Interview: two guys at the vanguard (part 1)
TSR: This is really exciting and the DoD should really be pushing you hard. They have given you some startup money?
Renaud: We are funded through detailed design review. That takes us out into some time in the middle of ’06 and we’re trying to build up the money to build the vehicles. The manufacturing, the piece parts, that’s a bigger challenge. If you look at government funding, there’s the color of money issue. People who do operational work in the military can’t fund research and development.
TSR: Right, it has to come from the R&D people.
Renaud: The R&D people look at this and go “where’s the R?” I am sure you have heard the term “DARPA hard”. That’s the new buzz phrase: DARPA hard. If you don’t have enough science, new science and technology that is not risky enough, they don’t want to talk to you. They see their vision, their mission, as “do the hard stuff”.
TSR: It’s like the A-10 Warthog. The stuff that actually gets the job done has no friends.
Renaud: The C-130, you are aware they turned it into a gunship. They put a whole bunch of high-caliber weapons on it and they fly in a circle and saturate an area with fire. The only way they could get that funded was through the Congressional add. It would never survive the budget process.
TSR: It’s too boring.
Renaud: Exactly: there’s no technology there. Getting things through the military budget is a hard thing to do. Obviously we are working that. Right now that’s been a hard thing.
TSR: Do you guys have friends in Congress?
Renaud: We have friends everywhere. We don’t have enough money to finish building the vehicle right now. But I don’t need it right now. I have enough money to keep me going for at least another eighteen months. Since we’ve started we’ve always had enough people interested in putting up enough money so we’ve always had at least enough money for a year and a half of work.
I frequently don’t have any money in the bank because we are kept on a short leash. It’s all DoD contracts, so it’s pay by the milestone. If we don’t meet our engineering targets, we don’t get a check. I’ve got a little bit of SBA [Small Business Administration] financing. We are a small business so I can get an SBA loan. It smoothes out the bumps in the cash flow, but it’s not going to fund us for any length of time.
They keep a pretty tight reign on us. I have the money promised. I have contracts to cover me. People say, “How do you get people to take a job and move with that kind of risk?” I think I have more job security than people at Lockheed Martin.
TSR: So what’s your maximum headcount going to be during that timeframe?
Renaud: We are right on target. We have a plan that says we have to get to 12 to 15 by PDR [preliminary design review in 2Q05] and we’re right on that. I think it is about 45-50 people by the time we get to detailed design. We’re sticking to our plan so far.
TSR: Does it jump up again when you actually have to build and test it and upgrade it?
TSR: Will you need different skills at that point, because you need testers?
Renaud: No we’re pretty careful about how we hire. There are two ways to hire: You can put an ad in the paper or put a big sign on your building and take the first guy that comes in. In a small group, that is probably unwise. We were on the ground here six months before I hired my first engineer. Then we got about a guy a month. But we’ve been really, really, really picky. I want somebody who either has direct launch vehicle experience and has taken the launch vehicle from design to flight, or has done the same on the airplane side. It’s a very specific skill set. That pays off an awful lot.
When we first got our vehicle into the CAD system and all laid out, one of my engineers said, “Here, I took the CAD man and put him next to the vehicle in the drawing. See, here’s how big the thing is.” I said, “Wow. That thing is really big.” He kind of looked at me like, “Listen here, I have stood on LOX tanks that are bigger than that whole vehicle.” To them, they know exactly what they are doing. They have done projects much harder.
Off-the-shelf system integration
TSR: Can you tell me about your design philosophy?
Renaud: We try to do everything with off-the-shelf technology, off-the-shelf components. Major suppliers, not SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research] shops. People who actually have done what we want to do before. If I go to somebody and describe a part—
TSR: They don’t say, “We’ve discovered unobtainium and all you have to do is give us $100,000 and we will give it to you.”
Renaud: I get calls all the time from entrepreneurs who have discovered anti-gravity or you know. And I go, “That’s great. Sorry, bye.” But if I go to somebody and I need a part that’s not in their catalog and they say, “Well gee, we think we can make that, but we’re not sure.” I stop. Well obviously what we’re going to do isn’t going to work. We need to rethink that. If they say, “We’ve never made that before, but that’s within our design space. We have to redo the engineering, but we know we can get there. You just have to pay for us to redo the design.” Then I say, “OK.” and I pay the money. But absolutely no technology development. That leads us back to that, “Well, gee, our system is boring and stupid.”
TSR: So no R and now you’re telling me, “no D.”
Renaud: As little D as possible. No parts D, just the integration. We are not willing to do wild extrapolation.
TSR: Obviously you are building a new spacecraft so there’s going to be some new stuff on it. So it’s not going to be 100% off-the-shelf parts. Are you trying to make it 90% and the parts as close to being as off-the-shelf as possible?
Renaud: There’s no parts in there that are technology development. Let’s put it that way. No new materials. No new technology. No new design techniques. No novel weird moulds.
TSR: That sounds like Wozniak and Jobs [of Apple Computer]. Basically, you are taking catalog items and finally putting them together to do something useful.
Renaud: We are building that first eight-bit processor. Yes. It’s going to do something dumb. It’s not going to be optimized for performance. In fact, its performance is gonna suck. It’s not gonna go to orbit. There’s no way I can make it go to orbit. With a straight face, I cannot say this system grows into a single stage to orbit system.
TSR: You would have to start doing what you said you don’t want to do. which is asking for the biggest one of these ever.
Renaud: What I can do is, once I am flying, I can revisit each of those things I said I didn’t want to do any new technology on. Once I’ve got a system that works, and it’s bringing in revenue, I can say, “OK. Now that I’ve got some revenue coming in, let’s start one of those science projects.” Let’s try to make conformal composite tanks for this. If they work, we’ll take our old stupid heavy metal tank and we’ll stick this in. And we’ll make it plug compatible. One of the things we did right from the beginning is we designed a vehicle that is a very loosely coupled design. It’s a modular design.
If you think about a fighter aircraft, a fighter aircraft is a very closely coupled design. The engine controls and the avionics are all over the place. The aero surfaces and the primary flight control are actually load-bearing structure. Everything is all tied together and if you try to make one little change to a component somewhere, it ripples through the entire design.
TSR: Most people think spacecraft have to be that way.
Renaud: Well, because they’re optimized for performance.
Renaud: We’re designing a system that is very loosely coupled.
TSR: Optimized for money?
Renaud: No, it’s optimized for operations.