Monday, March 17, 2008

Why is it not so easy to sell apples in ISS

This post is as a result of watching a few engedu talks on space station (totaling over 3.5 hours).

Whatever technical details I describe are from talks that are a combination of what Edward Lu, Daniel Bursch and Jim Newman describe about the international space station, the Soyuz, MIR, space shuttle, weightlessness and other related stuffs. Whatever you read below will be minor(?) details for the actual content of this post: "Why it is not so easy to sell apples in International Space Station", even though there is a lucrative market :).

The International Space Station:
Well first of all, the International Space Station is the (only) inhabited place outside the earth. It’s the place to be, if you are not on earth. International Space station is a joint effort from US, Russia and the ESA (European Space Agency). The economics in the space station cargo transfer is like this. It is cheaper to take something into space (roughly $10000/kg) but its costlier to bring it back (roughly $30000/kg). So it’s cheaper to take apples to the space station, sell it, but it’s not so cheap to bring the empty bag back to earth.

Some extra info: The only vehicle that is capable of taking cargo on large quantities is the Space Shuttle. Space shuttle can carry cargo close to 10 tons(!) whereas the Soyuz module has very less cargo capability (typically in Kgs).

How do you reach there?
There are currently two ways to reach (3 in the future with ESA coming up). Use the Space Shuttle or the Soyuz vehicle.

About Space Shuttle and Soyuz: Space Shuttle is a billion dollar transfer vehicle. For a successful liftoff, we need to ensure that more than few hundreds of critical parts work without glitch. Edward Lu talks about "Simple is Good" strategy which the Russians adopted (partly due to the fact that they didn’t have lot of funding). There are several failure modes in Space Shuttle, whereas the Soyuz has very few failure modes, and is pretty simple to use (due to less complexity).

Getting Ready for Space to sell my apples:
Launch Preparation:
To get myself ready to sell apples, first I need to choose which of these two transfer vehicles I need to get to space. I will try to put the details first for both. We shall defer the decision to choose which of these vehicles at a later time (or when I actually go to space to sell my apples).
There are two roles in which one can enter the International Space Station (henceforth ISS). One could enter as an astronaut or as space station visitor(think of Charles Simonyi). As a space station apple seller, one could choose either of these roles. For the former, one needs to enroll in the Astronaut program. Well for the later, you need something like 40-50 Million dollars.

Reaching as a Space Visitor:
Even though you are just a space visitor, you are given a 3 months intense training in weightlessness (which usually comprises of weightlessness training, swimming, parachuting and stuffs like learning to operate the space shuttle/Soyuz control systems, learning how to fly them).

In general, the space visitor is not expected to fly the shuttle/Soyuz, but learn to get out in case of emergency. Most of the astronauts/cosmonauts are not civilians and are often skilled & commercial pilots. In fact, Ed Lu suggests that around 50% of all Astronauts are not civilians). In any case, you need to invest time and money to sell apples in space :).

Reaching as an Astronaut:
To enroll in the astronaut program, one has to qualify for very specific height requirements. Its much more stringent in the Soyuz. The shortest in the Soyuz is like 5'2" and the tallest is like 6'2" or something like that. In general, the Russian average height is lesser than that of the Astronaut limitations. In fact, the Russians have stringent limitations for leg length, arm length etc., the astronaut training program is for 2 years at least. The cosmonaut training is also for almost the same time. In some cases where you are an Astronaut commanding/flying the Soyuz, things get different (like what Ed Lu experienced). The Russians have a stringent training and an exam at the end. During the training, one is trained on a simulator located at space center near Moscow. At the end of training, the cosmonaut usually have a *formal* test. A chit is taken out of the chits on which is written possible worst day scenario. The cosmonaut is put on simulator with the scenario and they test the cosmonaut's response to the situation. Only those who are able to handle them successfully will be able to fly the Soyuz. Although the Astronauts in US don’t have such stringent rules, one certainly has to qualify the training.

