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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

New Space is taking over (Part 1: The Grasshopper)

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?

Subway lists and other writings from the iPhone Era

Taylor Dinerman, a long time member of the Samizdata Commentariat, who also on occasion writes for some minor paper called the Wall Street Journal, has just published a book of humor shorts written during his New York Subway travels. I suspect more than one of our regular readers will enjoy it… and besides which, he needs the money to pay for the subway tickets and bar tabs.

SpaceShipTwo First Powered Flight

I have been a bit scarce around Samizdata lately as I have been out in the Mojave desert working on the Lynx Spaceplane… the same one you get to ride if you win the Lynx for Men contest. You know, the “Nothing Beats an Astronaut” one? In any case, we are not alone at the Spaceport. There are engine firings, vertical takeoff test flights by Masten Aerospace and yesterday… a milestone by our next door neighbours, Scaled Composites.  I have very little time to write just now, but I do want to share a few of the images with you.


I got in by 6am and one of our guys was monitoring the tower frequency so we knew when they were cleared for takeoff.


We spent the next hour or so hanging out in the viewing area about a mile from our hangar. Most of the time we could not even find the little tiny spec in the sky.


My camera refused to focus on the tiny white dot of fire in the big blue sky so although I saw the drop and ignition visually, I did not get a picture. Their burn lasted in the range of 15 seconds and Doug Jones (XCOR) said he heard a mild boom so they may well have gone supersonic as planned.  In this photo WhiteKnightTwo is diving to close on SpaceShipTwo, now on its glide to landing phase.


We were not all that far from the touchdown point on Runway 030. For those with long memories, Sir Richard Branson’s rollout bash on December 7, 2009 happened at the jet blast deflector at the threshold of 030. You can find that photo essay in the archives here.


I managed a number of good shots on the approach and was particularly happy to catch the very instant the wheels bit into the runway. Later on, outside our hangar, I spotted a grinning Richard Branson animatedly talking to designer Burt Rutan as they walked under WhiteKnightTwo on the way over to SpaceShipTwo. Yes, I do have those photos but I was on field outside our hangar so those photos will have to wait for posterity.


Alternative samizdata quote of the day

“I would like to die on Mars… Just not on impact.

– Elon Musk

Two can play the same game

I understand some poor individual in Northern Africa recently posted a slur on Allah and did not delete it quickly enough… and for this a Saudi Mullah declared a death sentence upon him, a Fatwah. This got me to thinking… perhaps we have our own ways of laying curses upon the heads of such 10th Century fanatics. In fact, it might even be great fun and a marvellous creative exercise. So here is mine:

Oh ye purveyor of hatred, listen well as I lay a Western Curse upon you and your descendents unto the end of time: May your daughters abandon you. May they reject you and your foul beliefs and leave for the free world. May they make billions of dollars as free women citizens and marry whomever they wish and live in happiness the rest of their lives. May your sons run away and join the army and become great warriors who earn the highest honours and medals that Israel can bestow upon them. May your wife or wives found chapters of NOW and withhold sex from you until you treat them as equals. If you attempt to beat them, may they take out their Glock’s and shoot your worthless balls off. May you live to see all in the lands of the Middle East and Northern Africa living together in equality, peace and freedom.

Thus do I curse you and all who are like you.

On the scarcity of one Dale Amon and rumours regarding his whereabouts

Long time readers have no doubt wondered why I have become a scarce commodity on the pages of Samizdata; such readers also are aware of my long term connection with things spatial and free market.

For many years I have made some portion of my mostly meagre living in the Commercial Space arena. Staying in the game has been a costly proposition in terms of what I might have earned by simply forgetting the dream and just going for the gold. Those on the left seem to think that is what Libertarians do; but they are wrong. We are not about maximizing our wealth; we are about maximizing our liberty and doing what we want to do to the extent we can manage with our own resources. In my case, lacking much in the way of resource to begin with, that has meant surviving day to day on whatever short term contracts I could manage while I worked by myself or with others to gain a foothold in the then tiny NewSpace economy. I always thought it would be soon, really soon now… but this world for which I was born for took far longer than I had ever imagined to come to pass.

But it is finally happening and that is why there has been so little heard from me. I am now working under contract for XCOR, a number of whose members are long time Samzidata readers, out at the Mojave Spaceport in California. The future looks very bright for XCOR and many others in this industry. The big milestones are starting to get ticked off. SpaceX has had a stunning launch record and flew its Dragon to-be-manned reusable capsule in ProxOps [Proximity Operations] with the space station; Armadillo will probably bust the Von Karman line this year.

SpaceX is bending metal on the Falcon Heavy which will launch next year and will have the biggest lift capacity in the world. Of all the launchers that ever existed, only the Saturn V moon rocket was bigger. I suspect SpaceX will surpass even that before this decade is out. Bigelow has launch contracts in place and customers for his inflatable habitats that should be up around the mid-decade and will have a significant fraction of the capabilities and volume of the government owned space station. By the end of the decade or earlier in the next he will almost certainly have surpassed them.

