Falcon 9 and Ares I

I just saw something this morning that amused me. Both ESAS and Falcon 9 were formally announced within about a week or two of each other (in September 2005). Four and a half years later, a fully-orbital Falcon 9 is on the pad close to being ready for its first test flight, while Ares-I has spent an order of magnitude more and has barely “passed” PDR, with an a first launch scheduled for sometime in the 2015-2019 timeframe depending on whose numbers you pick. In spite of the ignorant hype that Ares-I was a “moon rocket”, both rockets are in fact designed to place capsules into LEO. While Falcon 9’s first flight will likely be not quite flawless (possibly dramatically so), they’re still years ahead of Ares-I, in spite of starting at about the same time, and having tons less funding.

Just food for thought.

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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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82 Responses to Falcon 9 and Ares I

  1. googaw says:

    Addendum: the Soyuz tourist ticket price has always included a stay on a space station. This stay is more than 90% of the trip’s duration and is quite a bit more valuable than just doing a few orbits in a cramped capsule and coming back down again. So in addition to the dependencies on NASA funding of Dragon and LAS discussed above, SpaceX would be depending on the existence of the $100+ billion ISS paid for by taxpayers to create a valuable enough trip that tourists will pay $20 million for it. And no it’s not a credible retort to this point to invoke the supposed authority of Bob Bigelow and his various fantasies.

  2. googaw says:

    You sound like an “environmentalist” arguing against nuclear.

    If governments were buying over 99% of the electricity from nuclear because only one private customer per year could afford it, and then only based on doubly marginal costs while governments paid the full freight, I certainly would oppose nuclear, as would any rational person.

  3. googaw, just let me see if I understand this logic. First, you saw the price point was about $20M/seat on Soyuz.. well no, it was never $20M/seat, it was more like $30M and for some of the people who went it was more like $50M. But ok, whatever, let’s say it was $20M. From this single data point you’ve extrapolated the entire demand for seats in the future.. and we have to be talking about the future because SpaceX isn’t offering to fly anyone yet. Ok, that’s about the end of this discussion.

  4. googaw says:

    Dennis Tito flew for $12 million, and several more tourists flew when the price was being quoted as $20 million, so we know what the demand is at $20 million. It’s about 1 tourist per year. And geez I’m so sorry that I’m using emprical data, the actual flight rate of actual space tourists, rather than wishful thinking and fantasy numbers.

  5. Josh Cryer says:

    I have doubts that space tourism can work with the ISS unless a tourist module is added on (so that they’d be out of the scientists way) with tourist consumables and resupply.

    Basically you are probably better off going with a Biglow inflatable, anyway. Something the size of SpaceHab. It’d be more luxurious anyway, and you won’t be getting in the way of astronauts.

    New nuclear cannot be built without the government pushing it forward. It is called investing. To bemoan investment in companies like SpaceX because of the “possibility” that said companies would just fall into a cycle of contractor obligations is a bit premature. Especially when the whole point of the program is to produce many competing companies.

    As it stands now you need NASA to pay private space to go into space so that private space, like new nuclear, isn’t taking all of the risk.

  6. googaw says:

    To bemoan investment in companies like SpaceX because of the “possibility” that said companies would just fall into a cycle of contractor obligations is a bit premature.

    First of all, government spending is not “investment”, it is government spending. Governments are extremely poor at predicting future market demand, especially in areas that involve such preposterous speculative hype as this one. Secondly, government contractor zombiehood is is far more than a possibility, it is a high probability. It is what has happened to every similarly situated company before it. And the probability gets higher every year that SpaceX gets more revenue from NASA and dives more deeply into NASA-unique business such as COTS/CRS and “Commercial” Crew. That said, they still have a chance to pull back from NASA and become a real commercial company, focus on their non-NASA customers with their satellite payloads, and thereby retain their entrepreneurial spirit and the chances of substantial launch costs reductions.

  7. googaw says:

    Basically you are probably better off going with a Bigelow inflatable, anyway.

