Iain Beat Me To The Punch

Sorry guys that I haven’t been phenominally talkative the last couple of days. I did have some more thoughts I wanted to interject regarding the L-1 and Aerobraking discussions, but I’ve been swamped at work. If Clark Lindsey, Alan Boyle, and the others I’ve heard from are right, the Centennial Challenges office will be announcing the rules on their Lunar Lander Analog competition that they want to do at the X-Prize Expo this year, and I’ve been trying to both get my stuff done for XA-0.1, while at the same time figuring out how to scale up the vehicle depending on how high they set the bar for this competition. We won’t know for sure any sooner than the rest of you, but if the number looks like something we can pull-off by October, my life is going to get even more busy than it’s been.

With that aside…I just wanted to briefly comment on a recent SpaceX related blog post over at Ambivalent Engineer: Why Merlin 2? While Iain didn’t make the exact point I wanted to make, he did come pretty close. I’m a huge fan of SpaceX (in case this is the first post of mine about them that you’ve read), that said, I’ve had a hard time figuring out why on earth they would want to try and build a commercial Saturn V class vehicle. Seriously, where is the market for that? Do they really think they’ll be able to convince NASA fire off all of those welfare case…erm…shuttle engineers, and buy from them when instead NASA could keep bribing dozens of congresscritters with jobs in their districts? More importantly, with how costly the rest of their infrastructure is looking like it will be, does he really think he’ll get enough of a flight rate out of his BFR to justify the added infrastructure and development costs he’s going to run into?

I honestly think that Elon, his current and future investors, and the rest of the industry would be better served if SpaceX actually decided to focus more on what it’s name claims it should be focusing on: Space Exploration Technologies. LEO access is an important part of such things, and I think that fully reusable (not just refurbishable) LEO access is going to be critical if we ever want to do more than just putz around in space, but mere access to LEO is only part of the equation. There are other technologies out there that if they were able to develop would greatly increase the value of their earlier investments.

How much more valuable would the Falcon series be if they also had the IP (and flight hardware) for doing rendezvous and docking, on-orbit propellant transfer and storage, precision partial aerobraking, etc? If they focused a little bit of their effort on continually improving the reusability and flight rate potential of their Falcon vehicles, while at the same time adding those other capabilities, I think they’d be far better off than if they spent hundreds of millions chasing Ultra Heavy Lift. Incremental improvements like going to regen cooled Merlins, upping their thrust a little, maybe eventually going for powered landing (either flyback booster style, or with a powered VL trick-out kit), figuring out how to reuse their upper stages, etc.

Merlin 2 and the BFR just really don’t seem to make a lot of business sense to me. Though I don’t know, Elon does have a couple hundred million more pieces of evidence to back up his claim to good business sense than I do to back up my own. Maybe I’m just missing something, or just being a Cassandra, but I really feel that SpaceX’s love afair with the BFR may be their undoing.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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19 Responses to Iain Beat Me To The Punch

  1. Anonymous says:

    I mostly agree with your points. But there are also a few good reasons to build the merlin 2:

    1. A good engine design team is a valuable asset. Over the next few years, they will make the merlin 1 regen cooled, build a high expansion ratio version of the merlin for the upper stage of falcon 5,9 and 9s9.

    They will also try to increase T/W and combustion efficiency. But when they are done with all that, elon has to give them something to do.

    2. Some investors like big plans for the future. So if there is some kind of “rocket.com bubble” in the future, the BFR might lead investors to think that spacex will be the microsoft of space.

    But still I would very much prefer them to build a real reusable TSTO with powered vertical landing.

  2. Anonymous says:

    We don’t know what Musk has in mind.

    We don’t know who has committed to launch on BFR. We don’t know if Musk has an ambitious investor lined up. We don’t even know if BFR is the primary target for Merlin 2. Or whether the Merlin 2 is meant to fill in the gap that was marked off by the imaginary parallel staging on the Falcon 9.

