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

Ten years after…

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!

40 comments to Ten years after…

  • Bruce Hoult

    I didn’t comment on those stories ten years ago because I was too busy being there 🙂 But I was one of the ones serving Pournelle and others that last breakfast before the space age. Actually .. did you help cook eggs or something as well?

    Alas that’s still the last time I made the trek from New Zealand to Mojave. I booked the tickets to that one about 4 days before, after the date of the attempt was announced (and a quick email to Aleta to ask if I could stay with someone, because I couldn’t get a flight back from LA to Auckland until 5 days after). I ended up staying a couple of nights with Rich and a couple with Doug. And Aleta was kind enough to loan me her car one day to go hunting for a glider to hire. Great people, obviously.

    And I still have the pass

  • NickM

    Drivel. Until at least LEO is achievable cheaply via a SSTO like Skylon or a Space-El then this is just pissing in the wind. What we have here is Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. What we need is EasyJet. I’msorry but for all Musk et al’s achievements it is still way beyond the budget of the average Joe and until it comes down to that there is no point other than building rich folks ultra yachts of the sky. I am 40 and in reasonable health. I shall cut my penis off and burn it on a pyre if I see a Mars shot in my lifetime. That is a promise. Space tourism is insane as a business model for all but the filthy rich.

    Yeah, the Webb telescope project is grand but space for peeps just doesn’t work. Unless you can build at least a Las Vegas at a Lagrange point like Freeside in Neuromancer then it is just dismal. We are talking about “space hotels” where for single figures occupancy at millions a week and you have to crap in a bucket. It is Glastonbury for the hyper-rich. It is bollocks. And unless there is a phase-shift in tech it shall remain so. Falcon is not a phase-shift – it is just doing what Von Braun did 70 years ago a bit better.

    We are never going to make space generally accessible with the same basic tech. Of course we could go nuclear but the Greens will go ape over that. I would gladly massacre them in ways ISIS couldn’t even imagine but that is another story.

    So, basically, until these “spacers” build something like Skylon or a Space El and offer prices around the cost of a return flight from Manchester to Sydney then I’m not fussed.

  • Dom

    NickM, new technology often starts out pricey, and then becomes cheaper. Apples’s Lisa computer cost $10,000, and it was just a toy for the rich. The mac came later.

    Dale, it’s “slip” the surly bands of earth.

  • I shall cut my penis off and burn it on a pyre if I see a Mars shot in my lifetime.

    You will be held to that.

  • NickM

    Macs are still toys for the rich but seriously we are talking orders of magnitude here – several orders of magnitude. Big difference. We are not talking about the difference in price between a family car in 1910 and one now. We are assuming if this ever opens to any other than the ultra-minted the equivalent of trading-in the Ford Focus for a Nimitz-class carrier. It ain’t gonna happen no matter how much Dale Amon wants it to.

    I do not hold my manhood cheaply. Anyway, why go to Mars? Take some piccies, collect some rocks, pretend to be Buzz Lightyear? Anyway does anyone have the stomach to stump-up trillions of $$$ for what is a glorified gap-year?

    Look guys I wish it was different but as it isn’t it ain’t. That’s logic that is.

  • Jamess

    Who is this NickM who seems to understand what the cost of a flight “ought” to be? Does he deem the Wright brothers little experiment to be a failure given that Joe, a goat herder in Ouagadougou, can’t buy a return flight from Manchester to Sydney with the price of a pint of goat’s milk?

    If private space vehicles can drop the cost of launching satellites to such a degree that satellite phones and internet connection begin to compete with mobile phones, and I’ll have an affordable (to me) and secure link to facebook and the blogs I like to read which the government here can’t block with a Great Firewall, it will be a success.

  • I have to both agree with and separately take issue with my blog-cohort Nick.

    He is right to say that without SSTO we are merely treading water technologically, but I do think there is value in the magnificent men in their flying machines because that is how genuine innovation takes place and accelerates. It is the very diversity of competition which is as important as the technology.

