Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space - InformationWeek

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4/17/2015
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David Wagner
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Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space

Space is expensive, dangerous, and easy to get wrong. This week, news about Space X, the upcoming Hubble anniversary, and the price of astronaut coffee shows why we should think hard about future projects.

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As they say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

In space flight, close means a violent explosion and a return to the drawing board. So it went with Space X's CRS-6's attempt to land a reusable rocket on a platform in the ocean. For a brief moment, the rocket seemed to settle on the barge, then it toppled and exploded.

It almost looks human as it is struggling right at the end to compensate for the bad angle. It seems to touch down and it looks like it might just hold its balance. If it had arms you know it would have been windmilling them to try to stay up, and then sadly it goes down and explodes.

It is easy to look at the explosion and the failure of the previous attempt of CRS-5 and think the entire mission was a failure. Space X is doomed. Elon Musk is a fraud. Let's just pack up and stop sending things into space. We'll spend the money on feeding the planet or world peace, or even new Air Jordan's for every person on the planet.

But you have to remember a few things. The mission was to resupply the International Space Station, which it has done. The secondary mission was to try to recover the first stage of the rocket for quick redeployment. That was the icing on the cake.

When a multi-stage rocket lifts off, it uses the rockets of the first stage to get off the ground. At some point the stage separates from the rest of the rocket and the next stage takes the rocket further. In the case of Space X, this rocket has two stages. Traditionally, when a rocket separates, the stage falls into the ocean or some other place that avoids hitting humans. What Space-X was trying to do was land that stage safely back on earth entirely intact.

(Image: Space X)

(Image: Space X)

This saves money -- fewer rockets to build -- and time, specifically less construction and shorter recovery time to find the rocket and ready it for re-use.

The cost of a flight like this is about $57 million. And the flight will bring about 4,300 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station. That's about $13,000 per pound of supplies on the station. Some estimates of the Space Shuttle's costs range as high as $27,000 per pound, depending on how much administrative cost you want to assign to it.

If Space X could routinely reuse its stages, it could slash the price of cargo in space immensely.

This all looks especially interesting considering that in 1972 Richard Nixon funded the Space Shuttle program with the idea of reducing the cost of cargo to space to $1,000 per pound, an amount we've never come close to attaining. The shuttle was supposed to make 24 flights per year -- instead of the five it sometimes reached -- and make space so cheap that smaller companies could afford to do experiments and send satellites into space.

It never happened.

So while Space X didn't perfect the landing yet, it is getting close.

If you want to make fun of a failure, I've got one for you instead. With the Hubble Space Telescope reaching its 25th anniversary, everyone is getting ready to celebrate. But as Science 2.0 points out, Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is a massive failure that shows just how expensive space can be.

The James Web Space Telescope is a beautiful concept. The advantage of the Hubble was that it was

Next Page: Webb's sky-high costs.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
4/17/2015 | 10:17:32 AM
Morning Coffee in Space
@dave - 

>>  But one thing we're really learning from the commercial space experiment is that small, attainable goals at smaller prices the lead to more success are a good thing. And honestly, NASA should know this. We got to the moon with very methodical experiments just like that. But somewhere during the shuttle program, NASA's mandate changed. Instead of beating the Russians to the moon at all costs, the game changed to being all about controlling costs and they failed to adjust.

So is the loss of NASA's "institutional memory" of good program management and innovation all politics and economics, and is every goverment agency doomed? (Certainly the FED is).  
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/17/2015 | 10:32:41 AM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
@jastroff- I'm no NASA insider, and I certainly wasn't in the 1970's when the Space Shuttle program was put together, but honestly, I think the real problem was keeping too much institutional memory from the Space Race days. I think they failed to transition to a more business-like mindset. At some point in the Space Shuttle delivery cycle someone should have said, "this is never going to deliver on its promises" and they should have stopped. But the "failure is not an option" mentality kept them pushing against a bad premise.

That said, Space X is standing on the shoulders of giants. If it wasn't for NASA, both past and present, SpaceX couldn't exist. But this is part of any business cycle I guess. Governments and university do the foundational work for most big science. Then business come in to make it a commercial success. Nothing wrong with that on any level.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
4/17/2015 | 12:11:00 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
On SpaceX, I shared the report of its failure from Smithsonian on G+ and got some interesting comments in response. 

