Earlier this week when I posted a link to the Lockheed paper on man-rating Atlas V, I got an off-list comment from somebody to expect a major announcement from Lockheed this week. Well, we didn’t have to wait too long. According to an article on NASASpaceflight.com, Lockheed Martin and Bigelow Aerospace have entered into a deal to investigate using the Atlas V for space tourism. The kicker is the market size–16 flights per year between crew/passengers and cargo. That could mean as many as 60-120 people flying to orbit *per year*.
The deal apparently covers finishing up some of the technical research into man-rating the Atlas V, as well as studies into the making the business case close, and probably also covering studies into ways to streamline their processes further to enable a flight rate as high as they’re talking about (while also cutting costs to a point where they can offer a ticket price that enough people can afford to get the flight rate they want).
This is rather interesting, because I brought this topic up on the way down to work while carpooling with Ian and Pierce. I have a half-written blog post looking into the economics. My first read is that I’m skeptical they can make this work, however here are some things to chew on:
- Lockheed has the contract for the Orion capsule, which means that they can probably piggy-back a lot of their space tourism capsule work off of what they’re doing for Orion. Also, if they happen to be able to field their Atlas V tourism vehicle before Orion, they might be able to make out like total bandits–netting billions in development funds for something that they can turn around and say “look, we have a cheaper, and better alternative that’s already on the market, –go with us, and you could save lots of money”. The upshot being even more flights on their Atlas V. I think this is potentially win-win-win for Lockheed.
- As LM has pointed out elsewhere a lot of the price hikes for Atlas V stem from the fact that they’re only launching 2-4 of these per year. They have to cover all of their payroll costs, factory maintenance and upkeep costs, pad ops costs, etc but spread out over much fewer launches. At 2-4 flights per year, they’re looking at $140M for their barebones Atlas V, while at 6-8 flights per year they were offering it initially for about $70M. At 20 flights per year, maybe they could cut the price down into the $35-50M range. At that point, the costs per person would be in the $5-10M range.
- Bigelow has stated time and again that he’s not in the orbital hotel business. He expects to make most of his money off of building space stations for research, manufacturing, providing low-cost space programs to countries not traditionally thought of as having space programs, as well as orbital tourism. A lot of those other markets aren’t as sensitive to cost per ticket as they are to reliability of access. 16 flights per year means that you have a ride to orbit about every 3 weeks or so, which while not perfect, makes many space-based research projects a lot more feasible. Frequent, reliable access to space is just as important as cheap access to space.
So, the burning question are: Can they pull this off? Can they get the price lown enough to open up a market? Will this have a positive or negative effect on the rest of alt.space? If a business case exists, can they actually succesfully execute on this? How will this effect the implementation for the rest of the Vision for Space Exploration? Will this end up being the Iridium/Teledesic boondoggle for this decade, or will it actually work out?
We live in interesting times. Strange things are definitely afoot at the Circle K.