Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Supply Side Versus Demand, and the Folly of Market Based Thinking for Space Launch Development

I have always been a critic of supply side economics and, given its track record, for good reason. Simply creating investment incentives (whether through tax cuts, or investment credits), while at the same time holding wages down so that few can afford to actually buy anything in the first place, was never going to be a winning strategy.

I mention this now because the Ars Technica article linked below got me to thinking about the similarities between the old supply side argument, and the criticism of reusable space launch companies expressed by panelists at the recent American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics forum on propulsion (which had, as the article indicates, the provocative title, “Launch Vehicle Reusability: Holy Grail, Chasing Our Tail, or Somewhere in Between?")

The argument of the old guard seems to be that the high volume market needed to justify reusable launch systems just isn't going to be there in the foreseeable future, and the notion that, by simply creating such systems, you can then automatically create the demand is ludicrous.

Being a very ardent advocate of space development across the board, however, as well as an economic progressive, I find myself in a position where I can see where credible arguments could be made for both sides of the old guard, versus the new, views on which type of rocket system ought to be the best bet. Looking at this a bit deeper, though, it doesn't take one long to recognize that both arguments miss a more fundamental issue here: Namely that such critical infrastructure development simply cannot be left to any form of the whims of markets in the first place.

As this is essentially a recant of the old cart and the horse conundrum, we have to move away from ordinary commercial thinking at the get go. Maybe a bigger launch market might be created by cheaper launch tech, but even if it did, would it necessarily be sufficient to what will be needed down the road? And, more importantly, would it be immune to inevitable market fluctuations? Can we afford to risk the continuance of critical transport, and in space development capabilities to the vagaries of market bubbles and busts?

I say this because I do firmly believe that, if our species is to survive long term, as well as to flourish, we must absolutely have well advanced launch infrastructure in place, and the sooner the better. Everything from getting toxic industry off the planet, to having viable options to respond to a number of disasters, coming from both on and off the planet, depends on this. And the thing is, to do this will require setting up demand creation seeds now.

And what would those seeds be? One very small step in that direction was the space station. Limited though it's science contribution has been, you still have to admit that such a thing puts in place an automatic need for launchers. The problem, of course, is that the vision to date has been so limited. Much more than a small space station is required, and by that I mean habitats on the moon (and/or Mars); significantly robust, nearly self sustaining, industrial parks that could be launch points for doing things we shouldn't be doing down here anymore, and for which the ability to get results back here would be integral. At that point, once you get people working up there in large numbers, a whole host of other possibilities become quite probable.

This is also where I have to admit my bias towards a completely different approach to space launch. Something that would, like a space elevator, bypass the need for rockets altogether. And that would be an ocean based, magnetic accelerator system. Something that would employ the world's first underwater suspended tunnel, starting very deep, and angled up at a shallow degree so that it could extend out at least 300 miles; a length for which the rate of acceleration could be kept at a minimum.

This is something I've talked about before, and as challenging as the engineering would be, in my opinion, an approach that would provide the best bet for both long term cost effectiveness, as well as inherent flexibility for accommodating increasing launch demand.

However we do it, though, the fact remains that it must be done. We simply have to get as many of us off this rock and living on as many others as we possibly can so that humanity can continue no matter what contingencies may come our way. And in that, it really doesn't take a rocket scientist to see how necessary this is.

Market doesn’t justify reusable launchers, expendable rocket makers argue

So what if SpaceX and Blue Origin are launching and landing. Can they profit?