Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dr. Alan Stern, Monday, 10-11-10

Dr. Alan Stern, Monday, 10-11-10

Guest:  Dr. Alan Stern.  Topics: Pluto, Kuiper Belt, New Horizons, commercial space, commercial suborbital research.  Please note that you are invited to comment, ask questions, and rate this program on the new Space Show blog, http://thespaceshowoutsidethebox.blogspot.com.  We welcomed back Dr. Alan Stern to the program.  As Dr. Stern is a noted planetary scientist, we started off with a comprehensive discussions of planet definition issues, including Pluto, the Kuiper Belt, dwarf planets, the New Horizons Mission, the possibility of life someplace in the solar system given the rate of new planet discovery, and much more.  As part of this discussion, Dr. Stern got questions from the listeners including one about the asteroid Ceres asking if it should be considered a planet.  As you will hear, Dr. Stern does say that as the largest asteroid, it is a dwarf planet.  Later he was asked about competition within NASA and the FY 11 proposed NASA budget between the robotic/science side and the human space flight side of NASA.  We then took a question from Brian, a middle school student in Toledo, Ohio about the power used in transmitting to and from New Horizons and the speed of light. Dr. Stern had much to say in response to this question about the speed of light.  We then transitioned into the year 2011 being the 50th anniversary of human space flight.  In this discussion, Alan suggested that progress in human space flight had been disadvantaged by having had a government monopoly in the field but now a type of revolution was taking place.  With human spaceflight being a government project, outside the box thinking had not flourished.  Terry then called in to ask about the arrival of New Horizons and the impact on science with the Pluto winter.  Dr. Stern had lots to say on this so don't miss it.  We started the second segment talking again about commercial suborbital research flights.  He said the key would be frequent and lower cost flights.  During our discussion about commercial suborbital flights, many listeners sent in challenging questions regarding the market for the flights and comparing the cost with available sounding rockets that have more capability than the upcoming commercial suborbital flights will have.  Dr. Stern answered these challenging questions given his perspective and understanding of the interest and potential demand for the flights and the cost models that are being used for the developing business plans.  After hearing this discussion, post your comments on the blog above to let us know what you think about this developing industry.  As we started the third and final segment, Alan told us about the upcoming Next Generation Suborbital Research Conference (NSRC-2011) in Orlando, Fl.  Alan received a listener question about how government agencies and organizations might contract for services (flights) with a commercial company given that when they contract with a government agency, its a cashless transfer of funds from one agency to another.  As the show ended, we talked about the largest possible market for the commercial suborbital industry which might be the foreign market.  Don't miss this discussion.  Please post your comments and questions on the above blog URL as Dr. Stern is inundated with email.


  1. I enjoyed talking to Dr. Stern. I wonder what redundant systems are on New Horizons? What type of software did they use for the operating systems? Those would be interesting to know. Looking forward to the data from Pluto in a few years and the Kiper Belt.

  2. I listened to your show and Dr. Stern seemed to paint a very optimistic picture of the future of suborbital spaceflight, though I think he definitely appeared to be focused on manned versus unmanned. I have the following observations (from my inexpert perspective).

    As you know, I have successfully completed two experimental sounding rocket flights to mid-Stratosphere altitudes, between 14 to 18 miles. With my existing vehicle, I can send 10 lbs. to about 14 miles, certainly more mass and higher altitudes using a bigger motor (which is in the works). I am trying to take this to the next level and need to have evidence of a market. Where is it? What researchers? What universities? What government agencies? Is there a database I can access or do I just have to start cold calling. It all comes back to if NASA continues its sounding rocket program (which they will to keep their people employed), how can I compete with an organization that has no bottom line and does not need to turn a profit? You and I both know that people flying payloads on these vehicles are probably not paying anything like the real cost, as far as I can tell.

    My current plan is to determine how much it costs to fly a 10 lb. payload with my existing vehicle and see if there is a need for this capability, assuming that I can do it cheaper and faster than the government or larger companies. I think I can, but that does not mean anyone is willing to pay for it. With what I have now, I could fly one of these things every other day for peanuts (with sufficient hardware, propellant, and support personnel), compared to what the government spends to do it. If I can get this going, then I can build on it over time.

    I am not so certain that foreign countries are going to be so interested in flying their payloads in the United States due to the logistics involved, but this is an idea worth pursuing.

    I am also not certain that the manned suborbital vehicles will be entirely suitable for the type of science that is being done with sounding rockets. They do not go as high, don’t have the same flight profile, and can’t be pointed as needed for celestial observations, especially when there are paying customers on board who want to see the pretty picture. Also, from the mass/cost standpoint, I think a small flight vehicle is far more efficient for carrying purely scientific payloads.

    I also believe that there are liability issues related to flying civilians that will not become apparent until they lose one of these spacecraft (which they eventually will). Anyone with $200K to spend on a seat on one of these craft has a lot of lawyers (or the estate does). As soon as someone gets killed, there will be lawsuits no matter how many waivers people sign.

    What about launch facilities? I can go to space from Blackrock if the winds are right, but it is a tight fit. However, I’m not certain the Bureau of Land Management is interested in having the Playa turned into a spaceport. For me to fly from Wallops or Poker Flats involves a host of government regulations and verification requirements that are what drives the cost through the roof. For example, even though Poker Flats is owned by the University of Alaska, their launches are controlled by Wallops. If the government is involved in the launch approval process, then the whole advantage of being commercial goes out the window.

    Who’s going to get this thing going: The government? Private investors? How can I get anyone to give me some startup funding if I can’t show them that a market exists?

    Any worthwhile comments will be appreciated, especially those from people who know what they are talking about.

    C. Newport

  3. Long post is long. One of the details Stern didn't go into was the untended market for reusuable suborbital flights. For example, Masten Space Systems intends to offer multiple flights per day to suborbital space with no crew onboard. This means you could put your payload on the vehicle, fly it to space, it soft lands back at the launch site where you get your payload back, you can do modifications then launch it again the same day.