I want one of these!!!
It is rather hard to believe that an entire decade has rolled on since the first private manned vehicle released the surly bonds of Earth and flew into space, a realm where heretofore only governments had trod. It was the beginning of a new age, and much has come to pass since then. As with all prognostications, my thoughts of the time were both more and less than the reality of 2014 in commercial space.
I would certainly have been surprised by two things, one of which I would have predicted and one of which I did not even imagine. I am sure at the time I would with certainty have said someone would be flying passengers by now. I would have been equally surprised had someone told me I would be a member of the XCOR Aerospace team working on the Lynx space plane with my own desk in the same location from which I filed my stories that day, in the same room which I had pitched my air bed the night before the big event. I would likewise have been happily surprised to find George Whitesides, our then new Executive Director at the National Space Society, who appears in some of my photos that day, would now be CEO of Virgin Galactic.
So what has happened in the ensuing ten years? For one, SpaceX is now making deliveries to the International Space Station on a regular basis with its Dragon Cargo ship, lifted via its Falcon 9 rocket. They are now sucking up the launch vehicle market, once a near American preserve, that Old Space and their political cronies proved incapable of holding. Noone, not even the Chinese or the French can compete with SpaceX’s prices. Why? No one ever before built a launch vehicle from the ground up to be viable without government cost plus contracts to foot the bill. SpaceX did take government contracts, but they worked through fixed price commercial style contracting. Their startup capital was private venture money that came from the pockets of Elon Musk and friends of his. He put every cent he had on the line and very nearly lost it. He made it through the early Falcon 1 test failures (which I live blogged here as well) on a wing and a prayer. Those failures were pretty much an inevitable part of learning to do something hard in a different way. Elon stuck his own tuckus way out over the edge… and he won.
Virgin Galactic, the company that will be flying SpaceShipTwo, the follow on to the vehicle launched that day ten years ago, has had its share of difficulties, but the company is well funded and they are plodding along towards the finish line for a suborbital tourist vehicle. XCOR is doing pretty much the same, although with a more ‘right stuff’ flight experience.
SpaceX unveiled its Dragon II capsule a couple weeks ago. They will carry out escape system testing this year and will likely be in manned test flight next year. By 2016-17 they will be a Spaceline that is delivering passengers to the International Space Station and the soon to be launched Bigelow Aerospace space station. Robert Bigelow has been ready for years now… but it did not make business sense to create a destination in space until someone could provide a regular taxi service. When the manned Dragon goes operational, I expect his extensively space tested module technology (two ‘small’ ones are currently in orbit) will go up very soon thereafter.
SpaceX has also been working towards a re-usable first stage. They have succeeded in a liftoff, flight to 1000 meters and a precise landing of a Falcon 9R first stage on the spot in Texas from which it lifted. They recently returned one of those stages from a for-hire launch and brought it to a hover over the North Atlantic waves. Later this year they will fly one from a pad at Spaceport America in New Mexico, perhaps as high as 100,000 feet, and then bring it to a landing. Next year they plan to bring one back from a commercial flight to a dry land site. It will then be checked out for re-usability and possibly reflown. They expect ten flights per stage but even if they only got two, it would halve the capital cost of a launch. If they get the full ten, we are looking at a total collapse of Old Space, a Reardon Steel moment. The only survivors will be those few protected by the Wesley Mouch’s of the world.
Later this year, SpaceX will be launching the first Falcon 9 Heavy. It will have the largest cargo capacity available on Earth and that has only ever been outdone by one vehicle, the US Saturn V Moon rocket. One might make a case to put the Space Shuttle and the short lived Buran in that exalted class, but their actual payload to orbit was mostly vehicle weight.
So much is happening in the New Space sector in June 2014 or is scheduled over the next one to two years that I would need to write a far longer article than this to come close to a proper treatment of the topic. I have not even mentioned most of the companies in our industry. Sadly there is also much I cannot talk about as I am drawing my wages in the field and that places limitations on me. If you want more details on XCOR… you can go read the company blog which can be found via the XCOR home page.
