SpaceShipOne

It’s been ten years since its first flight into space. Jeff Foust reflects, and he has a new book out to commemorate it:

People have written a lot about this long gap in suborbital spaceflight, and a thorough examination of the causes is beyond the scope of a single post. Virgin Galactic has gone through an extended technical development, including a recent switch in hybrid rocket motors; it now plans to begin flights late this year, about seven years later than its original plans announced in September 2004. XCOR Aerospace’s progress has been hindered at times by limited funding, as Forbes recently reported, although the company announced last month it raised more than $14 million in a Series B funding round that should allow it to bring the Lynx to market. Blue Origin, meanwhile, keeps its plans under tight wraps; it would seem that founder Jeff Bezos, who is also funding the 10,000-Year Clock, is not in a particular rush.

And John Carmack always treated Armadillo as more of a hobby. No, it’s not any single reason (“space is hard”). As I tweeted yesterday, the problem with commercial space, until recently, is that the people with good ideas couldn’t get money to execute them, and the people with the money picked bad ideas. In the case of Virgin, it started when (the late) Jim Benson sold Burt Rutan a bill of goods on hybrids, and people who didn’t understand the technology thought that it would scale easily (though it was never a good idea). It all cascaded from there.

[Update a while later]

The top five posts on this page are my reporting that morning from Mojave.

[Sunday-afternoon update]

Dale Amon remembers that day as well.

[Bumped]

76 thoughts on “SpaceShipOne

  1. Robin Goodfellow

    A huge problem is actually the runaway success of the tech industry. That’s because it change the risk/benefit equation.

    Since the ’70s it has been possible to put speculative investments (venture capital) into tech and if you spread your investments around enough aand bet on enough interesting long shots you could make an eniormous rate of return. Investing in a local retail store might net you double digit return year over year if you’re lucky, but tech is a lottery that’s not a zero sum game. Some VC investors into facebook turned millions into billions. And triple digit RoI on many VC funded tech companies is far from unusual. When Apple IPO’d over 3 decades ago they became the fastest growing company in history.

    One result of that is that VC investors tend to force startups down the riskiest path with the highest possible return. It may not work out as often but the upside when it does is much greater, and those returns dominate the income for VCs. And then because the VCs who do that tend to be the ones with swelling, billion dollar funds, those VCs are the ones with the most money, and the cycle continues.

    When VC invests in aerospace the same thing happens, but with disastrous results. Most of the time the riskiest bet in aerospace is too risky. A more iterative, cautious, bootstrapped approach is better, especially with hardware design. So you have this situation in the ’90s where it looks like there might be a lot more money in the launch market in the next few years due to companies like Iridium launching constellations, so VCs got interested. But they invested almost exclusively in the riskiest ideas. SSTO RLVs. Experimental rocket designs. Rotary Rocket. Pioneer Aerospace and their spaceplane. And so on. These companies burned through their VC, ran into problems, were still lightyears from market readiness and profitability and then the investments dried up when the dot com boom popped.

    It took someone willing to make a long bet on rocketry and to go the pragmatic, boostrapped approach to get serious innovation in the field. Musk has succeeded so far and has certainly seen a decent RoI on his investment, but at a tremendous cost in terms of personal effort put into the project. And he probably won’t see tech sized RoI for perhaps another decade.

    The problem is that there’s an investment/risk gap. Lower risk investments (like, say, real estate or mining or what-have-you) have plenty of investors, but high risk investors tend to be lured by the siren song of the tech lottery.

    1. Ed Minchau

      That’s an insightful comment. It is worth noting that Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and John Carmack were all tech millionaires / billionaires before starting their space companies. Robert Bigelow is the obvious exception.

      This is important: “It took someone willing to make a long bet on rocketry and to go the pragmatic, boo[t]strapped approach to get serious innovation in the field.”

      The past of space utilization is barely five decades, and the future is considerably longer.

    2. Ed Minchau

      I should add that Jeff Greason’s speech at the 2011 ISDC was laragely about that pragmatic, bootstrapped approach.

    3. Thomas Matula

      Actually the success of the tech industry has more in common with the early stages of other booms such as furs, railroads, telegraph, oil, bicycles, automobiles, aircraft, radio, etc. than space flight. Really the tech industry is not that unusual in terms of the industrial booms, but space that is the exception. The problems with spaceflight is first, the government created an image of high barriers to entry with their expensive goal focused technology – that spaceflight is too hard for business firms. The second is simply the lack of destinations to pull technology forward by offering a ROI.

      Space tourism is great, but in other fields of transportation tourism was seen as a secondary or even tertiary market, Tourists rode on systems, generating extra income, that were primarily designed for mail, business travel and freight. That is because those transportation systems had places to go and reasons to go there that would cover the cost of doing so. Tourism was just icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

      Second of course is barriers to entry, especially financial. Even railroads could be developed incrementally with local financing based on the clear economic benefits, while in the early days automobiles and aircraft could be easily built in small shops by only 2-3 individuals. But for spaceflight you need to build everything from the engine, to the airframe to the launch facilities. The large amounts of money, hundreds of millions, that Sir Richard Branson poured into Virgin Galactic over a decade without starting commercial services has only reinforced the image space is too expensive for normal investors.

