Humanity’s Future in Space Requires a Third Ecosystem
I doubt it was hard for the average citizen in the 1960s to imagine that they may one day retire to the moon, take a ride in flying car, or take a vacation to a massive rotating space station in low Earth orbit. Technology was changing at an incredible pace - new materials were being developed, and new manufacturing processes were being invented - much as a result of NASA's need to get to the moon before the end of the decade. By the time Apollo 11 lifted off, it must have seemed obvious that the pace would continue indefinitely - Moon colonization by 1980; Mars colonization by 2000; Jupiter’s moons by 2020. The media helped reinforce the idea of a quick expansion into the solar system with futuristic products and services promised to those mid-century citizens via the covers of magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. They were, in fact, promised jetpacks. However, somewhere between 1950 and 2000, those promises fell a little short. Despite the optimism, the average person would not be able to travel to space. Government regulations and a host of technical and market-related issues were the primary reasons why human space travel remained the domain of space agencies and science fiction. What was lacking for private commercial space travel were the ecosystems to support it.
In the U.S., there have always been programs that were either classified or just outside our collective peripheral vision – active, but unseen by the public. These early government-led efforts, like the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the X-20 Dyna-Soar, and the NERVA project, were overshadowed by the larger and much more public Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. While funding and technical issues doomed these fascinating projects, the very concept of a commercial ecosystem to support them didn’t really exist as we understand them today.
Throughout this period, all launches in the U.S. were required to go through NASA or the DOD, and were limited to one of four companies that offered launch capacity - Martin Marietta, General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, and LTV Aerospace Corporation. This tight control was loosened considerably after the passage of the Commercial Space Launch Act in 1984, however the world’s launch providers had processes and cultures that evolved tightly around their governments and their government cost structures. As a result, no significant reductions in launch cost would occur until SpaceX entered the marketplace and broke the launch model by focusing on vertical integration and recoverability.
The International Space Station was years away, but forward-thinking engineers and entrepreneurs were working on commercial solutions as far back as the 1970s. There was the Industrial Space Facility (ISF) from Space Industries in the early 1980s, the Enterprise Module from SpaceHab in the 1990s. These were borne out of a desire to grow beyond programs heavily controlled by government, and allow market forces to drive innovation. Unfortunately, they were also far too early, as they required two other ecosystems that wouldn’t exist for another twenty-five years.
In order for commercial markets to work properly in space on the scale that most people envision, three robust ecosystems need to first exist. First, a robust launch ecosystem is needed. Second, an ecosystem for spacecraft. Third, an ecosystem of destinations beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
To its credit, SpaceX really was the catalyst needed for the launch industry. They broke the relationship between legacy aerospace companies and government in a way and scale that no other company had done before; They made it clear that the old way of doing business was about to end. Large, process-driven companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and OrbitalATK have a deeply-rooted way of doing business – shaped in part by very stringent NASA requirements. SpaceX liked to make rapid changes, try them out, and refine. This way of doing things understandably made NASA nervous, and the traditional aerospace industry scratch their heads. Adapting to change is difficult for any large organization, as their processes are part of their culture. SpaceX took advantage of that inertia brilliantly, forcing the legacy companies to spend time and resources on cost reduction and catching up – something they have had little experience with.
With the arrival of SpaceX’s block 5 engine, and competitors closing the gap, launch costs are projected to fall in the coming years - and the barrier to entry for other companies with new ideas will become even more attainable. This emergence of true competition in the launch market over the past ten years has resulted in the launch ecosystem that was envisioned in the mid 1980s. Companies are now beginning to offer specific kinds of launch services to cater to every segment of the growing NewSpace market.
Aside from SpaceX’s plan for point-to-point BFR transportation, the need for human-rated orbit-capable spacecraft is currently very small, since the only destination for humans at the moment is the ISS - and the only customer is NASA. Hard numbers are difficult to find, but a 2012 article puts SpaceX’s Dragon 2 per-seat price at about $35M for NASA. This is obviously far too high to be of use to anyone but government, and we are back to where SpaceHab and Space Industries found themselves in the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, this time is different. Despite the ISS being the only current destination, there are three (NASA-funded) human-rated vehicles in development in the U.S., and several other privately-funded orbit-capable projects in development around the world.
In order to drive innovation and lower costs, there needs to be more of a reason for building the spacecraft in the first place. The final ecosystem needed is the destination. Repeated flights to a destination in space allows spacecraft owners to obtain a return on their investment over a longer period of time, and therefore drive prices to a more reasonable level. The end result is more revenue for everyone involved and lower prices for the consumer.
Of course the elephant in the room is the end-of- life date for the International Space Station (ISS). The official retirement date of the ISS has been the end of 2024 for quite some time, however it was widely assumed that the life of the laboratory would be extended to 2028 or beyond. The current administration has announced that funding for the ISS is scheduled to cease at the end of 2024. While this is not an outright end-of-life announcement, it does put the future of the station in serious doubt. The administration has suggested that the ISS be turned over to a private entity, however details are unclear about how this would happen. The international nature of the program does not lend itself well to private ownership. Revenue generation at the scale needed to offset costs will need to be enormous, and there are also significant issues with the sourcing spare parts, cargo resupply, as well as coordinating the multiple ground operations centers around the world. As seen with the Shuttle Program, once the mechanisms for ending government’s role in the funding of large-scale projects are switched on, it’s very difficult to stop and reverse course.
Upon initial consideration, the concept of a smaller space station seems like a step backwards from the grandeur and scale of the ISS. So, what are we at Orion Span thinking? We have not decided to take on this endeavor whimsically. Considerable thought has gone into planning, logistics, design, and engineering. A more nimble, single-module space station offers significant advantages. One basic form factor - designed from the bottom up to be expandable, upgradeable, and multi-purpose. With this as our keystone, we will move forward with creating the final ecosystem needed for sustained human expansion beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
One might say “but wait, I thought you were building a ‘Space Hotel’?” The short answer is “we are”, but the more complex answer is that Aurora Station will be the first of a planned series of destinations in space. We start by first providing safe, robust facilities in low Earth orbit – including space hotels. As the competitive landscape for launch capability increases, and launched become more frequent, we expect prices to come down. This concept is analogous to the early days of commercial air travel - tickets were necessarily high, as economies of scale had not yet fully matured. Our early astronaut guests will be crucial to the success of all three ecosystems, and eventually bringing prices down for everyone.
We have a talented engineering team and a novel engineering approach which will allow us to provide a variety of human-rated destinations for tourism, industry, research, and government.
Once a non-government destination exists in space, we believe that it will create a virtuous cycle between the three commercial space ecosystems of launch, spacecraft, and destination. The destination is the final piece of the puzzle that creates the market demand for the other two ecosystems. With an operational destination, growth can occur across all three ecosystems. New companies can be formed to provide launch vehicles, spacecraft, cargo, experiments, and an endless variety of other commercial hardware. To facilitate this virtuous cycle, we want to engage the community early through cooperation and partnerships. We are interested in establishing formal relationships with the following kinds of people and organizations:
World Space Agencies
Government or Intergovernmental organizations
Commercial Space Thought Leaders
Payload Developers and Operators
Researchers with Space-Relevant Science
Manufacturers with Microgravity Interests
Remote Sensing Companies
Space Vehicle Transportation Companies
In-Space Servicing Companies
Autonomous Drone Companies
If you fall into one of the above categories and you have found yourself in agreement with what has been outlined in this article, then treat this as our call to action. We may want to work with you.
Humanity’s most important adventure lies just ahead.