Friday, May 27, 2016

The New Space Race: SpaceX is in the lead, but Blue Origin will win


It's too easy for humans to fall into unproductive rivalry. In most commercial domains there's usually more ways to grow a pie than not, and that's certainly true of space access. By this post I don't mean to suggest that I want one space company to "win" and the other to "lose", but rather to look at two approaches to space access development and, maybe, make some predictions about which one will make more "pie" over time.


There is a widely (though not universally) held opinion among people who follow commercial space development that NASA took a wrong turn in technology development when it started the Apollo program. Apollo was a wonder of the world and stands even today as a monument to human ingenuity and work ethic. But it was also unsustainable and did not lead to a permanent human presence on the Moon, or even in Low Earth Orbit. Basically, Apollo was a fantastic one-off event who's only lasting contributions to humanity (besides American national pride) are things like Tang and Velcro. Not really the stuff of legends.

Getting to space and staying in space are two different things. The first can be done "on the cheap" by building a really huge rocket and seeing how far you can throw it. This has been The NASA Way ever since the Kennedy Administration. The closest NASA has come to "staying in space" is the International Space Station, but that has never even been fully crewed (it can support up to seven people) because NASA never figured out how to operate more than one rocket at a time.

Staying in space is about infrastructure, not ever-bigger rockets. To make a historical analogy, the Apollo program shares some similarities with Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the New World. It was a daring voyage into the unknown, sponsored by a major political power. But Columbus' voyage lead fairly quickly to European settlements in the New World, whereas Apollo has not lead to anything similar. Why? Because the Spanish explorers didn't try to bring everything with them from Spain. They brought just enough water and food to make the voyage, and then lived off the land when they got here. NASA has never learned to "live off the land" in space, and hence the only way they know how to get to places beyond Earth (like Mars) is to build bigger and bigger rockets (like SLS). This is crazy and just as unsustainable as Apollo.


Until about six months ago I was of the opinion that the only company that had a chance of breaking free of The NASA Way and changing how people got to space was SpaceX. Companies like Lockheed Margin and Boeing had no interest in anything deeper than milking the US military and cable satellite companies for expensive launch contracts, and Arianespace in Europe was no better. Upstart companies like Virgin Galactic, Masten, and XCOR are stuck in development hell with zero near-term prospects for escaping sub-orbital bunny hops. And then there was Blue Origin, but they were so secretive it was impossible to tell whether they were actually making any progress or stuck in the same development loop as the other also-rans.

Well in the last six months, Blue Origin has started to open up and, based on their progress and comments from Jeff Bezos, I think Blue Origin (and not SpaceX) may end up being the company that really "changes everything" about how people get to and stay in space.


Blog: First Developmental Test Flight of New Shepard
Blue Origin Completes More Than 100 Staged-Combustion Tests in Development of BE-4 Engine
Blue Origin Makes Historic Rocket Landing
Jan 22, 2016 Blog: Launch. Land. Repeat.
Mar 9, 2016 Ars goes inside Blue Origin’s secretive rocket factory
May 26, 2016 Blue Origin will intentionally crash its spaceship during the next test flight

The Argument:

Remember what I said before: Staying in space is about infrastructure. It's about living off the land. If you have to bring all your food, water, air, fuel, and everything else with you from the surface of the Earth, the only way to go further or stay longer in space is to use bigger and bigger rockets. The Apollo rocket was already a monster, and all it managed to do was send three men to the Moon for three days. The Space Launch System that NASA is building now is "Apollo on steroids" and will only manage to send a small crew to Mars for one mission. This is not how you build a spacefaring civilization.

What's needed to get to and stay in space is a vast supporting infrastructure. Every kilogram launched from Earth requires thousands of dollars (hopefully soon to be only "hundreds", but still expensive) worth of rocket and fuel. A passenger going from the surface of Earth should have just enough fuel and air to reach Low Earth Orbit, and there by greeted by the equivalent of an O'Hare airport in space. At this "O'Hare in Space" the passenger will transition to a facility that has enough air and shelter to keep him (and his fellow passengers) alive and comfortable for their stay, and then make their transfer to another craft that will take them to points beyond. For this to be an affordable prospect all of this infrastructure, air, and fuel needs be built using resources already in space, saving the cost and effort of launching them from Earth.

