7B Working With Fantasies Part 1

guest blogger john hare

Many of the potential spaceflight markets have been labeled fantasies along with any market that involves government money. This labeling is usually in a negative light as in, “Space tourism is a fantasy market”. The implication is that fantasies are always bad and we need to wake up and smell the coffee.

Some major industries are fantasy based. Las Vegas, Hollywood, and Playboy are visible symbols of three separate industries that offer very little substance and a lot of fantasy. Gambling depends on large numbers of people to ignore the fact that you can’t build billion dollar casinos on losses thinking they are the exception. Hollywood does not portray reality except in a minute fraction of low budget “documentaries”. Playboy and the rest of it’s associated industry offers yet a third type of illusion. While all three of those industries would go broke if they depended on people like me, they are real industries with annual receipts that dwarf anything the space industry is likely to see in our lifetimes.

Financially successful fantasies have money that necessarily flows back into the larger community. Somebody must build and run those casinos, manufacture and use those cameras and theaters, and supply Pamela’s silicone. Billions of dollars a year go into product and energy businesses via the fantasies of millions of people. Space development can use such fantasies as available to move the visions along.

There are other kinds of fantasies that must be avoided. The fantasy that a product can be sold where no market exists is a major one. There is enough He3 in the atmosphere of Jupiter to run our world for millenia. As of now, getting it is a fantasy even though the He3 is certainly there. Trusting the UN to do the right thing when they do things like put Iran on the Commission for Women. There is ice on the moon, that’s nice. Who are you going to sell it to and what are they going to use it for. The driest nation on Earth almost certainly has more available water than the entire moon. If harvested, the Lunar ice must be used on the moon or in space. Until there is a market for water in a location off Earth, Lunar water is only a potential resource. In 2010, that ice is a data point. In 2030, it may or may not be the well spring of solar system development. For now though, it would be foolish to invest major funds in Lunar ice harvesting. Maybe.

There are many potential space markets that will be called fantasies by somebody. Tourism, point to point, communications, geo surveys, navigation, RLVs, He3, powersats, PGMs, and robotic exploration off the top of my head are things that might be a part of it that will be called fantasies by some. The thing is to set up businesses that that can work with them whether they are fantasies or not. To run a successful business, you must be responsive to customer desires, even if it is as dumb as a basketball bat. While I can’t make a case for multimillion dollar homes, I do work on them and try to give the customer their money’s worth, just as I do on an office building or a $10k remodel.

Suborbital spaceflight has been called a fantasy by some. There are at least four companies working on vehicles to send people, several more focusing on experimental payloads, and at least one  looking hard at military surveillance. These applications are all somewhat price dependant.

At the $200k starting price quoted by Virgin Galactic, I doubt there will be as many as 10,000 customers before the price starts dropping, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the number was under 1,000. Since that won’t pay off the investment, they will have to drop prices to fill the seats and generate revenue if they want to pay off their investment and make a profit. So IMO $200k is a fantasy market in the long term. So what. It is very unlikely that recurring costs are more than $50k per flight even with the two craft and clumsy hybrid. If they can on average put four people in a flight, then the recurring cost is paid off at $12,500 per participant with anything they can charge over this available for ROI and profit. With Zero gee flights at a few thousand, and supersonic aircraft rides in the $20k range plus a trip abroad, Virgin can look at a sustainable market for a very long time at a much lower price by offering a lot more altitude and float time for a few dollars more, unless the competition nails them.

I believe the Lynx will do much better. With the single craft and better engines, recurring cost  could be below $5k per flight. The gas-n-go vehicle is projected to be capable of four or more flights per day last I heard. If through competition, prices drop to $10k per flight later on, they could still be applying as much as $20k per day per vehicle toward ROI and profits if they hit their flight rates. This is down in the price range that can be handled by anyone with a job and the desire. Being well under the price of the supersonic Mig rides, and available domestically, the market can easily be expected to last until orbital spaceflight becomes affordable.

But what if suborbital spaceflight is a fantasy? Space Ship Two and the Lynx are going to be built. There are investors that buy into the concept enought to fund them both as well as possibilities from Armadillo Aerospace and Blue Origin. If the ships get built, and the naysayers are right, what then? It is almost certain that two or more vehicles will be developed and enter service within the next few years. If these vehicles enter service and the participant market dries up in a few months, what do they do? They will compete with Masten Aerospace and JP Aerospace for science payloads. Their vehicles are built and the development money is gone. They need revenue and they have vehicles to get it if the science markets are there. Then they work the surveillance market that TGV has been exploring. They do communications experiments and spaceflight equipment qualification testing. They will do any flight that will get their investment back and help the bank account.

When equipment is paid for, people will find ways to make money with it if at all possible. If the current guys go under and leave viable vehicles, somebody will buy those vehicles at bankruptcy prices and still use them to make money with far less ROI to worry about. Like Iridium. The only things that can kill suborbital spaceflight are government interference, a total lack of market for anything suborbital, or competition from an orbital provider at very low cost.