And now… a trip down memory lane. Rand Simberg just wrote his retrospective and since he and I were traveling together for that momentous day, here are the stories I filed as well, plus one other by Johnathan Pearce. The pictorial is at the end. There are a lot of fond memories there!
Let he who dares accept the challenge in proper fashion. Still, betcha Richard Seymour will be the first to complain when the space barons do start exporting capitalist property relations where no man has gone before.
I have long been following the slow movement of the new classes of weapons via which will one day arm Space Navies. The rail gun appears to be developing nicely and is a hypervelocity weapon, a very good replacement for explosives laden terminal defense, and perhaps even the venerable shipboard 5 inch gun.
Perhaps one day we will have to modernize a famous US Navy quote: “Don’t fire until you see the sparks of their railguns!”
I had a rather enjoyable evening at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History last night. Quite an unusual event, although perhaps not so unusual for a community that hosts the Skunkworks, is not all that far from Edwards Air Force Base and NASA Dryden Research Facility… not to mention the Mojave Spaceport where there is a higher density of folks working in New Space than in any other spot on the planet.
So. What was so special? Perhaps the proverbial picture (of the main room of the Art Exhibit) is worth a thousand words.
Yep. There is a strong wing of the Art’s community that is excited about not just the concept of the adventure, but also the sheer beauty of the creations of engineers in the field. As major exhibitors, we were part of the after exhibit dinner in the museum and us rocket guys got on great with the artists. I found many of them think the ‘two cultures’ was a farce that needs to end. From my conversations I would say it was no accident some of the works refered to Leonardo da Vinci.
I also was quite surprised at one exhibit item that was a reproduction of the original. Gob-smacked might be a better word. It seems that a tiny art museum was smuggled on board Apollo 12. A tiny metal rectangle contained six even tinier works by 6 artists, among whom were Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Yes folks, there is an original, albiet tiny, work by Andy Warhole still attached to an Apollo landing leg. On the Moon.
After dinner, the remaining crew, made up entirely of artists and rocket guys. Sort of. Even us rocket guys gave lie to the two cultures thesis. Doug Jones, a long time reader of Samizdata, was a stand up comic for awhile. As for myself I was in the music business professionally for many years.
After the entire group of artists and XCORians were filmed flying about the exhibit room pretending to be airplanes… yes artists have fun doing silly surreal things… we headed for Bex’s bar across the street where a marvelous time was had by all as we sat outside in a perfect desert evening talking art and space flight.
I also talked to one businessman who is a big arts supporter and a fed up Republican who has a solid dislike for the religious right. He asked a key question: How are Libertarians different from Conservatives? I think the illegal Edison Light Bulb went on over his head when I explained.
Naturally I was the last one of the crew to leave the bar. Those old music biz habits die hard.
First I read Leo McKinstry’s Boycott book, and loved it. Then I read his Spitfire book, and liked that a lot also. But while reading Spitfire, I thought to myself that what I would also like to read – would really like to read – would be a book by Leo McKinstry about the Avro Lancaster, the big four-engined bomber that inflicted most of the British bomber damage on the cities of Germany during the latter half of World War 2. The Lancaster was one of my favourites during my Airfix years. Seeing a real live Lancaster flying at Farnborough in the summer of 2010 made me even more curious about this famous airplane. The more I thought about it, the more I realised how ignorant of the Lancaster’s history I was. So when McKinstry obliged with Lancaster, I did not hesitate. I bought it, and devoured it.
Ever since doing that, I have been meaning to write about this book here, but I never got around to finishing what I started. So instead of trying to say everything I might want to say about this excellent book, I will instead now focus mostly on the most interesting thing among many interesting things that I learned from reading Lancaster. I will focus on what a very strange birth the Avro Lancaster had.
