Perhaps I should call this Part II since I recently posted my photos of the first flight of Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo: I was even thinking of doing a series to update our readers when I posted that article. Unfortunately the rest of the stories had to wait for these few mostly free hours on a late Sunday afternoon.
There are really big things brewing in the world of NewSpace. This is no long the realm of a bunch of cash starved spacers of the wild eyed variety. The recognition that just maybe they were wrong and we were right has got to be scaring the bejesus out of their financial offices. In some senses there is nothing new under the sun. It the same curve of accelerating technological change that overturned the IT business over 20 years ago. It has just taken a couple more decades to smash into the somewhat more difficult realms of aerospace.
For my first exhibit: SpaceX. By now most of you have heard of them. In about a decade, from a cold start, they have brought 3 different enginesl 2 different expendable launch vehiclel, a two way cargo capsule that is already passenger capable in an emergency; a large production facility in California, launch facilities at Kwajelein Island and at Spaceport Florida, and an engine test stand and test pad in Texas. They have booked enough business in the satellite market to put a serious bite into the competition. I believe three of those fully commercial, non-test flights will be happening this year with the first of them next month in June. In the Falcon 9 a rocket in the lift class needed for many commercial or government jobs, one which has proven operationally that where other vehicles fail, it just keeps going, a regular Duracell bunny of a rocket. Even an engine shutdown and a dynamic pressure caused collapse and spitting out of an engine bell does not slow it down. No one else can turn a launch vehicle around from an a pad abort where engines have fired… within an hour or two. No one. And to top it off they did the entirety of it for less total cost than the big aero guys are spending on their cost-plus throw away escape system.
And as the commercial says… wait, there’s more! They are in the process of certifying their own spaceport at Brownsville, Texas, where they will be having rockets not only launch… but come back and land when done. If you watch the Grasshopper flight below, bear in mind this is a 10 story building that climbs to 263 feet in the air, balances on a pillar of fire, then sets itself down exactly on the intended spot as soft as you please. I have had far rougher landing in commercial airplanes.
If all goes to plan, we can expect them to flight test these on the three upcoming commercial launches. After the booster separates it is scrap metal just waiting to meet its oceanic junk yard. Elon is going to wring the squeel out of that pig and it is going to fire its engine to attempt a controlled re-entry and it will be brought to a temporary hover some feet over the water. Maybe they will accomplish it on the first flight, maybe not for many flights. However many it takes, they will beat it and the cost of the tests will be a very small marginal cost since they would be dumping it in the water and it is already paid for anyway.
Once they have a handle on that procedure, they will fly it back to Brownsville and land it on a pad, just like in the test video. Then they will check it out, gas up the tanks and fly her again. They will next do something similar with the second stage. This will be a bit more difficult but at the end of their development program is a very big pot of gold. They will be many years ahead of all the competition, even national governments. They will have a fully reusuable, heavy lift, ‘man rated’ launch system that will drop the cost to orbit by anywhere from a factor of 10 to 100.
At that point the rest of the launch vehicle suppliers might as well pack up and go home. SpaceX is going to dominate the commercial launch market.
And then they are going to Mars. After all, you didn’t think Elon was doing this just for the money did you?