So many commercial players in space – Are they “private?” Can they survive?
Today, there is a complex array of spacefaring private entrepreneurs, people who dream of making a business out of space related activities. It is easy to become lost in the tangle of efforts, agreements, alliances, and competitions.
This post is an attempt to sort out the players and make sense of the tangle of technical efforts. We will not even try to illuminate the web of cross agreements among players. All these programs need NASA support if they are to be successful. Meanwhile NASA is conducting its own massive development program. Will there be enough money?
Since the earliest days, all rocket and spacecraft in the U.S. were built by private aerospace companies (most have been subsumed into Boeing or Lockheed). Since they are all privately owned anyway, what does privatization mean?
This is long posting, so here is our Jump Index — click to go to topic
- Capsules: Apollo background, SpaceX, Boeing, Lockheed, Excalibur Almaz, Orbital, Russia, EADS, Japan
- Spaceplanes: SierraNevadaCorp, BlueOrigins , WickmanSpace&PropulsionCorp, Reaction Engines, Ltd
- Conclusions: Put it Together
- Appendix: Lifting Bodies
Orbital Transfer Modules
Carriers of people and cargo to low Earth orbit (LEO) and back with capsules and spaceplanes.
Capsules – Crew-rated : These are similar to the first US generation Mercury (crew of 1) > Gemini (crew of 2) > Apollo (crew of 3) of manned space modules (an earlier post called them Infrastructure-1).
They return to Earth base forward. Ablation (boil-off) of the heat shield protects internal capsule temperature, but the outside is charred Back to top
SpaceX leads the list because their Dragon was the first private craft to reach the ISS.
As a cargo ship, it leads competition by transporting the most supplies (6 tonnes, 13,200 lb) in its pressurized cabin and unpressurized ‘trunk.’ After a bit more work and NASA authorization, Dragon will carry 7 crew members.
The Dragon has many innovative features which we will not catalog. Clearly some very experienced engineers work in this program.
One of the charms 0f this company is that its leader, Edon Musk, says he plans to manufacture all components here in the USA. This means he his plans are to build manufacturing jobs for people who are not college graduates (the opposite to Apple Computer). Back to top
Boeing is closing in on the CCDev rewards for its CST-100 (crew space transporter) capsule. It received the most NASA funds to support its module and is a very serious contender for crew carrier.
The CST-100 is not designed nor rated for cargo. After final approvals, it could carry a crew of 7. The cylinder below the re-entry unit holds retro rocket engines and fuel, not cargo as with the Dragon.
Boeing does not publish dimensions so the values had to be scaled from images of the initial test module, diagrams and presentation materials. The heat shield base is 4.56 m in diameter, we can get the other sizes using that. These are estimates, only.
The 9 m3 crew volume is the dimensions of the outside of the chamber, not counting the airlock tunnel. The CST-100 would be launched on any man-rated rocket powerful enough to do the job (Atlas-V, Delta-IV, Falcon-9).
Boeing expects to provide crew transport to ISS during the latter half of this decade; it could carry humans to a Bigelow space station by 2015. Back to top
Lockheed was not in the NASA COTS competition because it is a major player in NASA’s own Space Launch System system for deep space activity.
Lockheed designed and prototyped the Orion capsule, now renamed the MPCV (multi purpose crew vehicle).
It delivered the first test MPCV ‘article’ to NASA in 2012 and testing is in progress. It is designed to carry 2 to 4 crew members both to LEO and also deep into planetary space. The MPCV would could be launched to LEO on a Delta IV though for a private launch contract, it might be Atlas-V or Falcon Heavy.
If private space launches become reality, in about 3 years might Lockheed become a player and competitively bid its MPCV? Back to top
Excalibur Almaz (EAI) is a alliance between British and Russian companies. It is based on the Isle of Man, midway between Ireland and northern England.
They acquired 3 TKS capsule systems from the Soviet-era space program, which can be launched from any of the available rockets. One will be for space tourism, the other two for different uses.
Their plans include modifications of the Zarya stations that are also at EIA. (Zarya was the kernel for the ISS station in the late ’90s.)
The TKS configuration includes the VA (Vozvrashchaemiy Apparat) re-entry module with its control thrusters located in the service module. The system was designed for reuse as proven in the 1980s (three uses of same capsule). It was never launched with a crew, due to Soviet politics, apparently.
