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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?

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

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    The International Space Station is probably the one place exempt from the IRS, so I hope they hurry up and build good shuttle-craft!

  • Dale Amon (Belfast, Northern Ireland/Laramie, Wy)

    Naw, out of luck. The astronauts have on occasion filed extensions so they could do their taxes when the got back down. With more bandwidth on board I would not be surprised if they file on line from the station these days. I should ask.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    That’s because they’re still citizens of their countries. I wonder if you could build a space station purely as a refuge, like that (deserted oil rig)/(independent nation) country called Sealand? Or will the IRS claim the whole of space to be within its jurisdiction?

  • Dale Amon (Belfast, Northern Ireland/Laramie, Wy)

    Oh, and btw… the cowboy dummy on the structures is there to give scale.

  • Dale Amon (Belfast, Northern Ireland/Laramie, Wy)

    Oh, it is even worse than that. They claim all US Citizens as their property and even if you went through a black hole they would still claim you owed taxes to the US unless your black hole had a treaty like the US-UK where if the UK does not tax me enough, the IRS gets second whack.

  • Dave Walker

    While the degree of rocket control shown by Grasshopper is quite simply brilliant, the cost savings involved in stage re-use will depend fundamentally on the time and cost of “checking out” a used stage and fixing issues found. I’m very conscious of the fact that the reason there were far fewer Shuttle flights than originally envisaged, was down to the time and effort (and cost, of course) of post-flight strip-down, inspection and maintenance for turnaround. However, the Shuttle went all the way to orbit and went through re-entry, whereas a Stage 1 only goes a few miles up and therefore shouldn’t go through the same level of stresses – nonetheless, it needs to be designed very much with the ability to be rapidly and reliably inspected and repaired, in mind…

  • Michael Jennings

    Most countries do not tax on the basis of citizenship, only on residency (and some not even entirely on that). The US is largely the exception here. (The US even continues to tax Green Card holders who leave the country, so it is even worse than just taxing citizens)

  • @Michael Jennings:

    The US even continues to tax Green Card holders who leave the country, so it is even worse than just taxing citizens

    I’ve always wondered about that. How does a green card differ from a work visa(e.g. US H1, etc.). If the green card is a temporary or preliminary to US Citizenship, then it is reasonable that it carries the same tax liability as US Citizens otherwise people would get green cards and never progress to the more onerous US Citizenship.

    Equally, it is my understanding that by simply handing back the green card any new non-US income is not subject to additional taxation by the IRS.

  • Back in the day Lockheed Martin had a proposal for a large manned booster to go with its version of the Space Shuttle. The booster was to be flown back to the launch site and landed like a large glider.

    As to green cards, I’m pretty sure that if you leave the U.S. and turn in all your papers, never intending to return, the information is sent to Chicago where you are added to the voter rolls there. It’s the same process used if you die.

  • Tedd

    There appears to be a second nozzle next to the main nozzle, with just a flame coming from it (not a jet). What is that for? It looks like a pilot light.

  • Dale Amon (Belfast, Northern Ireland/Laramie, Wy)

    The shuttle was not ‘reusable’, it was ‘rebuildable’. I could go into the reasons on that at great length. It was too big, too soon, too underfunded for what it was to accomplish. That the engineers pulled it off and only lost two of them over 30 years was an awesome accomplishment. But it is not the same as reusable. Our Lynx, for example, will have a turn around time of perhaps an hour. Time enough to refuel, kick the tires, check the squawk list and do the pre-flight. No bunny suits required btw. There is nothing on the Lynx or on SpaceX’s Falcon that will eat you alive or make your grandchildren look like Mr. Beeblebrox.

    They will know by the time it touches down if anything needs fixed; since they will be reflying the same vehicle with the same engines, it will be a known quantity, like an airliner. How reliable would a 747 be if you rolled it out of the hangar in Seattle, took it to Tokyo on its first flight and scrapped it?

    SpaceX is not running pumps and such at hellishly tight margins to squeek that last millinewton out of the system. It is meant to be reused.

    Governments have given you a very, very, false belief on rocket engines. Rockets are simple. They are reliable… if you build them with that as a goal.

    We have thrusters in house that have been fired thousands of times and have no wear or damage. Rockets are reliable if built with the bottom line as the main operational criteria.

    With a bunch of Falcon 9 systems flying, Elon is going to have a fleet of vehicles like an airline operator. The cost is going to be driven down towards the cost of the fuel. That is going to kick in the nuts of every ELV operator on the planet.

  • Readers of this blog would naturally expect small private companies to be faster and move innovative than a big government bureaucracy like NASA. But perhaps the biggest advantage they have is simply that they can set their own goals. XCOR and SpaceX don’t have to deliver a flying pork barrel for Congress. They don’t have to preserve redundant jobs in states with influential Senators. They don’t even have to wait for the President to hand down some vague and unrealistic vision for the exploration of the cosmos. They can choose what to do and how to do it, instead of being forced to do whatever is politically expedient for other people.

  • Laird

    “That is going to kick in the nuts of every ELV operator on the planet.”

    I can’t wait for that day!

  • Who doesnt like nut-kicking?

    My thought is, if you landed a number of semi-permanent people on Mars, or even the Moon, tax enforcement from Earth entities is a fantasy. Piss up a rope. Wave all the socialist treaties you want.

  • Yes Darryl, that’s what the New World settlers must have thought at the time…:-(

  • OldFatGuy

    Tedd said: “There appears to be a second nozzle next to the main nozzle, with just a flame coming from it (not a jet). What is that for? It looks like a pilot light.”

    That is the exhaust from the Gas Generator. It burns a bit of fuel and oxydiser to produce high pressure gas to drive the turbopumps that pump the fuel.

  • Tedd


    Thanks, that’s interesting.