"Transorbital Railroad" Proposed

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danhezee

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I came across this interesting idea by Robert Zubrin for the NASA to subsidized the cost of rocket launches to anyone who can afford it.

Essentially, NASA pays full price for 6 medium lift and 6 heavy lift launches a year. NASA sells subsidized compartments to any university, entrepreneur, corporations, or branch of the government that wants it.

"Transorbital Railroad"

In the history of the American frontier, the opening of the transcontinental railroad was an epochal event. Almost instantly, the transit to the West Coast, which had previously required an arduous multi-month trek and a massive investment for an average family, became a quick and affordable excursion. As a result, the growth of the nation accelerated exponentially.

How can we today deliver a similar master stroke, and open the way to the full and rapid development of the space frontier? We need to open up a transorbital railroad.

Here’s how it could be done.

First, we could set up a small transorbital railroad office in NASA, and fund it to buy six heavy-lift (100 metric tons to low Earth orbit) and six medium-lift (20 tons to LEO) launches per year from the private launch industry, with heavy- and medium-lift launches going off on schedule on alternating months. The transorbital railroad office would pay the launch companies $500 million for each heavy launch and $100 million for each medium launch, thus requiring a total out-of-pocket program expenditure of $3.6 billion per year, roughly 70 percent that of the space shuttle program. It would then turn around and sell standardized compartments to both government and private customers at subsidized rates. For example, on the heavy-lift vehicle, the entire 100-ton capacity launch could be offered for sale at $10 million, 10-ton compartments for $1 million, 1 ton for $100,000, and 100-kilogram slots for $10,000 each. The entire 20 tons of the medium-lift launcher could be offered for $2 million, with 2-ton containers made available for $200,000 and 200-kilogram spaces for $20,000. While recovering only a tiny fraction of the transorbital railroad’s costs, such low fees (levied primarily to discourage spurious use) would make spaceflight readily affordable to everyone.
With such a huge amount of lift capability available to everyone at low cost, both public and private initiatives of every kind could take wing. If NASA’s Exploration Mission Directorate were to desire to send expeditions to other worlds, all they would have to do is buy space on the transorbital railroad for their payloads. But private enterprises or foundations could use the transorbital railroad to launch their own lunar or Mars probes — or settlements — as well. Those who believe in space solar power satellites would have the opportunity to put their business plans into action. Those wishing to launch and operate orbital space hotels would have the low-cost lift capacity necessary to make their concepts feasible. Those hoping to offer commercial orbital ferry service to transfer payloads from low Earth orbit to geostationary orbit or beyond would be able to get their crafts aloft, and have plenty of customers. As such enterprises multiplied, a tax base would be created both on Earth and in space that would ultimately repay the government many times over for its transorbital railroad program costs.
 
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Gravity_Ray

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I like the idea of NASA in particular and the government in general to foster public space flight. A problem with this plan is that NASA doesn’t have heavy lift capability right now. 100MT to LEO is not possible. So they have to develop one. That cost is not being included with the statement 3.6B dollars per year (that’s just to run it).

The 20 MT is doable with either the Delta Heavy, or Atlas Heavy. But I am just not sure there is that much interest with private industry for this process. In effect, NASA has to spend the money up front, give the public some years to come up with what they want to send up there with this rocket, and then hope for the best.

It’s pretty chancy.
 
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docm

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If SpaceX actually builds Falcon 9 Heavy that's rated at 32 MT, maybe more with the Raptor H2 2nd stage? (even if it's made for GTO) Maybe half the flights.
 
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vulture4

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The thrust of Mr. Zubrin's argument is that increased demand will lower cost. This flies in the face of Economics 101. Supply increases with increasing cost, demand declines with increasing cost. Simply increasing the level of demand invariably increases the cost. When NASA eliminated the Shuttle and decided to buy rides from Russia the cost of Soyuz seats immediately increased from 30 to $52M. Increased demand brought an increase in price. Far from being "piracy", this is exactly what classical free market theory predicted.

