RE: SPACE: How hard IS it to get off Earth?

Billy Brown (
Sat, 13 Nov 1999 18:14:40 -0600

Doug Jones wrote:
> It would be nice to have something close to a "design team in a box", with
> complete materials properties, stress analysis, CFD flow modeling, detail
> design, and manufacturability analysis all in one integrated package. "I
> want a throttling valve for 500 kg/s liquid oxygen at 20 MPa, 10% to 100%
> flow and cutoff, to fit in this volume and require minimum mass,
> of six nines, fail closed (or open), and don't forget materials
> compatibility so that it won't self-ignite." The engineer then chooses
> from an array of options presented by the software, and fifteen minutes
> later, after the CDR, the complete part spec is downloaded to the
> manufactory. Part is in hand an hour later, assembled into the vehicle an
> hour after that.

That seems a little optimistic for the 2010-2015 time frame, but only a little. I'd say you may have such a tool, but it will have the same kinds of problems as modern software - it will take significant effort to use, it won't handle all of the tasks you'd like it to, and it will produce bad designs just often enough that someone has to actually check its work. I think it is realistic to expect the human engineering effort needed to produce a working system to fall by a factor of 10. If you want to be really optimistic you might hope for as much as a 100-fold reduction, but anything beyond that is unlikely in that time frame (unless there is a breakthrough in self-improving AI, in which case all bets are off).

Now, I think we can reasonably look for similar improvements in pretty much everything else related to the project, and of course the fact that it isn't a government project is probably good for an order-of-magnitude cost reduction all by itself. However, that still leaves me with a cost estimate of several million dollars for a new launch vehicle, and per-unit production costs of several hundred thousand dollars apiece. That is great compared to current practice (we get a launch cost of maybe $10/lb to LEO), but it still costs real money (a few $10K per person, with minimal baggage). Therefore, a meaningful colonization effort will require at least moderately deep pockets.

Billy Brown, MCSE+I

Billy Brown, MCSE+I