Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Mars Colony Design Update

While it was an honor to get to the top ten finalists out of one hundred entries, I did not get into the top five winners.    I don't think this is the time or place to get into why the judging took place the way it did, simply because I wasn't there for it.  What I will do is defend my thesis and purpose in the decisions I made with the Eureka design, and elaborate on the answers I gave the judges at the time.   As far as making up your own mind, the top 25 semifinalists will be published in a book next month.  So future mars colonists will be able to review our work. 


There were a number of hard questions meant to give a more complete picture of the settlement in the contest criteria.  You had to come up with the structure, then an economic model, then a political model, aesthetics, and culture.   I went well beyond this into the very toughest challenges to space settlement where Mars is concerned and took them all head on.  Everyone else was running a marathon, but I was running an obstacle course for the duration of the marathon.  

Here's the thing.  I've been working on parts of the problem for over a decade.  I had focused on the worst issues I could find, because I know that there are not good answers in a lot of those spaces.  No one had a complete solution that was designed to be complete and unassailable to the critics and possible risks of a settlement on Mars.  I decided to try for that.  Even if it fell short, it would show what the hardest issues were left to solve so that I could focus on those.  But as it turned out, I answered all my challenges and offered root cause analysis back to the origins of civilization as to why those solutions were chosen. 

The Greenhouses

Robert Zubrin asked about the power requirements for the greenhouses, and has stated in the past that he felt greenhouses on mars should be naturally lit.  I did not have an answer for him off the bat because I had realized that power was not a forcing function last winter with my design.  The forcing function was surface area per person for food growth.  The best shape for a pressure vessel is a sphere.  A flat greenhouse, even under partial pressure, is a nightmare in terms of structural needs, materials needed for transport to Mars, and so on.  It is wide open to meteor strikes or possible attacks by rival powers.  There is the possibility that a key crop is too sensitive to radiation to be reliably used as food after being grown with such exposure.  I chose a heavily shielded stacked LED lit greenhouse because this gave easy temperature control, 24 hour daylight where appropriate, radiation protection to the harvesters, meteorite protection, and restricted exposure to epigenetic crop stress.  In the rotating ring, I also had 1G gardens where that was potentially appropriate.  We cannot just assume that all plants we want or need will grow in a Mars greenhouse, or that building them would be a good idea.  As for the power question, when the population hits 1200 people, the power demand is 275 megawatts.  At 40 MT per 2 megawatt reactor, this calls for larger reactors for better economies of scale. The concept called for every sixth starship to be carrying a nuclear power plant with a six megawatt output.  My forcing function was volume, followed by reactor transportation, followed by reactor cost.   Natural light would not reach the inside of a stacked plant bed like that used in an LED greenhouse.  With Mars frequent dust storms, you would need a reactor-fed LED light system anyway in addition to all your glass.  So why bother making more failure points?
Anyway, I had to get that off my chest. 


 The Mars Society is now saying they want to sponsor a million person Mars city proposal.  At the moment, I'm not considering making an entry.  I put off a number of projects to do the work I did on the Mars Settlement design.  I'm unwilling to keep putting off life goals for things like this after having sunk a very critical, pivotal year into this one.   The lasting good effects of having a bulletproof (literally) Mars settlement design are just beginning.  Eureka may be the winner in the long run after all. 

Speaking in August at the 20th Mars Society Conference

I will be speaking at the August 23-26 Mars Society Conference at the Pasadena Convention Center.   This year will be another wonderful, informative convention with a new emphasis on VR projects we are currently getting ready to deliver for use at MDRS and eventually for Mars itself. We also have another university competition to design a heavy lander for Mars.

If you can’t attend the convention, I release the slides to this web site along with links to YouTube when The Mars Society puts those together a couple months later.

Planetary Protection and Settlement

On Thursday in the Science Track room at 1:00 PM, I’ll be speaking about finding ways for planetary settlement to work if and when life is found on another world.  This is actually highly likely given the amount of bacteria ejected into space from meteors colliding with Earth in the early days of the solar system after bacteria had already formed.  The issue is how to find a happy medium where we inhabit other worlds but we keep the existing biomes and our own habitats from interacting accidentally.

SpaceX, Methodologies, and Predictions

On Friday, I’ll be speaking at 2:30 in Room 214 on SpaceX and how the NewSpace companies are accelerating so quickly over their Legacy Space counterparts.  I’ll also forecast how some of these efforts will turn out based on past performance and current conditions.  Want a realistic estimate on when and where you will be able to fly around the Earth in a BFR for a family vacation?


Slight Update on BFR

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell recently did a TED talk that included a slide showing three designs for the BFR.  The original from 2016 is on the far right of this image, and is the largest and oldest concept.  In 2017, the design was revised to be smaller and far easier to build.  This version can also do airline service anywhere in the world near an ocean in less than 45 minutes. 

What is noteworthy is the middle version.  This is simply dated 2018, and shows a length almost exactly half-way between the original 12 meter diameter vehicle and the revised 9 meter diameter. This seems to be due to refinement of the aerodynamic design of the nose and wing surfaces.  The wing roots are much longer along the side of the fuselage, although that seems to be partially due to the slightly different angle in the renderings. 

