the news at the end of this post)

Getting a spaceship to the moon is a pretty big deal. Five organizations have sent missions to Earth's only natural satellite so far: the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and China. If all goes well with Chandrayan-1, India will make it six.

Space Programs and a Social Conscience

The "...still live in dire poverty..." in one article reminded me of the sixties here in America, when the argument was that money for the space program should have been spent on well-intentioned programs like Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project.

Even though some of the federal budget was siphoned off to build places like the Johnson Space Center in Houston, America made an earnest effort to end poverty by concentrating poor people in housing projects and giving them money to stay unemployed.

Those social programs didn't work out quite as well as some had expected.

The Johnson Space Center, on the other hand, does business with contractors from Aerospace Corp. to Wyle Life Sciences Group, with outfits like Al-Razaq Computing Services (the contact person is Ralph Schomburg - I love this country), MacDonald Dettwiler Space Robotics, and Major Constructors, LLC in between.

Although the connection isn't too obvious to some, when a company like Aerospace Corp. gets a contract, it hires people to get jobs done. Or, sometimes it hires subcontractors, who hire people to get jobs done.

The point is that, although I hope that the company owners and managers profit from the contracts, quite a bit of the money goes through the company, to employees. Then, the employees spend it in groceries and gas stations, and - well, you get the idea.

An amazing number of people don't.

So, although in the sort run it looks like India ought to spend money on things like housing projects and social programs, I think that the country's space program will do more good to those people 'living in dire poverty' than housing projects and welfare.

It takes people, lots of people, to build launch pads, support facilities, office buildings, and roads to connect everything. It takes other people to do everything from empty the wastebaskets in the office and answer the phone, to design robots for moon missions.

And, unless things have changed in India, those people will be paid.

To paraphrase Mae West, 'I've been employed, and I've been unemployed. Employed is better.'

Moon Marketing

There's a lot of money in commercial satellites, and India (quite understandably) wants a piece of the pie. This moon mission, if they pull it off, will get them publicity and status that no marketing campaign could produce. Although arguably the moon mission is a marketing campaign. I'm not going to go off on that tangent.

Sending a robot spaceship to the moon, successfully, is a good way of demonstrating competence in space technology: and it gets quite a lot of (free) publicity.

Space and the Private Sector

Spaceships aren't a government monopoly, at least not in America. Branson's Virgin Galactic and Rutan's Scaled Composites LLC are examples of business getting space-savvy. Not that the CNN article ("Branson, Rutan to unveil mothership" CNN (July 28, 2008)) put it quite that way.

I've run out of the time allotted for this post. So this wrap-up will be quick.

Moon missions were science fiction when I was growing up. Now, they're publicity projects (and a little more) for a half-dozen nations and organizations. Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites are very close to providing passenger service on suborbital flights.

I was going to write about serious proposals for Low Earth Orbit tourist resorts. Maybe some other time.

  • " 'Hot Eagle:' the Space Marines Are Coming"
    Another War-on-Terror Blog (October 19, 2008)
  • "'La force motrice' of Reusable Launcher Development: The Rise and Fall of the SDIO's SSTO Program, From the X-Rocket to the Delta Clipper
    NASM Talk / NASA (November 18, 1999?)
  • "Getting to Low Earth Orbit" (Space Future (April, 1999))
  • "Chandrayaan to carry 11 payloads" (October 14, 2008)
    Includes details on the payloads:
    1. Terrain Mapping Camera (TMC): Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)
    2. Hyper Spectral Imager (HySI): ISRO
    3. Lunar Laser Ranging Instrument (LLRI): ISRO
    4. High Energy X-ray Spectrometer (HEX): ISRO
    5. Moon Impact Probe (MIP): ISRO
    6. Chandrayaan-1 X-ray Spectrometer (C1XS): European Space Agency (ESA) with collaboration between Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, UK and ISRO Satellite Centre, ISRO
    7. Near-IR Spectrometer (SIR-2): Max-Plank-Institute for Solar System Science, through the Max-Plank Society, Germany and ESA
    8. Sub Kev Atom reflecting Analyser (SARA): ESA, in collaboration with Swedish Institute of Space Physics, Sweden and Space Physics Laboratory, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, ISRO
    9. Radiation Dose Monitor Experiment (RADOM): Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
    10. Miniature Synthetic Aperture Radar (MiniSAR): USA through NASA
    11. Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3): Brown University and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA through NASA
India's Chandrayaan-1 in the News:

"India Launches Moon Mission in Asian Space Race" (October 21, 2008)

"NEW DELHI (AP) — Scientists have better maps of distant Mars than the moon where astronauts have walked. But India hopes to change that with its first lunar mission.

"Chandrayaan-1 — which means "Moon Craft" in ancient Sanskrit — launched from the Sriharikota space center in southern India early Wednesday morning (Local Time) in a two-year mission aimed at laying the groundwork for further Indian space expeditions.

"Chief among the mission's goals is mapping not only the surface of the moon, but what lies beneath. India joined what's shaping up as a 21st century space race with Chinese and Japanese crafts already in orbit around the moon....

"...As India's economy has boomed in recent years, it has sought to convert its new found wealth — built on its high-tech sector — into political and military clout and stake a claim as a world leader. It is hoping that a moon mission — coming just months after it finalized a deal with the United States that recognizes India as a nuclear power — will further enhance that status...."

"Lunar mission blasts off"
The Strait Times (Singapore) (October 22, 2008)

"SRIHARIKOTA (India) - INDIA on Wednesday successfully launched its first lunar mission in a major boost for the country's space programme.

"There were cheers in mission control as the unmanned lunar orbiting spacecraft Chandrayaan-1 was launched with an Indian-built rocket from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota on the southeastern coast...."

"...India is hoping the mission will boost its space programme into the same league as regional powerhouses Japan and China.

"As well as looking to carve out a larger slice of the lucrative commercial satellite launch market, India, Japan and China also see their space programmes as an important symbol of their international stature and economic development.

"The launch was carried live on most Indian television channels, although some critics have questioned the sense in spending so much money on space when hundreds of millions of Indians still live in dire poverty...."
Chandrayan? Chandrayaan? The first spelling is used in most of the articles I read, the second in the This is the sort of thing that happens when words from one language - and writing system - are dropped into another. I'm using the first for what I write in this post, and leaving the 'double a' version in the article.

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