38 thoughts on “It’s The Frontier, Stupid”

  1. I agree with that statement as long as you’re talking about government programs. For private initiatives, any reason is valid, as long as it makes sense to the backers.

    I disagree with the underlying assumption that exploration must be solely (or predominantly) a government function.

    I also think he’s a bit off the mark in his analysis of Newt Gingrich. Newt did not roll out his ideas for the the first time before “hundreds of space industry people” in January in Florida. It was several months earlier at a town hall meeting in Dallas — the “larger electorate” Charles talks about. (I pitched the softball question to set him up.)

    What went wrong in Florida, I think, is more subtle. Newt allowed the story to be dominated by the “destination” (the Moon base) rather than the method (prizes) which was the important part of his message.

  2. Good article.

    I’m still inclined to think that launching and recovering a rocket vertically is a huge expense, and the expense probably doesn’t scale linearly with the size of the rocket. If we had to stand Boeings on their tails prior to takeoff we wouldn’t have an airline industry because the airports would have to have 300 foot tall buildings with cranes and hoists and crawlers, or the runways would have to have elaborate equipment to raise the airliner to the vertical position, and the turnaround time between flights would be days or weeks. Even for VTOL fighter aircraft, tail sitting was abandoned very quickly as too expensive, unstable, and requiring too much ground-support equipment such as specialized towers, or crazy landing gear that sticks out the back and necessarily struggles to get a wide footprint for stability.

    My thought is that you perform all ground operations horizontally, and then launch the rocket from the horizontal position using a set of stage 0 boosters, and then rotate to vertical in the air just like any other high-performance aircraft would. Recovering a stage by landing it like a conventional VTOL aircaft would also be much easier than getting a very tall, near-empty tail-sitter to set down, especially in a gusty cross-wind. And then, once it’s set down, it’s vastly easier to move and service a horizontal stage than an upright one.

    As spaceflight becomes much cheaper and more routine, the costs, difficulty, and time of handling tall vertical structures will become a larger share of the price. Viewed from this perspective, avoiding vertical ground operations and a tower is probably a significant part of the Stratolauncher’s advantages, whereas the Stratolauncher’s downside is the launch weight limitations and the requirement to have a giant aircraft.

    1. The Pogo turboprop tailsitters were abandoned for many reasons, but the strongest was that when in the vertical position, the pilots found it very difficult to judge their altitude why lying on their backs. They tried to ease the situation somewhat by tilting the seat a little but it was still very difficult. The planes were designed for ship operations and landing a tailsitter on a small, pitching deck would’ve been nearly impossible. The situation was made even worse by the fact that whenever they transitioned from horizontal to vertical flight, they gained a lot of excess altitude. That made the descent even harder. Being turboprop fighters and having to fight pure jets didn’t help their case very much, either.

      Launching rockets horizontally might work but it seems it would add a lot of structural weight to deal with additional load factors. Landing VTOL style sounds like you’d need landing engines or something. If I’m understanding your idea, that would also add considerable weight and complexity.

      1. The Vertijet would land by latching a hook on the nose of the aircraft onto a grappler mechanism attached to a deck that could be raised and lowered from vertical to horizontal. Maybe some type of crane with a hook could snag a booster hovering vertically above the ground.

        1. Yes, vertical capture was fraught with hazards and difficulties and required extreme precision to pull it off. So what we concluded (given the success of the Harrier and hopefully the F-35), was that the simplicity and robustness of horizontal operations justified the greatly increased complexity of redirecting the engine thrust 90 degrees, along with the weight penalties required to do that. In other avenues, the tilt-rotor proved successful and maintainable whereas the propellor-aircraft that tail-sit in helicopter mode were abandoned. So my question is whether all those reasons that favor horizontally oriented vertical takeoff, and purely horizontal ground-handling, would also apply to rockets. My feeling is that they should, but the devil is always in the details of the design.

      2. Buzz Aldrin’s Starbooster was a good compromise, but unfortunately he was never able to get any investors interested it in. For some it was too big a leap, for others not radical enough. Pity.

