RLV Markets Part IV: Why Small May Be Beautiful

With the progress SpaceX has been making with trying to recover their F9R first stage, and their concepts for Mars Colonial Transport, BFRs, and 4000 satellite constellations, a lot of the industry has been fixated on very larger RLVs. I may very well be wrong, but I think there are actually a lot of reasons why smaller RLVs might be even more interesting.

Several years ago during a late night conversation at a Space Access Conference, Jeff Greason made the observation that for a healthy space transportation industry, you really want 2-3 healthy competitors. With only one provider, you get monopolies, two is better, but three is ideal.  But for RLVs each provider probably want to maintain a small fleet (at least 2-3 airframes) of RLVs so that they can provide dependable service even if they either have a mishap or have to pull one of the vehicles for maintenance or repair.  Having a single vehicle may work during the development phase where you’re transitioning into operations, but once you’re in full operations, you want enough demand for 2-3 companies with probably 2-3 vehicles per year.  And for each of those vehicles, in order to get the per flight price in a really good range, you need to fly often–Jeff says 100 times per year, but I’ve heard numbers as low as 30-50 (but any way you slice it, it’s a lot of flights).  That comes out to somewhere in the 120-900 flights per year range.

The problem is that there’s no real market that big if your RLVs are F9R/Vulcan class. Big LEO constellations, like what SpaceX is proposing might provide enough demand for higher flight rates, and likely will lead to useful price decreases that should help a lot, but still nowhere near enough to support a healthy RLV-centric launch industry with multiple players. That’s why I’m still intrigued with the idea of small RLVs, and think that the first market segment that ends up with multiple healthy RLV providers will actually be a lot smaller than most people think–probably vehicles in the 300-1000lb to LEO class.

300-1000lb payload class RLVs are interesting for several reasons:

  • I think they truly are easier to develop than larger systems. I know that some people disagree, but once you factor in testing, iterations, ground support equipment and everything else, I think that small RLVs will be a lot cheaper to develop than large RLVs. Maybe not proportionally less than large RLVs (ie a 500lb to LEO RLV might not be 10x cheaper to develop than a 5000lb to LEO RLV), but likely enough to make it easier for multiple entrants to make it into the market.
  • This is the size range where you could realistically get 1-2 people to LEO (2 would require a vehicle on the higher end of the scale). As I pointed out in Part II of this series, because an RLV by definition carries most of what you need for flying and recovering people, the delta mass needed per person is a lot lower than if you added a capsule on top of a traditional ELV. If you really could get 1-2 paying passengers to orbit, I think that would enable you to address one of the more important RLV markets.
  • As I pointed out in Part III of this series, you don’t actually need that high of a flight rate or that low of a price in $/lb to LEO in order to provide a per-seat price in LEO that is near the demand elasticity point1.
  • Propellant is also a nice, infinitely divisible payload that could be delivered effectively in 300-1000lb chunks. This payload is more sensitive to $/lb to LEO than people are, but is still a good RLV market. The flight rate would have to get relatively high to get the $/lb lower than a large RLV or semi-RLV flying less frequently, but even one F9R worth of propellant deliveries would provide enough of a flight rate to smaller RLVs to close the case for 1-2 air-frames.
  • [Update 5/30/15 at 10:59pm — I forgot to add this point when originally writing the article] Inexpensive propellant from small RLVs could also synergize with big launch vehicles going after traditional beyond-LEO satellite markets. For instance, if you took two “all-electric” satellites, skipped out on the propellant (and excess engine capacity) needed for spiraling out from GTO, and refueled the upper stage they were launched on, you could probably do a direct to GSO delivery that was actually price competitive with the all-electric spiral-out, if the propellant cost for tanking up the upper stage was low-enough.
  • Small RLV developers might also be able to take the wet lease or vehicle sales approach instead of making all their money off of selling individual flights–ie more like an airframe manufacturer than an airline. With ELVs or semi-reusable RLVs, this isn’t a practical approach, but it might be for small fully-reusable RLVs. The cost of a TSTO or air-launched TSTO RLV system might not be that much higher than the cost of 1-2 large passenger jets. If you made a system that was reliable, maintainable, and safe to operate in semi-populated areas, how many countries or private entities might want to buy or wet lease one? You might see situation where a space program or even a smallsat provider decided to buy or wet lease their own launch vehicle so they weren’t dependent on others launch manifests. It’s a bit of a paradigm shift for the industry, but XCOR is already doing a little bit of that with their Lynx vehicle.
  • “Provisions” or cargo for manned or unmanned space platforms, space parts or materials for orbital construction sites, or satlets/ORUs are also a nice finely divisible market. They care a bit about $/lb to LEO, but there may be benefits to being able to deliver smaller payloads. In many of these cases, there are real benefits to getting a steady stream of smaller deliveries than one big batch per year.

Anyhow, there’s probably many more points that could be made on this topic, but I’m still of the opinion that the small RLV market is a lot more interesting than current popular opinion presupposes.

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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.
  1. As discussed in previous posts, I think this point is around the $2-5M/seat to LEO price range
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8 Responses to RLV Markets Part IV: Why Small May Be Beautiful

  1. Andrew Swallow says:

    Cubesats come in multiples of 1kg (=2.2 lb). After the first crash NASA and Bigelow will want to keep the cubesats away from man spacecraft. A small RV can launch even a 9U cubesat.

  2. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    The “small” RLVs I’m talking about here would be around the same size as LauncherOne, or possibly a bit bigger. So you’d have to pack a decent number of cubesats into one flight to fill it up. Now something like a Skybox could provide some demand for vehicles in this class, but even then, not very much. Satellites by themselves, especially LEO satellites only provide so much launch demand. And in order to do so, you need so many up there that the debris risks start skyrocketing too.


  3. ken anthony says:

    Reviewed p3. F9 is 7 crew at $20m per. Using FH, sending 50 crew (in a stretch Dragon) would give $2m to $4m per seat as ELV (low flight rate compensated by other users / uses.) MCT sending 100 would not be much different except it doesn’t stop at LEO. RLV should be less, shouldn’t it?

  4. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    I definitely think RLVs could beat the $2-4m per seat number, just saying that even if they couldn’t, you could start there. And being able to fly in smaller numbers at a time might make sense initially.


  5. ken anthony says:

    If an RLV gives the same cost per it would definitely be better for an incremental approach. It will be a while before we need to send 50 or 100 at a time. However, if we get serious about colonizing that time shouldn’t be too much after we’ve demonstrated viable of living BEO.

  6. Dave Salt says:

    Small payloads can be assembled into large payloads, but this will be difficult in the absence of an assembly base. However, if the RLV could support a rapid re-flight rate it would reduce these difficulties significantly, especially if the system could guarantee first orbit rendezvous… which is one of the great advantages of air-launch.

  7. johnhare john hare says:

    It may be best to start with a 2,000 lb payload in order to give some margin in case there’s a glitch in development. Lynx is screwed for passenger traffic if they lose the capacity for the second seat, while a four seat design could become a three or two seater if some hardware fails to close. An O2 tank in the fourth seat is fundamentally different than one in the second seat.

  8. ken anthony says:

    some margin in case there’s a glitch

    We never would have made it to the moon if Von Braun had not agreed with you.

    It seems so obvious you wonder why people get this wrong so often. But then, there are always trade offs. So we do need to temper harsh judgments. When I see some take risks that fail, I can’t help but think those are the people moving us forward.

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