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NewSpace
The alternative route to space...

Armadillo Aerospace Super Mod vehicle - photo by Will Pomerantz
(Photo credit: William Pomerantz)
Armadillo Aerospace's SuperMod vehicles flies into a cloudy sky on
September 12th in Texas in the team's successful attempt to qualify
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

See also the archive of older NewSpace News items

NewSpace Action Map
Examples of NewSpace Activities

In orbit:

  • SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon - Several commercial firsts: crew capable capsule orbited, docked with a space station, return to earth safely. (Only 3 nations have done the latter.)
  • Genesis II - prototype inflatable space habitat
  • Orbital Tourism - ongoing visits to ISS

Orbital access projects:

Suborbital spaceflight:

Low altitudes:


Defining NewSpace


Recording of webcast of the successful first launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9
rocket from Cape Canaveral on June 4, 2010.

Rick Tumlinson, a co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, is generally considered the person who coined the term NewSpace. Here is how it is defined at SFF: What is NewSpace? — Space Frontier Foundation -

People, businesses and organizations working to open the space frontier to human settlement through economic development.

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 of scale.

    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.

  • Incremental Development
    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 orbit.

  • Consumer Markets
    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.

  • Innovation
    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.

  • Small teams
    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.)

  • Fixed-price only
    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 settlements.

 


Commercial 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 and remote sensing satellite services. See the Space Business section for more about these conventional space businesses.

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 development.

 


Examples of Low Cost Space Development

External view of Genesis I
External view of the Bigelow Aerospace Genesis I spacecraft.

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.

  • SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket
    Appendix B in NASA's Commercial Market Assessment for Crew and Cargo Systems report (pdf) discusses a study that showed that the development costs of the SpaceX Falcon 9 was a factor of ten below that predicted by NASA's cost model for a similar project led by the agency. If the agency used non-standard contracting, it could reduce its costs but would still be 3-4 times higher than SpaceX.
  • Genesis 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 centers.

    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.

  • GIOVE-A - 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 - Mar.31.08.

    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 the Giove-A2 satellite.

    (This item comes via Henry Spencer.)

  • SpaceShipOne - 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.

  • Lunar 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-X, 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 $60M.

    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 themselves.

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 FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) at SpaceX also addresses the issue of why it should be able to offer lower cost launch services than other companies:

"The cost of a rocket is driven by five factors: overhead, propulsion, structures, avionics and launch operations.

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 airlines)."

---
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.

 


NewSpace Business Concepts
Zero-G
Weightlessness via a ride on a Zero-G aircraft.

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 Business section.

Below are links to some of these concepts:


Raising Capital for NewSpace

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, started Blue 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 owns Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing space habitats. Richard Branson is funding the suborbital space tourism company Virgin Galactic.

See the Space Angels list of major investors in NewSpace style companies.

Elon Musk was interviewed here about SpaceX and the challenges that a venture like his entails.


A Services Approach to Space Transport

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 - Sec. 203 (a):

(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 (SpaceX and Rocketplane-Kistler) 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 costs low.

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 8 flights.

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 budget.


More Resources

Additional information on NewSpace is available at:

NewSpace around the world:

Many of the topics discussed here overlap with other sections at HobbySpace:

Annual reviews of developments in NewSpace industry and community:

Climbing a Commercial Stairway to Space: A Plausible Timeline?
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:

Some books of interest:

Video resources:

 


The X Prize Cup event in October 2005.

 

Photo To Space
Nasa Toys and Gifts
The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey
New Space Watch

 

 

Amazon:UK
Amazon:UK

Making Space Happen:
Private Space Ventures and the Visionaries Behind Them
Paula Berinstein - 2002
Amazon: US UK

 

 

 

 

 

  
 
 
 
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