Commercial access to space on hold

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

As widely reported, Russia has closed commercial public access to Soyuz seats for flights after the US shuttle is retired.

Now that the ISS has the capacity for a larger full-time crew, the seats are more likely to be devoted to long-duration ISS crew rotation than short-term ISS visits, whether visits by professional EU / US astronauts or folks flying privately. I’ve no doubt that there are economics attached to the Russian seats that are similar for both cases – the EU and US have to pay for the lift just like us ordinary folks.

There are a couple of interesting twists to the story.

One is that, when the Shuttle is retired, the Russians will have the only manned access to orbital flight in the ISS partnership. Russia and China will be the only nations with manned orbital capabilities, and the US huffishly refuses to welcome China into the ISS club. Expect the price of a seat to rise substantially while that’s the case.

Another is the EU’s plan to evolve their autonomous cargo vessel (ATV) into a manned capability, something that’s perfectly feasible and quite sensible IMO.

And the third twist is that the Russians have long been open to commercial offers for a long-duration flight (six month ISS crew rotation). That woudl require substantially more training (12-18 months minimum depending on who you ask) but would certainly include the Soyuz lift to get there and back.

25 comments:

  1. AdamK says: (permalink)
    January 22nd, 2009 at 9:04 am

    Our only hope is Virgin Galactic then ;)

  2. Jonathan says: (permalink)
    January 22nd, 2009 at 10:22 am

    That is quite sucky. Commercial space flight seems to be a good way to accelerate our technologies and to extend the reaches of mankind. I also hope like AdamK that Virgin Galactic does well. Are you going to support them in any way?

  3. Olaf says: (permalink)
    January 22nd, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Virgin Galactic is not at all comparable to flights to the ISS nor capable to perform them. They will just inject a vehicle into a ballistic quick-return orbit.
    It is an awesome project though that enables many many more people so get a “glimpse” of space and certainly raises awareness of the public of all things space.

    I’ll go book a seat on Virgin Galactic or any such project once I can afford it (the price tag will come way down – hopefully soon enough – I hope to live to do it)

  4. Chris says: (permalink)
    January 22nd, 2009 at 11:12 am

    I have no idea how much pollution a single rocket launch causes but am guessing it is not an insignificant amount. Hard to justify space travel of any kind, least of all space tourism, given the current state of the environment.

  5. gp says: (permalink)
    January 22nd, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    I hope in EU’s plan. :-)

    gp

  6. Glubbdrubb says: (permalink)
    January 22nd, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    As for the launch itself (not the production of the propellants), it is quite harmless. The liquid fuel is simply hydrogen + oxygen = water.

    The solid fuel is not great but simply driving more people driving economically would make a much bigger difference.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_Solid_Rocket_Booster#Propellant

  7. Silvio says: (permalink)
    January 22nd, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    This is one of those things that you only have one chance to do in your entire life. I was lucky enough to visit the World Trade Center before it was destroyed. Sadly, not many people were able to go to space. Hopefully someday this will be accessible for most people.

  8. Ed Davies says: (permalink)
    January 22nd, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    Virgin Galactic’s not much use for orbital flights. SpaceX looks a little more hopeful, though.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX_Dragon
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_9

    “In January 2009, Falcon 9 was first raised to the vertical position on Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX is planning for first launch later in the year.”

  9. Josh says: (permalink)
    January 22nd, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    The way I see it, if the environment is as bad as they say it is (who knows?), that our only hope will be to pack up and blast off on rocket ships anyway. So spaceflight research is an investment in the future.

  10. Tim Blokdijk says: (permalink)
    January 23rd, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    You’re always with your head in the clouds.. but now that you have some time to kill, there are still bugs open. Maybe you can take a look at bug nr. 1?
    ;-)

  11. John says: (permalink)
    January 23rd, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Chris, you should read Isaac Asimov’s “The end of eternity”. It shows the danger in your thoughts. We do not want to stagnate on this planet, and perhaps they will crack the key to stable net energy gain fusion, and the energy needs of today would seem small. People have said the same about solar energy, that we will look back on these current decades and wonder why we had an energy problem given that theres 4 million tonnes of hydrogen being ‘burnt’ per second not very far away. Perhaps we will have to go into space to truly tap solar power with orbiting solar farms, a dyson sphere would be nice.