    Dan Schmelzer

  3. Anonymous says:

    I am reminded of another successful businessman bitten by the space bug. He had great designs, and bent metal also. That wasn’t enoguh, though. Time went on and eventually he contracted a severe form of the space bug, Saturn V Envy. Thus Mr Beale never saw liftoff of one piece of hardware. I hope Musk isn’t going down the same path.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Re: I am reminded of another successful businessman bitten by the space bug. He had great designs, and bent metal also.

    I don’t think you can compare the two. Elon knows that nobody will take him really seriously unless he succeeds with the falcon 1. And he has mentioned multiple times that the small satellite market is important to them.

    Then comes the 9, 5 and 9s9. And only when falcon 1, 5, 9 and 9s9 are in revenue service will they start seriously developing the BFR.

    About beal: we never know what made him bail all of a sudden. I think that maybe he had a major error in his design and decided to bail out because of that.

  5. Jon Goff says:

    Dan,
    We don’t know what Musk has in mind.

    That’s quite true. Elon didn’t become a multi-millionaire by being a dim bulb. He may very well have tricks up his sleeve, but…

    We don’t know who has committed to launch on BFR.

    I’m pretty sure the answer is nobody. Elon himself admitted back when he announced the Merlin-2 and the BFR that he wasn’t really sure they had a market for it yet. I just really don’t see an application for a vehicle of that size. NASA sure as heck isn’t likely to buy it. Way too much institutional pressure in the form of pork jobs.

    We don’t know if Musk has an ambitious investor lined up.

    He very well might. But investors without markets are useless. It’s quite possible to build something and have nobody come.

    We don’t even know if BFR is the primary target for Merlin 2. Or whether the Merlin 2 is meant to fill in the gap that was marked off by the imaginary parallel staging on the Falcon 9.

    Once again, I’m doubtful. A single Merlin 2 is likely going to have most if not all of the thrust of the full 9-engine Falcon 9 cluster. The problem is that that means you need to build a pretty darned big vehicle to get back to the point where you have engine-out capabilities again, and I think that for safety purposes, engine-out is a must.

    If the engine is really in the 750klbf-900klbf range, and if they don’t give up engine-out, you’re talking about a vehicle with over 100,000lb to orbit, but less than 200,000lb most likely. Too small to lift NASA’s stuff without on-orbit assembly, but too big for pretty much anything else. I think they’d be much better served by having Merlin-2 be a 150-250klbf engine. That way you could do a five-engine “Falcon 9 equivalent”, and have a 9 engine version be able to do heavier lifting, with a parallel staged version for if people really want the almost Saturn V type performance…..

    But Elon’s not a dim bulb, so he may have something up his sleeve. I sure hope so, for his sake.

  6. Jon Goff says:

    Anonymous,
    I’m not so worried about Musk completely losing focus now and never making it to space. Musk is way too smart for that, and he’s playing the game a lot better then Beal did. I’m almost 100% confident that he’ll get his Falcon 1-9 series flying, and probably make a bit of money in the process. Maybe even force Boeing and Lockheed out of their complacency, and maybe even help start some slightly larger-scale space tourism.

    What I think the BFR focus is liable to do to them though, is cost them in the long-run. There were a lot of early pioneers in the PC industry who botched things up one way or another and ended up on the scrap-heap of history. In spite of playing a huge part in getting PCs into the hands of the masses, nobody goes out and buys a Commodore anymore. I just don’t want to see Falcons be the Amiga of space launch.
    ~Jon

  7. Warren W. Thompson says:

    I think Beal’s official reason for ceasing development was related to the US government’s choice to fund the EELV development program. The primary market for the Beal vehicle was GEO and they claim that they ceased development in the face of government subsidized competition. Their Web site still has some information available at: http://www.bealaerospace.com/

  8. Anonymous says:

    One thing to keep in mind (and right now, I’m not finding the links) is that sometimes invention is the mother of necessity. Once a product or service becomes available, it can generate or spark heretofore untapped demand.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Regarding a market for the BFR, it does seem speculative, but we don’t know what goes on when Bigelow phones Musk. Bigelow can build modules as big as Musk can launch. On the other hand, I agree with you that relying on NASA business to close your business case doesn’t seem smart.

    Regarding parallel staging, remember when Musk announced that he was going to do parallel staging with the Falcon 1 vehicle? Eventually it was disannounced. I suggest that’s possible with the Falcon 9S5 and 9S9. Engine-out seems like a really nice feature, but not strictly necessary for cargo.

