For those who didn’t see it on Hobbyspace, I got interviewed yesterday by New Scientist about the recent LM/Bigelow announcement. All in all it was a pretty good article (though apparently we might need to update our website to reflect the fact that we haven’t been in Santa Clara for over a year and a half…). I had a few other thoughts about the announcement that I figured might be worth sharing, for what its worth.
In the quote they selected for the article, they mentioned my question of “will they be able to drum up enough demand to justify the flight rates they’re talking about.” Here were some of my thoughts that I shared with David Riga (the author of the New Scientist piece), that didn’t make the cut:
If he were just running an orbital hotel (he isn’t), I’d be very skeptical. Instead I’m somewhere between skeptical and guardedly optimistic. While there haven’t been large numbers of takers for flights on the Soyuz, what Bigelow’s offering is fundamentally different. Flight opportunities are frequent (which is critical for most microgravity research programs–imagine trying to run an R&D lab that you could only visit once or twice a year!), the situation is more customer friendly, training would likely be more streamlined (I hear that for Soyuz training the “passenger” is actually more of a third crew member than an honest-to-goodness passenger), etc.
It’ll be interesting to see if he can pull off his idea of forming an international astronaut corps for countries that don’t have their own space program. It wouldn’t have all the usual glory of having your own national launch system, but it also wouldn’t have the waste of it either. Countries like the UK could look at it as a smart and low-cost way of doing a manned space program–why reinvent the wheel when you can just buy a ticket and focus on doing something in space instead of blowing billions just getting there?
Also, the title of the New Scientist piece is somewhat misleading (though David may not have had anything to do with the title). There are some major hurdles for using Atlas V to fly people to Bigelow’s station–it’s just that most of the major risks don’t lie with “man-rating” the Atlas V (or whatever you want to call making reasonable adaptations for flying a capsule on an ELV). Continuing with some more thoughts that didn’t make the cut (yeah I wasn’t expecting David to use every word of my several page response…):
Most of the challenges fall into two areas: developing a market at the pricepoint Bigelow can offer with existing transportation systems (like a “man rated” Atlas V), and finding a capsule developer who can raise the money and technically execute on doing such a capsule. I think the technical risk for both parts is relatively low–this has been done before even if there are still some improvements needed over previous systems (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Soyuz, etc) to make it commercially viable. Most of the risk is on the marketing and financing side of things.
If Bigelow is able to start signing up high-visibility customers though, look to see that change. Once there looks like there’s going to be enough demand to justify a capsule project, I think it’ll be much easier to raise money for [developing] it.
Lastly, discussing whether I thought that the Atlas V was a good choice for Bigelow, I said:
I think at the moment they’re a pretty good choice. The good news is that with SpaceX also hopefully getting into the launch business soon, that’ll provide the competition Bigelow needs to keep prices low. Obviously, it would be great if there were high-flight-rate commercial RLVs instead, but those really need a proven market in order to justify the funds needed to pull them off. So short term, I think this may be Bigelow’s best bet. In the longer term, it’ll be up to LM to find ways
to keep themselves competitive.
To elaborate on this last point a bit, the price points Bigelow has been talking about (~$15M per person for a 1 month stay) and which a system based off of the existing Atlas V could likely deliver are probably too high for there to be a lot of space tourism demand. Fortunately, as Bigelow has mentioned a lot of times, he isn’t running a space hotel. In order to really start getting to the elastic portion of the demand curve, the price tag would probably need to be a bit lower–on the order of $2-5M per ticket (according to some reanalysis of the old Futron Space Tourism study that T/Space did a few years ago that I discussed in this old blog post). It may not actually be as impossible for LM to deliver numbers at least on the high-end of that scale as I used to think (they have some possible tricks up their sleeve if the demand for Atlas V flights was high enough to justify the investment), and if Bigelow can actually deliver on demand for 80+ people to his station in a given year it might also be enough to close the business case for a high-flight rate, small RLV. But neither of those options are likely to happen right away. So, while someone like Space Adventures could probably rent some of his facility for space tourists, at the price point they are talking about, I’d be surprised if they could fill up more than 1-2 of the 12 targeted flights per year with actual “space tourists”.
That leaves Bigelow’s “sovereign” and “prime” customers to make up the rest of the 10 flights worth of demand. Admittedly one should note that not all of the 12 flights per year are going to be people–I’d imagine that at least one will be consumables, cargo, reboost propellants, etc. And on some flights I imagine that some of the passenger seats might be exchanged for experiments, research hardware/raw materials, and other commercial cargo.
The good news is that if they’re really providing 12 missions per year, that’s a monthly flight. While that still isn’t phenomenally great for a microgravity research program (see Ken’s last post, and my last space post and these posts from the ACES conference two years back for why flight rate is important for such programs), it’s substantially better than the existing state of practice. As was stated in the first of those two ACES posts, when people know that there’s going to be a flight every month to the station, it’s a lot easier to slip last minute experiments or small hardware on-board at the last minute. Scientific research often lives or dies on iterations–on how fast you can experiment, analyze, reformulate, rehypothesize, and get to your next experimental step. What this means is that while 12 flights a year at $15M per seat isn’t perfect for orbital microgravity research, it might actually be good enough to start generating some real demand–ie the “tipping point” where orbital microgravity demand starts picking up might be a little higher than orbital tourism, and possibly high enough to fill up at least a chunk of those 10 remaining flights.
But like the space tourism demand, that demand is only going to be able to grow if Bigelow can provide enough demand for the rest of those flights. Which brings us back to the “sovereign” customers that Bigelow has mentioned on several occasions. The idea being that this would provide smaller countries a much cheaper way to get involved in manned space flight. At least one country I know of might be in an ideal position to take the lead on this venture: the UK.
As Duncan over at the Rocketeer blog has mentioned on several occasions, this might be a good way for the UK to get back into manned spaceflight as they have recently been discussing more seriously. It’s interesting to note that the premier suborbital tourism venture involves a US launch provider and a British operator, so the idea of the UK buying tickets to a US owned commercial station on US owned and operated launch vehicles could be framed as being the new way of doing things. As I mentioned above, by letting someone else spend the money on the destination and the transportation, the UK could focus on actually doing something useful with people in space, instead of blowing so much money on the first two categories that they have little left for actually accomplishing something. This would be a very forward-thinking thing for the UK to do. And if they took the lead in signing up for such a program, it is very feasible to believe that you would see other nations following their lead. I’m thinking of other Anglosphere countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and possibly even India. It wouldn’t take too many of them running small low-cost astronaut corps and doing their own research projects on Bigelow stations before you could start providing enough demand to see those kinds of flight rates. Or at least it doesn’t seem to unrealistic to imagine it.
So, at least on the surface it might be possible for Bigelow to pull this off–but he’s going to need to sign up some high profile customers sooner rather than later. In the medium and long term, if Bigelow is able to provide enough demand for that many Atlas V flights, LM is going to have a lot of competition. From SpaceX and from other corners. But that’s a problem that I’m sure we would all love to have…
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