    2. Well, the structural weight is an issue, as are the added engines unless they can pivot 90 degrees. You could have a launch cradle (which might double as a wheeled trailer) that carries the loads as a stage 0, if the extra cost doesn’t cause its own problems. A stage 0 might have the advantage that the stage 1 landing rockets wouldn’t need to be very large, and if some small engines at the base could rotate 90 degrees for landing you’d only need very small motors at the front to support the light end of a nearly empty stage, and if the stage had a slight taper or you kept the tail a bit lower than the nose, all the fuel weight would be in the back (although the horizontal landing does introduce some issues with fuel slosh that would have to be addressed to keep the CG within acceptable limits).

      If pivoting motors isn’t difficult, it’s also possible that the upper stage engines could fire during launch to support the forward sections (cross-fed from the first stage tanks or the stage 0 tanks), so they wouldn’t be dead-weight during liftoff (combining the thrust advantage of a piggy-back launch configuration with the low-drag performance of a stacked configuration once the vertical rotation is complete). The upper-stage engine’s sea-level efficiency would suffer, but if fed from a stage 0 tank the performance loss wouldn’t matter.

      It’s kind of an interesting design exercise that makes you wonder if we launch vertically because all the rocket pioneers did it that way, or whether the reasons to launch vertically are too compelling to overcome. But when you start getting to rockets as tall the the Saturn V and SLS, it makes you wonder if there’s a better configuration that doesn’t require the enormous infrastructure investments and support requirements, letting you conduct operations with nothing but a pre-fab commercial building and slab of concrete. It may be that the cost savings outweighs even a very inefficient structural design.

    3. Billions still live under tyranny

      All governments are tyrannies, some more than others. The only way to eliminate tyranny is to realize informed consent only exists under contract freely entered, not by vote or any other method that allows a few to control the many.

      Permanent human expansion into space, led by free people and founded upon free enterprise, is the tonic humanity needs.

      Yes. Too bad the resources to do this aren’t in the hands of those that would.

      People are innately control freaks, they only believe in freedom for themselves, not for others. Freedom for others requires a conscious effort that is often derailed the moment others don’t exercise their freedom the ‘right way.’

      We should set the national goal of low-cost, reliable access to space

      This is the control freak way. What we really need is someone to realize that space colonization is profitable, now, at current costs.

      People that focus on cost are only looking at half an equation. The way you determine if cost is too much is ROI. It really doesn’t matter how high the cost is (assuming it’s in reach at all) if the ROI covers it. Costs come down by experience and competition without any great fretting about it at all.

      The primary problem is that we can’t close a traditional business case.

      The Space Settlement Initiative outlined a doable business case a long time ago. The problem is they think it requires government blessing and want the money up front. It does not require any governments blessing (especially if they don’t try to claim AK sized territories all at once) and they shouldn’t be looking to give any government that kind of authority over free people. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money and that is the case here. Value exists where humans exists. Trying to create value before humans is doing things the hard way.

      [T]he huge size of the required investment, combined with the speculative nature of the future markets, makes the risks far too high for any private investor.

      Ten billion is big, but not too big a risk because the future markets are not completely speculative. Land will have value. Build a home where someone can live free from government regulations and you can sell it for profit. A typical half acre plot has several thousands of dollars of profit potential. The speculator only needs about $200 per plot to break even.

      People have taken bigger risks in the past. Once profit is demonstrated, people will claim they knew it all along and the land rush will begin.

    4. I guess helicopters aren’t cost effective then.

      The vehicle needs to be suited to the environment and mission profile. If we are talking about space launch vehicles which will spend their time trying to get out of the atmosphere why bother with wings? Wings are good for long distance cruise flight in the atmosphere which is not the problem being discussed here. The weight penalty of wings on a space vehicle is large enough that you could easily store enough fuel for propulsive landing. Several people have done this calculation since the 1950s and reached the same conclusions. It is easier to make a VTVL space launch vehicle than an HTHL space launch vehicle.

      1. I think you’ve mistaken my idea. The vehicle takes off and lands vertically under rocket power, it just doesn’t do so with the nose pointed straight up. My question is whether erecting a 200 to 400 foot vertical structure, taking days or weeks using cranes and all sorts of other large and specialized equipment, is worth it if the craft can swing its nose to vertical in about 10 to 30 seconds on its own, once it’s airborne?