Right now the casual reader who doesn't think about space much may think this is just unreasonable. How much stuff is in space anyway? Isn't it mostly empty? That's why it's called "space", not "stuff"!

Well that's partly true. Space is mostly vacuum, there's no denying that. But that doesn't mean its empty, or that the stuff that it does have is hard to get to.

Getting places in space isn't about distance. Because there's no air or water resistance in space a craft once accelerated will just keep going in that direction forever. Therefore the only costs associated with space travel are the energy cost of accelerating and decelerating. (Plus your time, but ignore that for the moment) Well it just so happens that the energy (measured in delta-v) to launch from Earth is much greater than the energy needed to go from LEO all the way to Mars and back. Earth's gravity is really strong that way. In fact going from Low Earth Orbit all the way to Jupiter is easier than launching from Earth, and going to Pluto is only requires 10% more delta-v than launching from Earth. Basically, once you've launched from Earth, everything in the solar system is "closer" (in terms of energy) than going back to Earth. And asteroids in Near Earth Orbits are much, much closer. Like 95% closer.

So once you're in space, you have access to the all the resources of the Moon, the asteroid belt, and whatever comets are flying by at the time. A single 1000-ton meteor in Near Earth Orbit (of which there are thousands and they fly by Earth all the time) would have 100 tons of water ice and 900 tons of rock and metal. A metal-rich 500-meter diameter meteor could exceed the entire Earth's proven reserves of platinum. The dwarf planet Ceres has more water than all of Earth's oceans. And of course the Moon is, well, the Moon. Its energy, rock, and metal resources are basically infinite (from the point of view of wee little humans). Combined with robotic manufacturing and the unlimited solar power found in space, there's no limit on what we could build. As little as 41 tons of equipment landed on the Moon could bootstrap to an industrial base millions of times larger than America's national economy in just a few decades.

So why Blue Origin (and not SpaceX):

There is no doubt that SpaceX is revolutionizing access to LEO. If it succeeds in reaching full reusability of its Falcon rockets, the Falcon Heavy could launch the equivalent of a Boeing 737 into orbit (with all the passengers that implies) for a per-person cost no greater than flying, say, from London to Hong Kong. It will be amazing.

However, Elon Musk has stated that his goal is to build an even bigger rocket than the Falcon Heavy for the purpose of throwing 50-100 people (plus equipment) at a time to Mars. He has never once spoken about, or shown any interest in, developing Low Earth Orbit or the Moon or the Asteroid Belt. Basically, Elon Musk is trying to commercialize and sell tickets to a really big Apollo program.

Jeff Bezos on the other hand, has not shown any particular interest in Mars. He has stated instead that his goal is to see "millions of people" traveling to space and back, and working in space. Not Mars. Space. And the only way that happens is if he develops the infrastructure necessary to "live off the land" once there. There's no other way to do it, and Jeff Bezos has stated specifically that this is what he expects to see.

So don't get me wrong - I want Elon Musk to succeed at everything he's trying to do. It's all very noble. But it also seems somewhat unsustainable. Once the few thousand (or maybe even tens of thousands) of people who want to emigrate to Mars (and can afford the $500k per person ticket!) have gone, Elon's Mars rocket will stop flying. But if Blue Origin builds a self-sustaining economy in space, those rockets will just keep flying forever (basically the same way that commercial planes and shipping do today). And frankly, once you have the infrastructure to support millions of people in Low Earth or Lunar Orbit, getting to Mars is almost trivial.


So that's my argument. SpaceX is great and I hope they succeed. And in fact, I think they'll achieve fully reusable passenger rockets before Blue Origin does. But based on their current business trajectories and the attitudes of their founders, right now I'd put my money on Blue Origin being the company that changes how humans get to space - and stay there.

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