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New Shepard propulsion module
The New Shepard propulsion module on display at the 33rd Space Symposium last week. Company founder Jeff Bezos suggested the booster could also be used for smallsat launches. (credit: J. Foust)

The small launch industry is about to be Amazoned


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When Jeff Bezos appeared at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs last week, most of the coverage talked about his comment that he sells $1 billion a year in Amazon.com stock to fund Blue Origin. Or they talked about his plans to send people into suborbital space on his New Shepard vehicle, perhaps next year.

Blue Origin’s interest in smallsat launches should make anyone developing a small launch vehicle, or investing in one, scared stiff.

He said something else, though, that is perhaps an even bigger deal, even though it didn’t get much attention at the time. Bezos said that the reusable New Shepard propulsion module, designed to launch the crew capsule for those suborbital space tourism flights, could be fitted with an upper stage instead. That upper stage, he said, could turn New Shepard into a smallsat launch vehicle.

“I’m thinking it might be interesting to build a small second stage for this New Shepard booster because we could use it to put smallsats into orbit,” he said, according to a SpaceNews article about the event. “It would be perfectly capable of being a first stage for a small orbital vehicle.” (See also “Blue Origin’s status update”, The Space Review, this issue.)

That should make anyone developing a small launch vehicle, or investing in one, scared stiff. Bezos can bring to bear resources unmatched by anyone else in the space industry, including Elon Musk. After all, he’s pumping $1 billion a year of his own money into the company, so spending a little more on an upper stage to turn New Shepard into a smallsat launcher would be no big deal.

And, to be honest, the small launch field could use a force like Bezos to shake things up. Hardly a month goes by, it seems, without some venture announcing plans to develop a new rocket to serve the growing smallsat market. But there seems to be little substance to many of those plans.

Take, for example, last month’s announcement by Arca Space of its new small launch vehicle, the Haas 2CA. It’s an extraordinary vehicle, on paper at least: capable of placing 100 kilograms into low Earth orbit for just $1 million a launch. And it’s single stage to orbit, too, so it can launch from inland sites without the danger of dropping stages on someone’s backyard.

It’s likely that a Blue Origin smallsat vehicle could be cost-competitive with any competing operational vehicles—or, at least, price-competitive, given the reputation of Bezos’ other company, Amazon, for driving down prices at the cost of profits.

Except… it’s hard to say just how real the Haas 2CA is. The company claims it’s making a first flight of the rocket in 2018, but you’d expect them to be much further along in development then they are now: where are the engine tests, for example, especially since they’re using a fairly novel aerospike? Arca started as an Ansari X PRIZE team, but never got close to suborbital space with any vehicle, let alone one with people.

More recently, Arca got publicity for developing a hoverboard—a real one that hovers, not some Segway knockoff. That seems like an odd technology to pursue for a space company, but maybe there’s a lot of money to be made there. Then again, how often have you seen their hoverboards on your local streets? Maybe there’s not much of a market for a device that costs $15,000 and operates for only six minutes.

Then there’s Vector Space Systems, which made news a few weeks back when it towed one of its rockets to Cape Canaveral to announce it would launch from there, then put the rocket on display at the Kennedy Space Center’s visitor complex—even though that the rocket has never flown. (It was also placed in the center’s “NASA Now” exhibit, despite the fact that it’s not funded by NASA.) This came after the company said it would also fly from a Georgia spaceport that doesn’t exist yet, with a test launch of some kind planned for later this year.

Those are bold plans for a company that doesn’t appear to have raised much money, nor has flown anything more than low-altitude subscale rockets. (They tried to do another test launch last week but it suffered an “auto abort.” Rocket science is hard!) They have their publicity machine running in high gear, at least.

Even bigger companies are running into problems with small rockets. Rocket Lab announced last month it raised $75 million, which it claimed gives the company a valuation of more than $1 billion: a “unicorn,” in Silicon Valley lingo. But its Electron rocket has yet to fly: its first launch is still in the “coming months,” it said then, the same or similar phrase it’s been using for the better part of a year.

