The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SS1 and White Knight
Air-launched systems, like SpaceShipOne and its carrier aircraft, White Knight, hold particular promise in the eyes of the author. (credit: Aero-News Network)

The judgment of history

Wisconsin’s greatest living philosopher, Mark Tauscher—the starting right tackle of the Green Bay Packers and fellow University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus—made a succinct comment this past fall on a play made by rookie running back Samkon Gado that could apply to the new companies in the space launch industry. The Packers had the ball on their own one yard line. Brett Favre handed the ball to Samkon Gado who tried to run wide to the right. He ran into tacklers while he was still a couple of yards deep in his own end zone. As he was falling he threw the ball forward hoping it would be ruled an incomplete pass. The referees huddled for a couple of minutes to discuss how the rules on intentional grounding applied. When asked by reporters to comment on the play after the game, Mark Tauscher said, “If it works, he’s a genius. If it doesn’t, he’s an idiot.” While the reality of most situations isn’t quite so black and white, the judgment of history is quite often that cut and dried.

My January 30 article “Asking the tough questions” triggered more e-mails than any other article I have written. I expected as much. I received e-mails from a few of companies in the industry. I received e-mails from people that have worked on and/or managed the development of launch vehicles. I received e-mails from people with little or no occupational connection to space commerce and exploration. Needless to say the opinions of my article have crossed the spectrum. Different people bring different experiences into their judgments. I appreciate and respect any opinion that is backed with a reasonable argument, whether I agree with it or not. I received them from all sides.

A number of people that have worked on successful launch vehicles have told me that these companies have no understanding of what it takes to develop, scale up, and prove the reliability of a vehicle. People from these new companies tell me that they have thought out the challenges and think they have a better way. So who is right?

In my essays I bring my experience in engineering and business. I have helped apply the software my company has developed to problems in a wide variety of manufacturing companies that range in size from a half dozen employees to the Fortune 100. I make no pretense to ever having worked with or inside the space industry (that may eventually change as our client list grows). Nor do I have a financial stake or interest in any of these companies. I have just followed it and read voraciously about it since I was ten years old. I feel a bit like Dennis Miller as a color commentator on Monday Night Football, an outsider observer sharing his two cents.

The people who responded to my article have vastly varying opinions of how the small companies entering the launch industry will do. A number of people that have worked on successful launch vehicles have told me that these companies have no understanding of what it takes to develop, scale up, and prove the reliability of a vehicle. People from these new companies tell me that they have thought out the challenges and think they have a better way. So who is right? How can an outsider make a good judgment? History will eventually make a judgment probably as definitively as Mark Tauscher did. How do we form relatively intelligent opinions until then?

The questions I wanted to ask were not intended to be the definitive questions these companies need to be asked. I am not qualified to do so. They were intended to stir the pot to get a public discussion started. I do think a serious discussion of the claims and capabilities of these companies needs to be conducted if they are to compete for NASA’s COTS program to send cargo and crew to and from the International Space Station. I am also a taxpayer. I don’t want my money wasted.

One e-mail was from Jim Benson of SpaceDev. He had answers to each of the questions in my article. Some of the answers were very good and answered my questions to my complete satisfaction. Some of the other answers I am not in a position nor qualified to judge. Masten Space Systems posted a response on their website to some of my questions. I was pleased to see both.

Before my brother and I started our company, I had only developed relatively small computer programs that address rather specific applications. That gives you very little idea of what it takes to design, develop, test, and continually improve million-line applications through changes in operating systems, languages, and market environments. Having spent more than two decades working on software that has grown into a massive application has been a continual education. That is the type of understanding I think I’m hearing from the skeptics that have worked on some of our nation’s existing launchers.

I also worked at a large multibillion-dollar company for a couple of years out of college in a division that developed software for automated storage and retrieval systems. In this company I ran into senior project managers with out-of-date skills that were trying to get us to write a database engine using FORTRAN. This billion-dollar company was slowly sinking under a management that didn’t want to keep up with or investigate newer technologies. Any suggestions by new employees were quickly crushed. It was one of the reasons I wanted to get out and run my own company. The company was eventually sold off in parts and no longer exists as the entity I worked for. This part of my background is where I relate to the new startups that think they have a better way. Sometimes they do.

A few readers asked my opinion of which companies will succeed and what I think of NASA’s Exploration Systems Architecture Study. I will save the ESAS discussion for another article.

When somebody starts a new company they are usually convinced that they have a better idea of how to do something and that they will succeed. They are usually wrong about the success part. The statistic I have heard over and over is that eighty percent of new companies are gone within five years. I don’t know if the figure is accurate or just folklore, but it seems to be about right from my experience. Fortunately this country still has a strong entrepreneurial spirit and people keep trying.

When somebody starts a new company they are usually convinced that they have a better idea of how to do something and that they will succeed. They are usually wrong about the success part.

For a company to succeed many things have to go right. It usually has to have a good idea for a product or service. The principals and employees have to have the skills to develop and deliver the product or service. Key people have to be able to market and sell. There has to be sufficient sustained financing to get over the hump to long-term profitability. The timing has to be right. Hard work and significant luck is required.

