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.