    We will get where we need to go, but the problem is that this is just the beginning. We should have reached this point by the 1950’s, but for the stupid socialist experiment of government space programmes. Now we’re playing catch-up with ourselves after a wasteful detour.

  • Dale Amon

    Let him keep his procreative appurtenance. And let him remain a ground pounder. “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth – The Rest of Us Shall have Left for the Stars”.

  • Dale Amon

    Or to put it another way… I am doing some thing about it rather than just pissing in the wind and moaning about it.

  • Keep up the good work Dale – I support what you are doing.

    The missiles I worked on at GEC-Marconi couldn’t hit a barn door if they were holding the handle.

    Fortunately I only programmed the hoppers. 🙂

  • Eric Tavenner

    NickM, when autos were introduced they cost $10,000 or more. Compare this to the price of a modest home at about $500. Now they are priced such that most families can afford one. Only because at the start the very rich could buy those expensive toys but that induced Mr Ford to produce them more efficeintly so the price could be lowered.

  • One of the many myths of spaceflight is that SSTO is either necessary or sufficient to reduce launch costs. What is necessary is reusability and high flight rate. SSTO is highly overrated.

  • Schrodinger's Dog


    Give ’em a chance.

    The state got involved in space exploration and, almost inevitably, devised systems that were hideously expensive and dangerous. Putting one pound into orbit with the Space Shuttle cost about $30,000, while the system had a catastrophic failure rate of about 1.5%. (That the state couldn’t effectively solve space exploration – something which is, after all, an engineering problem, albeit a complex one – seems a good argument with which to stick it to the statists, good and hard. But that’s a whole other story.)

    The current generation of space privateers are, doubtless, under no illusions about the limitations of the systems with which they’re currently working. If you asked Elon Musk what he really wanted, I’d wager his reply would be: “Single stage to orbit.” Unfortunately, that does not seem to be yet practical. But never underestimate human ingenuity.

    And I think you might live to regret that wager.

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    NickM, what are you talking about? Mars is full of iron ore, just needing a space-freighter to take it to Earth! That is how Western Australia got developed. And wouldn’t the allure of Martian Gold be worth much more than mundane gold?
    Contrarily, wouldn’t Venus be hard to develop, since you’d need to walk around in a refridgerator to survive?

  • veryretired

    SD touched on it, and, no, I don’t mean Nick’s private parts, when he mentioned the involvement of the state in the exploration of space, but it’s more important to this whole subject than a passing reference.

    Just as fish can’t imagine anything but the water they swim in, it is difficult to step back from the cultural flow in which we live every day. It is especially difficult to imagine how something that seems so significant to our whole cultural outlook can be completely artificial, like a flower forced to bloom out of season.

    For good or ill, a great deal of our technological development has been driven, and warped in its basic structures, by the desire of statists to acquire an advantage in war. Of all the many and various examples we could point to, certainly the entire drive to acquire and improve rocketry, and the movement into space.

    There was no mass market for any type of product involving rockets. It wasn’t like cars, or personal computers, or televisions, all of which rode their appeal to ordinary middle class working people to become enormously powerful and wealthy industries.

    Although the state did stick its nose in to one degree or another, it was never the driving force.

    When we look at these private attempts to develop and fly vehicles into space, we are looking at something that might not have even started until now, or even later, except for the huge state effort to develop these technologies for state purposes, almost totally military, instead of commercial purposes.

    My bet is, whenever private space technology begins to have a significant role to play in exploring other parts of the solar system, we will again hear that venerable statist claim that this private endeavor somehow threatens the rest of us, and leads to “undeserved” wealth, and, once again, should be restricted to the higher purposes embodied by the control of the state.

    One of the common flaws in much science fiction is the failure to explore how we might have gotten there if things had been left to private initiatives, and the possibility that other advanced life forms might have done it without a massive, coercive state project to drive the whole thing.

