CATS - Cheap Access To Space.

Project Persephone aims to bring the benefits of space development -- and especially the benefits of personal involvement in it -- to more people, particularly to people in some of the poorer places in the world. Space access that costs less per beneficiary can help.

Consider a broad definition of "access" that includes access to benefits -- even for beneficiaries who don't necessarily realize that the benefits are coming from orbit. One way to reduce space access costs per person (a very indirect way, and not personally very involving for most beneficiaries) is to divide these conventional benefits more finely and distribute them more widely -- as is often the case for remote sensing missions. There is a Project Persephone effort that follows this strategy, specifically with a focus on the humanitarian benefits of putting remote-sensing satellites into low equatorial orbits, which could potentially yield lessons for the design of similar missions in other orbits. This effort is very much in line with the Project's goal of meeting the SPEC.

In the longer run, however, more space access, and in particular more personal involvement in space, depends on making physical access cheaper. This will almost certainly require a dramatic increase in demand for such access -- i.e., making space launch cheaper through greater economies of scale, both in vehicle/payload manufacturing and in launch operations. Rocket launch is not something that can divided so finely, however. Each launch is an event, and often a big one. It has been repeatedly argued, in fact, that bigger is better, at least for rocket launch.1 And launches are to specific orbits for specific purposes - if the orbit doesn't match your needs, you might as well be sending the payload to a junkyard.

To clarify matters, let's be sure we understand the range of meanings for "cheap" and for "access". These will depend, after all, on where you stand and what you want. For that matter, regarding space as a single place is conceptually suspect. For example, changing orbits can be very expensive. And different orbits have different uses. Using a larger rocket to get to space more cheaply may limit the choice of orbits you can reach.

What counts as "cheap"?

If you define "access" as going to space, or putting things there, cheaper access would be a more realistic way to express the goal. Some launches look cheap, but appearances can deceive. A German satellite, KOMPAS-2, was launched for a few hundred dollars per pound, from a Russian submarine2,3, perhaps setting the record for low launch costs. However, that launch was subsidized as part of Russian naval exercises. Costs of $3,000-$5,000 per pound to LEO are more typical.4 The Space Shuttle designers promised $200/lb to orbit in the 1970s. In the end, the now-retired Shuttle was hardly competitive in this respect, orbiting payloads at around $5,000/lb.5 SpaceX might push launch costs to the neighborhood of $1000/lb. So far, however, nobody has demonstrated costs that low.

Since Dennis Tito's landmark voyage to ISS on a Soyuz in 2001, orbital space tourism has stoked hopes for a significant recreational market for orbital adventures. Anousheh Ansari's major contribution to the X Prize purse pushed the idea of suborbital space tourism? toward realization. For the foreseeable future, however, such recreations will not be affordable for any but the very rich. The prospects for the less wealthy to get a chance to work in space, to cover the costs of transportation to orbit and a life in flight, are hardly better. Progress in space robotics (both teleoperated and autonomous) might even mean that opportunities for astronautical and mission-specialist careers will begin to dwindle. If economies of scale are the solution to high launch costs, the problem of how to get higher scale is not likely to be solved by sending more people.

What counts as "access"?

"Cheap" is clearly relative to one's purchasing power. A billionaire might not blink at a price of $20 million for orbital space tourism, perhaps considering the opportunity cost incurred in the time spent in astronaut training to be the true expense. However, with a more flexible definition of "access", certain kinds of access are already affordable even for the very poor, although they might still consider it expensive in their own terms.

Consider what might be called "U-Turn Space Access" -- through a communications satellite?. Is a satellite TV dish antenna providing "access to space"? Yes, albeit one-way and indirectly. It provides access, through space (as a communications medium), to a resource in space: the satellite. What about a long-distance call that goes through a satellite link? Insofar as it actually causes something to happen (however briefly) in the satellite itself, and must provide real-time (two-way) response, it's somewhat more direct. But it's also more expensive because of that.

