Sundancer

As most of you have now read (either here or here), Robert Bigelow announced at the Space 2006 conference today in San Jose that they are going to try and launch their first manned space station by late-2009/early-2010. This first module, Sundancer, will be about half the internal volume of the Nautilus (somewhere between 165-180 cubic meters depending on which source you read), and will be light enough (aboug 19klb) to launch on the single stick versions of Atlas V, Delta IV, Zenit Sea Launch, or Falcon IX (or Soyuz, Proton, or Ariane V for that matter). He plans a few years later to add on a full scale Nautilus module, and a service module of some sort. That’ll add capacity for six more people (bringing it to nine total), and will bring the total internal volume to greater than 500 cubic meters. I’ve been inside of one of their mockups there in Las Vegas, and those are impressively big structures!

I read about this pretty much right after Rand posted the information, but I was busy all day at work making wiring revisions on the sparker circuitry for our four vernier engines (as well as sneaking out to the test site for a rocket engine firing), and now is the first time I’ve had a chance to think.

So here’s a few thoughts I’ve had after reading the initial articles, as well as a few details I noticed:

  • The LM/Bigelow “deal” mentioned this morning is really just a feasibility study. Bigelow still has a similar deal with SpaceX, and may also have a similar deal with RpK. Bigelow isn’t actually committed to giving LM any or all of the launch contracts for his hotel. That decision won’t be made until closer to initial launch (Rand said something about cutting contracts in 2008 for actual flights).
  • Bigelow hinted that the likely price per ticket for the Atlas V based passenger vehicle would be about $10M each. That jibes pretty well with what I figured they could do at that flight rate (I have more thoughts on that coming in a future blog post). The Lockheed papers and Bigelow’s comments also hint that the proposed LM vehicle would be an 8 seater. Some have compared this to Apollo and Gemini scratching their heads, but the reality is that there actually have been a few technological improvements over the past 40 years. People in most industries understand this.
  • Bigelow’s plan of trying to convince non-space-visiting countries to start their own low-cost space programs by sending astronauts to his station is not a crazy idea. If it works, it’ll probably be seen as a stroke of genius. $10M is a bit of money for a three-week vacation to orbit, but is a pittance compared with operating a normal government manned space program. Think about it, you could spend less than 5% of what NASA spends on ISS/Shuttle per year, and still fly just as many of your people into space for just as long. And with more frequent access, you could actually do something useful there. I think that Bigelow’s goal of taking the number of space-visiting nations from the current 11 to 60 over the next few years is a really good goal.
  • By targetting foreign governments, businesses, and research, as well as some genuine tourism, Bigelow is helping prime the pump for private spaceflight. The big problem is that at $10M a shot, space tourism alone is unlikely to yield more than…10-15 people per year (I’ll go into more detail in that other post). That’s a ton compared to what we have right now, but only accounts for a few flights per year. Not enough demand to really build a business case on. But when you add those other markets, it all the sudden gets up to 16 flights per year on an Atlas V based vehicle, which could be as many as 40-50 flights per year on a smaller future RLV. Of course, at that flight rate, getting the ticket price down far enough that you really start catalyzing demand and getting into the breakthrough phase (say $1-5M per ticket) is entirely possible. One of the biggest holdups to private space transportation has been the lack of an elastic market big enough to justify a vehicle with a flight rate high enough to yield low enough costs to make a difference. This potentially changes that.
  • Not only that, but a Sundancer is small enough that it might make a good payload to take out to L-1, or as a “mission module” attached to a capsule for long duration trips, or as a lunar surface cabin. Nautilus is a lot bigger and spacier, but at 50klb, it’s way too heavy to move around easily. 19klb is much easier to take around and drop off where needed.
  • If Bigelow can really pull off getting sufficient flight demand at $10M/ticket, through tapping additional markets, that makes a lot of other business plans easier to close, such as a lunar transportation company. I had always been assuming that you wouldn’t get past the 2-3 flights per year demand range until you had the ticket price down in the single digit millions range. But if you could find governments that want to send people to do lunar research or prospecting, or whatever (or companies or research or non-profit organizations), the ticket price where you could get decent demand may well be in the $10-20M range, which brings that a whole heck of a lot closer to reality.

