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Anderson and Carmack
Eric Anderson of Space Adventures (left) and John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace talk about their partnership to develop a suborbital vehicle at the International Space Development Conference in Chicago on May 27. (credit: J. Foust)

Rockets and rhetoric in Chicago

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Chicago isn’t a city known for its deep ties to the space industry, and the Memorial Day holiday weekend isn’t always the best time to attract people to a conference. Nonetheless, a few hundred people, ranging from industry professionals to long-time activists, journeyed to a hotel near O’Hare International Airport last weekend for the 2010 International Space Development Conference (ISDC), the annual conference of the National Space Society (NSS).

Although many people would have attended the conference regardless of the location and date, others were clearly drawn by the choice of topics presented at the event. While it can difficult generalizing a sprawling multi-track conference like ISDC, two key areas garnered plenty of interest from attendees: the latest developments from the entrepreneurial “NewSpace” sector of the space industry and the current, sometimes heated debate about the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program.

The development of NewSpace

Perhaps the biggest news to emerge from ISDC was the announcement of a partnership between Armadillo Aerospace, a vehicle developer founded by noted game designer John Carmack, and Space Adventures, the space tourism company best known for arranging the flights of several private citizens to the International Space Station over the last nine years. Under the arrangement, Space Adventures will help fund the development of a vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) suborbital vehicle by Armadillo to carry one or more people. (The partnership was actually announced back in late April, but the companies waited until a joint presentation at ISDC on Thursday to provide more details.)

“One of my new rules on this is that I’m not going to get up and talk about something unless a check has cleared.” And since Carmack was getting up and talking about this, he confirmed, “Space Adventures has actually paid Armadillo Aerospace to begin developing a new suborbital vehicle.”

At ISDC, Space Adventures president and CEO Eric Anderson and Armadillo Aerospace founder John Carmack provided little in the way of technical or schedule details about their plans. The companies have not settled on a vehicle design yet; a video shown at the conference included a variety of concepts, ranging from a cone sitting atop spherical propellant tanks and an engine to a clear “fishbowl”-like design similar to what Armadillo unveiled in 2008 in a short-lived partnership with the Rocket Racing League to develop a suborbital vehicle. Instead, Anderson and Carmack indicated they planned to take advantage of Armadillo’s capabilities to quickly design, build, and test vehicle concepts to help identify which design will best meet their needs. Carmack did indicate that he hoped to be flying payloads (but not necessarily people) to altitudes of 30 kilometers (100,000 feet) within the next year, and to 100 kilometers within the following year.

The companies didn’t disclose details of the arrangement between the two companies, beyond the fact that Space Adventures was providing an unspecified amount of money to Armadillo to support vehicle development. Alluding to past partnership announcements that failed to pan out, Carmack said, “One of my new rules on this is that I’m not going to get up and talk about something unless a check has cleared.” And since Carmack was getting up and talking about this, he confirmed, “Space Adventures has actually paid Armadillo Aerospace to begin developing a new suborbital vehicle.” He later said that the contract is milestone based, with Space Adventures providing some upfront funding, with additional money linked to Armadillo achieving a series of milestones in vehicle development. “The amount of money that has changed hands here is not trivial, but it’s not enough to fund the vehicles,” he said. “It isn’t enough money to pay for these vehicles, it’s enough money to make me think about not pursuing other contracts.”

The arrangement also marks a return to the suborbital market for Space Adventures, which had been the company’s original focus back in the late 1990s when many vehicle developers were saying “we’re only two years away,” Anderson recalled. “We didn’t have any idea at the time that we would be fortunate enough to be able to launch private citizens to orbit before suborbital flights,” he said. Later, Space Adventures pursued a Russian suborbital vehicle concept called Explorer (which, like Virgin Galactic’s system, featured a suborbital vehicle launched from an airplane), but later abandoned because “frankly, it got too expensive.” Anderson said that over time he became convinced that Armadillo’s rapid development cycle was the way to reduce the costs of spaceflight.

Carmack generated a little bit of controversy when he compared Armadillo’s efforts with those by competing suborbital developers. Virgin Galactic, he suggested, would not be able to fly as cheaply as Armadillo; Virgin currently charges $200,000 for a ticket while Space Adventures is asking for about half that, $102,000. “I think they have explicitly not chosen the most cost effective solution on this,” Carmack said. “I don’t think they will be able to compete on price, eventually, but some people will prefer their experience.”

Carmack was critical of another company, XCOR Aerospace, from a funding standpoint. “I believe that, if fully funded, they could build a vehicle that could fly, that could service passengers,” he said. “I do not believe they are fully funded.” He then issued something of a warning to other companies, after earlier noting that Armadillo planned to accelerate its development plans and hire more people. “I think one of the best things about having the other companies in the industry is that it’s developed some very skilled and talented people, and we’re probably going to steal some of them.”

