Space Launch – The Big Picture Part 1.
Recent History and Background Material
In past few weeks we have witnessed several launch events heralding the start of commercial space flight. First, we had the flights of the billionaires, Sir Richard Branscomb, and Jeff Bezos, to just above the Von Karmen limit. Then we had the Inspiration4 mission to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) where four non-astronauts got to spend three days enjoying zero-gee and an out-of-this-world view. These events have been forecast for over twenty years but are just becoming practical for one reason, and that is Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLVs).
I have been pushing for RLVs for more than forty years, and people with the NASA and the USAF have been listening, but reusability is difficult for highly stressed components that characterize most rockets. Hence, it costs more to make a rocket that is reusable, and unless there is a need to fly frequently and often, it is difficult/impossible to make the business case close. It is far cheaper to build an expendable rocket system and for a few missions a year, so the total cost to deliver a limited number of payloads to orbit will always be less with expendables. Until recently there was never enough payloads going to space each year to justify the extra cost of an RLV.
Advancing technology has reduced the cost of reusability over the last fifteen years and therefore, we are seeing reusable vehicles and commercial space tourism for the first time. SpaceX initiated this process by systematically trying to land their Falcon 9 boosters in a drone landing pad ship downrange of launch. They had some spectacular failures but soon had some successes and now have some boosters retired after ten reuses. At a smaller scale Blue Origin demonstrated their New Shepard Booster to be reusable during the same time frame, and Virgin Galactic demonstrated their two-stage airplane-based system to be reliable (it was always reusable).
Reusability drives down operating cost. For orbital delivery missions we normally measure operating cost as dollars per pound (or kilogram) to orbit. From Apollo through the Space Shuttle the cost was approximately $10,000/lbm (The Space Shuttle was supposed to cost $500/lbm, but design errors were made, and the launch rate never got above five or six per year. For more information on the Shuttle read Chapter 3 in my book). Through clever design and partial reusability SpaceX has the Falcon 9 cost down to approximately $1000/lbm right now, and if Starship is successful, I predict the cost to orbit will reach $100/kg. This is critical because of Market Elasticity. See a plot of Space Launch Market Elasticity in figure 1 below. This data was generated during the Commercial Space Transportation Study (CSTS) in 1993 in which all six major Aerospace Companies combined to determine which space markets were enabled by reduced costs to orbit. As you can see at $10,000/lbm less than twenty missions/year are economically viable, but at $300/lbm markets over 250 missions/year are viable.
Figure 1 – CSTS Market Elasticity Overview
However, as you reduce launch costs, the yearly revenue drops even with the increased flight rates until the price per pound reaches about $600/lbm, where the total launch price revenue starts increasing as more flights/year overcomes the reduced price per pound. Unfortunately, the total yearly launch revenue never climbs back up to where it was at $10,000/lbm (which is why the major Aerospace companies never invested in RLVs). However, if the launch provider is also invested in the orbital businesses they are enabling (see yellow line) the total yearly revenue can keep increasing as launch cost drop and RLVs make increasing good economic sense. The various RLVs shown at the top of the chart shows where $/lbm were with the 1st Generation RLV (Space Shuttle), 2nd Generation RLV (Falcon 9 partially Reusable), and 3rdGeneration RLV (SpaceX Starship). The 2.5 Generation RLVs are where I expect the Blue Origin New Glenn to fall.
How has SpaceX managed to get their launch costs down when everyone else, including NASA failed? As far as I can tell they exploited several factors. First, they smartly looked at what had been tried previously and harvested the best technologies and design approaches. They harvested the rocket tank manufacturing technologies that the USAF and NASA had developed for the Advanced Launch Systems (ALS) program in 1988 but never flew. They harvested the low-cost rocket engine turbopumps technology for the Merlin engine that NASA had developed for the X-34 RLV Program in 1996, but never flew. For their Raptor rocket engine, they adopted the oxygen-rich staged combustion cycle from the Integrated Powerhead engine developed by NASA in 2005 but never flown. Are you seeing a trend here?
More importantly, they also adopted a design, build, and test to failure philosophy which had been popular back in WW II, but fell by the wayside for NASA and USAF during the 1960s and 1970s. Design, build, and test to failure allows rapid development of operational hardware, and time is money in any hardware program. If you compare the program development of the Falcon 9 with a comparable NASA or USAF developed rocket in the same time frame you will find the SpaceX costs are about 25% of the government developed system (Ref 1). This cost reduction comes from 1) streamlining development through smart decisions and no cost-plus activities, 2) reducing or eliminating outside procurement chains, and 3) eliminating NASA oversight with all its overhead. SpaceX has basically discovered how to do more with less.