What if there is no market for anything suborbital? Then you have two or more companies that have demonstrated competence in building RLVs with fast turnaround and high reliability, the base requirements for entering suborbital service. If there is a desire for orbital spaceflight at the end of this cycle, who better to build a reliable orbital RLV? The PowerPoint Cowboys, or the people that just posted a hundred suborbital spaceflights from one tail number during one month in the process of proving their design and training the operational personnel? In the unlikely event that suborbital is a bust, it is still likely to have a serious effect on the future of orbital spaceflight.

The move to orbital operations is inevitable. It is a question of who, when, why, how, how often and at what price. If the current orbital demand is all there will be with only modest increases in flights over the decades, then no new vehicle provider is needed. The current vehicles serve the current market. If we are not expecting considerable increases in flight rate, then all these discussions are a waste of time. I have a base assumption that it will be worthwhile to go out there for some reason. That reason does not have to be the same for everyone though. That reason does not need to be distorted by massive subsidies in questionable programs. 

Assuming the suborbital market does produce profitable revenue, the companies that built the vehicles that generate it will have strong credibility with investors toward building orbital space transports. They should also have a bit of cash reserve and considerable preliminary work done on their favored solution.

They have to address one bad fantasy though. Many people have pointed out that orbital flight has fifty times the energy requirements of suborbital flight. They use that true statement to create the negative fantasy that orbital spaceflight is fifty times harder than suborbital. In any other transport realm this would be true. Not spaceflight. Orbital is about seven times the velocity requirement of suborbital which is forty nine times the energy due to the square function. A car that is traveling 210 mph is a vastly more difficult beast than one that is moving 30 mph. Fifty times the energy is probably a thousand times the difficulty. A plane that travels at 700 knots is vastly more difficult than one that is doing 100 knots. Again fifty times the energy is probably a thousand times the difficulty. A boat at 280 knots is a deathtrap while one at 40 knots is a common speedboat. A spacecraft at mach 25 though has identical requirements to one at mach 3.5. The propulsion to get it there and the thermal protection to get it home are obviously different though even the propulsion is similar.

                                                                     suborbital           orbital

mass ratio                                                   3-4                         9-20    

main engines                                                 1                             2-3                                                      

flight duration                                   15-30 min                  1.5-72 hours

thermal protection                             minimal                   critical

navigation                                               minimal                   moderate

control systems                                     16 thrusters            16 thrusters, more propellant

Mass ratio is 4-7 times as much for an orbital vehicle as suborbital. That means the first stage must be much larger, just not fifty times larger. Two to three larger engines instead of one for the suborbital with a somewhat higher performance requirement. For a shop with generations of engine development in it’s recent history, another generation of engines will probably take considerably less time than it took to reach their first generation of reliable flight weight engines. They will be larger, not necessarily more complicated. Flight duration is different of course and is fifty times longer at times. Is a seat going to be fifty times more difficult because someone is going to sit in it longer? Batteries and air tanks will be larger though also not more complicated. Thermal protection is the major biggie. After half a century of government spaceflight, what have they delivered to to commercial sector in this field? This one will have to be solved, and may well be fifty times harder. Navigation is harder though not fifty times, especially with all the GPS and software available now. Control systems will need larger tanks.

A company with a strong track record of suborbital rocket vehicle operations and development is halfway to orbit in business terms. The problems they face in technical development are mostly problems they have already dealt with on a smaller scale. The fantasy of orbital difficulty will have to be laid to rest, not by argument as I’m doing here, by operational demonstrations.

This post  is getting too long so I’m going to have to break it into pieces.

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36 Responses to 7B Working With Fantasies Part 1

  1. Mike Lorrey says:

    I would also point out that all mining is essentially a fantasy industry. Companies invest billions of dollars in each mine on the mere estimates of a few mining engineers.

    When gold was discovered in California in 1849, the idea of picking up lock, stock, and barrel and moving to California to prospect for gold was a fantasy that millions took up, despite the rather large existential risks against actually reaching California alive, as well as the real and significant risks of getting that gold back to some place “civilized” (i.e. all the treasure ships littering the oceans attest to this).

    Yet, because it seemed possible for average people to risk their life savings and their lives on such a venture, for the thin chance of striking it rich, the same fantasy market dynamics spoken of with casino, entertainment, and pornography markets comes into play.

    This is why there is, in fact, a market for HLV in newspace, the market to ship mass quantities of people off planet to the moon, asteroids, and Mars to prospect and build new lives. It requires HLV launchers on the scale of Sea Dragon and such, but thats where the real money is.

    Oldspace is stuck in the same rut that Henry Ford II was stuck in when he berated Iacocca’s recommendation to shift to economy microcars. Ford said, “microcars make microprofits”, which should obviously demonstrate his short sightedness. The more efficient a car is, the more people drive, and the more they drive, the more car parts they consume, the more servicing they require, and they wear out their cars that much sooner.