In making judgments about anything, the class I took in college that I think was the most useful was probability and statistics. This class is most valuable if you learn to understand the concepts intuitively. In my work I have found little need for application of the rigorous math portions of the class. I have discovered that very few things I have come across allow statistics to be applied rigorously because not all of the factors that affect the outcome are known. That is why I objected to NASA coming out with specific reliability odds on the new vehicles they are designing. When my brother asks me to guess at the specific odds of getting a specific sale I cringe a little because until you get the deal, you can never be sure of all of the unknown factors that are working behind the scenes. Over or under fifty percent are my usual answers.

I do not have a crystal ball that will tell me which company will succeed. From what I can see from the outside, there are things that I like and don’t like. Then there are the factors that boil down to luck. If one of these launcher designs turns out to only have an eighty-percent reliability of getting a payload into orbit, luck will definitely have a big part in whether or not they will succeed. If the first launch attempt ends in a spectacular explosion caught on tape and broadcast worldwide, it will probably doom the company. If it happens on the fifth attempt and dumps a satellite into the ocean out of sight of ground cameras, they may have the credibility from the first four launches to keep operating and possibly improving the vehicle. Factors that are out of the control of the company could be the illness or death of a key individual, a financial backer that takes a big loss in another investment and pulls out, or many others that just can’t be foreseen.

When these companies say that they can reduce the cost of a reliable launch by seventy, eighty, ninety percent or more, I personally don’t believe them. I probably should have been born in Missouri. They’ll have to show me. Do I think it is possible that some of them may have a much better idea and if given the chance could do the job for significantly less than it is being done now? Absolutely! Do I know which ones can do that? Absolutely not! Do I have my opinion? Yes.

One reader sent me an e-mail that said that if NASA would have developed SpaceShipOne that they would have done it at twenty times the cost. Even though the statement may be true, NASA had no reason to develop anything like SpaceShipOne so the point is kind of irrelevant. SpaceShipTwo, which will have to get an FAA license and have a much bigger carrier aircraft, will definitely cost much more than SpaceShipOne to develop.

The path to lower-cost access to space that I think will happen and I would also like to see happen is a steady evolution with some transformational changes along the way. I don’t think that there is, or will be, that big a market for small satellites put in low Earth orbit in the near future other than possibly quick-response military applications. Because of this I don’t think these companies will be able to make much off of this market and keep costs down by churning out several launches a year. I think that there will be a definite rebounding, but not a radically growing, market for launching satellites to geostationary orbit mostly to replace the ones launched a decade ago that are now approaching the ends of their useful lives. (See “Is the launch industry on the rebound?”, The Space Review, February 20, 2006.) I don’t think the market will anytime soon rebound to what it was in the mid-nineties. I do think this market will continue to have growth surges followed by painful dips that will make it hard for companies that are only in the launch business to survive. If the auto industry had these kinds of market swings, Ford and GM would have filed for bankruptcy years ago. It is one of the legitimate reasons that Atlas and Delta launches are not cheap. The shorter lead times between a customer deciding it needs a satellite and the launch will also make this market much harder to forecast.

The path to lower-cost access to space that I think will happen and I would also like to see happen is a steady evolution with some transformational changes along the way.

The approach to launches that I think will eventually take over—and I would like to see take over—is air launches. I think it has inherent advantages that could steadily evolve capabilities in safety, reliability, flexibility, cost, and cargo capacity. It was the one key technology that enabled SpaceShipOne to succeed at the cost incurred. The carrier aircraft may have a cost advantage in development because they potentially could be used for many purposes beyond launching into space. I could envision a craft like White Knight Two being fitted with cargo pods to carry odd-sized and -shaped payloads for the military or commercial cargo delivery. It could open a whole new market while keeping the costs of the first stage of launch down. Air launch architectures could allow individual components to evolve easier to incorporate new propulsion technologies including scramjet engines if they ever prove to be practical. The mission abort options prior to separation from the carrier aircraft seem to be more forgiving. Supersonic and hypersonic carrier aircraft could steadily reduce the size of the rocket-powered spacecraft required to carry the payload the final step into orbit. Air launch also has the advantage that it doesn’t have to rely on orbital flights for a market, unlike rocket designs from both the older companies and some of the new small ones. Suborbital and eventually orbital tourist flights could start the true economy of scale. I don’t believe, though, it will be anytime soon a contender for heavy-lift capabilities.

NASA will have a big influence over which of these companies succeed with their interest in commercial delivery of crew and cargo to the International Space Station. I would hope that when they select a company to compete for these services that they have an evaluation committee with a broad range of backgrounds with open yet critical minds. Their decision may decide which companies, if any, succeeds. As an outsider to the space industry I do not have sufficient information to have a solid opinion if an air launch system will be ready when NASA needs a solution. I would like to see a viable air launch solution because in my judgment (and take it for what it’s worth) it has a better long-term upside.

For those of you who didn’t see the Packer game and are wondering, the referees ruled that Samkon Gado was out of the “tackle box” and, just like a quarterback, he could throw it past the line of scrimmage without a receiver in the area; therefore, it was an incomplete pass and not a safety. In Mark Tauscher’s tongue-in-cheek judgment he was a genius because he succeeded. I’ll forget the fact that the Packers had a miserable season that will probably be remembered more by football fans than the one play by Samkon Gado. I, like the rest of us, will have to wait for the judgment of history and see which, if any, of the new players in the launch industry are proven to be the geniuses.