(Photo credit: William
Armadillo Aerospace's SuperMod vehicles flies into a cloudy
September 12th in Texas in the team's successful attempt
for the $1 Million purse in the NGLLC
Level II competition.
Alt.space, NewSpace, entrepreneurial
space, and other labels have been used to describe
approaches to space development that different significantly
from that taken by NASA and the mainstream aerospace
industry. In this section we give an overview of these
unconventional approaches to developing space along
with links to additional resources.
News & Events
- What is happening in the NewSpace industryand community
Watch - this blog focuses on NewSpace companies
that are developing a range of technologies, including
low cost rocket vehicles for suborbital and orbital
access, for achieving practical, affordable human
- this HobbySpace weblog
monitors general topics involving space related hobbies
and activities for the general public. This includes
NewSpace topics such as amateur and student satellites,
space tourism, space businesses, etc.
People, businesses and organizations working to
open the space frontier to human settlement through
Exactly how that definition is implemented in the real
world is often somewhat fuzzy. It tends to be one of
those "we know it when we see it" sort of
labels. However, if a company, or perhaps even a "skunkworks"
type of project within a mainstream company, possesses
at least three or four of the following characteristics,
it would certainly fall under the NewSpace category:
Low cost focus A NewSpace company focuses intensely on minimzing
the cost of whatever space hardware or service that
it produces. NewSpace companies also tend to pursue
markets such as space tourism that will involve much
higher usage rates than traditional space markets
and so they will achieve lower costs through economies
The NewSpace industry centers around companies attempting
to build transport systems that will provide significantly
lower cost access to space. If we cannot reduce the
cost of getting to space by at least a factor of ten
below current costs, then humans will accomplish very
little in space.
Low Costs Will Pay Off
NewSpace companies follow a strategy for space development
that holds that lower prices for products and services
will lead eventually to much bigger markets and much
bigger payoffs in the long run. The mainstream aerospace
companies tend to believe that lower costs for space
transport and spacecraft will simply reduce their
revenues because the market can never grow beyond
what it is now.
Follow the model of other technologies such as computer
chips and LCD displays. Start with systems of limited
capability but with markets that can provide a profit
and thus pay for the development necessary to make
the next step up in capability. Over time this can
have a tremendous pay off as hardware improvements
are compounded and markets expand.
For example, it is hoped that suborbital space tourism
will pay for the development of increasingly reliable
and safe rocket vehicle systems that are cheap to
operate. These lessons will then apply to the subsequent
generations of vehicles that will eventually reach
Pursue commercial and broad consumer markets such
as space tourism. This sort of high rate market will
lead to lower costs through economies of scale.
Operations are key
A Space Shuttle can get to space and back with a crew
and lots of cargo but it takes about ten thousand
people to get it ready to fly again. NewSpace companies
hold that the operational costs of a system are more
important than achieving maximum performance.
For example, it could easily be worth sacrificing
some performance in a rocket engine (and accepting
a reduced payload to orbit) if this will lead to significant
improvements in reliability, reusability, and maintenance.
A NewSpace company might use innovative new technologies
that will lead to low cost, robust space systems.
Or a company might simply combine currently available,
"cheap-off-the-shelf" (COTS) technologies
in an innovative manner that provides a new and highly
capable system at lower costs.
NewSpace companies maintain a tight-ship structure
with minimal bureacracy and overhead. (E.g. by avoiding
cost-plus contracts they do not need the army of accountants
and book-keepers to respond to the enormous amount
of red tape required by the government client.)
There's no rule that NewSpace companies cannot work
for government clients but they insist on fixed-price
contracts rather than the standard cost-plus
contracts, which have contributed greatly to making
space hardware so terrifically expensive.