    When you make a fantasy affordable to the median population, you tap both the mass market and the motivation that escapist fantasy drives all people to strive to take risks to either improve their lives or gain the semblance of doing so.

    Thus, when you get orbital launch prices below $500 / lb, then you will tap into an explosive wellspring of public demand to escape the surly bonds of earth.

    IMHO its not an accident the government isn’t interested in achieving such economical spaceflight. The moment it is achieved, the diaspora, even from the US, will make refugee crises like those after WWII, as well as our own illegal immigration problem seem minor by comparison.

  2. Pete says:

    Going from sub orbital to orbital may not be 49 times harder, but one does start seriously pushing the exponentially hard end of mass ratio, which increases the design requirements significantly.

    Lets say the Lynx has a gross takeoff mass of 5000kg and a dry mass of 1000kg, and it can lift a 300kg upper stage RLV which has a dry mass of 30kg. Likely the flight cost of the upper stage will be significantly more than the Lynx – it does provide most of the delta v. Then the upper stage will cost something like 100 times as much on a per kilogram of dry mass basis than the Lynx – and weight saving matters that much more. This would infer a significantly different fundamental design to me, maybe there would be some commonality, but not a lot.

    Perhaps the Lynx would have an average life in the thousands of flights and the upper stage RLV only in the hundreds, and this would bring the cost per kilogram of dry mass more into line. The Lynx might fly four times a day, the upper stage four times a week, so perhaps this is the case. Still, the upper stage is far more sensitive to mass than the lower stage prompting significantly different design.

    I do not know what performance the sub orbital rocket engines are achieving (commercially sensitive information). Would completely new engine designs be required to go orbital? Or would simply adding a vacuum expansion nozzle be enough? I suspect aggressive high pressure propellant pumps will need to be developed for orbital flight, and that probably also infers the development of much higher pressure engines. Maybe XCOR already have this covered with their piston propellant pump system, and can achieve the desired T/W ratios.

    I am thinking an upper stage RLV will end up being a fairly from scratch design, especially considering the TPS problem, although building on experience gained from sub orbital vehicles.

  3. john hare says:

    Mike,
    HLVs will make sense when there is a profit to be had from them, not before. We need PLVs, Profitable Launch Vehicles. I doubt we will get there by skipping bases.

    Pete,
    I don’t follow the reasoning that an upper stage would have a cost of 100 times as much per unit mass. Much more yes, 100 and I need to see some justification. A from scratch design by a group with recent experience. If you were to fund a company to build a suborbital vehicle today, would you be more inclined toward Masten Space Systems, or Rocketplane? It will be several years before a similar obvious question can be asked concerning orbital. It may be SpaceX or ULA, and then again it might be Unreasonable Rocket or Blue Origin.

  4. Thomas Matula says:

    John,

    [[[At the $200k starting price quoted by Virgin Galactic, I doubt there will be as many as 10,000 customers before the price starts dropping, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the number was under 1,000. Since that won’t pay off the investment, they will have to drop prices to fill the seats and generate revenue if they want to pay off their investment and make a profit. So IMO $200k is a fantasy market in the long term.]]]

    This is already happening at only the 300 seat mark.

    Park Avenue Travel is one of the agents selling VG rides.
    If their page is accurate VG has already dropped prices for seats above number 300 to $150,000 with tickets available for only $100,000 if you want to be the 400th plus flyer.

    http://www.parkavetravel.com/space+travel/

    So it looks like VG is already sliding down the price curve. It will be interesting to see what their equilibrium level is.

  5. Pete says:

    The Lynx mark II vehicle has an external payload of around 650kg with the capacity to launch a micro satellite via a two stage expendable rocket from around 100km.

    I made some rough performance estimates and calculated that it requires something like a 25-50kg mass saving on the Lynx mark II vehicle to gain 1kg of payload to LEO, compared to a 1kg saving in dry mass on the upper stage to gain 1kg of payload to LEO. So it is worth 25-50 times as much to save 1kg on the upper stage as it is on the Lynx first stage vehicle.

    However, if the Lynx vehicle flies 5000 times over its life and an upper stage RLV only flies 100-200 times over its life, then that per unit mass cost difference gets completely washed out.

  6. Pete, micro-sats launched from suborbital vehicles is an interesting concept but I don’t think it is what most of us would call an RLV. I think the more interesting concept is the vehicle Jeff Greason has described a few times but not yet named where a Lynx sized vehicle is placed on top of a much bigger HTHL flyback booster.

  7. Pete says:

    If you were to fund a company to build a suborbital vehicle today, would you be more inclined toward Masten Space Systems, or Rocketplane?

    I would go for an electric VTOL air launch stage followed by an aggressive single stage to orbit design – incrementing development through suborbital to get there. Both stages would look similar to the Masten approach although the first stage would use electric ducted fans instead of rocket engines and the second stage would have to be very minimalistic. An additional stage would be difficult to get back to the pad and does not actually gain much in payload or dry mass reduction, assuming a light weight design. As I am worried about reentry, I currently favor an upper stage that looks something like a capsule.

