Companies are now designing reusable rockets and offshore platforms, so the costs of launching rockets into space are based more on the prices of natural gas and liquid oxygen, according to Keith Cowing, the longtime editor at NASA Watch. And using rockets to transport cargo across the world is growing in popularity as the FAA decided to ease regulations for commercial space transport in October.
FreightWaves Chief Product Officer Travis Rhyan and Cowing discussed the complexities of using cargo rockets to transport goods and the economics of space in a SpaceWaves virtual fireside chat Thursday.
Are cargo rockets the future?
“If the price of bouncing across the world on a suborbital ballistic hop is akin to a Concorde flight, maybe twice that, you’ve got a market. But [you have to] be able to deliver. It’s got to be reliable, and it’s got to be at least as safe as airline flights. But I [have to] think that a lot of people would take the flight just to go into outer space,” Cowing said.
Based on the reusable rockets and offshore platforms that Elon Musk is talking about, Cowing said, “you could literally hop this thing back and forth and back and forth and then maybe power wash it to get the scorch marks off and then do it again the next day.”
Cowing has been looking to the stars nearly his entire life. He grew up in the Apollo era, which sparked his interest in space and led him to NASA as a space biologist. “I’ve done the zero G training, I’ve done the centrifuge, I’ve done just about everything except go into space,” he said.
Cowing said cargo rockets have the potential to meet the demand for increasingly fast shipping over long distances — such as the journey from China to the U.S. West Coast. Currently about 90% of the world’s trade is conducted via ocean shipping, which can take weeks. Cargo rockets could fulfill the need for speed, but they would have to be profitable. “Especially since private capital is involved, at the end of the day, somebody’s investing in this, so they [have to] say, ‘Well, X years out, what’s your market going to be?’” he said.
The potential of a space economy
When asked about the potential of a space economy, Cowing stated, “They say, ‘There’s this asteroid out there made of unobtanium. If it came back to Earth, it would be worth a trillion dollars.’” But if it was brought to Earth, he continued, “it wouldn’t be a trillion because you’ve just blown the market apart with something that was once rare which is now common.” He compared it to how aluminum was once rare and very valuable but now it is so widely available that we throw it away.
“Launching things into space and operating them there is where the money is” Cowing said, explaining that going to space to get something that “simply can’t be gotten on Earth” is where a space economy might make sense. Cowing mentioned another feasible option would be going to space and using microgravity to make things in a novel fashion.
When Rhyan asked why it’s been nearly 50 years since NASA has sent people into space past the International Space Station, Cowing responded, “The problem is every time we set our course towards a destination, there’s a two-year to four-year clock ticking” because NASA relies on the government’s agenda.
Research, planning, testing and execution of space missions and rocket launches require a substantial amount of funding. Cowing explained that every time a new administration takes office, it might have a new idea about what NASA’s direction should be. When every stage of the process takes so much time and money, it is hard to pivot the focus frequently and make progress.