Humans in space
Although a particular project may not directly involve
human spaceflight, most NewSpace companies see their
technology as helping to lay the foundation towards
the primary long term goal of enabling large numbers
of people to go into space and to create permanent
Space vs. NewSpace
Commercial space development is, of course, nothing
new. Since the beginning of the Space
Age we have seen the creation and steady growth
of a vibrant private space industry based on communications
satellites. The first comsats were launched in the 1960s
and by the 1970s comsats and the businesses that they
enabled, such as low cost long distance telephone calls
and the distribution of television programming to cable
TV companies, had created a commercial space industry
valued in the tens of billions of dollars. In the 1980s
and 1990s new services arose such as direct-to-home
satellite TV that expanded the private space industry
by many more billions of dollars in annual revenues.
The current decade brought the successful introduction
of satellite radio to the US market.
In addition there are now many successful businesses
developed around GPS
sensing satellite services. See the Space
Business section for more about these conventional
Human spaceflight related businesses, however,
have been very slow to develop. The extremely high cost
both for access to space and for operating there have
severely retarded the development of such an industry.
As indicated in the above section, NewSpace companies
make the cost problem their main focus and attack it
by doing things very differently from the way NASA and
the conventional aerospace companies have purused space
It's one thing to claim that space development costs
can be significantly reduced, it is another to demonstrate
it in real life. Here are some examples that provide
solid empirical evidence that doing aerospace in a NewSpace
manner really can lead to big decreases in development
costs and similar reductions in prices to customers.
A follow up study to that in the Commercial
Market report confirmed that the Falcon 9 development
cost was at least a factor of three cheaper than
if it had been developed in a standard internal
procurement project. In practice it would almost
certainly have been more like a factor of ten
I + Genesis
II - Prototype inflatable space habitats Bigelow
Aerospace obtained the rights to the Transhab
inflatable spacecraft technology from NASA after the
agency shut down the program as instructed by Congress
in the late 1990s. From roughly 2000 to 2006, Bigelow
Aerospace carried out an intensive testing and
development program that greatly improved on that
technology and made it suitable for spaceflight. The
company built a sizeable infrastructure that included
large test and assembly facilities as well as control
In the summer of 2006, BA successfully placed the
Genesis I prototype into orbit on a Russian Dnepr
rocket. On June 28, 2007, the company successfully
launched Genesis II, a similar sized prototype but
with a number of enhancements over Genesis I. Bigelow
did all of this with a cumulative budget since 2000
in the $100M range. Such a program easily would have
cost a factor of ten or twenty more if it had been
done as a NASA internal project or via a NASA contract
with a major aerospace firm.
- Satellite navigation system prototype
When the European
Galileo satellite navigation project put out a
call for proposals to build a prototype to test their
designs and to show that they were using the frequencies
allocated to them, they were surprised to get an entry
from little Surrey
Satellite Technology, Ltd. (SSTL), a spinoff of
the University of Surrey's student satellite program.
They decided to give Surrey a chance and awarded them
a contract to build one of a pair of prototypes. "The
satellite was designed, built and tested in a rapid
(30 month) programme and was launched, on schedule
[and on budget], on 28th December 2005". After 27
months in orbit it was delared a full success : ESA
confirms SSTL’s GIOVE-A “full mission success” - SSTL
Meanwhile, a consortium with the giant aerospace firms
Astrium and Alcatel were assigned GIOVE-B.
After many delays and overruns, the spacecraft was
finally launched in April 2008. Just in case there
were further problems, ESA contracted Surrey to build
(This item comes via Henry Spencer.)
- Winner of the$10M X Prize competition
The SS1 project reportedly cost around $30M. Aerospace
industry participants uniformly say that this is a
factor of ten or twenty less that it would have cost
for NASA or a mainstream aerospace company assigned
to accomplish the exact same task.
Prospector - Lunar orbiter that detected hydrogen
at the lunar poles
This project (see description
in the Space Activism section) began as a private
project run by space activists in the late 1980s.
It nearly got launched for just a few million dollars
but they could not obtain the contributions necessary
to arrange a launch on a Russian vehicle. Eventually
it became a NASA program managed by Lockheed-Martin.
