The Business of Altius Space Machines

A couple of months ago, I came to a realization that many of the “gaps” impeding space commercialization could be profitably targeted right now, instead of having to develop everything in series, boostrapping up from suborbital RLVs.  While the evolutionary approach is still a valid one, several of the key missing puzzle pieces, such as low-maintenance reusable TPS can be commercialized in the near-term, without having to build a full orbital RLV, and without having to leverage revenue streams from suborbital operations.  I’m not sure I realized it at the time, but this concept is a big part of what we are trying to do with Altius Space Machines.

The best way to describe things in one sentence is that Altius Space Machines is a rapid prototyping company developing and commercializing technologies needed for reusable orbital launch vehicles, and enabling markets for such vehicles.

Rapid Prototyping
Altius will be focused on building and demonstrating prototype flight hardware both for our own internal projects, and for external clients. In the process of developing our own product lines, Altius will be building up a team with significant expertise in rapid prototyping, and flight vehicle testing which will be able to serve the needs of other customers.  The fact that Altius is not trying to be an operations company also makes it a bit easier for it to work with many players in the suborbital and orbital launch world.

This model is similar to what Scaled and Aurora Flight Sciences have done in the UAV world.

Enabling Technology Product Lines
In addition to contract prototype work for commercial and government clients, we have identified several areas where Altius can develop stand-alone products that mature technologies required for enabling reusable orbital transportation.  We have looked at a wide range of potential product lines, including launcher-related products like nanosat launchers with reusable first stages and reusable upper stages for suborbital RLVs, as well as non-launcher ideas like reusable micro reentry vehicles and a variant on the boom rendezvous and docking concept.  We also have several other ideas we’re looking at, including more subsystem-type technologies such as an extremely lightweight aluminum combustion chamber fabrication concept, an advanced pump-feed concept we’re investigating with Retro Aerospace (blog post on that one soon), and a few others.

Here’s some more details on a few of those product lines:

Reusable First-Stage NanoSat Launcher
This is a topic area I’ve been working on for quite some time now, but particularly over the past year or so. There are many competitors in this market area, especially with the announcement of the NanoSat Launcher Centennial Challenge, but most of them are looking at expendable systems based on solids or other components. While it is true that doing so reduces risk in the eyes of investors, it ties in a higher operations cost, typically makes the vehicles more complicated (three or more stages), and lowers the potential for high-tempo operations like some customers (such as the Army Nanosat program) want. I don’t think the reusable element in such a system has to cost much more to develop than a comparable suborbital RLV like Masten’s Xogdor or Armadillo’s SuperMod.

I won’t go into all the details here, but the concept we’ve been looking at is based on the air-launch glideforward concept I discussed on this blog several years ago (using John Hare’s realization that you don’t necessarily have to have a winged first stage with such a system), but with an expendable upper stage.

There seems to be a decent amount of demand for a system like this, it paves the way for future fully-reusable vehicles, and is a small-enough project to be completable within a 4-5 year time-frame with adequate funding.

Reusable Micro Reentry Vehicles
One of the prime examples of technologies that can be developed independently, but which is critical for orbital RLVs is reusable, low-maintenance Thermal Protection Systems. There are a ton of ideas out there for how to solve this problem, ranging from stronger ceramic tiles, to transpiration cooling, to metallic heat shields. A good deal of ground work has been done on these ideas, but very few of them have been flight tested, and none of them have really gone into an operational product. By focusing on a micro-scale reentry vehicle (imagine something big enough to bring something like a NanoRacks CubeLab back from LEO), a lot of experience from the nanosat and suborbital communities can be brought to bear on the problem, and the scale is small enough that rideshare opportunities are available to keep the flight demonstration costs reasonably low. Such a system could target markets including rapid sample return from ISS researchers as well as providing a free-flyer platform similar to DragonLab, but without having to aggregate your payload with dozens of other systems. But at the same time it would be demonstrating a key subsystem technology needed for orbital RLVs.

Once you’ve developed the ability to reusably return a vehicle from LEO, most of the other pieces for a small RLV are ones that have already been demonstrated in the suborbital world, and from doing a semi-reusable nanosat launcher.

Advanced Boom Rendezvous
Current rendezvous and docking systems are not a good match for high flight-rate RLVs. The complicated hardware necessary for such prox-ops ties up too much of the capacity of a small RLV, and they are not really suited for high-tempo operations. The limitations of current prox-ops solutions are also part of why groups like ESAS and HEFT were able to so readily dismiss propellant-depots for exploration missions. If there were a solution that required minimal hardware on the delivery vehicle side, minimize risks of failed docking or accidental collisions, and generally made rendezvous and docking an almost non-event, it would go a long way towards making propellant depots and orbital RLVs a reality.

