Fly Me To the Moon, and Cheap!

Question: How cheap do you think space travel can get, and how soon?

Peter Diamandis: One of the companies I co-founded is a company called Space Adventures.  And we are the only company, to date, to have flown people privately to space.  We have flown eight passengers to the space station going up on the Soyuz.  Dennis Tito was our first, Richard Garriott who is the Chairman of Space Adventures and a trustee of the X Prize Foundation for a second generation astronaut, and our latest was Gila Laliberte, the Founder and CEO of Cirque Du Soleil.  These people spend about $45 million to go up for 10 days at the space station; incredible experience. 

If we could buy a seat on the shuttle, which we cannot, the cost per seat is probably $100 million on the shuttle.  So, the Soyuz is somewhat cheaper.  If you went and had a super efficient system, the closest you would ever get down is probably in the $4 or $5 million per seat using existing propulsion systems.  If your whole system is reusable and you flew it on a very frequent basis.  But if you go and you do the energy calculations of how much it cost to put you and your space suit into orbit, high school physics student can do this.  It’s easy, it’s mass times gravity, times height to get your potential energy, and then ½ MV2 to get your kinetic energy.  And if you do that for you in a 200 kg spacesuit, it turns out the total energy spent over an hour is about 1.6 GJ.  And if you bought this off the electric grid at 7 cents a kilowatt-hour, the cost of getting you and your spacesuit into orbit is about $120.  So, the price improvement curve ahead of us is about $45 million to $100.  That’s a pretty big motivation. 

Question: What are some key breakthroughs that we need right now? 

Peter Diamandis: I’m not naïve enough to think that we’re not going to have amazing physics breakthroughs.  I mean, technologically, we’ve been a technological species for a hundred or 200 years depending on where you measure that.  So, I think there is much we do not know.  But in the near term, I’m betting on a technology, which is very doable today.  In fact, I’m in the middle of talking with a number of benefactors about creating an X Prize around this concept.  It’s called beamed power propulsion.  And the concept is, today rockets haven’t changed in the last 2,000 years, since early Chinese rocketry.  You have a tube, you burn something inside, and hot gases come out one end.  That’s – they’ve gotten bigger and more expensive and more elaborate, more efficient.  But they’re still the same basic concepts.  So, on of the X Prize ideas I’m excited about that I really want to have is called beam powered propulsion. 

The way it works is you have a source of energy on the ground, either lasers or probably microwaves.  And that system is getting more and more efficient every year.  The price to generate a megawatt or a gigawatt of energy is coming down year after year.  We’re learning how to print it, make it more efficient.  And what you do is, you beam the energy to the rocket and the rocket basically converts that energy to heat and heats up a working fluid, like hydrogen, and then the hydrogen goes out the other end.  That can reduce the cost of space flight by 50 to100-fold, and it’s technology that can be done right now.  But no one’s doing it because no one’s doing it.  And that’s where an X Prize really comes in if you can demonstrate something just enough. 

Like for example, with the original Ansari X Prize for space flight, we demonstrated a ship carrying three people up to 100 kilometers twice in two days and then Richard Branson comes in and says I commit a quarter of a billion dollars to commercialize that technology.  So, I’d love to demonstrate beam-powered propulsion.  And once that’s demonstrated enough, then new technology will come in. 

Question: At which point does the prize end and the marketplace to drive the idea begin?

Peter Diamandis: Every prize that we design has to meet certain attributes.  Number one, clear and measurable; three people 100 kilometers, 100 mile per gallon or its equivalent car with X parameters, sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days.  The second thing is it has to be addressing a grand challenge.  It has to be something which it could have a paradigm change on the back end.  The third is, if it’s properly designed, when it’s won, the world is paying attention and it ignites a new industry.  For me, the fact that Branson was there committing the money and then all of a sudden people started buying tickets.  There have been over 1,000 tickets sold to fly into space, is what made this really exciting. 

Yes, Spaceship One is hanging in the air at Space Museum, right above Apollo 11, next to the Spirit of St Louis. That’s great, but the fact that we have an industry going is what makes it awesome. 

Another thing is, I am looking for prizes that are winnable in three to eight years in X Prizes.  If it’s less than three years, it was too easy, more than eight years; no one gives a shit any more.  The other thing though is we are now creating something called X Challenges.  X Prizes are these bigger $10 million or more, the X Challenges are a million level prizes that are more winnable in a year or two years.  They’re about moving technology forward in a demonstrable fashion.

Recorded on January 26, 2010

The price improvement curve ahead of us for space travel could improve from $45 million to $100, says Peter Diamandis.

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