Even so, project leader Alan Binder reported that
the initial low cost approach allowed it be successful
for three or four times less than the projects that
competed for the Discovery program contract.
DC-XA - Reusable rocket vehicle demonstrator
This early 1990s project, led by the late Pete
Conrad, took place within a mainstream company
(McDonald-Douglas) and was funded by the government
(first the military and then NASA). However, the team
was allowed to follow a 1950s X-project management
approach and use a very small, tightly focused team
along with flexible procurement procedures. In doing
so it successfully fulfilled its goals of demonstrating
reusability and fast-turnaround of a LOX/LH2
rocket vehicle within a very limited budget of around
The management, as well as those who have run the
numbers through NASA cost model programs, all say
that this project cost at least a factor of ten less
that if it had been run according to standard NASA/aerospace
industry procurement and management procedures.
Besides these project examples, it is also commonly
reported by NewSpace companies that when they obtain
price quotes for components from mainstream aerospace
companies, the prices are several times what they obtain
from alternative sources or by building the components
For further discussion of high launch costs, see Rand
Simberg's article The
Path Not Taken - The New Atlantis - Sept.04, which
lays out clearly the reasons why it currently costs
so much to go to space, why this high cost is not due
to any fundamental laws of physics or economics, and
how the costs can be brought down significantly.
"The cost of a rocket is driven by five factors:
overhead, propulsion, structures, avionics and launch
SpaceX has a flat management structure and singular
product focus, resulting in lower overhead costs than
other launch vehicle providers and a significant cost
advantage for any given rocket design.
Regarding propulsion, structures and avionics, Falcon
has the advantage of being a clean sheet design focused
purely on reliability & cost (we view two as inseparable)
and the first rocket developed in the 21 st century,
taking advantage of the latest technologies. Through
countdown automation and simplicity of design, our
rocket requires an order of magnitude smaller launch
crew than other US rockets.
While we have many original innovations and patents
pending on elements of the vehicle, there is no single
silver bullet breakthrough responsible for our low
costs (just as there is no single reason why Southwest
Airlines is so much more cost efficient than other
--- Note: So why have the comsat guys put up with high
space access prices?
A large modern comsat can cost a few hundred million
dollars. It will be active for ten to fifteen years
except for the case of a rare breakdown of a major
component. The cost of the satellite and its launch
to geostationary orbit are mostly paid off by the
communications service fees within just a two or three
years and from then on the revenue is essentially
pure profit. This is important because it explains
why the comsat business has not pushed harder for
lower launch prices. A launch might cost $75M but
this is but a fraction of the price of the spacecraft
and an even smaller fraction of the revenue that it
will produce over its lifetime. So the comsat industry
has been generally satisfied with launcher prices
and has focused more on launch reliability, which
affects the cost of their insurance.
There are lots of ideas for new types of space related
businesses that will expand on what space can offer
beyond communications and remote sensing. HobbySpace
provides lots of information about these new business
concepts, especially in the Space
As the cliche goes, No bucks, no Buck Rogers.
Lots of capital is essential for getting space projects
successfully off the ground. With the high risks perceived
for most NewSpace companies, conventional sources of
investment such as banks and venture capital funds seldom
show any interest. So "angel investors" are
usually required. These are wealthy individuals who
for personal reasons (e.g. a lifelong interest in space)
are willing to accept the risks associated with investing
in such ventures. Usually they will run the companies
themselves, though some let others manage the firms.
From the computer industry and the dot.com boom of
the late 1990s, a number of wealthy young moguls emerged
who began to invest in several farsighted space projects.
These include Elon Musk who started SpaceX.
He had made a fortune in two separate Internet related
companies. Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief of Amazon.com,
Origin. Paul Allen, a multi-billionaire co-founder
of Microsoft, funded Burt Rutan's successful quest for
the X Prize with SpaceShipOne.
