Interesting Economics

Last weekend, the six-man crew onboard the ISS got a special delivery from Earth. The third in what we hope will be a long line of SpaceX Dragon capsules was grabbed by the space station robot arm on Sunday morning. It didn’t take very long after the Dragon was firmly attached for the crew to start working diligently to get the hatches open and get to the cargo inside, even though it was supposed to be partly their day off.

Why the rush? Well if you had only eaten fresh food a few times in the last four months you would be excited too! About 2-4 cargo deliveries will happen during an astronaut’s stay on ISS – so that means you only get to enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet for a few weeks of your stay.

I was on shift in ISS mission control on Sunday when the crew got the hatch open and you bet they wanted to know where the bags of apples were stored away. Not only did they find the expected NASA manifested bag of apples, tomatoes, and other items, but SpaceX had hidden away a special care package of extra apples and oranges. Their excitement was clear and I’m sure they had a good dinner that night.

What I think comes to light in this case is the interesting economics of supplying a space station, or I suppose any remote operating base. An orange is cheap – your neighbor’s tree might drop some over the fence into your yard and they would never know they were missing nor probably care. But the cost of launching those oranges to ISS makes them worth a lot – not quite equivalent to gold by weight, but getting close. Imagine if the trip to the grocery store cost you 10,000 times more than the groceries themselves? That’s a cost of living that would make even San Franciscans cringe.

This is obviously one important reason that spaceflight is so expensive. By having companies like SpaceX to run supply missions, launch costs can be reduced through efficiency and frequency. But even so, launch costs can only drop by so much. Thus, we will never truly be a spacefaring species unless we learn to be self-sufficient. The European colonies in America only prospered when they learned to live off of the local resources. As long as oranges are worth $2,000, we will be stuck in low earth orbit like some colonists in a coastal fort waiting for the next ship from England.

Someday the lessons we are slowly learning about self-sufficiency on ISS and elsewhere (like bases in Antarctica) will take us outward – but until then I would hate to be the astronauts up there stuck with the guilt of eating a $2,000 orange. What does it feel like to know that so much effort went into getting you just a few bites of fruit?

March 6, 2013 9:39 pm

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