Chain of Thought

Space: Cargo's Final Frontier

As part of the Baby Boomer generation, I grew up during what they called “the Space Age,” when TV shows, movies, comic books and other forms of popular culture were obsessed with the idea of humankind not only reaching the Moon, but all the other planets, and points far beyond, as well. One of the more fanciful ideas back then was a comic book hero known simply as the Space Cabby. The basic premise was so simple as to be pure genius: Like any other working hack, the Space Cabby drove his fares to wherever they wanted to go, the hook of the series being that he drove a small spaceship instead of a four-wheeled motor vehicle. The Space Cabby series didn't last all that long, but it was certainly memorable.

space cabby

So flash forward 50-some years, to this headline in a recent Wall Street Journal: “Private Space Taxis Race to the Launch Pad.” The article describes the launching of a new era of freight transportation: cargo delivery via a commercial spacecraft. Later this year, according to plans, Space Exploration Technology Corp. (SpaceX) will send one of its Falcon 9 rockets up to dock with the International Space Station (ISS). Last year, as the WSJ points out, SpaceX was the first company to launch and recover a space capsule from orbit.

SpaceX's initial efforts will be unmanned, though the plans are to institute manned cargo delivery flights in the near future. According to Elon Musk, the company's CEO, the price of a standard flight on a Falcon 9 rocket is $54 million, and the average price of a full-up NASA Dragon cargo mission to the ISS is $133 million.

The market could be opening even more quickly for SpaceX, given the crash of a Russian cargo spacecraft scheduled to deliver supplies to the ISS. The Russian Progress supply ship, which was carrying nearly three tons of fuel, oxygen, food, water and equipment to the six astronauts currently stationed on the ISS, malfunctioned shortly after blast-off and crashed in a remote area of Siberia.

As the WSJ reports, “[The] failure underscores the importance of beginning to use U.S. commercially developed rockets and cargo capsules to supplement Russian re-supply flights. Since NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles this summer, those are the only two options to handle frequent shipments of supplies to the station.”

While currently generating the most buzz [pun intended], SpaceX is but one of a group of commercial operations looking to get a piece of the lucrative post-space shuttle era of space exploration.

So the idea of commercial “taxi” drivers hauling freight and passengers up into space is no longer just a goofy idea for the comic books. It's the opening of a whole new logistics frontier.

UPDATE: According to an article in the Guardian, those space cabbies will soon have somewhere besides the International Space Station to deliver their fares -- space hotels. By 2016, for roughly $1 million (600,000 pounds), rich and adventurous types can take a space taxi up to an orbiting hotel (though it sounds more like a glorified dorm room) for a five-night stay. The world of "The Jetsons" is getting closer every day.

UPDATE # 2: Hard to tell if this is serious, or just some kind of publicity stunt, but Domino's Japan claims that it has plans to open the first pizzeria on the moon. Considering that the current population of the moon stands at 0, it's not quite clear who will be buying these pizzas, let alone who will be making them. This definitely falls into the category of "don't hold your breath waiting for this, but it'll be pretty cool if/when it happens."

As this article in The Telegraph points out, Domino's calculates that the transportation costs alone will amount to more than $7 billion. That's a pretty steep price, especially when you consider that the company itself made only $2.5 billion in 2009 in total global sales. But as The Telegraph article also makes clear, Domino's is still smarting from being one-upped a decade ago when Pizza Hut delivered a pizza to the ISS, so it can be assumed that Domino's believes that long-range -- and long distance (make that looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong distance) -- planning might help win some new customers if and when the moon is actually colonized. It'll be nice to know, at least, that our grandchildren's grandchildren will have somewhere to eat when they pay a visit to the moon.

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