    Regarding giving his assembled propulsion team something big to do, I wonder whether the Merlin 2 was the choice over developing a high energy upper stage.

    Dan Schmelzer

  10. Anonymous says:

    one possibility : Elon actually has a bigger fish to catch than simply building a launch vehicle. He may have an application in mind which requires high flight rate from the BFR.
    So the theorethical customer to BFR might be Elon himself, with a project that he intends to make a lot of money from.

    As to which potentially profitable applications could require high flight rate from a Saturn V class rocket, i.e. _thousands_ of tons launched to orbit in short interval, i will leave as an excercise to the reader.
    Hint : ssi.org is a page to consult if you have lack of ideas.

  11. Gonow says:

    What if Elon was financing and building the BFR not for business sense, but to build the rockets that will allow him to reach his end-goal dream of colonizing Mars? My understanding is that he is in the rocket business to help colonizing Mars. Thus perhaps all of his other marketable rockets are to allow him to make money so that he can eventually finance the colonization of Mars toward his BFR.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Don’t you guys get it? The BFR is the whole purpose of SpaceX. Everything else is testing for that.

    Falcon 9 was announced so that people would know that they were going to fly an Atlas V class vehicle, but I don’t think they have any interest at all in flying a 9 or 27 (wtf?) chamber vehicle. They prefer simpler designs, and in the end they will build one.

    If a sub-100 M$/launch heavy launch vehicle is built, there will be a market. Scientists will jump all over the sort of flexibility that would allow. We’d be drowning in our own drool. (It might take a few years for the demand to pick up, though, given that the current planning cycle for robotic missions is 3-10 years.)

    Beyond that, I think it’s absolutely clear that this NASA administration would fly cargo to the Moon on a BFR in a heartbeat. If a commercial alternative to the shuttle-derived heavy is flying by then, they won’t even build the SD-heavy… they’ll RIF a shitload of people at KSC (and maybe other centers) and focus on building the LEM, etc., instead. (Assuming commercial variants of those aren’t coming online by then, either.)

    From his previous comments, I think Griffin thinks a heavy is critically necessary. However, also from those comments, I don’t think he wants the government to do it… he just has to say they are doing it, until the commercial variant allows them to fire the standing army.

    Love,
    An astrophysicist

  13. Iain McClatchie says:

    A couple of points.

    Don’t idolize Elon. He’s just zis guy, you know? I was fairly disappointed to find out what his other expensive, wacky project is (and no, I can’t say, really). Although I’m very excited about the goal of cheap access to LEO, and though I think SpaceX is doing the obvious right thing, I try not to hope that SpaceX is going to Save the U.S. Space Program. That’s not a sensible commercial goal. It may be one of Elon’s goals.

    I agree, Griffin wants to fire his standing army. I think this is a very smart man, who is practicing the art of the possible. He understands credibility and politics. SpaceX does not have credibility yet. That will take years, maybe a decade. (Consider what would happen if Orbital Sciences said they were going to build an HLLV. And they’ve put stuff in orbit.) In the meantime he’s going to pursue the direction given to him by his boss.

    Merlin 2 isn’t a drain on SpaceX. I don’t think they’ve bent metal yet. And I don’t think Merlin 2 is to keep the engine guys busy. They’ve got enough to do trying to build a regenerative Merlin, and getting the Merlin to restart in space, and so on, even if you believe the current pair of engines is working just fine.

    If SpaceX is going to pursue Merlin 2 and BFR, I fervently hope that Falcon I and Falcon 9 really are a learning exercise for them. Maybe while operating the little rockets they can figure out what really costs them money. Maybe they can make a BFR less expensive than F9 (4 engines instead of 9, possibly cheaper engines, cheaper interstage and fairing construction, and actually recover the first stage). Maybe they can avoid parallel staging entirely.

    SpaceX doesn’t need a high-energy upper stage either. Such a thing is completely irrelevant to getting payloads to LEO. Just look at how much trouble they’ve had with LOX just boiling away while they deal with delays, and imagine handling stuff that’s even colder.