Kirk Sorensen, one of my cobloggers here on Selenian Boondocks, invented the Boom Rendezvous concept, which I see as an important part of the solution to this problem. Boom rendezvous, by moving the initial contact away from either vehicle greatly reduces the odds of accidental collisions, simplifies and speeds up the rendezvous process, and greatly reduces the mass penalties for rendezvous and docking systems on the delivery vehicle. And we figured out a way to take that great idea and make it even better, making it so the boom system can readily (and non-destructively) grip target surfaces that aren’t designed for mechanical capture…but how we intend to do that is a blog post for another day. Suffice it to say, if we can make this technology work, it would enable easy capturing of space debris, nanosat-scale space tugs, simpler rendezvous and docking for personnel, cargo, and propellant deliveries, much easier orbital servicing missions, etc.

Anyhow, there are a lot of other details about Altius Space Machines, more details on what we want to do, why we’re interested in Colorado, and how we intend to run our business, but I think this is enough to help people understand what it is we are trying to do with this new company.

As our marketing guy would say at this point: Machine Up!

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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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39 Responses to The Business of Altius Space Machines

  1. Mike Puckett says:

    IF this non-destructive grip idea works, it sounds like it could be useful to collect and police up orbital debris.

  2. Yup. That’s one of the market ideas. Among many. Once I get back from CA/UT/CO, I can write that up in more detail. Just wanted to make sure I got this up before I disappear for a two-week road trip.

    ~Jon

  3. Tom D says:

    Good luck with this new business. I hope that your company succeeds. Better still, I hope to eventually see many companies charging ahead in a thriving commercial space industry.

  4. kert says:

    So looking forward for the first flight test 🙂
    What happened to TAN btw ? Leaving this for others ?

  5. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Awesome, Jon. Just awesome.

    Great ideas! It’s about time a company like this was formed. I hope to collaborate with you some time in the future.

  6. A_M_Swallow says:

    Go man go.

    Just remember to stay in business you have to make a profit within 2 to 3 years.

  7. googaw says:

    The combination of rapid prototyping services with flight testing services is very interesting. But perhaps they are not closely enough related? I like the idea of bundling prototyping and testing, it seems potentially quite valuable and lucrative, but it seems to me more natural along these lines:

    (1) Rapidly develop prototype part(s).

    (2) Test each part as it is prototyped, and to the extent you are assembling parts, test the appropriate sub-assemblies.

    I suspect the most productive testing related to rapid prototyping would be of the parts and sub-assemblies being prototyped, not of the completed flight hardware which is in the hands of the prime.

    OTOH, there may be a good niche in which you develop a close relationship with a prime all throughout their project — in an early phase you make prototypes, and in a later stage you or the prime assemble the sub-assemblies from the different subcontractors and then you test them.

    My best wishes of good business to you and Altius!

  8. Darn, disappointed it’s not auxons… heh.

    Still, very cool stuff, and I like that the scale and scope is so that it can be feasible for a startup. It sounds very ‘do-able’. That’s good!

    As a student of computer science and aerospace at downtown Metro State, I’d love to drop by when you get settled in here in Colorado. 🙂

  9. a says:

    “reusable orbital launch vehicles”

    do you really mean “reusable space launch vehicles”

  10. Pete says:

    I would worry about going for government or single customer commercial relationships. Industries that do not consist of multiple openly competitive suppliers and customers have a tendency to become unhealthy, and might not lead to the desired end goal. But finding a broad customer base in the space industry seems difficult.

    Considering the likes of sparkfun, hobbyking and DIYdrones, and the way model airplanes are evolving into model UAVs, perhaps it is now possible to take the next step to model RLVs (and low cost space hardware in general), and enable a large community of RLV developers (perhaps much of the community being university based).

    Electric quad rotor UAVs are cheap, scalable, and they can be reliable. They would also be a very fast and inexpensive way of carrying a small rocket stage to ~10km, from which aero-losses would be greatly diminished (enabling micro RLVs).

    Maybe there would be a viable business model in becoming a supplier of such model RLV components. Standard avionics, engines, tanks, TPS, etc., all come to mind, all the main components necessary for people to build their own model RLV. Electric propellant pumps might also be a good idea – from a simplicity, cost, reliability and controllability perspective.

