The State Of The Industry

I mentioned yesterday that, in addition to hawking rockets, John Carmack had an assessment of the state of the industry and his competition. If you didn’t read it, it’s well worth a read, and I largely agree with it. Just a few quibbles:

Scaled / Virgin is the safest bet for success. Outside of the X-15, Space Ship One is the only example of a reusable, 100km class manned vehicle. Everyone else, us included, requires a lot more extrapolation for an investor to believe in, and the problem isn’t nearly as trivial as some people like to make it out to be with the “There are no technical challenges, just give us the money!” lines. It is not true that any old team could have won the X-Prize if Paul Allen had given them $20 million.

On this last sentence, while I don’t have any reason to think that John is aiming that comment at me in particular, I have made statements, both at Space Access a couple weeks ago and here, that some might mistakenly take to mean that I would dispute this. I have said that Burt’s success lay not (just) in his engineering talents, but more importantly, in his reputation and ability to raise the money. When I said that the mystique of Burt has been broken, my point was that many people believed (and still may believe) that only Burt could have won the X-Prize, in terms of technical capability, and I don’t believe that to be the case.

Clearly, only Burt was capable of raising the money (at least from Paul Allen) to win the X-Prize, and that this was the critical achievement. I do believe that there are others who, had they been adequately funded (i.e., on the same level as Burt) could have won as well. That does not mean that I believe that “any old team” could have done it–there were obviously many teams that couldn’t engineer their way out of a wet kleenex. It takes a combination of engineering capability and funding. There was more engineering capability than funding available, at least at the time, and only Burt had both, so Burt won.

I also agree with John’s assessment that Scaled’s approach is low risk, but also high marginal cost and not particularly operable (and not as safe as advertised from the standpoint of propulsion–I’ve long been on record as saying that hybrids have been overhyped from a safety standpoint, and have suggested to Alex Tai that he should be soft peddling this aspect). They’ve chosen a hyperconservative design that will be safe, but they also risk getting undercut in price by more operable systems with lower marginal costs, and marginal costs are important when you get into a price war. Sir Richard has the funds to subsidize the system for a while to compete, but I doubt if he wants to do it forever. So they are smart to be a space line that will have access to other vehicles, because I suspect that they’re going to decide that they need options other than WK2/SS2.

I also agree that Dreamchaser is not a promising concept (again, partly because hybrids have been overhyped). I thoroughly agree with his pithy assessment of EADS/Astrium’s laughable proposal: “Oh, please.”

I think that his assessment of his own efforts is valid. He has taken an approach of build a little, test a little, and expanded it to build a lot, fly a lot, and he does in fact probably have more test time than all the other folks put together (though as he notes, XCOR is likely to catch up quickly as they move forward with X-Racer and Lynx).

The great thing is that we don’t have to bet on a single horse. There are a number of competing approaches, both in terms of how to develop vehicles, and what kind of experience to offer to the customers. You’ll never get me in the fishbowl, both because I’d feel much too exposed, but also because I don’t think that I’ll ever trust engines alone to get me down safely. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be a successful concept in the market, though. Unlike many, I don’t foolishly extrapolate my own interests to the rest of the marketplace. I think that there will be different strokes for different folks, and that only by trying a number of different approaches will we see how many of them will be successful, and which will be most successful, which is something that will never happen under a government space program (though we had at least a shot at it under Steidle’s plan for a CEV fly-off, until Mike came along and canned him, and implemented the One True Concept).

We’ve been talking for a long time about a return to the early days of aviation, with a wide variety of approaches, and letting the market sort it out. It appears that we’re finally on the verge of seeing that happen, and I find it very exciting, for all that it’s belated.

13 thoughts on “The State Of The Industry

  1. Paul Milenkovic

    Rand, what is your take on Rocket Man of http://www.rocketsandsuchblogspot.com on what Rocket Man calls Space 2.0?

    Rocket Man is a big critic of NASA and their Stick, but he doesn’t offer much encouragement for the entreprenurial space startups either. If it isn’t a matter of being “rocket science”, the take is that it takes a goodly amount of engineering to get the controlled explosion that is a rocket launch to hang together, and the current generation EELV’s are as good a distillation of that engineering to get workable launchers as anything else. The offered solution is to use EELV’s to the extent possible, and to lower cost, buy in quantity and increase the launch rate.

    Do you think Rocket Man’s criticism of Space 2.0 efforts miss the mark, or what is the proper way to reconcile Rocket Man’s remarks with these activities?

  2. Jim Bennett

    Basically, I agree, especially about the joy of multple approaches. One point about hybrids, there has been much confusion here. It’s questionable whether the N2O-PBD system should be thought of as a hybrid at all, but rather as a liquid monoprop engine with a sort-of afterburner. Hybrids give a safety advantage over a bipropellant liquid on an apples-to-apples comparative basis, e.g., a LOX-PBD system is safer than a LOX-RP1 system. (I should know; we crisped one of the former, and it did a hell of a lot less damage than one of the latter would have done.) However, a hazardous propellant (like N2O) does not magically become safer per se merely by sticking a tube off PDB on behind it.

