What costs more than space exploration? Tea.
I spent most of last week visiting London for work (hence the slow rate of posts on this Tumblr), where I was reminded of a fundamental fact that sometimes gets obscured here in the USA: there are a lot of people in the world who really, really like tea. Whether black, white, green, red, white, yellow, or oolong, and whether hot or iced, tea drinks, tea products, and tea culture are big business throughout much of the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, some 4 billion kilograms of tea were consumed worldwide in 2010. The US isn’t generally considered a tea-drinking nation, but even here, tea is a popular beverage. According to the Tea Association of the USA, Americans consumed more than 3.60 billion gallons of tea (mostly black tea, and mainly iced) in 2012. In various different forms (ready-to-drink iced teas, wholesale purchases of tea leaves for home brewing, and restaurant purchase of teas), tea constituted a $9.79 billion market in the US in 2012, according to the same group.
To pull a specific example, Bigelow Tea—a family-owned tea company based in the Connecticut and with sales (and its plantation) in the US—has an annual market of approximately $140 million, according to the company’s President.
In 1999, Robert Bigelow—the founder and owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain; no relation to the Bigelow Tea family, at least as far as I can tell—started a new aerospace company called Bigelow Aerospace. A few years later, Bigelow licensed the technology from a cancelled NASA project called TransHab, which was developing inflatable space modules—essentially blow-up space stations and planetary bases that could one day hold astronaut crews. For a small fee (according to Bloomberg Businessweek: $40,000). From there, Bigelow has worked hard to develop the technology to the point where he can offer inflatable space stations to governments, private companies, and individuals. In July 2006 and in June 2007, Bieglow launched small modules into space. The larger of these, Genesis II, encloses 11.5 cubic meters of useable volume—you can track Genesis II’s current position online. Then, in December 2012, Bigelow signed a deal with NASA wherein a Bigelow module would be added to the International Space Station sometime in 2015—adding a 565 cubic feet space in which the astronauts can live and work.
Bigelow is a privately owned company, so exact financials are difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, Mr. Bigelow has summarized the company’s total level of spending a few times: in 2006, shortly after the launch of the Genesis I module, Bigelow reported he’d spent about $75 million in total throughout the history of the company, whereas big 2013, Bloomberg Businessweek was reporting a total expenditure on the order of $250 million. NASA’s contract with Bigelow for the new ISS module totals $17.8M.
Using the above numbers, if drinkers of Bigelow tea decided to kick the tea habit for a year and instead by some space onboard a Bigelow module attached to the ISS, they could add an additional ~4,444 cubic feet to the station, increasing the habitable volume of the station by about a third.