No one questions that SpaceX is leading the space race and a few pundits have proclaimed Elon Musk will be the first World Trillionaire based on the future commercial success of SpaceX. If there were any rocket company expected to be at a comparable level of technological achievement to SpaceX, it is Blue Origin. The company was founded by the former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2000, just two years before SpaceX set up shop in California. In 2015, Blue Origin became the first company to send a rocket above the Kármán Line, the internationally recognized boundary of space, and land it again. While this is not as challenging as bringing a rocket back from orbit it was still a major milestone in the history of private space exploration.
Bezos founded Blue Origin with visionary goals. Inspired by the late Princeton futurist Gerard K O’Neill (Author of The Colonization of Space), Bezos dreams of moving heavy industry off Earth and into space to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He wants to lay the foundation for an extra-terrestrial economy where thousands of people are living and working in space. His company is building a rocket almost as powerful as the one that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon and has partnered with leading defense contractors including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper to develop a lunar lander that could bring humans back to the lunar surface. It has designed, built, and tested a state-of-the-art rocket engine for its New Glenn rocket and inked contracts with the United Launch Alliance to supply the same engine for its next generation Vulcan rocket.
There’s no doubt that Bezos has plenty of vision. The question is: why can’t the second richest man in the world execute on it?
Over the past few years, Blue Origin’s master plan has begun unraveling. Earlier this year, Nasa awarded a single lunar lander contract to SpaceX, leaving the Blue Origin team in the lurch. Blue Origin is now suing NASA to reconsider the award. I would deem this suit as hopeless as NASA doesn’t have enough money for two awards, but recently the Senate increased NASA’s budget by $100M indicating that it was to award an additional lander contract. This shows the influence of power and money on our legislative process. Even so, if I were part of the Blue Origin team, I’d be hesitant to spool up a large development effort based on a one-time award of $100M because NASA may never get another gratuitous investment in the Artemis Program. NASA has already wasted billions of dollars on Artemis, and this will become painfully obvious in two or three years as hardware in development starts flying. See the section on NASA SLS.
Because of the lost lunar lander contract and other development failures Blue Origin has seen an exodus of top engineering talent, which has only exacerbated its current poor record for on-time developments. Blue Origin has been struggled to hit its stride. For instance, it’s key new space product, the 540,000 lbf BE-4 rocket engine is over four years late, and as a result the maiden launch of ULA’s Vulcan rocket has slipped to late 2022. This will make the first flight of the engine a full five years behind schedule.
Meanwhile, the first flight of the company’s fabled New Glenn rocket, a heavy launch vehicle capable of hoisting nearly 100,000 pounds into low Earth orbit, has also been pushed to late 2022 at the earliest. It was originally scheduled to have its maiden flight last year.
How did this happen? Blue Origin employs thousands of the world’s top rocket engineers. The company also has access to a virtually unlimited supply of money. Bezos, who is worth just south of $200bn, spends $1B per year out of his own pocket to fund Blue Origin. By all measures, Blue Origin should be one of the most successful space companies in the world. I know many of the space engineers at Blue Origin and they are tops in their field, but I also concur with many of the statements that follow.
“Blue Origin has all the ingredients for success and to become something truly fantastic,” said Ally Abrams, the former head of Blue Origin employee communications who recently wrote a whistleblower essay detailing safety concerns and rampant sexism at the company. “The engineers really believed that the ingredients for success are present, and they try every day to make that a reality despite the leadership’s interventions.”
According to Abrams, Blue Origin’s troubles have both a technical and cultural dimension. On the technical side, Abrams said the company suffers from an immense amount of technical debt–engineering challenges that build up because of choosing a quick solution rather than the best solution – and a relentless focus on speed that undermined its ability to properly address problems with its launch vehicles. She explained the exodus of top talent from Blue Origin as engineers who “got tired of putting Band-Aids on problems”.
“Technical debt is a problem most companies have but at Blue it’s just on an incredible scale,” Abrams said. “It really failed to transition from an R&D company to a production company.”
Abrams partially attributes the mounting technical debt to Blue Origin’s increasing focus on speed, an irony for a company whose motto is Gradatim Ferociter, the Latin rendering of “step by step, ferociously”. She traces the mounting pressure to move fast to 2017, when it was clear the company was failing to keep pace with its rivals at SpaceX. She said Bezos’s growing impatience with the pace of development was palpable, as was the “jealousy he seemed to have for the other billionaires who seemed to be making more progress than him”.
“The schedule was always a huge joke within the company,” Abrams said. “We’d put out the dates externally and employees would laugh because they knew that just wasn’t possible.”
Plenty of engineers didn’t feel comfortable raising safety and quality concerns for fear of retaliation, which is a very scary thing when you’re working on a high risk, experimental vehicle. I have no insight on the scheduling debacle. I have never worked in an organization where schedules are a joke. If this is true, I do see this as a major management problem.
