New space, a Rorschach test

Depending on the news, “new space” is commercial, innovative, well-funded by billionaires and changing the world. The site of a Falcon 9 booster returning to land after being flown eight times tells a story of change, a revolution that as predicted is being televised, in high definition. Crews that are not NASA astronauts have now launched to the edge of space in Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity. Soon more people will go sub-orbital on Blue Origin’s New Shepard and even into orbit aboard a SpaceX Dragon. This is not your father’s astronauts. And that’s a good thing. But right behind we hear the other story, how “space is hard”, with news an Electron rocket failed again, not far on the heels of a previous failure. Or we hear the engines for the new ULA Vulcan launcher are not ready as planned, an indication the heavy lift, reusable Blue Origin launcher will (again) be delayed as well. Yet it’s easy enough to pause a moment and get some situational awareness, even if we know we have to keep moving north down the valley and onward up the mountain.

We need a daisy-field effect, where an Electron or a Falcon is one daisy, and then you zoom back to see the field full of flowers. Sometimes we need to step back, up and above. I have the occasional picture of the Space Shuttle taken at an odd angle. These are my favorites, from somewhere people don’t usually crawl, a reminder there is more to what is under heaven and Earth than you see in the stock footage. Global commercial launch could use a similar odd angle. For a starting point we go to the US Department of Transportation.

A unique view from crawling around in-between the Space Shuttle External Tank and the Shuttle Orbiter Discovery, taken June 25, 2005 at the launch pad, looking straight up.
A unique view from crawling around in-between the Space Shuttle External Tank and the Shuttle Orbiter Discovery, taken June 25, 2005 at the launch pad, looking straight up.

While there is something to be said for “minimally processed”, the DOT data gets at least some crawling through and around for a better look see. The DOT does not include the Vega rocket, or the recent Virgin Orbit 747 launched LauncherOne rocket, so add those. A review to make sure everything is in order shows some discrepancies, the DOT including the Dragon demonstration flight but not the Cygnus doing the same. Include both to be consistent. Do a dozen other similar puts and takes of a launch here or there. Add launches since 2017 and you end up with a curious global picture of commercial launch. (Left pending is completing the picture for launches from China. These might not be entirely commercial in a sense, but for all practical purposes they will compete for some part of the global orbital launch business.)

Global commercial launches since 1990 up to the Soyuz-2 launch of OneWeb satellites on July 1, 2021.
Global commercial launches since 1990 up to the Soyuz-2 launch of OneWeb satellites on July 1, 2021.

As the picture develops there comes a sense of déjà vu, if you’ve been here before. In the late 1990s there were also a dizzying number of launches, Atlas’s and Deltas launching for the private sector with the first dreams of low Earth orbit constellations of satellites. There were 41 commercial launches in 1998 compared to 43 in 2020. The “LEO Launch Frenzy” then was driven by the dream of satellite phones. The Iridium constellation in particular was supposed to revolutionize global communication and change everyone’s life as we knew it – a story being the name came from the layer of Iridium that marks the death by asteroid for the dinosaurs. It turned out a cell phone in every pocket would change the world and us, except with cell towers here on Earth, not in orbit.

LaunchSpace magazine cover August/September 1997, a heyday for LEO constellations and LEO launchers.
LaunchSpace magazine cover August/September 1997, a heyday for LEO constellations and LEO launchers.

Oddly, Iridium lives on to this day. I could not imagine that in 2017 I would rent an Iridium phone. Hurricane Maria had wiped out the power grid in Puerto Rico and with it all communications, from landlines to cell towers. Iridium though had placed enough satellites in orbit those years earlier that when bankruptcy came, they had a functioning and rather capable network in the sky. It operates to this day. It’s amazing how an ambitious business case can close, if you don’t have to pay back your up-front costs (and creditors). One day you somehow have that oh so important connection that only needs a handset. Arriving in Puerto Rico a few weeks after Maria – dinner with family by lamplight after the adventure of getting there – priceless. Knowing there was a means of communication if we needed it – not bad.

