Frontier Status Report
Dale M. Gray is the president of Frontier Historical Consultants.
Frontier Status reports are a free weekly annotated index chronicling the progress of the emerging "space frontier".
Understanding the Frontier
Space Launch Initiative
Frontier Processes at Work
Current Space Development as a Manifestation of Historic Frontier Processes
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Space Launch Initiative
Frontier Processes at WorkPresented at the
AIAA Space 2000 Conference
in Long Beach, September 20, 2000
By: Dale M. Gray
Frontier Historical Consultants
P.O. Box 190765
Boise, ID 83719-0765
What is a Frontier?
The word "frontier" often evokes images of sturdy farmers, bearded fur trappers and grizzled miners of the American West. However, frontiers occur wherever there is contact between the untapped potentials of new arenas of activity and the established realities of society. For the most part people think of frontiers in terms of Economic frontiers, but in western society there are five kinds of frontiers: Political, Bureaucratic, Military, Economic and Social. Each frontier has its own motivations and criteria for success. Human spaceflight is currently changing from a political / bureaucratic frontier to an economic frontier. This change is not without problems. An understanding of economic frontier processes involved may prove beneficial.
Economic frontiers can be separated into two categories, physical frontiers and technological frontiers. The physical frontier is the traditional wilderness / society contact where unclaimed resources are developed for society's markets. In America, this first frontier first manifested as a generational agrarian movement west to the Mississippi, then a rapid leap to the Pacific in the 1840s. Mining, cattle, forestry and other natural resource-based frontiers also expanded outward in generational waves. However, by 1893, there remained no definable frontier line and the physical American frontier was deemed closed1.
Frontiers of technology have gone hand-in-hand with physical frontiers. Developments in barbed wire, plows, and windmills made the settlement of the semi-arid west possible. When the physical frontier ended, technological frontiers continued onward at an ever increasing pace. Effort that was once expended on development of the land was turned to development of automobiles, radios, televisions, computers and satellites.
Technology advances in generations of products. Economic "survival of the fittest" determines which technology will reproduce in a new generation. Subsystems of successful products are improved incrementally to their full potential. When limits are reached, major product design changes result in a new generation. New generations often inherit the evolved subsystems of their predecessors.
All frontiers appear to be linked. The California gold rush was the result of experience gained in the Georgia gold rush, geographic information gained by the fur frontier and the population shift and transportation routes from the agrarian frontier in Oregon. Technology frontiers also benefit from frontier products that have gone before. Without radio, there would not have been television.
Opening new areas of endeavor often comes at a high price. Cash must at first flow into the frontier to develop the infrastructure to enable the frontier to bring its wealth to market. Until transportation systems are established, goods and services necessary for the development of frontier are slow in arriving and are expensive. As infrastructure/transportation systems become established, costs to transport goods to the frontier drop while simultaneously improving shipping rates back to civilization for the products of the frontier. In mining frontiers, the completion of railroads allowed milling equipment to be shipped to mines and concentrated ores hauled away. The establishment of railroads created mining "booms" throughout the American West. There comes a point in every physical frontier when dropping transportation costs allow frontier enterprises to earn their first dollar of profit. At this point the frontier becomes self-sustaining and the "boom" is created.
The further the frontier is from mainstream society, the higher the cost. While the Georgia gold frontier was immediately available to settlers, the California gold rush required the crossing of a continent. The California gold rush of 1849 can be considered a primary frontier. When gold and then silver was discovered in Nevada, it was a comparatively small step for California miners to migrate over the Continental divide and resume their occupations. As such, the Nevada Silver strike can be considered a secondary frontier.
The total cost from first motion to first profit dollar can loosely be described as the frontier's Launch Bar. In terms of the California gold rush, it was the cost of crossing the continent, buying the necessary equipment, providing food and shelter while the gold mining craft was learned and a viable stake found, and then the cost of mining, concentrating and selling the gold. It was a relatively high Launch Bar that many who set out in 1849 never achieved. In contrast a more recent frontier, the Internet, requires at a minimum a $400 used computer, a $20 per month ISP and a little training to begin trading on e-bay. As such the Internet can be defined as a very low Launch Bar.
Understanding of Launch Bars is vital to understanding frontiers. The height of the Launch Bar has two important aspects. One, as the Launch bar goes up the number of viable participant's drops. Frontier enterprises either drop out or join forces. Because of its high Launch Bar, the Direct to Home Television frontier was gradually whittled down to only two players in America, DirecTV and EchoStar. Two, as the Launch Bar goes up, the pace of frontier development slows. The American West is dotted with large mining complexes that went bankrupt when notes came due before the mill could grind its first ton of ore. More recently, Iridium suffered a similar fate.
The Launch Bar is not static; it can be raised and lowered by environmental factors in society. Anthropologists have long known that societies expand and contract due to changes in technology, social systems and ideology. In terms of modern economic frontiers, these factors can be stated as Technology, Legislation and Charisma (TLC).2 Improvements in technology, passage of advantageous laws or improvements in the attitudes toward investing time, talent and capital in frontier endeavors all contribute to lowering the Launch Bar.
