JUN 04, 2015 5:29 PM PDT

For Private Space Companies, It's All About Bringing Down Launch Costs

WRITTEN BY: Andrew J. Dunlop
The tree big private space companies, Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, and Paul Allen's Vulcan Aerospace have all made it past the point of establishing themselves, into doing business, and they're all pursing the same goal: lowering launch costs by creating reusable launch vehicles. Each company is using different strategies to meet that goal. Marco Caceres, a space-industry analyst with the Teal Group says, "The key to anything that any space company does is relatively inexpensive access to space. The moment you see launch costs come down dramatically, you'll see a lot of companies popping up." Imagine how expensive air travel would be if every time you wanted to fly somewhere you had to build a new plane. Up to this point, even with the Space Shuttle, that's roughly what we've been doing with launching things into orbit. These three companies are changing that.

Artist's impression of Vulcan Aerospace's massive carrier aircraft with a wingspan of 385 feet

Vulcan Aerospace's strategy for lowing launch costs is to change the launch vehicle entirely. They will be carrying a rocket up to 30,000 feet under one of the largest aircraft ever built, essentially two 747 jumbo jets spliced together at their wing tips, and then launching a rocket which will carry cargo or passengers the rest of the way into orbit. You don't have to worry about a launch pad with this system. All you need is a runway. This could potentially massively cut launch costs. Most of the launch won't require much more than it would take for a plane to take off.



SpaceX and Blue Origin are actually both pursing very similar strategies for their reusable launch vehicles: they are both working on landable rockets, that is, rockets that take off, launch their payload, and then return to a launch pad in a controlled landing, sort of like what you see in science fiction movies from the fifties and early sixties. The thing is, landing a rocket is a pretty complex technological feat to pull off. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin have designed and build landable rockets. SpaceX actually managed to launch one of its Falcon 9 rockets and land it on the same launch pad in 2014. This April however, when they attempted a similar feat after launching a cargo resupply ship to the ISS you could say the operation was half successful. The cargo resupply ship made it into orbit without a hitch. The landing of the Falcon 9 though, this time on a barge, was unsuccessful. Their next attempt to land one of their Falcon 9s will take place this July. This time they'll be landing on land. So in terms of achieving their goal of being able to reliably land their rockets, they're getting there. In terms of drastically lowering the cost of getting payloads into orbit, they've hit it out of the park. At only $2,500 a pound, not only is SpaceX currently the cheapest way to get cargo into space, since the Space Shuttle era when it cost $25,000 a pound to get things into orbit, SpaceX has cut the price of cargo launches by a factor of 10.

Blue Origin is focusing on carrying humans into space. The short term goal is space tourism. They recently successfully launched a test version of their New Shepard rocket with an unmanned capsule on top of it. Like SpaceX's latest attempt, the launch was a success, the landing of the rocket was not. As it was coming in for a landing, the rocket suffered a hydraulic failure and crashed. But Blue Origin will continue testing launch vehicles. They're partnering with NASA to eventually build a replacement for the Space Shuttle.


(Sources: phys.org, wikipedia)
About the Author
  • Andrew J. Dunlop lives and writes in a little town near Boston. He's interested in space, the Earth, and the way that humans and other species live on it.
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