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

The view from inside a government box

This article leaves me speechless. How could anyone capable of putting words together in a sentence about space hardware put forth a premise that is “not even wrong”. It is not even from the same reality most of us exist in.

Now I do not expect most of you to be current on what is going on in the aerospace business today. Unlike the person who wrote the article, it is not your job and perhaps not even something that interests you. That means the falsehoods get passed on because you are unlikely to dig. But believe me, this is a howler if it was done in ignorance and is the ‘big lie’ if done in full knowledge of what American industry is up to. Since I cannot believe anyone could write this without knowing at least a little about the topic, I have to assume it is intentional.

Why is that so? Because there have been more and better developments in hydrocarbon rocket engines in the last 15 years than in the preceding three decades. From SpaceX we have mass production of the Merlin engines. SpaceX is already the largest rocket engine manufacturer in the US and in a few years will be turning out more engines than the entire rest of aerospace on the planet. They also developed the Kestrel for their smaller rocket some years ago; and the Merlin has gone through multiple iterations, each of which is effectively a new engine in capabilities. To top it off they are already working on the largest hydrocarbon engine since the Saturn V F-1: their Raptor engine. It’s not just a paper engine either. They are rebuilding a test stand at NASA Stennis and may already be testing the giant turbopumps for it.

But wait! There’s more! Blue Origin has developed a family of hydrocarbon engines and recently tested their suborbital craft using the BE-3, the 3rd generation engine, all done in less than a decade. They are short listed to produce the even larger BE-4 for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, their replacement for the too expensive Delta and the Russian engine using Atlas V.

And that is not all. In my day job I do data acquisition on the hydrocarbon engine for the Lynx suborbital spaceship.

There are others but these are the highlights which no honest/competent journalist could have missed.

16 comments to The view from inside a government box

  • Thanks for the update.

  • Mr Ed

    Merlin and Kestrel engines? Didn’t Rolls-Royce make them in the 1930s?

  • Laird

    I suspect that the bias of the reporter is toward government rocket engine development (i.e., done by the government itself or under contract to it), and that purely private developments aren’t even on his radar screen. That doesn’t excuse the omission, of course, but it could explain it.

  • Frederick Davies

    …purely private developments…

    I do not think so:

    Elon Musk’s growing empire is fueled by government subsidies


  • The info comes straight from DOD and Aerojet, so any problem you have with the facts as explained go complain to them about it instead of attempting to publicly slam an award winning international aerospace journalist with decades of credibility in media & aerospace. We work with all aerospace companies, including your XCOR employer, on a regular basis. 150k readers a month know we report all angles, and cover commercial space just as much as anything else (matter of fact we’ve interviewed your little XCOR company several times). We’ve reported on Raptor, the Blue Origin engines, the testing, maybe you should look instead of going for the throat.

    People like to forget who wrote big checks to SpaceX to build their engines and everything else. Not as private as you wish everyone believed. BTW, we work with SpaceX regularly as well…

  • no honest/competent journalist could have missed.

    Joke’s on you.
    There are no honest/competent journalists anymore, they’re all some combination of lazy, stupid, ignorant and biased.
    Usually all four.

  • Hi Dale

    I wonder why his government bubble does not include Congress where Mc Cain is in the middle of a fight with the DoD (what else is new ?) over future buys of the RD 180 for the Atlas V.

    What I find interesting is that ULA had been planning to buy an engine from Bezos to replace the Russian one. Instead ULA fired 12 of its top people and everything is now in flux.

    Mmmmm ?

  • NickM

    Skylon and a space-el isthe answer. Not the only answer but…

  • Well done Mike Killian for his reply. Samizdata would be a better and more interesting blog if it omitted attacks on one company by an employee of another.

  • Russ in TX

    Dale’s right about one thing at minimum: I’m not competent to judge the merits of this back-and-forth.

  • Samizdata would be a better and more interesting blog if it omitted attacks on one company by an employee of another.

    I disagree. Dale does not hide where he works and the reply to him was published. I find that much more interesting.

  • bloke in spain

    “The info comes straight from DOD and Aerojet,”

    To be honest, Mr Killan, then it’s not “award winning international aerospace journalis(m)” is it? It’s rehashing a publicity handout. But it’s gone out under Mr Covault’s name, so it’s down to him to stand it up – not DoD or Aerojet.

  • Dale Amon

    When I read the article, I missed that the byline was someone whom I would usually respect. I have contacted him directly on this and I still find the premise of the article to be just plain wrong. Hydrocarbon engine technology is alive and well and moving forward and at a rapid pace in the US.

    I have been covering aerospace topics in Samizdata for about fifteen years now, and I think Perry can back me up that if anything I have been saying much less since crossing the threshold from fighting for New Space and doing odd consultancy jobs in the nascent industry to becoming full time. I do not speak for my employer, but I do not hide my connections. Neither do I hide that I have been a public voice in the New Space camp for nearly 35 years, going back to the earliest days of Space Digest/sci.space and as an independent spokesperson used by Pittsburgh area media in the early 1980’s.

    I have been in this a very long time and I do know who is doing what and where they came from and how they got there.

    Now one area in which I still pull no punches is Senator Shelby’s Pork Rocket from Hell. Now there is a waste of cash if there ever was one. If the builders think it is so great, then perhaps they should bid for a fixed price contract for delivery of mass to Mars in an open competition. Lets see who wins that one.

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

    One more comment: I’ve very recently become aware of some of the insider, back room machinations going on with the DC lobbyists of certain companies who have been making efforts that could be perceived as trying to quiet people who are saying unfavorable things about the Pork rocket and other such projects. So, should you find that I suddenly stop talking about these topics, you may put two and two together and get four.

    The best hydrocarbon engine in the world is still the Russian RD-180… but it will soon be surpassed by both SpaceX and Blue Origin; and SpaceX *will* be the dominant rocket engine producer on the planet for the foreseeable future. No one else in the industry looks set to come even close. And when someone does surpass them, it will be one of the new companies that are barking at Elon’s heels. No one gets to be top dog forever… only as long as they produce the best product at the best price *today*.

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

    Taylor: I cannot speak to internal events at ULA. I can say that the folks there are very, very good. I have said it before: they know which way the wind is blowing and they have every intent of surviving in the new market place. That is one of the big reasons why they have gone to various rocket engine builders who have been building the new generation liquid fuel engines. They want a competitive market in engines that drives down *their* costs.

    Now I don’t actually think much of the idea of recovering engine pods in the air by helicopter… but the ULA second stage is a brilliant bit of work and I think they are going to be very competitive in the business of refueling in orbit and moving cargo around the solar system.

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

    Samizdata would be a better and more interesting blog if it omitted attacks on one company by an employee of another.

    I should note that I did not attack any aerospace company; I attacked the fact that the premise of the article was incorrect. The work by Aerojet is decidedly NOT a revolution in American hydrocarbon engine technology. They are merely one of many and are years behind the curve. They have been resting on their RL-10 laurels for too many decades and it is about time they got their heads back in the game, but it is not clear to me that they will develop something that is cheap enough for the new market place. In the 1950’s they were *the* goto place for engine technology. In 2015, that is no longer true.