    Would it now be possible to develop a significant DIY-RLV community and a significant market therein?

  11. googaw says:

    Pete, great idea. Tiny hobby versions of those VTOL rockets of Masten and Armadillo would be very cool. Also a realistic looking scale model of the Apollo lunar lander with real landing rockets. That’s what I want under my tree this Christmas.

    Speaking of tiny rockets, how about an upper stage for a Falcon 1 that could put a nanosat in orbit around the moon? Or even a micro-lander that could land a cubesat-sized payload on the moon? Jon, are there any fundamental difficulties or big inefficiencies in scaling this far down?

  12. googaw says:

    Also the Star Wars franchise. They are still selling five hundred million dollars worth of toys every year in the U.S. alone. Showing off your Lego Starfighter kit may make you cool for a day, but the kid who flies the Altius Starfighter with the real remote controlled rockets will be the coolest kid on the block for a long time to come.

  13. Pete says:

    Pete, great idea. Tiny hobby versions of those VTOL rockets of Masten and Armadillo would be very cool. Also a realistic looking scale model of the Apollo lunar lander with real landing rockets. That’s what I want under my tree this Christmas.

    The hobby market is quite different from the toy market and often consists of a lot of smart people with good workshops wanting to really extend themselves.

    Speaking of tiny rockets, how about an upper stage for a Falcon 1 that could put a nanosat in orbit around the moon? Or even a micro-lander that could land a cubesat-sized payload on the moon?

    A Falcon 1 at ~$6m or whatever the latest cost is seems to infer a fairly limited market.

    Charles Pooley has explored small scale launchers a bit (as have many others):
    http://www.microlaunchers.com/
    I would use an electric UAV to get around the aero losses problem which seem to severely constrain Charles’ design (and make it much larger than what it might otherwise be), I also do not quite see the point of going beyond LEO just yet.

    One tends to be pushing minimum gauge constraints at these smaller scales which infers some different design, for example, tank wall thickness is such that one almost has to go inflatable (say external Vectran tanks similar to what some of the Mars landers used as airbags). I would have concerns about the scalability of rocket engine T/W and ISP to small sizes (Jon?). Scaling down most everything else, (assuming avoidance of serious aero losses via electric UAV launch), could I suspect be managed, though it is a slightly different world of design. At small scale vehicles become very “fluffy” so it could be a fairly nice way of exploring reentry designs and TPS.

  14. Pete says:

    Wow, Falcon 1e now at $10.9m (and 1010kg payload).

    There are definitely some opportunities for smaller lower cost options.

  15. googaw says:

    There’s a whole spectrum of serious hobbyists, less serious hobbyists, and players with toys, with the prices getting smaller but the markets much larger as one proceeds across the spectrum. Expensive kits for the most serious hobbyists are the obvious place to start but it hardly needs to end there.

    There are many potential applications of controllable rockets both above and below LEO that are more fun than LEO itself. Another below-LEO example: controllable fireworks. Vast amounts of cleverness have gone into packaging solid fireworks to explode into wonderful patterns, but what would happen if the timing and pattern of the fireworks could be remotely controlled in real time via a nice GUI? What about spiral and spirographic patterns from programmable colored rocket exhaust? How much better could a fireworks show be made if the rockets contained reusable electronics? Laser shows on exhaust clouds and LEDs dancing, orbiting, vibrating, and otherwise cavorting around each other could give fireworks shows a whole new look. They could become improvisations and could be better synchronized with music and other co-events. A whole new genre, actually: the programmable sky show.

    Rocket racing with small remote-controlled rockets would be much more fun than the Estes launch-and-watch stuff.

    The reason Falcon and similar small-launcher efforts get so expensive is because there is no business, no economical application that needs a large number of launches into space. They keep building them and they never come. So the rockets inevitably end up with very low launch frequencies and high prices regardless of how mass-produceable they might be.

    That doesn’t mean we can’t make a ton of money by figuring out how to mass-produce cheap controllable rockets, because there’s plenty of market for them right here on earth. And a ton of fun in the bargin. Millions of boys — and boys in the bodies of men like me 🙂 — will be lusting to buy controllable rockets.

  16. googaw says:

    Here’s an example of an (inadvertent) spiral sky show:

    http://silver-rockets.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/1209_spiral.jpg

  17. Pete says:

    Another below-LEO example: controllable fireworks. Vast amounts of cleverness have gone into packaging solid fireworks to explode into wonderful patterns, but what would happen if the timing and pattern of the fireworks could be remotely controlled in real time via a nice GUI?