Sizes are not readily available at the EAI site, but the original specs can be found here. As with most of these spacecraft, the payload mass depends on the size of the booster that carries it to LEO and could be substantially larger than shown, if a Heavy booster were used. The VA puts the Captain at the top of the capsule and the other 2 behind. It is about 30% smaller than the Apollo, where all three were in a row.
EAI has become an “official” unfunded NASA CCDev2 participant. One EIA Vice Presidents is a former NASA astronaut, and they plan to use U.S. made life support equipment. It is hard to judge how real EAI actually will be. It has made important alliances, has an impressive group of directors, has real (if old) hardware, and is making significant upgrades to the controls. It could provide low cost competition in the private space market. Back to top
Capsules – Cargo Carriers: These are cargo-only craft for the ISS. A container burns up during re-entry so is also useful for disposing of refuse. The SpaceX Dragon is the only transport module that will be able to take people and supplies to the ISS and return with an intact cargo. (Possible exception might be Excalibur Almaz)
Orbital (Orbital Science, Inc) is developing its Cygnus container under NASA contract, and expects two launches to ISS before 2013.
Cygnus is designed for low cost cargo delivery with a cargo hold at full pressure so that the ISS crew can unload in shirtsleeves.
The next several entries are semi-governmental programs that are part of the highly competitive environment of private spacecraft. Back to top
Russian Federation The Progress series of supply ships began in the 1970s and continue to this day, with contracts to supply the ISS.
EADS (Europe) The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) were meant to supplement the Progress cargo deliveries.
ESA (European Space Agency) has decided that the ATV effort will end with the 5th such mission.
Back to top
Japan HTV (H-II launcher Transfer Vehicle) is not a private cargo craft but is being used under contract to re-supply the ISS.
These were prepared to supplement the Roscosmos Progress cargo ship deliveries. Back to top
Spaceplanes These are orbital craft that return safely to earth under pilot control. The are called VTHL craft (vertical take-off horizontal landing) and come is various forms. The US Space Shuttle or Soviet Buran had big delta wings that generate drag and affect aerodynamic behavior in the atmosphere (they were said to glide a bit better than a brick). A lifting body (LB) has nearly no wings, but depends on the shape of its fuselage to provide substantial lift and guidance. Some LBs look like aircraft, but some are capsules with multiple curvatures in their bodies. The shaped bodies provide more control over choice of landing sites. (We discuss LBs in the Appendix at the end.)
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC, previously SpaceDev) is the only NASA CCDev2 awardee that proposes a winged re-entry vehicle.
The Dream Chaser (DC) is a lifting body that is being built by Scaled Composites, the same company making the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip1 etc sub-orbital craft.
It is in the class of vertical take-off horizontal landing (VTHL) spaceplanes, and its first launch is to be on an Atlas-V booster. SNC shows the DC at a landing strip, but it could return via parasail as did the X-38.
The DC is a belongs to the family of LBs that decends from the our first stable designs, the HL-10 and X-24A and the X-38 made by Scaled Composites. There is of blogsphere buzz that the X-38 is a copy of the 1980’s BOR-4 Soviet design – saying this is pretty dumb, IMHO – sort of like saying Apollo was a hoax. Click to the Appendix .
Part of SNC’s CCDev2 award was extensive NASA wind tunnel optimization. As of 2012-Jun, the first design test has passed tethered “flight” testing and its hybrid engines were well advanced. There is no published time frame for ISS visits; at the rate they might proceed, it a flight could be as early as 2013, but probably will be 2014-15. Back to top
Blue Origin, LLC BOL is an ultra private company founded by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon Dot Com. Their Space Vehicle (SV) is a biconic LB. This shape appears to have better atmospheric maneuverability that the Space Shuttle and so it can choose its landing site.
The SV is classed as a vertical take-off, vertical landing (VTVL) craft and could fly before 2020. They do other projects, too; topics for later posts.
BOL has not given size information, but their Goddard (test craft for the 7 crew SV) is an off-shoot of Boeing’s DC-X. The SV will be bigger… Back to top
Wickman Space & Propulsion Company WSPC was not on the NASA competition list, but has been funded by the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Falcon program for development of a rapid launch rocket system and its Sharp space vehicle that uses a NASA thermal protection system to allow space craft with sharp edges.
