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Michael Belfiore is concerned about Rocketplane's business plan and technical approach:
These guys say they'll fly paying passengers--and not just any paying passengers, but ones able to blow almost a quarter of a million dollars on a what amounts to a fabulously expensive roller coaster ride--in an experimental spacecraft built around a used business jet. Because its cheaper.
Well, there's actually nothing wrong with that. It's certainly an airframe with which we have a lot of experience (though not necessarily for this application). It's not at all obvious to me that it's better to use a new design from scratch. And the fact that it's used doesn't bother me, either. Many airliners are flying safely with aging airframes (and we now have B-52s flying some of whose current flight crews may have grandfathers who flew them). What matters is not age (or even cycles), but inspections.
And there's more, unfortunately. Turns out the rocket engine is going to be preowned as well, of the highly explosive liquid fuel variety. That's because the built-from-scratch engine they were going to use blew up on the test stand.
Without knowing more about this, I can't really comment, but liquid engines are not intrinsically dangerous, marketing hype from SpaceDev aside. It depends on the design, and the margins.
And something for me to follow up on: a tipster tells me that Rocketplane hasn't approached the FAA about certifying their hot-rodded Learjet--surely a requirement for following through with their business plan.
If they haven't talked to the FAA at all, I'd be concerned (and surprised, if not astonished). But if the "tipster" is saying literally that they haven't applied for "certification," I wouldn't expect them to, now or later. "Certification" has a very precise meaning in this context. The whole purpose of the new launch legislation last year was to allow passengers to fly without having to go through certification of a spaceplane (something that the FAA-AST doesn't know how to do at all, and that FAA-AVR, the part that certifies aircraft, doesn't know how to do it for spacecraft).
All that is needed is a launch license. Virgin Galactic may attempt to get their spacecraft certified (because that seems to be Burt's druthers), but if they do, I suspect they'll find out that it will throw a wrench into their business plans, cost them a lot more than they expect, and delay their entry into the market for years.
[Update on Sunday night]
Robin Snelson makes a good point in comments--Belfiore is comparing apples and orange. Virgin Galactic is a spaceline, whereas Rocketplane is a manufacturer. Better to compare the latter to the SpaceShip Company.Posted by Rand Simberg at October 30, 2005 11:50 AM
OT: So when are we going to start giving the Superfortress the same dues given the DC-3? How classic can you get to remain a front line military airplane for 53 years?Posted by K at October 30, 2005 01:08 PM
So, it should be The Spaceship Company vs. Rocketplane vs. (*?). Plus, are there any pictures of what's going on at Burt Rutan's shop these days?
Perhaps I shouldn't have used the term "certification." My tipster indicated that Rocketplane hasn't spoken with the FAA at all. But I'll do my own research to see just exactly what the situation is, and whether the FAA needs to be involved under the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act.
Point taken, Robin. Yes, Rocketplane is a manufacturer. But it's also a spaceline, since they're selling tickets as well as building a ship. So we're back to apples and apples.
And, yes, it's true that Virgin isn't releasing photos either, but that's because they haven't started building yet, hence nothing to photograph. Rocketplane says they've already started building. And of course Virgin is using a proven design that has successfully flown people into space.
Aging airframe: I understand your point. But the examples you give are of airframes being used for their intended purposes. Rocketplane proposes to take a used airframe much faster and much higher than it was designed to go. That would make me very nervous as a potential passenger.Posted by Michael Belfiore at October 30, 2005 09:38 PM
I'll do my own research to see just exactly what the situation is, and whether the FAA needs to be involved under the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act.
You needn't do any research into the latter. There's no question that they need to be involved, which is why I said that I would be astonished if they haven't been in late 2005 for planned operations in 2007.
Aging airframe: I understand your point. But the examples you give are of airframes being used for their intended purposes. Rocketplane proposes to take a used airframe much faster and much higher than it was designed to go. That would make me very nervous as a potential passenger.
And I'm not sure why that's the case. The issue is not whether it's doing what it was originally designed for, but whether or not it will satisfy the requirements of the new design (just as a tank designed to contain one kind of substance was subsequently found to be able to contain others). If it does, then no worries.Posted by Rand Simberg at October 30, 2005 09:53 PM
I've just learned that Rocketplane has in fact approached FAA AST. Updating my blog now....Posted by Michael Belfiore at October 31, 2005 07:42 AM
At NMSU's personal spaceflight symposium, Alex Tai said, "SpaceShip2 exists. I sat in it."
And he also said, "If you have a better spaceship than Burt Rutan, then Virgin Galactic wants to operate that spaceship."
About the airframe, let David Urie reassure you about the rugged capabilities of the Lear they're remodeling.
Don't forget, Oklahoma is the "Sooner" State!Posted by Robin at October 31, 2005 09:09 AM
"OT: So when are we going to start giving the Superfortress the same dues given the DC-3? How classic can you get to remain a front line military airplane for 53 years?"
That's Stratofortress (when it's not BUFF). Superfortress was the B-29.Posted by Kathy Rages at October 31, 2005 09:57 AM
My money's in escrow. We will have dozens of test flights in late 2006 and early 2007 to assess whether the turtle or the hare will win this one. Or will it be 2008 or 2009? Who's the turtle and who's the hare? XCOR Xerus?
Rocketplane is using more than 3/4 their own money.
SpaceShipTwo will bear about as much resemblence to SpaceShipOne as a rocketship bears to--a Learjet? SpaceShipTwo will need to be FAA-AST certified just as much as Rocketplane.
Michael, how much are you willing to bet Virgin Galactic beats Rocketplane to market?Posted by Sam Dinkin at October 31, 2005 10:10 AM
Sam, have you visited the Rocketplane facility and seen the work in progress? I'd be very interested in hearing your impressions if you have. Also, as I understand it, Rocketplane's "own money" actually comes from the State of Oklahoma, and the company doesn't need to sell tickets or even build a working spaceship to cash in--they already have. My information comes from this article. Is it inacurate?
http://www.altweeklies.com/gyrobase/AltWeeklies/Story?oid=oid%3A148324Posted by Michael Belfiore at November 1, 2005 11:29 AM
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