      1. Robin Goodfellow

        Excellent points. And good reasons why investors tend to shy away from space. Although there is still a very large existing market and the promise of taking money out of the existing pie, of which there is plenty. But that’s a harder sell in general, especially coupled with the risk involved.

        Also, another big factor is the fact that the Cold War basically kept commercial development under wraps, so the industry is really only maybe 2 decades old or so, despite spaceflight being much older.

        In any event, if SpaceX succeeds in building reusable rockets and/or commercial manned spaceflight then they ought to open up new and, hopefully, growing markets which might serve to boost investment and development in space in the future. But for now we’re still in the tail end of the awkward stage of commercial space development.

        1. Thomas Matula

          Robin,

          [[[Although there is still a very large existing market and the promise of taking money out of the existing pie, of which there is plenty. ]]]

          But in a free market economy that’s a relative term. In fact most of the markets for LEO and even beyond are really in the nickel and dime range compared to markets that are measure in the tens and hundred of billions in other industry. And that is the key problem. New space advocates still seem to think that its the high costs that restrict space investment when its the lack of potential ROI that does so. But the costs needed for space commerce are well within the range of industrial investment if their was a business case for it.

          Its not unusual for a gold mining firm to spend 10 years and 10 billion dollars developing a new mine, a single offshore drill rig may cost over $5 billion while ExxonMobile is planning on spending nearly $200 billion on energy exploration and development. Compare that to the mere $300 million Sir Richard Branson has spent on SpaceShipTwo, about the cost of another jumbo jet or two for one of his airlines.

  2. Thomas Matula

    Doug Messier also has a post on it.

    http://www.parabolicarc.com/2014/06/21/ten-years-future-aint/

    Ten Years Later, the Future Just Ain’t What It Used to Be

    The problem with the Ansari X Prize was that the tight time line required a lot of kludges for Burt Rutan to win it. Fortunately Paul Allen was willing to write a blank check for it. Then once they won it they started to believe their own press releases.

    But the problem wasn’t that Sir Richard Branson bought into hybrid engines, the problem was that he let the Ansari X-Prize select his vehicle for sub-orbital tourism instead of Virgin Galactic doing a solid engineering review of the options available. Even then he made the mistake of being more interested in hype then on following a solid engineering approach. Rarely have aircraft that won prizes been successfully developed into operational aircraft, usually the arrow for “successful” points the other way, operational aircraft are modified to win prizes to demonstrate their capabilities to potential buyers.

    Fortunately the aviation industry was already mature enough at the time of Orteig Prize the industry wasn’t dependent on attempts to turn the Ryan NYP into an airliner, which failed. I remember talking to the late Jim Benson that day of the first flight into orbit and remember him saying it was a lot of fuss over nothing as prizes don’t replace solid business models. The last decade has proved the accuracy of that statement.

    The thing that amazes is how many New Spacers are still supporting the myth that the Ansari X-Prize was a success rather than a failure that sent the industry down the wrong road, both in terms of the most suitable markets and technology for sub-orbital human space flight.

    1. Godzilla

      Even then he made the mistake of being more interested in hype then on following a solid engineering approach. Rarely have aircraft that won prizes been successfully developed into operational aircraft, usually the arrow for “successful” points the other way, operational aircraft are modified to win prizes to demonstrate their capabilities to potential buyers.

      I disagree. The Supermarine Spitfire is a good counter example to your claims. Would it need more work afterwards to become cost effective? Sure.

      Trying to scale up SpaceShipTwo was not a bad idea in itself. The problem was the rather poor execution in particular of the propulsion aspect but even the aeroshell was not without problems or so it seems.

      The main failure of the Ansari X-Prize was that it produced only one, not more, viable working designs.

      My main gripe with the SpaceShip* designs is that they are not viable designs for orbital launch and thus are technological dead ends. I compare them to dirigibles really. The optimum shape of an orbital craft is NOT that of a subsonic or even supersonic airplane.

      1. Edward Wright

        If you look at Grumman carrier-based fighters during World War II (Hellcat, Bearcat, Wildcat), you will note the tear-drop shape looks a lot like the pre-war GeeBee racers. That is not coincidence.

        The GeeBees were about 100 mph faster than the top military fighters at the time. The Army and Navy were not winning prizes (even with modifications). They dropped out of the air races because of their inability to compete.

        1. dn-guy

          of course, stick in some guns, a pylon for dropping bombs, harden the wing to
          take that load, add a gun sight, room for ammunition in the wings,

          no surprise it takes a 100 MPH off the top end.

          1. Edward Wright

            Military pilots are not quite as stupid as you believe. They did not carry guns or external hardware during the air races. They stripped the planes down.

            If you studied any history, you would know the real reason military airplanes were slower was official policy. The War Department decided in the 1920′s that there was no military utility in building faster airplanes.

      2. Edward Wright

        Tom also gets recent history wrong. He has this fixed idea that NewSpace supported the X-Prize. In fact, the opposite is the case.

