The Fog of Space Policy

Our national space policy -- clear as a bell.

Our national space policy — clear as a bell.

NASA recently announced its “down-select” of the two space contractors who will receive additional federal money to further develop a space vehicle to transport human crew to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Perhaps not too surprisingly, they chose the two companies whose vehicle concepts most closely resemble NASA’s own Orion capsule: the Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon 2. A truly innovative design, the Dream Chaser lifting body of Sierra Nevada Corporation, was not selected. The ramifications of the selection illustrate some important facts about the current state of our national space program and the future of true commercial human spaceflight.

Conventional wisdom holds that we’re on the cusp of a new age of human spaceflight – a revolutionary transformation whereby space is opened to many users, rather than being available to only a few. It is proclaimed that with the development of commercial human transport to LEO and the accompanying advent of low cost launch services, the general public will soon be able to voyage into space. We are told that this follows an expected, natural progression, as private sector facilities and services always follow on the exploratory trail blazed by government or large, government-chartered efforts. NASA says that New Space companies are prepared to rush in where government has already trod. With this handoff, Mars is now the official exploratory horizon of our civil space efforts and all work shall be directed to that end, including the missions within the critical strategic arena of cislunar space, now deemed useful merely as a testing ground for “deep space vehicles” being designed to take us to Mars.

So, where are we in this “transformational” scenario? Let’s begin with a reality check on our current situation, as well as the likely prospects for the coming decades or so, a.k.a. “the near future.” Looking around, we see that the advent of commercial human spaceflight has yet to occur and, despite the hype, is not likely to occur for some time. Commercial operations have markets driven by needs and (to a much lesser extent) desires. At the moment, there is very little commercial demand for human flights to LEO. The belief of many New Space advocates – that there is an unrealized demand in space tourism or simply joy-riding into orbit – is not tenable. It’s been ten years since Space Ship One captured the Ansari X-Prize and we’ve yet to see a single, regularly scheduled commercial spaceflight company carrying paying passengers. True enough, seven people paid Russia for trips to space on the Soyuz, but these occurred on an ad hoc, non-scheduled basis and were more a procession of stunts than the purchases of a commercial service from a provider.

A notable effort to establish human spaceflight commerce in LEO is being undertaken by Bigelow Aerospace, with the aim of providing orbital facilities than can be leased out for whatever purpose a customer has in mind. Many hold the mistaken impression that Bigelow wants to build orbital hotels (probably because that’s how he made his fortune on Earth). However, his intention is to provide pressurized, human-qualified facilities in orbit without specifying how such facilities should be used. In technical terms, Bigelow’s company has made significant progress – they have successfully fabricated, launched into orbit and operated two prototype inflatable space structures. Yet no commercial flight to a Bigelow space station has occurred. The current focus of the company is to provide and operate an inflatable module to be attached to the ISS.

People should ask what’s holding up commercial human space efforts – that flood of commercial enterprises they’re being told are just itching to follow and fill the void left by NASA. One answer is that despite their best efforts to encourage its development, Bigelow Aerospace has been frustrated by the fact that no simple, inexpensive transportation system to and from LEO has emerged. In 2004, Bigelow offered a $50 million prize to find a provider who would develop such a system; that prize offer expired five years after its announcement without a single attempt to win it. So a commercial orbital facility remains a dream. To survive organizationally, Bigelow Aerospace has fallen back on the traditional venue of “Old Space” – being a contractor for NASA.

What do these facts say about possible markets for commercial human orbital flight? To me it says that despite slick New Space marketing, no robust demand for commercial human spaceflight yet exists. Both the Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon 2 are prototype contractor space vehicles; they are specifically designed to service the International Space Station – and are funded by NASA. In the broadest sense, they simply represent space business as usual, albeit with a slightly modified contracting instrument.

And what of our national space program? Do these new developments (or more precisely, the lack of new development) in “commercial” spaceflight pick up where NASA left off? It’s hard to believe that commercial entities are back-filling capability in old areas (like cislunar space) for NASA when no capability is yet evident. However, this remains the agency’s attitude as they proclaim – “We’re on the critical path for Mars!” So, let’s examine that proposition.