    A free society might not have decided to spend its treasure on a massive space program, but the threat posed by an aggressive, unfree society to dominate that area required a significant response.

    As a young man, I supported that effort. Given our dangerously deficit-ridden economic situation, I could not support it now.

    If military requirements change in the future, perhaps my opinion would change to reflect that new reality.

  • Well, I seem to have set a shit storm in train. I do know a little about this. MSc Astrophyiscs from QMC. I just don’t see the economics stacking up for this to become commercially viable using anything like current tech. As I said SSTO or Space Els might make the diff but Falcon doesn’t. We need a step-change rather than incremental change and whilst I agree that Musk has dramatically reduced launch costs it still isn’t really something a lottery winner can aspire to. The comparison with automobiles is utterly false. Because they became affordable to the reasonbly affluent in a generation due to Henry Ford et al. This is a whole different ball-park. We have had this tech for 50+ years and we are still tinkering. Unlike plane flights and cars and such it is not going anywhere south of being purely for governments and the hyper rich.

    And before anyone starts I’ll even put my cock on the anvil if Dale ever gets to Mars. We are stuck here whether we like it or not for the foreseable unless someone does something very clever. Apollo cost $10bn when that was a lot of money. Technologically we haven’t exactly advanced much. Oh, incrementally, yes, but with ever rising costs of doing almost anything that is at best running to stand still.

    And let’s call a spade a spade eh? There might be loads of Iron on Mars but who is going to spend billions on yanking it back to Earth? I mean seriously! The Russians or Chinese might do it as a state funded stunt (like hosting the Olympics but seriously… Space travel is prohibitively expensive and shall remain so whilst we don’t have anything class-wise better than Von Braun could conjure up. Making the Falcon 1st stage re-usable is just icing the cake. We need a whole new paradigm (or cake). It may arrive but I ain’t seeing it. So maybe I ought to do something but I don’t believe in lost causes.

  • Dale Amon

    Well, I am making quite a nice living at proving you don’t know what you are talking about.

  • PeterT

    I know nothing about this subject but it seems to me that one of the biggest drivers of space exploration in this century will be China and India’s economic development. Given that together they have the population of about 10 times of the US, imagine what the governments there might be able to fund once they achieve comparable levels of GDP per capita (which might be some time away, granted). It is obviously nothing to celebrate, but both countries are fond of jingoistic national stunts, which might include putting a man (sorry, person) on mars.

    As for NickM’s comments, I would only say that often new uses for products and services are found as costs come down. While we may think that we can draw up a near complete list of all of the potential things one can do with space technology, the fact is that there may be lots of other uses that nobody yet knows of.

  • I watched the launch in Mojave ten years ago (that long!), and was recently thinking about it and hoping you would post some updates. So thanks for this post, and please keep them coming.

  • NickM

    And you have have launched what exactly? You are wasting your time. People get Arts Council grants and they at least put on a show of “contemporary dance”. I wanna go up there as much as you but frankly you sound like “whistling to keep courage up”. It ain’t going to happen without a serious paradigm shift which I don’t see happening. Let’s make a rocket 20% more efficient don’t do it. We are at the apex of that technology. Seriously it is essentially trying to build an ever faster difference engine. It is total nonsense. Sorry, but it is.

  • MSc Astrophyiscs from QMC.

    If you’re attempting to make an argument from authority, that’s a poor one. There’s nothing about an astrophyics degree that gives you knowledge about aerospace engineering and costs. Some of us do it for a living.

  • Bill Reeves

    You describe SpaceX as pushing out the American launch operators. But I thought SpaceX was American. OK it’s headquartered in California so maybe it’s flaky American but that still counts doesn’t it?

  • MSc Astrophyiscs from QMC.

    If you’re attempting to make an argument from authority, that’s a poor one.

    Beats the shit out of mine and I was paid to fire missiles for a living at one stage. Not that we ever hit anything more than a target and even then it was a pretty poor shot.