  12. Charlie M says: (permalink)
    January 23rd, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Well with the shuttles retirement Soyuz may not the be the only means of access for long. There are at least two other possible vehicles.

    European Space Agency has a working automated cargo vessel which will definitely be used for cargo missions once the shuttles are retired. There are plans for a maned version as well. This would be relatively straight forward. The only big part missing is the cargo version currently doesn’t have a rentry system which is essential for manded flight.

    The other possibility is Space X, a new commercial space company. It already has a contract with NASA under the COTS programs, to launch and supply the station via its Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon capsule which would dock with the space station. It also has a design for a maned version of the Dragon capsule that could carry up to 6 crew. Apparently NASA is considering creating a maned version of the COTS program, which it would seem Space X is targeting with its maned version of Dragon.

    The Virgin Galactic vehicle is not cable of reaching an orbit high enough to reach the space station. Its not really designed for orbital operations like the shuttle, just short tourist flights. That said its a start and if popular I am sure Branson will have bigger plans.

  13. Dima says: (permalink)
    January 23rd, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    Spelling of Союз is quite funny in English =D Anyways it seems as if it has been taking a long time to develop ISS. Years ago I thought that today it would be available for general public at reasonable cost (<1 000 000 lets say €). Next generation?! Anyone?! Ever?!

    С уважением,

    Дмитрий from Hull, UK.

    ps s/woudl/would in the last paragraph.

  14. Rich says: (permalink)
    January 23rd, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Chris, when you consider the effects on the environment of space travel as a whole, how does it compare to, say, beef farming? I’m far more worried about the effects of the growth of meat-based diets than the odd space jaunt.

  15. One small step (backwards) for mankind says: (permalink)
    January 28th, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Mark,

    Hopefully we are just sinking into the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ in the hype cycle of space travel, since it is an amalgamation of technology triggers, we don’t know when ‘Slope of Enlightenment’ or ‘Plateau of Productivity’ might occur, hopefully soon, so you I can buy you a beer at a 0 G bar as thanks for pushing Ubuntu forward and making a difference.

    Cheers

  16. zelrik says: (permalink)
    January 28th, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    I think space travel is the least of our concerns for now. There so much crap to fix on earth first.

  17. tardegrade says: (permalink)
    January 31st, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    Think back to 1492 if you will. Fortunately no one told Christopher Columbus’ at the time, not to take a jolly in his yacht and discover the new world, because there was too much crap to sort out in Spain first.

    Space is a huge opportunity for us. We live on a planet of finite resources, floating in an ocean of infinite resources. We would be far better off using space as a platform to help ease our ill’s, as opposed to sitting on our thumbs by staying here on Earth and waiting for an asteroid to hit us, whilst worrying about how many billions of people we need to cull in order to reduce our carbon footprint.

  18. psihodelia says: (permalink)
    February 4th, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    Well, maybe India and Iran will join the club soon. There is no doubt that China will be the only leader in space projects in the near future – just look at how many space launching sites they already have and are willing to have soon.

  19. Marc says: (permalink)
    February 5th, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Chris, you said it: you have no idea.

    ;)

  20. Barbie says: (permalink)
    February 7th, 2009 at 7:23 am

    That is exactly the issue and when we don’t manage to fix all the problems on earth? Then I’d rather have an escape route… viva space travel viva!!

  21. Marco Costa says: (permalink)
    February 7th, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    The shuttle is retiring what? Next year?

    SpaceX is testing their Falcon 9 soon, if it all goes well then all they need is to get the Dragon capsule working and they’re in business, right?