By the end of this year or early next year the XCOR Lynx suborbital space plane will see air under its wings. As to when it will see vacuum under its tail, I could not tell you even if I knew for sure. It will happen when it happens and it will not be all that far in the future.

At first blush, Mojave is a speck in a vast desert, an old Western town that grew up into something not far removed from what you saw in old 1950’s SciFi movies. It is so much so I would not be at all surprised to find that the folks from 2 hours drive West in Hollywood did some of those movies here. At night when I drop into the local gas station, there is usually a Sheriff and several troopers hanging out talking with the woman who runs the store: just like it was in those old films.

Mojave main street
No gunfighters, but it looks the part.
Photo: copyright Dale Amon, All Rights Reserved

The current day town has three main industries. Wind farms and the railyards. If you are a train buff you would love the view from my motel as mile long freights go by just about every hour of the day.

→ Continue reading: On the scarcity of one Dale Amon and rumours regarding his whereabouts

SpaceX berthing this morning

By all that I know so far, berthing should occur within the next couple hours; keep an eye out here if you want to see live coverage.

I am getting ready for the morning sessions; we should have this on the screens here this morning, just before General Bolden does the opening session of our ISDC.

Practicing Prox Ops…

Dragon has been flying near the space station and has performed all tasks perfectly so far. One of the astronauts on ISS took this video of the SpaceX Dragon flying a couple kilometres away.

The berthing is due tomorrow. Apparently there are sensitivities about using the word’s docking versus berthing to the ISS docking collar. Berthing means they use the robot arm to pull it in the last few feet; docking is intended to mean the approaching craft flies into contact itself.

SpaceX second try tonight/this morning

SpaceX will try again for the one second launch window this monring at 03:44 am EDT; coverage will start at 03:00 am. The link is not yet up, I will add it here when I see it.

The link is here and will go live in about 1.5 hours from now.

Broadcast is live both at SpaceX and at NASA’s web site.

Falcon 9 launch flawless, Dragon capsule is in orbit, solar arrays deployed. Dragon is on its way to ISS! It is a new ballgame in space.

SpaceX launch in about 3 hours

I am sitting in a motel room near the Mojave Spaceport where I am working at present and will be watching the SpaceX launch HERE and probably *not* trying to type what you can already see there. If you have questions about what is going on, fire off a comment and I will try to explain as best I can. Keep in mind though that I will have a cut off different than most of you since I am in Pacific Daylight Time, -3 hours from EDT and -8 from BDT.

For those who have not been following it, this is the first commercial cargo test flight to the International Space Station. The Dragon capsule will deliver food, water, clothing and other miscellaneous not-critical supplies; it will return to Earth carrying a lot of special purpose gear from experiments that have been completed.

The flight is a combination of two test flights which were originally planned to be separate. COTS 2 is the demonstration that the Dragon can do all of the sorts of maneuvering required for space station ‘Prox Ops'; the COTS 3 portion is an actual docking and deliver of cargo to the station and back to Earth.

This is a very big deal to those of us in the commercial space world. NASA is an initial customer but not the only one. SpaceX has signed a contract with Bigelow Aerospace to handle resupply for the Bigelow space stations that will be going up starting in the middle of this decade.

01:17 PDT: Video feed is live

01:44 PDT: This is going to be a tough one. The launch window is seconds wide… any hold and they will have to wait until Tuesday to try again.

01:56 PDT: Oh, well. Not tonight. Vehicle had a terminal abort. SpaceX has very conservative limits and go criteria. If this wasn’t a one window per day due to the tight parameters for an ISS rendezvous, they will not be able to recycle and try again as they have in the past. It will be a Tuesday window. I will be in DC for the runup to the ISDC by then.

02:00 PDT: They had a chamber pressure high on one of the engines. Well, they have several days to work it out. For now they are safing the vehicle.

Moore’s Law keeps on ticking…

Intel is keeping up the pace established many decades ago in Gordon MooreŠ› eponymous law:

The chips are the first to become available from any company with features as small as 22 nanometers (the finest details on today’s chips are 32 nanometers), allowing transistors to be smaller and packed more densely. Ivy Bridge chips offer 37 percent more processing speed than the previous generation of chips, and can match their performance while using just half the energy.

I personally believe it is one of the reasons why Socialist efforts at Global Domination have been spiked. It is damned difficult to control the flow of information when individuals have this kind of power in their hands.

Dragon flies on April 30th

NASA has given SpaceX a go ahead for their trip to the ISS to test the Dragon spaceship in its cargo mode.

What differentiates Dragon from other Commercial Cargo contract holders is that this is only one small step towards a much bigger goal for SpaceX. Dragon has heat shield capacity for a free return into the Earth’s atmosphere from deep space; it carries solar panels so that as far as energy supplies are required it has unlimited endurance; it is roomy enough for 7 people to be in couches for liftoff with two technicians *standing* inside the capsule. Not only that, it is reusable and Elon is working out the details for the booster and second stages to be re-usable as well, with a long term goal of briinging the systems price down to $.5M per person for a trip to Mars.

Elon is not the only big news coming up this year. Within the next 12 months we can expect up to 4 private vehicles to fly suborbital test flights.

This is going to be a very big year for NewSpace.