  14. Jon Goff says:

    Anonymous,
    One thing to keep in mind (and right now, I’m not finding the links) is that sometimes invention is the mother of necessity.

    Yeah, I wrote a blog post about that very thing a few months ago.

    Once a product or service becomes available, it can generate or spark heretofore untapped demand.

    While that may be true, that seems to starry eyed and handwavy to me. In order to field the BFR, Musk is going to need outside investment, and a lot of it. People aren’t going to invest in something like this merely on the hope that maybe someone will come up with a use for it. That’s just too high of a market risk. Now, if down the road Bigelow starts wanting to do bigger modules, and they can presell a few flights, then I could actually see a BFR as being worthwhile. I just see it as being way premature at this point.

    ~Jon

  15. Jon Goff says:

    Dan,
    Regarding a market for the BFR, it does seem speculative, but we don’t know what goes on when Bigelow phones Musk. Bigelow can build modules as big as Musk can launch.

    The problem with that one is that Bigelow hasn’t flown a module yet, and has yet to so much as get a presell on one of his smaller modules. Banking on him needing an uber-launcher to put up an ISS sized module all in one go just seems a bit far fetched. More importantly, where’s the repeat business going to come from? Something this big will likely eventually make sense, but it seems like the BFR is like trying to build a 747 before we’ve built a DC-3.

    Regarding parallel staging, remember when Musk announced that he was going to do parallel staging with the Falcon 1 vehicle? Eventually it was disannounced. I suggest that’s possible with the Falcon 9S5 and 9S9.

    Well, the parallel staged Falcon 5/9 variants are right now only on paper. Musk has already stated that they’ll only fly them if they get a presell. That said, parallel staging is a lot better on a multi-engine vehicle than it is on a single-engine vehicle. On a single engine parallel-staged vehicle without propellant crossfeed capabilities, you have to have all three engines perform flawlessly, or the vehicle fails. If you have engine out though, the reliability hit drops down enormously. Now the only big reliability hit is that you have two more staging systems. It’s not perfect, but especially if those side stages are reusable, it’s not a crazy idea. At one point we were noodling doing a parallel staged XA-1.0 variant. It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

    Engine-out seems like a really nice feature, but not strictly necessary for cargo.

    I disagree. Cargo is expensive too. Unreliability costs more than engines. And especially once there are other RLV companies flying, the tolerance for a 2% chance of having your multimillion (or billion) dollar cargo end up in the drink is going to dry up *very* fast.

    Regarding giving his assembled propulsion team something big to do, I wonder whether the Merlin 2 was the choice over developing a high energy upper stage.

    The high energy upper stage was going to be developed by Pratt and Whittney (basically a Centaur variant).

    ~Jon

  16. Jon Goff says:

    Anonymous Commenters,
    [Btw, if you don’t absolutely need anonomity, could you at least leave initials or first name or something so people don’t get confused which anonymous person I’m responding to?]

    Regarding Elon providing his own market for the BFR…wishful thinking. Even if he can cut the costs to $500/lb in LEO, you’re still talking about a double digit percentage of his net worth per flight. He just doesn’t have enough money to fund stuff like that out of pocket without other customers.

    Regarding launching space solar satellites…it isn’t completely ridiculous, but also way premature. There are much better and cheaper ways of getting to there from here.

    Regarding drooling scientists buying lots of BFRs to do Skylab sized uberprobes and megasatellites…I just wonder where these scientists are going to get their money from. If NASA pays for it, they’re going to make such a satellite so expensive and complicated that it will take decades to complete. I just don’t think that NASA or anyone else can provide for high flight rate demand of vehicles that big. Not unless they were able to use that instead of the Longfellow for their return to the moon, and I’m skeptical that Elon will have an easy time pulling that off.

    ~Jon

    ~Jon

  17. mz says:

    Let’s see falcon 1 fly first. 🙂 A few times even maybe.
    I bet even Musk isn’t putting too much money into specific derivative design when even the basics haven’t been proved yet. Options will hopefully be much clearer soon.

  18. meiza says:

    oh, and I agree with Jon.
    Good reusability and orbital docking would be extremely useful technologies, and _much_ lower-hanging fruits than a heavy-lifter.