Also included this time are four small landing legs, which protrude past the booster BFR stage.  They simply do not appear in last year's version.  In the original, there are three retractable legs in fairings, two of which are part of the entry shield.  

New BFR for 2018

New BFR for 2018

Legs and Engine Concerns

The engines in the original design protruded past the back of the fuselage in the original design.  In the 2017 revision, the engines are completely covered by the aft fuselage skirt.  It is possible that the extended landing legs allow for the engines to protrude slightly again.  It may also be a consolidation to landing on Mars or other unprepared surfaces like the moon.  There are two great fears in landing on unprepared surfaces with rockets, such as the moon and Mars.  One is that rocks can be kicked up by the exhaust and damage the engine bell.  This did happen with one of the Apollo landings.  While Apollo used a different engine to return to space, the BFS is stuck with the same exposed engines for ascent.  The second factor is that these engines are basically blow-torches that put out exhaust at hypersonic speeds.  As such, they can take the dirt of the moon or Mars and essentially stir it like liquid while landing.  After landing, the unsettled dirt can settle around the foot-pads, essentially burying them under the surface.  This is one of the reasons the Curiosity lander used a jet-pack on a tether to lower the rover to the surface - to keep those engines as far away from the ground as possible.   While less of an issue for lunar landing due to lower thrust requirements, it may be an issue for Mars.  In both cases, getting landing pads built will be a very early priority to avoid throwing rocks at whatever you had landed prior to that point. Early landings may avoid the issue by landing in craters. 

The four leg configuration also means another slight design difference from last year.  Since the legs protrude, the back-to-back configuration for one vehicle to refuel another on orbit will have to be done at a slight angle to allow the legs of each vehicle to slide past each other.  

Capacity Issues

The configuration changes imply they have stretched the propellant tanks slightly in the new design.  This would be good, as the reduction in diameter between 2016's twelve meter diameter and 2017's nine meter diameter, all else being equivalent, reduces both the propellant and pressurized crew compartment volumes by 70 percent.  The revised design slides form 2017 show only a 43 percent reduction in propellant load by mass, however. The revised design is much longer than a 25 percent reduction in length, and the propellant tanks appear to be more efficiently designed in terms of capacity than the 2016 design.  A recent photo analysis of the machine used to make the fuel tanks of both stages shows that the interior diameter is slightly over nine meters, instead of the exterior as originally expected.  Due to economies of scale, every little addition to the tank volume dimensions has a substantial impact on payload.   The 2017 design also mentioned 40 crew cabins, as opposed to the original crew of 100 people.  While you may well have two to a cabin, the substantial reduction in volume would make things cozier.  

Next Steps

SpaceX is also leasing an older large building with an adjoining dock in Los Angeles, California to build the BFR.  Tooling is already being delivered to the site. (Don't get too excited about the photo that appears to show the nose fabrication machine - that's actually a Boeing 787 machine that would be very similar to it.) 

While Elon Musk wants BFR going to Mars robotically in 2022 and with a crew in 2024, Gwynne sees humans on mars by 2028 as a "for sure" outcome.  Near term projects mostly involve short vertical hops, with longer term work on flying up, then using the engines and remaining fuel to slam into the atmosphere to simulate reentry from deep space.  This is very critical.  Vehicles arriving at these speeds heat up with the cube of velocity, so little changes in speed can make the entry fatal. This, in turn, dictates not only the flight time to and from Mars, but the payload capacity allowed for both flights.  

Creating eBooks in Scrivener

Why an eBook?

Under the category of Entrepreneurship, writing books on whatever topics you can allow a small to medium stream of secondary income.  It can also help establish your reputation in a particular field, and give you a way to communicate your ideas to a larger audience.  

With the recent advent of eBooks such as Kindle and print on demand, it's become relatively trivial to crank something out.  This short article will simply link to YouTube and other web resources to walk you through the process.  

Creating an eBook in Scrivener for Kindle

Under the category of Entrepreneurship, writing books on whatever topics you can allow a small to medium stream of secondary income.  It can also help establish your reputation in a particular field, and give you a way to communicate your ideas to a larger audience.  

With the recent advent of eBooks such as Kindle and print on demand, it's become relatively trivial to crank something out.  This short article will simply link to YouTube and other web resources to walk you through the process.  

It is possible to publish a Kindle book directly from Word, but it's not recommended.  It is also possible to use a program called Vellum for the Macintosh, but that is $100-250 depending on the version.  Scrivener, while not perfect, is recommended.  At $40, it's a fairly trivial price.  There are versions for both Windows and Macintosh, and a limited version for iPad/iPhone.  Version 2 is current, and can create files for Kindle (.mobi) format.   It can also export to Word, PDF, and so on.  The current version has a few formatting limits, but most of these will be repaired in version 3, which should come out for the Macintosh in late 2017 and PC in 2018.

Before getting started, go to the Literature and Latte YouTube channel and get an introduction to Scrivener.  Decide from there if it's the right choice for you.  If you work on a Macintosh and have a higher budget, consider using Vellum instead.  (My Mac is currently not working, so I can't tell you if the reviews of this are accurate or not from experience.)

Scrivener is available for download at   You can install a license on up to five devices for PC with a PC license or five Macintosh systems, but you cannot mix the two.  The Mac version has a few extra features and is updated first in the development process.   Once your book is created, watch this video to see how to format the file for Kindle.  You can then watch this video to see how to upload it to Kindle Direct Publishing.