        Or thinik of it this way. If left horizontal while on the ground, a Saturn V is no bigger than a little WW-II destroyer or submarine, and we could easily imagine a rocket twice as long which still wouldn’t approach the length of an aircraft carrier, and such a craft should be able to come and go pretty easily. Stand it on its end and you’ve got a logistical nightmare. You have to build a dedicated skyscraper just to provide access and support, and you either have to lift the second stage and payload hundreds of feet into the air, or lay the recovered stages back down, mate them, and then raise the whole assembly back upright into launch position. The time and expense of that would set the lower limit on costs and the upper limit on flight rate.

        The vertical orientation is simple to launch (just light the engines and go) but it’s not easy or cheap to set up. It takes one guy to drive a 747 all around the airport, but it takes a huge team with giant equipment to haul a Saturn V or Shuttle to the launch pad. So my question boilis down to whether adding the complexity to the rocket would be better than adding complexity to the landing, turnaround, support, and assembly procedures. At some cost point, I think it would.

        The idea bears some resemblence to some of the lunar-landing proposals where the lander is an upper-stage that sets down horizontally, as the thrust requirements for a lunar landing are small, so the extra thrusters aren’t much of a problem, while a tailfirst landing with a large stage creates static instability problems (tall stage with a narrow footprint) and makes the astronauts use a long, long ladder to get up and down because there’s no launch tower on the moon.

        1. What you’re talking about George is changing a single dimension of propulsion into two less efficient dimensions (near the ground only.)

          The fact is most of launch propulsion is horizontal (going around the earth) rather than vertical (getting above max-q.)

          The vertical component gets you above the atmosphere quickest. Anything that keeps you in the atmosphere longer is parasitic. With the difference in energy of orbital and suborbital making anything parasitic a really bad idea.

          As for launch facilities, you need them even beyond just the tower so the tower isn’t that big a deal.

          1. I didn’t see that one. 🙁

            I was also thinking that for hovering a rocket, a rear-steer tail sitter is a horrible configuration. If you took a Falcon 9 first stage and tried to fly it around oriented like a bus, the control problems are trivial and could probably be done purely with analog circuits, as it wouldn’t be any worse than flying a Harrier because you’d have full pitch, yaw, and roll authority from the ends, and without the instability problems of trying to balance a tall broomstick from the bottom end.

            If you can fully control a vehicle, once airborne you can do pretty much anything you want with it, as DC-X illustrated. Another benefit of horizontally oriented take-off and landing is that not only do you have more control authority and vastly reduced wind issues, but you also have a much larger margin on vertical touch-down velocity because you can use springing landing gear like a conventional aircraft, and even use wheels. If you try that with a tail-sitter the wind will tip you over or rock you back and forth, because you’d have a tiny springing footprint supporting a very tall object. And of course the DC-X burned because of a failure of a landing leg to lock, which for a tall rocket means it’s going to tip all the way over, even if it’s nearly empty. A horizontal rocket would’ve just picked up an extra dent when one end dropped five or ten feet.

            So I’m saying that although the conventional vertical launch makes for a simpler and cheaper rocket, at some size-threshhold it doesn’t make for a simpler and cheaper rocket system. No matter how good you get with resuable engines and airframes, you’ll still have a vast crew of people whose only job is to keep repainting the giant launch tower and checking it for rust, on top of the thirty crawler operators and hundreds of crane and gantry crews.

        2. Another problem (I think), would be the additional structural weight necessary for a vehicle operating in two attitudes rather than just one.

        3. No, don’t confuse the horizontal and vertical thrust, just the orientation in which they are applied for the same flight profile All I’m saying is that the cost savings SpaceX enjoys from horizontal processing would also extend to not erecting a 200 foot plus rocket (as tall as the highest building in many a state capital). You can orient the rocket vertically 30 days prior to launch, or you can orient it vertically one minute after launch.

          Let’s suppose that the increased cost of the vertical orientation currently represent 3 to 5% of launch costs, and the horizontal orientation, due to bending loads and a few extra engines, will decrease payload by 30 to 50%. At present you’d have a 2 to 3 fold reduction in payload per dollar. But as launch costs drop, the crane operators, crawler crews, and launch tower maintence people are a fixed cost, so if re-usability drops the cost ten-fold then the 3 to 5% of increased costs incurred from vertical launch becomes 30 to 50%, and the horizontal launch becomes the winner even though it’s less efficient at delivering LEO payloads per launch mass.