An Iridium satellite phone, quite handy on a visit to Puerto Rico soon after Hurricane Maria wiped out the power grid and most all communications in 2017.
An Iridium satellite phone, quite handy on a visit to Puerto Rico soon after Hurricane Maria wiped out the power grid and most all communications in 2017.

Which of course brings us to the 800-pound elephant in the data – Starlink. Oddly Starlink is excluded in some data sets about commercial launch or commercial satellites, for not being one company paying another to make or to launch satellites. I have instead decided to acknowledge the gorilla. More so, I’ve given the gorilla its own seat at the table by separating Starlink launches from other commercial launches. This is not entirely arbitrary. The DOT definition for what is “commercial” states “… a commercial launch as a “launch that is internationally competed (i.e., available in principle to international launch providers) or whose primary payload is commercial in nature.” It would be a stretch to say Starlink is not “commercial in nature” and exclude it, when it’s reason for existence is to revolutionize commercial broadband.

Here we begin to see differences between the late 1990s and today, in quality if not yet in quantity. For one, the technology of the Starlink satellites is a generation removed from that of the 1990s. The form factor recalls a cell phone, flat, compact, ready to connect and spew news, gossip and tweets. Or it just as well recalls the skateboard platform of a Tesla, and now most electric vehicles. Laser crosslinks between Starlink satellites can eventually make sure that if one satellite cannot find a ground station, it will simply find another satellite that can. For those who show their age, like us vampires reminiscing about summer in Paris, 1892, we know what we called a computer in the heyday of Iridium in 1998. Then we know what we call a computer today, and we start to appreciate the possibilities at least.

More so, seemingly forgotten in the frenzy of Atlas and Delta launches in the 1990s there was an expectation of low-cost launch then – “soon at a theater near you”. Except that movie never arrived. At the same time LEO constellations were the trending thing (before trending was a thing), all manner of launch vehicles were also in the news (if not in the air). Reusable launch vehicles in particular were so linked to the eventual success of LEO constellations like Iridium, Teledesics or Astrolink. For every constellation there seemed to be a vehicle, a Rocketplane, a K1, a Roton or Astroliner. If a constellation needs lots of launches quickly, a reusable launch vehicle needed lots of launches to close its business case. The twain would never meet.

And so, another difference since the 90s. There actually is a vehicle today that has much lower costs. As foreseen, it’s also reusable (mostly). There is no waiting today, the business case of a satellite constellation no longer at the mercy of the business case someone else is working for a launch vehicle. That vehicle with lower costs – the keyword being costs – actually is accompanying the Starlink constellation. For SpaceX’s Starlink, a Falcon 9 launch, already affordable on price, is very likely even better – an internal item on the ledger at “cost”, not “priced” with a profit and all that on top.

That’s only the start of the Rorschach test on the global commercial launch chart – do you see butterflies? The seeming symmetry between 1998 and 2020 is very likely superficial. The facts on the ground (and now in space) are that advances in satellite and launch technology could make all the difference between failure then and success now. Still, there is a question that was explored back in the day and could prove just as important now. Elasticity.

If we build it, will they come? This has been the eternal question in space launch. An “elastic” market sees more sales when prices drop. More so, not just the supply of launch grows but new products emerge for the demand that goes on the rocket. We cannot imagine now what will go atop lower priced rockets one day. Growth makes the pie bigger, instead of everyone trying to grab a slice of a small pie. Some of the work trying to figure out this question, like the 1994 Commercial Space Transportation Study, cheerily concluded there was much promise, launch market elasticity was there, if not in every market, then in just enough. As launch systems reduce costs and pass along those improvements to customers as reduced prices, demand would increase. That is, the ideas for what goes atop the rockets would flourish, ideas like Starlink, but also rides for tourists or private space stations if you want to get some work done or just to take in the views. A look at global commercial launch data would seem to be the way to answer the question coming from the back seat – are we there yet?

Like an economist, but not the one Truman asked for, on the one hand, it’s difficult to imagine all those Starlink launches without lower Falcon 9 costs. In this sense the drop in Falcon 9 costs caused demand to go up, deciding to build a Starlink constellation, the very definition of market elasticity. On the other hand, that lower internal cost is not the whole market. A market is many players, different buyers and sellers, not just one player.

