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Falcon 9 on pad
Those frustrated with the pace of developments in the commercial space industry, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 (above), can learn a lesson from another transportation industry two centuries ago. (credit: SpaceX)

From Fulton to Falcon


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There’s a lot of frustration in the air. For decades, NASA has been fumbling round going nowhere at the taxpayers’ expense. Private enterprise is taking its sweet time to fill the vacuum while dealing with technical problems, financial issues and on and on. Will we ever be able to buy a ticket to ride? But let’s think about it for a moment. Isn’t this how it’s always been with great innovations? Giving birth to them is a painful process; it’s a game of chutes and ladders, not a linear path to certain success.

Giving birth to innovations is a painful process; it’s a game of chutes and ladders, not a linear path to certain success.

History isn’t destiny, but it can be a good teacher helping us to put things into perspective. Perhaps if we travel back to the late 18th century we may find another story of amateurs who, notwithstanding their lack of knowledge of a key technology, set out to create a new industry through research, trial and error, some serendipitous meetings, as well dealing with geopolitics and the need to find a way round another country’s export prohibitions. More than two hundred years later, the nascent private enterprise space industry is working through a similar process—keep this in mind as you read on and think about the parallels.

The need for a reusable craft

In the 18th century, America faced a huge transportation problem: how to sail a boat downriver to the port of New Orleans and make the return trip against the current. It was impossible. Once the cargo had been delivered, the only sensible course was to break up the vessel since it was of no further use. A solution was needed—a boat that could navigate under its own power against the river flow and be used repeatedly. The problem back then was: What on-board power source could be used?

At that time there was only one answer—steam! And only one problem: England had banned the export to America of any technology or skill. The challenge was to reinvent the steam engine and design a compact version that could fit in a small boat and deliver enough power to drive it upstream. The pioneer, John Fitch, became fascinated by the potential of such a device despite only having seen a drawing of a massive Newcomen beam engine in an encyclopedia. He immediately set out to research the steam engine.

By chance his drinking partner, a German clockmaker, was also eager to build an engine (serendipitous meeting #1). The pair joined forces and within two years they had: constructed a working model of an engine incorporating new technological advancements over the Newcomen/Watt engines; then built a full-scale engine; and experimented with various mechanical paddle configurations to drive the boat. Fitch worked hard to raise funds for the project during a recession (state legislators declined to invest). He negotiated operating monopoly licenses from Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania, and, in 1787, demonstrated the first working steamboat to the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Here was a vision-driven innovator at work. He went on to open the world’s first steamboat ferry service on the Delaware, but traffic was never sufficient to make a profit (a service on the Hudson would have been a better choice). Fitch set out to build a better, faster boat but it was wrecked on its moorings in a storm. Depressed, he took his own life having failed to expand beyond the Delaware and realize his dream of conquering the Mississippi. Yet he died believing that it would happen one day.

Robert Fulton, the most famous of the steamboat pioneers, picked up the challenge of making Fitch’s dream a reality. In early 1802, while seeking his fortune in France, he was introduced to the well-connected American, Robert Livingston, who had acquired the license for ferry services on the Hudson, previously granted to Fitch (serendipitous meeting #2). Their conversation turned to ideas for building a steamboat together. Livingston had tinkered with ideas for such a boat but was no mechanic while Fulton, who started out as a painter, had moved on to engineering design. However, he was not about to reinvent the steam engine. Instead he asked Livingston (who had been a diplomat) to find a way to obtain an engine from England. In the interim he undertook a great deal of research on the design of a steamboat and chose side-mounted paddlewheels as the most efficient way to drive the vessel.

Often, the innovator’s first step is to make a statement such as: “There must be a better way.”

