Space Launch – The Big Picture Part 2.
Recent History and Predictions for what is next
Last week I discussed why the world’s space launch industry is moving towards Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLVs). The prime reason is that critical elements in rockets have reached a technical maturity where un-subsidized private industry can build and operate an RLV. The space market has always been there. It’s just that now the technologies exist to provide low-cost access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and capture the commercial orbital space market, which can make LEO an exciting and very profitable location to do business.
LEO business will start out with high-end tourism hotels and quickly branch out to Space Business Parks where companies can pay to have experts conduct zero-gee testing and manufacturing. There are literally thousands of materials that can be made in zero-gee and no where else. In zero-gee you can mix materials of different densities and let them harden into a uniform material. This is impossible if gravity is present. Also, in Zero-gee you can 3-D print complex shapes and even human organs that would be impossible in a gravity field. The products are almost endless as we found out during the NASA-Sponsored Commercial Space Transportation Study (CSTS) back in 1993/4 (Ref 1).
This hasn’t happened yet because NASA never provided heat rejection for the U.S. Laboratory Module (i.e., hooked up the radiators) during its first six years on orbit (long story – see my book), and then since launch costs were very high, it was not fair to allow some entities access to zero-gee materials processing and not others. The bottom line is that essentially no commercial zero-gee processing has been allowed in the U.S. controlled portion of the International Space Station (ISS) over its 25-year existence. If that seems incredulous join the club.
I assure you that is going to change as soon as the first commercial space station is operational. The combination of low $/lbm to orbit and the freedom to try new processes under zero-gee and pure vacuum (in the wake of the station) will generate thousands of new products, some with almost magic properties. In 1993 the dozens of companies we surveyed saw profit in zero-gee manufacturing. No doubt today thousands of companies would see profit in testing and manufacturing in zero-gee. Enabling access to these markets should prove very lucrative.
As the LEO markets grow the flight rate increases and the cost per pound drops (elastic market). Eventually, it is not just billionaires and millionaires enjoying a week in orbit but the high-end middle class as well on a trip of a lifetime (figure $100,000 for a week on orbit once Starship is well established). When the elastic market gets down to $100/lbm then mining the moon becomes economically feasible (Ref 2) and we will see heavy machinery on the lunar surface not only mining and processing rare materials for use on Earth but building habitats for people to live in while they service machinery and further explore the surface.
All this is possible because of RLVs. We needed to transition from expendable rockets to reusable rockets to drop the $/lbm to orbit by one to two orders of magnitude to really open that market. Imagine the cost of an airplane ticket to Europe if we threw away the airplane every time and what that would do to the tourism market?
Right now, we have two candidate RLVs in work. I’ll cover the Blue Origin New Glenn rocket first because it is less well known.
Blue Origin New Glenn Launch Vehicle
New Glenn, named after NASA astronaut John Glenn, is a medium to heavy-lift orbital launch vehicle in development by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin organization. Design work on the vehicle began in 2012. Illustrations of the vehicle, and the high-level specifications, were initially publicly unveiled in September 2016. New Glenn is described as a two-stage with a diameter of 7 m (23 ft) and a payload of 100,000 lbm to LEO. Its first stage will be powered by seven BE-4 engines that are also being designed and manufactured by Blue Origin. The BE-4 engine has a chamber pressure of 134 bar (1950 psia) which gives it a sea level thrust of 540,000 lbf and a vacuum Isp of 330 seconds. It is an oxidizer-rich, staged combustion cycle engine which reduces turbine temperatures and aids reusability, but it has lower chamber pressure and hence a lower T/W relative to it’s two competitors; The SpaceX Raptor and the Russian RD-181 it is replacing on the United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket. Not only is it lower performance but it is five years late, which is causing consternation amongst its future users.
Like the New Shepardsuborbital launch vehicle that preceded it, the New Glenn's first stage has been designed to be reusable since inception in 2016. In 2021, the company initiated conceptual design work on approaches to potentially make the second stage reusable as well, with the project codenamed Project Jarvis. It is obvious that Project Jarvis is Blue Origin’s response to the SpaceX Starship. There is no way New Glenn with an expendable 2nd stage can compete cost-wise with Starship, which is completely reusable. Blue Origin is lifting another page from SpaceX in that the new Jarvis upper stage appears to be built of stainless steel identical to the Starship 2nd stage. See picture below of Jarvis 2ndstage under construction.
Blue Origin “Jarvis” 2nd Stage under Construction at Cape Canaveral
Originally aiming for first launch in 2020, in 2018 Blue Origin expected to launch New Glenn in 2021. In February 2021, the target date for the first launch was delayed to no earlier than the fourth quarter of 2022. I suspect test launches will occur before the fourth quarter of 2022, but they will not carry payloads. I expect to see Blue Origin to adopt a design, build, and test to failure approach like SpaceX. If they don’t adapt to faster development for New Glenn, they will simply be out of the race.