          Basically, instead of spending weeks or months trying to keep the stack balanced like a 12-foot wedding cake, let a flight vehicle turn 90 degrees in flight, like flight vehicles have done since someone performed the first loop. The flip is going to happen so early in the flight that it’s probably cheaper to design a stage 0 to support and flip the rocket than build a 6 million ton crawler, a 350 foot launch tower, and the world’s largest building just to keep the stack upright.

          1. You mean the completely reusable worlds tallest building? Where’s the cost? Where’s the crawler?; it goes horizontal to the pad at which it goes vertical. If vertical is such a problem, why 30 days prior? It can’t be that difficult or they’d shorten that time to the minimum. Instead they check it out while vertical.

            That early flip is going to cost a lot. You’re talking about an additional stage. If not an additional stage we’re back to parasitic weight over a large energy envelope.

            You know me, I like crazy talk. But in this case, it’s hard to see.

          2. I was just looking at some SLS numbers. The modifications to the Ares mobile launch platform won’t be done until 2016, and if you add in the replacement cost of the crawler, the Ares tower, and the mods, you’re probably looking at around $400 million dollars. Just the new modifications are slated to take 1000 man years of design and construction. If it gets used forty times that’s $10 million a launch just to pay off the tower, or around $5 million a seat. If a rocket blows up on the pad, you have to ground the system for several years whle you build a new tower.

            In contrast, a fully fueled Orion with SRB’s could be raised upright with just six of the Orion capsule’s abort motors, and with roughly twelve of the abort motors you could lift th whole rocket and rotate it in the air.

            I’m thinking that a quick 5 or 10 second operation may look complicated and crazy, but it might be a lot cheaper than the conventional alternative. It’s just that we don’t yet have the confidence to try a fully fueled air-start after being hurled into sky, which would be exciting to say the least. ^_^

            So I’m suggesting that at some point, when engines and tanks are cheap and reliable, someone’s going to want to build a really big rocket and realize they can’t blow a billion dollars on steel trusses to do things the NASA way and come out with a competitively priced system. Instead of aiming the airport at the destination, make the airplane turn after it takes off. This shouldn’t be such a novel idea, but apparently it is because it seems so wrong for a big rocket.

          3. Didn’t the astronaut farmer try that on his first attempt 😉

            Which I thought was a dream sequence. Finding that it was not and they prepared a second flight so quickly ruined my suspension of disbelief. Still, I like the movie.

  3. Rand, did you see this one?


    “HUNTSVILLE, Ala., Nov. 12, 2012 /PRNewswire/ — Space Operations, Inc. (SpaceOps) announced today a fundraising effort was “launched” on RocketHub with a $98millionUSD ($98M) goal in 90 days. RocketHub is a “crowdfunding” website that enables people to raise money through the internet for various projects. It is not an investment or charity. It is an exchange: fans receive rewards depending on the level of their support. SpaceOps needs $38M to build the 2-seat ECLIPSE spacecraft, and $60M to purchase a commercial launch services contract.”

    1. Oh, please. Has any crowdfunding project ever raised $98 million?

      Gemini was the best capsule NASA ever designed, but it’s unrealistic to think that anyone could rebuild it from scratch, certify it to NASA standards, and be ready to fly astronauts in less than two years. Including the parafoil, which NASA experimented with and couldn’t get to work.

      The work they’ve done to date — converting the original Gemini blueprints to CAD files — is trivial. The idea that this puts them ahead of Dragon is nonsense.

      They’re offering to fly astronauts for $55,000, which won’t even cover the cost of the Falcon launch vehicle they intend to use. The numbers aren’t even in the right ballpark.

      1. Dragon is a lot more advanced than Gemini ever was. Unfortunately we keep seeing a lot of people dissing Dragon because they have some failed misconceptions around it. In its final form with the SuperDracos it is comparable to the Soviet Zarya capsule which is a late 1980s design designed to be launched on Zenit.

        1. Any patents Boeing held on Gemini hardware are long expired. But so are the supply chains.

          I made a mistake, also. They’re promising first flight in 9-13 months, rather than two years.