In August, 1803, after experimenting with a model boat, Fulton’s first full-scale craft, using a French steam engine, was demonstrated on the Seine. This was less than 18 months after the first discussion with Livingston. Despite this triumph, Livingston and Fulton became diverted in other ventures and did not press ahead with the steamboat idea until an engine was finally finagled out of England and shipped to New York where Fulton took possession of it at the end of 1806. Having secured an extension to the Hudson license, and with the Mississippi opened up as a result of the Louisiana Purchase (geopolitics at a fire-sale price), the future looked bright.

Fulton’s first American boat was built at a shipyard on the East River in 1807. After a trial run, it was ready for the inaugural trip up the Hudson from New York to Albany. This voyage took 32 hours, including an overnight stop, which compared very favourably with a sailboat that could take from 3 to 9 days to cover the distance. From then on, Fulton continuously improved his engines and the design and fitting of his boats to create the first steamboat empire. From the eastern rivers, he expanded out to the Ohio and the Mississippi. The first boat from Pittsburgh down to New Orleans arrived in January 1812. This was 25 years after Fitch’s initial demonstration in Philadelphia and the American west was now opened for travel and trade.

It’s a messy business

What do these stories tell us about the chaotic business of innovation?

The question. Often, the innovator’s first step is to make a statement such as: “There must be a better way.” From there the next step is to frame the crucial question, in this case: Can a steam engine be used to power a boat against the river current? However, the answer rarely leaps fully formed from the mind of the innovator. Fitch was unschooled in steam technology and had to reinvent (and miniaturize) it in America. Fulton had produced many engineering designs for canals but needed to undertake extensive research before building his first boat in France. Visionaries who ask the right question don’t let their lack of knowledge prevent them from seeking the (sometimes revolutionary) answer. Bigelow, Carmack, Bezos, and Musk had no relevant prior experience but they are all achieving great things in NewSpace. Their starting point was to say: “There must be a better, cheaper, faster way to get into space than leaving it up to NASA.”

Experiment. Experimentation was necessary, both in engine design and paddle or wheel configurations, and there was an urge to keep iterating the design to achieve constant improvement, not only in steam technology but in enhancing the onboard facilities to improve the passenger experience. The SpaceX Falcon, Armadillo’s lunar lander, and Bigelow’s Genesis modules have been produced through design iterations. Virgin Galactic’s efforts are directed toward creating a compelling experience for its customers. The research and experimentation parts of the process take as long as they take.

Adopt and adapt. Innovation doesn’t have to start with a blank page, as Fitch did, it can come from adopting what others have already developed—the Fulton approach. What matters is what the innovator does with it. Fulton was focused on building a business, not creating a new technology. There’s nothing wrong with that—the secret is to implement an idea far more effectively and consistently than anyone else. Today, many commentators seem frustrated because, in their view, the NewSpace pioneers are working with well-known, even old, technology rather than breaking new ground. But choosing paddlewheels to drive a boat was simply a repurposing of the waterwheels that had long been used to power mills and in no way diminishes the great innovation of the steamboat. None of us can know what’s around the corner and the breakthrough improvements that will emerge (see Oliver Evans below). Meanwhile like Fulton, Richard Branson has tapped into Scaled’s success with WK/SS1 rather than build his own ship from scratch.

Such amateurs attempting to work magic are always an affront to the cognoscenti who know what is and isn’t possible.

Ignore the experts. Bringing an innovation to the world will often incur the disdain or outright hostility of the experts. There were many who denounced the steamboat as a ridiculous proposition that was doomed to failure. Another pioneer, Oliver Evans, who invented the high-pressure steam engine, was up against a view that anyone who attempted such a hazardous feat was criminally insane. Nonetheless he persevered, rightly convinced that all existing low-pressure engines were grossly inefficient. Innovation is often about making the impossible a reality.

Fitch was something of a drifter who had tried his hand at many occupations. Fulton was a struggling artist who turned his mind to picturing the possibilities of a fortune from steam navigation. Such amateurs attempting to work magic are always an affront to the cognoscenti who know what is and isn’t possible. Today, Congress and some “experts” are not wholly convinced that private enterprise has the ability to deliver the goods (or the astronauts) any time soon, suggesting that it would be reckless to rely on such high-risk, “unprofessional” players. History says otherwise.

