Features Australia

In space, no one can hear you screaming for cash

7 October 2017

9:00 AM

7 October 2017

9:00 AM

Such is the mystique of Elon Musk that he is able to make the absurd declarations that he will launch the first manned missions to Mars by 2025 as a commercial proposition, and still be taken almost seriously.

Never mind that none of his many undoubtedly ground-breaking companies have yet to make a profit, despite billions in government subsidies, Musk says he has a way around the problem of funding the first manned mission to Mars as a private venture. As outlined at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide in late September, he proposes to fund the voyage from the operations of his company Space X, in launching satellites and servicing the International Space Station with reusable rockets.

Musk capped an extraordinary presentation to the congress by noting that the same launchers used in the Mars flights can also be used to start a sub-orbital flight service between major cities. Instead of getting into planes, travellers in London bound for, say, New York, would get into rockets and be there in half an hour.

Anyone else saying this would have their mental health questioned, but Musk does have the ability to push for the impossible and get results. His Space X company has a string of impressive space firsts to its credit including recovering the first stage of a rocket, after it had done its job of getting the second stage and cargo capsule out of the lower atmosphere, and landing it on a moving launch recovery craft in the ocean. One of the recovered first stages has since been reused. As launch rockets have previously been one-use only, this is a major victory in the battle to reduce costs of going into orbit.

If Space-X can do this for the whole rocket reliably, launch after launch, then it will be able to seriously undercut its major rocket-making competitors, divisions of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, as well as Airbus Safran Launchers with its new Ariane 6 launcher, and still be left with impressive wholesale margins on the business. But the first relaunch of a used rocket only occurred in March after considerable development, and with a number of components swapped out. A host of problems remain, including reuse of the second stage and cargo capsule and, not least, selling major customers who want to deliver valuable satellites reliably to orbit on the concept of re-usable rockets.

Once all those problems have been overcome then, analysts estimate, Space X might expect 40 per cent profit margins on launches that are now priced at around $US61 million for the Falcon 9 and $US90 million for the up-coming Falcon Heavy. As Space X is privately held and does not publish accounts its free cash flow, if any, is a matter of conjecture. But even windfall profits from the launch industry (if and when they occur) plus Musk’s near legendary ability to extract subsidies and concessions from governments, would not seem to add up to the multi-billion dollar cost of a manned Mars mission, let alone several.

Apart from the difficulties of getting them off earth and to Mars in a matter of weeks, as opposed to the months typical of unmanned missions to the planet, there remains the far from trivial problem of getting Musk’s pioneers down to the surface of Mars. This has proved a major issue for the Rover missions sent to date. Then there are the problems of what the colonists would do once they got there, and what happens if they want to return to Earth. There is certainly no profit in the venture itself.

During his presentation Musk expressed surprise that nearly 50 years after the first moon landing there is no moon base, but that is because no one can think of a reason for maintaining a presence on Earth’s companion, or at least not one that would justify the vast expense involved. Exploration can be done remotely at a fraction of the cost of an unmanned mission, and there is no obvious, commercial reason for a base. Anything that can be manufactured in orbit, on the moon or on Mars can be manufactured on Earth. There are no pressing minerals shortages that require mining of the moon or the asteroids, with all the attendant problems of getting the material back to the earth’s surface.

That leaves space tourism, which has occurred, but presents all sorts of problems of getting untrained tourists safely and reliably into orbit and getting them back again, and it remains a limited market.

Enter the launch service as a competitor to the major airlines. Musk seems to hope that this idea will make his Mars rockets more affordable, as the same launch vehicles will also be used for a commercial service, making the individual vehicles cheaper.

A glance at the history of Concorde indicates that cutting air travel to even a fraction of the time now required may not be much of an edge. For decades Concorde services cut travel times between major cities in half, only to stop in 2003. This was for a host of reasons, but as an Aviation and Space Technology Weekly editorial observed at the time, customers who valued time preferred private jets, and the rest were unable to justify the steep extra price of using the Concorde. Today there are no supersonic transports for commercial flights on the drawing board.

Then there are all the problems of putting launch platforms where commuters can access them. Aircraft noise from airfields is a sore point in many cities; rocket launches and landings would lift that issue to a whole new level. The Concordes used normal airports but had to wait until they were well out to sea before shifting up to Mach 2, with its resulting sonic boom.

Musk is undoubtedly an effective, driven person with vision and he has already left an indelible mark on the rocket launch, electric car and battery manufacturing industries. But he also has the ability to make governments contribute to his dreams, with a case in point being the gigantic battery now being built in South Australia, and has little apparent concern for profit. Those of us who live in the real world may be entranced by Musk’s ideas, but we should also be mindful of the risks and keep a firm hand on our wallets.

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