    More fantasy economics, arguing from the authority of somebody who has also “invested” in trying to record the visits to earth of miracle-working space aliens. He will need some such miracles to make these Bigelow modules affordable to private tourists. The hobby activities of eccentric millionaires are very poor evidence for estimating hypothetical future markets, especially when you are arguing that government should “invest” in them.

    http://www.csicop.org/si/show/bigelows_aerospace_and_saucer_emporium/

    The agreement between Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies (BAASS) and MUFON sets up a “Star Team Impact Project” (SIP), with an initial funding period from five months to a year, with the option to renew for a second year. Investigations will be limited to cases where physical effects of a UFO are reported or where “living beings” are allegedly sighted or where “reality transformation” is said to occur.

  8. googaw, numbers you pulled out of your arse are not empirical.

  9. Josh Cryer says:

    googaw, COTS is certainly investment in private space. Do you think SpaceX would be where they are today without COTS? No, they would be flying Falcon 1’s for the next 5-10 years before they moved on to Falcon 9. Now that they have Falcon 9 half of their launch manifest is going to be commercial, non-NASA contracts.

    Your probability is completely wrong, as it will only be a matter of time before the vast majority of money going to SpaceX will be non-NASA. Yes, for now, with CRS, SpaceX is getting more money from NASA than they would from the civilian sector. But that is going to change dramatically since their costs are at least half what other companies are charging. SpaceX will have a deluge of people wanting to fly satellites.

    Telling SpaceX to pull back at this very critical point in time is insane. If they charge $30-50 million per seat to ISS for VIP astronauts, they charge $20-15 million per seat to civilians to a Biglow inflatable. That’s the thing that gets me here, you call such a thing fantasy, but it’s the only way private space can thrive. They must go it their own. Even if Biglow is a crazy person the technology for inflatable technology works, and it can be licensed by another American company. There are still billions of COTS dollars out there waiting for a bid. I admit I don’t know enough yet about the Biglow aspect, and it’s very possible for space hotels to really take off we’d need some other company to jump in. Virgin Galactic could set up an American proxy company.

    If you think that SpaceX should be a satellite launching company only, good for you. But SpaceX built dragon specifically to suit human ratings, Elon Musk wants to fly humans.

    I would not be the least bit surprised if one of the Dragonlab launches carried a human. Just so SpaceX could claim to be the first private launch of a human (of course guys like you would cry foul because they got any government money).

  10. googaw says:

    Josh, the numbers don’t add up to anywhere near the fantasy markets you are daydreaming of, not within at least an order of magnitude. You are basically reciting religious platitudes at this point rather than trying to make any sense to rational people. If SpaceX wants so badly to fly humans they will end up doing so as a government contractor zombie at very high prices, and the dream of lower launch costs will be disappointed again. Probably these prices will be quite a bit lower than Ares, but at least as expensive as Soyuz and far higher than the PR numbers and daydreams folks are throwing around about it. Prices not anywhere close to being low enough to grow your fantasy markets. Only by avoiding the NASA man-rating bureaucracy does SpaceX have a good shot at substantially lowering launch costs below those of Arianespace, ILS, and its other real commerce competitors.

  11. Josh Cryer says:

    googaw, the problem with “avoiding NASA’s man rate” is that there is no other standard with which to go by. We’ve been over this before and you never made a coherent point with regards to man rating the vehicle or why your mythical “non-NASA man rate” design is perferrable.

    SpaceX is closer than any other entity on the planet to launch people into space on a newly designed rocket. I’m sorry this offends you so much, but for the American Space Program we will have received a reprieve for canceling our only flight option before having a successor if SpaceX is given immediate COTS-D funding (nothing needs to be signed, NASA need only initiate the option by sending a nice letter to SpaceX).

    $15 million per seat is $105 million. Falcon 9 can launch for $50 million. Is it so unbelievable that SpaceX can economically launch for that price if they have another flow of cash coming from CRS? No, it’s perfectly reasonable.

  12. googaw says:

    the problem with “avoiding NASA’s man rate” is that there is no other standard with which to go by.

    Sure there is. Don’t launch astronauts. Do real commerce instead. Problem solved. And yes the cost numbers you give are vanishingly improbable when the requirements, formal and otherwise, are driven by the Exploration Directorate and its funding politicians.

  13. Josh Cryer says:

    googaw, so launch satellites for how long before we have low cost manned LEO? Or do we give up manned LEO completely? You don’t dispute that SpaceX wouldn’t have been where they are without COTS, and rightly so, as SpaceX would have been stupid to say “oh no we don’t want money to develop our technology.”