The Orion spacecraft and SLS launch vehicle are designed for “deep space” exploration, i.e., human flight beyond LEO. When discussing these vehicles, NASA implies they are the pieces needed for future human Mars exploration. However, while they may be necessary pieces (that is debatable), they are not sufficient for a human mission to Mars. The SLS core stage can put about 70 metric tons into low earth orbit; a yet-to-be developed advanced version could ultimately put 120 tons into orbit. Yet, a human Mars mission powered with chemical-propellant requires at least 500-700 metric tons in LEO (perhaps more, depending upon the mission architecture and the opportunity provided by planetary alignment). Thus, at least 5 to 10 SLS vehicles are needed simply to get the required total mass into orbit (logistical problems of subdividing and packaging, preserving cryogenic propellant from boil-off, and assembly in space are left as an exercise for the student).

Next, envision the Orion spacecraft’s habitable volume, a space similar to a large walk-in closet – about 9 cubic meters (300 cubic feet, or a closet 5 by 10 by 6 feet in dimension). This volume must accommodate the 4-5 astronauts living in the spacecraft for almost three years. Clearly, Orion is not a suitable habitat for long-term living in space; it is simply an Earth-return vehicle designed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at escape velocity (about 11 km/sec). Its limitations recall its origin – the Orion vehicle is a spacecraft designed for missions to and within cislunar space, i.e., trans-LEO missions of short duration (up to a month), with a high-velocity, aerothermal entry at the end. Thus, some type of habitation module (probably of ISS derivation) will be needed. I have not addressed the (currently unresolved) problem of entry, descent and landing on the martian surface (these problems are also left as an exercise for the student).

In short, we are still a considerable distance from a human Mars mission, an event so far in the future that I contend it literally makes no sense to discuss at this point how these pieces will be used. The current penchant of NASA to discuss hypothetical missions, like asteroid retrieval, is a de facto recognition of this situation. NASA – now “on its way to the stars” – has created a void in cislunar space. This condition must not be confused with a vacuum about to be filled with commerce. It is instead a playing field of unfulfilled promise, now abandoned, for which no commercial market of any potency or necessity yet exists.

The down-select of the two commercial vehicles for crew transport to ISS continues the lacuna in which we currently find ourselves. It remains neither a program with a sustainable destination nor with the means to get anywhere, yet one that insistently and repeatedly proclaims a firm possession of both. Once NASA had a vision that would demonstrate the economic potential of cislunar space but they retreated before it could happen. Regrettably, we find ourselves stranded in this relentless fog of space “transition,” arguing over rockets with no place to go, while other nations clearly see the potential that awaits in cislunar space and are firmly fixed on obtaining it.

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18 Responses to The Fog of Space Policy

  1. oldAtlas_Eguy says:

    Unfortunately you are correct about the commercial manned market to LEO. It just does not exist except for the very occasional 1 seat every few years. The market needs to be around 12 seats per year to really be considered a thriving market. Bigelow’s modules could cause this but there is yet to be a BA330 free flyer in orbit. Bigelow is waiting on an assured transportation capability before launching the first piece of his LEO Space Station Alpha. Plus he will need real contracts for use that he subcontracts for transportation that also have yet to happen.

    The past and current per seat prices of Soyuz and Shuttle are high $70M for Soyuz (it used to be as low as $20M) and Shuttle of $100m (this assumes that Shuttle transported 20mt of cargo at $20,000/kg as well as 6-7 passengers for a total recurring cost and fixed costs of $1B per flight). SpaceX has reduced cargo prices down to less than $5,000/kg a reduction of a factor of 4 from Shuttle. It’s Dragon according to Bigelow’s posted per seat prices for transport of $26M is also a factor of 4 reductions from Shuttle. This only gets the prices back to Soyuz’s original excess seat prices. At these prices the tourist market is so small that it is almost non-existent.

