The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Vehicles like the Roton (above) were designed to serve a launch market that since dried up. (credit: XCOR Aerospace)

The fifth stage of the RLV grieving process

Nearly 35 years ago Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying, a book that reshaped how society viewed death and the reactions to it. The book is perhaps best known for its elucidation of the five stages of grief people go through after the death of a friend or loved one. After an initial stage of denial, a person reacts with anger to the loss, then attempts to bargain with God or nature to reverse the loss. This is followed by depression, after which the person finally comes to terms with the loss and presses on.

So, what does any of this have to do with space? One can argue that the entrepreneurial RLV industry has been going through a similar grieving process the last several years. The industry largely came into existence in the mid-1990s based on the promise of a large market for launches of small low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites for companies like Iridium and Teledesic. The types of vehicles proposed in the mid to late 90s, like Rotary Rocket’s Roton, Kelly Space and Technology’s Astroliner, and Pioneer Rocketplane’s Pathfinder, were designed primarily to carry satellites like those planned for those telecommunications constellations. The market for launching such satellites appeared large enough at that time to possibly support several of those RLV ventures.

Over the past several years the entrepreneurial RLV community has been going through Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief over the loss of the LEO launch market.

By the end of the 1990s, though, it was increasingly clear that the market for these vehicles was in serious trouble. Iridium and Globalstar relied on existing expendable vehicles to launch their constellations, only to run into financial difficulties as they failed to attract enough subscribers. Teledesic revised the size of its constellation downward several times while pushing back its launch schedule, and other ventures proposed in the previous few years cancelled or indefinitely delayed their plans. The launch market for the RLV industry had, for all intents and purposes, died.

Over the past several years the entrepreneurial RLV community has been going through Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief over the loss of this launch market. As late as 1999 people involved in RLV ventures were still touting the potentially large size of the market even as Iridium and other companies encountered severe financial turbulence. By 2000 that denial had turned to anger over the loss of the market; some vented their frustrations at NASA for its perceived bungling of the X-33 and X-34 RLV technology demonstrators. By 2001 the anger had turned to depression as the market for small low Earth orbit communications satellites had clearly collapsed, taking with it the market that RLV developers had pinned their business plans on several years ago. (The bargaining stage of grieving has largely played out in parallel with the other stages, as the community sought support from Congress, NASA, and the Defense Department to try and make up for the loss of the commercial launch market; many of these efforts are ongoing today.)

However, by 2002, and certainly by today, the RLV industry has made it to the final stage of grief, accepting that the large launch market that had been relied upon several years ago is gone and is unlikely to return in the foreseeable future. Instead, the focus is on new markets, like suborbital applications, that can be served by new vehicles that may prove to be easier and cheaper to develop than previous orbital RLVs. The RLV community is alive and well, but it is far different than the one that existed just five years ago.

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