The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SpaceShipOne's victory in the Ansari X Prize competition kickstarted the suborbital space tourism industry, even if that industry today still acts at times like a close-knit community. (credit: J. Foust)

The state of the RLV industry, 2007 (part two)

The tragic accident at Scaled Composites will, without question, have a deep impact of the developing suborbital RLV industry. It reminds everyone involved that this technology is dangerous and unforgiving. The dedication and courage of those involved is going to be tested. So far the industry’s leaders have said that they will continue their programs, but the investigation is just beginning and the hard work of analyzing what went wrong and what needs to be fixed is going to take months.

The reaction to the July 26 accident from the RLV industry shows that this is still a small and family-like group, so that these things are taken personally. The very human reactions of grief and loss say more about the real state of the industry than any statement of profit and loss. The men and women who are building these rockets are engaged in something greater than just building a new set of technologies, they are creating a new future for all of humankind.

The reaction to the July 26 accident from the RLV industry shows that this is still a small and family-like group, so that these things are taken personally.

Ever since SpaceShipOne’s victory in the Ansari X Prize competition in 2004, suborbital space tourism vehicles are no longer pure products of the imagination. There are real investors out there ready to put cash into businesses that promise big returns on investment. This is why the people involved in space tourism and the RLV industry do not really make up a community, but are in fact part of an industry: a unique one in many ways, but nevertheless an industry.

The role of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic should not be underestimated. Branson has shown a flair for finding and building companies that can touch the “zeitgeist”. When his organization decided to throw itself into the RLV operating business it was a signal to venture capitalists that this is a serious opportunity. The accident may cause some investors to rethink their plans, but the potential is too great for them to give up entirely. Branson’s desire to make this a so-called “green” industry is no doubt both sincere and a gesture to the gods of public relations, but the idealistic element exists, no matter what the motivation.

Other idealists in the industry are more interested in creating new homes and societies for people who want to escape what they see as the ever-increasing levels of regulation and government control on Earth. Others want to create a second or third home for humanity and still others want to build a whole new economic system that can lead to the deindustrialization of Earth, without forcing people to give up the decent lifestyle that industrial civilization affords.

The idealism that exists within the industry is in some ways similar to that which existed in the very early years of Silicon Valley when characters such as Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalogue were predicting, with some accuracy, that the computer revolution would change things far more than the sex and drugs revolution of the 1960s. Low-cost access to orbit may indeed have the same kind of impact on human society; it is hard to tell exactly what that impact may be, but it will be profound.

Aside from Scaled Composites the one RLV company that has been making the most progress is Blue Origin: it has a prototype in testing and it seems that they are doing well. No one outside the firm, though, have the slightest idea if this is correct. While it is natural for any private (or public for that matter) organization to want to keep its secrets, this one seems to be going to extremes.

It would, however, be useful to the industry as a whole, and probably to Blue Origin as well, if they were a bit more forthcoming.

The rocket industry has seen this before. Robert Goddard in the 1930s did some amazing work at his site in New Mexico, but due to his fears of losing his intellectual property and his bad experiences being mocked and derided by the ignoramuses at the New York Times he shunned publicity and most contact with the wider world. This harmed the US rocket industry, as few government leaders before 1944 recognized the potential of this technology. The few Americans who actually worked on this new for of propulsion were isolated from one another and lacked the ability to share even the most elementary data. Goddard was probably the one man who could have lead a national effort, but he failed to do so. A great opportunity was missed.

Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin outfit are not going to attempt to bring together the RLV industry into a single great program, as today’s technology does not really lend itself to large-scale efforts. It would, however, be useful to the industry as a whole, and probably to them as well, if they were a bit more forthcoming.

July was a cruel and tragic month for the industry, yet there is no question that the drive to build this new class of reusable suborbital rocket-powered vehicles will continue. The private sector is now firmly in control. The US government will probably play an important role in protecting the public and licensing the vehicles and the operators, but the entrepreneurs now have the upper hand. The government may provide some modest support, but the exhilarating new programs are mostly going to be carried out by men and women acting on their own.