This op-ed originally appeared in the Sept. 10, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
As an adviser and director of space companies, including several system manufacturers and logistics providers, I’ve had the opportunity to see a bit of how the space economy works, both good and bad. There’s technical brilliance on one hand, but a fragile supply and transport chain on the other. I have seen businesses that are vulnerable to the limited scale of today’s space component suppliers and the limited availability of space transportation. It is evident we need to examine how to build a robust space economy and infrastructure, one built to accommodate future growth.
A stronger supply chain
In manufacturing, processes are driven by expected volumes. The manufacturing for thousands or millions of units is vastly different from the manufacturing of dozens. In the space industry, we are seeing a shift as an industry that is designed around building to 20-25 GEO satellites plus an assortment of maybe a hundred assorted smaller spacecraft per year faces the possibility that thousands will need to be built in the coming years. This will make it more kin to the aircraft supply chain, which already supplies to 1,300-plus large commercial aircraft per year, plus thousands of other aircraft per year.
Already in the space industry we are seeing the shift to higher unit volumes (in the hundreds or thousands), lower lead times (down to months, not years) and increasing use of defense specification or even industrial-specification electronics and components to meet the demand. We need to have new entrants who are introducing lower cost or higher performance components using new or long-disused technologies. We also need to break down artificial barriers for suppliers, like the ones that keep European suppliers from serving U.S. markets and vice versa. In this new market, there will be enough for everyone. More suppliers will be good for the industry, as it will bring a broader diversity and more robust supply chains to everyone.
The launch and landings of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy were certainly awe-inspiring, but it was probably the 18 successful launches in 2017 that brought more joy and ease to SpaceX’s customers. A robust space infrastructure is one where rides to space are plentiful, regular and predictable. Where customers can reasonably expect to get transport for themselves or their payloads at an assigned time, much as they would get a train or a plane. And when the customers involve multi-hundred-million-dollar spacecraft, cadence really matters. That’s why 18 was SpaceX’s magic number last year; it surpassed the Russian Proton rocket’s personal best of 14 launches in a single year and the 16 missions that rival United Launch Alliance conducted in 2009 with a mix of Atlas 5, Delta 2 and Delta 4 rockets.
I expect that learning effects, supply chain maturity and the elimination of long-lead procurements (enabled by launcher reusability) will keep driving SpaceX’s launch cadence higher. Improving the time and cost of pre-launch ground operations, fully commercializing control of launch ranges and greater vehicle reusability will drive further improvement. But to maintain a robust market, SpaceX’s competitors must step up, offering a similarly predictable and reliable transportation. Low cost or not, anyone planning large constellations or regular commercial human spaceflight will want transportation diversity and assured access to space to ensure service. This means regular, frequent and perhaps on-demand service from existing launch providers as well as new entrants.
Streamlining ground ops
Extreme environments drive much of the cost of new spacecraft. But what happens on the ground can be a major driver of cost, time and overhead when it comes to preparing a spacecraft for orbit. The cost and duration of pre-launch campaigns can be high and draining for even simple payloads. This is not just a drain on the operator or the manufacturer, but also the launch provider who has to allocate space at the launch pad for these campaigns, which often stretch many weeks. And while the reasons for this are complex, a lot of the cost and time have to do with the toxicity and volatility of the propellants and other energetic materials involved in any spacecraft. If we want to make prelaunch operations simpler, we must find ways to reduce or eliminate these materials, including a total shift to non-toxic or electric propellants (full disclosure, I am a director of ECAPS, a builder of nontoxic space propulsion systems). Doing so will not only reduce time, but reduce the demands on critical space infrastructure, such as payload processing facilities.
Better transport links, logistics
Until recently, there have been few common ways to transport space systems in a quick, turnkey manner, like modern transport networks. Space systems have their own special needs and standards and it would be a step forward if the large global logistics services were to start offering robust, low-cost services for space — services that consider the thermal, vibration and handling needs of these components. FedEx has made some strides in providing these through its Space Solutions services, but competitors such as UPS and DHL need to join them and make fully international services available to satellite systems.
Turnkey satellite tracking
For today’s spacecraft operator, using and procuring ground networks to operate their craft is an exercise in patchwork networking. The current tracking and telemetry operators designed their systems with GEO operations in mind, or built out their networks to cover only part of the world. What the industry needs instead is either a seamless global network of ground stations or something tantamount to a commercial version of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay System — a global network of GEO or MEO comsats providing always-on tracking and communications with other, low-orbit spacecraft. A few startups are trying to provide this network and I wish them luck. Such a system will be able to provide turnkey tracking, telemetry and control and remove yet another complication from the busy life of a satellite operator.
Maximize value to orbit
In the last several years, launch providers have begun taking seriously the demand for secondary or piggyback payloads, maximizing the value of extra space on the launch vehicle to accommodate more paying customers. But while there are now new low-cost and versatile launch adapters and dispensers, the industry can go further. Eventually, we must consider how to use each launch to its fullest economic extent and, where possible, integrate spacecraft payloads alongside human payloads, including cargo and supplies to space stations.
Low-cost regular flights of cargo and crew craft, such as SpaceX Dragon, Boeing Starliner or Northrop Grumman Cygnus, are the key to making this very interesting. If a new market for commercial human spaceflight emerges, a steady stream of paying passengers will drive the need for regular flights to the ISS or even a commercial space station. With a great new avenue for regular access to space established, with steady cadence, this will be an opportunity for carrying satellites, too. Co-manifested satellites to be deployed will be a great source of additional income to the operators of these cargo and crew ships.
Something like this is already done on flights to ISS. Small satellite payloads are frequently manifested alongside supplies inside cargo vehicles. They are later deployed from the station’s airlocks. The service is so convenient that if not for the fact that ISS is in a relatively undesirable orbit for many satellites. I dare say that if ISS was in polar orbit, hundreds of satellites would already be using the service and swamping the cargo capacity of the Cygnus and Dragon. Perhaps there’s a business case for a new commercial space station in polar orbit.
Maximize use of LEO
As the late Robert Heinlein said, once you are in low Earth orbit, you are halfway to anywhere in the solar system. So why not optimize the heck out of LEO transportation and let more efficient in-space tugs and space stations do the rest? Optimizing here doesn’t just mean sending low-cost, heavy-lift rockets to LEO but also seeing if forms of launch, such as high-power railguns, can work for pushing bulk cargo to space in quantity. There are interesting new concepts emerging in this area worth exploring technically. The provision of cheap bulk materials to LEO from the ground is what may give a nascent in-space economy the development boosts it needs.
With the sudden surge of activity, we are seeing the limits of the current infrastructure. But with the ideas above and others, we will begin to see a robust space economy in full flourish. We are eager to see that day soon.
Ian Fichtenbaum is a senior vice president and space specialist at the American Industrial Acquisition Corp. and director of Bradford and Bradford ECAPS.