Saturday, May 2, 2015

Necessity for Modularity

The cost to enter the space economy is high. It it is time, capital, and labor intensive. And yet large corporations and billionaires will not be able to develop the space industry to a point where it is a part of our culture.

With only a few large players in the game there's a limit to how many goals can be scored until everyone is crippled. Even innovative companies like SpaceX will reach a critical mass where they perform only particular duties in the industry. The industry will stagnate unless smaller players can become a part of it.

So what is a strategy that smaller companies and individuals could take in order to make a mark in the space economy.

Let's use a theoretical example, Space-Based Solar Power. This concept for powering the world has been around for decades. The concept of using an unobstructed view of the largest fusion reactor in existence (the sun) is very enticing. If space solar power could be implemented then it would solve many of the world's energy problems.

Here is the problem. Space based solar power requires huge initial investment. Basically the lifetime cost of a nuclear power plant is what it would take to build a comparable orbital solar array. This is not a feasible business plan. No matter how great the design or promising the impact 16-20 billion dollars up front is not something people rush to.

So how does one take something hugely expensive and reduce the cost. Break it up into little pieces. Small companies and individuals need to lay out strategies where what they invest in today will still be useful 10 years from now. In this way the cost of something huge can be spread over years and incrementally built. For orbital solar a specific direction might be to develop something similar to the orbital power plant where te company creates smaller modules to be attached to ships and stations to serve as a temporary power source. When a significant number of cells have been placed in orbit, years from the first, then the modules could be combined with transmitter to beam the power to earth instead.

Modularity has to be the foundation of any small company wishing to build big things. The giant one hit wonder is not feasible. They must find a way to break it down. A mars colony into single identical modules. A telescope mirror into hundreds of smaller mirrors.

Modularity, building small identical things that can become larger individual things is very scalable and adaptable. If a small company is making habitats for Mars and has simply created a small-tent-like module that connects to others, then the product is as available to a single fanatic as it is to a giant corporation. And the producing company is able to make money from selling one as easily as selling a hundred.

Breaking larger structures down into multiple pieces also decreases the complexity of the design and increases its adaptability. Imagine the difference between having to redo the plumbing of an entire space station or just of the new modules.

Every new private space company is adopting this idea of breaking down the grand dream into individual components that can pay for themselves on a small scale while remaining relevant on the large scale. Bigelow Aerospace is creating, not space stations, but space station modules. Planetary resources is not creating a single advanced asteroid hunting satellite but a swarm of small satellites.

Modularity reduces cost and ensures that a viable product is created more quickly. If anyone is considering creating a space company and they are not a billionaire, they must design the product to be modular and relevant for years. This ensures scalability, adaptability, redundancy, and early returns.

The dreams of launching an entire space station or colony in few shots can't be done by the entrepreneur in a garage. But sneaking into orbit bit by bit is very feasible. And as launches become ever more common the left over space will be more available and inexpensive. Space start-up have to do more with less until it can all be combined into a single system.