May 7, 2019 Zimmerman Space Show podcast

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David Livingston has now made the podcast of my two hour appearance on the Space Show available. You can either listen or download the podcast here.

I would call this one of the best shows. Among the topics discussed was the smallsat rocket revolution, the corruption of governmental rule expressed by the creation of Gateway without the approval of elected officials, and the Chinese threat to the U.S. space industry and military.



  • Anthony

    The shows when you are a guest are among my favorite.

    Although, the Chinese government is always a cause for concern I would like to address the trend of satellites getting smaller and smaller and it’s implications on our space goals. On the surface this may not seem like an issue, but I think it is.

    One of the biggest advantages our manned space program had in the beginning was the common hardware used by the military to sustain MAD with the Soviet Union. NASA and it’s predecessor didn’t have to develop rockets from the ground up initially because the military had already done so in the form of missiles. Granted the Soviets also enjoyed that advantage due to their military doing a lot of the ground work for their space program, too. Essentially, the costs associated with putting people into space were amortized across more than one domain.

    Right now, the manned space program, civil space, military space, and commercial space all overlap in the medium-heavy lift range. This allows SpaceX, for example, to amortize the cost of it’s rockets across all of those markets. If satellites continue to shrink before we start making big money in human spaceflight I see a problem coming. It’s easy to see the civil, commercial, and military markets all going to small satellites with or without large constellations.

    I’m sure some systems will be suitable to be launched en mass, thus justifying a large rocket, but the trend seems to be going toward small rockets that can cater to one small payload per launch.

    Am I the only one concerned about this? Does anyone have any thoughts about why this trend won’t be a problem for manned spaceflight?

  • Dick Eagleson

    I think it’s fair to say that human spaceflight launchers diverged from military missile progenitors fairly early on, at least in the U.S. We launched astronauts on adapted versions of rockets originally designed as military missiles – Redstone, Atlas, Titan II – for the first 5 and a half years of the U.S. manned spaceflight program, then switched – permanently – to vehicles purpose-built for human spaceflight – Saturn IB-Apollo and Saturn V-Apollo and Shuttle. To get to the Moon, the ex-missiles had insufficient throw weight. Shuttle was built for similar reasons, as well as – in theory anyway – to be cheap and reusable. It was recognized that future orbital operations would need to involve carrying a lot of freight as well as people and the ex-missiles were, once again, inadequate to the task.

    For a variety of reasons the Russians stuck with two rockets, the R-7 and Proton, originally designed as ICBM’s for their human spaceflight efforts. The R-7 still hauls people and small loads of freight into orbit while the Proton – which was never actually deployed as a missile – has been, and still is, Russia’s go-to vehicle for putting up larger items of freight such as space station modules.

    For launching both military and civilian satellites, both the U.S. and Russia continued to rely on missile-derived vehicles until the 90’s. Russia continues to do so, but the U.S. largely migrated to purpose-built satellite launchers – Atlas V and Delta IV – that had no military missile heritage except their names. These have since been joined by Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Antares.

    There are a number of launch trends in various stages of maturity at present. The most consequential is reusability. SpaceX has long-since demonstrated substantial reusability and may be no more than a year or two from demonstrating complete reusability. A substantially reusable rocket will always have an edge over an expendable rocket of otherwise comparable lift capability. A completely reusable rocket will, in turn, have an edge, though not as large, over a substantially reusable rocket of comparable lift capability.

    With the exception of Blue Origin and Exos Aerospace, no launcher maker other than SpaceX has yet demonstrated even substantial, never mind complete, reusability. Blue’s and Exos’s rockets are completely reusable because they are suborbital. Complete reusability is much more difficult to achieve for orbit-capable vehicles. Both Blue and Exos are working on orbit-capable vehicles, but their initial models will, like SpaceX’s F9 and FH, be substantially, not completely, reusable. None of the smallsat launch companies, with the exception of one of the Chinese firms, is yet working seriously on reusability technology. This will likely change over the coming few years, but we aren’t there yet.

    A rapidly increasing percentage of near-future launch demand will be for initial deployment of large LEO satellite constellations. LEO constellations require, at a minimum, numerous satellites in each of many different orbital planes. For some constellations, multiple orbital altitudes will also be used. Multiple orbital inclinations may also apply. For initial deployments, where many birds must be delivered to a given orbital plane and altitude, large launchers will yield better economics than individual small launchers. This will be especially true of large partly or completely reusable launchers vs. small expendable ones. Small launchers will be better-suited, economically, for individual replacements of “infant mortality” and “premature death” cases among the individual satellites of a constellation.

    Because human spaceflight, especially human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit (BEO), requires larger vehicles than traditional missile-derived ones – and, because these same vehicles also need to be substantially or completely reusable to have competitive economics as satellite mass-deployers – we see a bifurcation in the launcher industry. All the new rockets are either bigger or smaller than the ex-missile vehicles. That is even true for completely expendable satellite launchers aimed at the national security launch market such as Vulcan and OmegA.