        Up until 2004, X-Prize officials were banned from speaking at the NewSpace Conference (then called the Space Frontier Conference), and other speakers were told not to mention the X-Prize in this talk. Walt Anderson and Rick Tumlinson hated the X-Prize because they could not get along with Peter Diamandis. They bad-mouthed Peter and the X-Prize at every opportunity, even alleging (ironically) financial improprieties. It wasn’t until 2004, when SpaceShip One was flying and Anderson in jail for tax evasion, that they changed their tune and Tumlinson started claiming he had practically invented the X-Prize.

        Even then, their support for the X-Prize was short-lived. Their attention was captured by the Bush Vision of Space Exploration and the International Space Station, which was going to become “AlphaTown.” 2009 was the 5th anniversary of SpaceShip One and the 50th anniversary of the X-15. The Space Frontier Foundation refused to anything to honor either one. They were too busy planning their annual gala party for Project Apollo. Even my request to put a press release was refused.

        When Congress slashed funding for Centennial Challenges, the self-proclaimed “leaders of NewSpace” refused to take a public stand. The official position was that they would not support prizes or other market-based incentives such as tax credits, because “COTS is more important.” That policy continues to this day.

        When FAA-AST tried to get Congressional support for a $20M Cheap Access To Space Prize, the NewSpace Conference did nothing to publicize or promote the idea. After hearing complaints from AST about the lack of “NewSpace” receptiveness, I mentioned it to Bob Werb, who immediately shot down the idea, dissing George Nield and AST in the process.

        1. Thomas Matula

          Edward,

          The only problem with your analysis is that the term NewSpace to cover non-government space efforts didn’t really come into existence until 2006 when the Space Frontier Foundation used it to rebrand its conferences to promote more attendance. Prior to then alt.space and entrepreneurial space were catch all terms. I am using New Space Advocates in the general sense of its current use in replacing those earlier terms, not in the narrow sense you are using it just to describe the activities of the Space Frontier Foundation.

          So although the leaders of the Space Frontier Foundation didn’t support it as you state, other leaders in the non-government space ventures did support it. Of course, as always the Space Frontier Foundation folk jumped on the band wagon to raise money as soon as they saw the hype it was generating :-)

          http://spacefrontier.org/2004/10/x-prize-spaceshipone-receive-awards-pair-blew-the-hinges-off-the-door-to-the-frontier/

          [[[Los Angeles, CA, October 14, 2004 – The Space Frontier Foundation Saturday bestowed two prestigious awards on Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites Tier One Team, creators of SpaceShipOne, and the Ansari X-Prize Foundation, for their recent dramatic contributions in opening the space frontier.]]]

          1. Edward Wright

            the term NewSpace to cover non-government space efforts didn’t really come into existence until 2006 when the Space Frontier Foundation used it to rebrand its conferences

            They snookered you, Tom. They made a conscious effort to convince people that their brand name, policies, and conferences represent the entire commercial space industry, and you fell for it.

            In reality, NewSpace does not follow any sort of government/private dividing line. What is “non-governmental” about NASA expanding the International Space Station or building ISS 2 on the Moon, for example? On the other hand, why are ideas like tax incentives, technology prizes, space property rights, and regulatory/liability reform considered politically incorrect (“old space”)?

            If you read G. Harry Stine’s “Earth Satellites and the Race for a Space Superiority” (published before Sputnik), you will find more non-governmental ideas than on the agenda at a NewSpace conference,

          2. Thomas Matula

            Edward,
            Its a good a label as any for what folks like Rand and others are calling for… Or do you have a better one?

          3. Edward Wright

            “NewSpace” is a poor label because it’s ambiguous (no two people can agree on exactly what it means) and subjective (ATK went from “old space” to “NewSpace” just by writing them a check, for example).

            The NASA Space Portal uses the term “emerging commercial space industry,” which seems to be clear and self-explanatory.

      3. Thomas Matula

        Godzilla,

        What you are referring to is the Schneider Trophy races which lasted from 1911 to 1931. There are a number of key factors that made those races different than the Ansari X Prize and even the failed X Prize Cup.

        First, an aviation industry already existed. Firms like Supermarine and Macchi already had customers and valid business models. The races rather than inventing an industry simply gave the industry an opportunity to showcase their capabilities and abilities with regards to building fast high powered aircraft, much as early auto races provided a showcase for advances in automobile and bicycle technology. But the critical difference is that a revenue producing industry already existed, unlike sub-orbital human spaceflight that could benefit from such a showcase of abilities.

      1. Thomas Matula

        Rand,

        There were 28 firms pursuing suborbital flight at the time. Today only three survive, two which didn’t take part in the Ansari X-Prize and Scaled Composites. The other 25 firms are gone, largely because they pursued the Ansari X-Prize instead seeking real business models and markets. I would say that leading 90% of the firms off a cliff was leading the industry down the wrong road :-)

        1. Rand Simberg Post author

          That’s not an untypical shakeout in any new industry. There is no evidence that it is because of the X-Prize. I know you hate the X-Prize, but we need actual evidence.

          1. Thomas Matula

            Rand,

            Prizes have traditionally been a tool used by socialist economies to stimulate the creativity that is a normal part of a free market. That is why I see little use for them, but then, unlike you, I don’t believe that free markets end at the atmosphere and you need massive government subsidies and prizes, economic tools commonly used in socialist economies to develop it.

