As most of you have now read (either here or here), Robert Bigelow announced at the Space 2006 conference today in San Jose that they are going to try and launch their first manned space station by late-2009/early-2010. This first module, Sundancer, will be about half the internal volume of the Nautilus (somewhere between 165-180 cubic meters depending on which source you read), and will be light enough (aboug 19klb) to launch on the single stick versions of Atlas V, Delta IV, Zenit Sea Launch, or Falcon IX (or Soyuz, Proton, or Ariane V for that matter). He plans a few years later to add on a full scale Nautilus module, and a service module of some sort. That’ll add capacity for six more people (bringing it to nine total), and will bring the total internal volume to greater than 500 cubic meters. I’ve been inside of one of their mockups there in Las Vegas, and those are impressively big structures!
I read about this pretty much right after Rand posted the information, but I was busy all day at work making wiring revisions on the sparker circuitry for our four vernier engines (as well as sneaking out to the test site for a rocket engine firing), and now is the first time I’ve had a chance to think.
So here’s a few thoughts I’ve had after reading the initial articles, as well as a few details I noticed:
- The LM/Bigelow “deal” mentioned this morning is really just a feasibility study. Bigelow still has a similar deal with SpaceX, and may also have a similar deal with RpK. Bigelow isn’t actually committed to giving LM any or all of the launch contracts for his hotel. That decision won’t be made until closer to initial launch (Rand said something about cutting contracts in 2008 for actual flights).
- Bigelow hinted that the likely price per ticket for the Atlas V based passenger vehicle would be about $10M each. That jibes pretty well with what I figured they could do at that flight rate (I have more thoughts on that coming in a future blog post). The Lockheed papers and Bigelow’s comments also hint that the proposed LM vehicle would be an 8 seater. Some have compared this to Apollo and Gemini scratching their heads, but the reality is that there actually have been a few technological improvements over the past 40 years. People in most industries understand this.
- Bigelow’s plan of trying to convince non-space-visiting countries to start their own low-cost space programs by sending astronauts to his station is not a crazy idea. If it works, it’ll probably be seen as a stroke of genius. $10M is a bit of money for a three-week vacation to orbit, but is a pittance compared with operating a normal government manned space program. Think about it, you could spend less than 5% of what NASA spends on ISS/Shuttle per year, and still fly just as many of your people into space for just as long. And with more frequent access, you could actually do something useful there. I think that Bigelow’s goal of taking the number of space-visiting nations from the current 11 to 60 over the next few years is a really good goal.
- By targetting foreign governments, businesses, and research, as well as some genuine tourism, Bigelow is helping prime the pump for private spaceflight. The big problem is that at $10M a shot, space tourism alone is unlikely to yield more than…10-15 people per year (I’ll go into more detail in that other post). That’s a ton compared to what we have right now, but only accounts for a few flights per year. Not enough demand to really build a business case on. But when you add those other markets, it all the sudden gets up to 16 flights per year on an Atlas V based vehicle, which could be as many as 40-50 flights per year on a smaller future RLV. Of course, at that flight rate, getting the ticket price down far enough that you really start catalyzing demand and getting into the breakthrough phase (say $1-5M per ticket) is entirely possible. One of the biggest holdups to private space transportation has been the lack of an elastic market big enough to justify a vehicle with a flight rate high enough to yield low enough costs to make a difference. This potentially changes that.
- Not only that, but a Sundancer is small enough that it might make a good payload to take out to L-1, or as a “mission module” attached to a capsule for long duration trips, or as a lunar surface cabin. Nautilus is a lot bigger and spacier, but at 50klb, it’s way too heavy to move around easily. 19klb is much easier to take around and drop off where needed.
- If Bigelow can really pull off getting sufficient flight demand at $10M/ticket, through tapping additional markets, that makes a lot of other business plans easier to close, such as a lunar transportation company. I had always been assuming that you wouldn’t get past the 2-3 flights per year demand range until you had the ticket price down in the single digit millions range. But if you could find governments that want to send people to do lunar research or prospecting, or whatever (or companies or research or non-profit organizations), the ticket price where you could get decent demand may well be in the $10-20M range, which brings that a whole heck of a lot closer to reality.
Anyway, that’s all I have for now. It’ll be a while before all the ramifications of this announcement sink in. There are a lot of things that could go wrong, but I can also see a lot of hope for the future. If Bigelow’s plan works, it will have far greater effects on our status as a space-faring civilization than the Vision for Space Exploration will ever have.
Bravo, Mr Bigelow.