The internet is an amazing resource. Today, I was surfing through old Usenet articles on various subjects, including Bigelow Aerospace's plans for inflatable space stations. In a post from 1999, Greg Bennett, a VP at Bigelow Aerospace, stated that the trigger in their initial business plan for launch costs was roughly $550/pound for freight and something slightly north of that for passengers -- i.e., Bigelow's business model would make sense at that cost and they would go forward if the launch costs were that low.
Now, five years later, as I discussed in previous posts, it appears that SpaceX will be trying to hit a $500/pound bogey with its price for a heavy lift or super-heavy lift follow-on to the Falcon V. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that Bigelow Aerospace bought the first flight of the Falcon V and is going to start putting hardware on orbit. Maybe Bigelow believes that his $550/pound cost trigger has some probability of being met in the next several years.
Of course, as we know from Business Statistics 101, it makes good business sense to assure yourself of more than one supplier, in order to guarantee access at reasonable cost. Simply having a $550/pound cost on one launch system seems an insufficient trigger for Bigelow. But do the Russians have plans to step up to the plate for a follow-on rocket to the Dnepr that could deliver similar prices as SpaceX?
It is a bit ridiculous to speculate about the configuration of a follow-on to a follow-on (Falcon V) of a rocket (Falcon I) that has not yet flown, but I won't let that stop me from posing some hypotheticals. For a heavy lift follow-on to the Falcon V, SpaceX likely would need to develop a larger rocket engine. Designing a rocket engine is a costly and time consuming process and introduces a bit of an unkown factor into the timetable. SpaceX announced the Falcon V at the unveiling of the Falcon I, and the Falcon V first will fly a little over a year after the Falcon I. But that blazingly fast turnaround was made possible by the fact that the Falcon I and Falcon V share engines. So we can speculate that SpaceX's propulsion folks are now noodling a larger engine for a rocket that will fly in 2009/2010.
What really makes my head explode is the amount of infrastructure on the ground that would be required for an often-launched medium or heavy lift rocket. Some flights in the post-test Bigelow project (either on the Falcon V or the follow-on) would be manned as well. It seems likely that current launch facilities would be inadequate and inappropriate, if only because SpaceX currently launches from military facilities not built-out for manned or frequent flight. The construction project would require a lot of lead time for design, fighting the federal government bureaucracy, and the inevitable environmental lawsuits, for instance. It also would require a massive amount of capital.
For manned flights, Bigelow needs to launch in the lower 48 states, preferably close to Las Vegas, and SpaceX needs some water in which to dump its boosters before recovery. As far as I know, that leaves four potential spaceports: Vandenberg AFB near Los Angeles, Cape Canaveral AFS near Disneyworld, the Gulf Coast Regional Spaceport near Houston that has not yet been built, and the Virginia Space Flight Center near Washington, D.C. The Virginia Space Flight Center and Gulf Coast Regional Spaceport would probably offer the most flexibility, but the locations of Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral seem to be obviously superior for an entertainment company.