            Second, if you knew anything about the normal life cycles of industries in a free market economy you would know that such “shake-outs” always occur near the inflection point of the Growth Stage of the PLC, not before the Introduction Stage and are rarely linked to a single event as the was the case with the many firms involved in the Ansari X Prize. The rapid decline in the number of firms following the awarding of the Ansari-X Prize is all the evidence needed of how it sent the bulk of the industry down the wrong path, a detour its only now recovering from.

          2. Rand Simberg Post author

            Prizes have traditionally been a tool used by socialist economies to stimulate the creativity that is a normal part of a free market.

            Fascinating. So Orteig was a socialist?

          3. Thomas Matula

            Rand,

            You haven’t a clue do you? Either about why the Orteig Prize was offered and why, despite it, routine commercial air service by aircraft across the Pacific predated such transatlantic air service?

            Again, prizes are a poor economic substitute for business models and markets.

            The problem with the Ansari X-Prize is that space advocates like yourself too often confuse motion for progress. A dog chasing its tail has a lot of motion, but makes little progress in any direction.

            But even worst, you, like most space advocates, are not willing to review past attempts at moving space commerce forward critically to learn how to avoid making the same mistakes over and over…

        2. Larry J

          How many of those companies had the necessary skills and ideas to pursue the X-Prize and how many were simply hoping to rope in their own Paul Allen to fund their hobby shops?

          1. Edward Wright

            Of course, Tom never asks the question, what might have happened if there had been a serious, sustained follow-on to the Ansari X-Prize?

            He’s like the little boy who murdered his parents then begged for mercy as an orphan. In 2004, Tom said that space advocates should forget about the X-Prize and jump on the Bush return-to-the-Moon bandwagon. He got just what he asked for.

            Even so, some of the companies managed to continue, while the Lunar Lander Challenge continued. When that prize competition ended, companies started to fold.

            From this, Tom concludes that prizes are to blame, :-)

          2. Thomas Matula

            Such as? They tired the Wirefly X Prize Cup but that was an even worst fiasco.

            As for supporting Constellation, as I noted at the time, its best feature is that it kept NASA busy, and a busy NASA wouldn’t get involved “helping” space commerce. And what has happened now that Constellation is gone? NASA’ did decide to “help” space commerce with their COTS, CCP programs turning SpaceX into a government contractor who is now developing Dragon V2 at the rate of NASA funding while leaving commercial customers like Bigelow Airspace and the biotechs wanting to use Dragonlab waiting, and waiting….

            If Constellation had gone forward SpaceX would have continued to work with Bigelow Aerospace and the Biotechs and both DragonLab (originally scheduled for 2010) and Dragon Rider (originally scheduled for 2012) flying now. Instead New Space Advocates are now fighting cost-plus contracts and restrictive NASA safety measures that will make commercial crew far too expensive for commercial markets for human spaceflight…

          3. Edward Wright

            If the Bush Administration had decided to create a commercial space industry, instead of sending NASA back to the Moon, it could have created incentives orders of magnitudes larger than the X-Prize Cup. The comparison is silly.

            I don’t know what you think happened when Constellation was canceled. It’s a head-scratcher, because Constellation was not cancelled. The name was cancelled, but the program and funding remain.

          4. Thomas Matula

            Edward,

            You mean like the “National Programing and Computer Administration” helped to create the commercial computer industry? Or the commercial social media industry? Fortunately there was no “National Programing and Computer Administration” so those industries didn’t suffer from the government “helping” them get started like the space commerce industry has been.

            Your basic fallacy, one shared by most Space Advocates, is that the government in general and NASA in particular are needed to create a commercial space industry. Actually its the opposite, NASA in particular and the government in general needs to stop “trying” to create a commercial space industry, all is has done over the last 30 years in its efforts, from the STS to COMET to X-33 to CCP has been to distort the markets for commercial activities in space and create barriers to it being formed. The ISS is a good example. If there were no ISS then SpaceX would be focused on providing human spacelift for commercial space habitats and commercial space habitats wouldn’t have to competing with the government sponsored and subsidized research on a government funded station.

            Really you don’t have a clue about what has made the American economy so successful so you? Or why NASA is the biggest barrier to the emergence of space commerce, not an enabler…

          5. Edward.v.wright@gmail.com

            Who said anything about NASA, Tom?

            Like many people, you seem to confuse space policy with “NASA policy.”

            And so, we’re left with your quixotic idea that giving NASA a big budget increase would make them less involved in the space industry. :-)

          6. Edward Wright

            Like many people, you seem to confuse space policy with “NASA policy.”

            And so, we’re left with your quixotic idea that giving NASA a big budget increase would make them less involved in the space industry. (Eyeballs rolling)

          7. Thomas Matula

            Edward,

            I refer to NASA because NASA is the problem. its the big attractive nuisance that keeps send space commerce done the wrong road when ever it gets involved.

            The U.S.A.F and DARPA focus on missions which are clearly not commercial but which would benefit from the same fast, reliable, inexpensive launch vehicles that would work well for space commerce markets, so its a potential asset. At least its a fellow traveler for the interests of space commerce.