Anyway, that’s all I have for now. It’ll be a while before all the ramifications of this announcement sink in. There are a lot of things that could go wrong, but I can also see a lot of hope for the future. If Bigelow’s plan works, it will have far greater effects on our status as a space-faring civilization than the Vision for Space Exploration will ever have.

Bravo, Mr Bigelow.

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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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6 Responses to Sundancer

  1. kert says:

    I think that Bigelow’s goal of taking the number of space-visiting nations from the current 11 to 60 over the next few years is a really good goal.
    But then there are those four letters: ITAR

  2. Jon Goff says:

    Kert,
    ITAR isn’t some mystical unconquerable beast. Sure, there are restrictions that can be annoying. Sure, you have to have a few good lawyers when dealing with foreigners. But when you’re talking about a market as big as Bigelow is talking about, having a good staff of ITAR lawyers is not that big of an issue. I’m sure that Bigelow’s already put a lot of thought into that angle. They’ve been dealing with ITAR for some time now.

    Now, messing with ITAR issues when you’re a small, 5-man alt.space company without a high-powered legal team on retainer…that’s suicidal. But for Bigelow, ITAR is likely just another bureaucracy they have to deal with. An annoyance, not a showstopper.

    ~Jon

  3. larry says:

    ITAR – will be irrelevant within 5-10 years!

    It’s a funny thing about the law of physics – those cold equations work for anyone.

    Just watching the level of progress other countries are achieving. If Bigelow can’t deal with them – how long before they can duplicate technology?

    ITAR is either going to evolve or die.

    Hit the thrusters…

    larry

  4. Bill White says:

    Jon,

    Add an EML-1 node and a re-useable single stage LSAM (isn’t that the whole point of your upcoming event in Las Cruces) and you can step onto the moon rather inexpensively, right? Even a Soyuz can travel to an EML-1 node where the passengers can change trains to the r-LSAM.

    Add lunar LOX and you have sustained lunar access and a HUGE market for NewSpace to ship LH2 or methane to EML-1. Would “no NASA” be a feature or a bug?

    Portugal or Argentina [may] or [may not] be too keen on paying $50 million for an astronaut in LEO yet might they pay $1 billion to place their flag on the Moon with the President that nation getting huge photo ops from the phone call?

  5. Big D says:

    How much of an issue will ITAR be, though? Foreign involvement will be limited to passengers on the ship whodon’t get to really see ortouch anything other than the inside of the station. It’s not like Bigelow has to hand all these new astronauts the blueprints to the rocket… just making sure that the station itself contains no unsecured data that could be useful to a robber should be enough.

    One nation that nobody has mentioned for some reason: Japan. Japan has been wanting a space capability for a long time, but their launchers have lagged and they haven’t put any serious effort into manned ships. This would be a dirt cheap way for them to show off/raise morale back home; and Japanese industry can probably find a few things to do up there worth the ticket.

    That, of course, could set of an East Asian astronaut race, but I’m not pinning my hopes on that happening.

    A thought… LM will have a hard time competing with SpaceX on price (unless they sell at a loss to try and crowd them out, and Bigelow’s unlikely to give them that kind of future power over him), while SpaceX will for a few years have a hard time providing 16 F9 launches a year, so there’s probably ample room for both initially, especially if it kickstarts demand.

    It’s a few years too early to declare victory, but we can at least declare hope.

  6. Stellvia says:

    Even if JAXA isn’t willing/able to take part for political reasons or whatever, I could foresee Japanese or Korean megacorps starting their own space programs if the price is right. Samsung, or Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, having an orbital manufacturing division?

    Singapore is actively interested in space, for one: http://www.spaceportsingapore.com/

    Random thought: how much would it take to put a Sundancer module in a lunar cycler orbit?

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