    Prices need to be reduced further by a factor of 4 to $7M or less. This will make a big improvement in the market but still tourists will be but as yet a small portion of the market made mostly of foreign governments and corporations. Fortunately if Bigelow puts several of his BA330 modules into LEO they will have somewhere to go. The ISS just does not have the volume to handle additional visitors beyond 1 or 2 persons per year besides its crew of 6-7.

    The only hope of this further factor of 4 reductions is SpaceX. This will only occur in the near future (several years from now and after a couple of years of Dragon 2 operations). This reduction requires that the Dragon 2 is reused about 10 times and the 1st stage is successfully reused about 10 or more times. SpaceX has yet to reuse a Dragon and also has yet to recover a 1st stage. Success is on the horizon but actual costs and cost savings are still an unknown even to SpaceX or they would be posting prices for this new service. Get the per seat prices under $10M and it will start to grow. If it stays above $10M it will be stagnant and mostly just the US government.

    • Joe says:

      I will skip your analysis of Shuttle cargo cost, because that is an endless debate about sunk cost and history (as the Shuttle no longer exists).

      But SpaceX current CRS contract (on which they are currently under perform to a significant degree) call for them to deliver 44,000 lbs. to the ISS for $1.6 Billion dollars. That is (generously rounding down) $36,000/lb. (again being generous $16,000/kg) not $5,000/kg, but over 3 times more.

      • Joe says:

        Whoops metric conversion error.

        $36,000/lb is $79,000/kg or well over 15 times $5,000/kg.

      • oldAtlas_Eguy says:

        Presurized cargo vs unpresurized cargo rates. Shuttle could deliver only at best of 6,000kg of presurized cargo if it wasn’t bulky.

        I was comparing unpresurized cargo of equpment/satelites of Shuttle and a dedicated sat launch of F9.

        • Joe says:

          Again I am not going to get into rehashing costs of a defunct launch system.

          If you are comparing supposed F9 satellite launch cost to Shuttle launch cost for pressurized payload then you are trying to compare apples to oranges (regardless of the accuracy of your respective costs)

          The subject of this discussion is the delivery of crew and pressurized payload to LEO. The only way to currently assess SpaceX cost is the CRS contract and that cost (for pressurized and unpressurized payload) is $79,000’kg well over 15 times what you stated.

      • gbaikie says:

        –But SpaceX current CRS contract (on which they are currently under perform to a significant degree) call for them to deliver 44,000 lbs. to the ISS for $1.6 Billion dollars. —

        CRS-1: 1,995 lb
        CRS-2: 1,493 lbs
        CRS-3: 4,605 lb
        CRS-4: 4,885 pounds
        Totals: 12,978 lbs
        “The contract called for 12 flights to the ISS, with a minimum of 20,000 kg (44,000 lb) of cargo carried to the ISS”
        4 is 1/3 of 12 and 3 times the average of 12,978 lbs is 38,934 lb.
        Considering last 2 flight had twice as much payload, at the rate of 12 totaling 44,000 lb compared 4 totaling 12,978 lbs is not under performing. Or if NASA wants next 8 to be 4000 lb each that would be
        32,000 lb and just over 44,000 lb total. If NASA want an average of 4500 lbs, than it’s 36,000 lb, And + 12,978 lbs is a total of 48,978 lb.
        therefore requiring NASA to pay in additional amount for the + 4978 lb
        which exceeds the minimum. And if SpaceX ends up delivering less than
        44,000 lb, then SpaceX would not get the full amount of money.
        And of course the amount delivered will be up to NASA who is the customer. Though the main cost is launch and capsule, rather than the difference of 1000 lb one way other the other, and if NASA wants less
        than 44,000 lb there is probably a penalty for this in the contract [or there should be].
        Or because Falcon 9 has enough capacity, NASA choosing low payload flights in the beginning gives NASA the option of getting maximum payload latter on and not pay for going beyond the minimum total amount which is to be delivered as part of the contract. Or NASA can choose to have 4,885 pounds deliver and not pay for the larger mass of this particular flight.