  • NickM

    Yeah Rand, and I never charged the Gov a grand for a spanner. LockMart did. I was not making an arg from authority. I just said I know a bit of what I speak. That is not the same thing. Oh, and a life-long (I’m 40) interest in aerospace. I know there are huge chunks of stuff I don’t know but I also know stuff I do know. And flying things is one of my areas. And specifically CFD. Now don’t get me wrong. I shall be pleased as punch (sort of) to get the email from Dale at “Bowie Base One” and shall joyfully get the knife and the matches but… I just don’t think I’ll have to. I could be wrong.

    What missiles were they BTW JG. Or would you have to kill me? Some of our cold war missiles were either dreadful (and built) and built or brilliant and cancelled. Taildog/Sraam falls into the latter group.

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    You wouldn’t even need spaceships to transport the iron ore to Earth- just sling-shot it towards Earth, using advanced orbital mathematics to plan the flight so that the ore bangs into the Moon, waiting to be safely transported to Earth! Then watch as Greenies and environmentalists and Terran mining Unions campaign against your metal! And you go bankrupt!

  • NickM

    And that is economically viable how?

  • You wouldn’t even need spaceships to transport the iron ore to Earth- just sling-shot it towards Earth, using advanced orbital mathematics to plan the flight so that the ore bangs into the Moon, waiting to be safely transported to Earth!

    That’s ridiculous. There is already plenty of iron on the moon.

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    I thought more people recognised satire when they saw it. I was discreetly agreeing with NickM, by exaggerating the supposed benefits.
    Of course mars-ore would be totally impractical! It’d be easier to go to the asteroids and look for metals on them. However, getting to Mars would be easy! Set up a rail-gun mechanism on the moon, rub the spacesuit of a colonist to build up static electricity, and boost them to Mars. IF you’ve aimed them right, they should just lightly bump into one of the two moons of Mars, and should be able to make their own way from there (colonists are traditionally inventive and hardy types).

  • I thought more people recognised satire when they saw it.

    Do you imagine that your pathetic attempt at “satire” is either useful or entertaining to knowledgable people on the subject?

    If so, you delude yourself.

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    By ‘knowledgeable people’, you mean ‘humourless’, I suppose. I didn’t know that only ‘experts’ were allowed opinions! Do tell me what opinions I’m allowed to have!

  • You are allowed to have opinions, and we are allowed to call them ignorant and humorous only to the clueless.

    I find it quite amusing that you think that I think that you aren’t allowed to have unamusing opinions. So, in a sense, if that was your desire, you amused me.

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    I find it amusing that you think that I care for your opinion. I will go on satirizing articles as I like, in the hope that the broad audience, not the self-appointed elite, will have a laugh. As for the others, don’t you have more important things to do, like browsing an encyclopaedia to stay knowledgeable?

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    As an aside, can’t all the comments be numbered automatically, so we can know which of many quotes or comments are meant in following pieces?

  • Bill B.

    It ain’t going to happen without a serious paradigm shift which I don’t see happening.

    You remind me of my granddad talking about how aerocraft could never really displace ships for moving people around the world.

  • I will go on satirizing articles as I like, in the hope that the broad audience, not the self-appointed elite, will have a laugh.

    I think you are just making yourself look like a plonker, particular as this particular “self-appointed elite” are people actually in the “space business” trying to advance the state-of-the-art.

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    And he couldn’ tell that my articles were not serious? It wasn’t rocket science! But it might be worrying if they were in the rocket science business…

  • And he couldn’ tell that my articles were not serious?

    Believe us, no one imagined that your comments were serious. Or intelligent.

    When you want to make an attempt at a serious or intelligent comment, we will be waiting.

    If it actually happens, we will be pleasantly shocked. But none of us will be holding breath awaiting that unlikely event.

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    If you didn’t think they were serious, why did you take such umbrage? Are you off your doctor’s prescriptions?
    And as for wit, when your friends tell you that you’re halfway there, they don’t mean it as a compliment.