If you wish to then take your content and make a print book, you are actually better off doing it in Word.  You can export from Scrivener to Word format and then save that for upload as a print-on-demand book.  I have yet to do this but will post an update in a few weeks when I've completed one. 

Paying for Affordable Launch: OneWeb

OneWeb (Google's satellite constellation) is preparing to manufacture three satellites a day.  

While Elon Musk's high speed internet constellation is meant to help pay for space settlement, Google's constellation has no grander purpose.  It will help drive down the cost of launch vehicles, though, by providing a steady paying customer for those services.

Space is already commercialized largely due to satellite communications and observation.  These systems are net positives to the economy, requiring no taxpayer support and strong economic activity.  Satellite television revenue alone is greater than all global space programs, combined.  The new layer of low-latency satellites can bring broadband everywhere in the world, appealing to the broader global market.  

A system that provides line of sight internet to a small antenna (the size of a magazine) has a lot of possibilities.   The same was said when satellite television went from dishes that were two meters in diameter to the ones commonly used now by Direct TV and Dish Network.  That said, they are of no use to people who rent, live in high rises, or anyone else without a secure outdoor location for such a device.  People in these situations are generally already connected via cable, fiber, or copper wire based systems. Also, unlike the television systems, these new antennas do not have to be aimed precisely.  They are more likely to be like the older generation of satellite antennas seen on some delivery trucks.

I suspect the long-term picture of OneWeb versus Space-X will be similar to the divide between Android and Apple.  

OneWeb (Google)


Lower Cost

Low- end and third world market

Lower Security

Weak fan base

Basic Design

Similar to Google Android

Attractive design

Strong fan base

Higher security

High end market and consumer use.

Higher cost

Similar to Apple products

Image and Culture

Space-X:  Apple has a strong fan base due to the role as a driver of technology.  This was eventually focused on Steve Jobs, and has been diminished in recent years due to competitors catching up and Apple slowing down. Space-X has that same halo effect due to Elon Musk revolutionizing so many industries. Apple products tend to cost more than their rivals in each market, but also tend to be more secure, easier to use, and more reliable.  They are basically better-thought-through designs.   Their competitors, in comparison, have products that appear rushed to production, confusing, buggy, and less secure.  This image isn't always deserved on either side, but it has been consistent through Microsoft, IBM, Google, Pebble, Blackberry, and so on.  

OneWeb:  Apple sells the iOS along with the phone, whereas Google gives away or licenses the Android OS to any system that will support it.  The goal is to push as much information to as many people as possible, and monetize the flow of information in both directions.  The information on products and people is the revenue source, not the system that provides the flow.  While Space-X and Apple (Circa 2010) are analogous (strong innovation image, fan base, etc.) Android and OneWeb actually are both projects of one company - Google.  We should not anticipate a rapid shift in business model. 


While Google is working on a light satellite launch system, it will probably purchase launches on Space-X where possible.  Having two or more low-latency satellite internet systems will help drive faster adoption, avoid monopoly pricing, and spur the two systems to advance technologically more quickly than they would otherwise.  This will in turn lead to yet more launches, as the older satellites are made obsolete more quickly.  

Having factories that can crank out space-rated products in high volume will also benefit other aspects of space settlement.  In the end, anything that space settlers need will have to be space-rated at some point.  This will drive down the price of doing so, while also spinning off quality innovations to other industries.

OneWeb has strong potential to be a net-win for space settlement, even if Google has no grand plans beyond LEO like other innovators.  I'm not sure I would want to live in a Google space settlement, personally, given their business model of invasive observation.   It's probably best they help pay costs of space-rated industrialization and launch costs, and then get out of everyone's way. 

Space-X Update and Financial Prospects

Space-X has been the subject of a few recent updates and analyses. This is a review of that information, and an original analysis of the financials, their planned satellite constellation, and competitive analysis.

Elon Musk has announced that the “Block 5” version of the Falcon 9 rocket will be launched by the end of 2017. This will be the final refinement of the Falcon 9 booster design. Block numbers are typically the equivalent to version numbers. They are used with spacecraft because often, there is only one version and copy of a space vehicle made. Each new copy is also a new version, in many cases. Each successive block number is generally more capable and less expensive than the previous ones, because the means of production already exist. With Falcon 9, the 29 flights so far fall into four major blocks.

Block 5 Design

Here are the key new features in the final version of Falcon 9:

The first stage booster will be reusable “at least 10 times” and potentially “indefinitely”. The new boosters will also be much easier to return to flight between launches. Space-X have done a lot of engineering groundwork on what it takes to re-fly these boosters with minimal maintenance, rather than just recover them intact. There is no substitute for actually doing something, in this case returning a booster to flight, in terms of testing and optimizing procedures. The hardware itself has been refined to be low maintenance and easy to inspect between flights.

The legs are improved. Considering one of the landing failures was due to a leg folding up when weight was put on it, this makes sense. They have already landed on a drone ship in very rough wind conditions. It was probably also refined to make it easier to return to flight. Space-X currently removes the legs of the Block 4 boosters after recovering them. Given the size of these landing legs, simplifying that step should make the return to flight easier. 

