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ISPCS panel
An ISPCS panel discusses suborbital spaceflight. From left: Bob Dickman, Jeff Greason, Kevin Bowcutt, Hugues Laporte-Weywada, Michael Blum, and George Nield. (credit: ISPCS/W. Faulkner)

Progress and contrast on the commercial space frontier

Over the last several years, the entrepreneurial space, or “NewSpace” industry, has emerged in the form of a coterie of companies focused primarily, but not exclusively, on suborbital personal spaceflight. They have, by and large, been independent of the larger established aerospace companies (which predictably are called “OldSpace” in comparison): big aerospace companies have shown little interest in suborbital markets, and the interactions between the two groups have largely been limited to occasional contracts to develop technologies.

One of the highlights, then, of the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS), held October 22–23 in Las Cruces, New Mexico, was the mix of entrepreneurial and established space companies in presence at the conference and on several panels. Besides the updates on the latest developments NewSpace companies are making, the conference offered an opportunity to see how small and big companies view emerging space markets and how to approach them.

Updates and new developments

The biggest news from the conference came from Michael Blum, founder and managing director of Repulse Bay Capital and one of Virgin Galactic’s initial customers for suborbital flights. Blum had just spent a week on Necker Island, Sir Richard Branson’s Caribbean island resort, where Branson and other Virgin Galactic officials talked about the status and future plans of the company. Blum confirmed some earlier reports that suggested that when WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), the carrier aircraft for SpaceShipTwo, was rolled out in late July (see “A White Knight for more than personal spaceflight”, The Space Review, August 4, 2008), it was not yet complete.

“What we saw there was the real thing, but it was lacking certain elements,” he said during an October 22 panel on suborbital spaceflight. “It didn’t have any power plants, WhiteKnightTwo’s undcercarriage was sort of fake at that point, there were no real avionics in the aircraft.” All of those things have since been finished, he said. WK2 has undergone a number of ground tests, “and that culminated a short while ago with a high-speed taxi” of the aircraft.

“Look, we all want to go as soon as possible, but at the same time I’m also a strong advocate of letting Scaled and Virgin do their job properly,” Blum said.

That test will soon be followed by WK2’s first flight, which Blum said would take place in two to three weeks. “This is obviously a very big milestone for Scaled [Composites] and for Virgin Galactic,” he said. The initial flight will be a quick flight around the airport, conducted “under a veil of secrecy”, although he added that information about the flight would likely be shared with the public immediately afterwards. That initial flight would be followed by others over a series of months.

Test flights of SpaceShipTwo (SS2) would begin in the summer of 2009, Blum said. Those initial flights would be “captive carry” missions, with SS2 remaining attached to WK2 for the entire flight. By the end of 2009, though, SS2 would be ready for its first powered flights. “I’m told there’s going to be a minimum of 30 SpaceShipTwo flights in space before a decision will be made to commercialize the operations,” he said.

Blum said that likely meant commercial operations would be begin in the “late 2010, early 2011 timeframe”, but reiterated what Virgin Galactic officials have previously said about how the company is not wedded to a specific schedule for commercial operations. “Look, we all want to go as soon as possible, but at the same time I’m also a strong advocate of letting Scaled and Virgin do their job properly. We need a safe and reliable system,” he said. “It would be catastrophic if the system were to be put into service too early, and it would probably put suborbital spaceflight on the back burner for the next couple decades. And we can’t afford that.”

Video: Michael Blum provides an update on Virgin Galactic, the training experience, and the importance of commercial suborbital spaceflight. (credit: J. Foust)

The other major announcement actually took place the day after the ISPCS, during the 2008 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge at the Las Cruces International Airport. While Armadillo Aerospace was working to win Level 1 of the competition (see “Dueling Murphy”, The Space Review, October 27, 2008), it also announced a joint venture with Rocket Racing Inc., the parent company of the Rocket Racing League, and the state of New Mexico to develop a vertical takeoff, vertical landing vehicle for suborbital space tourism. Under the partnership, Armadillo will develop the vehicles, Rocket Racing will provide the financing and manage business operations, and New Mexico will spend $3 million to help develop infrastructure at the Las Cruces airport where the vehicles will be built. A marketing partner—unnamed but speculated to be Space Adventures—will also be part of the venture. The announcement even attracted the governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, to a press conference about the project at the airport during the competition (one that, ironically, did not include representatives from Armadillo, since the press conference was tied to the governor’s schedule, which coincided with Armadillo’s final preparations for its Level 1-winning flight.)

