Six takeaways from the “Selling Space” debate

On Wednesday evening, the American Museum of Natural History in New York hosted it annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, this year on the topic of “Selling Space”, or the commercialization of spaceflight. Host Neil DeGrasse Tyson brought together both officials from a couple commercial space companies (Bigelow Aerospace and Space Adventures) as well as other experts, spending nearly two hours discussing various aspects of commercial spaceflight. Much of the discussion tread familiar ground, but there were a few interesting items brought up during the discussion:

A Space Adventures Soyuz seat goes for $52 million currently. It’s been widely known for some time that the approximate cost of flying to the International Space Station on a Soyuz spacecraft with Space Adventures is about $50 million—assuming that a seat is available, which today is rare since all the Soyuz seats are being used for ISS crew transfers. At Wednesday’s event, though, Space Adventures president Tom Shelley said on more than one occasion that the price is $52 million. That’s about $20 million less than NASA pays for Soyuz seats, the panelists noted, although the NASA contract includes additional services.

Space Adventures believes there’s price elasticity in the orbital space tourism market. When Shelley said that $52 million price, there was an audible reaction from the audience at the museum, one of shock. Tyson later asked Shelley if he believed the demand curve for orbital space tourism was elastic: would demand go up if prices went down? “If you dropped the price in half, would you have twice as many people signing up?” Tyson asked. “More than twice as many people, we believe,” Shelley responded. He added that the demand Space Adventures has already demonstrated for space tourism has helped support investment in other commercial space transportation systems that could later carry people into orbit.

Space Adventures is still pursuing a circumlunar commercial mission. The company has been quiet in recent years about plans to fly two people on a Soyuz spacecraft that would loop around the Moon, a mission with a current estimated ticket price of $150 million each. In early 2011, for example, Space Adventures said they had sold one seat and were “finalizing” a deal for the second seat. Calling that circumlunar mission “my personal favorite,” Shelley said they planned to carry out the mission by 2017 or 2018. “We have a couple clients under contract and we hope to take that forward,” he said.

People still get hung up on the definition of “space.” How high up to you have to go to be considered to have reached outer space? During the debate, Tyson was critical of Felix Baumgartner’s jump from “the edge of space,” and the panelists agreed that his jump was nowhere near any such edge. They differed, though, on some of the proposed suborbital flights to altitudes of 100 kilometers or so. Tyson said that some people have the “operating definition” of space where you can see stars in the daytime, which he said is about 100 kilometers. (In fact, 100 kilometers, also known as the Kármán line, is often used as the “boundary” of space and is based on aerodynamics, not the visibility of stars.)

Tyson got so wound up about this he managed to confuse suborbital and orbital spaceflight. “When you say ‘low Earth orbit,’ you’re going up to 100 kilometers and going back,” Tyson said at one point, as members of the panel tried to correct him.

People disagree on whether commercial human spaceflight is inspirational. Do people get excited about private citizens going to space in the same way as they do for government astronauts? Space historian John Logsdon doesn’t think so. “I don’t think commercial space is going to serve as inspiration. That’s where the government comes in,” he said. “Rich people taking joyrides is not inspirational.”

Space Adventures’ Shelley strongly disagreed. “We get calls and emails from people on a daily basis saying, ‘I am so inspired by what it is you’re doing, opening up space. I never thought it was going to be possible for me to be able go to space’” as a government astronaut.

Risk remains a major concern. Spaceflight is in inherently risky, and there was some debate if private spaceflight was riskier than government missions, or if private space travellers would be more willing to accept risks. “One of the big differences in this shift from public-sponsored human travel to private-sponsored human travel is the acceptance of higher risk in the private sector,” said Logsdon, noting that some who attempt to climb Mount Everest die in the attempt, but accept that risk given the rewards of scaling the world’s highest mountain—even if thousands of people have done it before.

Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace stressed that less expensive private spaceflight, though, was not inherently riskier than government sponsored missions. “Lower cost does not inherently mean less safe,” he said. “There’s this pernicious misperception that commercial space is going somehow to be less safe or more dangerous or we care more about money than NASA. Nothing could be further from the truth… If we have a bad day, we lose everything.”

Wanda Austin, president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, did argue that spending a little more on “mission assurance” activities (which she said did not have to cost “oodles” of money) was worthwhile. However, at the end of her brief appearance (she appeared via videoconference for the first half-hour of the event because of a prior commitment in California), she did answer positively when Tyson asked her if commercial spaceflight was “ready for prime time.” “We are taking the right steps,” she said. “We’ve already walked through the door, Neil. This is not something that maybe will happen, this is something that is already happening.”

7 comments to Six takeaways from the “Selling Space” debate

  • Dick Eagleson

    So John Logsdon, a life-long government employee, thinks only the doings of other government employees in space are inspirational, not the doings of regular civilians. Quoth he, “Rich people taking joyrides is not inspirational.” I seem to recall one flamboyant guy who was pretty much the epitome of “rich people taking joyrides” back in the 1930′s – Howard Hughes – who was a national hero. The American people of that era had the funny idea that a guy worth 10 percent more than God who, nonetheless, put his personal hide on the line as his own test pilot when he could obviously afford to hire the work done by underlings was – what was that word? – oh yeah… inspirational! And don’t even get me started on that rich bitch wife of a major newspaper baron, Amelia Earhart!

  • Gary Warburton

    What no mention of spaceX and what it is doing and what it plans to do. No mention of grasshopper`s flights and there continuation in New Mexico and the landing legs on their next flight to ISS and their planned testing of an ocean landing. I remember John Logsdon saying that SpaceX would soon raise its prices. That he didn`t see how their prices were sustainable. As far as safety goes has he forgotten the two shuttle disasters. Does he know that the next commercial vehicles will all have full escape systems unlike the shuttles. It seems to me if your going to talk about commercial space you should talk about whats happening.

  • Gary Warburton

    I watched the whole thing finally and have to admit that they did mention rather sparingly toward the end that SpaceX was responsible for some the new innovations in space travel including efforts to do reuseability. Mike Gold was the one who mentioned most about SpaceX`s developments although John Logsdon mentioned something about SpaceX rather briefly. Neil seemed completely unaware of what they`ve been doing. I wonder if he will begin following their efforts from now on or whether he will continue to be oblivious to what they`ve been doing.

  • mike shupp

    Logsdon’s been on at the faculty at George Washington University, a private school, since 1970. He’s never been a “government employee.”

  • Dick Eagleson

    Being a long-time Californian, I was long under the impression GWU was a public university. I stand corrected.

    Given that most of Dr. Logsdon’s career was spent as a tenured member of a university faculty, however, the rest of my observation stands. Whether at public or private institutions, university faculty are the U.S. demographic group seemingly most inclined to sneer at “rich people” while being largely ignorant of their origins or accomplishments. Having spent his entire career at an elite school, it is even perhaps understandable that Dr. Logsdon has such a low opinion of “rich people” as the vast majority of such he has likely had occasion to personally encounter would likely have been the entitled and not necessarily very bright “legacies” of smarter parents or grandparents who rose to wealth from modest origins in prior generations. Even allowing for Dr. Logsdon’s cloistered professional life, however, it would seem incumbent upon him to be more aware of what is going on currently in the space field, rather than assuming that historically important players – about which I am sure Dr. Logsdon is well-informed – are the only ones that matter when essaying to pontificate on matters of current space policy.

  • DocM

    I find it appalling that Neil DeGrasse Tyson was so poorly informed abput a topic he was goimg to moderate. No time to study up, Neil? Mayve he should be mass mailed copies of Shotwell’s interview on TheSpaceShow.

    • Neil

      No Neil’s a dyed-in-the-wool big government guy. No way is he ever going to be convinced that commercial can do what NASA currently can’t. Oh well!

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