Zubrin’s Solution to Space Exploration: Buy in Bulk

Jupiter Direct Launcher Variants

Mars Society Founder Robert Zubrin has proposed something he calls the “transorbital railroad” to jump start space exploration and settlement. Although he invokes the railroads that opened up the West, it’s really a proposal known to anyone who has ever shopped at Costco: buy in bulk.

First, we could set up a small transorbital railroad office in NASA, and fund it to buy six heavy-lift (100 metric tons to low Earth orbit) and six medium-lift (20 tons to LEO) launches per year from the private launch industry, with heavy- and medium-lift launches going off on schedule on alternating months. The transorbital railroad office would pay the launch companies $500 million for each heavy launch and $100 million for each medium launch, thus requiring a total out-of-pocket program expenditure of $3.6 billion per year, roughly 70 percent that of the space shuttle program. It would then turn around and sell standardized compartments to both government and private customers at subsidized rates. For example, on the heavy-lift vehicle, the entire 100-ton capacity launch could be offered for sale at $10 million, 10-ton compartments for $1 million, 1 ton for $100,000, and 100-kilogram slots for $10,000 each. The entire 20 tons of the medium-lift launcher could be offered for $2 million, with 2-ton containers made available for $200,000 and 200-kilogram spaces for $20,000. While recovering only a tiny fraction of the transorbital railroad’s costs, such low fees (levied primarily to discourage spurious use) would make spaceflight readily affordable to everyone.

As with a railroad, the transorbital railroad’s launches would occur in accord with its schedule, regardless of whether or not all of its cargo capacity was subscribed by customers. Unsubscribed space would be filled with containers of water, food or space-storable propellants. These standardized, pressurizable containers, equipped with tracking beacons, plumbing attachments, hatches and electrical pass-throughs, would be released for orbital recovery by anyone with the initiative to collect them and put their contents and volumes to use. A payload dispenser, provided and loaded by the launch companies as part of their service, would be used to release partial payloads to go their separate ways once orbit is achieved.

An intriguing idea. We’ll see if it goes anywhere. Read his full proposal.

  • Zubrin’s proposal, if implemented correctly, is at worst a well-intentioned but foolhardy idea and at best a targeted solution to the problem of space accessibility. There is a school of thought that the cause of high rocket prices is due to low/spurious launch rate and large workforce per launch. The incentive to automate the rocket-building process and eliminate the latter is discouraged by the former. Zubrin is attempting to tackle the low/spurious launch rate problem in a productive fashion. If the Transorbital Railroad is implemented we will surely get cargo to space, regardless of if it ever fosters more demand. So at the very least it will be a net-gain experiment.

    The real key to driving down actual $/kg is making sure that the $3.2 Billion in procurement goes to the lowest bidder that meets failure rate and other standards. More precisely, the money should go to the company that can provide the most tonnage to LEO given $500M or $100M. This will compound the investment: by driving down cost-to-orbit companies will also be increasing their launch rate, thereby incentivizing still more automation in their production lines. Perhaps the actual cost will never get down to the subsidized $50/lb, but the prospect of getting close is worth a try.