Welcome to the Club!

Zond, on NASASpaceflight.com, just posted a link to a new European commercial space venture, Orbspace. Like Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace, Orbspace is pursuing a suborbital VTVL vehicle, which they intend to use for both manned and unmanned applications. As I said over there on NASASpaceflight, I think this a really positive development. While there have been several international companies that have announced ambitions to field suborbital vehicles, only some of them have been taking an approach that I thought gave them a good chance to realistically go anywhere. One of the others that I think is taking a decent approach is Project Enterprise (some of the people involved in that project are friends of mine), which is partnered with the Swiss Propulsion Lab. If Orbspace is trying to be a European equivalent of MSS or Armadillo, Project Enterprise is more like an attempt at a European XCOR.

There are some bloggers who seem to be perpetually stuck in a Cold War mentality, always looking for the next USSR, and a return of the glory days of the Space Race. The fact that this would be totally counterproductive is apparently lost on these people (as is the weirdness of people who claim to be free-market capitalists rooting for socialist design bureaus that would’ve been right at home in the former Soviet Union). I really think that it is entrepreneurial space ventures like Orbspace and Project Enterprise that really represent the future of international space competition. I’m not afraid at all of the Chinese national space program beating us back to the Moon–they’re following a dying and deprecated model of space development that hopefully won’t last too much longer into this century. What does cost me a little sleep every now and then is wondering what’s going to happen when Chinese entrepreneurs start seeing the success of US and European commercial space groups, and decide that they could make a buck at that too…

Welcome to the club guys!

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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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4 Responses to Welcome to the Club!

  1. googaw says:

    …the weirdness of people who claim to be free-market capitalists rooting for socialist design bureaus that would’ve been right at home in the former Soviet Union.

    It is indeed weird enough for capitalists to pursue their own goals via socialist means, but it is also weird for capitalists to pursue the goals of the socialist design bureaus by private means. These goals are based on politics rather than on sound economics. There are good reasons the USSR copied Western technology far more than the reverse. That reason wasn’t any shortcoming in Soviet scientific knowledge. The Soviets copied U.S. technology because U.S. R&D mostly pursued economical goals and the USSR’s mostly did not. As with NASA, the USSR had neither good incentives nor good methods for recognizing when a technology or business was economical and when it wasn’t.

    Much of alt.space seems to consist of private enterprise trying to pursue goals very similar to the grossly uneconomical but exciting goals that NASA has been pursuing. There is probably a small private market for manned spaceflight in the form of tourism, but where is the customer demand for yet another suborbital entry? As with the Internet bubble of a few years ago, the excitement is getting very far ahead of actual revenue, with the result that there are too many competitors pursuing too small a market. A much better strategy for we free marketeers is to build from what commerce has already done in space, namely those boring but incredibly useful satellites.

  2. Jon Goff says:

    Googaw,
    Much of alt.space seems to consist of private enterprise trying to pursue goals very similar to the grossly uneconomical but exciting goals that NASA has been pursuing. There is probably a small private market for manned spaceflight in the form of tourism, but where is the customer demand for yet another suborbital entry?

    Couple of points, first off, many if not most of those currently competing might not even make it to market. Second, of those that do, there’s going to be some differentiation based on the type of ride provided–VTVL is going to be a different situation from HTHL, and especially different from an air-launched HL vehicle. Third, depending on the price point, there could potentially be a fairly international demand for suborbital tourism, and at least what survey data we have seems to point to people being more likely to fly if they can fly from someone close to home, than if they have to travel to the other side of the world. Fourth, this entrant isn’t just looking at manned flights, but also unmanned scientific flights (like MSS). Depending strongly on the pricepoint, we’ve identified potential customers that currently aren’t in the market at existing pricepoints. Fifth, for suborbital flights, ITAR is a huge barrier to US companies selling spaceflight services elsewhere, which makes it easier for there to be some international flight providers who service the international market….

    IOW, I don’t think it’s necessarily silly at all for a team to be getting involved, especially if they have access to funding, have a good approach, and have the right talent pool to draw on.

    More to the point…what on earth does selling flights to spaceflight participants have in common with NASA’s jobs program? Sure both would be flying people, but other than that, I think your claim is pretty weak.

