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The other problem with commercial space development: markets

October 5, 2011

Matthew Modine, Cliff Robertson, and Ned Vaughn in "Wind"

So…I’ve rambled on and on here about what looks like a sort of a “sweetheart deal” between ULA and NASA, LockMart and NASA, ATK and NASA, and Boeing and NASA (especially Boeing). There have been the battles between Obama and Congress, resulting in the on-again off-again problems with funding and determining missions for the Orion vehicle, while Lockheed Martin continued working on the prototype, slowly, still getting paid but also using a bunch of the company’s money building a simulator. There was the Boeing connection of the CST-100 with the ATK Liberty launcher. There was the “data sharing” with ULA (owned jointly by Boeing and LockMart).

While all this has been going on, some millions of dollars have been tossed to companies like SpaceX. But along with that, let me use SpaceX as an example. To test the first Falcon vehicles they had to drag it to the south Pacific, because NASA deemed it too dangerous to launch from the continental US. What about all of those US vehicles launched in the 1950s and 1960s? In one case, when the launch had to be scrubbed, an entire new tanker of liquid oxygen had to be sent from the US at huge expense because too much would have boiled off by the revised launch day.

Finally they could launch from Florida, but they were given a bunch of regulations that I’m sure didn’t exist when the Vanguard rockets blew up in 1958. Or the Atlases. Those were dang impressive. Like this one –

But all that aside, Space X is forging ahead, and so are some other companies. Now comes the next issue. Because of the concern about when man-rated rockets will be available, there aren’t that many folks wanting to use them. Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing a series of space habitats for private use, mainly for vacations, has laid off half of their employees because they are waiting for a launcher to be available.

Sure, there will be resupply to the ISS. Somebody will get that. But it looks like there will be three or four competitors for that market, and it’s pretty small. There is the satellite launching business, which is big, and taking some of that away from competitors outside of the US would feel pretty nice.

But nobody else is really talking space tourism yet. It’s like the CD-ROM market two decades ago: I remember reading that more CD-ROM material would be released for home computers if only computer manufacturers would put CD drives in their machines; and that computer manufacturers said they would put drives in the machines when there were enough titles to warrant it.

Somebody had to drive it. Apple was one of those (not the only one, but a major one). I think this is another example of “if you build it, they will come,” except it’s a damn big gamble. With both Europe and the US in recessions right now, it’s going to be tough finding enough buyers of launch services. Japan has their own, as does India, and of course so does China. Maybe the rest of the Pacific Rim will be looking to buy launch services soon if the price is affordable and they know they don’t have to contract a half-decade out. We’ll see. The small commercial companies are betting the farm on a market being there when they are ready – I hope they are right.

Of course, Elon Musk has another motive: he wants his own space program. He wants to develop the hardware that will be used to explore the solar system, and it looks like he just might be that guy – if he can keep from going broke beforehand. And if he can keep the “Big Boys” from shouldering him aside and taking over…like in “Wind.”

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