Some notable moguls who invest in NewSpace ventures
but come from outside the IT industry include Robert
Bigelow, who owns the Budget Suites hotel company, and
and Richard Branson of the Virgin Companies. Bigelow
Aerospace, which is developing space habitats. Richard
Branson is funding the suborbital space tourism company
See the Space
Angels list of major investors in NewSpace style
Musk was interviewed here about SpaceX and the challenges
that a venture like his entails.
A Services Approach to Space
Space advocacy groups have long campaigned for NASA
to contract with private companies for its launch needs
rather than to develop its own in-house space transport
systems. That is, the agency would simply put out for
bid the delivery of goods and people to low earth orbit
and the company or companies with the lowest bids would
get the contracts. This competition would encourage
low cost approaches to space transport.
In fact, NASA's Charter includes the requirement that
the agency use commercial services when available -
(5) encourage and provide for Federal Government
use of commercially provided space services and hardware,
consistent with the requirements of the Federal Government.
NASA is now trying this with the COTS
(Commercial Orbital Transport System demonstration)
and Commercial Resupply Services programs. Two companies
were initially awarded COTS contracts in 2006 to demonstrate
that they could deliver cargo to the ISS.
Two important aspects of the COTS program made it significantly
different from standard NASA contracts. Firstly, the
$500M dollars in the program (split between the two
teams), will only be paid out in fixed-price increments
as each team meets specified milestones. No cost-plus
guarantees of profits. Secondly, both teams were required
to contribute roughly matching amounts of private
funding. Both of these features of the program mean
that the teams will be highly motivated to keep development
So rather than NASA simply subsidizing private space
transport companies, this fixed-price services approach
offers a win-win-win scenario. NASA will obtain the
launch access that it needs, the public's tax dollars
will go for low cost private transport than towards
NASA's stupendously expensive in-house systems, and
the space transport companies get access to more capital
to develop their systems.
This seems to be a proper role for government to play.
Commercial spaceflight development is in a boot-strapping
situation in which it needs simultaneously to develop
destinations to go to and low cost access to those destinations.
The insertion of capital by NASA via services payments
is a way to give a hand to help pull on those bootstraps.
By the end
of 2007, Rocketplane-Kistler's contract was terminated
due to the company's failure to raise sufficient private
capital, despite the fact its hardware development was
proceeding on schedule. A contract was subsequently
awarded to Orbital Sciences, which will use its new
Taurus II rocket and Cygnus capsule for cargo deliveries.
Though COTS had not yet resulted in flight demonstrations,
in December of 2008 NASA
awarded SpaceX and Orbital Sciences contracts in
the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program. SpaceX
will receive up to $1.6B for 12 cargo delivery flights
to the ISS through 2016 and Orbital will get $1.9B for
In February 2010, President Barack Obama's Administration
introduced its proposed budget for NASA for 2011. The
new plan canceled the Constellation program, which included
the Ares I and V rockets and the Orion crew capsule.
In their place, NASA would contract with private companies
for crew transport to low earth orbit and, in particular,
the ISS. The budget planset off a big fight with those
in Congress who sought to protect NASA centers involved
with Constellation and the development of new rockets.
As of the summer of 2010, there was still no resolution
between Congress and the Administration over the NASA
Additional information on NewSpace is available at:
Project Enterprise - "a joint study conducted
by the Air Force Space and Cyber Strategy Center in
partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration,
and in collaboration with the Space Frontier Foundation,
National Space Society, and Space Studies Institute,
and other space enthusiasts. This is an online workshop
for brainstorming. Academic freedom ROCKS!"
"01 Oct 2011 : Final report due to sponsors
Climbing a Commercial Stairway to Space: A Plausible
I make annual predictions on progress in various NewSpace
areas for the coming year and compare how I did with
the previous year's prognostications:
"Turning Point breaks down how space
exploration and development can solve many of
the key issues we face today in America, such
as employment, education, the environment, energy,
and international relations. The future of humanity
is its exploration of the stars."