            The FAA AST’s role is simply to protect third parties from space commerce activities and fulfill the ‘responsibility” requirements of the Outer Space Treaty, The Liability Convention and The Registration Convention.

            NASA by contrast is like the old cartoon character “Baby Huey” who always wants to help but just messes everything up. A “noble” space goal would keep NASA and their traditional space contractors fat and happy enough to be too lazy to mess up the firms looking to create an industry based on free markets and commercial space needs. The alternative, to wipe out NASA completely as Harry Stine proposed in the early 1980′s is unfortunately a much more difficult, although more desirable, option.

          8. Thomas Matula

            Instead of

            [[[I refer to NASA because NASA is the problem. its the big attractive nuisance that keeps send space commerce done the wrong road when ever it gets involved. ]]]

            That should be
            [[[[I refer to NASA because NASA is the problem. its the big attractive nuisance that keeps sending space commerce down the wrong road whenever it gets involved. ]]]

            I need to turn off auto-correct…

  3. Godzilla

    No. The problem was when Scaled Composites decided to do the hybrid rocket engine in-house and killed some of their staff just doing a pressurization test. Hybrid rockets are not easy otherwise there would be a lot more people using them. Other than AMROC pretty much all of those hybrid rockets were failures. AMROC was bought by SpaceDev, who made the SpaceShipOne engine, and SpaceDev was bought by SNC. So those are the people with the necessary expertise. Now that SNC is working on the rocket engine development is back on track.

    Hybrid rocket engines look really easy, on paper, but the devil is in the details. From what I heard getting the gaseous/liquid oxidizer and the solid propellant to mix is not easy in the best of conditions.

    For something like SpaceShipTwo you pretty much want variable thrust so you need to go either liquid or hybrid. If Rutan wanted to have more choice of suppliers he should have gone with liquid propellants. Most expertise for space launch propulsion is in that area.

    1. dn-guy

      Hybrids have all the misery of a liquid with all the poor performance of a solid.

      There is a reason why Hybrids have never caught on.

  4. Godzilla

    About the other efforts:
    - Carmack spent a lot of time fiddling with propellants and expertise that anyone with cursory knowledge of the field knew were dead ends. e.g. H2O2 monoprops. Then he tried H2O2/Kerosene and bumped into the same issues people like Beal had a decade before. Like I said he did not even bother reading about it. For whatever reason they thought they were better off not handling cryogenics like LOX. Well it was a dumb idea. LOX is cheap and there are plenty of people both selling it and who know how to handle it. It is used in hospitals and other places like that. Then he tried even more dumb things. Like using fiberglass tanks to store LOX. Guess what Carmack that did not work either! I know he comes from a software development background so he’s used to fiddling with things a lot more than a mechanical engineer would. It is a lot cheaper material and time wise to tinker with software than with actual working high-performance hardware like this. Still he should have known better.
    - Blue Origin. Lack of focus on target market. Funder is a billionaire but how much of that he puts into Blue Origin is unknown. Propulsion expertise was on the level of Carmack’s efforts which is a lot worse than I expected considering the funding they supposedly got. Secretive. I do not expect much from these people.
    - XCOR. Good liquid propulsion expertise. These guys know how to build LOX/Kerosene turbopump engines and they have built more than one type of them. What is unknown is their aircraft engineering expertise. From what has happened so far I think their aircraft engineering expertise is seriously lacking as is their funding. If I was in that company I would go for more simple expendables first before continuing into the expensive winged vehicle business.
    - Scaled Composites. Now that Burt Rutan is retired they lost their main driver for moving forward. Excellent composite aeroshell experience, very good aircraft design expertise, nonexistent propulsion expertise. Perhaps they should have merged with XCOR. :-P

    SpaceX and Orbital have proven their mettle so I do not need to comment on either.

    I will not even bother mentioning the rest as it is a waste of time.

    1. dn-guy

      “These guys know how to build LOX/Kerosene turbopump engines”

      I don’t think XCOR has ever done a turbopump.

      XCOR has messed around wtih displacement pumps and they have some experience from the
      Rotary centrifugal pump, but, Turbopumps are special beasts.

      1. Dick Eagleson

        As far as I know, all XCOR engines that use pumps use their proprietary piston pump technology. They’re using piston pumps to move both fuel and oxidizer on the Lynx’s engines. XCOR claims piston pumps are much more durable than turbopumps. One of XCOR’s key aims has always been long-term reusability to support aircraft-style vehicle operation.

        1. dn-guy

          “XCOR claims piston pumps are much more durable than turbopumps.”

          I don’t doubt XCOR claims that. It is however incorrect.
          The Aerospace industry switched from Displacement pumps to Turbopumps
          because they were much more reliable.

          Many newspace companies make claims about aerospace engineering, that just
          aren’t supported by the history or the science.

