Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Blue Origin enters the fray

There are a number of interesting companies innovating with rockets these days (such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR), but only one that goes to orbit: SpaceX. For the last decade the story of innovation in space access has been the story of SpaceX first and "everyone else" a distant second. Who knows, maybe the XCOR Lynx or Virgin's SpaceShip Three will reach orbit one day, but then again, maybe not.

And that's an unfortunate situation for space enthusiasts, because it's competition which really drives companies to lower prices. SpaceX can lower its costs all day long, but without competition it would have less incentive to open up the space market to everyone. SpaceX needs competitors.

Luckily, as I have mentioned before, United Launch Alliance seems to have finally gotten the memo that the old way of doing things under NASA isn't going to cut it anymore, and real innovation is needed. Their work towards reusability and creating platforms for exploring cis-lunar space is great stuff.

Now a third company has really come into the top ranks: Blue Origin.

Of course Blue Origin is not a new company. They've been around for over ten years now, but they've been so secretive that it was impossible to know what they were really working on or how much progress they were making. Would they get to orbit like SpaceX has been doing, or were they stuck in a sub-orbital development cycle like XCOR or Virgin? Until very recently, we had no idea.

BO's first flight test was April 2015, one year ago this month. It then flew and landed its New Shepard vehicle in November 2015 (reaching space but not orbit), January 2016, and April 2016. That means it has flown the same rocket (not just the same model, but the same actual vehicle) to space three times now and landed it safely. That's higher and with a better flight record than the SpaceX Grasshopper achieved in 2014.

Of course the SpaceX rockets are going to orbit, so they're much bigger, flying higher, and going much faster than the Blue Origin rocket. Successfully landing the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage last year was a much harder problem in many ways. SpaceX is in the lead in this race, but let's give Blue Origin credit where it's due: They're in the race. No one else (except maybe ULA) can say that.

What Bezos is doing is critical to actually realizing the promise of low-cost access to space. Fly, land, refuel, fly again, cheap. This is mandatory for low-cost space. We don't need another Space Shuttle that cost $1-1.5 billion per launch. So far, SpaceX has shown it can make rockets fairly cheaply and get them to orbit. Blue Origin is showing it can fly rockets and then fly them again. (SpaceX has yet to do this) The company that puts those two features together will be able to change the world. And of course we hope they'll both succeed, so we can all reap the rewards of competition, lower prices, and continued innovation far into the future.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

BEAM: 97% cheaper than NASA is just the start

In a few days the SpaceX mission CRS-8 will launch from NASA's Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station. CRS-8 is a cargo resupply mission to ISS; its primary payload is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), an inflatable expansion for ISS.

I've written before about how SpaceX (and recently, Blue Origin, but that's another post) represents a potential revolution in the cost of space launch compared to systems developed and operated by NASA. That's great, but it's also a truism that it's not enough to get to space - humans need a place stay (where they won't instantly die) once they're there. And that's where BEAM comes in.

The ISS cost $100 billion to construct, using NASA's technology. The total bill is estimated to be around $150 billion (including all costs from international partners), but about $50 billion of that was just the cost of launching the pieces on the Space Shuttle. So $100 billion was just for the strcuture, and that's a lot of money! According to Wikipedia, that's the most expensive structure ever made. It's a plausible claim anyway.

BEAM by comparison cost "only" $17.8 million. That's still expensive by most people's standards, but there are homes in London and New York that cost more. This is within the realm of something that normal humans can afford, and is certainly affordable to larger commercial entities.

Another useful comparison between Bigelow's structures and ISS is the internal volume, since that's where any potential people would live and work. ISS has an internal volume of 916 cubic meters. The Bigelow modules are numbered according to their volume, so the BA 330 has 330 cubic meters of internal volume and the (proposed) BA 2100 has (wait for it ...) 2100 cubic meters of internal volume.

In other words. just three BA 330 modules would have the same internal volume as ISS, and a single BA 2100 module would be more than twice the volume.

We don't have a purchase price to compare the BA modules with ISS because Bigelow is not offering them for sale. The business model to start is to lease the space to national space agencies and corporate interests for 60-days at a time or more. The pricing released in 2014 was $25 million for 2 people for 60 days, which works out to $208,333 per person per day. ISS by comparison works out to about $7.5 million per person per day, so we're talking about a 97% discount from the NASA price. And that's based on SpaceX's non-reusable rocket prices! Getting the stations in orbit is a big part of their final cost, so reducing that price by 90% will eventually lead to even lower prices for Bigelow's leasees.

The BA modules present the opportunity for any developed nation of reasonable size to have a space station as larger or larger than ISS for less than 3% of the cost. It also opens up the ability to go to places besides Low Earth Orbit. A BA 300 station could be landed on the Moon and essentially be a pop-up Moon base for six people. Or it could be placed in orbit around Mars. Or attached to an asteroid mining rig, much as deep-sea living quarters are a part of the modern oil & gas industry.

The big lesson is that when you reduce the cost of something by two orders of magnitude, a lot of previously quiet demand can make itself known. Bigelow has already signed agreements with seven national space agencies and an unlisted number of corporate interests. They're just waiting on a manned space vehicle to prove out so before launching them, and the Dragon v2 is expected to fly in 2017. Before this decade is out you should expect to see a lot more people in space.