Getting to space station through the Shuttle:
If you are getting to the space station from Shuttle, you have to be at the Florida Shuttle Launch center. Each astronaut is allowed to take a few kg load(s) of personal cargo. If we are going to sell apples after becoming astronaut, it’s pretty logical to carry those apples in the personal load. Ah! Did I forget to tell you that actually there are few apples and fresh fruit loads that are sent by the Mission Command on the cargo loads that reach the ISS! (OMG, we already have a competitor). Both the Space Shuttle launch and the Soyuz launches have their own rituals. Every space shuttle mission has a name like STS-# (e.g.: STS-109 etc) and they have a logo for the mission, which represents what the mission is. For example, if we could influence the Mission Command about our apple selling, we could have apple somewhere in the mission logo :). The other ritual is the Mission Commander getting down the space van and checking the weather before the flight. The Mission Commander/director usually gives this statement before lift off - "Good Luck, and God save you if you screw up".

A week before the actual shuttle launch one is quarantined. Hence, you should choose the kind of apple that you want to take to the space station before that. Also, it is important that you have someone you know all along, who is in the mission command around to provide you fresh apples before you embark on the space shuttle. It is generally said that the reason for quarantine is to ensure that the astronauts don’t catch any diseases and fall sick. Guesses are that the true reason is that the last one-week is crucial to a successful mission and hence one should not possibly be disturbed. Quarantine helps on that front.

The space shuttle is a huge vehicle, which is always kept facing the sky when it is assembled with the solid rocket boosters. These solid rocket boosters are fueled a day or something before the space mission. Hence, there is always a cost associated with refueling the boosters if one chooses to postpone the mission. There are huge cranes that transfer the space shuttle from the hangar to the launch pad.

Being solid boosters to blast off, the journey during the initial phase with solid boosters is usually not really smooth. But once the solid booster phase is over, the ride becomes really smooth to the ISS. The space shuttle should orbit in paths same as ISS when it wants to dock. So, the space shuttle gets into the 200km altitude orbit. Also, generally the space shuttle does not dock into the ISS 2 hours after liftoff; it takes a day to get into the orbit it requires as well as ensuring all the necessary precautions are taken.

To tell about the space shuttle, it has 5 computers on board for running the space shuttle-by-wire. 4 of them do the same calculation and verify if the results are same and the 5th one is a different computer from a different vendor that is a failsafe (standby) computer that takes control when the 4 computers bluff. On a side note (about space station, not the shuttle), most of the Space station design ideas are flicked from Nuclear Submarine. Do you know the reason why? The Space station is subject to the same radiation problems that Nuclear Submarines face!. You write a bit as 1 in memory and after seven hours read it back, and it may not be the same 1!!!. Some astronauts have reported random bright lights in their eyes while sleeping, most of which are random retina neuron firing due to the radiations.

Docking into the ISS is a critical step in the whole apple-selling mission (you are reaching your market!). There have been previous incidents in MIR (Russian space station) where Soyuz cargo had collided with MIR at great speed! Also, the general rule of the thumb in space is, if you want to go slow, you should never speed down, you will go fast! (I don’t know why it’s that way). Space shuttles that want to slow down usually go at larger orbits than ISS and then return back....

Getting to space station through the Soyuz:
If you are getting to the space station through Soyuz, you generally have a 1-year training period, if you are the commander and a 3-month odd training if you are a traveler along. The launch assembly is at the Baikonur cosmodrome and the place nearby where the rocket launch pad exists. Flying on the Soyuz can happen only if you pass the training and the test. Assuming we have done that, there are a lot of Russian rituals that happen. Before blasting off to space, the day before, the cosmonauts visit the Kremlin, visit the graveyards of Yuri and the Father of Russian Cosmonautics, Konstantin and pay respect to them. After that, they sign the register in Yuri's desk.

In general, the Russian technology has always been to let the rockets sleep when they assemble (I mean to lay them horizontal). At Baikonur, there is a train track to move the rockets to the launch pads. They have little worry like the Space Shuttle to ensure that the shuttle is always erect when transported, as they are made erect only on the day of launch using huge cranes.

Getting into the Soyuz involves taking elevator from the top (uh! then its not elevating ;) )of the rocket. It is a two-hour wait after the cosmonauts board the Soyuz in their space suits and check their pressure/temperatures. As a shrewd Apple seller, one should just mentally count how many apples one has taken, and how to sell them once reaching the ISS (the market).

And then you blast off into space. The rockets are liquid fueled unlike solid boosters. Hence the journey is much more smoother. However, when one stage ends and the other stage starts, there is a 4G to 0G to back to 4G again.. The mission commander on board the Soyuz has a checklist that he has to keep ticking off to ensure that the launch goes smooth. As a Soyuz passenger, we are anyway in constant touch with the base to ensure that launch steps are not missed. Once you are into space, the travel is smooth and the only destiny in space is the ISS :).

