48: MIT New Space Age Conference and SXSW

From illegal satellites to cislunar economies, this week on SPEXcast we dive into the exciting business of New Space

48: MIT New Space Age Conference and SXSW

Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, or by RSS for more space exploration discussions. (Banner image courtesy of Blue Origin via Geekwire)

This week seemed like a pretty slow week in space news, until the very last moment, when two large events resulted in a deluge of interesting news items. Our original topic, an update on the SPEX High Altitude Balloon project, is recorded and will be releasing in a few weeks.

MIT New Space Age Conference

MIT held a special conference this year, focusing on developments in the New Space industry on March 11th, 2018.

Beyond the Cradle 2018: Track A (Industry talks) - MIT Media Lab


Blue Origin

Dr. Erika Wagner, Business Development Manager, and Rob Meyerson, Program Manager and Aerospace Business leader, were at the conference representing Blue Origin.

Blue Origin announced a potential LEO-Lunar orbit tug similar to ACES in the Cislunar-1000 vision by ULA.

They also talked about their timeline for beginning New Shepard flights later this year.

However, it will be over a decade before New Glenn sends humans into orbit on their new rocket, New Glenn

Blue Origin also talked about their engine development programs.

Erika Wagner of Blue Origin notes when she joined the company six years ago, it had about 170 employees. Now up to 1,400 employees - Jeff Foust, in a now deleted tweet

Its always interesting to compare the scale, timeline, and motivation of New Space companies. Blue Origin has been around for 18 years, and keeps progress close at hand. Compared to SpaceX, with over 6,000 employees, and United Launch Alliance, with around 3,000 employees, Blue Origin is a relatively small competitor. However, their backing by Jeff Bezos gives them an advantage by removing time and profit pressures from the company. Its somewhat of a tortoise and hare kind of race. Stay tuned for more on these two companies in a future episode.

Swarm Technologies illegally launches satellites

We also talked about one of the first ever cases of commercial satellites being illegally launched into space. Although the launch occured on January 12th, news of the illegal satellites broke during the conference. Several New Space companies took the opportunity to comment on the event.

We found their comments interesting, especially since there has been a lot of talk of changing the regulatory structure for space flights. Specifically, the second meeting of the National Space Council was primarily focused on regulatory reform.

Planetary Resources

Chris Lewicki, CEO and Founder of Planetary Resources took the stage to talk about the changing role of 'space companies'. We discussed how this attitude shift away from 'space company', to 'company that does business in space' has formed due to the explosion of new space startups in recent years. We also discussed the role of validating flight technology in space engineering programs.

Sierra Nevada Corporation and Dream Chaser

Greg Burgess, VP of Technology of the Space Systems Group of SNC was at the conference to talk about their unmanned cargo vehicle, Dream Chaser.

We discuss whether Dream Chaser will switch its launch vehicle from the Atlas V to another comparable vehicle. Also we discuss whether that, now that Dragon 2 will not land propulsively, does the Dream Chaser have the opportunity to corner the market on reusability with its gently spaceplane reentry method.

Special Thanks to Jeff Foust for his on-location reporting of the New Space Age Conference

SXSW: Elon Musk Q&A and 'Why Falcon Heavy & Starman'

Life cannot just be about solving one sad problem after another. There need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity. That is why we did it. We did for you - Elon Musk via Twitter

The weekend brought some exciting SpaceX news when Elon Musk made a somewhat surprise appearance at SXSW, crashing the Westworld panel there. He unveiled a video titled Falcon Heavy and Starman which artfully showed the entire process of launching the first Falcon Heavy rocket. We got to see excellent shots of payload encapsulation, rollout, as well as the rumored center core crash footage. The center core just missed hitting the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still Love You, instead crashing into the ocean, generating an explosion that damaged several of its engine pods.

At a standalone Q&A the next day, Elon mentioned a few updates and confirmations on the Big F**king Rocket, or BFR.

This is interesting, in that it confirm his timeline mentioned after the Falcon Heavy launch, however it appears work on BFR is still a small part of SpaceX's overall development efforts.

At MIT's New Space Age conference, Paul Wooster, Principal Mars Development Engineer of SpaceX downplayed the scope of BFR development at SpaceX. It will be interesting to see if this focus shifts, now that Falcon 9 is entering its supposedly final Block 5 form, and Crew Dragon set to take flight later this year. Hopefully this timeline holds better than Falcon Heavy ever did.

This comment from Musk is interesting, since it gives us a price floor for BFR flights. For a 100 person flight, like what was depicted heading towards Mars, flight cost per passenger is roughly $60,000. That is lower than the dirt cheap price of $200,000 presented at IAC. That does not take into account the cost of supporting a Mars mission or potential costs of surface living on another planet. It also puts the future of BFR as an Earth-based point to point transport service into question. If BFR can handle 300 passengers for an hour, on a similar scale to an Airbus A380, then the mean cost of service is around $17,000. Very expensive compared to most transcontinental flights. That does not include profit, transportation from cities to ocean-based launch sites, and other costs.

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