The thrust is improved. The thrust has gone from 7607 kN to 8451 kN. The change in payload capacity has not been announced. We can’t realistically do an “all else being equal” equation to estimate the new payload capacity.  As with any engine, increased thrust usually means decreased fuel efficiency.  Space-X has increased thrust with every version of the engine, and increased the payload dramatically as well. 

Analysis:  With those caveats in mind, if the average ratio of thrust-to-payload continues as before, Block 5 would have an expendable payload to LEO of 25,000 kg. The only vehicle that is larger currently is the Delta Heavy, at 28,790 kg to LEO.

Space-X has stated that in the near future, all first-stage rockets will be recovered. If a launch requires too much fuel to recover the first stage on a Falcon 9, it can be launched on a Falcon Heavy instead. With the current Block 4 version of the Falcon, a rocket that recovers the first stage can only deliver 42 percent of the payload of an expendable stage to Low Earth Orbit. (This is still 9600 kg, versus 9000 kg for the expendable first generation Falcon 9). Recovering the first stage on a geostationary launch reduces the payload to 64 percent of the expendable version.

Creating the Falcon Block 5

Over the last year, Space-X has successfully landed seven booster stages. While Space-X has focused primarily on delivering payloads to orbit, these demonstration flights with the Block-4 prototypes have done two important things. First, they proved that the software and hardware could handle the challenges of propulsive reentry and landing. Second, they provided intact specimens of flown hardware for the Space-X engineers to study.

Imagine two people are designing unpiloted gliders. One person throws gliders over a cliff into the ocean and gathers as much information on their flights as possible before the gliders crash into the water, never to be seen again. The other person launches and recovers the gliders, and is able to examine the skeleton and skin of each one to find stress points, worn parts, or overbuilt systems.

In the past, all first stages were discarded in the ocean. Now, we have actual flown hardware in a hangar, not just streamed data from telemetry. They can examine the flown stages in mechanical detail and refine the designs. They have even taken one and pushed it past the reentry limits, then had it land successfully (and unexpectedly). So in addition to conventionally stressed stages, they have one pushed past its limits to fill out the far end of the analysis graphs. The landed stages of Block 4 will only be re-flown a few times at most to gain both more stress data and more confidence in the turn-around process.

There is also the old adage in manufacturing, “At some point, you have to shoot the engineer and cut metal.” Engineers have a tendency to want to keep refining a design as long as possible.  Meanwhile, the business must eventually settle on a single design to put into production. Otherwise, the company will fail because they will never make anything except prototypes. So now the engineers have both flight-proven hardware and their ongoing wish list from before and since the stages were recovered. This combination of additional time to development and testing feedback has given the engineers an treasure trove of real data and ideas to work with in designing the Block 5. 

Falcon Heavy Update

According to Wikipedia, the Falcon Heavy, if expendable, could carry up to 54,400 kg to LEO, or 22,200 kg to GEO. If the core stage is expended but the side stages are recovered, the payload to GEO is 14,000 kg.

That said, the method for increasing the payload this far when the Falcon Heavy was detailed a few years ago was the concept of fuel cross-feed. The side boosters would feed fuel to the core booster engines during ascent. This would drain the side tanks faster, but leave the fuel in the core tanks mostly available when the side boosters separated. By jettisoning the weight of the side boosters earlier in flight, and carrying more fuel to a higher altitude and speed than would otherwise be possible, this method would dramatically increase the payload.

Space-X has recently stated that the cross-feed won’t be used on the first flights. There really is no need for it in the near term, because there are no commercial payloads heavy enough to require it. Red Dragon, or the capsule to Mars in 2018 2020, may not need it either. Elon Musk has stated that, in general terms, for every four MT you can get to orbit, you can get two MT to GEO or one MT to the surface of Mars. 

Analysis:  The Red Dragon capsule is estimated to weigh 6.5 MT. So the LEO-equivalent payload capacity would be 26 MT. That is exactly double the mass of a GEO flight with the side stages recovered but the core stage lost.

Therefore, if all the sources are correct, we could see either fuel cross-feed or an expended core stage for the Red Dragon launch on the third Falcon Heavy flight. If schedules keep slipping, we may see it launched on the second flight to meet the Mars launch window, which only opens every 26 months.  

Space-X Financials

The Wall Street Journal recently did an article on Space-X and their revenue potential over the next few years. The general gist of the article is that Space-X cannot afford any more launch failures in 2017, because the two in 2015 and 2016 set them back so far financially. They are also running on very thin profit margins. This makes it very difficult to recover from a launch failure due to lost income during the return-to-flight investigation. 

The launch market available for Space-X is roughly $1 billion per year now, and raises to $5 billion by 2025. That said, Space-X intends to start launching a large constellation of small communications satellites over the coming decade. This would allow small antennas the size of a piece of paper to give broadband satellite internet access anywhere in the world. The goal is an additional $30 billion in revenue per year from this system. This has a lot of implications. The cost per customer would be too great to compete with terrestrial systems in most areas. Existing systems for use in non-urban areas, such as Hughesnet satellite internet in the US or Iridium for satellite telephones, is very limited and fairly expensive.

