Well, it ain’t quite DS9, and it’s still only a drawing-board plan at this stage, but even so…
Called the Commercial Space Station, the orbiting space laboratory and hotel will be able to host up to seven people at a time. It is being planned under a partnership between the Russian companies Orbital Technologies and RSC Energia.
The companies announced plans for the new space station today (Sept. 29) but did not reveal an estimated cost. The space station is expected to launch sometime between 2015 and 2016. The cost of individual trips may vary based on launch vehicle, duration and purpose of missions.
“Once launched and operational, the CSS will provide a unique destination for commercial, state and private spaceflight exploration missions,” said Orbital Technologies chief executive Sergey Kostenko in a statement. “The CSS will be a valuable addition to the global base of orbital assets.”
Seven people at a time? Well, you gotta start somewhere, I guess… and frankly it’s nice to see that commercial interests outside the US haven’t become entirely immune to the seductive lure of the top of the gravity well.
And once you’ve got one stable base up there, building more becomes progressively easier, if only logistically (or at least, so I assume – corrective links and braindumps very much invited and appreciated from more space-savvy readers).
[ Internet serendipity again; today’s been something of a space riff, no? ]
Sending humans into space is an admirable civilisational goal, but is the expense of nation-state funded projects justifiable? Britain’s Astronomer Royal Martin Rees would argue that it’s not:
“The moon landings were an important impetus to technology but you have to ask the question, what is the case for sending people back into space?” said Rees. “I think that the practical case gets weaker and weaker with every advance in robotics and miniaturisation. It’s hard to see any particular reason or purpose in going back to the moon or indeed sending people into space at all.”
Speaking to Cambridge Ideas, Rees remained enthusiastic about manned space travel, but thought it would be rather different in style from what we have seen before.
“I hope indeed that some people now living will walk on Mars, but I think they will do this with the same motive as those who climb Everest or the pioneer explorers,” he said.
“I think the future for manned space exploration will be a cut-price, high-risk programme – perhaps even partly privately funded – which would be an adventure, more than anything practical,” he said.
Not everyone agrees, of course – including the Obama administration, China, India and the European Space Agency. But I think Rees has a point, in that nation-states aren’t going to provide the main thrust of such projects in the long run, at least not in the West; they’re too risk-averse to pull it off within budget. Commerce will be the driving force, if there is one… as suggested in Jason Stoddard’s Winning Mars, perhaps.
Just a quick update for hardcore spacegeeks and aspiring Bond villains: remember TubeSat, the company that would sell you a build-your-own-satellite kit with your launch-to-orbit fee included in the ticket price? Well, they’re doing their first suborbital test flights next month, and business seems to be good. Here’s a satisfied customer justifying the financial layout:
“$8,000? That’s just the price of a cool midlife crisis,” says Alex “Sandy” Antunes, who bought one of the kits for a project that will launch on one of earliest flights. “You could buy a motorcycle or you could launch a satellite. What would you rather do?”
It’s a tough decision, but I think the satellite gets my vote. So book your TubeSat kit now to avoid the rush… after all, you’ll want to get your bird aloft before Warren Ellis’ death-ray sat scours the planet of all life larger than the common housefly. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
We already know that there’s a whole lot of junk at the top of the gravity well; a lot of it is dead satellites, and as much as we could blast the things apart, it’d probably be a lot more economical to ensure they have a longer working life. Enter MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, a Canadian outfit who propose building an orbital platform for refuelling and repairing ailing satellites:
MDA wants to fill that niche by launching a satellite refueling station that can track down and dock with satellites in the sky, filling them up with hydrazine and performing small repairs. Such a service could double, or even triple, the lives of satellites already flying, provided their on-board instruments are still working properly.
But such a refueling station isn’t the same as pulling up to the gas pump, or even refueling a jet in flight. Satellites are roaring through space at nearly 7,000 miles per hour, so a fueling station would have to first catch the satellite in motion, then somehow finagle the fueling port open with a robotic arm of some kind — if, that is, the door hasn’t been seared closed by years of exposure to space. It’s been done exactly twice before, but both times it happened under experimental conditions where the satellite and the refueling vehicle were both new and designed to be compatible.
Still, it’s not impossible and MDA thinks it could make $100 million a year servicing satellites which themselves are very expensive to replace.
Another potentially lucrative business model for commercial space companies, and a lot less adventurous than asteroid mining (though I suspect it may turn out to be more technically challenging in some respects). It also looks (to my layman’s eye, at least) more sensible than the previously-mooted idea of sending up wandering repairbots.
Probably too little too late for poor old Zombiesat, though.
Still wondering what the business model might be for commercial space operations, beyond sight-seeing tourist flights, inflatable hotels and space-truckin’ logistics missions on behalf of beleagured nation-state space programs? Well, where there’s rare resources, there’s money to be made… and asteroids are eminently reachable with current technologies, as well as full of rare element goodies that we have little of here on Earth.
Last one to write a FiftyFortyniners-in-space novella is a rotten egg! (Note for Ben Bova and others: previously published works are not eligible.)