XCOR president Jeff Greason did not directly address those claims in his ISDC presentation the following day, but gave every indication that development of his company’s suborbital spaceplane, the Lynx, was going well. Engine work continue, he said, although their development and testing“are not my worry.” The company has been focusing more on aerodynamics, refining the design of the vehicle ever so slightly to deal with “subtle but incredibly stubborn” issues found in subsonic wind tunnel tests. Supersonic wind tunnel tests are scheduled to begin in several weeks, and the company has already started fabricating parts for a structural test article. Greason said they’re currently planning a mid-2011 rollout of the Lynx Mark 1 vehicle and start of its flight test program.

Shortly before ISDC, XCOR announced a partnership with another Mojave-based NewSpace company, Masten Space Systems. The two plan to work together to develop systems to demonstrate lander technology on the Earth and/or Moon that the agency has identified as a key technology in its newly-revised Exploration Technology Development and Demonstration plans. Under the partnership, Masten will produce the vehicles, which will be powered by liquid oxygen/methane engines based on technology already demonstrated by XCOR.

“There’s this misperception that commercial doesn’t care about safety. We care more about safety,” Gold said.

“What triggered this is that we received strong indications from a strategic customer that signaled to us that they would welcome the pairing of Masten’s vehicle technology with our engine technology; that if we put those two competencies together it would scratch an itch that they really had no way to scratch right now,” Greason said. The pairing of Masten and XCOR was a natural fit, he said. “They’re around the corner: we’ve known these guys, they know us. We know how to work together. We know we can talk to each other.”

While Masten vehicles will use XCOR engines for this particular project, Masten will continue to develop its own engines, using isopropyl alcohol rather than methane as fuel, for its VTVL suborbital vehicles. On Wednesday the company achieved a new milestone in its vehicle development: it successfully turned off and, a few seconds later, restarted an engine in flight during a low-altitude test of its Xombie vehicle.

Company president Dave Masten said at ISDC that the company’s major project this year is the development of “AeroXoie”, a reconfigured version of the Xoie vehicle that won first prize in level 2 of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge last year that features a carbon composite aeroshell. Next year the company will move on to its next vehicle, dubbed Xogdor, that will be able to fly to over 100 kilometers with an unmanned payload.

Masten also addressed the suggestion from Carmack’s presentation that Masten might be one of the underfunded companies from which Armadillo will seek to hire away engineers from. “We have plenty of money,” he said. “We’re in really good financial shape. We have lots of cash in the bank.” In addition, he said, “our pipeline is full on the sales side.”

Another NewSpace company looking to take advantage of the new interest in technology development at NASA is Bigelow Aerospace, best known for developing inflatable (or, as the company prefers, “expandable”) orbital habitats. Speaking at ISDC, Mike Gold, director of Washington operations for the Las Vegas-based firm, said that Bigelow had been in discussions with NASA about developing an inflatable module for the ISS called, rather straightforwardly, the Bigelow Aerospace Module (BAM), to address the agency’s new interest in that technology.

Gold, though, indicated Bigelow has some concerns about NASA’s interest on this. “The good news is that NASA is paying attention to the technology,” Gold said. “The bad news is that NASA is paying attention to the technology.” A particular issue is NASA’s apparent interest in a “full scale” inflatable module for the station; Gold said there are a number of technical issues that make pursuing that unwise. The BAM that the company has talked with NASA about would be smaller—similar to the two Genesis demonstration spacecraft launched by Bigelow in 2006 and 2007—than the Sundancer and BA 330 modules the company is developing.

Bigelow is also hoping the focus on commercial crew transportation in the agency’s revised plan will benefit the company as well, as the same vehicles that can serve NASA’s needs for the ISS could also fly to future Bigelow space stations. “The long pole in the tent for our operations is that while we could have Sundancer ready very quickly, we don’t have a way to get people back and forth,” Gold explained. The company’s decade-long development effort, which Gold said cost $180 million, “will be for naught if we don’t have affordable, reliable transportation.”

He also rejected claims that commercial crew would inherently be less safe than government systems. “There’s this misperception that commercial doesn’t care about safety. We care more about safety,” he said. While a government agency could survive a fatal accident—as NASA has in the past—he believes that a fatal commercial accident could result in hundreds of millions of dollars of losses and even force companies out of business. “We’re more incentivized to be safe than a government agency because we have a lot riding on it.”

NASA administrator Charles Bolden explains why the White House’s new plan for NASA is the best for the agency since President Kennedy in an after-dinner speech at ISDC on March 28. (credit: J. Foust)

Heated debate about NASA’s plans

That revised plan for NASA, which cancels most elements of the Constellation program and puts more emphasis on technology development and commercial capabilities, was, as one might expect, a hot topic for discussion at ISDC. The agency’s top two officials traveled to Chicago to state their case for pressing forward with those new plans.

“We get criticized as though these ideas just hatched out of the blue, as if the president somehow disappeared into a bunker and emerged with these ideas that no one has ever conceived of before,” Bolden said of NASA’s new plan.