Once the Launch Bar is surmounted, profits from the frontier begin to be pumped into further improvements in the TLC. The lower the Bar the greater the profits. Greater profits mean further investment in lowering the TLC. Just as water topping a levee cuts through the bank, so to does a sparked frontier cut through all TLC obstacles until society flows freely into the new area of endeavor.
Space as a Frontier
Space contains aspects of both physical and technological frontiers. Indeed, it can be argued that orbital slots and orbital plains are the first physical frontier in over a hundred years. Currently, Space is a transportation frontier -- similar in many respects to historic ocean crossing or transcontinental transportation frontiers. Because of the high cost per ounce to transport anything to space, the only products that can be moved economically are packets of information, which have no mass.
Despite this handicap, space has advanced through three generations of frontier. In the first frontier, large established corporations utilized geostationary satellites to transmit telephone and television from point to point on the earth using large base stations on the ground. This frontier was supplemented with data transfer, which evolved to include data networks such as the Internet. The frontier also featured limited remote sensing in the form of weather satellites.
The second generation of the space transportation frontier featured both geostationary and low earth orbit satellites. While large ground base-station were used on one side of the data transfer, smaller individual units could be used on the other. The frontier featured Direct-to-Home television with its "pizza dish" antennas, GPS with its hand-held units, satellite telephones, and the forthcoming satellite radio. While several of these endeavors were unsuccessful, it must be remembered that failure is a hallmark on any active frontier.
A third generation of space transportation frontier is under development. It features the combination of space transportation linking with Internet communications. Systems such as DirecPC or Gilat seek to compete for a position in the broadband "boom" by providing high-speed Internet access. The frontier will also feature integration of the Internet and satellite systems to access remote sensing data. Space systems accessed through the Internet will be used for everything from tracking moose in Montana, monitoring oil equipment in remote Alaska, operating transportation systems, tracking stolen cars, following critical packages along their route and reading utility meters.
In the past year, the nature of the space frontier has changed. While space continues to be a transportation frontier, it has recently become a destination frontier. In many respects the situation today reflects that of the Oregon Trail in the 1860s. The trail was a transportation corridor with little commerce originating along the route. In 1864, Fort Boise was established along the Oregon Trail to protect the interests of miners in the nearby Boise Basin. Less than a week later, the town of Boise was established and has flourished ever since. This year we will witness the occupation of the International Space Station and the conversion of Mir into a commercial enterprise. By their very existence in the midst of an empty transportation frontier, the two stations will serve as destinations for space travel and open up new space frontiers. New transportation infrastructure will be established for the construction, maintenance and supply of these stations. Indeed, the development of the Enterprise Module shows that the International Space Station has begun to attract destination endeavors. Because there is now a destination in space, tourism becomes a real possibility; either virtually through Space-generated entertainment or through high priced tickets taking advantage of unused launch payload mass.
In the future, as transportation costs drop, space will become a source of resources needed on Earth. At first, transportation costs may limit this to archetypes such as perfectly grown virus, crystals and exotic metals. Solar power stations may be built to transmit power to the ground or to orbital "factories". As with previous frontiers, ships delivering supplies and equipment to the frontier will carry space-manufactured cargo back to Earth. In the 1870s, the practice of using ore as ballast in returning ships allowed mines in Montana to have their ore smelted in Swansea, Wales. The effort to cart the ore to the coast and then sail halfway around the world may not have been rocket science, but it was a very difficult and complex business undertaking. By taking advantage of unused capacity, the transport of ore was done profitably until Montana built its own smelters. In the same way, broken equipment and even some trash returning from the ISS, could become high value space flight collectibles.
Ultimately, there is no way to predict what "killer application" will pull our civilization off the face of the Earth and into orbit. Columbus sailed west in search of spices. Those that followed his route found gold. When the English established colonies on the eastern seaboard, they hoped to recoup their investments harvesting something called silk grass that was used as a padding material in shipping. They had no concept of tobacco, nor could they imagine the frontier "boom" it created in their Virginia colony.
Frontier Analysis of the Current Frontier
The Launch Bar for current space frontier activities is extremely high. Higher, perhaps, than that faced by Columbus. In today's space launch market, $100 million is enough to get a position in an established frontier, but $5 billion is closer to the mark for opening a new frontier such as satellite telephones. Part of the problem is that as a transportation frontier with no incremental destinations en route, new space frontiers have had to be developed in one large effort instead of incremental steps. The difference can be seen by comparing the development of railroad in the eastern U.S. prior to the Civil War with the transcontinental railroads that followed the War. In the East, by extending a railroad 20 miles to a new town, the railroad tapped a new source of income. In the post-war West, the entire Trans-Mississippi West had to be crossed before the first dollar could be made. The stress to the economy was so great that when Jay Cooke's bank defaulted on Northern Pacific Railroad loans, the national Panic of 1873 ensued. Today's space frontier is in a similar situation. Extensive infrastructure and heavy transportation costs weigh down even the smallest of space enterprises. Further, incremental advance to the first human-presence frontier in space is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Launch costs remain at the heart of the problem. There are currently only four systems for delivery of mass into orbit. These include the Space Shuttle, expendable rockets, hybrid systems such as the Orbital Sciences Pegasus rocket, and reusable launch vehicles (RLVs), which have yet to fly. The Shuttle, the result of a political/bureaucratic frontier, has seen only one generation of development in the last 20 years, but has benefited from several generations of subsystems. American expendable rockets were frozen in design by legislation requiring the Shuttle to launch payloads until Challenger. After Challenger reserves of former ICBMs had to be used up. Indeed, the USAF is still launching Cold War Titan II rockets. In the last half-decade, the Delta and Atlas launch systems have begun to evolve to meet market pressures much as the Arianespace rockets have been evolving since the 1980s. Because each rocket is "thrown away" each launch is an opportunity to incrementally improve subsystems, manufacturing or business techniques. Hybrid systems such as the Pegasus are air launched from large aircraft. While hybrid systems are evolving into larger, more capable launch systems, the physics of flight limits the size and mass of the rockets that can be carried aloft by aircraft.