    This bifurcation trend seems likely to continue. Smallsat launchers will get somewhat larger as they transition from expendable to at least substantially reusable designs and the die has already been cast anent larger and more reusable vehicles for constellation deployments and BEO human spaceflight (HSF). Blue Origin’s New Glenn is quite a large rocket by past standards and will be substantially reusable. Its notional successor, New Armstrong, will be much bigger – perhaps even bigger than SpaceX’s SH-Starship, and, like the latter, completely reusable. SpaceX may well also be building something even bigger than SH-Starship by the time Blue is putting New Armstrong together.

    BEO HSF will, initially, be a mostly government-funded exercise, but must transition fairly quickly to a more and more commercial profit-driven basis. The Moon will be where this transition will, in the main, play out. The upcoming big reusable rockets will play a major enabling role by allowing very large payloads to be transported cheaply to the lunar surface.

    Given that big rockets are needed now for Earth-orbit satellite constellation deployment and will continue to be needed for en masse replacement as the birds in initial constellations reach the ends of their design lives, the synergy between commercial satellite launch requirements and those of what will also transition over time into commercial BEO missions will, in my opinion, continue more or less in lockstep for the foreseeable future.

  • Gary M.

    I enjoy your episodes on The Space Show. I was sure to let Dr. Livingston know.

    Also the quality of the comments here add to the experience.

    Gary in Kansas City

  • Edward

    Anthony asked: “Am I the only one concerned about this? Does anyone have any thoughts about why this trend won’t be a problem for manned spaceflight?

    You may possibly not be the only one with this concern, but I think that we are not in any real danger. There are three companies willing to build low Earth orbit (LEO) space habitats that can be used for manned scientific research, just as ISS is used now. A lot of countries have declared their own space programs, and with commercial launchers competing with each other and three builders making space stations, they can put people into space for very little cost, compared to the three major manned space programs on (above?) Earth today. (My recollection is that there are 14 member states of the ISS, and with China, there are 15 active manned space programs with a few that send the occasional astronaut / cosmonaut / taikonaut.) ISS should be largely obsolete by the time it is decommissioned.

    I believe that enough demand will grow so quickly that additional commercial manned spacecraft and launchers will still be developed, paying for themselves, and that manned space will expand rather rapidly — especially when compared to the past six decades.

    If SpaceX can launch a tenth as many people as they think with their Starship-Super Heavy (BFR class) rocket for even ten times the cost they think that they can, then they will still be the low-cost man-rated launch vehicle and spacecraft. Manned access to LEO may be relatively cheap, even for commercially developed rockets.

    Smaller satellites and probes (just five years ago it seemed ludicrous that a cubesat could be used as a planetary probe, but they went to Mars, last year) is yet another example of how lower costs drive greater interest and use.

    Several companies are planning constellations of multiple hundreds or even thousands of small satellites, and they are expected to succeed, because the price per satellite and the startup costs are relatively low compared to the expected business.

    Two decades ago, Dr. Alan Binder got more than half way to building the first private lunar probe. Today, five companies are working on putting private probes on the Moon. One came within fourteen kilometers of to doing so.

    Small, inexpensive satellites should increase our exploration and use of space by a large factor, adding to the desire for manned expansion to those areas of space. I am not worried that manned space will suffer because of small satellites and small launchers. I expect that they will complement, not replace, manned expansion into space.

  • Anthony

    Well, I appreciate the reassurance, gentlemen. I wonder if you would indulge me a bit further.

    Edward, you seem to be giving the private space stations your vote of confidence. The opportunity to perform R&D on private space stations doesn’t seem to be garnering the level of attention from the broader industry that I would like to see. Manufacturing in space is going to be difficult to close a business case around unless the product can command a high price-to-mass ratio. I expect at least some space tourists (we’re supposed to refer to them as spaceflight participants according to Rick Tumlinson) will be eager to pay big bucks for the chance to stay in a B-330, but is this market even significant? Robert Bigelow has said foreign states have expressed interest in using his hardware to “leapfrog” their space programs. Are these markets enough to have sustainable privately owned space stations?

    Based on what you two gentlemen have said, it would appear the future of manned spaceflight is contingent upon: having human presence on the moon, mega internet constellations, and private space stations. Are any of these a given?

  • Edward

    Anthony asked: “is this market even significant? … Are these markets enough to have sustainable privately owned space stations?

    Bigelow thinks so, and so do Ixion and Axiom. NASA is not planning to replace ISS, when it is eventually decommissioned; there will definitely be the same market later as there is now. If the price per experiment goes down, or there are other incentives, such as not having to put the collected data in the public domain, as NASA requires (data becomes proprietary), then there would be an increase in the demand for such services.

    it would appear the future of manned spaceflight is contingent upon: having human presence on the moon, mega internet constellations, and private space stations. Are any of these a given?

    There are around half a dozen companies building satellites for their own megaconstellations, internet or communications. NASA and China have both announced plans for man on the Moon, and Europe wants to build a lunar village. ISS will be decommissioned in about a decade, and the only current alternatives are the Chinese and commercial space stations. It seems that all three are given to happen within the coming decade.

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