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.
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.