    The Masten and rocket plane approaches both pay a huge price for going through the atmosphere, in dry mass, design compromises and cost. Rockets are not the cheapest way of getting up and down through the atmosphere and landing on the ground, nor particularly are planes which are more designed for cruise. The rocket plane approach pays a particularly high price, when one compares its dry mass and delta v performance to a rocket stage, it does not look that great.

    Short term the operational and safety advantages of the rocket plane approach will I think win out, especially if flying people. I suspect rocket planes may from the outset also be capable of many more flights before retirement – greatly reducing per flight costs. In the long term, however, I suspect they will lose out to lower dry mass solutions, like the Masten approach. I think these vehicles will ultimately be cheaper, but they may take longer to get there operation and safety wise.

  8. john hare says:

    Thomas,
    I think the thing we are both wondering is, does the equilibrium price leave room for profit and ROI? I’m guessing that VG needs at least $20k per seat to remain viable, and that is a guess.

    Pete,
    So if you were to finance a suborbital vehicle today, you would start your own company with a new (to this business) technology. From a business standpoint, I would go with an experienced company with a team in place. If I am wrong of course, your approach would eat my lunch. That’s the strength of free markets.

  9. Pingback: The Fantasy Of Space Industries « The Four Part Land

  10. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Very good point, john, about how bankruptcy (or “cancellation”) isn’t the end. See: virtually all the commercial satellite constellation companies in the late nineties went into bankruptcy. However, now they are doing business profitably, and basically all who got to the point of launching satellites are still operating in some sort of incarnation, and now they are starting to replace their old satellites with modern ones and even expanding.

    Also, VASIMR is still making progress even though NASA cancelled and privatized it. Same with Transhab (now Bigelow).

    I do believe that suborbital spacecraft should be able to launch single-stage rockets with a high mass fraction and a vacuum-optimized nozzle. Team with Microcosm and their cryogenic all-composite tanks, and perhaps it won’t even need a pump (though I have a feeling most of the suborbital guys will be using a pump of some sort by a decade from now). Even without composites, balloon tanks could easily allow mass fractions allowing SSTO if launched from above the atmosphere. If you could somehow recover these balloon tanks or composite tanks, then you are set, but that will require a lot of research in thermal protection systems which has so far been quite classified.

  11. Pete says:

    Pete, micro-sats launched from suborbital vehicles is an interesting concept but I don’t think it is what most of us would call an RLV.

    Do you think an RLV should be able to carry a person? I am sort of thinking that RLV development should genrally start small and work their way up to that – a bit like Masten and Armadillo.

    I think the more interesting concept is the vehicle Jeff Greason has described a few times but not yet named where a Lynx sized vehicle is placed on top of a much bigger HTHL flyback booster.

    A solid and safe option – very doable, but the dry mass fractions are I suspect fairly high leading to lower payload fractions. Low payload fractions infer a higher vehicle cost (and propellant use) for a given payload, necessitating more flights to recoup the cost of the vehicle. I think this is a good feasible near term solution, but my fear is a higher payload fraction vehicle will steal its lunch in the long term due to lower amortized vehicle costs and reduced propellant costs.

  12. Pete says:

    So if you were to finance a suborbital vehicle today, you would start your own company with a new (to this business) technology.

    Probably, there are a few significant technologies yet to be developed that could dramatically reduce the entry barriers for everyone. There are a few more technology niches yet to be filled.

    Rocket vehicle companies get funding – rocket vehicles are sexy and have investment and PR pull, but in some ways one could achieve more for less by further developing some of the component technologies and becoming a rocket part supplier. TPS, very high T/W engines, inflatable tanks, landing systems, cheap electric air launch platforms, small orbital payloads (a market), etc. Currently, everyone seems to be developing their own engines and rocket vehicles, more specialization is I think in order.

    I do not see sub orbital as a particularly good long term market, I think one would want an exit strategy for evolving to orbital capability. Sub orbital would only be one aspect of the business model. Also I would probably avoid people carrying initially – too hard, distracting and fraught, leave it to those passionate about the human experience. Solve the technical problems first, leave the much harder people problems for later. :-)

    From a business standpoint, I would go with an experienced company with a team in place. If I am wrong of course, your approach would eat my lunch. That’s the strength of free markets.

    Obviously an experienced team would be highly desirable, and it takes many years to build up that experience. But everyone wants to develop rocket vehicles, inferring it may not be the most profitable part of the business to get into.

    If I was to get into the industry, I would probably develop a small cheap electric VTOL air launch platform, reduce the entry barriers to sub orbital so that anyone with a garage could have a go, then let natural selection do its thing. After that I would probably move onto much lighter weight air breathing VTOL landing systems and external inflatable tanks. Cheap to develop enabling technologies that could make big differences and a business model which is a little insulated from the cut throat sub orbital launch business.

  13. Bob Steinke says:

    Thomas,

    I checked out the park avenue travel link, and I don’t think VG is dropping their prices. Those numbers are just the deposit required to secure a spot. You still wind up paying the full $200,000 before you fly.