  14. Josh Cryer says:

    OK, so over at SpacePolitics googaw seems to think that NASA would be responsible for 2/3rds of SpaceX revenue, with NASA attributed funding resulting in 100% profit.

    Someone else here reaffirm from me to him that NASA is launching 2.5 rockets a year for Cargo Resupply Services and that Commercial Crew would be at most 2, 3 if they’re very very lucky.

  15. googaw says:

    googaw, so launch satellites for how long before we have low cost manned LEO?

    For as long as it takes. Which will be much shorter period of time than trying to lower launch costs by trying follow the bureaucracy and politics of NASA HSF.

  16. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Falcon 9 Heavy would make a pretty decent Moon rocket, maybe 13.5 tons through TLI by my guess. Its lower boiloff rate for its upper stage may make a good crasher stage, too, especially if stretched a little bit.

  17. Martijn Meijering says:

    Josh, the numbers don’t add up to anywhere near the fantasy markets you are daydreaming of, not within at least an order of magnitude.

    The suborbital market would be at least one and perhaps three orders of magnitude larger. A crew vehicle capable of serving both markets, or two closely related vehicles with much subsystem commonality, need not get most of its money from NASA. At one stage this was the plan for Dream Chaser, it may still be. And the suborbital people certainly want to grow to orbital applications eventually.

  18. Googaw,
    Commercial comsats, the “real markets” you so often refer to, don’t need cheap access to space, haven’t led to cheap access to space, and are unlikely to do so in the future. There just isn’t enough demand, and it’s not very elastic in nature. Flying people to orbit and to on-orbit stations, and flying propellants to LEO are two of the only markets I’ve seen that actually have enough demand (and elastic demand at that) to actually allow space launch to get out of the high-cost, low flight-rate corner of the market space we’ve been stuck in for the past 50 years. Satellites aren’t going to do that. Refueling services for satellites aren’t going to do that.

    SpaceX isn’t going to get enough demand from satellites alone to “revolutionize space access”. That’s a large part of why they’re going after additional NASA and commercial passenger and cargo markets. I’d rather take the risk of it not turning out with the chance that it could open up markets that could actually get us to CRATS sometime in the foreseeable future than continue down the path that hasn’t led to cheap access over the past several decades.

    Your Mileage Apparently Varies.

    ~Jon

  19. Martijn Meijering says:

    What is CRATS?

  20. Martijn Meijering says:

    Note to self: google first, ask questions later.

    Cheap and Reliable Access To Space. I had head of CATS, but not of CRATS.

  21. googaw says:

    Commercial comsats, the “real markets” you so often refer to, don’t need cheap access to space, haven’t led to cheap access to space, and are unlikely to do so in the future. There just isn’t enough demand, and it’s not very elastic in nature.

    This is economic nonsense. I’ve heard it repeated in rote countless times from astronaut fans but have never heard a shred of evidence for it. There is no evidence that comsat demand is inelastic and many good reasons to believe that it is quite elastic to launch prices. For among other obvious reasons, because one can fit more power generation and more powerful transmitters into heavier satellites and this means smaller receivers which is a huge market win. All this popular but preposterously false meme is good for is as a very lame excuse for people obsessed with astronauts to remain obsessed with astronauts and to ignore the economic realities of space markets.

    Flying people to orbit and to on-orbit stations, and flying propellants to LEO are two of the only markets I’ve seen that actually have enough demand (and elastic demand at that)

    As I’ve demonstrated the demand for space tourists at $20 million per flight is about $20 million per year (i.e. one tourist per year to LEO). You have no evidence that this market is any more elastic than the comsat market and there are good reasons to believe that it is less so.

    Unmanned markets have long made economic sense, while astronaut markets never have, and the gap continues to grow every year. Unmanned markets can inherently grow in capability in the future (due to Moore’s Law and related progress) while astronauts are inherently limited by our biology.

    SpaceX isn’t going to get enough demand from satellites alone to “revolutionize space access”.

