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2018 New Space predictions, Part II: The 2018 list

So… now it is time to unveil the predictions of Amon and Weathers for 2018. Doug Weathers and I changed the format a little this year. If one or the other or even both of us thought an event is iffy but possible or even likely, we put it under a section we are calling ‘Stretch Goals.’

1) Falcon Heavy flies.

The first attempt could happen in as little as two weeks from now. There is a chance it will fail, as this is, after all, the first flight of a very large rocket with very complex structural dynamics. If the simulations and calculations are off, the three booster structure could rip itself apart. With the large number of Merlin rocket engines that have to fire, there is plenty of room for error, albeit also a great deal of redundancy. A successful flight on the first try will let many friends of ours celebrate and sleep well. A failure? Well, it is a long year. They will dust themselves off and almost certainly succeed on a second flight test.

2) A Tesla Sportster goes interplanetary.

If the first Falcon Heavy succeeds, it is likely the well tested second stage will put Elon Musk’s old car on a course to cross Mars orbit within the next year or so. It is NOT going to go to Mars. It will be on a solar elliptical orbit that crosses Earth and Mars orbits at perihelion and aphelion. It ought to be there long enough for Mars to be settled and have a vast population with large museums in which it will someday reside after being recovered by some Belter and sold to the highest bidder.

3) Falcon Heavy goes into commercial service.

If the first flight is reasonably successful, there will be at least one more flight of the vehicle this year with a profit making payload.

4) Boca Chica launch site construction slips to 2019

We both think the SpaceX private space launch facility south of Brownsville Texas on the Gulf Coast is not moving along as snappily as one would hope. We think they well be into next year before it is checked out and launch ready.

5) Dragon 2 in flight abort test

Dragon 2 is a lesser cousin to Red Dragon that will take astronauts to the space station when it is certified. Although not entirely necessary, SpaceX is going to perform an in flight abort. We feel confident that will happen this year and it will succeed. What we do not expect is that the Falcon 9 booster it is riding on will survive the emergency separation. It is a much larger booster than the Blue Origin New Shepherd, and the fact that one survived an emergency SEP test still has us gob smacked.

6) Elon Musk announces BFR launch/landing sites at IAC

The beauty of BFR is that both stages can be tested on their own in a suborbital flight mode. We know SpaceX intends to fly them short distances to prove them out. What we do not know is where those places will be. Will it be a barge launch? That seems unlikely for a first test launch although possible for a landing. Boca Chica? We do not know all the details about the pad requirements for the stages of this big mother. So we are guessing that when Elon gives us the next installment of Elon Musk and His Big Falcon Rocket, we will find out.

7) Rocket Lab enters commercial service.

We expect them to fly their second test flight within days and we expect it to succeed. Even if it does not, there is enough time for another test this year. We are rather confident they will enter revenue generating service this year.

9) Blue Origin BE-4 engine finishes testing

The BE-4 is needed for the New Glenn rocket and also for ULA’s Vulcan rocket. Both are expected to fly around 2020, so we expect they will wind up testing and focus more on production of these babies in the following year.

10) Blue Origin New Glenn starts construction

We really pondered on this one. But the evidence is there if you consider financial planning as well as engineering schedules. They have the manufacturing facility at the KSC (Kennedy Space Center) Exploration Park that is being outfitted to manufacture them. The park is run by Space Florida (the folks who killed XCOR) and it is a straight shot within CCAFS to their Pad 36, which is being prepared for it. The engines are near ready. They are calling a 2020 launch date followed by a ramp up, so they pretty much have to start building the first one by the end of this year. One has to work the bugs out of factories just like one has to work them out of rockets. And one does not spend this kind of money on facilities if they are going to then sit idle for a year.

11) Dreamchaser continues drop testing but does not fly into space.

Sierra Nevada has a contract with NASA to fly a smaller, cargo only version of their design to ISS in the 2020 time frame. It will have folding tips on the wings to fit inside a fairing, unlike the existing crew model. We do not think they are going to retire that vehicle quite yet. It makes sense to wring every bit of data out of it that they can from drop tests. So we think they will do more drop tests but hold off on putting one on an Atlas V until they have the one for the paying customer (NASA) ready for test.