    Nasa might even have prizes on some of those.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Largest active engine is the RD-170 at 1.7 million pounds thrust at 4 chambers. For SpaceX to have the largest single-chamber thruster that is not the F-1, then Merlin 2 should have greater thrust than RS-68, but less thrust than F-1. Using the RD-180 at 850,000 lbs thrust as the upper limit for Merlin 2 thrust is probably not correct. Musk’s public comments probably indicate they are thinking of Merlin 2 as something between the 650,000 lbs of RS-68 and the 1.5 million lbs of F-1.

    The TR107 was a pintle-injector LOX/RP engine with thrust rated at 1.1 million pounds. Northrop received about $40 million in NASA contracts up to FY05 to develop this engine for the now cancelled SLI. Northrop maybe thought that SpaceX had borrowed their Merlin 1 engine design from the TR107 engine.

    I am just guessing, but SpaceX could continue the design work of the TR107, and call it the Merlin 2. This Merlin 2 would look very similar to both the Merlin 1 and the TR107, and they could ask for NASA/DOD contracts to develop it.

    A Merlin 2 with 1.1 million lbs thrust, like the TR107, would give 3.6 meter diameter Falcon 9 vehicle a 33,000 lbs to LEO performance – similiar to Sea Launch Zenit or proposed Soyuz 3. They would price this between the $35 million Falcon 9 with 5 meter fairing and the $51 million version that does 33,000 lbs to LEO. This rocket would eliminate the need to learn parallel staging on the S5 version of the Falcon 9. There is probably not a large market for the 50,000 lb payload version of the Falcon 9 triple, but it looks nice in brochures and Air Force/NRO EELV customer briefings.

    The 1.1 million lb thrust Merlin 2, similiar to the TR107, could be later integrated into a 7.2 meter or 8 meter diameter vehicle that offers 132,000 lbs to 330,000 lbs payload to LEO, with engine out capability on a 5-engine or 9-engine first-stage. For this new rocket, SpaceX would have to learn how to double the diameter of their Falcon 9 vehicle, to 7.2 meters or greater, just as they doubled the diameter of the Falcon 1 to become the Falcon 9. If you re-evaluate the Saturn V vehicle with a LOX/RP second-stage powered by a Merlin 2 (or TR107), an 8-meter diameter, a 5 Merlin 2 engine first-stage (i.e. 5.5 million lbs thrust), and no thrird-stage then you probably get a payload number around 176,000 lbs (i.e. 80 Metric tons).

    Who is the customer? What is the market? The customer could just be a development contract for Merlin-2 engine development. For payloads, the customer for a 33,000 lb version of Falcon 9 is the same customer-base for Sea Launch and Ariane V – commercial launch of 10,000 lb class satellites to GEO, which the proposed Falcon 9 single can’t do right now. The customer for a 60 metric ton to 130 metric ton launcher is the Air Force or anyone wanting to fly to the Moon or Mars. Space Adventures will fly a minimum of 2 paying passengers to the moon for $100 million each, which is a minimum of $200 million. I would think that many countries would pay $200 million to fly around the Moon, Venus, or Mars. I would guess that SpaceX could find a way to profitably launch a much more capable payload than Space Adventures is planning for well under $200 million if SpaceX ad this vehicle.

    The cost of Merlin 2 engine development should be under $100 million, because SpaceX has the TR107 as a baseline. If it costs SpaceX $200 million total to develop an 80 metric ton payload vehicle, and a Merlin 2 engine to propel it, SpaceX would make a $50 million profit if the U.S. Air Force gave SpaceX a $250 million demo launch contract similar to the $250 million launch contract they gave to Boeing for the partially successful Delta IV Heavy launch demo (with only 25 ton capability). If SpaceX gets NASA or the Air Force to pay for the development on cost-plus contracts, then the economics are really in their favor.

    If the Merlin 2 is the TR107, then the risk to return economics are not as bad as they might initially appear. For an investment of $100 million to $200 million in the Merlin 2, SpaceX might double their competitveness and the market of payloads that they are qualified to launch.

    What do you think?

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