Prospects for the Space-X Satellite System

According to the WSJ article, the satellite company would have 40 million customers and bring in $30 bilion in revenue by 2025. Simple division sets that per customer monthly price at $62.50, at up to 1 Gbps per user. Hughesnet charges $50/month for one tenth the speed, and cannot scale anywhere near one Gbps. It also has far greater latency due to the satellites being much farther away (Geosynchronous orbit). Hughesnet is also limited to a customer base of rural users who cannot get broadband any other way. This market is also becoming increasingly rare – even very rural homes can typically get DSL or terrestrial radio broadband now.

That said, any customer who lived inside a large apartment building or condo without roof access would not be a customer. Anyone with faster terrestrial or (by then) 5G cellular systems would also have no use for the system. That’s fine. 40 million customers is around one sixth of one percent of the world’s population. It also has a lot of room for growth.


Here are some speculative versions of satellite internet system.

Portability: The Space-X antenna is the size of a sheet of paper. We could see a future laptop system with a fold-out antenna along the back of the monitor – either as a shade for the monitor, or as a kickstand, or just passively off the back. It may require external power, or its own battery pack. Alternatively, the whole thing – battery, antenna, and modem could be a secondary box the size of a tablet computer one would carry with them in the same case when needed and leave home when unnecessary. Eventually, the antenna could be integrated into the laptop itself or a laptop protective case. It could have a fold-out solar array to recharge, or to help charge a laptop/tablet when not in use. This would be ideal since the antenna would need to be near a window or outdoors to reach the satellites.

Future Miniaturization: A new generation of more powerful satellites, along with better antennas, could mimic the trends with GPS receivers. My first GPS had an antenna the size of a man’s thumb and needed to be outdoors to work. Modern GPS systems, complete with radios, can fit in dime-sized packages. We may also see terrestrial augmented systems that automatically switch to licensed wi-fi in larger buildings.

Bundling Power and Communications: Musk has a tendency to use his technologies and companies together to complement each other. Maybe Solar City’s new tile solar arrays with satellite receiving antennas will be bundled into the system. I could see that pushed out to rural and remote areas as a combination of power and communications in a single ecosystem.

Bundling Tesla and Communications: On a similar note, Tesla vehicles could easily have such a system embedded in the roof of the cars. There would be many advantages to a car that could communicate at gigabit speed from anywhere in the world. It could receive software updates anytime the car is driving or parked outside. Tesla’s satellites would also double as a navigational system, which could compliment GPS. With two way communications and detailed navigation data, it could provide information on new roads, traffic issues, and travel times in real time, similar to Google or Apple systems. It could also do so without access to cell phone towers.

With satellite radio and Netflix/ Hulu/ Amazon/ etc. access to children’s entertainment, it could also replace Sirius-XM and augment back-seat entertainment systems.  I suspect there will be a low-bandwidth, low cost version of the receiver specifically to compete with Sirius-XM.  It could give higher quality audio on demand for the same price as a satellite radio subscription (Sirius-XM is currently $20/month, and each channel is 4 to 64 Kbps). The hypothetical audio system would work anywhere in the world, like GPS.  Customers would only pay for what they listened to, when they listened to it.  

Competitors to Tesla could license the automotive satellite systems from Tesla. This would increase the Space-X licensing revenue for automotive manufacturers and the customer base for the systems dramatically. With concept cars being more and more connected, a system like the Space-X satellite constellation would become more necessary over time.  The satellite network would be expanded around the time that luxury cars will have more self-driving features, so this combination of entertainment bandwidth and automotive applications may be ideal.  

They will call the new satellite internet system Elonet.  OK, I'm totally joking about that. Then again, he did start "The Boring Company", so I wouldn't put it past them. ​

Cash Flow and Risks to Space-X

There is a very real risk that Space-X could have one or two more launch failures in the next 2-3 years.  If this happened, the company may not survive. There are several reasons this is unlikely in the near and medium term.

The Block 4 issues have been analysed and the Block 5 has applied a lot of lessons in terms of reliability.  ​The growing pains for the Falcon 9 should be largely resolved.  The next risk categories for Space X will be Crew Dragon and Falcon Heavy.  

While the two incidents with the Falcon 9 second stage explosions were damaging to Space-X, they couldn't have come at a better time in the development cycle.  Had they occurred after the Block 5 conversion, they would have necessitated the development of a Block 6.  They also occurred late enough in the production process, after over 20 successful launches, that Space-X reputation did not suffer excessively from the set-backs.  If they'd happened in the first five or ten flights, few companies would risk their payloads to such a high failure rate. ​

Analysis:  Google has kept its Project Loon system in progress (which involves high altitude balloons that circumnavigate the globe on winds). It has cancelled its high altitude drone program. It has its own satellite constellation concept, but it ALSO has invested $1 billion in Space-X. Google’s business model is to give communications and data collection tools away, then harvest the data for marketing. Putting money into Space-X gives them a spot at the table for analyzing Space-X data. Having investment in both a Google constellation and a rival constellation gives them a monopoly on data coming from the systems without necessarily invoking anti-trust laws.

Peter Thiel makes the point in the book Zero to One that Google is functionally a monopoly in the business of pretending it isn’t a monopoly. This strategy of being in two places at once (both as Google and as Google’s competitor) would be true to form. Microsoft once invested $150 million in Apple to keep it from going under. The motivation to invest in a direct competitor that they had largely crushed was primarily to keep anti-trust laws from breaking up Microsoft. We may have seen this repeated with Space-X and this $1 billion investment, which may have saved them during the two launch failure recoveries. We may see it again if Space-X hits another failure in the next two years.