12) SS2 powered flight test

This has just got to happen this year. It should have happened many months ago.

13) SS2 suborbital flight

There are really only a couple test points for engine firings short of flying to the Karman line. They will want to probe the transonic region again; and they will want to test a fairly high altitude flight to check the reaction control system and the shuttle cock mode. Once they have done those… why not give it a go?

14) Boeing CST-100 unmanned test flight

We cannot see any good reason why they will not meet their schedule and get this done this year.

15) Stratolaunch aircraft completes flight test

Since it has already begun taxi trials, we feel a full year is more than enough to test the full envelope on what is, although really, really large, just another transport aircraft. We are not betting on whether they will actually launch a rocket into orbit from it this year. In our minds that is too close to call.

16) LauncherOne flies from Mojave

We think folks have missed things that are right in front of their noses. Virgin Galactic (or the Virgin Launch subgroup) bought a 747 last year, had all of the structural changes to it made and even more notably, has the sign off on those changes from the FAA. That carrier aircraft is sitting in the Long Beach area right now.

The LauncherOne vehicle has been delivered to Mojave Spaceport. We have looked at the pictures of it and come to the conclusion that there is little or nothing they can do with it at Mojave except fly it. It is not there for pad tests since it is not a rocket that launches from a pad. So why is it there? We think the carrier aircraft will fly up there and have it loaded under the wing. They will then fuel it. You can do that in Mojave. They probably did not want to do so in the populous LA area.

Most likely scenarios are a few captive carry flights to get aerodynamic data, followed by a flight out over the Pacific. This is not a vehicle that you drop test and land. You drop it and you put it into orbit or else it joins other wreckage at the bottom of the ocean.

So… we think they are going to fly this year.


1) SpaceX flies a Bigelow B-330 into orbit on a Falcon 9

There is a Bigelow flight manifested but we do not know what for. We do know that Bob Bigelow has been waiting a decade for commercial crew service to orbit. That has been the long pole in his tent. You cannot put rental property in orbit if your customers cannot get to it. Since we expect both Boeing and SpaceX will very soon be able to deliver customers and their cargo to Low Earth Orbit, we think he is going to pull the trigger this year or next year.

2) SpaceX Dragon 2 manned flight

This is almost certainly going to happen this year, but we both went conservative on it due to the tight time line between the first test flights and the scheduled first flight to the space station. It is very likely this will happen this year or not very far into 2019.

3) Boeing CST-100 manned flight

Boeing is also running a tight time line and they cannot be seen to fall too far behind SpaceX. I am sure they would like to beat SpaceX into orbit just for company pride. Competition is a good thing. We still see a fair bit of schedule risk, and as with Dragon 2 feel they will likely fly this year and if not will fly early in 2019.

4) SpaceX launches two paying customers on a lunar free return mission.

This is the big one. It is still scheduled for this year, but it will only happen if the first Falcon Heavy flies successfully and the manned Dragon 2 flight to ISS happens on or at least close to the scheduled dates. Personally we think it more likely to happen in 2019, but we include it here because there is an outside chance Elon’s stars will align and this mission will go. We, and many others, would just love to see this happen on the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 8 Christmas mission of December 21, 1968.

2018 New Space predictions, Part I: How did we do last year?

Around this time last year, I was discussing / arguing with another aerospace engineer on the sort of topic which tends to come to mind at the New Year. What could we expect in our industry over the next twelve months? Since I have been a pundit here at Samizdata and in other fora for a bit over three decades, I suggested we turn our arguments into a set of predictions of events we expected in 2017. I wrote up the results and published them in a limited fora and set a reminder in my schedule so that we would revisit it a year later both to see how well the universe obeyed our pronouncements during the previous orbit of the Earth about Sol, and to then produce a new set of pontifications for 2018.

Before I unveil those, I will do what most prognosticators fear to do: discuss our results in public, as evaluated by the two of us last night. The publication last year was to a limited audience, I am reproducing it here. We each placed our initials next to the predictions we agreed upon; DMA for Dale Marshall Amon and DW for Doug Weathers. A few are minority predictions to which only one of us felt comfortable in making.