    “The cost of the flight is US$200,000 and there are three deposit options available”

  14. Thomas Matula says:

    John,

    That is the $400 million dollar question. Is there enough demand for it to be a financial success?

    On the other hand VG doesn’t actually have to make a profit. $400 is less than the cost of a couple of airliners and it does provide good publicity for the Virgin family of brands. So Sir Richard Branson could easily keep it going as a loss leader for the Virgin brand name.

    In any case it will be very interesting to see how the industry develops over the next few years.

  15. Roderick Reilly says:

    One half-step towards orbital could be the development of a utility flyback booster that would be a commercial enterprise in and of itself. I think that the Spaceship 1 and 2 flight profiles — with their feathered stall feature — would be an excellent design to draw from for booster recovery. This booster would be considerably larger than those Rutan vehicles though. I would size it to be as powerful as the baseline Atlas 5, Delat IV, and Falcon 9 first stages. That way it could put very significant payloads into LEO where it serves as the sole boost phase propulsion (a series burn), but could lift even more in a paralllel burn configuration with an orbital stage.

    This flyback booster could be used with a variety of upper stages, and, when an orbiter is available, a version of the booster could be built that could cross-feed propellant to an orbiter — meaning that it would have to be enlarged to contain a greater volume of propellant.

  16. Mike Lorrey says:

    Thomas Matula,
    The reason ticket sales on VG have flatlined is twofold:
    a) current economic conditions
    b) no successful flights as of yet
    A person who is smart with their money will keep their 200k in whatever investments they have for as long as possible to earn as much interest as possible before the flight happens. As I understand it most of the 300 sold passengers were sold by 2006-2007. If I had 200k in 2006, I could easily have doubled it in the markets by now, so my ticket on SS2 would be “free”. People who paid for their ticket that far in advance are either frivolous with their funds, did not expect VG to take so long to fly, or simply don’t have those financial smarts.
    I personally would not put a deposit down on a flight on something that hasn’t flown yet, unless it was extremely important that that something flew and was the only way to get where I wanted to go, or unless I was building it myself.

  17. Thomas Matula says:

    Mike,

    My understanding is you only have to put 10 percent down, so it would be only $20,000 that is out of circulation. As for doubling your $20,000 since 2006, depends on how good you are in investing.

    I suspect it more the later reason, the lack of any flights and no sure date for a flight. Which means VG will probably have to launch a new marketing campaign when that happens to get sales going again.

  18. Ed Minchau says:

    “because it seemed possible for average people to risk their life savings and their lives on such a venture, for the thin chance of striking it rich, the same fantasy market dynamics spoken of with casino, entertainment, and pornography markets comes into play”

    “But everyone wants to develop rocket vehicles, inferring it may not be the most profitable part of the business to get into. ”

    These two quotes remind me that the people who really made the money on the California (and Alaska, and Yukon) gold rush(es) were not the average prospectors, but the people who outfitted them. Somebody sold them all those pans and shovels and picks and Levi Strauss made a fortune.

  19. Axel says:

    John,

    it is really hard to say how much harder orbital is compared to suborbital space vehicles, because what kind of “hard” is the relevant criteria? Energy, mass ratio, development effort, price … what does hard mean?

    Where does this 50 times harder number come from?

    From energy and mass ratio (as in rocket equation) my guesstimates are it is 10 to 25 times harder. It depends on what I assume for gravity losses and drag, but unless I remember completely wrong, a delta v of 2.5 km/s should do to go to space. With an ISP of 250 that would be a mass ratio of 2, right? Small difference from you lower estimate of 3, but it amplifies the “harder” ratio a lot.

    However I notice your 4-7 times harder estimate does not directly correspond to you mass ratio numbers.

    The guesstimate also depends on ISP. Something around 6 times harder mass ratio I would get for high ISP of 450 (LOX/LH2). For cheap and relatively easy LOX/RP1 the scaling up needed would be beyond 20. That is, if it would be a single stage, which you probably don’t assume.

    Ok, so far for the academic fun of playing around with the rocket equation.

    Pete probably has a point when he reminds us of the engineering rules for upper vs. lower stages. The same one I also found in the book “LEO on the cheap”: lower stages can be manufactured a lot cheaper than upper stages without hurting the total vehicle performance much.

    A suborbital vehicle is kind of a low performance first stage. It can be built cheap. It can be developed cheap (relatively). A lot can be learned about operations. But technically I fear an orbital vehicle will be much different from a sub-orbital.

    You are talking about fantasies we must avoid. Let me suggest another one: the fantasy of scalability.

    See the disappointment w.r.t. air breathing technology. Many believed going to orbit would be like building faster and faster planes. Or at least doing this would give us a good first stage. After decades of futile attempts we realize physics disagrees with this fantasy.

