guest blogger john hare
A few weeks ago I did a post on possible fantasies related to suborbital spaceflight. Some of the feedback applies to orbital flight. Some feedback I was really looking for though did not show up. One commenter in previous threads really hammered on the human spaceflight being a fantasy detrimental to the cause. Didn’t hear from him. Oh well, this one is about the transition from suborbital transports and the current ELVs moving into serious orbital transport operations.
I see many ways that the naysayers could be right about the current commercial plans for NASA cargo and human launch. While I don’t consider myself a negative person, I think SpaceX, Orbital, Lockmart, and Boeing would be well advised to focus on the short term gains from the new plan while protecting themselves against the long term consequences of abrupt termination of it for political reasons. I.e. don’t bet the company on uncontracted future NASA launch purchases. I think they would all be wise to operate in more or less the traditional (dinosaur) manner in regard to government contracts.
While I am somewhat pessimistic about commercial crew and cargo for NASA in the middle distance , I also don’t think that a shift in the political winds will “crater commercial launch for the foreseeable future” as so many think. Boeing and Lockmart will still have EELVs for military launch, while SpaceX could still be in position to service Bigalow and commercial satellite customers. Orbital has other customers as well. These four will most likely continue to launch infrequent, relatively expensive payloads whatever happens. This does not open orbit for the rest of us though.
The suborbital providers will have technical and market data in the next few years to prove or disprove their case. I expect three or more companies to be flying by 2015 with prices spiraling down and flight rate spiraling up. The suborbital companies are a major part of the foundation of space access in the future IMO and the survivors will be the ones to move forward while the companies that don’t make it will inadvertently be supplying personnel training for the ones that do. The scaling problem is the next major stumbling block for these companies to face on the way to orbital operations.
Many that deride suborbital as “not real spaceflight” focus on the energy difference between the two types of flight with 50 times harder being a frequent number. Mach 25 is about 50 times the energy of mach 3.5 if you ignore such things as gravity and aerodynamic losses. Suborbital requires on the order of 2.5 km/s Vee when gravity and aerodynamic losses are included while orbital requires about 9km/s, which is a factor of 13 in real energy differences required for launch. Some negative comments even refer 100 or more difference in difficulty. There were a lot of good comments in the other post on the scaling problem, and I had to rethink how to write this post to incorporate them so I could take the credit away from Axel, David, Ed, and Pete.
It has been mentioned many times that LEO is halfway to anywhere in terms of delta V. I think it will become clear in later decades that suborbital is halfway to orbit in terms of delta B, or Business. A suborbital company that delivers will have demonstrated the ability to build a company, build a team, raise funds, and only after that build a vehicle and the supporting technology. While the technical side is difficult, the business side is far more so. 90% of new restaurants go broke, and people have to eat or die. Business. It is more difficult to get one store going profitably than it is to get the second store operating. Business. It is far easier to open the tenth store than the second one . Business.
A successful suborbital company will have demonstrated the ability to operate a business. This has implications that are lost on many people. A successful business will have to have some track record for keeping employees functioning. It will have some record for integrity or else honest people will avoid dealing with them. It will have demonstrated staying power in the face of adversity……… And dead last, it will have demonstrated a profitable vehicle. When the suborbital companies look to orbital operations, their business reputation will make or break them. The reputation of Scaled Composites vs Rocketplane Kistler is a textbook example. If I were an investor, Rocketplane would have to have one very persuasive salesman to convince me to go with them instead of Burt. Whether the company in question is trying to raise funds for in house development or merge with a larger company, they must protect their reputation. Conservative engineering strangely enough is part of protecting that rep. The Kevlar engine shields on XCOR engines are protecting far more important assets than just one vehicle.
Given a good business reputation, how do the suborbital companies move on to orbit? The choices are basically expansion or merger.
The expansion model could happen for some. Lynx with the mother in law pod. Xombe3 as launch assist platform. Possibly an Armadillo modular vehicle or a cargo Spaceship 2 carrying an upper stage. It is a bit early to say just which smallsat* launcher will do what and when. It is clear that these companies and more will be leveraging whatever assets they have to generate revenue. When one of them is successful with smallsats, it is only natural that they think of scaling up to larger sizes. This is where the scaling starts getting interesting. They have already operated a suborbital vehicle for profit and have placed at least one payload in orbit, however small.(*smallsat, microsat, minisat, cubesat, or your own favorite term)
They will have some experience in staging with the smallsats and all other phases of orbital flight except perhaps pumps and reentry. Tanks, airframes, and engines will have to be larger and lighter, and the engines more efficient. This will be a very difficult technical problem. Technical problems have been solved before in this field with enough resources. A successful suborbital company should be able to acquire these resources.