Still, there are promising signs on growth. In 2017 we see an uptick in global commercial launch that has held strong since. Not quite enough yet to draw a strong trend-line, but definitely enough to give pause. The knee of an S-curve looks like a little squiggly blip just after nearly nothing but a faint heartbeat.  Yet many a knee in an S-curve has resulted in a revolution or two. One day in 1983 we get a kick from seeing the “car phone” the company gave our brother. The battery weighed about as much as a small lead acid battery. In a blink of an eye, it’s 2000 and it seems everyone has a cell phone, huge companies that didn’t pay attention are in bankruptcy, and the thing fits in your pocket. Of course, we still complain about the battery life.

The uptick in global commercial launch since 2017 has as much to do with small launch and the Rocket Labs Electron as it does with medium launch and Falcon. All this would seem to have come at the expense of the Russians and the Proton, but this year has seen a little more life in that Proton, enough to not write it off – just yet. The end of the Shuttle and the start of the NASA commercial cargo and crew launches also helps the uptick since 2017, with a few launches a year give or take since 2015. NASA is now part of this equation of commercial launch, not just as had been the case with the one or two science launches a year procured on a commercial basis. NASA “commerce” is part of an international supply chain that keeps the International Space Station (ISS) safe, sound and robustly provided for.

To be elastic then or not to be elastic? It would seem the data is still being coy, hiding the answer. Amazon appears to think the prices are fine enough already, choosing to buy nine Atlas V launches to get started on its Kuiper satellite constellation to compete with Starlink. Though if you have a mind to launch most of your constellation on mostly reusable Blue Origin New Glenn’s that will also be an internal cost, the real deciding factor may just be a rush sparing no expense – for now. It seems in this view the curious question stops being market elasticity for launchers and becomes market elasticity for launchers/constellations. Just when you think you have some answers, the question changes.

Lesser known there was a LEO constellation planned once upon a time by Boeing, a brief flirtation with manufacturing and operating a system. This would have been quite the departure from Boeing as just a manufacturer, handing off hardware to customers, the airliner to airline model. The DARPA XSP, and my last project before retiring from NASA, was linked to such a constellation. Once again there was a custom-made demand to justify the investment in XSP supplying the improved transportation. Boeing opted out at the end, on its satellite constellation first, not surprisingly on the XSP later. Why get all dressed up with no need to go?

Perhaps the Rorschach chart should have launches besides operational satellite count, or bandwidth deployed? It could as well try to show a measure of faith, as much required as supply and demand. A business case is one thing, an ability and a desire to take risks is another. It was not too long ago at a “big aerospace” meeting that our lead segued into a discussion about risk. The question poised to the room full of industry veterans and some just starting off was simple – your company a long time ago took some significant risks, of the sort that could have sunk the massive company you are a part of today. Would you see doing that again? We had been around long enough to know this was a lawyerly question, one we knew the answer to. The purpose was to move the discussion toward the topic of risk. Enough of an answer would have been some blurbs about being a company with responsibilities to shareholders, paying predictable dividends to people who like predictable. Surprisingly the room went into a cacophony of responses as everyone decided to talk at the same time. It was a good question.

At its current rate there will be 47 Falcon 9 launches this year. That’s a simple calculation, the launches to date in 2021 and how often they launch and how many you get if the pace keeps up. It’s also unlikely, but still any rate this year will have some single SpaceX rockets reused more often than the entire launch rate of other launchers. To harken back to the last years, we saw 40 or so commercial launches globally, now we have a launcher that is at least capable of doing that on its own, with a reusable fleet of boosters.

We will always need unique angles, crawling around in data to get a picture that says more than the traditional shot posed and at a distance. We are awash in data, investments public and private, satellites deployed, space debris and valuations. In the end, what will we see in these pictures? Today, I see growth and possibilities that did not exist before. I also see that by all indications, this time is different.

Thoughts? Comments below.

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