    Making things bigger, faster, more powerful is often more difficult than we imagine. Naive example: I can jump a 1 meter fence, but I can’t jump a 5 meter fence. Unless I use a different technology, like a pole. Or: fireworks rockets are very cheap, made of black powder and paper. That does not mean a cheap suborbital vehicle should be made of stronger paper and a lot more of black powder. Obviously not. Different technology is appropriate.

    Things change with magnitude. Volume grows cubed with size. Effective material strength goes down with size. ISP is almost irrelevant for suborbital, but it looks like a game changer when it comes to orbital. That is, if mass ratio is the important number. It may be not, but then you have to deal with all the other problems of going from a small vehicle to a huge vehicle, while keeping it cheap.

    I’m crossing my finger you, Jon, Masten, Armadillo and all the others can pull that off. I like the fantasy that you can do it.

  20. john hare says:

    Ed,
    I think that is a good business plan, and what Tim Pickens has in mind.

    Axel,
    Long day so short answer to a good post. The fifty times harder is implied in a lot of articles that demean suborbital as almost worthless and certainly not “real” space due to the energy difference which is fifty or so. I’ll work on the rest of it in the morning.

  21. Axel hit on one aspect that is often overlooked in “scaling” a suborbital vehicle to an orbital one: they are very different beasts. If you took Space Ship one and said “scale this to orbital” without allowing any non-proportional changes, it would be a lot harder than 50x. It is not always twice as hard to achieve twice the mass ratio – it is exponential, not linear. That’s why most people have given up on SSTO. (Not me, but I’ll wait until I’m flying to crow.)

    So what advantage will Xcor have over Boeing when it comes time to build an orbital vehicle? How will having designed a suborbital vehicle have helped? Those that say “it won’t” have never built a company or a team. 50% of the effort of a startup is building the team and company. A lot of the rest of the effort is fundraising. The actual engineering is not that bad – I mean, people made orbital vehicles decades ago!

    So, to put it simply, Xcor will be ahead of Boeing because Xcor will have an experienced team that has built human spaceflight hardware as their last project. Further, they will have raised the money to build the hardware before – and, in an interesting contrast to mass ratios, raising twice as much money is less than twice as hard.

    The future looks good for Newspace – as long as they execute.

  22. Mike Lorrey says:

    Axel, dismissing air breathing first stages is both premature and demonstrates pessimism unsupported by any facts. Please point to a SINGLE air breathing SSTO or first stage that has been built and tested to prove you right. You can’t.

    The facts are that the numbers still support air breathing first stages with current day technologies. The first stages of most rocket launchers separate from their upper stages within a speed and altitude that aeronautical engineers generally regard as within the realm of air breathing flight. Falcon 1 and 9 both are designed to drop their first stages at under 120k feet and mach 8.

  23. Martijn Meijering says:

    The facts are that the numbers still support air breathing first stages with current day technologies.

    I’m open to persuasion on this, but what exactly is the fundamental benefit that airbreathing is supposed to provide? The ability to do HTHL combined with a hope that this will lead to an airline-like cost structure? Reduced thrust requirements? Lower delta-v for the upper stage(s), beyond what air launch can provide? Something else?

  24. A_M_Swallow says:

    Air breathing jet engines have been reusable since the 1940s. The weight of the LOX saved can be reused as upperstage mass.

  25. Pete says:

    Air breathing jet engines have been reusable since the 1940s. The weight of the LOX saved can be reused as upperstage mass.

    LOX costs a few cents per kilogram, dry mass a few thousands of dollars per kilogram. Depending, one might need to do tens of thousands of flights to make that money back. The LOX solution will also have much lower development costs – which is critical for a start up.

  26. Mike Lorrey says:

    a) yes, airline like operation helps amortize development costs between more flights and in less time. Any industrial proces where you need to move equipment and people vertically is going to be more difficult and dangerous to operate, and thus significantly more expensive, than doing so horizontally. Skyscrapers only make a valid business case when the primary product produced in them is information. Industrial factories are almost universally spread out on one floor. The old 19th century mill buildings, stacking 4-10 floors on top of each other at rivers edge, lost out to large acreage electric powered factories with one primary floor, decades ago. VTVL launchers are transportation skyscrapers. Even wrt ground operations, loading and unloading a VTVL is significantly more expensive and dangerous than loading and unloading an HTHL vehicle. Otherwise, the air force would build the C-5 to be VTOL capable and save on the cost of all that real estate needed for huge airports.
    b) vehicle development costs scales to gross liftoff weight. Look at any aerospace costing software, they all say the same thing. Thus the lower your gross liftoff weight, the lower your development costs should be. While not comparing apples to oranges (ELV vs RLV), this does bode very importantly for any trade study between various RLV designs. LOX is the heaviest high density component of any launch vehicle. More LOX demand requires larger vehicles with heavier structural reinforcement. Reducing the need for LOX not only saves the development cost of the weight of the LOX but the added weight of structure to support it.
    c) While a simple analysis says its cheaper, development wise, to just build for a big LOX tank, this only applies if you have a limited budget to build and don’t care what your profit margin is in the future, or even if you make a profit. Any intelligent bean counter says its financially smarter to spend more money building a high sortie vehicle than to save money building a hangar queen. In the end your development cost per pound of payload to orbit will be significantly less. Breathtakingly less. (and no, the Shuttle is not a counterexample, there is one main reason Shuttle is expensive, and that is a very bad design change in the size of the TPS tiles that was made to save a little development cost and time. Halving the size of the tiles is responsible for reducing the sortie rate by 75%).

