However a recent conversation prompted me to re-examine my assumptions and so, in this blog, I will be making the case for space stations.
First, the challenges. The ISS took the better part of 30 years and $300b to build, including related programmatic costs for the Shuttle. For 20 of those years, the station has been occupied by between 3 and 6 astronauts, who have spent the vast bulk of their productive time building and maintaining the station. None of this is time wasted, as one of the primary aims of the program was developing operational practices for long duration station occupation, however it must be acknowledged that, to date, the ISS has permitted at most 10 person-years of unrelated scientific research, which works out to be about 20,000 hours.
In contrast, consider the South Pole Station, which has been permanently staffed since 1956 and supports around 100 scientists for 3 months of austral summer, and about 12 for 9 month winters, together with a crew of 30-60 support staff. This works out as 34 person-years of research per year, for a program cost of about $20m/year. The total Antarctic program is about $200m/year, but this also includes the much larger McMurdo Station among others.
In summary, all in costs for ISS science work out to be $15m/hour, though if you consider only operational expenses that comes down to $2m/hour. Bargain! In contrast, Antarctic science operational costs are about $300/hour, of which a non-trivial fraction is the salary of the researcher themself.
Okay, space is expensive. No-one ever expected to go to space to save money. But here the plot thickens. NASA would like to bring commercial partners into the ISS, just as they have with launch and service. CASIS is the organization set up to do this, recasting the ISS as the ISS National Lab. The hope is that commercial interests could help share some of NASA’s operational costs, enabling NASA to open budget wedges for what comes next, without a loss in continuity. Of course the ISS won’t last forever and will eventually have to be splashed (in whole or part) somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, but in the meantime the steep costs of keeping it going conflict with the need to free up cash to work on new programs.
CASIS has done all kinds of interesting things but it’s fair to say that they haven’t been swamped by demand for ISS human lab bench space. The ISS was never intended to be affordable by mere billion dollar corporations, and so the research benefits of space are financially hard to justify.
Is there a future for private human space research? I would hope so. If Antarctica is anything to go off, can we hope for a vibrant community of tens or hundreds of researchers doing 3-18 month stints on space stations at costs that the NSF could fund without having to add 8 zeros to the ledger?
Things have changed since 1990 in all kinds of positive ways. NASA routinely resupplies the space station at one tenth the cost of the Shuttle, with multiple competing commercial launch providers positioned to provide similar services.
It sure looks like SpaceX is going to focus on the Moon and Mars, but it hasn’t been lost that the internal volume of a Starship is about twice that of the ISS, and that’s not even including convertible fuel tanks. I don’t see a strong reason for SpaceX to make a space station version of the Starship, but when I look at the New Glenn I think it’s got to be used for something!
Taking round numbers, New Glenn can launch 45 T to LEO for maybe $100m. Let’s say Blue Origin develops a generic space station product that integrates with New Glenn, a thousand cubic meter Skylab-like cylinder with docking adapters, solar power, radiators, life support, and all the other basics, also for $100m. This sort of budget precludes a 20 year multilateral international development period – instead the emphasis would be on getting the MVP up and running and then adding bells and whistles later, if and when customers come along who can pay for them.
If the station can support 10 researchers for 5 years, on 6 month rotations, operating and capital expenditure costs would be comparable to resupply and crew transport costs, perhaps as low as $10,000/person/day. While still more expensive than an ice-encrusted Antarctican astronomer, it’s within the same order of magnitude and significantly cheaper than, say, staffing a nuclear submarine.
At this cost, the current NASA budget alone could support a hundred such stations with money to spare. But the real benefit is that commercial operators can fly researchers and even tourists for yacht money, not stealth bomber money. There isn’t a commercial product in the universe that can justify $2b for 6 months of researcher time. $2b is comparable to the entire budget of JPL, which employs about 10,000 people. There’s just no way that microgravity can make a researcher 10,000 times as productive, no matter what the question might be.
$2m is a different story. It’s more money than I have, but the productivity demand is now only 10x, not 10,000x. This is more than plausible across hundreds of industries.
Is it physically possible to develop a line of no-frills space stations and sell them for $100m while not losing money (too quickly)? SpaceX developed the Falcon 9 for $300m. A Boeing 737 costs about $90m new. Both of these systems are substantially more complex, given that they have the capability to generally land non-destructively. Space station tech is mature and well understood. There is plenty of room for innovation, but no miracles are required.
Can we enjoy a future with thousands of people working in Earth-orbiting space stations? Yes, but only with a strong emphasis on cost reduction and value creation.