Category Archives: Space

The Starship Free Enterprise

The Economist has a good article on SpaceShipOne. There’s only one problem with it:

…it is difficult for his competitors (as well as everybody else) to work out what a ticket might actually cost.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation gives some idea. Mr Rutan says his highest costs are staff for the pre- and post-flight check-ups. He has a few dozen staff and, at one point, had a plan to run SpaceShipOne once a week for five months. Assuming each of his staff cost $120 an hour to employ, it would cost a minimum of $60,000 per tourist for staff alone.

That assumes that his entire staff is dedicated to SpaceShipOne operations. He has many other projects to which they would charge, so a SpaceShipOne flight won’t bear the full burden of his standing…well, not army, but perhaps a large squad, or perhaps a platoon. So I think that these are overestimates of his overhead costs.

Flawed Premises

Eli Lehrer has the right solution, for the wrong reasons.

I’ll explain why a little later, when I get a minute.

Actually, looking at what I just wrote, I realize that people are going to think, “Great. Now he’ll go off somewhere and get hit by the beer truck, and it will be like Fermat’s Last Theorem, and it will take centuries to figure it out.”

I’ll try to get to it later, honest. In the meantime, I can leave it as an exercise for the students in the comments section, and maybe I won’t have to.

Why, Yes, I Am Busy

Why do you ask?

I’m in the middle of helping figure out lunar/Mars transportation architectures for a client in response to NASA’s Broad Area Announcement, and have little time to post. Fortunately Andrew’s picking up some of the slack, and Clark Lindsey has an amazing number of interesting links this week (check out yesterday’s edition as well as today’s).

Also, Jay Manifold has been collecting media reactions here and here. As Andrew reports via Pat Bahn, the “giggle factor” is dissipating rapidly, if not gone completely.

Things are definitely heating up.

[Update at 9:25 PM PDT]

Here’s another non-giggling piece from Newsweek.

A Pleasant Evening

I just got back from a pleasant evening hanging out with some of the local space geeks (Clark Lindsey, Jeff Foust, Phil Smith, and Pat Bahn). The main topic of conversation was obviously SpaceShipOne and the ramifications of the flight. Two noteworthy things came up. First of all, Pat confirms that the giggle factor is pretty much dead as far as investors are concerned. He can’t go into details for obvious reasons, but he speaks from direct experience. Everyone suspected this would happen, but it’s nice to have real data. The second point that came up which I thought I’d mention is this: In the SS1 development program so far there have been four incidents in which the pilot saved the plane. The landing problem on the December 17th test, the uncommanded nose rise on the August 27th test, the computer failure on the May 13th shot, and the roll problem on the most recent flight. In an unmanned system each one of those would most likely have lead to loss of vehicle. The lesson is clear – pilots are good. Again, no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to alt-space, but it’s nice to have further confirmation.

Orbital Survivor

Dwayne Day says that the next frontier for reality teevee will be the high one.

My friend Dr. Day has long been a skeptic about commercial human spaceflight, but like many others, he’s slowly coming to his senses… 😉

Seriously (like most of his work) it’s a carefully researched and interesting history of the intersection between private manned space and television over the past several years. Amidst the rubble of the past failures (as is often the case) it may be about to finally succeed.

Back In LA

I just drove back down from Mojave. While I was up there, people who were watching the news might actually have a better idea than I do of the actual flight results, because I couldn’t get into the press conference, and none of the reporters who did were talking until they’d filed.

There’s some discussion going on in this post that the damage to the vehicle may have been more severe than thought. If the fuselage literally “buckled,” that’s a Very Bad thing, and I’m not sure what it means except that either their design is wrong, or its execution is. Of course, there was damage on the last flight as well, and they flew this one. I don’t know when they were planning to announce the Ansari X-Prize attempt, but I suspect that if they’d had a picture perfect flight today, it would have come sooner than it will now. I’m betting on at least one more flight test before the official attempt, particularly since it seemed to be underperforming as well (it barely achieved altitude, and it wasn’t carrying the ballast to account for passengers).

More tweaking ahead. Of course the fact that it’s tweakable is exactly the point of the program.

[Update a couple minutes later]

Kevin Murphy has a play by play.

[Another update a couple minutes later still]

Here’s Leonard David’s account based on the press conference.

[Late night update]

Jeff Foust has the best reporting on the flight that I’ve read so far.


If there were any hitches, they weren’t apparent from the viewing stand. They hit the apogee of at least a hundred kilometers, and had a smooth entry and landing. I took some pictures, but until I can figure out how to get them onto a big screen, I won’t know if they were any good, or worth posting. If you watched live on television or webcast, I’m sure that the pros did a better job than me (if for no other reason than they have much better equipment.

The question now is what effect, short and long term, this will have on the growing prospects for this new liberating industry. XCOR has gotten a lot of good publicity out of this. Here’s hoping it means investors as well. And we still await announcements from Paul Allen and Richard Branson about future plans.

[Update at 9 AM PDT]

Leonard David has filed his report from Mojave.

[Another update]

Here’s a copy editor for whom the president’s new initiative can’t come a moment too soon. The San Francisco Chronicle says that SpaceShipOne made it all the way to the atmosphere. [Hat tip to Orbital Mind-Control Laser]

[Another update]

I should mention that Dale Amon has been describing this over at Samizdata as well.


The sun is up now. I’ll have pics later. The XCOR hangar is right on the flight line, and I hear the sounds of helicopters and other aircraft (perhaps including chase planes), getting into position prior to the rollout.

I’m heading down to the viewing area, so no blogging for a while.

[Update a few minutes later]

OK, one more. They’ve got White Knight halfway out of the hangar, fueling and prepping it to taxi over to the viewing area at 6:30.

Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited

During the day in the Mojave desert, the sun beats down on the ancient rock and sand through cloudless skies. Its rays are reflected back upward, and it heats the dry air. Following the inexorable law of Boyle, with no volume to contain it, it expands, and as it does, it has to go somewhere.

What this eventually means, as the late morning and afternoon progress, is wind. And not just high wind, but dynamic, changing, don’t-know-from-what-direction-it-will-come-from-one-minute-to-the-next wind, grabbing-a-seemingly-tranquil-hangar-door-right-out-of-your-hands wind. The natives know this, and expect it. In fact, overlooking the town of Mojave, along the road leading up to Tehachapi, is a wind farm, a crop of subsidized windmills. In fact, some wag last night suggested that this wasn’t a natural wind–Burt, a natural showman, had simply decided to pay for the electricity to run them in reverse to build up the suspense for the next morning’s flight.

When we arrived last night, it was gusting at (my estimate) thirty to forty knots. In XCOR’s hangar, you could hear the groans of the old metal walls straining against it. The rave last night was sandblasted by it–I could taste and feel the grit in the watermelon slices left to its untender mercies. Many, with no experience with Mojave, had two questions: could the flight occur in conditions like this? And if so, would the conditions be like this in the morning?

The answer to the first is almost certainly no. A steady wind can be managed, if one can take off into it, but no prudent pilot would attempt a takeoff or landing with high and unpredictable potential crosswinds, which could suddenly flip over a twenty-million-dollar one-of-a-kind investment, just before it was about to bear fruit.

Fortunately, the answer to the second question is also probably no.

When I got up this morning, the desert had cooled and the atmosphere had calmed, and the notorious Mojave gales had settled down to a gentle breeze, as they almost always do. It looks like it will be a gorgeous morning for history.