  27. john hare says:

    Axel and David,

    Good points that I need to address in a serious post. I’ll get a round tuit RSN.

    John

  28. Pete says:

    b) vehicle development costs scales to gross liftoff weight.

    What? Are you sure you do not mean dry mass? Dry mass and gross lift off weight are not exactly the same thing.

    As dry mass goes, tanks are cheap compared to wings, landing gear, etc.

    Hydro carbon fuel is around ten times the cost of LOX. Assuming similar GLOW, better a rocket vehicle than an air breathing HTHL vehicle that burns a higher proportion of fuel.

  29. b) vehicle development costs scales to gross liftoff weight.

    Um, ok, thought experiment: Team A designs and builds a SSTO with a gross liftoff weight of 1 kg. Team B designs and builds a solid fueled, 4 stage to orbit vehicle with a gross liftoff weight of 30 tons.

    Team A will spend billions. Team B will spend millions.

    There are no accurate scaling laws on development costs. “Clever” beats all other considerations at this stage in the game, unless you are trying to redo something that has already been done.

  30. Pete says:

    Um, ok, thought experiment: Team A designs and builds a SSTO with a gross liftoff weight of 1 kg. Team B designs and builds a solid fueled, 4 stage to orbit vehicle with a gross liftoff weight of 30 tons.

    Team A will spend billions. Team B will spend millions.

    One 1kg GLOW is really pushing things (~20g payload), if it was launched from above the atmosphere (aero losses scale down badly and are the primary technical reason for large scale), then I suspect it might actually be the cheaper to develop. And the technologies that would get developed along the way would be very useful in the long term, marginal costs would be low – unlike the solid rocket option.

    The tanks would literally be balloons (Kevlar or Vectran ones perhaps), it would be so fluffy reentry might be a breeze, the engine would be MEMs technology. No need for landing gear, terminal velocity would be so low that it could just be bounced onto the ground. This sounds like a very interesting design.

    There are no accurate scaling laws on development costs. “Clever” beats all other considerations at this stage in the game, unless you are trying to redo something that has already been done.

    Scaling approximations is where the cleverness starts, while not always linear, they are very, very informative. Ignoring them is what has caused us to be without low cost space access.

  31. A_M_Swallow says:

    If you are bringing the entire rocket back it may be better for it to land tip sideways rather than tin/point forward. Since the body of the vehicle is long and round it may roll.

    A sideways reentry will also increase the surface area exposed to drag. This will reduce the energy per square inch.

  32. Pete says:

    A sideways reentry will also increase the surface area exposed to drag. This will reduce the energy per square inch.

    In the negative, ideally launch and reentry loads should be in the same direction – minimizing additional structure and enabling a single seating/payload orientation.

    I am not sure that the advantages of fluffiness extend to very high fluffiness ratios. Initially it reduces surface temperature, which makes the materials problem much easier, however higher fluffiness also increases insulation/heat sink requirements – there would seem to be an optimum. With smaller scale comes increased fluffiness, so the optimal approach is also a function of scale.

  33. Mike Lorrey says:

    I had said:
    b) vehicle development costs scales to gross liftoff weight.
    Pete replied:
    “What? Are you sure you do not mean dry mass? Dry mass and gross lift off weight are not exactly the same thing.”

    More propellant mass and/or volume demands more engineering and stronger structure. Development costs scale to two factors: vehicle size and gross liftoff mass. Bigger tanks means more cost, and tanks built to handle more mass means more cost. Reducing the demand for LOX on a vehicle means both smaller tankage and smaller overall vehicle (thus the overall vehicle is less mass, particularly the wings and landing gear) so the entire vehicle shrinks when you shrink the LOX tank (same as when you switch from LH2 to hydrocarbon on the fuel side, everything else on the vehicle shrinks too).

  34. Steve Barrett says:

    I’m an occasional lurker here but thought I would post a few comments.
    @axel
    ” but unless I remember completely wrong, a delta v of 2.5 km/s should do to go to space. With an ISP of 250 that would be a mass ratio of 2, right? Small difference from you lower estimate of 3, but it amplifies the “harder” ratio a lot. ”
    You have mis-remembered quite badly. That delta v is roughly for Mars. Earth is about 7950 m/s, with losses adding roughly 1200m/s on top. Your Isp is that of a poor solid booster. With g as 9.82m/s^-2 you’d need a rocket with a structure of less than 3% to make SSTO. You will find this quite challenging.