1) Falcon Heavy will fly this year. [DMA, DW]

Close! The vehicle has been assembled, and was raised and lowered at the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) before the end of the year. It is scheduled for flight this month with a Tesla sports car as an interplanetary payload. We definitely did not see that coming!

2) Red Dragon will be tested in unmanned mode and a landing will be attempted [DW, DMA]
3) Red Dragon will be given a high energy re-entry test by doing a lunar free return. I give it 50% that they do this. DMA.

Both of these fall into a category that we are calling OBE, Overcome By Events. Elon Musk dropped the vehicle late in development due to a massive change in plans for SpaceX. The Big Falcon Rocket design he announced at the IAU conference this year does things a different way so the development was cut.

4) A Raptor engine will not be on a flight vehicle yet this year. [DMA, DW]

Yes. We were correct. The LOX-Methane Raptor engine is still undergoing test and is progressing nicely.

5) There will be a reflight of a Falcon first stage. [DMA, DW]

Yes. Several of them in fact. So much so that from now on people ask why a first stage is not reused rather than arguing that one cannot do it.

6) New Shepherd will fly manned with a test ‘pilot’ on board. [DMA, DW]

No. But they are getting close. The production type capsule flew recently with ‘Mannequin Skywalker’ as the crash test dummy has been dubbed. The flight test was flawless so we can expect a manned trip to happen within the next few test flights.

7) The BE-4 engine will complete its testing and be ready for flight test. [DMA, DW]

No. The Blue Origin engine is still under test, but it is very close to ready and will likely be mounted on a New Glenn hull this year.

8) XCOR will be told to kick the ULA second stage engine program into high gear. [DMA, DW]

OBE. A perfect financial storm, put XCOR into a suspension of trading and then Space Florida filed against them and put them into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. We did not see that coming, and there were signs up until the last moment that they might still pull their goolies out of the fire.

9) Dreamchaser will be flight tested, possibly orbited in an unmanned mode this year. [DMA]

Sort of. They have completed a successful drop test with a new Crew Dreamchaser at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB). They do not appear to be near ready for an actual launch, although we have some ideas…

10) SS2 will do its first suborbital spaceflight this year [DMA, DW]

No. We were actually rather shocked that this did not happen yet as they had successful drop tests of the new ship much earlier this year. This should have happened.

11) Richard Branson and family will not be on board [DMA, DW]

Yes. We got that right!

12) Long March heavy lift rocket will fly successfully. [DMA, DW]

Sort of. They launched it but it did not make orbit.

13) CST100 will execute a pad abort test. [DMA, DW]

No. Slipped to next year.

14) CST100 will NOT fly into space this year [DMA, DW]

Yep. Slipped to next year.

15) EXOS Aerospace will fly their Sarge rocket this year [DMA, DW]

No. They canceled a captive test due to the hurricane that hit Houston, which although not close, was where many people who would have come as guests were to be found. There may also have been doubt about the weather in Central Texas since one never knows what a hurricane has up its wall cloud. There has been no sign of a re-schedule.

16) Stratolaunch will begin flight test of the big carrier aircraft. [DMA, DW]

Yes. They started taxi tests at Mojave before the end of the year.

17) World View will carry out a manned flight. [DMA, DW]

OBE. They had a ground testing accident. My take is they used Hydrogen for ground test because Helium is bloody expensive; they had an issue with a vent and the Hydrogen burned, caused an overpressure, blew out the top of the balloon and exploded into a fireball in the inrush of air.

To be fair, I must also mention one we thought would not happen until the next year: Rocket Lab did get their test vehicle with their revolutionary electric fuel and oxidizer pumps off the pad. They did a destruct late in the ascent, but as they discovered later, the decision was based on incorrect data. The rocket would have successfully made orbit on the first try.

There were many other advances during the year but we did not try to guess everything; we only went for ‘the big ones’.

Next we will unveil our predictions for 2018 and why we made them.

The progress of social programs and the debt

1960’s: Lets eliminate everything bad. We can go to the moon so why not end poverty!
“Yes, do it.”