Once the constellation is operational (at 800 satellites), we have the “raving fans” dynamic coming into play. Anything Musk touches has a certain halo effect for his fans. While companies like Apple can push products to all income brackets, Elon Musk fans aren't so lucky.  Your only purchase options are mission patches and other curios from the Space-X company web site, or a Tesla coffee cup.  Anything of substance from Space-X or Tesla will cost $35,000 or more.

For a typical Musk fan to finally be able to afford a Space-X product instead of simply reading about them guarantees a large early-adopter market.  This could push early revenue past the “valley of death” phase of recovering investment and into profitability. As with the Tesla Model 3, we may see a vast quantity of pre-orders for receivers. As noted before, there is also a ready automotive market and a marginal home market built into the Musk, Inc. ecosystem.

Competitors to Space-X

In the long term, what are the competitors to Space-X in terms of launch provision?  Here is a short list.  

Market Analysis

Reaction Engines - Skylon: A recent study that indicates that Skylon’s air-breathing, advanced spacecraft simply cannot compete with Space-X at any scale or volume. It can come very close, but it cannot actually cross that line, even in optimistic models. The unit cost is simply too high, and the demands of each launch too complex.  It remains an interesting vehicle for military applications and research. It may still find a role in the long run, particularly with any payloads that may be sensitive to G forces on launch or return.  It may also be subsidized like other European aerospace projects to be commercially viable even when the technology is too expensive for purely commercial viability.  

ULA - Vulcan: Since the system requires the purchase of not just fuel, but a replacement first stage tank for each launch, this doesn’t seem a practical competitor. There is also the expense of mating the recovered engines to the new tank, testing of connections, and so on. While ULA has decades of experience in producing reliable rockets, these will be new challenges on lower budgets. That said, the ACES upper stage has a lot of potential as a space tug, and could be adapted to the Blue Origin system due to the close ties between ULA and Blue Origin.

ULA – Atlas: It appears that the same factory in Russia that makes the engines that keep failing on Proton and Progress upper stages makes the RD-180 that powers the Atlas V rocket. They have been found to be using sub-standard metals on some engine components. The vaunted “100 launches, 100 percent success” statistic seems less predictive than it was until now.

Blue Origin – New Glenn: This is a very serious contender with deep pockets and a strong business plan. We do not have any actual payload numbers for this rocket, but it has the potential to do what Space-X is doing, only in a mid-range between Falcon 9 and the planned ITS. This may nibble at the market for launches on the Falcon Heavy. But as I’ve noted before, customers who may not have put all their eggs in one basket by developing payloads that can only be launched by Falcon Heavy may be more inclined to do so if there is a back-up launcher from an entirely different provider. The reverse is also true for Blue Origin. We may see a frenemy relationship build over the next two or more decades where having two providers expands the market for both companies beyond what they could have had alone. It also could make “50 MT the new 20 MT” in terms of ideal cargo size.

ULA – Delta: Delta Heavy is currently the biggest booster in the world, but rarely used because it’s very expensive. Having Falcon Heavy and New Glenn in this payload range will increase the number of heavy payloads looking for launch vehicles. If costs on those heavy payloads creep up during development to where the risks of using a newer booster are outweighed by the consequences of launch failure, we may see Delta Heavy continue as an operational vehicle longer than expected. That said, it cannot continue indefinitely as the Mercedes in a parking lot of Volkswagens. More frequent launches by New Glenn and the Falcon 9 will make them more reliable, and less frequent customers for Delta will make the manufacturers and ground crews less proficient over time. The crossover will ultimately force the Delta into retirement.

EM Drives, Asteroid Mining, and Economics

Recently, China has used their small space station to perform experiments that appear to prove the EM drive works. Ironically, this may both help and hurt New Space and space settlement efforts, because it can dramatically change the playing field for the companies entering this “blue ocean”.

What is EM Drive?

EM Drive is a simple design that may allow tiny amounts of thrust to come from an electronic device with only electricity put into the system. Since EM drives use no propellant, they could propel a spacecraft, slightly but indefinitely, for as along as they have access to electricity. If these preliminary results are correct, an EM drive is roughly a tenth as powerful as an ion drive system in converting electricity to thrust. Ion drives use a combination of electricity and propellant to be super-efficient but very weak. The most advanced ion drive systems produce as much pressure as the weight of a piece of paper resting on your hand. EM drive is more like a post-it note. The effect is so slight that there is much controversy as to if the drives work at all. Another similar system will be tested in orbit by a private firm in the coming years, and NASA has recently had a paper peer-reviewed that demonstrated a slight thrust level.

While this is incredibly weak, there are several applications for such a low-thrust system. Now the Chinese are planning to build station-keeping thrusters for satellites using this propellant-free technology. A smaller nuclear power source (RTG) would allow complex robotic missions to the outer solar system in our lifetimes, such as an orbiter of Pluto or exploration of similar, more distant worlds. A solar-powered version could explore the asteroid belt indefinitely. An advanced reactor-powered vehicle could travel deep into the Oort cloud in a few decades. If the engines can be made more powerful, we may see the beginnings of robotic starships in decades rather than a century from now.

