Lockheed/Bigelow Space Tourism Deal

Earlier this week when I posted a link to the Lockheed paper on man-rating Atlas V, I got an off-list comment from somebody to expect a major announcement from Lockheed this week. Well, we didn’t have to wait too long. According to an article on NASASpaceflight.com, Lockheed Martin and Bigelow Aerospace have entered into a deal to investigate using the Atlas V for space tourism. The kicker is the market size–16 flights per year between crew/passengers and cargo. That could mean as many as 60-120 people flying to orbit *per year*.

The deal apparently covers finishing up some of the technical research into man-rating the Atlas V, as well as studies into the making the business case close, and probably also covering studies into ways to streamline their processes further to enable a flight rate as high as they’re talking about (while also cutting costs to a point where they can offer a ticket price that enough people can afford to get the flight rate they want).

This is rather interesting, because I brought this topic up on the way down to work while carpooling with Ian and Pierce. I have a half-written blog post looking into the economics. My first read is that I’m skeptical they can make this work, however here are some things to chew on:

  • Lockheed has the contract for the Orion capsule, which means that they can probably piggy-back a lot of their space tourism capsule work off of what they’re doing for Orion. Also, if they happen to be able to field their Atlas V tourism vehicle before Orion, they might be able to make out like total bandits–netting billions in development funds for something that they can turn around and say “look, we have a cheaper, and better alternative that’s already on the market, –go with us, and you could save lots of money”. The upshot being even more flights on their Atlas V. I think this is potentially win-win-win for Lockheed.
  • As LM has pointed out elsewhere a lot of the price hikes for Atlas V stem from the fact that they’re only launching 2-4 of these per year. They have to cover all of their payroll costs, factory maintenance and upkeep costs, pad ops costs, etc but spread out over much fewer launches. At 2-4 flights per year, they’re looking at $140M for their barebones Atlas V, while at 6-8 flights per year they were offering it initially for about $70M. At 20 flights per year, maybe they could cut the price down into the $35-50M range. At that point, the costs per person would be in the $5-10M range.
  • Bigelow has stated time and again that he’s not in the orbital hotel business. He expects to make most of his money off of building space stations for research, manufacturing, providing low-cost space programs to countries not traditionally thought of as having space programs, as well as orbital tourism. A lot of those other markets aren’t as sensitive to cost per ticket as they are to reliability of access. 16 flights per year means that you have a ride to orbit about every 3 weeks or so, which while not perfect, makes many space-based research projects a lot more feasible. Frequent, reliable access to space is just as important as cheap access to space.

So, the burning question are: Can they pull this off? Can they get the price lown enough to open up a market? Will this have a positive or negative effect on the rest of alt.space? If a business case exists, can they actually succesfully execute on this? How will this effect the implementation for the rest of the Vision for Space Exploration? Will this end up being the Iridium/Teledesic boondoggle for this decade, or will it actually work out?

We live in interesting times. Strange things are definitely afoot at the Circle K.

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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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18 Responses to Lockheed/Bigelow Space Tourism Deal

  1. meiza says:

    Countries are in the spaceflight business for prestige and if you buy a station from someone else as well as the rides, you lose most of that…

  2. kert says:

    Im eagerly awaiting comments from Space Cynics. Commercial manned space launch, after all, was supposed to be Kool-Aid drinking. Have people at LM gotten hands on that beverage too ?

  3. Bill White says:

    Countries are in the spaceflight business for prestige and if you buy a station from someone else as well as the rides, you lose most of that…

    True, but if you are Portugal and Bigelow offers you a deal for $500 million or $1 billion, maybe it works out to still be a good deal since Portugal cannot possibly afford a genuine home grown space program.

    And Bigelow has a billion dollar customer.

  4. meiza says:

    Portugal is a member of ESA. I don’t know if they are a member in the ESA human spaceflight programme though, and how much they contribute funds to ESA, but I’d bet they would rather use that way to launch a “local boy or girl” to space, they could also pick some industrial or scientific area best fitting to them and concentrate on it and pay a lot of the trip with that.

