Commercial Space Strategy of Bigelow-ULA Partnership

The big news today was that Bigelow and ULA announced an alliance of sorts. Wait, the A in ULA already stands for Alliance, so this must be a non-official partnership that's not even signed on paper yet. What could it mean? The purpose of this post is to probe the strategic future of the following companies: Bigelow, ULA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada.

Bigelow connected to a Dragon

_image of B300 and Dragon via @Crow_T_Robot_

First let's clear up some basics. ULA, or United Launch Alliance, is a company formed in 2005 as a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. I'm not sure how revenue and costs are divided between the two companies or how R&D is funded. Boeing and Lockheed Martin both have their own independent space projects, as well as collaborative projects through ULA.

Bigelow makes a large, expandable orbital module called the B330, which is larger than the BEAM module that was just sent up to the space station (not even expanded as of this writing). B330 is 1/3 the volume of the ISS and could either attach to the ISS or fly freely. ISS is funded through 2024, but the hardware might last until 2030.

Here is a summary of the vehicles that will be of note in this blog post.

Boeing

  • Delta IV rocket
  • CST-100 Starliner crew module in development

Lockheed Martin

  • Atlas V rocket
  • Orion crew module in development

ULA

  • Vulcan reusable rocket in development
  • ACES reusable upper stage in development (called a "space truck" by ULA president Tory Bruno)

Bigelow

  • BEAM small expandable module on ISS now
  • B330 large orbital module in development

SpaceX

  • Falcon 9 rocket
  • Dragon cargo
  • Falcon Heavy rocket in development
  • Dragon crew module in development

Blue Origin

  • New Shepherd rocket + crew module in development

Sierra Nevada

  • Dream Chaser crew module in development

First let's talk about the announced partnership between Bigelow and ULA. Here are some obvious strategic vectors:

  • Bigelow needs a capable launch vehicle. The Atlas V is the only one that can do that presently.
  • Boeing wants to create a bigger market on orbit for the Starliner crew module, with the B330 serving as a destination.
  • Lockheed Martin wants another destination for the Orion crew module. Note that this does not have to be in LEO.
  • ULA wants as many potential customers as possible for the Vulcan rocket and ACES second stage.
  • Bigelow wants engineering expertise from ULA for developing things like reaction control thrusters, communications, and power systems.
  • Bigelow may also need money, though I do not have any numbers.

The dependency chain is super complicated, especially due to the weird ULA/Boeing/Lockheed situation, but I think that Bigelow end ups having the bargaining advantage here. Without a destination secured, the rockets and crew modules in development by ULA's Boeing and Lockheed Martin won't be participating in commercial markets. The best ULA could hope for without commercial modules is an expensive political mess of contracts, with cost-plus becoming less fashionable/funded every year.

The partnership with ULA could point to Bigelow having an interest in operating beyond LEO. If Bigelow just wanted to stay in LEO, they could easily pay for two Atlas V launches to get two B330's in space, then simply let customers come to them in whichever crew capsule the tenant could afford. However, in partnering with ULA they could have better access to the ACES space tug and Orion crew module, which has the necessary radiation protection that is lacking in the other launch providers. In the press conference, Bob Bigelow mentioned enabling asteroid mining by using the B330 as an outpost.

Bigelow may be better off in LEO at present, and ULA may be manipulating Bigelow's asteroid mining ambitions so that ULA can launch more heavy machinery into higher orbits with the Vulcan and ACES rockets. And who will develop this machinery? Boeing and Lockheed Martin. I suspect that ULA is willing to provide the engineering work of the life support, communications, and attitude control systems to Bigelow on the chance that Bigelow could become a catalyst for a new industry dominated by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

However, perhaps I was premature in assigning Bigelow a position of power. The world moves on, and NASA plans on releasing another call for proposals for next-generation habitats later this month (http://www.nasa.gov/nextstep). Bigelow may not be the only promising habitat with a launch date in the 2020's.

Where do SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada fit in?

I suspect that in ULA's dream world, the small launch providers will eventually shut down operations. Will SpaceX continue to grow after Elon Musk's death or will Blue Origin make it without Jeff Bezos? It's that lack of certainty which gives Bigelow power here. To survive, they need a market, and to get a big enough market they need more destinations in space, so it is in SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada's interest to promote Bigelow. But Bigelow can charge high tenancy rates and the launch providers will have to eat as much of that cost to provide the lowest transportation rates to their own customers as possible. ULA, or specifically Boeing with its CST-100, will win this bidding war because as a larger company they can eat more cost in order to bankrupt the competitors.

Alternatively the small launch companies could create smaller, single-experiment orbital workshops. For instance, a crewed Dragon could dock with a cargo Dragon to provide enough space to support commercial research. Any particular company may not be able to afford a more long-term orbital presence, unlike governments, which can afford a 15+ year tenancy.

The current market for these small providers is the ISS, which may only operate until 2024 or possibly until 2030. Then what?

What are some wildcards?

The first obvious wildcard is international politics. Governments are big customers themselves, and China or even Chinese companies could be very large customers to any orbiting station. China has flown their own stations before, but does not have one currently, and NASA is prohibited from collaborating with the Chinese space agency. Will US companies also be banned from collaborating with China in space? Russian relations are also in a tense state, but at present it appears that they may not have much interest or economic power to invest in space.

Bigelow states that expandable modules are necessary to increase the size of orbital modules. However, I think there is another way, which is additive manufacturing on-orbit of orbital modules. I do not think that we can build and human-rate a fully 3D-printed structure in my lifetime, but I do think that 3D printing could help shorten the development timelines considerably. Perhaps I'll submit a proposal for such a module when the call for proposals comes out from http://www.nasa.gov/nextstep later this month.

Disclaimer

This is just a blog. I'm just sitting here in my underwear eating cheetos and talking about space stuff. Don't bet your startup on any perceived market opportunities contained here.

© Peter Brandt 2019 | all images in public domain unless otherwise stated