1970’s: Well, it doesn’t look so easy. We’ll have to spend more money.
“Well, okay.”

1980’s: It is actually not working. Maybe we should spend some more slightly differently.
“Well, give it a try.”

1990’s. We’ve got so many people depending on this! We have to spend more to keep them afloat.
“Well, I don’t want to look like a terrible person, so okay.”

2000’s: The debt is growing, and the social programs are actually having negative effects, but we have to keep trying! We’re nice people! We have to DO SOMETHING!
“Well, is this really necessary… why not cut back… oh, okay, don’t look at me that way.”

2010’s: The country is in debt and things are awful! We must help those who are least able to help themselves. We have to let the world see what nice people we are!
“Well… no.”
“Oh, bog off.”

It is not just the UK…

The UK has Brexit, an event that Perry, Adriana, Brian, I and the rest of the Samizdata conspirators would have only dreamed of when this publication was founded all those years ago. To say it would have been a pipe dream back then is not far off and I am sure anyone suggesting it would happen any time soon would have been asked where they had managed to purchase such fine quality substances.

Brexit is not the end of the fun amongst the fed up electorates of the Anglosphere, it is only the prelude. The Libertarian Party in the USA will be a serious cat amongst dumb flocking birds this year. Gary Johnson is still rising in the polls. He has been at levels we have never seen before almost from the day he was nominated and has gone up from 10% to 11% and now 12%. Should he reach 15% by the end of the summer, he will be invited to the Presidential Debates. No matter what else happens, that would be enough to warm the cockles o’ me Libertarian Laissez-Faire heart.

But wait! There is more! If Gary makes it into the debates, he will almost certainly garner a substantial popular vote in the election. The American electorate, by and large, loath both Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee this year.

Now if I were smoking something really good right now, something which Gary has sworn to see legalized, I might even say that a tight three way race could make 34% the plurality in the popular (not Electoral) vote. That level for a Libertarian candidate in the USA is about as imaginable as, well… the UK voting to leave the EU. Inconceivable.

This year is going to be a lot of fun. We are turning the world upside down… and we are enjoying every second of it everywhere in the Anglosphere.

Kardeshev 1.5?

I am sure most of you have by now heard at least a garbled version of the discovery of a very unusual object in the skies, a possible alien mega-structure. I have not been following the mass media but they probably went for the spectacular in their reporting.

Well, it could be spectacular, but only if after a few years or even decades of hard science it does not turn out to be something else. Some science news outlets have compared it to the discovery of the pulsar by Jocelyn Bell. There was no known explanation at the time for something in the heavens that could generate a pulse train that was so precise you could set your time standard to it.

Still, an alien civilization is a candidate explanation, even if the only thing we can say is “We’ve got something we’ve never seen before and some of our wild ass guesses, including an alien civilization, have not yet been ruled out”. I want to make this absolutely clear before I get to the fun stuff.

Now… what if it turns out to be true and we find we have a neighbor who is building structures in space large enough to obscure up to 20% of its sun’s output for significant periods of time? That is one serious civilization, one that is well on its way to becoming a Kardeshev Type II.

But let us turn things around. If they exist, what do they know about us?

The star in question is about 1400 light years away from us. That means what we are seeing happened back in the dark ages, back in an era oft written of in books by Dr. Sean Gabb in his historical novels. Whatever we are detecting now of their technology happened that long ago. Fourteen Hundred Years of advancement beyond what we can see. One and a half millennia. Just imagine it.

Lets go further. Fourteen hundred years ago they were building structures that could block 20% of their star’s light when passing in front of it. That is not the capability of a new space faring civilization. In our terms, it is probably several millenia beyond where we are in our space capabilities, possibly even more.

So how many thousands of years ago did they map a lovely little life bearing world? They almost certainly have thousands of years of data on our star and planets. But their data shows no sign of civilization because their most recent data about us comes from our 600AD.

Unusual situation then. We would know there is a space faring civilization out there… and they would only know there was a life bearing world with no signs of a technological civilization here.

So… I wonder when the generation ships of the colonists will show up?

I’m just having a bit of fun. But What If?

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.