    They have already greatly lowered development costs which are the major barrier to lowering launch costs in an inherently small-batch market. Contrary to popular astronaut fan belief, fantasizing about imaginary large flight rate markets is not a key to anything except delusion and disappointment, which I’ve seen over and over again in the space field because astronaut fans keep repeating these same inane religious platitudes decade after decade. This large-flight-rate fantasy is the same garbage that gave us the Shuttle and many of high development cost attempts to replace the Shuttle. Talk about a culture that never learns. Let’s have some economic thinking instead of fantastic pseudo-economic dogma, please.

  22. googaw says:

    Martin, I agree, perfecting space tourism for suborbital first makes a heck of a lot more economic sense than thinking that ludicrously expensive NASA HSF is going to kick-start a big orbital tourism market.

  23. Martijn Meijering says:

    There is no evidence that comsat demand is inelastic and many good reasons to believe that it is quite elastic to launch prices.

    Aren’t there studies that supposedly show this? But look at it this way: most geo satellites today do not max out Ariane 5 capability, nor do they use a Delta IV Heavy. They also typically cost more than their ride to orbit. If both these are true, doesn’t that strongly suggest that this demand is inelastic?

  24. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Googaw,
    This is economic nonsense. I’ve heard it repeated in rote countless times from astronaut fans but have never heard a shred of evidence for it. There is no evidence that comsat demand is inelastic and many good reasons to believe that it is quite elastic to launch prices.

    I call BS. Most studies I’ve seen found little evidence for demand elasticity until you get below about $500-1000/lb. If there were elasticity at prices above this, how come we haven’t seen evidence for that with cheap foreign expendables like Proton and Zenit? It isn’t some conspiracy by “astronaut fans”, but the stark reality that I’ve never seen any evidence contradicting. Do *you* have any evidence showing elasticity of demand for comsats above about $1000/lb (SpaceX with satellite launches only would be around $2k/lb)?

    If you’re going to insult people as “astronaut fans”, and claim economic nonsense, be prepared for people to call you on your claims and demand some evidence in return.

    As I’ve demonstrated the demand for space tourists at $20 million per flight is about $20 million per year (i.e. one tourist per year to LEO).

    You have demonstrated no such thing. If there were a commercial crew capsule that had unlimited available seats, that was offering $20M/yr prices, say launching out of a first world country, not requiring half a year worth of training, etc. and they were only able to sell one ticket per year, that would be one thing. But that’s not been the situation with Soyuz. Soyuz has only offered limited numbers of seats for space tourists, and every one of those AFAICT has been filled. And they’ve been flying more customers lately even though the price has been going up. That should be a clue that price isn’t the only reason for the low number of orbital space tourists to-date. I could always see if I can get some info from Erik Anderson, but the evidence I’ve seen is that there is a lot of frustrated demand there, even at $20M per year.

    I do agree that in order to get up into the large numbers of tourists per year range, you need to get lower than $20M.

    You have no evidence that this market is any more elastic than the comsat market and there are good reasons to believe that it is less so.

    I’ve discussed this on the blog before, but if you look at wealth distributions in society, the number of people in a given wealth class goes up very rapidly as the amount of wealth decreases. Assuming that super rich people are just as likely as super ultra rich people to want to fly into space if it costs less than x% of their personal wealth, as you drop the ticket price, demand should go up a lot faster than the per ticket price drops–ie an elastic market.

    At some point satellites become elastic as well, but every market study I’ve seen–including from proponents of the satellite industry has shown that the number of satellites flown increases slower than the ticket price until you start getting to very low launch costs compared to what SpaceX is going to be able to do. Ie in the price range we’re in, dropping your price drops your overall revenue, so why would you do it? I can see SpaceX doing a little of that since the revenue they’re cutting into is that of their competitors, but this isn’t going to result in a revolution in space launch.

    As Rand put it, extraordinary launch vehicles require extraordinary markets.

    Unmanned markets have long made economic sense, while astronaut markets never have, and the gap continues to grow every year. Unmanned markets can inherently grow in capability in the future (due to Moore’s Law and related progress) while astronauts are inherently limited by our biology.

    But that doesn’t translate into more demand for space launch services. Sure, they’ll make more revenue for the satellite manufacturers and operators, but they’re not actually going to provide enough extra flight demand to make anything cheaper for the rest of us.