          1. Dick Eagleson

            I’m unaware of any use of “Displacement Pumps” in rocket engines prior to XCOR. Please enlighten me if you know of any specific instances. All of the pump-fed engines I’m familiar with used turbopumps going all the way back to Robert Goddard who invented the idea. I have no doubt turbopumps replaced other kinds of pumps in many aerospace applications other than liquid-fuel rocket engines. But this is an apples to oranges comparison. In less bleeding edge applications, turbopumps are usually lighter in weight and more energy efficient as their parts are not constantly slowing down and speeding up again. They generate far less vibration for the same reason. But rocket engine turbopumps aren’t necessarily long-lived. A lot of the refurbishment required of SSME’s, was centered on that engine’s turbo-machinery. My understanding is that bearings, in particular, had very short service lives.

          2. dn-guy

            “In less bleeding edge applications, turbopumps are usually lighter in weight and more energy efficient as their parts are not constantly slowing down and speeding up again. ”

            All pumps are volume devices. In Rockets where Weight matters, the flows are
            high and the power limited, the turbopump was critical enabling technology.

            I think MDA experimented with displacement pumps for Kill Vehicles but
            in flight applications, the demands push for a turbo pump. I doubt the margins will allow anything else.

          3. Edward Wright

            ULA has hired XCOR to develop a piston pump for an RL-10 replacement. Do you think that’s because they’re stupid?

            Lawrence Livermore National Labs planned to use a piston pump (developed in-house) for its proposed Mockingbird SSTO. Do you that’s because they’re stupid?

          4. dn-guy

            “ULA has hired XCOR to develop a piston pump for an RL-10 replacement. Do you think that’s because they’re stupid?

            Lawrence Livermore National Labs planned to use a piston pump (developed in-house) for its proposed Mockingbird SSTO. Do you that’s because they’re stupid?”

            There are many smart people at LLNL, however, even very bright people sometimes miss some basic issues. A displacement pump has a much higher solidity factor then a turbopump. Perhaps the staff at LLNL and ULA think that
            this can be offset by improved materials or improved power sources,
            but it would strike me that a displacement pump is a very heavy approach to developing a pump in an application that is performance sensitive.

            There are some clever ideas towards cheaper pumps but i’m not sure that
            a pure displacement pump is a practical approach towards either an upper stage
            or a SSTO.

          5. Dick Eagleson

            A displacement pump has a much higher solidity factor then a turbopump.

            I don’t think this is necessarily true. The only people likely to know for sure are probably all working for XCOR and they can’t say – yet.

            But a piston pump would seem to have some obvious advantages compared to a turbopump, even if it gave away a bit in the total mass or “solidity factor” department. These advantages are especially compelling for a restartable, upper-stage engine, like the RL-10 ULA has XCOR working on technology to replace.

            1) Piston pumps typically operate at much lower RPM’s than turbopumps, making bearing technology less problematic, a key factor in reliability/reusability/service life.

            2) Piston pumps can be started and stopped much more quickly than can turbopumps, which have to spin up to, then spin down from, much higher angular momenta given their much higher operating RPM’s. Turbo machinery generally works best when it can get up to speed and stay there for extended periods. This is what’s required for booster stages, but upper stages need to be able to do multiple short burns as well as long, steady burns. Given the increasing tendency for single launch vehicles to boost anywhere up to several dozen smallsats at a time, the ability to do many short, precise burns is only going to grow more important as the smallsat payloads on these dispenser missions more and more require a unique orbit per bird.

            3) Piston pumps can support deep-throttleable engine designs better than turbopumps because they can be run efficiently across a much broader range of RPM’s than can turbopumps.

            4) Piston pumps would seem inherently able to support very precise engine burns as the mass flow of propellant per shaft revolution is constant as opposed to variable based on RPM in the case of turbopumps.

            The wonder, in my mind, is not why XCOR is pursuing this technology, but why they seem to be the only ones doing so. Maybe you are correct that MDA is also an interested party. Given what kill vehicles have to do, all of my cited potential advantages for piston pumps would seem to be attractive in this application except perhaps the first.

          6. dn-guy

            “I don’t think this is necessarily true.”

            Dick

            No, it’s absolutely true, it’s an inherent condition of the design

            Consider a 4 stroke engine, of the 4 motions of the piston, only one has the intake valve open, and only one has the exhaust valve open.

            Inherently a 4 stroke engine is only moving fluid 25% of the time, so it’s “Solid” 75% of the time. Now you can improve on this by going to a 2 stroke engine.
            But your max is going to be 50% solid.

            Early turbine engines used a radial flow pattern, the maximum solidity is set to the Hub to Tip Ratio. As soon as they figured out the design, the world wide industry moved to axial flow. Much better solidity.

            It’s why the Aircraft industry has gone to turbines across an enormous range of sizes. Excellent Thrust to Weight, excellent flow capacity.

            as for your other suggestions, Restart in turbines is a simple enough thing. The RL-10 has had in flight restart since the 60′s. So did the Agena, the Block-DM…
            As for running at low power, a turbine will run okay until blade stall, it’s usually pretty good. Besides you rarely want to run a rocket engine at low power. A quick high thrust burn is usually as good as a longer low thrust burn.

            Displacement pumps are mostly an older approach. Simple but low tech, low performance. With the steep performance requirements for space, this usually isn’t a trade most designers will take.

    2. Bob-1

      Given that 1) Carmack was very open about what he was doing, and 2) a lot of people were rooting for him, did many (or any) experts tell him that they thought he was using the wrong propellents? In other words, was he ignoring the experts, or did he not receive expert advice?