Spending six months in the space station - What to do beyond selling apples?
Well, didn’t I tell you that you have to be in the space station for 6 months, as a part of the ISS crew apart from selling apples? (I know I didn’t ;-) ). If you came back immediately after selling your apples, you are going to stare at a huge "space flight" bill. So, it’s a wise idea to actually do something similar to an RA/TA thing for the Houston Mission command for 6 months and reduce the space flight bill. :) Words of Wisdom: A wise businessmen always reduces his liability. Once you are close to the space station in whatever (Soyuz/ shuttle), on docking, the first thing that is done is pressure equalization. Get the ISS habitants near the hatch, because that is the time they are going to smell something. When the pressure is equalized, make sure you keep your apples close to the pressure notch, so that the smell reaches the other end and your potential customers are enticed. ISS has state-of-the-art air purification system. Hence after a few minutes the smells vanish rapidly. People who have been to the space station tell you that the ISS smells like "nothing".

Once the ISS hatch is opened for you, get out and get your cargo (apples) along and keep it in some safe place. Get yourself comfortable and sell apples :). The better businessmen you are, the more you can sell. Sell all your apples and get ready to dump the empty bag somewhere in the station (ESA Cargo dock? what say?).

Now that you have 6 months at your disposal at the station, try out your luck at all things that you can do. Weightlessness is the best thing. Try the superman stunts that you cant do on earth. ISS is like a 1000 square foot house on earth, but remember that in ISS there is nothing called roof. Human has access only to the ground of a house. At ISS you have access to every corner and hence ISS might appear much bigger than that.

If you ever wanted to get out of the ISS on a walk (space-walk), you need to get your pressure down first. From 15 psi to 5psi on the Russian space suite and 4psi on the American space suite. The time to prepare for the space walk is usually 2 hours on American space suite. People usually have a heavy workout before space walk, to remove nitrogen from body. The Russian space suite requires lesser time to prepare for space walk. The American space suite has a thread that always connects to the ISS, whereas in the Russian suite, the astronaut has 2 prongs, each on one hand. The space suite has enough radiation prevention system to ensure that the inner temperature is in the 20 degree centigrade range. But the space walker has to face his own body heat. So usually, the space walker has water cooled under wears :D.. sounds cool? ;)

Other job that one could do on the space station is to take photographs of cities and sell them when back :D (oh! well, not really sell as all photos astronauts take are on public domain). Also, you could go over auroras and enjoy like being inside the neon-bulb. Auroras are of different colors based on the magnetic intensity and other factors (which I don’t know of). One naive thing most people do when on zero gravity first is to try doing somersaults on the gravity less surrounding, which sounds cool the first time being weightless, but gets natural (since you have already played all those games when doing your training in weightlessness on ground). For your entertainment, we also have a DVD player on the space station and some nice movies to play.

Six months is quite some time and people often start getting depressed in their 3rd month on board the ISS. It is important to understand that and get one's act together. After all, now that you have sold your apples, your idea now is not to quarrel among the inhabitants, but to reduce your space flight bill.

Flying back to Earth:
Flying back to earth can happen only when the next crew comes back to the ISS. Flying back can happen with the same 2 possibilities like the way you reached the space station. Either on the Soyuz or the Space Shuttle. The journey back to earth is much more dangerous than the other way (oh well you could say the other way as well). When any rock/item passes through the earth's atmosphere, it faces rapid friction and burn up on the earth's atmosphere. That’s why our earth's surface is not pimpled like that of the moon :-). Your space vehicle will not be spared, it is also going to be subject to the same thing. Temperatures outside the vehicle can get from anywhere between thousand degrees to around 4-5 thousand and beyond (correct me if I m wrong here). The space shuttle crews often seen bright light all along the sides of the shuttle (due to the rapid heat that burns outside) and a broken tile is an impending disaster, as the heat can reach the inside through the broken tile. No wonder Columbia shuttle mission ended up on a sad note.