For the past two or three years, many thought that RLVs were the wave of the future. While they would not have the advantage of rapid generations, they would have the economic advantage of low cost recycling of their spacecraft. Two years ago, more than a dozen start-up and established companies were actively developing RLV systems. A variety of technical and fiscal problems such as the crash of the NASDAQ and the loss of market produced by the failure of Iridium have slowly whittled this number down to two or three viable companies. The remainder remain quiescent waiting for someone to surmount the Bar and cut through to a level where their own RLV programs can be reactivated. The problem in the current situation is that each of the viable companies is still some distance from surmounting the Launch Bar, yet have significant financial and technical problems in front of them. The good news for Kistler and other start up RLV companies is the odds of any one company crossing the bar are unchanged. The bad news is that every venture that stops advancing toward the frontier lowers the odds that any company will successfully cross over the Bar. If the dropout rate of the past year continues, it is very likely that no company will be able to surmount the Bar unassisted.
Surmounting High Launch Bars
While extremely high Launch Bars are daunting, history has shown several alternatives to a direct approach to cross the Bar. Just as the drop of the NASDAQ and Iridium failure caused fiscal problems for RLV companies, a strong and growing economy can provide the impetus to push companies over the threshold, much like a rising flood waters can top a levy. For example, in the post-Civil War economic boom, rampant economic speculation spread the cattle frontier across the Western plains. Military development has often crossed over to provide a break-through for high Launch Bar economic frontiers. Modern jet airliners are a classic historic example, while the EELV program is a current example. Crossover from other active economic frontiers has also provided a solution. The assembly line technology that mass-produced Ford automobiles was utilized to create the Ford Tri-motor airplane. Finally, beneficial government involvement has often been used, but each solution reflects the unique combination of the society / frontier interface. Columbus obtained the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria from the Queen of Spain. Transcontinental railroads were financed by government land grants that were awarded with each mile of track put down. Most recently in space, the U. S. has formulated the Integrated Space Transportation Plan / Space Launch Initiative, which uses several frontier processes to help surmount the Bar.
Space Launch Initiative
Since the source for the frontier break through cannot be determined prior to the fact, it is important to push the frontier from all available angles. Beneficial governmental involvement can create an environment that will foster the development of new technology, establish a legal infrastructure to support space launch system development, and create a desire in the business community to expand its reach into orbit.
The United States has a capable, albeit expensive launch system, able to deliver goods, personnel, and services to Low Earth Orbit. The Space Shuttle is the base line for future generational improvements to safety, reliability and cost. The Space Launch Initiative seeks to maintain assured assess to space by evolving subsystems of the Shuttle even while developing new generations of launch vehicles. Safety and economic forces will replace political and bureaucratic needs as the driving mechanism of the evolution. Research in new technologies well ahead of operational systems will provide the necessary improvements as each new generation comes on-line.
The Space Launch Initiative also promotes space as a destination by promoting private solutions to space transportation. This is accomplished by out sourcing 90 percent of its procurement and opening launch services for the International Space Station to private sources. This not only assures supplies will be able to reach the Station, but will also act as a great incentive for the evolution of competitive launch services.
By providing a consistent and guaranteed market for launch services, the International Space Station will create an environment that encourages both start up and cross-over launch services. Competition to provide the best service at the lowest price will, over the course of generations of development, cause the cost to launch personnel and material to drop radically. This lowered cost will then lower the Bar for future frontiers of space as a source of resources. Once this frontier sparks, wealth generated on the new frontier will rapidly cut through the Launch Bar until space becomes an ordinary business venue and the orbital frontier is transformed into an integral part of our civilization.
1 Turner, Frederick Jackson, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", presented at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Reprinted in The Turner Thesis, Edited by George Rogers Taylor. (D. C. Heath and Company: Lexington, Massachusetts). 1972.
2 A full discussion of Technology, Legislation and Charisma can be found in Gray, D. "Current Space Development as a Manifestation of Historic Frontier Processes", presented at the 49th Annual IAF/IAA Conference in Melbourne, Australia. 1998.
Available on-line at: http://www.frontierstatus.com/DaleMGray.html