        1. Dick Eagleson

          I followed the Armadillo blog for years. John wasn’t immune to advice, but he was skeptical of much advice because a lot of it was catechistic assertions of conventional wisdom and he was quite deliberately setting out to do things differently. As time went on, I think he found that some of the conventional wisdom was actually true while other portions of it were not.

          Speaking for myself, if I had had the same experience, I would probably have remained skeptical of any particular piece of advice if there was no obvious way to judge its credibility analytically that was cheaper or faster than just trying something and looking at the results. That’s mostly what John did. The hydrogen peroxide monoprop thing was indeed a dead-end. But John wasn’t the sort who would have accepted an “expert” opinion on that matter absent personal experience. In that sense, his monoprop experiments were something he had to go through to get to his own conclusion that it wasn’t going to work for him.

          1. Bob-1

            I completely respect that. I also suspect it was (or at least, could have been) a more personally fulfilling use of his own money — instead of buying a solution, he tried to create one from scratch. I hope he gets back to rocketry, and I hope Exos Aerospace flourishes.

          2. Dick Eagleson

            Bob-1: Completely agree on all points.

            dn-guy: Expensive compared to what? I don’t know what John spent on strictly the H2O2 monoprop part of Armadillo’s history, but I’d be amazed if it was more than a million or two. Bezos probably spent a lot more than that on H2O2 monoprop work that also went nowhere. Compared to the billions NASA has spent on failed projects, both Carmack’s and Bezos’s ultimate losses on H2O2 monoprop have been tiny fractions of the PowerPoint budgets for most NASA failures. Climbing a learning curve always involves some expense and, sometimes, some failures along the way. It is the conceit of leftists that large projects can always be accomplished error-free by simply consulting experts and applying sufficient up-front analysis. They can’t.

          3. Bob-1

            ” It is the conceit of leftists that large projects can always be accomplished error-free by simply consulting experts and applying sufficient up-front analysis. They can’t.”

            That’s a conceit of non-engineers. Any engineer won’t really believe that. Why bring politics into this?

            When you do something new, there is always a problem of figuring out what part of the problem you need to work on, and what part of the problem you can assume has a known solution which can be treated as a black box. We’re just talking about where to draw the boundary lines.

            Godzilla said “Carmack spent a lot of time fiddling with propellants and expertise that anyone with cursory knowledge of the field knew were dead ends.”

            Do you disagree with Godzilla? Sometimes it is an excellent strategy to start from scratch, and sometimes an excellent strategy to start by using the techniques that “anyone with a cursory knowledge of the field knows”. Doing the former can lead to greatness but you always have to do the latter to some extent, or you end up trying to reinvent how computers work, or maybe even trying to figure out how the iron age started.

          4. dn-guy

            “Expensive compared to what? I don’t know what John spent on strictly the H2O2 monoprop part of Armadillo’s history, but I’d be amazed if it was more than a million or two.”

            A decent engineering degree from a decent engineering school like UT is probably some $50K. If you add in Grad school to get a masters in Aero, it can’t be more then another 20K.

            Seems a lot cheaper to learn things by taking a few classes, reading a dozen textbooks and spending a summer or two in the library.

            Rand likes to denigrate college but he went to college.

          5. Rand Simberg Post author

            I went to community college first, you moron. And I finished my degree before college costs had gone through the roof, and I got a degree that was worth the money.

          6. Bob-1

            Anything you might learn while getting a masters in aerospace engineering, you can learn without going to college. I think the knowledge itself, not college, is the issue.

    3. Edward Wright

      If I was in that company I would go for more simple expendables first before continuing into the expensive winged vehicle business.

      The idea that expendables are cheaper to develop is an old myth. Convair did a study in the 1960′s, comparing the X-15 to an expendable missile of similar size and performance, and found that the reusable vehicle was 40% cheaper to develop. The results were confirmed by a separate, independent Air Force study.

      The late Max Hunter said that people who argue expendables are cheaper to develop forget that to develop rockets, you need to fly rockets and testing is a significant part of the development cost.

      1. dn-guy

        an unguided missile is very cheap to build.

        a guided missile starts getting pricey and as they get bigger, the costs start to run away.

        a little missile like the Sidewinder was very cheap to build, but a big saturn, well
        that was pricey.

        so this statement without discussing the size, range and accuracy requirements is
        a bit, unproductive.

        1. Edward Wright

          so this statement without discussing the size, range and accuracy requirements is a bit, unproductive.

          Those things were discussed in the study. Don’t confuse your ignorance for the general state of affairs.

          Like any airplane, the X-15 was accurate enough to land on a narrow strip called a runway. It landed on the lake bed because it had skids, but the never-built trainer version would have had wheels and used the runway. The suggestion that contemporary ballistic missiles were more accurate is absurd.

    4. Darkstar

      I agree. My POV is that a rocket is an engine (or engines; I like the idea of plenty of smaller engines mass-produced, like in the Falcon 9) wrapped in sheet metal. If you don’t have engine expertise, you’re going nowhere.