“I personally believe the president’s fiscal year 2011 budget and the request that goes with it is good for NASA, because it sets the agency on a sustainable path that’s tightly linked to our nation’s interests,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a dinner speech Friday night. “I also believe what the president has put forward is the most authentically visionary policy for real human space exploration that we have ever had since President Kennedy challenged NASA to send humans to the Moon and return them safely back to Earth in the 1960s.”

Bolden acknowledged, though, that this belief was not universally held. Two days earlier Bolden appeared before the House Science and Technology Committee, many of whose members appeared skeptical of, or outright opposed to, the White House’s plan. (As one committee member, Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), put it to Bolden, “By now you have probably figured out that this committee is not with you.”) Bolden was followed by a panel of witnesses that included Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, who also oppose the plan.

“Some very high profile people are not seeing eye-to-eye with the president right now on the president’s new direction,” Bolden said. However, he said the ideas in the proposal aren’t that new or radical. “We get criticized as though these ideas just hatched out of the blue, as if the president somehow disappeared into a bunker and emerged with these ideas that no one has ever conceived of before,” he said. “The truth is, ever since the Apollo era ten national studies across the board, from the post-Apollo space board to Augustine, have identified the kinds of capabilities we would need if we truly intend to get beyond low Earth orbit.”

Bolden’s speech was marked by one bizarre event as well. Just as he was starting his speech, an unidentified young woman walked up to the podium and took over the microphone. “NASA needs to scrap plans to fund cruel and wasteful on monkeys,” she said, apparently referring to plans by NASA to expose monkeys to doses of radiation to simulate the effects of long-duration interplanetary spaceflight, something the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has been protesting for several months (see “Gorilla theater”, The Space Review, November 23, 2009). “Stop wasting taxpayers’ dollars on wasteful experiments. Shame on you, Charles Bolden! NASA needs to stop animal experiments.” The woman was quickly hustled from the stage and, according to eyewitness accounts, handed over to hotel security and local police; she was ejected from the hotel but not arrested.

In a luncheon speech Saturday, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver (who for several years was executive director of the NSS) discussed the administration’s plan in greater detail. She took on in particular claims that the plan would end NASA’s human spaceflight program entirely. “People have made a lot of rhetorical statements that this plan kills human spaceflight; in fact, it does the opposite,” she said, citing problems with cost and schedule of Constellation.

Garver noted in particular that although the new plan does not explicitly call for a return to the Moon by a specific date—a sharp break from the Vision for Space Exploration, which set 2020 as the goal for returning humans to the surface of the Moon—the Moon was still a part of the long-term vision for human space exploration. “We are not giving up on the Moon,” she said. In fact, she said, because of the sustainability of the new approach versus the problems with Constellation, the new plan “will allow us to go back to the Moon and stay much earlier than the program of record.”

Garver later engaged in an impromptu debate with Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University who previously worked at NASA under former administrator Mike Griffin, over the commercial crew element of the plan. Pace was skeptical of the plan. “The issue that I think is one of the main differences is what role do you think the government should play in human spaceflight in the transition now, at the end of shuttle,” Pace said. “Some think we’re ready to go towards human spaceflight on a commercial vehicle; and I’m not.”

Pace argued that it made sense to “press to MECO” and continue work the Ares 1, citing a $7.5-billion estimate to complete its development. Since $2.5 billion is already in the budget for Constellation closeout costs that presumably would not be needed if Ares 1 were continued, “If I do Ares 1 I get a $5-billion down payment for a heavy-lift vehicle, the Ares 5,” he said, as well as get a backup option should commercial systems falter.

Garver, though, argued that such a government backup system might dissuade companies from investing in commercial systems to avoid competing with the government. She also said that Pace’s Ares 1 price estimate was far too low, claiming the full cost of developing the rocket was in fact $18 billion. “I know people look at the $6 billion for commercial crew and think, ‘oh, if we just use that to complete the existing program,’” she continued. “There’s not nearly enough available to do that.”

“We are not giving up on the Moon,” Garver said. In fact, she said, because of the sustainability of the new approach versus the problems with Constellation, the new plan “will allow us to go back to the Moon and stay much earlier than the program of record.”

The debate about NASA’s future was not settled at ISDC, and will likely continue for months to come. In a luncheon speech Friday, XCOR’s Greason, in his role as a member of last year’s Augustine Committee, said he was “fairly agnostic” about the president’s NASA plans, but decried the debate about them taking place. “The discussion has to be taking place on the basis of the facts that are in front of us. The discussion has to be taking place in terms of the difficult choices that we have to make,” he said. “That is not what I see when I watch Congressional testimony and hearings. What I see is ‘baby wants his rattle back.’ We need better than that.”

Greason said he’s happier now that he’s focused less on policy issues and more on the technical issues of his company and its vehicle development work. “It is a very fun but busy time for me,” he said in his ISDC presentation about XCOR. “I can do less and less of the political BS and less and less of the national policy stuff, and I can spend more and more of my time on the shop floor working on getting the spacecraft built.”