    Let’s hope they work overtime. :P

  22. Guts says: (permalink)
    February 8th, 2009 at 10:24 am

    I am quite surprised looking at the comments. I was expecting a lot more people would be interested in Space, but only 6 comments? I think its so disappointing that the current governments are not that interested in space and beyond because of economic reasons. But I believe that space travel always boosts the morale of the scientists and human kind. I still believe that most of the communications today are reality mainly because of our advancements in space. Also, space exploration helps us to think beyond earth, which is highly essential for mankind at this moment. Also, the Soyuz is one of the best space programs with manned capabilities. Also If ESA can pull the ATV with manned capabilities that would definitely help a lot and space tourism will bounce back. I do appreciate Mr.Shuttleworth for taking time and posting something related to space. A very loyal space tourist!

  23. Alexander says: (permalink)
    February 9th, 2009 at 1:14 am

    It’s not that the US is huffish. It’s that on a base level, Russia and China are our political enemies. Regardless of what political posturing is done, Russia doesn’t really like us and China wishes we weren’t here. In fact, China launches electronic attacks on us daily. And yet we’re supposed to smile and pretend like we’re friends? That’s not very realistic.

    Mark Shuttleworth says: There are individuals on either side of a political divide who could be described as enemies, but that does not make enemies of nations. US-based script kiddies poking at Russian websites, or Chinese script-kiddies poking at US websites, isn’t a rational basis for declaring the nations to be enemies.

    This is true even where the “attack” is state-sponsored. I’m sure the CIA and NSA continuously probe for weaknesses in the infrastructure of both allies and non-allies, that doesn’t make the US the enemy of every country in the world. At least, it wouldn’t be constructive to say so, because then *everybody* is the enemy of *everybody*, and it would be hard to get anything done.

    The reality is that China and the USA need one another, and thinking people on both sides understand that. The US economy has been entirely dependent on Chinese willingness to extend credit, for decades. Think about that. One of the poorer per-capita nations of the world, extending credit to one of the wealthiest, to support the consumption of individuals and companies. Conversely, China is dependent on the US for its export industry.

    It’s easy to conjure enemies out of strangers – just ascribe “hostile intentions” to culturally different behaviour. But this works both ways. Imagine what the Chinese could say about America: “you’ve systematically debased the value of our loans to you”, “you’ve launched attacks on small countries with no evidence of hostility, and been shown to have violated the human rights of prisoners”. But those sorts of statements really don’t help to get anything done.

    Even in cases where people ARE sworn enemies, it’s better to negotiate. Decades of strife in Northern Ireland were only put to rest after economic growth created opportunities for all, and real negotiations between sworn enemies took place behind the scenes. The same is true of South Africa. It will be true of Iran, too: the only way to resolve differences is to celebrate the willingness of leaders on both sides to find constructive things to do together.

    In the case of space, the US is weak. The shuttle will be grounded soon, and becomes more dangerous with every flight. If they don’t ground it for political reasons, they will be saying that the lives of astronauts are cheap compared to national ego. Russia and China are important countries. Space access is a matter of pride more than military strength (all countries that care have sufficient military presence in space, and that has NOTHING to do with civilian manned spaceflight), so it’s a great area for high-profile collaboration.

  24. Nathaniel says: (permalink)
    February 13th, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    I agree that space tourism is (ATM) a waste of resources and certainly harmful to the earth (the only known inhabitable planet). Just because someone (Richard Branson, eg) has fistfuls of money doesn’t mean that they are ethically justified in using that money how they please.

  25. Paul says: (permalink)
    February 20th, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Who knows maybe this will push private companies to make a push into space. The resources available in space range from nearly unlimited energy to vast quantities of ore which we could use on earth, and the jobs created in getting there and getting those resources would help out with our present economic crisis more then printing money then pushing it into the economies of the world. It may not seem feasible, but anything that can be done can be made feasible. And while i can not be certin, I believe that we have already in the works at least two ideas to get things into space. One is the space elevator (an idea that reminds me of Jack and the bean stauke), basicly a platform hanging just over the “hill” of Earth’s gravity well, with a rope hanging down. The other is what basicly amounts to a huge catipult, using the same principles as the maglev trains that many countries are starting to impliment.