  5. Trent Waddington

    “I recognized that if there was going to be space tourism so that we can all fly that we have to make these vehicles extremely robust and safe compared to any other manned spacecraft.” – Burt Rutan http://www.thespacereview.com/article/255/1

    So yeah, it was designed with irrational requirements from the very beginning.

    First you walk, then you run. First make an affordable suborbital spaceflight vehicle, then you can make something more reliable to increase your market. It worked for aircraft.

    1. Thomas Matula

      Trent,

      Exactly, you ride the experience curve down, first serving the easy markets tolerant of vehicles being lost, particularly ones with out pilots, to the more difficult ones where failure is not socially acceptable.

      By focusing on the most difficult and least forgiving market, space tourism instead of just reliability, low cost and reusability the Ansari X Prize had the majority of the firms chasing the more difficult and expensive to serve markets first, ensuring it’s commercial failure and making it just a PR stunt.

      1. Trent Waddington

        All the market research indicates that there’s plenty of paying customers willing to fly on current vehicles, even at current prices. If you want more customers, it would seem that reducing the price would be the order of the day, not wringing your hands and dicking around with “safety”. The reason why there’s no-one (except the Russians, occasionally) flying all these people who are lining up to fly is because everyone is afraid of the inevitable lawsuits that will follow when a fatality occurs. Well guess what, it’s inevitable. Trying to stave off that day by making your vehicle safer – and there’s no safer vehicle than the one that never flies – isn’t going to change that.

        1. Edward Wright

          All the market research indicates that there’s plenty of paying customers willing to fly on current vehicles, even at current prices.

          If your definition of “plenty” is a tiny handful of NASA astronauts and an even smaller group of billionaire space buffs, yes.

          In the rest of the world, we call that “damn few.”

          it would seem that reducing the price would be the order of the day, not wringing your hands and dicking around with “safety”.

          That’s a common misconception. As Max Hunter said, almost anything you can do to improve safety and reliability improves cost, and vice versa. Losing people and hardware is not cheap,

          1. Trent Waddington

            If you never fly that’s all essentially irrelevant isn’t it?

            “Dicking around with safety while flying no-one” is an apt descript of the suborbital spaceflight industry today.

  6. George Purcell

    I’d argue both the X-Prize and SS1 were wildly successful in the one way that really matters:

    They removed the laugh factor for non-Big Space projects in the general population.

    Is Space X and Musk able to do what they’ve done without that flight? Or would the efforts to strangle Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew been successful?

    1. Thomas Matula

      George,

      There never was a laugh factor among the general public because they never cared that much about spaceflight one way or the other. That was always a strawman argument among space advocates to explain the lack of interest by investors when they real reason is simply lack of evidence of a suitable ROI

      Also SpaceX was created in 2002 before the Ansari X Prize, founded because Elon Musk couldn’t find an affordable way to send a private lander to Mars. And as I have argued before COTS, CCP have held back the development of commercial human spaceflight, not advanced it. If you don’t believe that just ask Mr. Bigalow who has been waiting years for a firm like SpaceX to provide access to his habitats.

  7. Dale Amon

    It appears that many of you don’t know a great deal about what we are doing here at XCOR. Unfortunately I can not tell you anything that is not on the website :-)

    I will note that we have very long lived engines. About the only reason we’ve ever discarded an engine is because we’d made it obsolete. XCOR engines take a licking and keep on ticking.

    1. Thomas Matula

      If there is a successful suborbital human spaceflight industry it will probably be because of XCOR’s efforts, not because of Virgin Galactic or the Ansari X Prize.

  8. Dan DeLong

    Safety, reliability, and low cost per flight come as a bundle. The only way to get safety is through reliability and the only way to get reliability is with lots of test flights and gradual envelope expansion. You cannot design in reliability or safety no matter how much wishful thinking you invoke. The only way to have lots of test flights is if you can afford them. If a problem shows up that needs an additional 10 flights to solve and verify, you need to be able to insert 10 more flights into the test program without upsetting either the schedule or cost. I have personally ridden in a pump-fed rocket powered vehicle and it had *no* maintenance since its previous flight.

    1. Robin Goodfellow

      Precisely. And that gets back to the other problem of the mythology of spaceflight development, the idea that development is clean. That NASA, or whatever enormous “super smart” organization or corporation at hand, can spend years futzing about with slide rules and view graphs (or simulations and power point presentations) and then magically give birth to a perfect lotus bud of a vehicle which will never have any operational issues despite never seeing the light of day until its first use.

      You can fake that to a moderate degree merely by pumping enough money into the system to be able to over-engineer everything. But even that only works sometimes. The reality is that at the end of the day theories need to be validated with real-world data. In this case a “theory” is the idea of the robustness and safety of a given vehicle design. A good example is the Space Shuttle. Despite all the flights and despite several catastrophic events we still have very little idea of the safety and overall flight characteristics of the Space Shuttle, because every flight it flew as close to the center of the flight envelope as possible, so there’s a huge amount of data we just don’t have on the vehicle. For example, we still don’t know if the vehicle was actually capable of an RTLS abort. And we still don’t know (although we have some suspicions) about the usefulness of its bailout capability. Despite the reliance of the program on those theoretical abort modes in service of “guaranteeing” the safety of the astronauts.

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