        • Joe says:

          I do not know where you get your figures for the first two CRS launches. SpaceX own FAX sheets (issued at the time of launch) listed the up-mass as 880 lbs. and 1,200 lbs. respectively.

          But even if granted your numbers your analysis still does not hold up. We are now more than three quarters of the way through the original contract period. That means they should have flown 9 missions and delivered approximately 33,000 lbs. by now. That means they are underperforming by 55% in terms of flights and (even using your up mass figures) 60% in terms of payload. That is the reason NASA was recently forced to extend the terms of the CRS contract, to allow SpaceX to attempt to appear to be meeting the original contract terms; without having to actually do so.

          You then go on to speculate on what future SpaceX CRS payloads will be. Using that “analysis” you come up with SpaceX delivering (however late) an extra 4,978 lb. This is very dubious, but again hypothetically granting you your very generous (to SpaceX) assumptions you managed to get the cost per kilogram all the way down to “only” $71,720/kg. That is “only” 14 times oldAtlas_Eguy’s 5,000/kg assertion that prompted my post.

          • Vladislaw says:

            It was my understanding that the last space shuttle flight, which was not originally on the manifest brought up so much supplies that there really wasn’t room for much more for the first couple SpaceX flights. That was why they were lower amounts of supplies. As those supplies ran out the Dragon amounts were increased.

          • Joe says:


            We have been through your theory that NASA is (for some reason) forcing SpaceX to underperform before.

            You try to use it here to explain what was originally presented (by another SpaceX supporter) as a good thing.

            If you insist on believing it, that is your privilege, but it does not answer the point that even granting all those questionable figures and assumptions the cost of the actual SpaceX CRS contract would still produce a per pound cost over 14 times the originally asserted $5,000/kg.

            There is an old cliché – “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it will still be a pig.”

            There is not enough lipstick in an entire Revelon Central Warehouse to make SpaceX look like it can fly cargo to the ISS for $5,000/kg. Which is what this whole conversation started about?

            Continue applications if you wish, but my participation in this particular discussion is ended.

  2. billgamesh says:

    How well do you think the human race would come out of a pandemic of a engineered-weaponized pathogen like Ebola?

    Is it possible such an event could kill the entire human race? All of us? The answer is yes.

    Next on the list of things to really worry about is an asteroid or comet impact. Could that kill us all? Yes, but it is more likely to depopulate the Earth so there are only a few million survivors.

    Survival colonies on the Moon are insurance against the extinction. Until we have them we are much higher on the endangered species list. As for an impact; the dinosaurs did not have spaceships armed with nuclear weapons to deflect these threats.

    Neither do we.

  3. IMO, helping private companies to develop their own humans space launch capability for– their own private commercial purposes– is an extremely good thing for both private American space programs and for our public space program (NASA).

    However, extending the life of the ISS program as a $3 billion a year plus make work program for Commercial Crew Companies is a titanic waste of tax payer dollars. Those ISS funds should have been utilized for lunar outpost missions and for the next generation of larger and cheaper heavy lift launched cis-lunar habitats.

    Even though Bigelow has yet to deploy a habitat module to LEO, their prices for a flight to one of their private space habitats ranges from $26 million to $37 million per seat. There are more than 50,000 wealthy individuals in the world worth more than $100 million. So there’s more than 50,000 individuals out there who could afford a spaceflight to a private space station. What percentage of these individuals would be willing to spend $26 to $37 to travel into space is the only question. But if just 0.1% of that number purchase tickets to a private space station every year, that would mean 50 paying passengers per year (~10 passenger launches per year).

    I also believe that there are billions of other people on Earth who would love to travel into space and would probably be willing to risk a dollar or two every year for a chance to travel into space to a private space station through some sort of a space lotto system. A billion dollars a year would be enough to send at least 27 private individuals (~5 passenger launches per year) or more to a private space station every year.

