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The Sciences

Comic-Con: Private Space Flight Ain't the Miracle It's Cracked up to Be

Science Not FictionBy Eric WolffJuly 23, 2010 6:29 PM
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One of the marvels of Comic-Con is that when a panelist asks the people in the room whether they'd be willing to risk a fatal mechanical failure for the chance to go into space, everyone raised their hands. It's the kind of place where nerds roam free, geeks can be both predator and prey, and the answer to the question, "How about going to space?" is foreordained. The panel I'm referring to focused on the question of whether private companies are better suited to taking humanity into space, or whether NASA is doing awesome work and we, as a society, should just keep on keepin' on. To help answer the question, the panel featured Mark Street (from XCOR), John Hunter (Quicklaunch), Chris Radcliff (San Diego Space Society), Dave Rankin (The Mars Society), Molly McCormick (Orbital Outfitters) and was moderated by Jeff Berkwits (editor and writer). The group did praise NASA for the Mars Rovers and the Hubble space telescope (referring to the beautiful Hubble pictures, Rankin said, "let it not be said the federal government doesn't fund the arts") but generally they brought the hammer down on NASA and its private counterparts like Boeing and Lockheed Martin: NASA is too big, too old, and is constantly trying to perfect old ideas rather than introduce new ones. And the group praised small "new-space" companies for being willing to fail and try, try again as they strain to bring space tourism to everyone. But perhaps most interesting was the almost uncontested assertion that space flight will never really be profitable. "Ninety percent of mass is propellant in space, and it $5,000 [to get pound of a pound of material into space] with rockets. SpaceX is $2,000 a pound," Hunter said. "Going to Mars, that's one million pounds per person. Each person is going to cost $5 billion." But for all that Hunter threw cold water on the proceedings, he also said money really isn't why we go into space. "The only thing that makes money in space is communications satellites. Mining doesn't pan out," he said. "You have to go to space for manned exploration for the human spirit. You're not going to make money there." And the members of the panel sagely nodded their heads. For all that these folks recognize the challenges of space flight, and the amount of money and smarts that will be required, they're generally optimists: Every single one said they expect space tourism will become reality...eventually. * This quote added later to correct a paraphrase of mine. Thanks to commenters Jadon and eyesoars for the correction.

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