    They have already greatly lowered development costs which are the major barrier to lowering launch costs in an inherently small-batch market. Contrary to popular astronaut fan belief, fantasizing about imaginary large flight rate markets is not a key to anything except delusion and disappointment, which I’ve seen over and over again in the space field because astronaut fans keep repeating these same inane religious platitudes decade after decade. This large-flight-rate fantasy is the same garbage that gave us the Shuttle and many of high development cost attempts to replace the Shuttle. Talk about a culture that never learns. Let’s have some economic thinking instead of fantastic pseudo-economic dogma, please.

    Lowering development cost for an expendable only goes so far. SpaceX without the markets provided by people in space is only at best going to provide a competitor for Soviet developed launchers like Proton, Zenit, and Soyuz. That’s not revolutionary. Sure, being competitive on the international satellite market is great, and far better than Shuttle or EELVs. But that isn’t going to lead to anything new. In fact, without improving economics, I think you’re going to see more and more of those satellite capabilities losing out to things like ground-based alternatives, high altitude long-duration UAVs, etc.

    Satellites alone have not provided the demand to create any improvements in launch price during my entire lifetime. Somehow imagining it’ll be different this time sounds like the definition of insanity.

    And most of the “shuttle replacement” RLV approaches have been NASA-centric political programs that have tried to be jacks of all trades. I don’t think that’s actually inherent in RLV developments. The only private RLV project in 30 years that has gotten enough money to have a shot at succeeding was going after the satellite market, and failed. Sure there are lots of private RLV efforts that failed to raise enough money, but that doesn’t prove anything about the markets they were chasing, only about peoples opinions about them.

    Sorry googaw, you’re going to have to provide more evidence instead of just making assertions and being throwing around insults about “astronaut fans” if you want people to treat you as anything other than an anonymous troll.

    ~Jon

  25. Martijn Meijering says:

    Here’s an old Futron study into elasticity of demand for launch services:

    http://www.futron.com/pdf/others/STFELST.PDF

    They conclude that the market for expensive satellites is inelastic while the market for cheaper satellites is elastic. This is not surprising if the cost of the satellite itself dominates total costs. It turns out there is a technical term for that: cross price elasticity of demand.

  26. Josh Cryer says:

    SpaceX is going to have 12 Dragon modules to play with. Upgrade them for flight (manual control console added on and some comfy seats and a pusher escape system; yeah I know I make it sound easy, but whatever), and you just saved a bit of money and can use them for space tourism.

    PS googaw now thinks that NASA will be responsible for nearly 90% of SpaceX’s revenue.

  27. Josh, arguing with googaw is like arguing with my father.. I don’t why people bother and I wish they’d stop because he dominates every discussion with his stubborn insistence that his opinion is “reality” while the rest of us must just be delusional.

  28. Mike Lorrey says:

    “Four and a half years later, a fully-orbital Falcon 9 is on the pad close to being ready for its first test flight, while Ares-I has spent an order of magnitude more and has barely “passed” PDR”

    Watch out Jon, they banned me from nasaspaceflight.com for saying this same thing…. the NASA fanboi-industrial complex is circling the wagons and trying to shut down anybody who criticizes socialist spaceflight anymore.

  29. Mike Lorrey says:

    Max

    “For what its worth, the first Ares test was already flown.”

    No, Max, that was not an Ares, despite its label. That was an SRB with the worlds biggest plastic model spaceship on top. The proper name for that ship was the Estes I-X.

  30. anonymous says:

    Mike, just to be pedantic, I think it was a plywood and scrap metal model spaceship.

  31. Mike Lorrey says:

    anonymous”

    “Mike, just to be pedantic, I think it was a plywood and scrap metal model spaceship.”

    Pedantry in libertarian circles isn’t a vice, its standard operating behavior. Being able to drone on loudly, talking past each other longer than the other guy is the key strategy for winning arguments between libertarians (yes, I resemble that remark).

    I thought I’d heard the mockup upperstage/orion/LAS assembly was composite. Frankly I’m far more upset at the idea that its plywood and scrap metal, and they charged us taxpayers how many billion for that? 1.5? 2 billion? I know some Hollywood model makers who could have built that sucker for a few hundred thousand, if plywood and sheet metal is acceptable.

    I was thinking about building a scale model of the Estes I-X on a shoestring budget, but building it powerful enough to go higher than that “test vehicle” (snort) did, to great press exposure and fanfare…

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