While last week’s news about the new privately-funded air-launch system was exciting, many industry observers have been scratching their heads over aspects of it that don’t seem to quite add up, from both business and technical perspectives.
One of the first industry analysts to question it, and issue a contrarian view, was Jeff Foust, over at the NewSpace Journal. He notes that the projected costs for the aircraft are far lower than any standard cost model would indicate, even taking into account the innovation of Scaled Composites. For instance, Paul Allen estimated it would cost about ten times what he spent on SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne for the X-Prize, or on the order of three hundred million dollars. But reportedly, that is about what Virgin Galactic is spending on WhiteKnightTwo, so it seems unlikely that they would be able to build an aircraft so much larger for the same amount.
Foust also points out that the existing market for the vehicle is far too small to amortize the vehicle’s development costs, and that in that context it will face stiff competition from Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares (the rocket formerly known as Taurus II) and international players, for a Delta II class vehicle, and even SpaceX’s Falcon 9, with its low costs, despite the fact that it’s oversized for the mission.
There were other strange things about the announcement, which was rumored to have occurred last week to provide an explanation for the groundbreaking of the new giant hangar for the vehicle at Mojave Air and Spaceport, which was pretty hard to hide. One is that, while SpaceX is clearly a key player in the venture as described, no one from the company was represented at the press conference, other than Adam Harris, vice-president of government affairs (interesting choice for a supposedly commercial venture) who was sitting in the audience. Another is that Burt Rutan seemed to be there more for appearances, and not familiar with much of the system or its purpose other than the airplane.
Perhaps the aspect that industry analysts found most perplexing is the role of the Huntsville people: former NASA administrator Mike Griffin and Dynetics, with Dave King (former head of Marshall Spaceflight Center under Griffin) and Steve Cook (former head of the cancelled Constellation program). Despite the glitzy nature of their web site, what specific and relevant experience does Dynetics have with such an integration role that makes them uniquely suited to the task, particularly given that both aircraft and rocket will be developed in southern California, increasing program costs with a lot of travel?
And what value do people who presided over a major NASA program that spent many billions of dollars of taxpayer money with little to show for it, with a schedule slipping more than a year per year at the time it was ended, bring to a supposed fast, lean commercial venture? Stranger still was Griffin’s tepid endorsement of the concept at the presser: “I don’t know that it’s a better way, but it’s an approach which has a long history.” Nothing says “I’m excited about this program!” like “I don’t know that it’s a better way.”
Some have argued (including me, last week), given the market issues described above, and the additional complications introduced by air launch, that the market for this vehicle has to be one that a) doesn’t currently exist and b) demands the flexibility in launch azimuth, latitude and longitude to allow rendezvous with a target in a single orbit. The latter requirement is the only one that cannot be met by a conventional launcher from a conventional range. The most innocuous such market would be space passengers (particularly wealthy ones) who don’t want to sit in a cramped capsule for days waiting for their vehicle to catch up with an orbiting space facility.
But there is a problem with this rationale. Paul Allen himself said that humans would not be the initial payload — that they would want to develop a lot of confidence in the system before they would use it for that purpose.
Is there some other mission that would fit the above criteria?
To understand what it might be, a little non-space history may be instructive.
In 1968, a Soviet Golf-II Class ballistic missile submarine, carrying nuclear missiles and torpedoes, sank in the Pacific Ocean a few hundred miles northwest of Hawaii, in 17,000 feet of water. US intelligence agencies knew where it went down, but it became clear after observing a lot of searching by the Soviet Navy, that the Soviets did not, and had given up on finding it. The CIA was very interested in attempting to recover the vehicle for the intelligence it might provide, so not long after, they covertly talked to Howard Hughes, who under cover of building a vessel to look for manganese modules on the ocean floor, spent a couple hundred million dollars (for which he was no doubt surreptitiously reimbursed) to have Global Marine build a ship called the Glomar Explorer, capable of operating at great depths from the surface. In 1974, it headed off to the location of the sunk sub, ostensibly looking to explore and perhaps mine the sea floor, found the vessel, and without the Soviets having any idea what was going on, lifted part of the sub to the surface (though it broke in the process, and not all of it could be recovered). So it is not without precedent for a supposedly commercial project to act as a cover for a more interesting purpose.
With that in mind, let us consider one other feature of air launch. It not only allows the launch into a precise orbital location in an orbit plane, but it allows one to do it with no notice or warning. It’s hard to hide a launch from a launch site, because satellites can observe a rocket sitting there every day, and when it launches it can be easily tracked. But if an aircraft is sitting in a hangar, there’s no way to know if it is being prepared for a launch, and if it rolls out when there are no satellites overhead, no one will see it. And even if a ground observer reports that the aircraft has taken off, there is no easy way to track it out over an ocean where it will deploy its payload. In other words, it allows a stealth launch, with no immediate knowledge of the trajectory or target. In fact, this is doubtless one of the reasons that DARPA is interested in a similar, but much smaller system, for which bids are due today.
So if that’s the mission for this system, what might the payload be?
There is a vehicle in orbit right now, called the X-37, built by Boeing. A small unmanned space plane (it resembles a mini-shuttle), it has been up for months, and occasionally maneuvers to a new orbit. The new launch system was stated as having a 13,000 pound orbital capability. The X-37 weighs 11,000 pounds, which might provide margin if it was to be deployed to higher inclination or altitude orbits. Note that while the payload class of the new launch vehicle is the same as a Delta II, its fairing is much larger (the picture at the press conference shows it to be the same diameter as the Falcon 9, or twelve feet, as opposed to the Delta’s eight feet). The X-37, with its fifteen-foot wingspan, wouldn’t fit in that fairing, but it would fit nicely in the Falcon’s wider “hammerhead” fairing.
What would it do were it to rendezvous with a target of interest? Not that much is known about the capabilities of the vehicle, but at a minimum, it would be able to do a close-up inspection, on short notice, of any satellite in low earth orbit. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come up with other things it might do, given appropriate manipulators, tools and motivation.
Is this why Paul Allen is building what some are calling “Birdzilla“? If asked, he’ll likely have no comment, but there are a couple of additional pieces of the puzzle that fit quite nicely, and perhaps explains the Huntsville connection..
The first is that the Chief Operating Office of Stratolaunch is Susan Turner. She just happens to be the former head of the NASA MSFC X-37 program. Just a coincidence, probably.
The second is that one of Mike Griffin’s previous jobs was the head of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm in Arlington, Virginia.
Its source of funding? The Central Intelligence Agency. Make of all this what you will.