Virgin Galactic has spun off its LauncherOne business into a new company, Virgin Orbit, led by a former Boeing executive. But the company is vague about when LauncherOne, first announced nearly five years ago at the 2012 Farnborough Air Show, will actually fly. Perhaps by the end of this year, maybe.

There are many more small launch vehicles under development, but very few of them appear likely to fly some time soon. A 2015 study listed more than 20 vehicles, of which only a couple had actually launched (Minotaur and Pegasus); the only one on that list that has since launched is the Super Styrpi and, uh, that didn’t go so well.

Some of those vehicles on that list are defunct: Lockheed Martin has finally given up on the Athena, and DARPA cancelled the Boeing-built ALASA rocket after deciding that it evidently wasn’t such a good idea to put a “mixed monopropellant” rocket under an F-15. Some of those companies are gone, too: farewell Firefly, and so long Swiss Space Systems.

More companies have come in to more than make up for the lost vehicles and ventures, but there’s still no sign this is a strong market: too many companies, many with too little money and/or technology, chasing a market that they assume to be big, but for which there’s no guarantee that’s the case.

Those who doubt Bezos’ interest and ability in this field will probably face the same fate as the bookstore and department store chains that, 20 years ago, doubted or just ignored Amazon.

Bezos, if he really wanted to, could really shake up this field. Blue Origin clearly has technical capabilities to do smallsat launches, and obviously funding would not be a problem. It’s likely that a Blue Origin smallsat vehicle could be cost-competitive with any competing operational vehicles—or, at least, price-competitive, given the reputation of Bezos’ other company, Amazon, for driving down prices at the cost of profits.

Blue Origin would need to develop an upper stage compatible with New Shepard, with a payload fairing and dispenser system as well. Maybe the biggest challenge would be the engine for that upper stage: the BE-3 for the first stage is oversized for the upper stage, and the company doesn’t seem to have anything smaller. But, we don’t know what the company has tucked away from earlier projects, and it could also simply buy a company with a promising engine but not promising prospects to develop a full-fledged vehicle.

For launch sites, they could fly initially from the Cape Canaveral launch site they’re developing for their big New Glenn vehicle. It could also given them a chance to practice barge landings they plan to do for New Glenn’s first stage if they don’t have the performance to land back at the launch site. But they would need a separate site for high-inclination missions that can’t be reached from Florida, like Vandenberg or Kodiak, the latter a site begging for business these days.

Why do it at all, though? Bezos sounded like at last week’s briefing he was uncertain about the demand for space tourism. Blue Origin hasn’t started selling tickets or even named a ticket price for those flights, even as it showed off what a flight on New Shepard would be like.

Smallsats might be more lucrative than space tourism. A suborbital mission will probably provide the company with about $1.5 million in revenue a flight (assuming a $250,000 ticket price, along the lines of Virgin Galactic, with six seats per flight; it seems unlikely they would charge much more than that.) A smallsat launch might be easily $3–5 million each and still be competitive with other vehicles. If an expendable upper stage is relatively cheap, the business case might work out.

With all the money he put into New Shepard’s development, Bezos might want a better return on his investment than flying a few tourists and developing technology for bigger vehicles. And, perhaps, a smallsat vehicle could test technologies needed for New Glenn, like satellite deployment systems and in-space operations.

Given Bezos’ long-term goal to see millions of people living and working in space, building a smallsat launcher out of New Shepard would seem a little tangential. But Bezos has shown with Amazon that there’s no market too small for him to go after. Those who doubt his interest and ability in this field will probably face the same fate as the bookstore and department store chains that, 20 years ago, doubted or just ignored Amazon. A shakeup in the small launch vehicle market was long overdue, and Blue Origin might be the one to finally trigger it.


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