Funding. The early steamboat ventures had to chase money wherever they could. Many potential investors sat on their cash, perhaps heeding the “expert” naysayers in believing that the steamboat was a dubious proposition. State legislatures would not part with a penny although they did grant monopoly licenses. In today’s economic climate it isn’t easy to raise funds from venture capitalists, many of whom veer towards a short-term view. Government may provide funds through NASA’s programs and contests. We should also note that it has taken several decades for the entrepreneurs behind SpaceX, Blue Origin, Bigelow, and Armadillo to create the wealth that has enabled them to invest in space. Give them time and be grateful for their dreams.

Regulation. Any new technology may be inherently dangerous until it develops to maturity. Explosions happened frequently in early steam engines causing many deaths. Eventually, and after much deliberation over whether the government had the power to legislate on consumer protection, Congress enacted two groundbreaking pieces of legislation in1838 and 1852 intending to reduce the risks to the travelling public. Boiler specifications were established along with regular inspections by skilled engineers. Yet this did not prevent the catastrophic explosion aboard the steamer Sultana at Memphis in 1865 that claimed around 1,800 lives and has become known as the “Titanic of the Mississippi”. NewSpace has benefited from a light-touch regulatory environment, but there has to be recognition that accidents will happen and regulation will inevitably get tougher. We can only hope that despite the obvious benefits of such regulation, they won’t be taken too far too early and strangle an emerging industry.

Markets. Finally, there’s the tricky question of markets. Drawing analogies from the steamboat stories, Fitch had to stay close to his investors and never expanded beyond the Delaware, becoming tied to the equivalent of suborbital hops that never produced a profit—a warning for Virgin Galactic. Fulton, on the other hand, having achieved success on the Hudson, made the giant leap and sailed down the Mississippi to expand his business empire; this achievement is a parallel to placing a satellite in earth orbit as SpaceX did with Falcon 1 and following up with the launch of Falcon 9—the next step up. We have to wait and see who will find the profitable markets in NewSpace.

The cycle of innovation

Today’s space entrepreneurs are going through the same experiences as the steamboat pioneers. As frustrating as it may seem, there is a process at work here that can’t be sidestepped.

The great French scientist, Antoine Lavoisier, wrote in 1790 that the proper scientific method must be based on precise experiment, close observation, and accurate measurement. In modern times this was immortalised by Quality guru, William Edwards Deming, in what has become known as the “Deming Cycle”. This is an iterative process of Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA).

Private enterprise is alive and well and is the future for space access. No government in the world will open up space for everyone: it’s too risky.

Whether used as an approach to experimentation, product development, or as a quality improvement tool, PDCA requires the innovator to: Plan an experiment or trial; Do it while making observations and gathering performance data; Check on what has occurred and analyse the data to establish what worked and what problems were encountered; then Act to solve any problems and design improvements. Then it’s time to begin the cycle again by planning for the next iteration. The process may cause the innovator to go back to the drawing board many times or simply to give up the struggle. But there is no shortcut–all innovations in human history have followed this path.

The future

Private enterprise is alive and well and is the future for space access. No government in the world will open up space for everyone: it’s too risky. In a wider context, the work going on in the US provides an answer to those who fret that the nation is losing its capacity for innovation. As well as the famous names mentioned above, there are many more enterprising pioneers such as UP Aerospace, Orion Propulsion, Masten Space Systems, XCOR Aerospace, Unreasonable Rocket, and others too numerous to list. In addition, developments in biotech, nanotech, clean energy, and smart infrastructure indicate that we are on the brink of a golden age of innovation, not witnessing the end of an era.

Back in 1802, the eminent British scientist, Humphry Davy, looking to the future of scientific advancements, said: “We look for a time that we may reasonably expect, for a bright day of which we already behold the dawn.”

The sun’s coming up. Be patient.


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