    But really, Lockheed has some good stuff brewing, Centaur-based orbital depots and all that jazz…

  5. Anonymous says:

    Lockheed can share tech between Orion and their private capsule, not only making more money off the NASA contract, but helping develop private space as well. What a great idea.
    NASA has said that if private space services develop, that they would use them. It would seem more likely that NASA would like to deal with Lockheed then a new company.
    Is this finally the competion everyone has been waiting for in making space affordable?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Sharp move on L.-M.’s part. Even if they never build the capsule, and only produce paper, they dry up some interest (and possibly investment) in SpaceX & RpK’s offerings.

    SpaceX doesn’t seem to need much outside investment, but I suspect RpK does, and the bookies were already giving them worse odds than SpaceX, so I suspect they’re the most likely to be hurt buy this. (If anyone is hurt by this.)

    Hopefully it won’t just produce paper (but I’m not going to my breath, just in case). My guess is that they see (with the rest of us) that everyone prefers commercial access to LEO after the shuttle retires, and they want a piece of that. Flying would also strengthen their argument that the CEV should fly on an Atlas V Heavy (or something similar).

    I do also do believe that there are a lot of true-believers at L.-M. that want human spaceflight to advance. I suspect that they’ll thrive in a commercial competitive environment, even if the traditionally-contracted side still lacks fur. 🙂

  7. tony says:

    I still can’t believe it. The company that flubbed X-33 is going to kill newspace by taking NASA’s money for Orion and providing transportation for Bigelow. If this isn’t the tail wagging the dog. Next they’ll have a plan to kill Ares 5 with an Inflatable Fuel depot in LEO with double walled Inflatable cryogenic tanks that use boiloff gas to peristaltically pump top of fuel into their Centaur.

  8. Kirk Sorensen says:

    The company that flubbed the X-33 was the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, in Palmdale, California. This is coming out of the Lockheed Martin Astronautics division in Denver, Colorado. If Skunk Works had listened to Astronautics they never would have even built the X-33. Don’t get the two mixed up. One’s flown rockets (lots of them) and the other one hasn’t.

  9. Edward Wright says:

    > The kicker is the market size–16 flights per year
    > between crew/passengers and cargo. That could mean
    > as many as 60-120 people flying to orbit *per year*.

    John, could you explain your math here? This is being reported as a three-person space station, so 16 flights would allow 48 visitors per year. Taxi pilots could probably get the number up to 60, but where does 120 come from? (Curiously, neither of those numbers are multiples of 16.)

  10. Edward Wright says:

    > The company that flubbed the X-33 was the Lockheed
    > Martin Skunk Works, in Palmdale, California.

    This is revisiionist history. X-33 was not a Skunk Works project, it was a Skunk Works-*led* project that involved employees from all across the company. Lockheed even produced viewgraphs boasting about how many states and divisions were involved.

    Lockheed employees started posting stuff like this as soon as they won the Orion contract. It’s as if someone at Lockheed distributed a set of talking points, including “Why we failed to build X-33.”

    > This is coming out of the Lockheed Martin
    > Astronautics division in Denver, Colorado.

    You mean the division that has trouble with English-metric conversions?

    > If Skunk Works had listened to Astronautics they never
    > would have even built the X-33. Don’t get the two mixed up. One’s flown rockets (lots of
    > them) and the other one hasn’t.

    Yes, you’ve flown missiles, and lost the airframe on every single flight. By missile standards, that’s success.

    That’s the scary thing. The missileers’ assumption that humans are “specimens” to be strapped on top of missiles and shot into space. The result is “spacecraft” that have high cost, poor reliability, and almost non-existant flight rates.

    Especailly scary are the comments by Lockheed guys that employees with aircraft experience will not be on the project. Those sound very much like NASA’s attitude prior to Apollo 1, where NASA rejected safety concerns because they came from “aircraft guys” like Scott Crossfield.

    To open the space frontier, we need to develop true spacecraft, with reliability, reusability, and maintainability similar to aircraft, not missiles.

    Missiles kill people.

