Now that I have little Jon asleep (man that kid can sure be cute–now that I have a digital camera, I may just have to post some pictures soon), I have a few minutes to blog a few thoughts I’ve been having today.
The first one was about a Space.com article about some of the work that SpaceHab is doing. SpaceHab is an interesting company. One of those that got founded with the help of the Citron brothers back in the day. Those guys are amazing (Rick in particular). They’ve managed to raise literally billions of dollars for private space companies over the years (something like almost $3B between SpaceHab, Orbital Sciences, and Kistler Aerospace), thus proving that it is actually possible to raise mind boggling amounts of money for space projects if you do things right. On the sad side, most of those companies have ended up nearly as bureaucratic as the big NASA/DoD contractors, with Kistler not even managing to build a simple TSTO RLV in spite of raising $800M!
But on the other hand, SpaceHab and Orbital have been profitable, and SpaceHab has actually managed to keep a little bit of an entrepreneurial spirit about it. Back in the day when the Artemis Project first started talking about trying to put together a commercial manned lunar mission, the intention was to use some SpaceHab modules that had been developed for the shuttle as the backbone of the system.
I think that Columbia was a wakeup call for SpaceHab. They lost one of their modules when Columbia crashed, and now with the Shuttle about to be shut down in the next few years, they’re starting to look at where to go from here. And fortunately, unlike ATK, they actually appear to be taking the route of trying to meet people’s needs in a cost effective manner, instead of trying to get Uncle Sugar to keep them in business. Not only that, but it looks like they are even funding it with their own money (or at least raising the money for the project commercially). I’m starting to regain a lot of respect for them already.
Anyhow, the meat of this article, and a previous one by Alan Boyle is that SpaceHab is starting development work on a family of recoverable spacecraft. These spacecraft would be placed into orbit on top of existing or future launch vehicles. These craft would be able to carry cargo, experiments, or eventually crew into orbit, dock with space stations or other vehicles on orbit, and also are capable of returning to earth’s surface for recovery. The vehicle family, dubbed Apex, comes in three sizes:
- The Apex 100, which can carry up to 380kg on non-recoverable flights or 260kg on recoverable ones, is being designed to be launchable on Falcon I, Taurus, or Minotaur.
- The Apex 300, which can carry 4,000kg on non-recoverable flights or about 2,200kg on recoverable ones, is sized to launch on a Delta II, or possibly a Falcon V.
- The Apex 400, which can carry 12,300kg non-recoverable or 8,600kg recoverable, would likely require an Atlas, Delta, Zenit, or maybe Falcon IX to launch (that last one is purely speculation on my part–SpaceX hasn’t even announced the Falcon IX’s payload yet).
While they are trying to offer these to NASA for ISS resupply, they appear to be seriously trying to go after private markets as well. I liked Jim Baker’s comment about Bigelow’s Nautilus space station:
“That thing’s going to need clean towels and champagne brought up, there’s that logistics issue there”
In addition to Nautilus and ISS, there are many potentially interesting things that could be done using these craft (depending largely on how expensive they turn out to be):
- Manned flights–SpaceHab mentioned the interest in eventually making manned versions of these modules. The 300 series version could likely orbit up to 4 or 5 passengers at the same time. Might even be worth using it to go after the America’s Space Prize, particularly if they are doing this entirely with private funds. The market for orbital tourism could potentially be quite large, especially if prices go down compared to current Soyuz flights (more about that later).
- Microgravity free-flyer station–Several years back there was a proposal for a commercial free-flyer station that would only be occasionally man tended. This would allow for much better microgravity for commercial research and manufacturing. If SpaceHab can actually lower the costs and time involved in working with them on such a vehicle, we might actually see more interest in microgravity research. As it stands now, with the costs, bureaucracy, and long lead-times inherent with doing anything on the Shuttle, microgravity research is in a rather sorry shape. There’s nothing like slashing costs and making the whole process quicker turn around and less of a hassle to try and get people interested in this field again.
- Satellite launch–someone recently asked the question that if astronauts were so valuable that we used launch escape systems for them, why not do the same for satellites? While the initial versions of these Apex craft probably don’t have LES capabilities, they could at least return the satellite in case of not reaching the right orbit, or having the satellite fail to deploy correctly. While the costs of launch for such a system would likely be higher, the insurance costs could be substantially lower, and for many satellites, the insurance cost is actually almost as high as the launch cost anyway.
- On-orbit satellite construction–Once manned versions of these capsules become available, it might be possible to launch a spacecraft in pieces, and have it assembled, checked-out, and deployed in orbit. As Dennis Wingo of SkyCorp is apt to point out, eliminating the need to do all deployment and checkout automatically from several hundred miles away should reduce spacecraft costs substantially (especially if they are assembled in a shirt-sleeve environment inside the vehicle), while also greatly reducing the probability of satellite failure. Not only that, but such a satellite can be shipped in special vibration dampening containers, and can thus have a much lighter structure, and require much less vibration resistant hardware. The burn-in test can be done with someone right there at hand to fix something if it doesn’t work out.
- Propellant delivery–these craft will already need to be capable of performing rendezvous and docking anyhow, adding the additional equipment and tankage needed to deliver fuel to orbital propellant depots, or to space tugs, or directly to lunar transfer vehicles should be not too difficult. The economics of this idea would depend a lot on the actual costs of the vehicle, and how much of the difference in “non-recoverable” vs “recoverable” payloads is due to recovery equipment mass. If the number mentioned mean that they can take that much mass on a round trip, it might very well be that recovering just the craft with empty tanks would not reduce the payload by nearly as much.
There are probably other options that I’m not even dreaming of yet, but an interesting thing to note here is that even though this is only a recoverable vehicle launched on an expendable launch vehicle, it already has some of the very characteristics that make RLVs desirable. The reality is that people don’t just care about raw price to orbit. They also care a lot about what services come with the package. Some of those services are really business opportunities all by themselves.