Monday, July 03, 2006

Ports and Theme Parks are Incompatible

I see that someone has gone to considerable length to reply to my recent arguments concerning the economics of proposed "spaceports". The author apparently saw nothing amiss with the notion that it's OK to create a theme park atmosphere to attract customers at some level or another. In so doing, he unwittingly grants me the argument that commercial space tourism might never be able carry the load on its own to allow a spaceport to pay for itself. So instead we'll create a circus atmosphere with a few launches thrown in for the "ooooh-ahhhh!" factor. And that was the entire point of my piece.

While I mentioned the long term potential of point-to-point suborbital flight, I never suggested that it would be the "killer app" justifying spaceports, but rather a long term commercial justification for heavy investment in the technology itself. Such craft may not ultimately require a "spaceport", perhaps a major-sized international airport, retrofit with custom facilities, would suffice - I don't know. But either way, whatever scenario plays out will be a long time in coming.

Where our understanding breaks down, perhaps, is in the use of the term "spaceport" itself.

By common convention, a "port" is a place where people or cargo embark or disembark to or from other places. The business of a port is to achieve this as efficiently and cost effectively as possible. No more, no less. They manage lots of traffic into and out of their hub of influence, because that's all their customers expect of them. If we stick with the gaming analogy, these people don't "play golf with only one club", because they're not playing golf at all. They're playing darts - all tightly focused on a single goal - get something from here to somewhere else, or get something from somewhere else safely here - and they want to hit bullseyes every time, 24/7/365.

People go to "airports" because they are going somewhere, and are focused on getting there as quickly and comfortably as possible. The design and function of airports support that singular purpose. While there are many 3rd-party support services that airports offer, from food to magazines to liquor to internet access, it is still with the understanding that their customers are just "passing through", for a handful of hours at most, so the marketing goal is one of convenience, solving a personal emergency, or encouraging a last minute "impulse buy" before getting on the plane.

"Seaports" move massive amounts of cargo that we import from foreign lands off of container ships to waiting trains and trucks, which in turn move those goods to other destinations further inland, where those who purchased the goods are patiently waiting. Those containers are refilled with US-made goods to transport, via the same ports, to buyers in other nations.

In short, those things we call "ports" exist to serve travel and commerce, and nothing else. They are not tourist play destinations.

So when I hear the word "spaceport", I envision something similar, a place through which people and goods are moved efficiently and economically from point to point, only the "points" we think of are either on the opposite side of the planet, or off the planet entirely. But you don't go there to gamble, to engage in "space entertainment" or just to watch a launch (unless a friend or relative is about to take a flight).

Plus, if some miracle happened, and we really did one day get all that passenger traffic promised by the kool-aid sellers, wouldn't all those milling about, partying non-travelers just get in the way? How would LaGuardia, for example, which moves up to 25,000 passengers a day, function if a lot of non-traveling people showed up and just hung around for hours and days, clogging the parking lots, access roads, and restaurants? A potential "spaceport" in particular, may have other problems associated with it (such as noise or exotic fuel handling) that would require it to be much further removed from the nearest hub of civilization, thus creating a specific marketing challenge in attracting people to go the extra distance. This could be mitigated by requiring space tourist vehicles be limited to smaller craft that piggyback on more conventional jets - but again, those could conceivably be launched from more conventional airports, thus obviating the need for and expense of a specialized facility.

If one grants (however reluctantly) that traffic alone won't even come close to covering the expenses, then perhaps a multifunction theme park is the best way to make the business case for those the promoters want to foot the startup costs. But if non space launch activities are touted as being the largest proportion of total business, as a potential investor I would still want to know precisely how these activities contribute to the total bottom line. And I would still submit that this is NOT a "spaceport". It's something else, but it's not a spaceport, and therefore anyone who insists on calling it that is being disingenuous - especially to potential investors.

Ports and theme parks are conflicting, and therefore incompatible entities, as they serve entirely different functions. One can't effectively combine them into a single thing. All I'm suggesting is that promoters of such, in the space commerce arena, should exhibit more honesty in their intentions.

10 Comments:

Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

It's worth noting that most launch sites are in very inhospitable regions.

Once you get to the Mojave, then what? Most people don't _like_ the desert for itself. Way too much sand, not enough beach.

Yes, a theme park _is_ a destination but most people who go there want options other than 'the park'. We went to see Disney World but we also took a day for the beach and a day for KSC.

Nothing but Disney and Epcot would have been bleh.

Monday, July 03, 2006 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

It's worth noting that most launch sites are in very inhospitable regions.

Once you get to the Mojave, then what? Most people don't _like_ the desert for itself. Way too much sand, not enough beach.

Yes, a theme park _is_ a destination but most people who go there want options other than 'the park'. We went to see Disney World but we also took a day for the beach and a day for KSC.

Nothing but Disney and Epcot would have been bleh.

Monday, July 03, 2006 10:57:00 AM  
Blogger Bill White said...

In so doing, he unwittingly grants me the argument that commercial space tourism might never be able carry the load on its own to allow a spaceport to pay for itself.

Unwittingly? Nah. I am quite willing to agree with the above point - - commercial space tourism might never be able carry the load on its own - - as my own affirmative statement. It has long been my amateur intuition (absent any market studies) that passenger revenue cannot (by itself) be sufficient to support a suborbital tourism industry. Rand Simberg often tells me I am wrong on this point. Well maybe. And perhaps Kevin Costner really can shot par with only a seven iron.

