7C Scaling Up To Orbit part 2

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

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I do construction for a living and aerospace as an occasional hobby. I am an inventor and a bit of an entrepreneur. I've been self employed since the 1980s and working in concrete since the 1970s. When I grow up, I want to work with rockets and spacecraft. I did a stupid rocket trick a few decades back and decided not to try another hot fire without adult supervision. Haven't located much of that as we are all big kids when working with our passions.

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About johnhare

I do construction for a living and aerospace as an occasional hobby. I am an inventor and a bit of an entrepreneur. I've been self employed since the 1980s and working in concrete since the 1970s. When I grow up, I want to work with rockets and spacecraft. I did a stupid rocket trick a few decades back and decided not to try another hot fire without adult supervision. Haven't located much of that as we are all big kids when working with our passions.
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19 Responses to 7C Scaling Up To Orbit part 2

  1. Gordon says:

    No time for a long comment (It’s my lunch hour) but, thanks, this made for a great read.

  2. dad2059 says:

    Excellent scenario John.

    While eventual mergers might be the way some of these suborbital companies get to orbit, I see materials technology leading the way via lighter and stronger fuel tanks and engine parts.

  3. Bill White says:

    Getting another destination up there in LEO strikes me as the linchpin for the future success of orbital tourism. The MirCorp people were on the right track.

    Expressed differently, go around NASA rather than through NASA, and keep the US Congress off the critical path.

  4. Pete says:

    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.

    Unfortunately I doubt pump rotational speed would be independent of scale. Pump flow rate would perhaps scale more with the square than the cube, although multiple cylinder pumps are likely.

    My personal preference would be to use a simple lithium battery powered brushless motor with centripetal pump. Perhaps slightly heavier in the short term, but very cheap, convenient, simple, reliable and controllable – seems interesting at least for sub orbital. In a turbo pump system, maybe use such an electric motor to control speed and mitigate flow instabilities. Using an expander cycle rotary injector head to help power the pumps would be another possibility.

  5. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Oh, Bill, and you’ll be pleased to note that in the Commercial Crew part of that industry day conference in Galveston, they explicitly mentioned several times the importance of helping create additional, non-NASA demand for commercial crew capabilities. Ie, they understand that monopsonies are bad, and that they won’t really get the benefit of competition if there isn’t enough other demand to justify competition.


  6. it will become clear in later decades that suborbital is halfway to orbit in terms of delta B, or Business

    Exactly! Getting the business running is the hard part – we’ve been building rockets for most of our lives!

  7. john hare says:

    I won’t argue which is better here. If you are right, you just might have a market to develop here.

  8. Colin Millward says:

    Well thought through and well written, and educational too. Thanks

  9. john hare says:

    You are right about the scale of the piston pump. Though the volume does increase as the cube of the dimensions, rpms probably drop nearly linear which gives the increase close to a square function as you suggest.

    The pumping methods of the next generation of space transports will not necessarily be what you or I would do, but what the company involved would do. With a reliable piston pumping capability, I think it unlikely that XCOR would change to a turbine system as I would or an electric system as you would prefer.

    I do think you have a potential pump market independant of any engines or launch vehicles you might develop if you can develop it. That could be the revenue source you need to move on to building your engines and vehicles without borrowed money.

  10. Tom DeGisi says:

    > 90% of new restaurants go broke, and people have to eat or die.

    Actually a restaurant magazine I read had an article by a researcher in the business who said this is a myth. 90% certainly don’t go broke within a year where I live.

    Pretty much 100% of restaurants do eventually disappear, as attested to by the MacFalafel franchise in Ur.


  11. Pete says:

    I do think you have a potential pump market independant of any engines or launch vehicles you might develop if you can develop it.

    I suspect that propellant pump and rocket engine development should probably be integrated. Setting up a company to commercially develop rocket engines is not a trivial prospect, especially when there are a number of companies already doing this well.

    At this point in time there are many companies working on reducing the cost of access to space, only Bigelow seems to be working on lowering the cost of space stations. If one had a few million to spare to start a new space company, that would probably be a good place to do so – develop a new space depot that could be grown to include satellite assembly and people.