On the other hand, Blue Origin space ventures is joining forces with Colorado-based Sierra Space and a host of other partners, including Boeing, to propose building a space-based “mixed-use business park”, of the type I was talking about above, called Orbital Reef. See artist’s rendition below.
An artist’s conception shows a Boeing Starliner capsule at the Orbital Reef station. (Orbital Reef Illustration)
This plan, announced today (Oct 25th) at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai, is among about a dozen proposals being submitted to NASA for a share of development funds under a procurement aimed at replacing the ISS eventually.
If Blue Origin and its partners follow through on the plan, the basic version of Orbital Reef would be in low Earth orbit sometime during the latter half of the 2020s — in time for an orderly transition from ISS operations. That version would include power-generating capability, a core module with picture windows looking down on Earth, an inflatable habitat provided by Sierra Space and a Boeing-built science lab.
With an internal volume nearly as large as the International Space Station’s, Orbital Reef will be able to house up to 10 people, with separate areas for living and conducting science, according to Blue Origin. The company claims that Orbital Reef will be a “mixed-use business park” in space that will have multiple ports and berths for visiting spacecraft and modules, along with various utilities and amenities. Blue Origin boasts that the space station will have an “open system architecture” that will allow a variety of people and customers to use the facility. A list of possible users included space agencies, media and travel companies, entrepreneurs and investors, tech companies, and more, according to Blue Origin. Blue Origin also claims that it will provide “end-to-end” services for anyone wishing to use the station, from transportation, leasing space, technological assistance with hardware, and robotic services.
Orbital Reef Space Business Park Artwork © Provided by The Verge
“As the premier commercial destination in low Earth orbit, Orbital Reef will provide the essential infrastructure needed to scale economic activity and open new markets in space,” Blue Origin writes in a press release.
Blue Origin has dropped hints in the past (Space News - Sep 22, 2020) of its plans to potentially build a space station, and NASA is providing incentives for companies to pursue such projects. This year, NASA announced the creation of a new initiative called the Commercial Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Development — or CLD — program. The goal is to provide spaceflight companies with money to help jumpstart the development of private space stations that NASA could visit one day. NASA plans to award up to $400 million through two to four Space Act Agreements to fund initial studies of these space stations.
The CLD program is just one step in NASA’s long-term plan to eventually phase out the government-run International Space Station and transition to the use of commercial space stations. Currently, the ISS is slated to continue operating through 2024, and NASA has been eyeing an extension of the program through 2028. But the ISS is expensive, costing NASA $3 to $4 billion to operate each year, and the decades-old station can’t last forever. Eventually, NASA wants to retire the station and fill low Earth orbit — the domain of the ISS — with company-run space stations, as NASA focuses its human spaceflight efforts on deep space destinations.
In September, NASA announced it got about a dozen proposals for the initiative. “We got an incredibly strong response from industry to our announcement for proposals for commercial, free fliers that go directly to orbit,” Phil McAlister, the director of commercial spaceflight at NASA, told CNBC. “I can’t remember the last time we got that many proposals [in response] to a [human spaceflight] contract announcement.”
Artist’s rendition of Orbital Reef Interior © Provided by The Verge
NASA leadership has been considering this kind of future for many years. NASA already holds a contract with one company, Axiom, to develop a private space station that can dock with the ISS as part of a previous space agency initiative called NextSTEP. Axiom plans for this docked space station module to be a precursor to a free-flying space station sometime later.
Blue Origin’s senior vice president of advanced development programs, Brent Sherwood, has stated that Orbital Reef would cost “at least an order of magnitude less” than the International Space Station. The development cost for the International Space Station is typically estimated at $100 billion, which would imply a cost in the range of $10 billion for Orbital Reef. Brent and I worked together previously at Boeing, and I can vouch for the accuracy of his numbers.
Sherwood declined to say how much each of the partners would be willing to pay toward development, but Sierra Space President Janet Kavandi noted that her company has already put $1 billion into the development of the Dream Chaser Spaceplane capable of ferrying crew to and from Orbital Reef. (An uncrewed version of the Dream Chaser is due to start delivering cargo to the International Space Station within the next year (provided orbital testing goes well).
Other partners in Orbital Reef include Redwire, which specializes in on-orbit manufacturing; Genesis Engineering Solutions, which would build a “single-person spacecraft” for extravehicular activities; and Arizona State University, which will lead a global research consortium.
Sherwood said Orbital Reef could serve as a base for activities ranging from research to manufacturing, media projects and space tourism. Mike Gold, Redwire’s executive vice president for civil space business development and external affairs, emphasized that the proposed station will be designed to be expandable over time.