    As with the Internet bubble of a few years ago, the excitement is getting very far ahead of actual revenue, with the result that there are too many competitors pursuing too small a market. A much better strategy for we free marketeers is to build from what commerce has already done in space, namely those boring but incredibly useful satellites.

    Depends strongly on what your goals are. And as I said earlier, having too many competitors is actually a good thing, because that increases the odds of at least a few actually making it. It’s better than a situation where there end up not being enough competitors, and various problems prevent all of them from making it to market.

    Lastly, how do you really know how big the market size is? The suborbital tourism market hasn’t actually generated any flight revenue yet, so who knows how big it will be? At MSS we aren’t counting on that market (and instead are focusing on some other markets for which we’ve identified customers)….but once again, I’m really failing to see what that has in common with a socialist design bureau.

    ~Jon

  3. googaw says:

    what on earth does selling flights to spaceflight participants have in common with NASA’s jobs program?

    It has quite a lot in common, particularly with the early days of the Space Shuttle, including:

    (1) The bias for manned over unmanned spaceflight, because it is far more exciting, and something many more of us can relate too. Alt.spacers write off the entire real private space industry, namely satellites, as too boring to bother with.

    (2) The idea that a reusable launch vehicle will greatly lower costs. The Space Shuttle went from a promised $100 per pound to the reality of many tens of thousands of dollars per pound. The fact is that economies of scale in manufacturing (that is making more units per factory or per machine tool) work as well as reusability, as Germany proved with the V-2 in WWII. But for either strategy to work well, one needs far more launches than the current space market justifies. One certainly cannot achieve it in a market crowded with competing launchers.

    (3) Everybody hopping on the same bandwagon, to the exclusion of many other avenues for expanding space industry or of developing the technologies needed for tomorrow’s space efforts with commercial technology down here on earth today. Spinoffs from earthside commerce to the space program have and will be far more common and valuable than the preposterously overhyped spinoffs from space to earth.

    The trumping of economic reality by excited hopes has worked quite well when lobbying for more funds for NASA, but it is very far from a formula for business success.

    having too many competitors is actually a good thing, because that increases the odds of at least a few actually making it.

    It’s an absolutely wonderful thing for the tourists and for space fan onlookers, but it is a very bad thing for investors, employees, or any others who want to make money from these ventures. As long as these Armadillio-type activities are being honestly promoted as more a matter of volunteer fun than financial gain, I have no problem with it, and I’m as excited about it as any other space fan. Even investors being voluntarily ripped off is preferable to NASA spending my tax money on similarly speculative projects. But we can do better.

    how do you really know how big the market size is?

    We don’t, and that is also a bug, not a feature. The greater the risk, the worse the investment.

    The suborbital tourism market hasn’t actually generated any flight revenue yet, so who knows how big it will be?

    Wow, you are giving me a serious case of Internet Bubble deja vu. Much less NASA Channel, and much more Wall Street Journal, is my recommendation for alt.space.

  4. Jon Goff says:

    Googaw,
    Everyone isn’t hopping on the same bandwagon. If you actually look, there’s several different markets different groups are going after. Some of us (MSS in particular) are mostly focused on the unmanned research/educational market. Others are focused on manned tourism, others on manned research/education, etc. And quite frankly, of all the markets out there, space tourism is one of them that has the high potential for supporting a large flight rate and multiple players. It isn’t proven market with proven revenue numbers yet, but there’s good anecdotal evidence that if they can reach a reasonable price, that they should be able to find customers. I don’t think that there will be tens of thousands of customers at $200k per flight (honestly I’d be surprised if they could get even hundreds at that price), but not everyone in the industry needs that high of margins to close their case.

    And in reality, when you look at the number of *serious* suborbital launch companies that actually have money and are really building hardware, there really aren’t that many. There are lots with pretty websites and big dreams, but until they actually start making hardware and financial progress, counting them as part of the “overcrowding” of the suborbital spaceflight market seems premature.

    Also, it’s important to remember, that while suborbital tourism is the highest profile of the newspace market areas, it isn’t the only one being pursued. The problem though is that most of the other technologies we need to become a spacefaring society are hamstrung by the high costs of accessing space (suborbital or orbital), and that therefore it does make sense that a decent amount of the effort is focused on relieving one of the biggest sources of pain in the space market.

    ~Jon

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