    NASA could launch Bigelow’s largest space habitat concept, the Olympus BA-2100 into orbit as a second launch test for the SLS. Bigelow would only have to pay for the development of its own space habitat. While the current Commercial Crew contract for the the ISS would require only two to four crew launches per year for just two companies, the huge Olympus habitat could provide a private destination for several space launch companies perhaps accommodating 12 to 36 passenger launches every year.


    • Joe says:

      Hi Marcel,

      I would be interested in knowing where you are getting the $26M to $37M figure

      By the way did you notice (at least according to this CNN report) that crew size for the “Commercial Crew” vehicles has been reduced (it has previously been stated as 7) to 5 and Boeing (the “Dinosaur Space Company”) is the first to begin marketing the supposed extra seat (NASA would only use 4 seats) to private customers?

      • Bigelow’s prices for Space X and ULA launches to one of their space habitats can be found at:


        • Joe says:

          Hi Marcel,

          Thanks for the link. Although it is a Bigelow website the source of the figures appears to be “quotes” from SpaceX and Boeing (nice graphic of the CST-100 and Dragon docked to the Bigelow Habitat).

          As per discussions in other postings it would best to take SpaceX quotes with a block of salt. At similar points in their cargo vehicle development they were talking delivery of about 13,000 lb. to ISS for $54M/launch (about $4,000/lb.), but when they actually signed a contract they agreed to deliver 44,000 lb. for $1.6B ($36,000/lb.). Do not be surprised if similar cost increases transpire.

          Boeings $37M figure (I am assuming that the higher figure is Boeing’s) is also ambitious. Assuming that the crew size is 7 a breakeven point would be $260M/launch. If the new crew size number really is 5 that would become $185M/launch.

      • Vladislaw says:

        It was my understanding that the customer, NASA, only wants to fly 4 person per capsule AND the capsule has to perform BOTH up cargo and down cargo capability. That was the reason for only four NASA passengers the seats were going to be used for cargo instead.

        Bigelow Aerospace stated on more than one occasion that the cost for room and board on their facility will be 3 million per month. The costs that BA is showing on their website is for launch, 2 months room and board and return to earth. That would make the launch cost per seat 20.25 million for SpaceX and 30.75 million a seat for Boeing.

        • Joe says:

          Do you have a link to support that belief, it certainly was not stated in the press conference or article?

          What Bigelow is stating in no way guarantees what launch costs the providers will be able to accomplish, for instance the figures you quote are millions less than Bigelow shows at the link Marcel provided.

  4. A newbie weighing in here for the first time, and for one reason only — with the hope that this blog becomes THE voice for those who believe, with Dr. Spudis, that the moon is an ideal — and inevitable — platform for our leap into the cosmos.

    As such, it is critical to get the “vision thing” going; and one contribution is a link to the paper which my own tiny company submitted in 2011 in response to the DARPA “100 Year Starship” RFI, and in which lunar industry plays a central role:

    G. W. (Glenn) Smith
    New Orleans, LA

  5. billgamesh says:

    The recent reports on human space flight and the DRA 5.0 for Mars all neglect to address the heavy nuclei component of cosmic radiation, which is the showstopper. We cannot go.

    The basic premise of these make believe mars missions is an unshielded non-rotating spacecraft in which a human crew will be debilitated by radiation and zero gravity for over a year. If a year long ISS deployment is somehow meant to prove this is possible this is a sham; the LEO radiation environment is much less hazardous than interplanetary space.

    We are not going even if the powers that be are willing to pay for it because it will not work. Radiation is square one and the failure to address it makes NASA just as much a dog and pony show as SpaceX. All this planning and “work” paid for by the taxpayer leaves out that little bit of reality that makes it worth paying for.

    As for all this emphasis on LEO; it is not space. It has become a very high altitude domain beneath the Van Allen belts with such low drag that satellites can go in endless circles but that is all. It is not space. The Space Program effectively ended in 1972.

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