Starship Clones and More Thoughts about ISS Commercialization

There’s been a lot of exciting activity in the space industry this last week. I must think about it all a bit longer, so I am not covering them in this analysis. But there’s one story I will quickly review, and then we’ll get to some of my answers to class questions about International Space Station (ISS) commercialization. 

On to the first topic!

Knockoff News–Again!!

This story got a lot of people excited: “CHINA IS WORKING ON WHAT LOOKS LIKE A CLONE OF SPACEX’S STARSHIP.” The video alluded to certainly seems to be embracing a rocket that looks quite a lot like SpaceX’s Starship. While it’s interesting, based on China’s previous actions, the idea of a look-alike computer-generated system is also inevitable. That’s just one of the reasons why I’m placing this story into the “Nothingburger” franchise. Of course, Space Twitter lives on a steady diet of nothingburgers.

Let me throw in a few observations about the slew of stories about about China’s Starship clone (and why I’ve applied the nothingburger label). There appears to be some conclusion-jumping based on questionable assumptions within those stories. After reading a few of them, it’s not clear that China’s rocket companies will come up with a rocket that looks and operates exactly like Starship–except for a video of computer-generated rockets that was recorded via smartphone camera. It’s not clear that the Starship clone was incorporated into one of China’s space roadmaps four years ago.

Before beginning, a few cheeky questions: When is a Chinese company not working on a knockoff of some foreign company’s engineering? Is this even news? Or–another possibility–the title conveniently plays into the narrative that China’s companies are only good at copying and not creating. 

The video containing the clone Starship footage is aimed at China’s citizens and not anyone else. That is clear from the article’s source, Weibo, a Chinese Twitter knockoff. This link contains a smartphone-recorded video of a video on a monitor. So, not something the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) intentionally released to the outside world. Maybe CALT is hoping no one in China watching the video will know what a SpaceX Starship system looks like? More likely, it’s a recruiting video for students who would like to work on interesting projects.

It could also be CALT is attempting to curry favor with the Chinese government by showing off a concept even while the company continues manufacturing rockets that only launch and not land (yet). Such a video might give a communist party official a warm fuzzy–some pride about where the nation’s industry may be heading. And yes, China’s space companies appear to be heading towards reusability–slowly.

CALT is testing different aspects of reusability. It’s been testing home-duplicated versions of the Falcon 9’s grid fins on a few launched rockets. It also tested rocket engine throttling during the launch of its newest Long March 8 rocket, a capability of SpaceX’s Merlin and Raptor rocket engines (but probably not as capable–that’s to be determined). While the Chinese Starship video looks similar to SpaceX’s Starship, China’s rocket companies don’t appear to be adopting the U.S. company’s aggressive development pace.

This is evidenced in the timelines that the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) established in 2017 to implement “full” reusability for its rocket fleet, which would carry cargo and people: 2035. That goal is 14 years from this year, a year in which SpaceX is already flight-testing its Starship upper stage. SpaceX will likely have thoroughly tested Starship, a system that can launch 100+ tons to low Earth orbit by the end of 2021.

Based on the 2017 roadmap, CASC anticipated fielding a system by 2030 that might lift 100+ tons (except it doesn’t appear to be reusable). If it succeeds, it might be operating one of only two rockets that can lift that much mass into LEO. Maybe NASA’s Space Launch System will also be in the running. (Hah, I joke! Who believes that?) Maybe some actual SpaceX competitors enter the market sometime during the next few years (I’d suggest Blue Origin, but New Glenn hasn’t been tested), which would make CASC’s roadmap as obsolete as beta tape. 

SpaceX’s rocket reusability, especially if Starship works, can’t be understated as a hedge against competitors. It will, at least for a little while, be the only rocket system that will be fully understood by the company that operates it. SpaceX has demonstrated this tendency with the Falcon 9. In fourteen years, the company will have gained more knowledge about launch operations and launch systems. No competitor will be able to clone that experience–even if one fields a rocket that does look similar to Starship.

In the meanwhile, whether it’s a CALT video or an entrepreneur’s CAD-generated rocket, the result represents aspirations and not reality–a big, juicy nothingburger. 

Answering A Few Questions about ISS Commercialization

Moving on to the ISS questions our instructor asked (as promised in last week’s analysis): 

  1. What is the future of space stations?  
  2. Will NASA find a commercial group to operate the ISS one day?  
  3. Will free flyers take over commercial and LEO processing/observation research?  

TL/DR: It depends on what the purpose of those space stations is. And that purpose can be hard to define. And, yes, I’ve analyzed ISS commercialization before.