    In the case of the SS1/SS2 propulsion choice, the big item was the desire to avoid pumps, which led to the choice of N2O. Changing the propulsion system now would probably require going to pumps, and if you do that you are still better off, safety-wise, going to a LOX-PBD hybrid. OTOH you could buy something close to an off-the-shelf liquid system with substantial experience in flight, which is not the case with hybrids.

  3. Rand Simberg

    Do you think Rocket Man’s criticism of Space 2.0 efforts miss the mark

    Briefly, I think they miss the mark.

  4. Brock

    “You’ll never get me in the fishbowl, both because I’d feel much too exposed, but also because I don’t think that I’ll ever trust engines alone to get me down safely.”

    I think the exposure is the draw of the fishbowl. You can’t get a better window seat.

    I agree about the rockets-only approach to landing though. I think Armadillo will have a better shot at attracting tourists if there’s a back-up system of some kind, such as a “detach bowl from tanks, deploy parachute” system. Even if it’s never used (like the 747’s mythological ability to effect a “water landing”), the psychological benefit of knowing there’s at least a small chance of a successful “Plan B” will bring in more customers.

    As you say though, it’s nice we’ll have options.

  5. Rand Simberg

    I think the exposure is the draw of the fishbowl. You can’t get a better window seat.

    I understand that. I’m saying that, for me, it’s not a draw. It’s a bug, not a feature. I like windows in airplanes, but that’s too much for an acrophobe like me. Again, that’s the reason that we need a variety of approaches–because one size does not fit all.

  6. Bob

    I wonder whether painting the fishbowl (leaving windows) would help? If the paint was removable, maybe passengers could request the paint job (and hence the window size) that they feel comfortable with.

  7. kert

    the psychological benefit of knowing there’s at least a small chance of a successful “Plan B” will bring in more customers.
    At the flight costs they are currently considering, they will have no shortage of customers. And parachutes, as they already found out, are a insurance nightmare for worst-case failure modes. Bailing out Vostok-style with personal parachute would be a better fallback, if there is a need for one.

    I’d be their guinea pig paying customer as soon as possible.

  8. Arnie Abrahamson

    You claim that Scaled’s design is ‘hyperconservative’. I don’t think ‘conservative’ goes beyond ‘very’.

    Conservatism is like the speed of light. Once you go past conservative, you’re going back in time.

  9. Habitat Hermit

    Spot on with the main post Rand. There was something minor he said I didn’t completely agree with but I can’t even recall it –the EADS comment blew it away ^_^

    Brock wrote:
    “I think the exposure is the draw of the fishbowl. You can’t get a better window seat.”

    I love flying, having a window seat, and grinding my nose to the glass looking out (not literally but close). Sharp turns are great since you get a much better view of the ground. However in the fishbowl I don’t think I would feel like I had a window but like I had nothing at all ^_^;

    Big and sure to be popular feature but not for me and yes painting the bubble would actually help as it’s purely psychological (I’m sure Armadillo will employ backup solutions and wouldn’t worry too much about that). Of course with a partly painted bubble I would feel like a complete wimp (which in this case is plainly true) in addition to feeling like losing a lot of the experience (it’s not rational at all, not one bit) ^_^

    I don’t really have acrophobia; it’s the vertigo (and the loss of control it causes) I fear and not the height, but with the fishbowl I think it might be something else (called it “claustrophilia” over at RLVnews). If the flight suit was as bulky and enclosed as a spacesuit it might actually solve it (completely ridiculous but likely true).

  10. FC

    In a suitably reinforced suit, a bareback ride would probably attract both spacedivers and people who just want a bigger rush.

  11. kert

    Hey, flying to space will be a unique and rare experience anyway, its got to be a transformational thing. So going the extra length and getting the best, the absolute “bestest” view from a fishbowl sounds like good value for the money.

  12. Josh Reiter

    I don’t think the current fishbowl design will stand once they actually start moving with any type of speed. Does anyone really think those tethered straps holding down the bowl are going to survive high mach numbers?

  13. Habitat Hermit

    Well it’s just a concept sketch first of all, don’t let the fact that it wasn’t drawn with crayons fool you ^_^ (they’re led by a 3D game guru after all so the eyecandy is almost obligatory).

    Second they’re aiming for slow which is pretty cool in itself in my opinion (nobody does cruises in speedboats) and makes sure the passengers have plenty of time to thoroughly pee their pants… it’s bound to happen to at least some right? Maybe they should even make “I peed my pants in space” bragging t-shirts ^_^

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