    As cool as that would be I suspect that task could be accomplished far more effectively (and safely) by UAVs perhaps carrying pyrotechnics. There is a trick one can do with combining an electric ducted fan and a ramjet if one wishes to get really serious/fast – and at low cost (VTOL included). Rockets markets would seem to need to be higher up or faster than a ramjet can go.

  18. Will Doohan says:

    Good Luck with your endeavor Jon.

  19. Sean Lynch says:

    It sounds to me like you’re on to something pretty awesome here, Jon. While it’d obviously have been in my best interest for you to stay with Masten since you’re so damned smart, in the long run the reason we’re all in this is that we want to see cheap access to space.

    Ultimately, anyone’s improving any part of the process of getting to space is going to be good, and focusing on “easy wins” that can be commercialized now is a really good approach. Of course, improving components will also help the Mastens of the world, since when they need the various parts, they can just buy them instead of having to build them themselves.

  20. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    The quadrotor idea seems pretty neat to me, if it’s scalable to lift something weighing a ton… though that’s about three orders of magnitude greater than current designs! Making it all-electric, capable of lifting 1 ton, and go to 10km is a pretty difficult design, though…

    But if someone else develops such a cargo-lifting quadrotor for you (so you just pay for the quadrotor itself, and not the full development cost), then it could have relatively low operating costs. You could also recover a spent stage descending on a parachute rather easily this way… in fact, that’s probably a lot easier, since you could have a much smaller quadrotor that wouldn’t have to go nearly as high (and wouldn’t have to lift the cargo up, just bring it back down, which is a little easier).

  21. Pete says:

    The quadrotor idea seems pretty neat to me, if it’s scalable to lift something weighing a ton… though that’s about three orders of magnitude greater than current designs! Making it all-electric, capable of lifting 1 ton, and go to 10km is a pretty difficult design, though…

    It can pretty much all be done with off the shelf components, though the largest of the cheap outrunner model airplane electric motors is only around 15kW (say ~25kg of thrust each) – would need a lot of them. Batteries, motors and controllers cost around $100/kg all up, so maybe a $100k for those components (1ton vehicle mass with 1ton payload). The avionics is perhaps only a couple of thousand – depending how far beyond the standard quadrotor one goes. Anyway, probably looking at say $200k all up and there is little development risk as it is mostly just scaling up. It would cost around $10 of electricity for a full recharge. Maybe $200/flight, much lower with a higher flight number and a higher cycle life battery.

    A 100kg electric multiple rotor vehicle might only cost ~$20k. Wait long enough and others will develop these anyway – such vehicles are already being developed as electric VTOL aircraft for carrying people.

    Using such vehicles to retrieve stages is definitely something I have thought about – much faster turn around. I am also inclined to integrate electric rotors directly into stages and landing craft for safe, controlled and robust landing and recovery. It is perhaps a bit heavier (~15% landing mass) but I think it is much easier with regard to development. Can even use the descent to recharge the batteries, which enables powering electric propellant pumps with the same batteries on ascent.

  22. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Integrating the quadrotors into the same vehicle probably isn’t the best idea. It increases your requirements needlessly, while also decreasing commonality with other commercial systems.

    It’s also possible to team up smaller quadrotors to haul up a payload, perhaps even taking turns lifting:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBsJwapanWI

    I would expect a single quadrotor vehicle to need about 350-400 kW of power to lift 1 ton, including the weight of batteries.

  23. Pete says:

    Integrating the quadrotors into the same vehicle probably isn’t the best idea. It increases your requirements needlessly, while also decreasing commonality with other commercial systems.

    Actually I think quite the opposite, the quadrotor components would be a lot simpler and more practical than those it would replace. For example, aerodynamic controls on descent, parachutes and/or altitude compensating landing rockets/wings and robust landing gear. I would far prefer have to integrate a quadrotor system than one of the above.

    Nice quadrotor clip – I had not yet seen this one.

    I was assuming about a megawatt for a 1 ton payload quadrotor setup, it actually costs little for a bit more power.
    ~15kW, 2.5kg, $300 retail motors:
    http://hobbyking.com/hobbyking/store/uh_viewItem.asp?idProduct=14427&Product_Name=Turnigy_CA120-70_Brushless_Outrunner__(100cc_eq)

    One might need say fifty of these motors with propellers for a 1 ton payload vehicle.