Missions and Markets

When I participated in United Launch Alliance’s CISLunar-1000/Marketplace (slideshow link) get-together (about four years ago), I observed that of all the brilliant people gathered there, none of them proposed practical reasons why 1000 people would be living in orbit by 2037. They proposed ideas that have been repeated for decades: lunar mining, crystal growing, tourism, etc. Many ideas described infrastructure projects–but the ones proposed didn’t seem necessary. Much of their ideas were already old and limited (this problem, again) four years ago. The slideshow link shows this. 

Each category they brought up requires not just evolutions of technology but leaps (with limited results). Also, many of the mentioned activities could be done on Earth for far less money. A few people said that rich people will live in space stations and that they will need servants. Those servants will be critical to growth. I thought that was one of the most ridiculous reasons. 

If a group of motivated folks can’t identify and demonstrate excellent reasons to get 1000 people into space, why do we believe NASA would be able to? I don’t believe ISS commercialization attempts will figure out reasons why, either. They are, frankly, excuses to keep using the ISS instead of building the next better and bigger station. 

The upshot, though, is that there must be legitimate reasons for operating a space station. For NASA, the reasons are experimentation and learning. Those are very limited reasons, but a good fit for NASA’s mission.

I don’t know if NASA will find a group willing to operate the ISS. It might if NASA has an ISS fire sale. Then whoever takes over still needs to pay for the station’s annual operations, which are at best $3 billion per year. That’s about the price of a OneWeb LEO broadband constellation of 648 satellites. A commercial group may find system efficiencies to bring that cost down, but it seems like annual operations will still be relatively high.

Then there’s the purpose of running the ISS commercially. How would a “private” ISS be different from the NASA version? Just the ticket to get people on orbit is still too expensive. NASA estimated (same article) $58 million for the ride and then $35,000 per day for a single person–to break even. The people for Axiom’s AZ-1 mission are paying $55 million each for everything, which means the ISS is not recovering “break-even” costs.

I agree about commercial customers paying to use the ISS as an R&D platform. I honestly think the various smallsat deployers onboard the ISS shows an interesting use of the system. The various experiments have some spinoff applications as well. As for the “competitive advantage” (referencing a response that included the U.S. gaining a competitive edge against near-peer adversaries in the commercial space station business), well, NASA and Russia use the ISS as a multi-national cooperative lab. 

Commercial Purpose?

Commercial companies are already competitive, seeking out that advantage. If working on the ISS gives them that advantage (and they can afford it), they’ll jump on board. Suppose they are paying the actual costs (not subsidized) for experimenting on NASA, and there’s still a line of researchers waiting to use the ISS as the experimentation platform. In that case, there’s room for another space station. 

Right now, the “orbital tourism” category appears far too exclusive to be a continuous moneymaker for Axiom and transportation providers like SpaceX. It’s more exclusive than people buying a seat for a ride to space only (which is already a niche in the relatively small launch market)—the prices of getting anything to orbit, while lower now, are still too high. Worst case, Axiom would fold (as Bigelow apparently has), and NASA steps in to get a shiny new space station for less than it cost to build the ISS. Maybe when prices are down to the $10-$50 per kg point…

If companies believe they can make money by investing in space stations, then space stations will happen–which raises the question: why haven’t they appeared yet (it’s been a few decades)? I suspect the trades still don’t make sense. It requires investment in infrastructure, etc., all of which are currently expensive. 

For companies to create space habitats, there must be good reasons. To base the proposition on an “if you build it, they will come” (in this case, the promise of technological breakthroughs) is not what a company’s management will want to hear. They will want specifics. This is not them being selfish or short-sighted. They are responsible to the people working for them, their investors, etc. 

Company leaders intuitively understand that investing in space infrastructure, especially a biggie like the space station is very expensive. They know that having people work in space is not just expensive but hazardous, too. They will ask if similar products that work “well enough” can be produced here on Earth–for a fraction of the cost. Usually, because of human ingenuity, the answer is yes.

We can’t conflate NASA’s mission with commercial company goals, although each can assist the other in achieving them.

I am not saying space stations aren’t cool and that they aren’t useful. For humans to survive beyond the solar system, we need to understand how to live in space and become self-sufficient on space stations particularly–not on the Moon or Mars, which are too close in our neighborhood. Will we gain knowledge as we do that? Inevitably. The ISS is not even a baby step in that direction. But we need to remember that gaining knowledge is not quite the same as creating a commercial opportunity or market. 

But, and I think NASA is struggling with this question, too, how do we go beyond the ISS (and not bankrupt NASA)? It has a tough enough time justifying to Congress reasons to continue with the ISS, which functions. If commercial companies take advantage of government funding woes and privatize it after 2024, great! 

(Since that answer, NASA has increased its ISS pricing across the board. Does this make things better or worse for the ISS? What does it bode for companies like Axiom?)

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