Homemade dish, Nepal

Most users of comsat services consider them reasonably priced. However, that's because those users can (by definition) afford them. Even if one considers satellite communications a kind of "access to space", it is not cheap for the world's poor. In 1994, MCI executive Greg LeVert notoriously claimed that half the world had yet to place a phone call.6 That was probably not true even then, but the number of phoneless world citizens might still be as high as 25% as of 2010.7 In places like southern Somalia, a satellite TV broadcast of a soccer game in Europe is more likely to be seen in a movie theater than at home. People there can afford some recreational "access to space" in some expanded sense, though it will be only occasional, temporary, shared, one-way, and indirect.

What counts as "space"?

Space is different things to different people. A cosmologist might look to the furthest reaches, 40 billion light years or more: perhaps only the most powerful telescope would be adequate "access to space" for that purpose. Suborbital space tourism sets the altitude bar relatively low: flying up high enough, perhaps around 100km, to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and black sky. In the early years of concerns about global sustainability, people like Buckminster Fuller and Barbara Ward pointed out that we're already astronauts, and already in space -- we're "crewmembers" on Spaceship Earth. In that sense, our distance to space is already zero.

Many people see space, once reached, as a kind of freeway -- once you're there, it doesn't take much time or effort to get elsewhere. But space actually has its own problems of "how to get there from here". A launch to geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO?) costs up to twice as much as a launch to LEO. Counterintuitive "long-way-around" orbital dynamics means that if you want to change orbital planes, but still end up at the same altitude, it can be more economical to first go further up, then change direction, then fly back down (which, also somewhat counterintuitively, means expending as much energy as was used on the way up.)

Geosynchronous orbital slots probably come closest to our ordinary sense of a "place" beyond Earth, short of going to the Moon or another planet. Such slots are akin to property -- they are directly above places on Earth, and have legal assignees. If the area around the equator can be considered a single (circular) "place", low equatorial orbits might also be considered "places in space", since spacecraft in those orbits fly only over that terrestrial band.

Project Persephone as path to CATS

Although Project Persephone success would help make comsat-mediated "access to space" cheaper for the world's poor, at least as a side benefit of promoting space development in general, that's not the Project's main thrust. Wherever terrestrial communications options are cheaper than orbital ones, it will use them. Communicating through a piece of equipment in orbit will not, in itself, promote space development very much. For one thing, cheaper terrestrial substitutes continue to make inroads on the communications market. For another, improvements in comsat technology are reducing the amount of electronics to be orbited, which (all other things being equal) reduces launch demand and therefore helps to keep launch costs high.

The main problem is how to sustain, and increase, the demand for putting things into LEO. Having wealthy customers for orbital space tourism right now is helpful. It redistributes wealth in a way that sustains and promotes space development. If the market for such recreation develops, it should also help make it cheaper for other paying passengers coming along later, even if the more recent price trend has been upward.

However, orbital space tourism is a relatively low-volume niche market at the moment, with uncertain prospects. The more routine (or perhaps even despised) it becomes, the less it is a world worth talking about, which is a precondition for any real economic opportunity. It currently depends on transportation and accommodation shared among space-faring super-powers with sometimes-difficult relations. CATS must be enabled by some new market that increases launch demand significantly, and the world's rich and highly adventurous are not likely to do that. Project Persephone aims to explore the recreational possibilities that orbit might offer to "the rest of us" who are earthbound, as well as what sort of economic opportunities those recreations could open up for people in the developing world. The conceptual vehicle for these hopes: exovivaria.


1 See, for example, John Jurist, Sam Dinkin, David Livingston, "When Physics, Economics and Reality Collide: The Challenge of Cheap Orbital Access", American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, AIAA-2005-6620 (Sept 2005)

2 Gunter Krebs, "Kompas (Compass)"

3 "Shtil Launch Vehicle",

4 "Changing the low-cost launch game", AIAA, Feb 2005

5 Space Transportation Costs: Trends in Price Per Pound to Orbit 1990-2000, September 6, 2002

6 Clay Shirky, Half the World, June 30, 2002.

7 As of 2012, perhaps 75% of the globe has access to a mobile phone:

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