  24. peterh says:

    “…an extremely lightweight aluminum combustion chamber…”
    Sounds ambitious. That material would need to be aggressively cooled to maintain strength. On the other hand, aluminum conducts heat well.

  25. Peterh,
    Yes, aggressive cooling is important. We did make it work at Masten though (almost all of our Xombie flights and all of our Xoie flights were on aluminum chambered engines), and the Bell Agena engine flew something like 100 times and it was aluminum. So yes, while it is challenging, and only works over a more limited part of the design-space, it is doable. For nozzles, I’m pretty confident we could make it work for engines even as high of chamber pressure as the RD-180 or SSME, but for chambers it probably has an upper limit around 1000psi-ish. But I haven’t run enough analyses to see how far you can really push it.

    ~Jon

  26. BTW Peterh, thanks for the on-topic comment. 🙂

  27. Jon, was the aggressive cooling what caused Ben to suggest that you could make a rocket chamber out of wood if your regenerative cooling was good enough?

  28. Trent,
    Possibly, but that’s quite a bit of hyperbole. The regen cooling design for the 750 wasn’t *that* hard, or even that aggressive.

    ~Jon

  29. Pete says:

    Jon, you have a lot of great stuff to work on, and I think there is great opportunity in developing New Space payloads for New Space vehicles, but a difficult question I feel obliged to ask is how do you ensure that your path leads to disruptive/extraordinary markets and not back to incremental improvements upon the old ones – the path of least resistance? Where is your killer app?

  30. Pete says:

    Rereading your original post a reusable (first stage?) nanosat launcher does seem to fit the killer app bill (the nanosat market), depending how focussed on it you would be. I am still a little unclear on this – considering the various developments of reusable sub orbital vehicles, would not a generic reusable second stage be more useful to develop initially?

  31. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    You don’t need to dis incremental improvements… look at what incremental improvements have brought to the computer world?

    Aggressive incremental improvements, if they can become institutionalized, are a powerful force. Of course, it’s easier in some industries than others.

  32. Ed Minchau says:

    I think the boom rendezvous idea is probably the killer app. The simplification in proximity operations is obvious. The key is the coupling – defining that is like defining the parallel port architecture of the IBM pc circa 1985. Everybody else will build around that coupling. Get one working, then get ISO on board.

  33. Pete says:

    You don’t need to dis incremental improvements… look at what incremental improvements have brought to the computer world?

    Indeed, but first one has to comprehensively make the break from mainframes to PCs. The killer app I refer to is a New Space “PC” that would enable such incremental improvement. In Jon’s ideas I see a lot of really good enabling “PC” components. But somehow this is going to have to all come together into a full “PC” package that can be sold in significant numbers – then incremental development can really kick in. What is the New Space “PC”? And how to get there from here?

  34. Pete says:

    I think the boom rendezvous idea is probably the killer app.

    One first has to have a large number of low cost computers before the interface becomes the bottleneck. The Internet is often referred to as the killer app for PCs – the service that the PC provides for people (not the PC itself).

  35. A_M_Swallow says:

    @Pete
    What is the New Space “PC”? And how to get there from here?

    The Jupiter-246 is the ideal incremental improvement launch vehicle. It is being built in increments – J-130, Orion, JUS, solid rocket boosters, destination LEO, destination BLEO and so on. Only 1 or 2 will be built a year so it will end up being hand built by craftsmen. That means each part can be upgraded separately. NASA keeps it as an experimental vehicle and never performs a freeze for production.

  36. Pete says:

    Only 1 or 2 will be built a year so it will end up being hand built by craftsmen.

    🙂

  37. Ed Minchau says:

    Hand-building 1 or two units per year is not the way to do incremental improvement. There simply are not enough data points to effectively measure the efficiency gains of design and process modifications. The continuous/never-ending improvements indeed preclude a design freeze, but it is possible to have continuous improvement even if one is producing millions of units a year on an assembly line. Just ask Honda.

  38. Hey, good luck on the boom rendezvous idea buddy. It was one of many things I invented at NASA over 10 years that NASA showed not the slightest interest in. If you ever make any money on the idea you can take me to dinner sometime. If you make a lot of money, buy a thorium reactor from me and we’ll call it even.

    For what it’s worth I thought it up in the lobby of church one Sunday a few minutes after hearing how MSFC had sustained yet another multi-million dollar embarrassing failure with the DART orbital rendezvous demonstration mission, and I was determined that there had to be a better way.

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