The only way to reduce costs is to shift the supply curve. This requires development of new technology, not increased demand. A viable market size will require a shift in the supply curve that lowers the cost of a seat to LEO to at most $1-2M. This requires a fully reusable launch system. That requires government investment, not in an obsolete giant rocket, but in supporting private industry's development of a practical and safe successor to Shuttle. Unfortunately the people who know how to build a better shuttle, the workforce with almost 30,000 man-years of hands-on experience maintaining reusable spacecraft, is about to be dispersed forever.
 
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StarRider1701

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vulture4":3jznnv91 said:
The thrust of Mr. Zubrin's argument is that increased demand will lower cost.
No. The thrust of Mr. Zubrin's argument was that lower cost will increase demand. This is true, in accordance with your "Economics 101." The basics of his arguement was that NASA was spending 3.6 billion on the now extinct Space Shuttle program. If they spend that same 3.6 B$ each year to essentially subsidize private industry's space efforts, we might still have a good chance to continue some form of vibrant space program, luring private industries into space with lower transportation costs to LEO. I agree that this could work, as long as the Govt doesn't get too involved beyond providing the subsidy.
 
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vulture4

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StarRider1701":kgpj8bdq said:
vulture4":kgpj8bdq said:
The thrust of Mr. Zubrin's argument is that increased demand will lower cost.
No. The thrust of Mr. Zubrin's argument was that lower cost will increase demand. This is true, in accordance with your "Economics 101." The basics of his arguement was that NASA was spending 3.6 billion on the now extinct Space Shuttle program. If they spend that same 3.6 B$ each year to essentially subsidize private industry's space efforts, we might still have a good chance to continue some form of vibrant space program, luring private industries into space with lower transportation costs to LEO. I agree that this could work, as long as the Govt doesn't get too involved beyond providing the subsidy.
A subsidy for obsolete technology does nothing to change that technology. Government funding has to be applied to the development of new technology. This requires someone on the government side to make a reasoned decision regarding which new technologies to pursue. RLVs are the only technology that can substantially lower launch costs. The money appropriated for COTS at least accelerated the development of the Falcon 9, which is an ELV but provides a significant improvement in cost. However the currently proposed HLV, forced by Congress to use obsolete solid fuel boosters manufactured by ATK, will cost several billion dollars to launch and there is no mission which it can perform that will produce practical benefits comparable to its cost.
 
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oldAtlas_Eguy

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vulture4":1zkqyrun said:
StarRider1701":1zkqyrun said:
vulture4":1zkqyrun said:
The thrust of Mr. Zubrin's argument is that increased demand will lower cost.
No. The thrust of Mr. Zubrin's argument was that lower cost will increase demand. This is true, in accordance with your "Economics 101." The basics of his arguement was that NASA was spending 3.6 billion on the now extinct Space Shuttle program. If they spend that same 3.6 B$ each year to essentially subsidize private industry's space efforts, we might still have a good chance to continue some form of vibrant space program, luring private industries into space with lower transportation costs to LEO. I agree that this could work, as long as the Govt doesn't get too involved beyond providing the subsidy.
A subsidy for obsolete technology does nothing to change that technology. Government funding has to be applied to the development of new technology. This requires someone on the government side to make a reasoned decision regarding which new technologies to pursue. RLVs are the only technology that can substantially lower launch costs. The money appropriated for COTS at least accelerated the development of the Falcon 9, which is an ELV but provides a significant improvement in cost. However the currently proposed HLV, forced by Congress to use obsolete solid fuel boosters manufactured by ATK, will cost several billion dollars to launch and there is no mission which it can perform that will produce practical benefits comparable to its cost.
Actually the Falcon 9 first stage is reusable which is why the price per launch rate is only $56 mil. The first attempt did not work because the chutes for the 1st stage failed. Space X also has plans that could also recover the second stage when payloads are only going to LEO by adding the same heat shield that the Dragon uses to the second stage so that it will survive reentry. This would decrease the LEO capability by the same amount that the recovery add-on’s would weigh ~ 1MT. So calling the Falcon 9 an ELV is incorrect. It is an RLV.
 
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