  11. Kirk Sorensen says:

    Hi Ed,

    Were you on the X-33 program? I don’t remember seeing you there. And I can tell you, Denver’s involvement was miniscule and they thought the whole thing was a bad idea and that it should be shut down. At the time, we thought they were all a bunch of ding-dongs. Turns out they were right and we were wrong. We should have listened.

  12. Edward Wright says:

    > Were you on the X-33 program? I don’t remember seeing you there.

    I saw the briefings, and I know what Lockheed told Congress. It was very different from the version you guys are spinning now.

    I also know why X-33 failed, and it had nothing to do with it being “too much like an airplane.” Quite the opposite.

    X-33 probably violated every one of Kelly Johnson’s rules for skunk work projects. It failed because of Lockheed’s mistakes. Period. It does not prove that reusable vehicles are impossible and we have to go back to strapping astronauts into cannon balls and shooting them off on guided missiles.

    The current spin reminds me of the story about the boy who killed his parents then pleaded for mercy as an orphan. Except in this case, the boy ends up getting money from the court.

  13. Kirk Sorensen says:

    Ed, you’re so rambling, in so many different ways. I don’t work for Lockheed, and I’m not arguing against reusable vehicles. Take a pill, sit down.

  14. Edward Wright says:

    You don’t work for Lockheed, but you remember all the people who worked on X-33, and refer to the people on the X-33 project as “we”???

    > I’m not arguing against reusable vehicles.

    Huh? Do you think Orion is a reusable vehicle?

  15. Jon Goff says:

    Ed,
    Regarding the ~60-120 people per year number I came up with, it’s rather simple. LM says they’re building an 8 person vehicle. Bigelow says that while Sundancer is 3-person, when Nautilus is added on in 2012, it will be a 8 or 9 person facility. He stated that during the initial (pre-Nautilus) phase, they’ll only be needing 6-8 flights per year, with Nautilus they’ll expect 16 flights per year.

    16 flights, with 7 passengers and 1 crew comes out to about 112 passengers (or 138 people total). However many of those flights will be cargo flights, so if say 10 of 16 are cargo flights, that’s still about 50 people. I was being a bit sloppy with my numbers because I don’t have a lot of details yet, I was in a rush (needed to get back to getting *our* rocket in the air), and nobody really can tell what the exact number is going to be at this point anyhow.

    Whether the number is 50, 60, 120, or 138, it doesn’t matter. It’ll be a *huge* improvement over the status quo.

    ~Jon

    PS, could you try to be a little nicer in the comments section. I’d rather keep the light/heat ratio as high as reasonably possible. Thanks.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I’ll be very surprised if LMA can do this at a reasonable cost. Bigelow has stated he will used NASA man rating regs to define the requirements. This will kill it from a cost standpoint. The cots winners only have a chance of succeeding because they are willing to take not only $ risks, but people risks too. Look at spaceship one. Awesome design, but it nealry killed every pilot – it was risky, and anyone that tells you different is a liar. But that’s the beauty of privately funded systems, they are willing to take bigger risks than NASA can. I just don’t see LMA or bigelow taking those risks, and so I doubt they will reap the rewards they hope for.

  17. general says:

    This agreement is purely focused on the Atlas Launch Vehicle, not the crew capsule. Someone else needs to provide a capsule.
    You need to recall that EELVs were baselined for the Orbital Space Plane (OSP) Program, so Atlas knows how to human-rate their launch vehicle. I’m also certain that they know the costs, and would not be foolish enough to do all this if they felt that the business case wasn’t there.
    The real question is what is NASA going to do with this? Shouldn’t they embrace Atlas as a backup to Ares I in case there are delays in that program? I would think that Human Rating an Atlas 401 would be directly applicable to an Atlas HLV.

  18. Bill White says:

    The real question is what is NASA going to do with this? Shouldn’t they embrace Atlas as a backup to Ares I in case there are delays in that program? I would think that Human Rating an Atlas 401 would be directly applicable to an Atlas HLV.

    I would hope NASA trots out sports-cliche-speak to wish LM the best of luck and then behind the scenes give a bright green light to sharing Orion engineering development data with the 401 capsule team.

    A man-rated Atlas V is all good, particularly if LM spends their own dimes.

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