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Peter Diamandis
Peter Diamandis thinks there are "four or five" teams that could conceivably win the X Prize by the end of 2004. (credit: J. Foust)

The fifth stage of the RLV grieving process

<< page 1: introduction

The view from Scottsdale

One of the best vantage points from which to survey the RLV industry is the annual Space Access conference, held in late April in suburban Phoenix. The conference has, for the last decade, surveyed the state of efforts to improve commercial access to space, with a particular emphasis on the entrepreneurial RLV community. The conference has been very successful in attracting RLV company executives as well as independent experts and officials from the FAA, Air Force, and NASA (although NASA was absent from this year’s conference.) One of the attractions of Space Access is its no-nonsense approach: there are no exhibit halls and no rubber-chicken banquets with big-name speakers who say very little. Instead, the conference features a single track of sessions, typically starting by 9am and lasting as late as 10pm, with ample breaks to allow networking and meals in the restaurants of downtown Scottsdale. The conference, in essence, is a two-and-a-half-day immersion into the small world of RLV development.

For those who have attended the conference regularly, Space Access also offers a snapshot at how the industry has evolved, and particularly how it has dealt with the loss of the LEO launch market. One could, in fact, see representatives of entrepreneurial RLV companies go through the stages of grief as the launch market collapsed. The initial optimism of the mid-1990s gave way by the end of the decade to denials that the market was in trouble, but by 2001 the mood had turned more somber as depression over the loss of the launch market set in. However, the last two conferences have seen a more optimistic point of view from attendees, as they put behind them the loss of the launch market and move ahead.

“We have at least four or five teams that look like they have an excellent shot of making the flights” by the end of next year, said Diamandis.

Those who have survived the last several years—or who have entered the industry more recently—are focusing more on suborbital markets, which are currently underserved, if not completely unserved, by sounding rockets and other existing expendable vehicles, and also show considerable potential for growth. Besides the presence of an addressable market, suborbital vehicles have the advantage of being less challenging technically to develop, and thus less expensive. This combination of factors has helped generate increased optimism and enthusiasm about the near-term prospects for these vehicles, and the industry in general. However, those presenting at the conference made it clear there are still a wide variety of challenges RLV developers face before suborbital vehicles make their first flights.

The one market that has attracted the most attention has been public space travel, or space tourism. While the X Prize has been trying to stimulate development of suborbital RLVs for space tourism since the mid-1990s, it has only recently been able to fully fund its $10-million prize. The prize is funded through an insurance policy: an unnamed insurer is betting against someone winning the prize for the duration of the policy. That policy expires on January 1, 2005, adding a new degree of urgency to the two dozen teams competing for the prize. “We have at least four or five teams that, today at least, look like they have an excellent shot of making the flights within that timeframe,” said X Prize chairman Peter Diamandis.

That sentiment is shared by John Carmack, head of Armadillo Aerospace, widely believed to be one of those handful of teams with a shot of winning the prize by the end of next year. “Initially, the X Prize has always been a vague, distant goal, but it wasn’t an overriding concern for us,” he said. “But in October of last year the X Prize got full funding, and at that time also got a time limit, so it became a real race.” That prompted Armadillo to focus its attention from a wide-ranging series of development programs to developing a vehicle to win the prize.

Other companies developing vehicles but not competing for the X Prize are also making good progress. XCOR Aerospace continues to work on the design for Xerus, its proposed suborbital RLV. The company recently tested a new liquid oxygen/kerosene engine, the XR-4K5, capable of generating 8,000 newtons of thrust; the company plans to use the engine as the basis for the propulsion system for Xerus. While XCOR is emphasizing the use of Xerus for servicing the space tourism market, the company notes that there are other applications for the vehicle: the design includes hardpoints on top for mounting an expendable upper stage. That, said XCOR chief engineer Dan DeLong, allows Xerus to launch small payloads: 10 kilograms into LEO for approximately $500,000.

“We’re taking the most conservative approach that we can to vehicle design,” X-Rocket’s Wright said. “We’re doing as little as we can to get to flight status.”

X-Rocket LLC was established two years ago in an effort to create a “rocket racing” circuit that would capitalize on the large interest in both racing and airshows, similar to the air races in the early years of aviation. However, company founder Ed Wright acknowledged that the wide variety of designs being pursued by various companies make it unlikely that separate companies will come up with similar designs suitable to race against one another. Instead, the company is taking a different approach, and plans to develop its own vehicle “at the low end of manned spaceflight.” The Archangel will be a rocket-powered winged vehicle with a design heritage harking back to the X-15 and NF-104. The two-seat vehicle, which Wright estimates will cost $8 million to develop, will be able to fly to an altitude of 50 to 60 kilometers on a 17-minute flight, including two minutes of zero-gravity. X-Rocket plans to establish “rocket academies” at two locations to be determined within the US for training people and flying the Archangel, and looks to address markets from space tourism to education to flight training. “We’re taking the most conservative approach that we can to vehicle design,” Wright said. “We’re doing as little as we can to get to flight status.”

TGV Rockets has been one company that has been promoting suborbital RLVs for several years, when most other companies were promoting orbital launch markets. While TGV has yet to build its proposed Michelle-B vehicle, company CEO Pat Bahn said at Space Access that “we are taking hard contracts against deposits for flight activity in 2006.” TGV also de-emphasizes the tourist aspects of the vehicle, even though TGV is an X-Prize competitor. “We are not in the tourist business,” said Bahn. “We are in the specialty cargo business.”

page 3: new challenges, new barriers >>