  12. john hare says:

    If I feel the need to use that example again I will do a bit of research first. Thanks.

    I think the whole field is on the verge of opening up and the people with the right approach will benifit when it does. Work on what you believe in and good fortune to your efforts.

    My biggest qualm is that nobody has an accurate timeline on this opening. If your concept suffers from too early or too late, like so many of mine, you lose.

  13. Pete says:

    My biggest qualm is that nobody has an accurate timeline on this opening. If your concept suffers from too early or too late, like so many of mine, you lose.

    Predicting things, especially about the future, is hard.

    Timing is definitely very critical, in my experience too a design can not afford to be six months too early or six months too late.

    But I do not think one can develop an accurate timeline anymore than one can say predict the share market. I would not want to assume a business model based on any such timeline prediction.

    Instead I would favor predicting a development program (hard enough in and of itself) and perhaps a base line potential market size at a given price point. Do not try to predict the market as a whole. At this stage of the industry, just play your own game and focus on the direct business plan.

  14. Coastal Ron says:

    John, I like you comment “I think it will become clear in later decades that suborbital is halfway to orbit in terms of delta B, or Business.”.

    Let’s jump forward a few years, and imagine that some group of companies has demonstrated in-orbit fuel depots, and have defined the price for their service. Imagine what would happen with the satellite industry if they could refuel their assets? Commercial companies and DOD/NSA would start to build new generation satellites in anticipation of being able to refuel their valuable assets. This would take a while to blossom, but we would see a new class of “reusable” satellites, possibly with modular systems that could be replaced/upgraded by in-orbit repair services. Lots of potential money in an existing market, and that’s just for satellites.

  15. john hare says:

    Coastal Ron,

    I’m thinking about orbital development for another post. The preliminary conclusions surprise me. While depots are critical, there are a number of other factors that also affect the market. Enough variables to confuse me, but hopefully not the all other participants on this blog.

  16. Can’t argue with you on any particular point.

    So how many successful suborbital companies are there now?

  17. john hare says:

    I count five visibly operating. Armadillo, Blue Origin, Masten, Scaled, and XCOR.
    A number of others might have something going. TGV tested a 30k engine. Rocketplane Kistler had a bunch of Russian built engines and a partial airframe (Kistler orbital TSTO) last I heard. Unreasonable Rocket made a very good run at the LLC and can’t be counted out. Several others I know even less about, like Speed Up and True Zero.

  18. Mad Yank says:

    The large-scale problem will not be getting a G2O business operational.
    The large-scale problem will not be keeping a G2O business operational.
    The large-scale G2O (Ground-to-Orbit) business problem comes in two segments:
    1.) Convincing a large-enough group of investors to invest; Americans are not ready to invest in what they still consider a Government-owned, Government-controlled area of operations. Unfortunately.
    2.) Convincing the U.S. Government to let go of the basic research done by NASA and Dod/DARPA that a private-funded corporation will need to profitably build and operate a reusable orbital vehicle system. DoD, especially, is NOT going to want the competition that a well-designed, fully-capable “Spaceship” – as opposed to “re-entry vehicle” – will afford a private operator.
    Can you picture Mr. John Smith, in his high-performance, fully-maneuverable, cross-range-capable Orbiter, pulling up to a Keyhole reconsat, taking pictures, then deorbiting with his HD DV camcorder and 12.1 Megapixel camera and posting the images on YouTube?
    Uncle will FREAK! Not to mention what the CIA and NSA would do.

  19. john hare says:

    The large enough group of investors is often just one person, and they are starting to invest. It just takes time and patience to work with people that want return on their investment and know that throwing billions at a problem is not usually the best way to get it.

    There is more than enough research available to get the job done. The stuff from the government can be found if it exists. The problem is that much of it doesn’t exist. Most of the problems that newspace is going to have to solve were never solved before. Commercially useful TPS will be a proprietary product by as many different groupsas there are good solutions.

    Your rich guy in a spaceship is going to have to follow enough regulations that pulling up to a sensitive satelite is not a problem. Getting a valuable vehicle impounded is not a good way for him to enjoy his momentary limelight. People with those kinds of resources don’t risk them on a lark.

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