Initially, Sharp is a hypersonic bomber that gets its entire atmosphere lift from its shape and (presumably) will maneuver using flaps on the underside of the craft. No other details or time lines are given but the first sub-scale test modules should launch in 2012, with scale up to a human crew following that. If WSPC can obtain the funding, they could become a commercial challenger. Back to top
Reaction Engines Ltd REL is a survivor of the British dreams from the 1990s for horizontal take-off and landing (HOTOL) spacecraft. Their Skylon is a very special category.
Single stage to orbit (SSTO) craft are hard to design, and the US withdrew its own effort after realizing their design required that the unfueled craft be no more than 10% of its fully fueled weight. REL has successfully designed an engine that reduces the mass of LOX needed by operating as a ram jet where there is sufficient oxygen and then converts to rockets when in actual space. I do not understand the airport takeoff part, that is pretty expensive when they could be lofted to more than 40,000 ft (12 km) and get past the densest part of the atmosphere.
REL is in the list of potential winners because of its innovative design (Brit engineers often lead the way in this), successful recent tests of the engine (could have been a show-stopper), and success at attracting support from worldwide sources. Back to top
Put It Together:
I. There are 12 companies on this ‘short’ list. There are many more poorly capitalized ones that dream. In the early days of the automobile, any small shop could produce its own line of cars, offering huge variety in types available. Car offerings exceeded customer demand and reliability was poor. The early aircraft industry was the same. After the first several years or several decades, the market tightened up to meet demand. The big guys ate the little ones and loss of variety increased efficiency at the expense of innovation. Little companies are run by innovative engineers who love their technology, try risky things. The big ones are run by MBAs, concerned mostly with dollar compensation. They do not understand hardware and take few chances.
This is a good time for development. There are a lot of under-employed innovative space engineers who love their craft and we have 5 decades of intriguing ideas that ought to be tried out: capsules that land in the ocean, capsules that land on balloons, capsules that land via parasail, lifting body capsules that can be piloted after reentry; then spaceplanes that are lifting bodies, those that rely on innovative heat protection, those that look a bit like the old X-15; liquid rockets, solid rockets, hybrid rockets and rocket/(sc)ram jet combos, and aerospike engines. Almost anything previously dreamed up is being seriously proposed today.
There is not enough US business to keep the current space launches earning money. United Launch Associates (Boeing=Delta-IV) + (Lockheed=Atlas-V) has a long standing record of perfect launches without hitch, but at low launch rate. The Atlas-V launched 50 perfects in the last 10 years. Great record, but only 5/year. Low volume has kept launch cost above US$10,000 per pound (US$22,000 per kg) to LEO. This is one of the problems that killed the Space Shuttle. Most of the companies listed here use optimistic forecasting and project < US$ 1,000 per lb. (I suspect each assumes it has all the private launch business and a goodly fraction of NASA’s).
NASA must provide funds for the most promising startups. But it is also strongly pursuing the canceled Constellation program with another brand new booster for deep space and continued work on the renamed Orion crew capsule, now tasked for deep space exploration. NASA needs the Apollo/Saturn infrastructure level of funding to succeed, our startups need about that same amount, but the administration tries to cut the budget every year. How will the innovative startups survive? A huge reduction in companies during the next decade seems inevitable.
II. We need to privatize space exploration. The Cato cant is that private does it better than public. The truth is – although there is a lot of our financial elites in the business, none of these will do much more without the government funding they rely on. If the government pays, is it private enterprise? Even the surplus in innovative engineers is due to previous hiring by the government. Lockheed and Boeing top managers are rich from government support of their rockets – is that what is meant by private business?
Much of the innovative aerospace ideas came from government programs. Now that Upper government leaders have bought in to the “outsourcing is better” drivel, taxpayers are supporting rich people with money diverted from an effort to build a true space-based sustainable infrastructure. We need the same total sum as spent in earlier space episodes … $100,000,000,000 if you are careful where you allocated costs. To me, this sounds like a self-defeating scenario.
III. Diversity in effort is not efficient, just effective. Without 2 atomic bomb labs, we might not have been so successful in our bomb development (early 1950s) without a number of competing large fusion test labs we would not have been ready for the next step by the mid 1980s. Without … you supply your own “strong competition made strong success” anecdote. Efficiency in human management requires monopolistic policy. This is advocated by those in the power seat, because it keeps them there. Next time you hear “let’s become efficient!” … follow the money.