Station keeping systems on geosynchronous communications satellites would be a very important near term development. Currently, these satellites devote a large percentage of their mass to propellant tanks. These propellant systems are needed to keep the satellite in place (where the fixed-position dishes on the ground can find it without moving). Depending on the designed mission of the satellite, propellant alone may be 7-27 percent of the satellite’s total mass. This mass cannot be used for electronics or redundant systems to keep the satellite profitable and reliable, respectively. Satellites that run low on propellant are moved into a higher “junkyard orbit” and retired. Many of these expensive, junked satellites are still able to function electronically. (While bases in Antarctica cannot “see” the communications satellites in equatorial orbit, they can see the ones in the junkyard orbit. They occasionally use them for relaying signals back home.)

A communications satellite with EM Drive for station-keeping would be able to stay on site until the electronics were burned out or obsolete. While it would require more electricity, it would be able to devote more of its mass to higher capacity, higher reliability electronics.

The Innovation Transition of 1970, Revisited

Many people are shocked to learn that we went from Kitty Hawk to Apollo 11 in only 66 years, and doubly so when they then realize we've done nothing as amazing in the subsequent five decades. Had aerospace technology continued to advance exponentially, we would have approached the speed of light by the year 1990.

Within a 12-month period in 1969-1970, we saw Apollo 11, the first Boeing 747 flight, the first Concorde flight, and the first Harrier flight. Note that none of these vehicles were surpassed for decades, and two have not been surpassed at all. It wasn’t just the space program, it was all of aerospace that suddenly went from exponential growth to a flat, slow pattern of development, if not relapse. So, what happened?

Just as great technological revolutions happen at the convergence of events, so great collapses of industries also happen at convergences.

Diffusion of Innovations Curve. (Creative Commons, E. Rogers)

The Diffusion of Innovations Curve – A great innovation generally has an explosion of interest and adoption, followed by a slow “normalization” into becoming a cheap commodity (if successful) or collapse (if simply a fad). Once it reaches either level, there is no further drive to invest heavily in the technology’s development. Money will find another place to go.  To those living through these transitions, the growth appears exponential at first, then suddenly and unexpectedly flattens out just when it seems there is no limit.

Low Hanging Fruit – All four aerospace examples hit the practical physical limits of what could be done with the technologies and materials at the time. The first billion dollars in investment got aerospace into an incredible expansion over the first few decades. The next billion in 1970 would have led to only incremental advancements in launch vehicles and jet engines. With airliners, the economic drive then was shifted from power to efficiency. Commercial jets are slightly slower now than they were in 1970, but much more fuel efficient and therefore affordable to the flying public.  The space shuttle was also meant to be an economic move, but one that failed to produce a lower cost system than the ones that preceded it. 

The Microchip Revolution – Around the time we hit the upper limits of what could be practically launched with recycled and expanded missile technology (10-20 metric tons), we also had the start of the diffusion of innovations curve with the microchips. Suddenly, you didn’t need a rocket that could launch twice as much payload two years later to double capacity. You needed the same rocket and a satellite in the early days of Moore’s Law. The emphasis in investment shifted to better satellites of the same mass. The price of launch vehicles had no reason to drop or become more efficient, because the satellite technology itself was driving growth by picking the low hanging fruit of a different technology.

Money always flows toward the low hanging fruit. We went from billions in new aerospace research to billions in new microchip research. This lead to waves of software, internet, and mobile technology over the coming decades. Satellite launchers became more reliable but not more affordable with experience. As the satellites became more economically valuable, there was no incentive to reduce launch costs or improve capacity. There was a disincentive to innovate, because changes bring new risks as the new technologies are proven out.

These combinations flattened the aerospace innovation curve dramatically. Rocket technology stagnated for over four decades. It was ripe for disruption by Space-X when they began to dramatically undercut competition in launch price. Meanwhile, back at microchips, Intel is now taking 50 percent longer to deliver growth than it has in the past. There are still revolutions to be had in computer technology, but they are at the very cheap end (Internet of Things, self-driving cars) and the very high end (quantum computing). There are low profit margins in technology that is too cheap to demand high margins or too expensive to demand large markets. This may slowly free up money looking for a crop of low-hanging fruit.

It is quite possible that the torch that passed from aerospace to microprocessors in 1970 will be passed back, to some extent, over the next decade. A combination of heavier launch, cheaper launch, and on-orbit refueling would enable larger, more mass-efficient communications satellites. Cheaper and more frequent launch can put thousands of small communications satellites in mid-altitude orbits. If proven, EM drive is an unexpected bonus for this business plan. It provides an efficiency gain and lifespan extension to all these satellites, large and small.

What This Means for Asteroid Mining Start-Ups

Every new enterprise requires up-front investment to get to what is known as Minimum Viable Product, or MVP. The purpose of this product is to start turning start-up costs into revenues and begin the recovery of investment. Once the company hits break-even, the product should go on to fund a more advanced replacement product.

Asteroid mining companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, have a common business plan.

1 – Fly private exploration and sample return missions and sell the data/samples to NASA, who can benefit from “discounted” science data. This is a very small market (government space agencies), who also have their own exploration priorities. As a preliminary estimate, assume a very small market with very limited growth potential.