One pointed out that this was not really the third time it made the attempt but only the second, as one of the scheduled attempts was scrubbed. Another said, "Considering what they're trying to do, I'm willing to give them a few chances. And this attempt was /so/ much closer." As for future plans, they offered this, "Rumor has it that the next try will do away with the barge and try to land back on the coast or perhaps a small island offshore. The barge is just proving to be too small and to unsteady a target. "
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
4/17/2015 | 3:51:59 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
If SpaceX can't compensate for the lateral velocity, I expect the company will be able to rig a landing pad with some kind of support arm system that swings into place to prevent the rocket from tipping over after touchdown.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/17/2015 | 4:30:44 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
@Tom- I don't know about an arm which seems just as likely to accidentally damage it. But I'm surprised they can't deploy a net or inflatable bags or something. But I think they will learn to compensate for the lateral forces soon.
pkittle
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pkittle,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/20/2015 | 5:29:39 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
Hi David..

With respect, this is Italian Espresso, not "coffee" as Americans know it (or "dirty water" as Italians call what we drink.)  This is compressed steam through the coffee to give a flavor American coffee cannot match which is "brewed" and requires the Wagnerian comment about dripping water ;-)

That being said... somebody got a lucritive contract, eh? Surprised Jura wasn't in there!  Now if we could get Cisco or HP to install some great Wifi on the ISS.... or how about on Mars?  
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/21/2015 | 1:25:58 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
@pklittle- Well, all the better for the atronauts I guess that Lavazza knows coffee better than the Americans. That said, the issues are exactly the same, microgravity makes things behave differently in space. So learning how to move water, steam or anything else so that it mimics what happens on Earth is a big deal. 

The real fun, I suppose is if we start creating space cuisine that only can be made in microgravity and then we try to copy that cuisine on Earth.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/17/2015 | 4:29:13 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
@Ariella- Yes, I've looked high and low to find a reason why they don't do this on a bigger, not moving target like a desert. I planned on asking them for a future story. It seems like one of the advantages of a wider target is that you don't need as many last second compensations. But clearly, they have a reason. They didn't just decide to make it harder for the heck of it.

I think they'll pull this off. The first time they tried, they ran out of hydaulic fluid before touchdown. The reasons for the second time aren't known yet, but they'll learn from it.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
4/17/2015 | 4:55:40 PM
Re: Morning Coffee in Space
@David it does take time and a certain amount of trial-and-error to get a process perfected. That's why Edison said, ""I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."  And supposedly, it took a couple of thousand attempts just to find the filament that would work for the light bulb. 
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
4/17/2015 | 5:33:02 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
I'll start by saying this; we're definitely too jaded these days. I'm not one to blame the kidz and their Youtubez, but how can living in an age where a commercial company develops reusable rocket ships evoke anything but pure wonder? The Hubble still amazes me. Streaming HD video still amazes me. I remember having to download the movie and carry an external hard drive to my friend's house for movie nights - having that instead (sort of) of phsyical media amazed me. My point is the same as yours - we shouldn't take all this wonder for granted. Elon Musk might say some pie-in-the-sky stuff (killer AIs and vacuum tube trains), but there's no doubt he's a pioneer, and the world would be a better place if your average person was more like him and less like *insert shady political pundit here*. I'll toast my magic space coffee cup to that.

As for the recent space headlines, thanks for the roundup. The one about the space coffee cup got way over my head talking about 'seperating multiphase fluids', but it's cool to know that someone understands what that is and is working on it. To those skeptical of uber-budget space programs, proponents are quick to say 'but think of all the scientific benefits for us back here on earth!', and they're right - but it can be hard to see how a multibillion dollar project funded with taxpayer money can produce any tangible benefit for you and me that's worth the expense. It's not hard to see, though, how the aerodynamics of that coffee cup or the manufacturing processes on that espresso machine could be applied to consumer goods or used to help those in need. This all goes back into driving that entrepreneuria spiritl, which goes back into driving innovations on the level of SpaceX. Everyone wins.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
4/17/2015 | 11:16:07 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
It's said that the Space Shuttle was the classic "bridge too far", designed in the early 70's with 60's components, it was just too far ahead of its time. And, when that goal of $1,000 dollar a pound was set, it might very well have been met by some other system by now, but for one unforeseen event – the end of the cold war and the resulting de-emphasis of all things military and space.