The vehicle designs released October 24 look virtually identical to what Armadillo released earlier this year: a clear plastic bubble mounted on top of six of its engine modules (see “One size may not fit all”, The Space Review, March 31, 2008). The only obvious difference is that the bubble now has room for two people, rather than one in the earlier designs; the vehicle is still piloted from the ground. The venture plans to sell tickets on the vehicles for $100,000 “or less”, about half the price of a current Virgin Galactic ticket and similar to what XCOR has proposed for its Lynx suborbital vehicle. The announcement also came less than two months after the RRL announced, to the surprise of many, that Armadillo would be the exclusive engine supplier for the league’s aircraft (see “When will rocket racing take off?”, The Space Review, October 13, 2008).

According to the press release, “The companies plan to fly evolutions of existing vehicles to space and fabricate an initial manned vehicle prototype in 2009 and perform initial manned flights to space in 2010.” Armadillo founder John Carmack, in an interview at the conclusion of the Lunar Lander Challenge, said the company will first work on four-module vehicles to test differential throttling, then start doing higher-altitude flight tests, first in Oklahoma and then at Spaceport America, once the latter facility has its FAA spaceport license.

The proposed timeline puts the new venture in competition with Virgin Galactic as who will be the first to fly commercially from Spaceport America. “We now have the two leaders coming and developing vehicles and flying from Spaceport America,” said Steve Landeene, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, at the press conference. “The next step is ‘game on’: who’s going to make it first, horizontal or vertical?”

Armadillo vehicle design
Illustration of the proposed suborbital vehicle that would be developed by Armadillo Aerospace in cooperation with Rocket Racing and the state of New Mexico. (credit: Armadillo Aerospace/RRL)

Contrasting viewpoints

While there was limited news coming out of the ISPCS, the conference offered a good opportunity to compare and contrast how both entrepreneurial NewSpace companies and much larger established aerospace companies viewed the industry. That contrast was clearly evident in the suborbital panel, which featured both NewSpace companies like XCOR Aerospace and Virgin Galactic as well as Boeing and EADS Astrium, two of the largest aerospace companies on the planet.

“I don’t think it would even be prudent for NASA to fund a Capability D without seeing tangible process on the cargo side,” said Orbital’s Richards.

Jeff Greason of XCOR emphasized suborbital as the means to an end: reliable, frequent, inexpensive access to space. “Space, for decades and decades, has been so expensive, so unreliable, so unsafe, so extremely difficult to do any reliable planning with, that the only time anyone does anything in space is when there’s no other way to do it,” he said. The solution is do to develop launch vehicles with reliability of at least high-performance military aircraft, but that is stymied by a catch-22, he said: private ventures won’t fund development of such orbital vehicles because of the long development times, high costs, and lack of an existing market; while the market won’t develop without the existence of a vehicle to serve it.

“Suborbital is the way out of this,” he said. “It’s the way to find a profit-making enterprise that builds up all the infrastructure we need to do the bigger and better things.” That infrastructure, he said, includes not just the technology but also the markets, companies, and workforce needed for a robust industry that can lead to the development of future orbital vehicles. That is the approach that XCOR is following on a budget of millions of dollars.

Kevin Bowcutt, chief scientist for hypersonics at Boeing Phantom Works, followed with Greason on the panel and asked, “Could the barnstormers of today—those trying to develop private suborbital flight—lead us to affordable, routine access to space and rapid point-to-point travel the way the barnstormers of 100 years ago led to commercial aviation?” He said be believes the answer is yet, but that these companies are ill-equipped to deal with the “quantum jump” in technology involved in going from Mach 3 up-and-down suborbital flights to Mach 15 flights for point-to-point travel or Mach 25 orbital flights.