This is where we are right now. Too many small companies for the current funding levels; the funding agency is conflicted by its own competing program; there is not a large enough launch demand to support everyone. So, though this is really an exciting time and it is hard not to be optimistic, we are also in a tangled mess. How will all these cross linked companies work out their own future? Back to top
Update: 2012 08 Sep Updated some broken URL links, corrected cost estimates for a full launch infrastructure – the system using Saturn V launchers did not cost $100 Million … try $100 Billion
Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2012 Jun 26
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Appendix: Lifting Bodies (LB)
Winged spacecraft have been around for decades. In the late 1930s, Eugen Saenger (Sänger) proposed a German craft, the Silbervogel – Silverbird, that would launch by a rocket powered cart on a monorail leading up a mountain.
It would launch from Germany, bomb American cities like New York or Chicago, then return safely to earth after crossing the continent.
This was called the Amerika bomber, or the skip bomber. The body of this sub-orbital craft was shaped with a flat underside; at hypersonic speed, it would it bounce off the top of the stratosphere – as a rock thrown at a shallow angle skips across the surface of a pond. Silbervogel might have been an effective terror weapon.
Dyna-Soar The X-20 was an LB craft with a shaped fuselage for much of its lift. The US Air Force proposed it in 1957 to work as as a Saenger skip bomber or be used in photo-reconnaissance, satellite inspection, and other tasks using a co-launched laboratory module. It was terminated in 1963.
LB Research in the US In the early 1950s, the USAF started using shaped bodies to increase lift and range, including the x-10 (Navaho missile) and (later) the B-70 whose flat fuselages ‘surfed’ their own supersonic shock waves.
Wingless lifting bodies were sometimes called airfoil bodies, and research started in 1963 with the the towed LB M2-F1 glider made of plywood (M stood for manned, F for flight).
The first M2-F2 (powered) and first HL-10 (HL meant Horizontal Landing) had 2 vertical aft stabilizers and the vehicles were nearly uncontrollable. They rebuilt them with angled tail stabilizers + a 3rd stabilizer, the HL-10 flew well, as did the and M2-F3. NASA developed 8 different lifting body craft (those without wings) during the 12 years between 1963 and 1975.
Soviet BOR-4 Russian acronym for Unpiloted Orbital Rocketplane. These were subscale models of the Soviet Spiril (a Saenger bomber) that was superseded by the Buran.
Half scale lifting body craft was tested at hypersonic re-entry speeds in 1982-84.
The BOR-4 were rocket launched with ocean landing after parachute final descent. The reconnaissance picture clearly shows its triple aft stabilizers, just like the X-24A.
HL-38 test craft. This was built in the late 1990s by Scaled Composits. It was proposed as a lifeboat for the ISS. The units shown here have the 3 aft stabilizers of the HL-10 — X-24A sequence of lifting bodies.
Because the HL-38 was built more than a decade after the Soviet BOR-4, NASA labels it as something of a copy of the Soviet test craft! I have a hard time with this, because it so strongly resembles development of the 45 year old HL-10 or X-24A airframes.
This puts me in a clear minority, because even the DreamChaser (DC) team also makes the claim. What? Did we execute our innovative LB engineers responsible for the original development? Maybe, but I think many are still hobbling about, 45 years later.
If claims of copying must be made, then the Soviet BOR-4 design started with design points discovered by the HL-10 team and refined over the two year period of its testing. The X-38 is in the HL-10 — X-24A lineage.
As stated in this post, DC is a strong refinement on the X-38 which was canceled 2002. Scaled Composits certainly did not shoot its engineers, they turned them loose on the DC design.
Wingless Lifting Bodies Lifting bodies get a great help from the shape of their bodies, especially at hypersonic near-orbital speeds.
Most have small wings for the dense atmosphere, as did the Space Shuttle – which was described as gliding in a brick.
A class of bicubic LBs have no wings at all. After cancellation pf the Dyna-Soar in 1963 and before the end of the Lunar program, there were many different designs based on the McDonnell-Douglas’ Gemini capsule. (Gemini B, Winged Gemini, and Big Gemini to name three.) The diagram is from the Big-G final report; the picture is from the Gemini-B proposal of the successful landing test using refurbished and modified Gemini-2 capsule. Back to top