Category Archives: Space

Spacelines

Alan Boyle points to Sam Dinkin’s article at this week’s The Space Review that contends that there will be three players in the suborbital market (not because he has identified three favorites, but because that’s the way markets of this kind tend to work). Alan then predicts that Space Adventures will be one of them.

Well, maybe, but not necessarily.

This isn’t to imply that Space Adventures won’t survive, or continue to be successful, but I question its categorization of a spaceline. To date, it hasn’t acted in that role, or rather, it hasn’t acted fully in that role.

We have to define terms here. I consider a spaceline to be an entity that operates spaceliners. It can perform other functions (such as marketing, which is what Space Adventures primarily does), but if it doesn’t do that, it’s not a spaceline, any more than a company that doesn’t lease/own, and operate airliners can be considered an airline.

In the aviation industry, we have large commercial aircraft manufacturers, like Boeing and Airbus (the only two surviving after the consolidation of the past few decades), and we have airlines, which purchase or lease those aircraft and actually operate them, providing air transportation services to the public. The airlines market their services to the general public, and Boeing doesn’t have to worry about that–they only have to market their airplanes to the airlines.

In the early days, it wasn’t as cleanly delineated. In fact, in the thirties, the aircraft manufacturers also operated the airplanes, and established their own airline services. For instance, in the late twenties, Boeing had an airline called Boeing Air Transport. This company later purchased and merged with three other airlines to become United Airlines.

As a result of the Air Mail Scandal, in which charges were made of improper awarding of routes to politically powerful conglomerates, the airlines were forced to divest themselves of association with aircraft manufacturers, and we ended up with the system that we have today.

However, it’s not clear what the model will be for spacelines. Certainly initially, the people who build space transports will operate them, because no one else will know how, but it remains to be seen how the business models will work. The traditional wisdom is that with such a small market, the money is to be made in operations, rather than manufacturing, because there’s no need for that many vehicles.

In any event, I in fact founded Interglobal Space Lines years ago because I recognized a hole in the space industry. For aviation, there’s an interface between the flying public and the aircraft manufacturers–it’s called an airline. But there were no spacelines, and if someone wanted a ride into space, they had to deal directly with a launch vehicle manufacturer, who didn’t know how to deal with the general public–their customer base was government agencies and comsat manufacturers. My hope was that in founding a spaceline, I could start to address this disconnect.

I still hope to do that, as some of the vehicle designs and operations mature to the point that they can be purchased and operated by a separate entity. In fact, one of the things that I’ve been talking to FAA-AST about as the new regs have evolved is ensuring that launch licenses can cover providers who aren’t the vehicle manufacturer (analogous to having a Part 121 Operaters certificate). There’s no current precedent in the space industry for this–all licenses issued to date have been to the vehicle manufacturer, but I’ve been assured that there’s nothing in the current regulations that would prohibit it.

Anyway, as I said, in this formulation, Space Adventures is not an operator–they are a marketer of other entities’ services. This is an important role, but they’re not (yet) a spaceline. Only time will tell whether or not they choose to become one, and are successful at it.

Perfect Flight For Armadillo

Armadillo Aerospace had a perfect flight of their testbed vehicle yesterday. There’s video (7 MB MPEG) and some notes on the Armadillo website.

It’s a really impressive flight, reminiscent of DC-X, if a bit shorter (and a heck of a lot cheaper). Congratulations to the Armadillo crew.

Sneak Preview

Brian Berger has apparently gotten an early look at the Aldridge Commission report, now scheduled to be publicly released Wednesday.

It has some encouraging things, but there are also some areas of concern.

It says that NASA should rely on the private sector for transportation to LEO, which is good, but it also excludes human transportation from that, which is an implicit go-ahead for the Crew Exploration Vehicle on an expensive expendable. I find this program almost as economically senseless as the Orbital Space Plane was, if envisioned as a Shuttle replacement (a role that many are urging for it), but apparently there’s too much political pressure to build such a thing to kill it off completely.

I think that NASA is setting itself up for embarrassment a decade from now when their vaunted “Crew Exploration Vehicle” ends up costing hundreds of millions of dollars per flight while there are regular space tourism flights to orbit costing a couple of orders of magnitude less. By giving NASA permission to ignore the private sector for passenger services, the commission is simply putting off further the day that it will become a reality.

The other concern is this:

The commission also identified 17 enabling technologies needed to accomplish the exploration goals. These include an affordable heavy lift capability, advanced power and propulsion, automated spacecraft rendezvous and docking capability, high bandwidth communications, closed loop life supports systems, better spacesuits for astronauts and others.

“Affordable heavy lift capability” is not a technology, and its certainly not an enabling one. At best, to the degree that it’s a technology at all, it’s an enhancing one. “Enabling” implies that we can’t do without it. I absolutely reject the notion that it is essential, and if we believe that it is, it will simply hold us back in schedule while we wait for it to appear, and we will miss a lot of opportunities for innovation.

This heavy-lift fetish is going to be (or at least should be) one of the major space policy debate issues, because it is a hingepoint for the direction of our near-term future.