“Like real reefs, the Orbital Reef will touch many, many countries throughout the world,” Gold said. “This isn’t an American station. This will be a global station that will carry on the proud international legacy of the ISS.”
NASA is due to distribute up to $400 million to as few as two and as many as four industry teams to work on the initial stages of development for new orbital destinations — but it’s not guaranteed that Orbital Reef will be chosen.
Most of the spacecraft that would be used to build and service Orbital Reef — ranging from Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser and Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule to Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket — are still under development and behind schedule. This is why it is so important for Blue Origin to put the development of the New Glenn into overdrive. If they don’t, they will lose their best shot at being a player in the upcoming gold rush in LEO.
Even if Orbital Reef is chosen for the first round of funding, there’s no guarantee that it’ll will win full funding from NASA as an anchor tenant in the late 2020s. Among the other teams proposing space station concepts are Axiom Space and a consortium including Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin. Axiom Space, teamed with Boeing, has already won NASA’s go-ahead to build a commercial inflatable habitat for the International Space Station that could become part of a new orbital outpost when the time is right.
There’s also a chance that SpaceX might propose a modified version of its Starship spaceship and Dragon XL Cargo Carrier as elements for an outpost in low Earth orbit, a similar approach to what they proposed for a Starship lunar lander.
NASA is due to make its initial selections for funding next year.
Would the Orbital Reef partners proceed without NASA funding? Sierra Space’s Kavandi, for one, was clear about that. “Our company is very dedicated to making this happen, with or without additional funding,” she said. “We have committed to Blue Origin to be principal partners, and we are committed to making this happen regardless.” As I said above these markets are very lucrative and proceeding with or without a NASA subsidy is the smart thing to do. There is an outside chance that Jeff Bezos has decided the SpaceX has already captured the flag for low-cost access to LEO and he has set his sights on capturing most of the Space Business Park revenue. Remember the revenue curve in figure 1 in my last blog. At the lower $/lbm to orbit costs capturing the LEO business revenue is easily half of the total revenue available.
SpaceX Starship Program
Starship is a RLV system in development by SpaceX. It consists of a first stage named Super Heavy and a second stage named Starship. Both stages are made from stainless steel and designed to hold liquid Oxygen (LOX) and liquid Methane (LCH4) propellants. Before launch, a specialized tower stacks Starship's stages on the launch pad. During liftoff, Super Heavy's 33 Raptor engines produce 16,000,000 lbf of thrust, twice that of a Saturn V rocket. The Starship spacecraft fires three Raptors Vacuum in space, moves two pairs of flaps to control its descent, and fires three Raptors during landing. A Starship can send more than 100 metric tons (220,000 lbm) to LEO; higher Earth and other orbits are accessible after being refueled by tanker Starships. With modifications and refueling, Starship can also land on the Moon and/or Mars.
The Raptor rocket engine is an engineering marvel. It has a chamber pressure of 3970 psia (270 bar) giving it a T/W of over 140. It burns LOX/LCH4 at a mixture ratio of 3.7 giving it a sea level thrust of 440,000 lbf and a vacuum Isp of 373 seconds. This top-notch performance is the key to Starships overall performance. When I calculate the performance and operating costs for Starship, using tools developed during my rocket scientist days, I estimate a maximum payload to LEO of 150 mT (28.5-degree orbit inclination) and cost per flight of $12M, including a 20% profit margin for SpaceX. Assuming an average payload mass carried of 120 mT this gives us the $100/kg for payload to LEO which opens LEO for business parks and the Moon and Mars for mining and settlements.
I have been watching several excellent u-Tube talks on Starship and one presented a projection of future Starship Missions that was thought provoking. Based on my experience on the CSTS work back in 1993/4 I believe it is very conservative but still illustrative of what might happen. Their manifest over the next ten years is shown below.
Estimated Starship Flight Manifest (Launches) over the next ten years
I believe the customer and Moon launches are underestimated while the Starlink and Mars launches are overestimated but total launches are probably in the ballpark. The yearly breakdown is shown in the figure below.
Projected Starship Launches over the next ten years
A yearly flight rate of about 100 is what I used for estimating operating costs.
As I have said earlier, “The physics works for Starship, now all they have to do is make the system safe and reliable. If SpaceX can do that, they are in the driver’s seat for mankind’s expansion into space”. On the more mundane side I see SpaceX launching the first Starship orbital mission before the year is out. My estimate is about 50-50 as to whether they can perform a successful reentry. Remember, they plan to recover neither the Super Heavy nor the Starship, but they will try to perform a controlled landing into the sea with both. This is truly a very exciting program with potential to make a difference in all our lives. I wish them well.
Dana G. Andrews