2 – Mine asteroids for water, convert it to rocket fuel, and use it to supply commercial satellites in GEO. This would extend the lifetime (and payback investment) on communications satellites. Originally, this was assumed to be a growth industry. Communications satellites for television alone have ten times the revenue of all the government space program budgets worldwide, combined. But first, there must be propellant to provide. Satellites tend to use storable propellant, but hydrogen/oxygen from asteroids is not particularly storable. Any communications satellite would use fuel that can be stable for over a decade like hypergolic propellant, not cryogenic or even storable cold propellants like methane. There are concepts for using superheated steam as propellant, but that wouldn’t necessarily be competitive with ion drive. It certainly wouldn’t be competitive with EM drive.

3 – Return platinum group metals to Earth from metallic asteroids. These metals are very valuable and rare on earth, but can be mined from certain metallic asteroids. Advanced up-front costs, and commodity-level prices, mean the system must be very large (and expensive) to provide a return on investment. One application that drives the need for platinum in the current economy is the demand for catalytic converters used on all modern cars and trucks. These are expensive because they require platinum as a catalyst, though the metal can be recycled. This demand may shrink as electric cars become more common. Reduced demand lowers prices for platinum, and makes going into space to look for more resources less viable.

4 – Provide materials and propellants for human space exploration and settlement. Crewed spacecraft beyond Earth Orbit would had a massive need for propellant. That said, Space-X has a massive, affordable, ground-launched tanker in their design model. Such a vehicle would not rely on an outside company for propellant, and such a company would have to provide propellant at a competitive discount to have a customer at all.

Blue Origin and ULA vehicles (Vulcan and ACES) would be a strong market eventually. ACES is designed to use water-based propellants (hydrogen and oxygen). New Glenn and New Armstrong would be propane/oxygen systems, but could still use oxygen mined from asteroids (which is the bulk of propellant mass in most rocket systems).

The asteroid mining business model is threatened at all four market points over its planned expansion phase. That said, not all news is bad.

New Opportunities

Expanded Asteroid Surveys: EM Drive would make it viable to survey many, many more asteroids for resources with much lower budgets. The existing model would send tiny fleets of satellites past individual near-earth asteroids to look for resources. If the where found, another set of dedicated satellites would do the actual mining and recovery. The problem for asteroid mining companies is that they must send a lot of small, disposable space probes up to get anything back – data, surveys, or resources. These probes would cost millions of dollars per mission. If each mini-probe had an EM drive, it could survey multiple asteroids, and therefore amortize the investment over a larger resource survey. Again, selling data to NASA could become more profitable, and extend to university scientists for targeted investigations. It becomes a growth industry within academia, the same way cubesats have reduced the cost of satellite research to reach academic markets.

No Return Costs: Vehicles with EM drives could also return materials, including propellant, back to Earth without using that propellant in the process. This would take a lot more patience than ion drives, but would have the benefit of not needing to be refueled themselves. More vehicles with lower thrust to return the same payload mass in the same amount of time means more small tanker spacecraft, but a higher return on investment per micro-tanker. Mass production would lower costs further, and would allow smaller payloads to specific clients anywhere in the inner solar system.

Expanded Crew Demand: EM Drives are fine for reducing the need for propellant, but cannot reduce the need for water, oxygen, and other resources for crews and construction. That would free more space-harvested resources to be used in bases and early settlements by human beings.

Halo Effect: EM Drives could increase interest in space settlement by the public. This, coupled with reusable rockets and complex missions beyond earth orbit, could draw investment to an industry that hasn’t captured the public’s imagination recently. As we approach the practical limits of microchip design, the computer industry is now beginning the curve that slowed in aerospace in 1970. The $1 billion plus investment required for each new generation of processors may reach a law of diminishing returns. Some percentage of that money may want to go back to aerospace.


If embryonic space settlement companies can adapt to this new environment quickly, they may yet become prosperous. While EM drive would disrupt an already-disruptive technology in New Space, it would eventually enable a broader market with greater investment, and greater return on investment, than originally planned.

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Elon Musk Creates Massive Opportunity for Entrepreneurship

“The goal of Space-X is really to build the transport system. It’s like building the Union Pacific Railroad. And once that transport system is built, then there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new, or build the foundations of a new planet. So, who wants to be among the founding members of a new planet, and like I said, build everything from iron refineries to the first pizza joint? We’ll want them all. And then there’s things on Mars that people can’t even imagine today, that might be unique, or would be unique, to Mars.
That’s really where a tremendous amount of entrepreneurship and talent would flourish. Just as happened in California when the Union Pacific Railroad was completed. When they were building the Union Pacific, a lot of people said that was a super dumb idea because hardly anybody lives in California. But today, we’ve got the US epicenter of technology developments, and entertainment, and it’s the biggest state in the nation. But you need that transport link. If you can’t get there, none of those opportunities exist. So our goal is just to make sure you can get there.” – Elon Musk

And the goal of is to create that very talent and opportunity for space settlement. I’m so happy to hear him say this. I was concerned (the term in business planning is threat analysis) that his announcement would include a fully designed space settlement, not just the rocket. But he’s leaving that to the rest of us. Thanks Space-X!!!