Dallas Bienhoff Space Show Interview

I typically don’t get a chance to listen in on the Space Show too often. I work long enough hours that when I get home I typically don’t have a 1.5-2hr chunk of time where I can set aside for personal time. However there was a talk this week about orbital propellant depots given by Dallas Bienhoff of Boeing that I was planning on trying to find a way to listen to. Alas, it turns out that it was scheduled at the exact same time as a dentists appointment I had previously scheduled, so I had to download the archive and listen to it at home. I’ve met Dallas at a few space conferences over the years, including the ACES conference out at NASA Ames in October 2005. When it comes to orbital propellant depots, he’s one of the most knowledgeable people I know, so the show ended up being very interesting.

A lot of what Dallas said mirrors some of the points I’ve been making here. That propellant depots could greatly enhance the current lunar plan. That they could provide huge markets for commercial orbital flight. That NASA isn’t going to develop one of these on their own. Etc. I’d just like to comment on a few of the things he said that got me thinking.

Dallas presented a paper at STAIF a few weeks back discussing the implications of a commercial propellant depot for NASA’s ESAS architecture. He found that by using orbital propellant transfer, the amount of surface cargo that could be delivered in a single flight could be more than tripled. This would be enough to bring a Sundancer module, or a ISS derived module down to the lunar surface, even at the same time as bringing crew down.

The market implications are even more impressive. Just to support 2 NASA lunar flights per year, there would be demand for nearly 40 Falcon IX sized flights. When you compare this with the current global launch market, you can see how important this market could be. It’s large enough that it could possibly provide flight rates high enough to help close the business case for one or more orbital RLV companies.

There has been a lot of discussion claiming that orbital propellant depots only make financial sense if SpaceX is successful with their Falcon IX. However at different points in his interview, Dallas clarified several things. First, he clarified that the reason he used SpaceX numbers so much was because they were publicly available information that he couldn’t get in trouble for talking about. Second, in light of the high projected flight demand (40+ launches per year), a listener asked if Boeing or Lockheed’s prices could drop far enough for Delta or Atlas to close the business case. Dallas skirted the question, saying that the idea was possible, and that it was under investigation. If the numbers I’ve heard for human rated Atlas flights are any indication, then there is a real chance that Atlas could be a contender. Quite frankly, with a market this big, it’s almost guaranteed that there will be more than one supplier. Possibly even more than two or three. Third, he also discussed the possibility of buying foreign launches. He brought up the launch inclination difficulties associated with Russian launch sites, but what with Soyuz expected to start flying out of Kourou next year, that could change substantially. With foreign providers, there will be real competition going on, and the prices will likely be kept low enough, even without SpaceX, to make such a venture worthwhile. If SpaceX succeeds, all the better.

One thing that came to mind during his discussion of using foreign propellant launches was the fact that an international standard propellant transfer interface could be very useful at some point in the future. If someone like MDA of Canada (or any of a number of European or Asian companies) were to come up with a working, standardized interface design for propellant transfer, it wouldn’t be ITAR restricted, and would likely greatly facilitate the use of internationally launched propellant tankers. I imagine such standards already exist in other markets like oil transport and such. I wonder if a prize for coming up with such a specification might be useful?

Dallas also talked about the concept of anchor tenants, and how NASA could possibly make things drastically easier by acting as one. Unfortunately, Dallas came to the same conclusion as I did–that while writing NASA entirely off a customer is probably premature, they haven’t proven themselves to be very reliable or stable customers in the past. Basing your business plan on them buying propellant from you is a recipe for disaster. He did mention one possible alternative, which was interesting: Bigelow Aerospace. Now, that’s still a bit premature, seeing as how they haven’t yet orbitted their first manned space station, but they have expressed a lot of interest in cislunar transportation, lunar cyclers, and most recently landing whole lunar bases in a single flight. All of these could benefit immensely from orbital propellant transfer. So, once Bigelow gets his current projects brought to market, working with him might make a lot of sense.

Anyhow, I think Dallas painted a fairly useful picture of how close this technology is to primetime. There are probably ways to make a 1st generation propellant depot even simpler than he outlined, but I think he made my case that this is a near-term technology that can have massive impacts on commercial space transportation.