    @Mike Lorrey
    Various observations and assumptions.
    “Please point to a SINGLE air breathing SSTO or first stage that has been built and tested to prove you right.”
    You might like to look up the Boeing RASV proposal for a HTHL SSTO. But not an air breather.
    Implicit in much “Newspace” discussion is that developers have *very* limited budgets. It’s not that 1st stage air breathing is not possible or even viable (OSC’s Pegasus demonstrates it) but is it the *best* use of what is expected to be a small budget by aerospace companies yardsticks (unless like OSC you partner with the Hercules solid propellant company).
    “The first stages of most rocket launchers separate from their upper stages within a speed and altitude that aeronautical engineers generally regard as within the realm of air breathing flight. Falcon 1 and 9 both are designed to drop their first stages at under 120k feet and mach 8. ”
    You might like to think about *why*, given Elon Musk’s fortune he went with a VTO 2STO design.
    Your view on VTO launchers as skyscrapers and C5 comments seem quite flawed. Russia assembles launchers (with payload) horizontally (as did the NASA Scout). Properly designed it’s pretty easy to move an *empy* but large structure to its launch pad, get it vertical *then* fill it (as did SeaLaunch). I doubt there’s enough data to prove your assertion on costs or safety for this 1 way or the other.
    On the C5 why it’s not VTO you seem unaware that modern jet engines manage a T/W of 10:1 and in the 50s and 60s they struggled to get *half* that (the ones on the the SR71 got 5.3:1 but the vital nacelle structure surrounding them weighed about the same, dropping the overall T/w to 1/2 that). A poor rocket manages 40:1 (reusable, aircraft mounted, also 1950s vintage). the H1 on the S1c hit about 100:1.
    Len Cornier has long been an advocate for TSTO using HTOL but I can’t recall *any* of his designs that used conventional jets. Too
    much payload lost for a (slightly) smaller set of propellant tanks.

    By “Cost estimating relationship” you should mean *aircraft* CER’s.
    GTOW drives the weight of things like landing gear and wing structural loading changes have *very* sharp penalties. The thinking that GTOW is *everything* was translated over to rocket design and resulted (partly) in NASA’s Hydrogen obsession and the pursuit of absurd atmospheric oxygen extraction schemes.
    VTO rockets travel *through* the atmosphere, they don’t *need* it in the way aircraft do.
    You make a valid point regarding sortie rate but I think you’ll have a hard time pinning the bulk of turnaround time on a change to the Shuttle’s tile size. Your assertion contradicts what you say a “Smart beancounter” would do. In any case I think you’ll find that Shuttle would *only* hit its price per lb target with sortie rates in the 100s per year, rather *more* than double the highest launch rate I have ever heard the system achieved, 9 a year IIRC.
    Most of this has been discussed at some length in various usenet new groups. A quick google search would have flushed most of it.

  35. Pete says:

    Are you trying to suggest here that dry mass does actually scale with GLOW?

    In a well design vehicle tank mass will be proportionately small and structurally self supporting – vehicle structure and tank mass will not be that significant. To some extent perhaps, engine mass may scale with GLOW, but again this should not be a dominant proportion of overall dry mass.

    Orbital systems, landing gear, reentry systems, etc mostly scale with dry mass/payload – not GLOW.

    Are you suggesting that wing mass for launching will be significant? If so, do not use them – or do you think horizontal take off is necessary for high reusability?

    But why bother confusing things by using a poor metric like GLOW when one could a more direct metric like dry mass instead? Other metrics like payload fraction, $/dry mass, fuel cost/payload, etc., leading up to $/kg to LEO, marginal cost, flight rate, and so forth, are all required – so why add misleading metrics like GLOW?

  36. Ed Minchau says:

    I think part of the desire for a HTOL vehicle capable of reaching orbit is a desire for familiarity. Consider that our great-great-grandparents were used to thinking of flight as something birds did by flapping their wings, and that familiarity led to a great many designs that involved flapping. They tried to make their airplanes operate like birds did, and the desire for HTOL comes from the same place: we want our spacecraft to operate the same way as our familiar airplanes. We’re used to seeing airplanes take off and land, so our spaceplanes should do the same, right?

    Well, not necessarily. The losses due to air friction are the nemesis. The longer you’re in the atmosphere, the longer you have to fight that drag.

    Staging is certainly a possibility, with a carrier or towing aircraft lifting a (recoverable) booster and possibly a DynaSoar style payload/re-entry and landing craft. For a single stage to orbit manned HTOL craft there are some significant technical challenges. An unmanned vehicle carrying say a nanosat (1kg, 10cm cube) payload, however … that’s not impossible.

    We’re going to be stuck with vertical takeoff for a while, until some paradigm shift takes place. Maybe JP aerospace is on the right track with an airship-to-orbit. Maybe carbon nanotube cable manufacturing will have a breakthrough and a space elevator will move closer to reality. Or maybe someone will hit on the right set of trade-offs to make manned HTOL happen. Whatever solutions come up, the solution that can make the best business case is the one that will happen, no matter the technical merits of other solutions.

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