Up, Up and Away for the Wealthy
Space is continuing to become more the realm of private entrepreneurs than governments, and we’re already seeing space businesses trying to specialize.
The obvious approach is to lower costs and gain more business as far as SpaceX is concerned. It is trying to perfect reusable rockets — or at least recover the expensive first-stage booster. SpaceX made history in December by successfully recovering the booster from its Falcon 9 rocket for the first time and made history just 10 days ago when it successfully returned the first stage of the rocket to a floating barge at sea – a game changer for sure.
In an interesting split from this approach, Orbital ATK (NYSE: OA) CEO David W. Thompson recently declared the advantages of rocket recovery aren’t clear to him and that Orbital isn’t impressed. “Past experience with launch vehicle reusability has been mixed at best in terms of achieving sustainable cost reductions,” Thompson said. “So I am a skeptic with regard to many of the claims that have been made.”
Thompson also declared that Orbital intends to launch an entirely new business — repairing satellites in orbit. Few details have been disclosed, but the idea makes a lot of sense. Major communications satellites, many of them built by Orbital’s satellite build-and-launch division, can cost $1 billion each. They have lifespans of about 10–20 years. One of the primary reasons they fail is that they must be kept in a precise geosynchronous orbit about 22,000 miles above Earth. To do so, they use thrusters, which require fuel. When the fuel runs, out, gravity and other factors, including the pressure of photons and other particles streaming in from the sun, cause the satellite to fall out of orbit and useful orientation.
There’s no good reason such satellites cannot be designed to be refueled by tankers and robotic spacecraft. If a communications satellite can be refueled, its amortized costs could easily be cut in half. Thompson also made it clear that the company will consider repair of spacecraft as well. Tiny micrometeors, solar rays, cosmic rays and even space junk take a toll on objects in space over the years.
Orbital appears to be dedicating itself to becoming a nuts-and-bolts kind of space operator, a company with no interest in human spaceflight but a specialist in building, launching and maintaining both commercial and military spacecraft.
Meanwhile, the race to take paying humans into space recently became at least a three-way race. Virgin Galactic rolled out its redesigned SpaceShipTwo, the successor to the one that came apart on October 31, 2014 on a test flight. Virgin has not said how long the testing phase will be for the replacement space tourist ship, but it won’t be flying anytime soon. There will be ground tests; tests carrying it aloft on its unusual launch plane, WhiteKnightTwo; and even glides before it lights the fuse and heads skyward for a measly 100,000 feet or so, which isn’t even close to the edge of space.
In January, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket company repeated its successful launch and recovery of the booster stage of a rocket it hopes will carry tourists near space. The U.S. Air Force recently announced a $46 million award to United Launch Alliance to help develop Blue Origin’s new BE-4 liquid methane rocket engine as a replacement for the first-stage booster engine used in the highly successful Atlas V rocket program that has launched dozens of military payloads. When Elon Musk pointed out that those payloads were going into space on Russian rocket engines, Congress passed a law forbidding the practice and then reneged in the omnibus spending bill passed in December because Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which operate the Atlas program, said a replacement couldn’t be built by the 2019 deadline. Poppycock, said Aerojet Rocketdyne (NYSE: AJRD), which is developing a 2019 AR-1 engine and just got $115 million from the Air Force to help pay for that engine
Bezos has not announced how much he will charge space visitors on a Blue Origin rocket trip, but Virgin Galactic has been selling tickets for more than $225,000. World View, a high-altitude ballooning company based in Tucson, Arizona, is developing a canister to carry tourists up to 100,000 feet under a plastic balloon where they may achieve the “overview” effect — high enough for the sky to turn a space-like black and high enough for the Earth to be visible as a curved sphere. It’s not space, which starts at three times that altitude, but it is a lot cheaper, at $75,000 per trip. The trip is a longer, more drawn-out experience, and overall it has to be gentler than a rocket launch and landing.
Finally, a little-known rocket plane company called Sierra Nevada, which has never launched its craft into space, won a competitive contract from NASA in January to resupply the International Space Station six times between 2019 and 2024. SpaceX and Orbital also have resupply contracts.
The idea of segmenting the space business is not limited to the United States. The French Arianespace program has been launching commercial payloads since 1980 from Latin America. Arianespace recently announced plans to build a recoverable rocket in competition with SpaceX.
And if all of this continues in the direction it seems to be headed? You might be able to launch your own small satellite of about 2 pounds in a decade for less than $10,000. That should make your neighbor’s drone look silly.
To your health and wealth,