Space means business: Cost of launch is plummeting

January 7, 2021 6:45 AM

Cost of launch is plummeting, and Moore’s law is coming to space. It is happening due to a rare convergence of exponentials of quantum computing, miniaturisation, etc

SpaceX, SpaceX launch, elon Musk, NASASpaceX’s annual spend is around $1.2-1.5 billion, and if it goes for say 30 launches, it would need to charge a minimum of $40-50 million per launch just to break even.

By Srivatsa Krishna

Only the wisest of men and women, with a rare perspicacious insight into life, come to realise that we are but a speck in the sands of time. Even before we know it, a lifetime passes us by, making us realise that the planet itself is but one speck in the cosmos. In 2020, a virus one four-hundredth the width of a human hair held a 13 billion-trillion-tonne planet to ransom. Now, it is an opportunity for space to mainstream itself in the middle of this disruptive opportunity, which must not be missed. The headline news is that the cost of launch is plummeting, and Moore’s law is coming to space too! It is happening due to a rare convergence of exponentials of quantum computing, miniaturisation, fibre optics, processing power, and as Peter Diamandis reports “in 2023 the average thousand-dollar laptop will have the same computing power as a human brain (roughly 1,016 cycles per second). Twenty-five years after that, that same average laptop will have the power of all the human brains currently on Earth”.

What 1990s was for the internet, 2020s shall be for the space technologies and its applications, with the coming three decades being even more explosive in potential and growth than the internet ever was. In 1990, we did not know that the internet would allow us to summon a vehicle in seconds, and the company sending it, wouldn’t own any of them, or for that matter, artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) would know more about us than we do thanks to Google, Twitter and Facebook!

Just a decade ago, the Obama Administration cancelled NASA’s moon programme for the development of the heavy booster would have taken more than a decade and $36 billion! Just a few years thereafter, the visionary Elon Musk’s SpaceX did it in half the time and 1/30th of the cost, with much of the launch vehicle being significantly reusable! For almost 50 years after the Apollo programme, the cost of launch to orbit remained at about $10,000 per kilogram, but the reusable Falcon series have made SpaceX crash prices down to $2,000/kg. And, it appears from even a cursory glance at the ongoing research that $200/kg isn’t too far away. Have you ever wondered why flights crossing even both the Atlantic and the Pacific, are still not too expensive maybe $10,000 in all? That is because the hardware of an aircraft is reusable, and the payment is largely for fuel and labour only. SpaceX’s annual spend is around $1.2-1.5 billion, and if it goes for say 30 launches, it would need to charge a minimum of $40-50 million per launch just to break even. But, when it does 300 launches per annum or one a day, the cost would drop to just $4-5 million per launch, making it dramatically changing global transport.

There are innumerable space applications in different stages of development that hold the promise of setting off many a revolution. Hypercubes, using satellite imaging produces hyperspectral data for every conceivable industry on the planet. Imagine the power of every single human being connected to the internet, and many space startups are working on just this. O3B, the other 3 billion (not connected people), OneWeb (headed now by India’s telecom titan Sunil Mittal), Starlink and many more are all sending smallsats to completely drape every inch of the world with fast internet speeds over the next few years.

Likewise, Planet, one of the world’s first Earth observation platforms is working on amazing applications across agriculture, manufacturing, energy and intelligence, which hold the potential to change our lives the way electricity did many moons ago. Planet acquired Blackbridge, and with it has now got the capabilities of extreme precision agriculture, crop-wise, field-wise, day-wise rich data which can help the insurance industry dramatically to protect global farmers and food security.

India can aspire to be in a leadership position provided it does not do things with a “business as usual (BAU)” bureaucratic mindset. Our space programme is rightly much applauded with Chandrayaan 2 costing sub $150 mn (Avengers Endgame in comparison cost $356 mn and Avatar the Movie $478 mn!) and India’s Mangalyaan cost $74 mn (versus NASA’s MAVEN cost about $674 mn). The first step in this entrepreneurial direction has been taken by prime minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious INSPACE (the newly announced public-private entity) programme to invite the private sector to collaborate with the government (GoI). To make this happen outside of PowerPoints, and in reality, GoI and INSPACE must be completely entrepreneurial in thinking and doing. It should woo giants like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin and the zillions more using space-related applications, to set up shop in India and engender deep mutual engagement, in addition to creating a rich local ecosystem.

One of the main reasons for Dr E Sreedharan’s stupendous leadership of the Delhi Metro project was the fact that he got a “one-off, special dispensation” to be free of the tyranny of the lowest bid L1 system and with it the attendant CAG and CVC requirements of accountability to processes (more than to results). INSPACE too must get something similar inscribed in its mandate in order to achieve its lofty objectives. Neither should bureaucrats hold up scientists through the application of mindless rules (not the mindful ones though!) nor should scientists hold up bureaucrats through unreasonable demands to buy the Kohinoor diamond! The best is to design INSPACE’s deliverables as a public-private partnership, where the final intellectual property (IP), outcomes, resources are all shared. Why not even bid out the purse itself for the most innovative impactful solution (which may or may not necessarily the most cost-effective one)?

In step with the creation of INSPACE, GoI must establish a Satellite Regulatory Authority of India (SRAI) and learn from the extremely mixed record of regulation economics and indeed regulators in India, while doing so. Sadly, for every single remarkable regulator such as Ajay Tyagi in Sebi or V Bhaskar in electricity or Bimal Jalan in RBI or Rahul Khullar or Nripendra Misra at Trai, we end up having several toadies and lapdogs (and many more ineffective ones) as regulators. We need a strong, effective regulator to handle the myriad producer to consumer, and producer vs producer issues, within the framework of an interventionist government.

I had the privilege of working alongside one of my mentors the late Clayton Christensen, the world’s foremost innovation gurus, on an idea of a “point-to-point” reusable vehicle with a leading defence manufacturer, which can “disrupt” modern logistics and transport by sending anything, from anywhere to anywhere on the planet in under an hour. Come 2030, it is well imaginable to have a fully reusable orbital-class launch system which can deliver passengers from anywhere to anywhere on the surface of the Earth in less than an hour, at costs slightly more than a first-class aeroplane ticket but in a fraction of the time.

Space means business, and indeed space is open for business. India must grab, seize the opportunity with both hands, and just as it once did to make the IT revolution happen. India remains one of the few in the world to possess an IT “industry”, and it must similarly develop and nourish a space industry and ecosystem. We have a solid foundation built over the last 75 years thanks to our space scientists and ISRO and with it the right knowledge ecosystem to make such an industry happen. To boldly go where few nations have gone before.

(Author is an IAS officer. Views are personal)

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