          1. Edward,

            its not about patents, its about the copyrights on the design.

            FYI how one modeling company had to stop selling P-38 models because of a lawsuit threat from Lockheed.


            The larger firms of course get around it by simply paying the licensing fees to Boeing and Lockheed.

      2. I agree, when you need 100 bucks from 980,000 people .. pushing it a little. I am curious though what it will raise in 90 days. Without knowing if they are actually going to bother with hiring a viral specialist firm to get 40 million eyeballs on it or at least utilizing tips on viral marketing don’t know what kind of bench mark.

        They should have did it as two seperate ones. Do a daily photo blog on work on the capsule then start the one for launch funds.

  4. At NASA, I led a six-center NASA team that developed a plan to do [the Moon mission] entirely with commercial launch.

    This is more than a little ironic, since some of us tried to tell Charles that back in 2004-2005, only to be told to shut up and “support the President’s Vision.”

    After applying all his leverage to help push the Constellation snowball downhill, Charles is now throwing his body in front of that snowball and trying to stop it.

    I wish him luck, since many innocent bystanders happen to be in the path of that snowball, but have no great confidence in his chances for success. I can only hope that space activists will learn to think twice before pushing any more snowballs downhill.

  5. “But the huge size of the required investment, combined with the speculative nature of the future markets, makes the risks far too high for any private investor. This has much in common with the Transcontinental Railroad, which could not be justified as a pure commercial investment.”

    That is the common problem of pieces like this: a weak analogy. The transcontinental railroad opened up an easily-exploitable frontier (infinitely easy by comparison with space) whose resources and potential were clear. The possibilities for successful human exploitation of space are almost entirely speculative. And the notion that the values enshrined in the Constitution would thrive in the close confines of spacecraft/stations is wishful thinking at best: benevolent dictatorship –as is the case on any ship at sea– would seem a more likely norm.

    1. Why assume the martian frontier will be that difficult to exploit? The difficulty is in getting there. Once there, the main need is energy. Given enough energy, everything else is relatively easy. It’s not a tightrope walk on a razer blade edge after they get there. It’s learning how to live off the land. We already know how to live in an artificial environment with supplies from earth. Supplies from earth can be low risk and low cost for up to dozens of colonists. That means they have time to figure things out. Once they do, additional colonists will have less difficulty in all aspects.

      Most of terraforming on the local level is landscaping with a dozer/tractor. With lower gravity and looser soil that’s easier to do than on earth, you just have to avoid running low on oxygen. Assuming an open cab, you wear a suit which doesn’t make pushing levers difficult. After a days work, you go back to a shirtsleeve environment. Which is where most other martians stay because they’re involved in industrial work. Only a fraction of martians will need to work in suits and then only for a small portion of the day.

      The main difference in life will be not having the constant aches and pains that come from earths full gravity. If you don’t notice that now, you will.

      The only other potential difficulty is the politics of the situation. Avoid politics. If everyone has the assets to pursue their own goals, growth will follow.

      1. When I was a kid in NY I remember a lot of the buildings had coal bins in their basements. Every once in a while a coal truck would come along and dump a load in a basement.

        On mars, a room near your machine shop work room might be a loose dirt room. It would have a bin at the surface that loads of loose dirt would be tossed in to by a tractor. That dirt is the raw material for other processes. Other than when dirt is being dropped into it, it would be sealed from the outside. Inside, you’d have augers to move the dirt to processing. It could be used as is for compressed brick or it’s elements like iron and water processed out.

        All done in a shirtsleeve environment.

        1. Martian regolith is not coal dust. It’s much more toxic. There’s no way you’re going to let it loose in a shirt sleeve environment. Think hazmat suits and glove boxes.

          1. Just dig a shovel full of good old earth and you will find more toxic substances.

            Toxicity is rated on a level, usually the amount that results in 50% deaths by ingestion. Any dust if potentially harmful and easily dealt with.

          2. When discussing mars soil toxicity, you have to know that iron in 15% concentration is toxic to plant life. Soil will have to be processed. Again, not a big deal.

    2. Remember .. a frontier is the outer boundry of land you own. The moon is not our frontier, either is Mars. Once you leave the frontier you are in another country or someone else’s territory.

      We need to revisit the Outer Space Treaty before we revisit luna.

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