But why should anyone try?

I honestly do not know whether anyone can fund a suborbital spaceport solely from ticket revenue collected from paying passengers. My gut says "No!" but I could well be wrong. Whatever. But the larger issue the Space Cynics essay raises is similar to the challenge of playing golf using only a seven iron. Maybe you can win with just a seven iron and maybe not, but the question still stands, why even try?

I am far more confident that giant hordes of camera toting, trinket buying tourist spectators are what motivates the State of New Mexico and Singapore and Dubai to be offering taxpayer funds to build these spaceports and visitor centers and so on.

Peter Diamondis is playing for the spectator angle and Sir Richard Branson collected money from 7-UP TV advertising long before his passenger vehicle was even built.

Monday, July 03, 2006 6:46:00 PM  
Blogger Shubber Ali said...

I am far more confident that giant hordes of camera toting, trinket buying tourist spectators are what motivates the State of New Mexico and Singapore and Dubai to be offering taxpayer funds to build these spaceports and visitor centers and so on.

I was at the first flight of SS1 just over 2 years ago - the crowds were somewhere in the 10k+ range IIRC. From what i've heard, the crowds for flights 2 & 3 (the X-prize flights) were considerably smaller.

I wonder why so many people seem convinced that "hordes" of tourist spectators will continually head out to see an event, especially after it's become a mundane/routine event. Look at how quickly attention waned on the Apollo program, and similarly on the shuttle program, except during/after accidents.

Sir Richard Branson collected money from 7-UP TV advertising long before his passenger vehicle was even built.

Sir Richard has a vehicle already..? :-)

Monday, July 03, 2006 6:58:00 PM  
Blogger Bill White said...

I was at the first flight of SS1 just over 2 years ago - the crowds were somewhere in the 10k+ range IIRC. From what i've heard, the crowds for flights 2 & 3 (the X-prize flights) were considerably smaller.

Again, I agree. Perhaps the state of New Mexico will be disappointed in their investment. But what is the Rocket Racing League (TM) all about if not spectators? The X Prize Cup? That said, Rocket Racing League rockets will need to be capable of multiple re-starts and fast re-fueling and so on, which are abilities a genuine lunar lander/hopper will need. If the engine testing is paid for by some razzle-dazzle what's wrong with that?

And yes, Branson seems to have found a way to cash in on his Virgin Galactic investment without even having a finished vehicle. It really is P.T. Barnum. So what's your complaint about that? Isn't P.T. Barnum an all-American classic?

Monday, July 03, 2006 7:18:00 PM  
Blogger TomsRants said...

PT Barnum put a lot of bucks in his pocket, but he did little to advance the entertainment industry, per se - it was Thomas Edison who did that, with his invention of the kinescope. Barnum sold his own version of kool-aid - pure fantasy, in the name of entertainment. Yes, indeed, it's all American as WMDs in Iraq. But ITS NOT A SPACEPORT. It's not bootstrapping a real honest-to-God industry. Spectators and landlubber-tourists don't pay for that - flying customers do. What's so difficult to understand about that??

And who says Branson has made back a dime yet?? "Amateur intuition" or not, you still have to base your conclusions on something you can count or hold in your hand sooner or later.

Monday, July 03, 2006 8:08:00 PM  
Blogger Bill White said...

Mr. tomsrant . . .

Why is flying customers inherently more valuable than spectators watching a drag race to space (whether in person or on TV)? Visualize a number of suborbital vessels of different designs competing on a Saturday morning to get from the tarmac to 100 km in less elapsed time than the others.

Anyway, = IF = a business case can be closed and = IF = the suborbital companies can provide their investors a return on investment without plastering their vehicles with logos, NASCAR style, that might well be a good thing. But if they cannot, the banker needs to be paid one way or the other.

Why not both or all? Why either / or?

= = =

Branson did that ad bit with 7-UP, remember?

No way he did that gratis, without revenue coming in. Probably just a drop in the bucket but it's still cash flow.

Monday, July 03, 2006 9:40:00 PM  
Blogger Bill White said...

Take a good look at this picture - link and tell me who the target market is for this location. Is it the paying passenger or land lubber spectators? Actually, if I am right the answer is BOTH!

Why should anyone have a problem with that?

Features of the Singapore SpacePort. But whether or not this is a "good thing" or not is an entirely different question because unless you seek government money, this route simply is where the money is.

Track Peter Diamondis and his plans for example and Sir Richard Branson is far more like P.T. Barnum than Thomas Edison.

= = =

On the main point, I can agree easily enough Singapore is building a theme park not a space port, but then Disney employees are called "cast members" including the girls selling you Coca Cola at $4 for 16 ounces.

Monday, July 03, 2006 10:05:00 PM  
Blogger Bill White said...

Can we all finally agree?

It appears to me that the traditional "port functions" for all of these proposed spaceports are rather far down the road with "theme park" revenue being counted upon in the interim to close the business case and/or justify expending tax revenue.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006 10:30:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

I was at the first flight of SS1 just over 2 years ago - the crowds were somewhere in the 10k+ range IIRC.

27,000 was the figure I recall. I have no idea which number is right, let alone how you'd get a good estimate to nail that figure down.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006 11:03:00 PM  

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