XCOR would need to scale up their piston pump and already has a proprietary composite LOX tank capability. The next step up from the Lynx (Panther?), could be much larger suborbital vehicle that launches upper stages from a mother in law pod in the same manner as the Lynx. If the piston pumps scale well, they just need to increase the dimensions as the cube root of the increased volume to be pumped. Eight times the engine requires a pump with twice the dimensions, but the same parts count. As conservative as a piston pump is technically, development could possibly be a case of scaling up the blueprints. Larger pumps are actually easier in some ways because the relative clearances are easier to achieve. With the Nonburnite composite tank technology, hitting the tank weight goals for a conservative Panther stage could also be a matter of scaling and building a test unit before the flight article. The airframe and engines are the only major scale problems I see for the company, and with focused resources and a subscale (Lynx) experience base these should be tractable problems. Even the engines shouldn’t be all that difficult on the relative scale, having already done a dozen or so generations of them.
Armadillo is focused on a modular orbital system. If their plan works, they should be able to cluster however many modules together they need to deliver the payload to orbit. The only major scaling problem should be to get many modules to play nice together and John Carmack believes he has that covered. The upper modules will have to have reentry shields and gear and could be the sole major development item.
Masten has developed several generations of engine also with few reported problems. Their pintle based injectors seem to scale to any reasonable size on quite limited funds. Flometrics has been trying to sell their pistonless pumps for several years now so adding a pump should almost be a case of writing the check. They already outsource much of their tank construction so that doesn’t seem to be a show stopper either. Scaling the airframe would seem to be a straightforward task with the VTVL architecture. A reentry system would seem to be the major development hurdle for them.
These three companies can possibly start delivering orbital payloads in the several hundred pound range with additional investments in the $100M to $250M range. Launch facilities with eastern exposure could be their major problem. When development is done, additional airframes will probably be in the $10-20M range each. At $1,000.00 a pound, they could launch 500 pound satellites for a half million each. At that price point, with reliable and convenient launch availability, commercial companies can afford experimental payloads for material and medical research along with communications and small observatories. Even some universities could afford research launches. Airframes that are launching one to seven times per week have investment pay back times measured in months. The first company to achieve this technical capability will prove or disprove the business case in a hurry.
Propellant is a market in a class of it’s own for these first true RLVs. A depot in LEO would allow a GEO bird twice as heavy as any in the current inventory to launch dry and be sent on with very fat propellant reserves. Same for launching a GEO tug to organize and move the dead bird traffic up there. A 25 ton GEO bound com-sat could tank 50 tons of propellant for some seriously enhanced maneuvering capabilities.
Scaled Composites just might be able to get an edge on those companies by the simple expedient of building Space Ship Two airframes optimized as lower stages. Unmodified White Knight Two could fly a few hundred miles up range and launch the SS2 for a depressed trajectory suborbital flight back to Mojave. SS2 could launch the orbital stage during the flight.
There is a whole alphabet of other companies out there that might jump in from Airlaunch LLC to Unreasonable Rocket and back. I only expect one company to make it to this stage intact though, at most two. The one or two that make it might be the trendsetters for the next generation of larger orbital transports.
The tourism market is just beyond the reach of the first scale up to orbit as I see it. The second wave of orbital transports will be capable of handling humans. The companies that have survived to this point will be the ones that have already demonstrated the capability of building and operating a business in two risky markets, suborbital and orbital being very different animals for business purposes.
I think merger or acquisition is more likely than direct expansion. The large companies didn’t get where they are by being blind. If they see a profitable capability in the suborbital guys that they can acquire with a check, one of them will make an offer. Boeing, Lockmart, SpaceX, and Orbital are currently focused on getting there while the suborbital guys are more focused on getting there and back repeatedly and often. The getting back repeatedly and often will be purchased if possible. A Falcon first stage with an Armadillo modification for RTLS is worth serious bucks. Even a heavy payload hit on the mass orbited might be acceptable if the recovered stage can gas-n-go tomorrow. An XCOR Lynx proof of concept for a Tiger next generation might have RD 180s and Lockmart tanks. Whichever of the suborbital guys survives will be in a strong position to leverage a unique capability in a merger with the big boys. When they do, you just might see 5 tons to orbit per airframe per day in ten years. When spaceflight participants can fly domestically on demand for a reasonable price, demand will rapidly appear.
For the people in orbit market, price and convenience will be critical. At $20M-$50M a seat and six months in Russia, demand seems to be just slightly above the supply of a seat or so per year. When someone can fly to the US for a week of training and a week on orbit for a million or less, demand will become obvious if it exists. The precondition is the ability to supply those seats and a destination with easy scheduling for customer convenience.
I’ll have to expand on this in another post as the subject is difficult to explore in a concise manner