In the late 1930s, believing that bombers would always get through and that they therefore had to have lots of bombers or lose the war, British Air Officialdom had two ideas about how to build a bomber. They accordingly announced two specifications, which different potential bomber-makers were invited to meet with their designs. They wanted a two engined bomber, like those that the Germans bombed Britain with in 1940 but better, or like the Wellington but better. And they wanted a much bigger four engined bomber, such as the Germans never got around to building, and like … well, like the Avro Lancaster.
So, the Lancaster was Avro’s answer to the second requirement? Actually, no. Or, not at first. Britain ended up with three four-engine heavy bombers, the Short Stirling, the Handley Page Halifax, and the Lancaster. But strangely, by far the worst of these three, the Short Stirling, was the only one of the three that was all along intended to be a four-engine bomber. Both the Halifax and the Lancaster started out as answers to the two-engine specification rather than the four-engine one.
This strangeness was caused by Rolls Royce then being engaged in producing two engines, the Merlin and the Vulture. The Merlin was proving itself to be very good (arguably it became the greatest single piece of mechanical kit of the entire war), but the Vulture was only revealing itself to be terrible. The idea was that the Vulture would power the two-engined bombers. But, with the Vulture already looking so bad, Handley Page quickly got permission to change their Vulture-powered two-engine bomber into a Merlin powered four-engine bomber. They switched specifications, in other words.
Avro persisted with their two-engine design, the Manchester, and Air Officialdom, in addition to ordering lots of Halifaxes, also ordered two hundred Manchesters to be made, long before they could be sure that it was a good airplane. Soon, they upped the order to over a thousand. Despite the Manchester being, to put it mildly, unproven, Avro started manufacturing them.
But the Manchester was a clunker. It was slow. It couldn’t carry many bombs. It handled abominably. It was a death trap. The pilots hated it. Avro did everything they could to make the Manchester work, but it never did, not least because Rolls Royce were never able to make much of their Vulture. As the Merlin began to prove itself to be the Merlin, Rolls Royce understandably concentrated on that.
At which point, in 1940, Avro proposed the Halifax solution to the Manchester problem. Turn the Manchester from a Vulture-drive two-engine bomber into a Merlin-driven four-engine bomber. Avro dramatically illustrated this idea when they showed a model of a Manchester to a visiting party of Air Officialdom. Right in front of their little audience of grandees, they took off the Manchester’s wings and shoved on different and bigger wings with two more engines attached to them. That, said Avro, is what we should be building.
ARKYD is a crowd-funded space telescope. You can pay to take pictures with it. The funding goal is met but there are seven days remaining to pledge $200 in return for the right to take a sensible space telescope photo of your chosen space object. The satellite also has a screen on its side. For $25 you can have a picture of the satellite displaying a picture of your choice with the Earth in the background. What frivolous capitalist fun!
Edit: the company making this telescope want to do asteroid mining. They have been answering questions about this on Reddit.
Planetary Resources is raising some of the money for a small space telescope via a Kickstarter and are close to their minimum goal of $1M. That such sums of money can be raised for worthy projects and in such short timescales strikes me as interesting in another way: might we be in the early days of a new way to deal with ‘the commons’? Could technology be delivering us a way to replace much of coercive government funding with true voluntarism?
And by the way, support these guys. I know several of them, and it is a way to push New Space forward in the public perception.
Sad to say, the thing about which I know the most is the one about which I can say nothing except point you to what is public domain. Here is the video which XCOR released after we got a 67 second burn out of our LOX/Kerosene engine. That was about the max we could go with the tankage we had for that test series. It is also the first dual reciprocating pump fed rocket engine ever fired. Can you say “reliable” and “low maintenance”? Stay tuned for further developments this summer.
Although I was on the test stand crew, I was not assigned to console duties in the test bunker that day. If you look closely in the background, you will see me with an idiotic grin developing as it becomes obvious we are going all the way with the burn. Had I not known I was on camera I would probably have given a rebel yell at shutdown.
Sometime in the next year four of those engines, in a non-teststand form, will give our pet astronaut a kick in the seat which will put a similar smile on his face.
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?
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.
When I saw this today:
I was reminded of this from back in 2010:
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