The Police State tentacles are everywhere

Yesterday a medical doctor friend told me that these days you have to show ID and sign for laboratory glassware. You may perhaps even be asked why you need it.

When I was a kid, you picked up an Edmunds Scientific or other catalog, used the money you earned mowing lawns and bought your gadgets and glassware by mail order – unless you were lucky enough to live in the same city in which case you went to their outlet and came straight home with it on the same day. No questions were asked. Lab glassware was just part of being a future scientist in a nation of free people.

Why has this changed? The Drug War. It is yet another culturally disastrous bit of police state monitoring enabled by fear mongering about meth labs. Well, to put it simply, I do not care. The people responsible for these sorts of regulation are much more socially damaging in their efforts because they undercut our liberty, our ability to act as free and autonomous citizens. It is my right to buy something ‘because I feel like it’ and to use it for ‘whatever the hell pleases me’ just because I am an American. I need no other reason.

I have no sympathy for the drug warriors. I want them unemployed. As to the people who think up these un-american regulations…

“Hangin’s too good for ’em.”

Now it can be told…

As I am now part of the core engineering team on a spaceship, I am much more limited in what I can say on certain subjects than I was as a consultant assisting on early stage projects in the previous decade. Here is a picture of our baby, the XCOR Lynx, as it sits in our hangar. My job is its ‘nervous system’, the sensor systems and onboard data collection and storage and use.

XCOR Lynx Spaceplane under construction

XCOR Lynx Spaceplane under construction

In the spirit of the Guardian…

I think it is safe to say that the first Social Justice Warrior to be spaced has already been born.

(For non-spacers, that means “tossed out of the airlock… without a space suit.”)

Age of Adaline

Friday night is usually my movie night out here in the desert and there was nothing in particular I really wanted to see. After perusing the options, I settled for ‘Age of Adaline‘, the story of a woman of the 1920’s who through an accident and a process explained through a bunch of made up technological gobbledygook stopped ageing at twenty-nine.

Part of the movie was fairly good, a study in the fear of being different and the pain of watching those you love grow old while you remain the same and try to stay under the radar.

There were two things I found wrong with the movie, both of which are ignorable if you just want an unusual love story. Whomever came up with the narrated ‘scientific’ explanations should be taken out and shot. They were painfully idiotic. The script writers would have been better off if they’d just said she had a genetic mutation which did not kick in until her body was put under a life threatening stress she’d never before experienced.

And second of all… Hollywood cannot deal with the idea of people living long lives. They believe that healthy extended lives must by necessity lead to boredom and emotional problems. They nearly always fall back on a plot device that anyone who has it will yearn for a return to the Mayfly life or even immediate joyful death as in “Zardoz”. This movie is not as bad as some. It hints that the accidental process which gave her long life would be discovered in 2035, with the implication that perhaps it was then used.

What I find humorous is that very wealthy A list actors, producers and directors will be among the first in line to embrace the initially very costly technologies of life extension and anti-aging technologies, perhaps right behind the techies who are already inventing it for real in labs all over this planet. They will sing a wholly different tune when it is they who face age and death as fashion options.

Personally, I long for the day when we eliminate both of the presently unavoidable scourges of humanity: death and taxes!

Marco Rubio just struck out

As time goes on we learn more about the possible GOP candidates and which ones might be satisfactory to libertarians.

It appears that Marco Rubio is not going to be amongst that number if this report from CATO is correct.

Self defence

I am certain it comes as no surprise to Samizdata readers that States are interested in penetrating your computers and stealing private communications without bothering about the legal niceties of search warrants issued by judges whom they do not own. But some things come as a surprise to even those of us who watch such things. I had not heard of this particular attack before. Spoofing, in conjunction with other attacks to pin down the real source while the spoofer gets in, have been around awhile. Some were dependant on analysis of the generated packet sequence numbers to allow a complete hijack.

None seem as practical as the web page substitution technique discussed in this Wired article. It is somewhat technical but useful reading if you want to keep up with what the enemies of liberty and rule of law are up to. Even more importantly, the article shows there are ways of keeping the bad guys out of your computers. The method may not be as satisfying as dropping a nuke on the SOB’s, but hey, you work with what you got.