Wow: Anousheh Ansari, Bigelow, Lockmart!
What a week for space travel! It started off with the safe arrival of Anousheh Ansari to the space station which was great. Then, on a different topic, Jon Goff pointed out that LM (Lockheed Martin) are planning on man rating their Atlas V. He also commented wisely that the big aerospace companies are not really all that bad and are capable of working in partnership with new-space companies. This turned out to be prescient because lo-and-behold now LM and Bigelow are joining forces, with LM planning to provide the launch vehicle to transport people to the Bigelow space habitat. In his most recent entry Clark Lindsay lists all the space transport related projects LM are involved in: Orion vehicle, Ares 1 (assuming they get the contract), EELV, subcontractor to rocketplane/Kistler and now the Bigelow partnership, and wondered if they know what to make of it themselves.
I think they certainly understand the situation. Someone has looked at all these projects and realized that hey- all they need to provide a complete manned space transportation system is a manrated launch vehicle and a habitat - and Bigelow are showing they can provide the habitat. (orbital propellant transfer, which LM are also looking into, will be the icing on the cake) It seems to be quite rare for aerospace primes to fund their own large projects, but keep in mind that LM's net profit last year was around $1.8B, so they could certainly fund a fairly major design project with a relatively small dint in the bottom line. Why would they do it? Well, most other tech companies depend on re-investing large proportions of their operating profit back into R&D and new projects. They have to do this just to survive. If LM think there is even a chance that commercial space could really take off, they would certainly be well advised to invest in such a project or risk being relegated to the aerospace history books. Even if it doesn't they will still be able to claim to be the only company in the world capable of supplying such an infrastructure. The bragging rights alone might be worth the investment.
Some potential problems:
-If they show they are serious about building a crewed rocket could it destroy COTS? Could NASA then claim that they don't need to invest further in private launchers and close down the program? Possibly. I don't know. But what will mitigate against that happening is that the COTS contestants, especially SpaceX, are probably capable of developing their systems much more rapidly than LM. I wouldn't be surprised if SpaceX are already ferrying supplies to the ISS by the time LM has finished its preliminary design.
-Could NASA, in a fit of jealousy (and fear of being upstaged), deny LM the Ares contract thus preventing LM from obtaining one of its key technologies? I don't know but I really don't think NASA are as bad as all that.
Personally I think it will be a Good Thing. Even SpaceX may benefit by being able to supply a low cost cargo delivery service which LM doesn't seem to be interested in trying to do.