All of us here are techies of one stripe or another, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that I really don't care what it costs – I want us to devote money and effort in space. Sure, I wish it would come faster and cheaper, but I'm willing to wait a bit longer if I have to for Mr. Musk to succeed in his amazing effort to perfect a reusable first stage. Maybe, just maybe, close can also count in rocketry, too.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
4/18/2015 | 10:42:34 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
The good think about Elon Musk is that he is willing to learn from his mistakes and he has the money to support such endeavor.  I don't see other institution or individual taking such approach.  In the long term, this will serve as a foundation making space travel most efficient and cost effective
progman2000
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progman2000,
User Rank: Ninja
4/19/2015 | 10:38:34 AM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
Yeah I agree with you.  I don't know what makes guys like Elon Musk tick but it's hard to bet against him.  Guys like that are visionaries so it will be interesting to see where this leads us.
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
4/20/2015 | 7:22:30 AM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
Agreed. He's willing and able to dump $57 million into each launch - admittedly, funded by NASA contracts - into the Falcon 9 rocket design and it will eventually get there. Each launch gets closer to making that booster reusable. Once its been proven doable too, it can be landed on land, making it even cheaper again since it doesn't have to factor in recovery costs. 

It could potentially even land back near the launch pad, ready for refurbishment and another launch in short order. 
mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
4/19/2015 | 1:16:40 AM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
when that goal of $1,000 dollar a pound was set, it might very well have been met by some other system by now,

According to my calculations, $1000 in '72 is roughly $6000 in 2015. Space X is really not far form achieving that goal.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/21/2015 | 1:44:14 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
@Mak63- The inflation argument is interesting. By the rate of inflation, you are correct that SpaceX is approaching it. But, of course, we'd have to check inflation on specific payloads. Clearly, when it comes to space telescopes, they seem to be getting more expensive faster than the inflation rate.

You'd also expect that the price of technology would drop. If you went, for exampple by the price of computer technology, the cost of space should have only gone done from 1972, not up.Even the cost of airline travel by percentage of a person's salary has gone done significantly. So I'm not sure inflation is the right way to look at it. But it is very interesting.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/21/2015 | 1:56:36 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
@Gary_el- Well, i think it might be a little too easy to blame the end of the Cold War on this. The Space Shuttle was flying years before the Berlin Wall fell and had already sort of been derailed from its mission. In fact, my feeling is that what the Space Shuttle really suffered from was a lack of focus. It was space for space's sake. And we've been there for decades now. 

I'm sue the folks at NASA at the time who ever more insight than me would disagree with the idea of a lack of focus. I'm sure they knew exactly what they wanted to achieve with each mission. But we lacked a national direction that NASA could grab onto and run with.

So here we are. We're trying to lower the cost of space and that's what the private sector is good at. So that's OK. And then NASA can put its pure research onto commercial vehicles that have been proven cheap and reliable and we all win.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
4/21/2015 | 2:15:38 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
@David Wagner

I agree in that I think that technology has matured to the point that it is now time for private industry to take over the lead role in designing and building spacecraft. After all, the government doesn't build fighter jets or tanks, either! But it won't solve the problem of lack of focus. We still really don't know what we want to accomplish in space.

For myself, I'm more interested in what we can do in our little part of the solar system. I'm more interested in rail gun launches into space than in deep cosmos astronomy. I hope I live long enough to read about the first scandals involving illegal garbage dumping in space!
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/21/2015 | 2:18:40 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
@Gary_El- I think the focus is slowly switching to putting a person on Mars. I think NASA realized it couldn't get there without a cheap and reliable rocket. I think that's where we are. I could be wrong, but i think the next step is actually building rockets in space. I think we're going to build a rocket that can get a new and better space station together and then we're going to be launching from there to save fuel. Gravity is the real killer.

But regardless of what the nexxt focus is, making it cheap and reliable is the first hurdle. 
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
4/22/2015 | 12:25:46 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space

While I understand the push to get private industry to support space exploration the focus would undoubtedly shift from exploration to monetary gain. We should still want to explore and learn about our solar system to learn about our own planet and how to address issues we have now and in the future. I agree focus is key based on the costs but I don't think we should just abandon the learning process.

David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/21/2015 | 2:06:47 PM
Re: Space X, Hubble, Coffee: The Cost Of Doing Business In Space
@zerox203- I suspect the tangible benefits of big ticket science is always an issue. The cost of the Large Hadron Collider was $13 billion and it costs $1 billion a year to operate. We found the Higgs Boson, but what will that mean for anyone anytime soon?

Personally, I think understanding the universe for the sake of it is worth the price. But I do get annoyed when someone says, "It will cost $1 billion to do this" and they come back a year later and say it will cost $5 billion and then a year later and it is $10 billion.

I feel the same way about the overbudget replacement to the Oakland Bay Bridge.

Obviously, we have the same problem in IT with projects going overbudget. So this isn't just a government thing, but I'd like to think we can do better and still learn the workings of the universe.
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