Bowcutt outlined a wide range of technologies he said was needed for such vehicles to meet the technical and other requirements for such flights, from scramjets to durable thermal protection systems to reusable cryogenic tanks. Developing those technologies, he said, would be a long-term and expensive proposition. “There’s no real easy shortcut: it’s about ten years, and maybe $10 billion,” he said. “This is going to require an international effort. There’s no one country, there’s no one company that can take on the risk and the cost of developing a hypersonic point-to-point vehicle or an orbital system.”

Blum, calling on his experience as a venture capitalist, contrasted the points of view of XCOR and other NewSpace companies with their larger counterparts and their bigger pricetags. “As an investor and a venture capitalist, I would certainly be looking more at the smaller and nimbler organizations, who can make greater leaps with much smaller amounts of money,” he said.

Blum contrasted the plans of XCOR, Virgin Galactic, and others with EADS Astrium, which has proposed its own suborbital spaceplane. Unlike the NewSpace companies, who plan to spend tens or, at most, a few hundreds of millions of dollars on their vehicles, Astrium has estimated the development cost of its vehicle in excess of $1 billion. That drew a response from fellow panelist Hugues Laporte-Weywada, deputy chief technical officer of Astrium and leader of the spaceplane project, who defended his company’s cost estimates.

“The utmost concern will be safety,” he said, “and this has a cost.” The difference in the cost estimates, he claimed, was because Astrium took a “global view” of the overall cost of developing their vehicle, as opposed to the “step-by-step” approach he claimed other companies were taking, without elaborating. “What we have decided to announce is what we assume to be the final cost of the operational vehicle.”

“Space, for decades and decades, has been so expensive, so unreliable, so unsafe, so extremely difficult to do any reliable planning with, that the only time anyone does anything in space is when there’s no other way to do it,” Greason said.

A similar clash in viewpoints came in an afternoon session on orbital vehicle developments. Robert Richards, vice president of Orbital Sciences Corporation and manager of their Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program with NASA, said it was premature to think about so-called “Capability D”, for human spaceflight (see “The COTS conundrum”, The Space Review, July 28, 2008). “I don’t think it would even be prudent for NASA to fund a Capability D without seeing tangible process on the cargo side,” he said. Orbital, for the time being, is focused on its cargo spacecraft, Cygnus, and its new Taurus 2 launcher. “The path that we’re on, as a company, is probably the most prudent for NASA, which is to really put resources into making sure this cargo system is operating reliably and repeatably, and then move on to Capability D.”

That drew a sharp response from Diane Murphy, vice president of SpaceX, the other company with a funded COTS agreement with NASA. “We think it’s very important to go through with that now,” she said. The sooner that the Capability D option in SpaceX’s COTS agreement is exercised, she noted, the sooner the company can start work on long-lead items like the escape tower, a system that will take 18–24 months to complete. Moreover, she noted, the nature of the agreement reduced NASA’s risk. “You don’t get paid until you perform… There’s no downside here. So I don’t understand why anybody would really object to getting going with this because you have to prove you can do it before the government pays.”

Richards, though, remained convinced that the cargo-first approach was the best way to go. “Resources are dear and budgets are tight, so I think it’s a matter of what’s the most value for the buck,” he said. “To my view, there’s really just a lot to be gained by building a robust cargo system, and that will pay dividends down the road to a manned system, but it should be a step-by-step approach.”

While the exchanges above suggested a wide rift between entrepreneurial and established aerospace companies, some argued that there is some room for compromise and cooperation between them. “I think you have to have NewSpace and OldSpace working together,” said Jeff Patton of United Launch Alliance (ULA). While ULA—the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that operates the Atlas and Delta launch vehicle programs—might seem like a decidedly “OldSpace” venture, it has cooperated with NewSpace companies like Bigelow Aerospace seeking access to space. “ULA is not necessarily the dinosaur that we were when we were two different companies.”