The New Frontier2

by Dale M. Gray

The nature of the space frontier is changing. For the past forty years, space has largely been the venue of political frontiers, military frontiers and bureaucratic frontiers. However, the launch of Echo telecommunications satellite in 1960 began a series of technology demonstration satellites that led to the 1965 launch of Intelsat 1, the first civilian telecommunications satellite. The satellite could handle 240 telephone calls or one television channel. The satellite was placed over the Atlantic where it could relay telephone and occasional television between massive ground stations in America and Europe. The effort involved required an international consortium of players to fund.

The economic frontier in space can be directly linked to the technological explorations of Echo and its successors, but did not truly begin until the first paying telephone call was placed on Intelsat 1 in 1965. However, the cost to construct a satellite, launch it and provide the large ground stations to communicate with it was astronomical. The high price of admission into the frontier allowed only super-powers and consortia of countries to participate. While costs have dropped over the years, the production and deployment of satellites still requires several hundred million dollars -- limiting participation to large companies.

In the first frontier, large corporations with extensive terrestrial networks utilized geostationary satellites to transmit telephone and television from point to point on the earth using large base stations on the ground. Broadcast television, telephone, and cable television used satellites to bridge large gaps between source and distribution networks. 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, but the information was distributed through terrestrial networks. While this frontier has been slow in development, the technology has evolved through at least nine generations of satellites (Intelsat is currently operating the 900 series of satellites in orbit).

A side effect of the high cost of entry was that the first economic frontier was slow in developing. The first generation of economic space frontier was active 30 years before a second space communications frontier appeared in the mid-1990s.

The second generation of the space communications frontier featured both geostationary and low earth orbit satellites. While large ground base-station were used on the up-link side of the data transfer, smaller individual units could be used on the down-link side. 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. Only large corporations had the ability to purchase and launch satellites and maintain the large base stations necessary for transmitting to the satellites. However, initial participation on the down-link side required capital outlay of less than a thousand dollars -- well within the capabilities of small businesses and motivated individuals. While this frontier has been active for only five years, both satellites and individual receivers have undergone several generations of marketplace evolution. As a result, entry levels on both uplink and down-link sides have dropped significantly. GPS units with an accuracy of less than 10 feet are now available for under $100 and can be purchased at a wide variety of retail outlets.

Even while we watch the evolution of the second generation of the economic space frontier unfold, a third generation has sparked and is rapidly developing. As with other frontiers, the first "Primary" frontier has the highest cost of entry and is the slowest to develop. Subsequent "Secondary" frontiers then require less capital and develops at a more rapid pace. Thirty years after the first frontier sparked, the second frontier ignited. After only five years the flames of a third frontier have begun to spread.

The third generation of economic space frontier features the combination of space telecommunications linking with Internet communications. Systems such as DirecPC or Gilat (now Starband) seek to compete for a position in the broadband "boom" by providing high-speed Internet access through true two-way satellite communications. Small ground systems can not only down-link, but up-link as well at a cost of under $1000. The frontier also features integration of the Internet and satellite systems to access remote sensing data. Space systems accessed through the Internet are being used for 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. Tapping into established infrastructure, medium-sized companies are leasing capacity on orbiting satellites, subcontracting control of satellites and monitoring systems through a standard Internet interface. Individuals are tapping into space generated information with preexisting computers and Internet connections. Remote sensing data can be downloaded at rates ranging from a few hundred dollars in the case of high resolution images to gratis for weather information.

Currently, the three arenas of space telecommunication are transportation frontiers -- 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.

In the past year, the nature of the space frontier has changed.

While space continues to be a transportation frontier, it has recently developed a new frontier aspect which might be termed "Space as a Destination". 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 and frontier possibilities. 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. Dennis Tito and the new Destination Mir reality television show are the first generation of this sub-frontier. Indeed, the first generation of space tourism may involve only a few fortunate individuals. While $20 million per seat is beyond the reach of all but a few adventurers, it marks the point from which economic evolution of the frontier will begin. Because of the high starting point, this evolution will likely be slow, but within four or five generations, it should be available to the motivated individual and by six generations should be as common as travel by air is today. The time span of each generation is determined in large part by the health of the economy, legislation and the popular success of the preceding generation. However, the single largest factor in the pace of evolutionary generations of popular space travel will be the cost of transportation.

As the three information transportation frontiers continue to grow and the new destination frontier begins to evolve, they will create a motivation for the evolution of cheaper space transportation systems. The lowering of transportation costs in physical frontiers creates simultaneous frontier "booms" along the society /wilderness interface. Indeed, it can be argued that orbital slots and orbital plains are the first physical frontier in over a hundred years.

If the cost of space transportation can be lowered, a wide variety of new frontiers become possible that require the industrial transport of mass to and from space. Such a frontier might be termed, "Space as a Source". At first, transportation costs may limit this to archetypes such as perfectly grown proteins, 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 1860s, 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 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 Mir or the ISS, could become high value space flight collectibles.

One of the tenets of frontier theory is that new frontiers cannot be predicted. Each new frontier is a unique interface between the changing society we live in and the new technologies and opportunities beyond the frontier (wilderness). 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. There is no such thing as a "designed frontier". While there is no way to predict what "killer application" will pull our humanity off the face of the Earth and into orbit, the quickening of generations in the space economic frontier is an indication that we are well on our way.