On the Soyuz it’s rather less eventful, mostly because you are sitting inside a vehicle and unable to see much outside as a crew member (the commander can see outside, I guess). The attack vector of the Soyuz is much more than the Space shuttle. Hence, it is easy to maneuver the Soyuz in case of issue to few hundred miles on either side (or left and right). The last 5 miles in the Soyuz is always a guess, because there is a parachute involved and it can lead you anywhere in a designated radius. The Space shuttle lands in a standard space shuttle track and there is one on either coasts (Land on Mojave Desert or on the east coast). In the Soyuz, you take a few hours to get to a safe place, because you land in Kazakhstan, in the middle of nowhere and the Russian rescue helicopters get you into a make-shift tent to get you warm, you get a hot cup of coffee or something and then take you to the Space Center near Moscow, where they have the media circus and then they leave you home. It is common for local folks near the landing site in Kazakhstan come and see the cosmonauts, because they believe it gives great luck to one when one sees those "people from space" :).

[The Fun Part] Lets put the balance sheet for the business:
Time Investment:
As Astronaut/ Cosmonaut: 2 Years for Training, another 1 year (or a fast track 9 weeks) if learnt to fly Shuttle but end up flying Soyuz.
As Space Tourist: 3 months for training at Russia, 2 weeks on board the ISS and 6 months if you decide to stay there for 6 months to foot your bill. (In truth if you stay longer at ISS the cost gets higher, lets forget that for the moment).

Money Investment:
As Astronaut/ Cosmonaut: Several million dollars on the simulators in US and Russia. Your portion of the cost of blast off into space and well, cost for essential supplies that you use up on the space station (water, oxygen, electricity etc) and of course the apples that you took to the space station.
As Space Tourist: 40 million dollars to get to the space station for those few days in ISS.

Wisdom: A lot of wisdom on space in general, which obviously cannot be a part of the balance sheet :(.
Selling Apples: Of course, we went there to sell apples, so our return on investment will certainly not be zero :). The shrewder businessman you are the costlier you can sell. The bigger problems with selling those apples are the point that if you were on the Shuttle to ISS, you won’t reach there so early to have fresh apples. But you can carry a lot more on the shuttle to ISS. If you were on Soyuz, you have very little space to carry such things. Another big problem is the fact that the customers on board the ISS may not be wealthy enough to buy your apples for millions of dollars to make the business viable. As they are also co-astronauts like you, they might end up to be your competitors.

What’s the final say?
It is not a viable business plan to sell apples on the Space station (as you might have guessed).


balaji said...

Superb narrative and flow.. though the post was very long, enjoyed (and got educated) reading it...

-g balaji

Varun S said...

@gb: Thanks da.

arun said...

Your post is very well written. It was interesting and informative to read. I got plenty of new info about space travel. I thought the way you described the balance sheet for selling apples was nice good natured geeky fun! Keep it up.


govindarajansuresh said...

I don't think anybody would have objected if Varun is also added in the list in the first paragraph along with Edward, Daniel and Jim. Varun, you have described so well that virtually the reader is taken to the space. Though the technical data in between is causing little jerks...... though it is a bit lengthy and could have been in a series (in two or three posts) is a wonderful mix of science & technology, business and economics and so on........all to happen away from earth! Very nice... keep it up!!

Arun Prasath Gopalakrishnan said...

Hey Varun,

It was very interesting to read. Good work and keep it up.


shiva said...

Senior, it was packed with info!! thanks for educating!!

I'd prefer the Russian Soyuz though I wonder why one should visit graveyards before embarking!!

When are you getting started on the training?? :)

chicks said...

well well well..wht do i say...ur frens have said it all..:)
this write-up is a perfect google(y)google-bee :)

Mitchell said...

Very clever. The only thing I would add would be that having failed to find a wealthy enough buyer onboard the ISS for profitable apple-distribution, the wily businessperson might find a way to preserve (freeze-dry?) said apples, infuse them with state-of-the-art ISS air (for later authentication purposes), brand the apples as ISS-modified fruit, and return to Earth with a value-enhanced product, auctionable on Ebay for mega-rupees. This will undoubtedly lead to multiple interview opportunities in various worldwide media about this clever young entrepreneur, commercial endorsement opportunities as fame increases, large speaking fees from corporations with more money than sense (cents?), and, finally, a large grant from the overactive imagination of a Silicon Valley zillionaire to fund the start-up of a space-modified consumables venture. A win-win investment for all, at least until the IPO..... :-)

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