Looking Back, Looking Ahead and Getting the Business of “Rocket Science” Right

Still Working…Still Waiting. Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

Saturday, October 4th, 2014 was the ten year anniversary of the SpaceShipOne’s winning the Ansari X-Prize, a feat which built on its legacy of becoming the first privately funded, piloted “rocket” to pass the 62.5 mile high Karman line and go into suborbital space.

Ten years later, on the anniversary of its second trip into that ethereal arena, a journey which established its credentials as being reusable, and thus the starting point for a new era commercial “spaceflight ” a number of articles are understandably focusing on the fact that the revolution which seemed so close at hand that day has been, to say the least, rather slow to materialize.

From Time:  “Branson’s Virgin Galactic is the closest to delivering. His SpaceShipTwo is the direct descendant of the original Rutan-Allen ship, and he has signed up a long list of potential passengers who have all put down deposits toward their $200,000 fare. Last year, TIME attended something of a pep rally at the outfit’s Mojave Desert headquarters, during which hundreds of those passengers-on-standby gathered, mingled, ate high-end finger food and cheered speeches and videos hyping the ride to come. But a promised test flight of the ship was scrubbed due to high winds and that day’s much-repeated pledge that the spacecraft’s maiden space trip would occur before the end of the year has slipped—as it has so many times before—this time to what Branson describes only as “earlyish in the new year.” As recently as August, he said he’d be “bitterly disappointed” if he didn’t make his before-2015 deadline.”

Some things seem certain. If we have learned anything from the efforts of companies such as Virgin Galactic, XCOR and Blue Origin, all of which have yet to begin operations, it is that introducing a new system always takes longer (and costs more) than enthusiastic founders believe will be the case. Even SpaceX, which was formed in 2002, well before the X-Prize, was won, has almost invariably been well behind established timetables, and the resulting criticism eventually prompted the always garrulous Elon Musk to begin tempering his predictions with a healthy dose of qualifiers. Nevertheless, Elon Musk and his small group of engineers made a very sound technical and business decision in the earliest days of developing the Merlin engine, committing the company to a kerosene/liquid oxygen architecture which could evolve as needed. ULA and Blue Origin may have done the same with last month’s announcement of the BE-4, Liquefied Natural Gas engine project.

In the case of Virgin Galactic however, the first and best known of the two companies actively pursuing suborbital space tourism as their primary enterprise, (Blue Origin is so secretive regarding its plans it is difficult to characterize what they are actually doing) one has to wonder if the decision to base SpaceShipTwo’s architecture on hybrid rocket motors was a critical mistake which has cost it years, not months as the company would seem to suggest, of fruitless development effort. In other words, if Virgin had elected to develop a liquid fueled engine from outset, as XCOR has done, the story might be a very different one.

It has not been a good summer for hybrids, with VG announcing a switch to a plastic as opposed to a rubber compound, and Sierra Nevada Corporation, which would have supplied VG its motors, dropping hybrids entirely for its Dream Chaser spaceplane.  In the latter case, the relative last minute switch, and concerns about the hybrids it would have used, may have been a determining factor in SNC’s loss in the Commercial Crew program.

The argument could be made that the delays are not due to the fact that “it really is rocket science” which has become something of a reflexive answer, but in fact due to very poor business decisions about which specific “rocket science” to pursue in the first place. As the old Knight Templar advises Indiana Jones in selecting the holy grail, “you must choose, but choose carefully.”  If that is the case, then the near future may be quite a bit brighter for XCOR, which started with liquid engines and has stuck with them, than it is for Virgin Galactic. which is now committed to a second, and one hopes, better hybrid.

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In the long run, XCOR and Virgin Galactic want to move on to orbital operations, which means even if the new hybrid motor, now supplied by Scaled Composites, is both docile and dependable, it is still not on what would appear to be the appropriate technological path. Tellingly, Virgin Galactic is developing a liquid fueled engine for its LauncherOne smallsat launch vehicle which will ride to altitude under the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

The space tourism, or if you prefer, “spaceflight participant” market is more than one or two companies however, and even if Virgin Galactic has created some problems for nearly everyone by over hyping and under performing thus far, the demand  is not about to subside. Moreover, with the announcement of NASA’s Commercial Crew decision, temporarily issued a stop work order courtesy of the SNC protest, it is now being officially pursued from another direction as well.  Although the program is specifically geared towards meeting NASA’s needs, the agency has also been clear that it wants to see other destinations in LEO open up, and views Commercial Crew as a means to facilitate that goal.

At north of $20 million per seat for today’s expendable vehicles, as opposed to $250,000 for VG’s suborbital jaunts aboard the eventual VSS Enterprise, the market is certain to remain a very limited one,  but perhaps not for too much longer.  Based on its success with first stage recovery thus far, it not unrealistic to expect that SpaceX will have the capability to re-use the Falcon 9 first stage at nearly the same time Dragon V2 is ready to begin flying NASA astronauts to ISS.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that the two operations, astronaut taxi service and resuability will merge any time soon, but they are at least convergent. And while SpaceX has been very circumspect, and in fact almost silent on the subject of general space tourism, it is actively engaged in some sense, along with Boeing, in the contract with Bigelow Aerospace as a transportation provider.

Ten years after the X-Prize, we all know what hasn’t happened, but the good news is we have more than a few reasons to believe that ten years from now, the “revolution” in private spaceflight will be well underway, and perhaps already threatening to spread beyond low Earth orbit.

To some extent, it may bear a remarkable resemblance to a spacelaunch itself. It takes just over nine minutes for a Dragon spacecraft to go from sitting on top of the Falcon 9, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, to flying freely in LEO. Yet four and half minutes into the flight, it is far from halfway there in terms of reaching the velocity required to attain orbit. It is in the second half where everything comes together, and at the seasonally appropriate risk of mixing metaphors, the marching band has just left the field.

Posted in: Space Tourism

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