Listen to the whole thing.

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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.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

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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8 Responses to Dallas Bienhoff Space Show Interview

  1. Chris says:

    Dear god was that guy awful.

    I was particularly amused by the question about whether an orbital depot would enable a larger payload to be delivered with the Ares V’s EDS into LLO. It took almost 10 minutes of babbling for the schmuck to settle on ‘yes’.

  2. Jon Goff says:

    Chris,
    I don’t know…his interview seemed just fine to me. Yeah, some of us are a little long-winded when it comes to getting to our points. So what?

    ~Jon

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have it on very good authority that orbital propellant depots are being examined within ESAS to quanity how they could help lunar operations.

  4. Anonymous says:

    wum….change quanity to quantify

  5. Anonymous says:

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe a foreign made tech incorporated into an American made product then itself falls under ITAR restrictions. We had problems with this concerning purchase of foreign made S band transmitter which was them to be launched on a Foreign vehicle. It gets to be even more of a problem if the contract is via DOD.

    Joseph

  6. Habitat Hermit says:

    Thanks for the heads-up Goff, absolutely a worthwhile interview.

    Long answers with lots of detail are greatly preferrable to yes/no answers. As for questions not specifically answered the very act of not answering them (and how) often speaks volumes. People should remember that this guy would be in a lot of trouble if he didn’t keep on the straight and narrow regarding non-public information.

    When it comes to the international standard propellant transfer interface couldn’t it simply be solved the same way as Dallas Bienhoff suggested versus propellant depos; just make a common definition of what is wanted without going into the how of it and you won’t have to worry about ITAR.

    A simple standard defining the bare minimums like flow rates and interconnection sizes. How the participants establish the flow rate or receive it is left undefined, there shouldn’t be anything the provider or recipient needs to know that can’t be defined simply in terms of measurements.

    Since I’m not a rocket engineer/scientist what would be the measurements required? These are the (simple) ones that come to mind but please add to and refine them:
    – physical dimensions of the interconnects etc. (KIS and just provide more than sufficient surfaces for securing, the how is left open for each implementation)
    – (ranges of) flow rates for fuel
    – (ranges of) flow rates for non-fuel

    I would think any flexibility of the delivery system should be the responsibility of the provider rather than the recipient (think gas station pump hoses). However since the fuel depot is both provider and recipient it makes sense if it could provide the flexibility for its providers as well (minimizing/simplifying hardware requirements on the propellant launches).

    Likewise I would also assume that any non-fuel (displaced gases etc.) should be handled solely by the fuel depot.

    What do you all think?

  7. Tom Cuddihy says:

    People are too focused on what NASA would or would not do. That’s focusing on the symptom, not the disease.

    Congress pretty clearly would not currently support a program plan that required 40 commercial launches a year by a single provider. The media would likely label it a multi-billion dollar giveaway to Elon Musk.

    If, on the other hand, the orbital depot concept is attempted by someone else (private or foreign), Congress will magically suddenly see the wisdom in the idea. Democracies work on existence proofs.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Once it is mentioned the term “bare minimum” I would like to inform you gentlemen that the fuel tansfer interface hardware does exist and is called “HERMES Quick Disconnect coupling”.
    We presented a paper at AIAA conference on Space Opeartions in Rome last year. You can download from http://www.georing.biz/OTHER/GEORING56926.pdf
    Our priority in this paper is to persuade the operators to put this coupling on their satellites and they will do so if the get confidence that our system will be available for refuelling. If they place it then time alone will create a sizeable Market to justify further investment.

    We are going further to present to interested parties the overal concept at the ISDC2007 and in particular at the “Space Venture Finance Symposium” http://isdc.nss.org/2007/finance.html

    We had presented the idea on UN-COPUOS in 2004 as an opportnity to capitalize on qualification flights or Ariane V-ECA (after its failure) and we still pursuit for other occasions.

    The overal system of HERMES is built under the “bare minimum” pilosophy who I call “Spartan” and “symbiotic” because it uses to extreeme extend the resources of the client satellite to survive and perform at no actual cost for the satellite (this is actually the meaning of “symbiosis”).

    Read the paper to see why and how.

    Charis Kosmas

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