New Shepard rocket blasts off near Van Horn, Texas. Photograph: Blue Origin/Reuters
But Blue Origin was racked by more than just engineering difficulties.
In her essay, Abrams described a company where executives show “consistently inappropriate” behavior toward women and where “dissent is actively stifled”. According to Abrams, Blue Origin’s cultural problems started at the top and flowed down throughout the company. She said Blue Origin’s CEO, Bob Smith, who was tapped by Bezos to lead the company in 2017, repeatedly failed to listen to his employees’ concerns about the safety of the company’s vehicles and its toxic workplace culture.
“Bob Smith is one of the most incapable leaders I have ever encountered,” Abrams said. “Passion withers in his presence. Plenty of engineers didn’t feel comfortable raising safety and quality concerns for fear of retaliation, which is a very scary thing when you’re working on a high-risk, experimental vehicle.”
Abrams’ whistleblower essay was co-signed by 20 anonymous current and former Blue Origin employees. Many of its allegations were denied by the company.
A statement from Blue Origin said the company had dismissed Abrams for “repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations”, that the company has no tolerance for harassment or discrimination, and that it believes its New Shepard rocket is “the safest space vehicle ever designed or built”. From my rocket design experience, I would not argue against the New Shepard being safe. It has a payload separation rocket system and redundant parachutes. It has flown 18 times with one partial failure (hard booster landing). Continued testing without a crew just doesn’t make economic sense.
But Blue Origin employees continue to speak out. Earlier this week, an investigation by the Washington Post echoed the issues raised by Abrams and painted a picture of an organization riddled with distrust of its leadership, sexism, and insufficient concern for the safety of its launch vehicles. Without knowing the individuals involved I feel it is inappropriate for me to comment on these allegations.
Looking to the future, the question for Blue Origin is whether it can overhaul its culture to deliver on its mission. Many observers, including Abrams, are skeptical. But perhaps a change is imminent. Earlier this year, Bezos stepped down from his role as the CEO of Amazon and committed himself to spending more time focused on Blue Origin. Whether Bezos can reinvigorate the company’s culture with his grand vision for human space exploration and a sense of common purpose remains to be seen. In my opinion Jeff Bezos can either become a “hands on” technical leader (not very likely), or he can hire one or more dynamic “hands on” leaders and get out of the way. I hope he solves his problems and wish him God speed.
“There’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of healing to do if they can actually put a good leadership team in place that is committed to moving forward in a different way,” said Abrams. “I think it would still take years for the scar tissue to heal with the employees.” I have trouble believing things are that bad and that with the right leadership the New Glenn program could recover, and Bezos could achieve his colonies in space. I believe Bezos cares enough to hire some excellent upper managers and will get things back on schedule.
Unfortunately, I also believe the lunar lander program (Artemis) has left the station and the Blue Origin team is wasting its time trying to build a second obviously inferior lander system. It will be inferior because it is based on Apollo-type infrastructure (all-expendable) which limits the payloads delivered and makes it essentially unaffordable. SpaceX again had a better idea.
NASA’s Space Launch System
A decade ago, the U.S. Senate through NASA commissioned some of the nation’s top aerospace companies to build a series of large expendable rockets to take American astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars. This was a desperate measure and done in response to the Obama Administration’s decision to zero out George Bush’s Constellation Space Exploration Program along with its ARES booster. The so-called Senate Launch System (SLS) was intended to keep NASA and key manufacturers alive until a new administration with more space enthusiasm was elected.
The program has been successful in providing charge numbers for NASA and its Boeing and Lockheed Martin subcontractors for the last ten years. The current estimate for delivering the current Artemis-1 SLS and Orion vehicle is $38B. That does include money for facility upgrades, but the program is four years late and the costs have doubled. I for one, am not surprised, and acknowledge that the Senate knew what they were buying into, and it went about as they expected. Keeping NASA and its prime contractors alive and well is not a cheap operation.
Unfortunately, SLS and Orion are no longer economically viable for the Artemis-1 lunar program, given the speed at which SpaceX is reducing launch costs. The Falcon Heavy has 2/3 the SLS payload to the moon for less than one tenth the cost. Sooner or later the press is going to notice that and start asking hard questions. The SpaceX Starship has eight times the SLS payload to the moon also for one tenth the cost. NASA saw where this was going, and therefore they embraced the Starship as their Lunar Lander. With Starship they could land 100 mT on the lunar surface for a fraction of the cost of a single Blue Origin lander mission (with a total payload of four astronauts).
The blog was meant to be an introduction to commercial space as it stands today. Next week I will look into the future and predict where space transportation is heading, and what that might it mean for you and me. There are good things happening both in the U.S. and overseas and a little competition usually frees up investment.
Dana G. Andrews