What Aviation Can Teach Us About Commercial Space Flight This Decade
Many commentators in the Space Industry including us at Giant-Leap.Space have discussed the possibility, indeed the probability that within the next few years people will traverse the globe on sub-orbital space flights, which can cut travel time between major cities into tiny fractions of their present-day aviation competition.
Whilst Aviation is also a sector not devoid of innovation, and hypersonics (pictured in the header) are being tested as you read in the United States of America with some significant success, the apparent lead of systems such as Starship are a hugely disruptive force in the market of moving people en-masse around the globe (Sorry flat-Earthers... it's another nail in your argument's coffin).
The truth is, the challenges facing the commercialisation of sub-orbital space flight are many and they are challenging. We could focus on those, but that is for another article. It is important though to remember that not all humans wishing to travel long distance are suitable for the journey profile of a rocket launched vehicle, loading their bodies up with high G's and traversing a severely higher dosage of radiation than passengers in airliners far below.
There is a more important parallel to be drawn, and thus learnt from Aviation.
In the history of commercial aviation a few key milestones have enabled the growth and success of the market.
After the Second World War for example, aircraft for troop carriers were over-supplied to the rapidly shrinking western military. These air-frames were sold cheaply to embryonic airlines which, in some cases, continued to fly them more than a decade after the end of the war. This brought aviation out of the niche travel experience of the yachting classes and into that of the masses (albeit initially only the middle classes).
Later, in the 50's and 60's it was decided that jet propulsion deserved to make the move from military to civilian aviation, and the "hops" available changed the market forever. Previously, all traffic from Europe to North America had to stop for fuel at Gander Airport in Canada. Once jet engines took aircraft higher and faster, they were able to continue without stop to large cities of North America, and overnight, the airport lost almost all of its trade.
Another innovation came shortly afterwards; Concorde. It was assumed that higher and faster was a trend worth pursuing, and the World's first supersonic airliner entered the skies in 1969, heralding in an era of supersonic passenger travel never to be looked back from.
Here is the rub. Usually when forecasting the future, people extrapolate the present trend and assume that this is the course history will follow. Since the middle ages the average height of an adult in Europe has increased. If we follow that trend, by the year 2500 we will all be very tall. But, we all know this is unlikely, because the factors that dwarfed us at the time have been removed already, and our growth is limited by our genetic information. Evolution isn't quick enough to significantly stretch us by 2500, so the trend extrapolation is likely to be inaccurate. You get the idea.
Why did Concorde fail to precipitate a supersonic only passenger future? The main reasons are usually accepted to be that the route was too expensive to ensure a good load-factor on the aircraft, which itself was expensive to maintain and difficult to operate.
Concorde was a small and relatively uncomfortable airliner, that boasted speed over all other beneficial characteristics. In the end, the market decided that a happy medium could be struck. Airliners can fly close to the speed of sound without having to be as over-engineered as concorde, and thus have more available space and energy for a larger cabin, more cargo capacity, better seats and headroom etc. I.e. a better experience.
The Boeing Dreamliner was originally slated to be a Concorde Mk 2 called the Boeing Sonic Cruiser, supersonic jet. It was realised during development that something that cruised at about Mach 0.85 (85% speed of sound) was the perfect balance between speed, comfort and fuel efficiency.
How does this relate to sub-orbital flight?
The parallels become increasingly obvious. Will people climb on top of a methane-fuelled bomb, to launch under severe discomfort to travel slightly faster around the World, when security and cargo restrictions are likely to be severe. Will people want to travel to a regional hub, then jump on a hyper-loop, or other local transport to find a connection to their eventual destination?
The aviation industry has always assumed that bigger is better, and the Airbus 380-800 was designed to be the biggest, and the best. It is now considered a failed aircraft, because consumer demand does not want to travel to a hub, fly long distance, then find a connection, and usually at least one further transport connection before that last-mile solution has been achieved. It is preferred in the aviation market to fly on a smaller aircraft from one, more local airport to departure point, to another more local airport to your destination, cutting out the major World hubs such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London Heathrow or JFK.
For commercial space-flight to become a success there needs to be a market for the method of travel, which finds it either totally irreplaceably necessary, or believes it offers a more competitive offer overall, for a travel experience.
It is my belief that before people travel regularly through space, they will need to travel to destinations in space. That reflects much more accurately the current aviation model of smaller aircraft, more closely aligned with original departure and final destination locations.
Jet aircraft are much more difficult to operate and maintain than pistons, but they created access to geography that piston engines found either impossible, or nearly so. If we had stayed with piston aircraft forever, Gander Airport might still be among the World's busiest. Yet, Concorde flew from London and Paris to New York, routes that are readily, cheaply and comfortably available already, with any number of code-shares and combinations of regional options to choose from. Concorde was not successful in carving out a market for supersonic, super-fast travel for the sake of it. With a post COVID-19 World, where virtual meetings are increasingly popular and business trips decreasingly so, it is difficult to see how space commuters can possibly take any form other than those operating in space itself for many years to come.
As a result, the biggest lesson Commercial Space-Flight can learn from Aviation is this: Industry must focus much more strongly on Space as a destination for industry, and not just as a medium for the sexy and exciting vehicles coming our of Boca Chica Texas, and elsewhere.
In a future article we will discuss the construction implications of a colony on Mars and why a total excitement with Starship is great, but that exclusive focus on the means of travel is damaging and why rest of industry needs to catch up to make Mars a viable destination, as opposed to a small experimental outpost at best.