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« George Nield, FAA-AST | Main | Spaceports »

Jess Sponable: The Air Force View

Describing thirteen years ago, when there was a monsoon rainstorm and his hangar flooded around the DC-X. Cleaned it up, talked to Pete Conrad, who said facilities are a mess, but the vehicle's in great shape. Old space wouldn't have flown, but they did. Not high, not far, but it went up, translated, and came down on the pad. It was a transition point in his career. Had big plans for multi-billion-dollar single-stage experimental rockets, but politics and bureaucracy prevented it. And it still would have been old space.

Perhaps that was a good thing, because new things are happening now that only cost hundreds of millions, or just millions, and in some case hundreds of thousands.

Describing his work at the Air Force Research Lab in Dayton.

Starting with absurd predictions about the future ("Man will not fly for fifty years" -- Wilbur Wright, in 1901). Don't count on the opinions of the "experts." Citing Macchiavelli, about the difficulty of managing the creation of a new system. Discovered after AF retirement and attempt at entrepreneuring how difficult it was to raise money, and is happy to be back in government, where he has an opportunity to help nurture these new ideas.

Describing technologies, including new TPS that can be removed and installed five hundred times faster than Shuttle tiles, with order-of-magnitude improvement in strength and durability. Also discussing lox/methane and integration techniques, avionics, GN&C, health monitoring, aerothermal tools. Goal is delivering aircraft-like operations for space vehicles.

Describing FALCON program, and hybrid launch vehicle that goes to Mach seven or so, hopes to grow it into a platform for a hybrid reusable/expendable orbital launcher, that can evolve to fully reusable two stage. FALCON down to SpaceX and Airlaunch. First flight of SpaceX failed, expect another attempt in November. Airlaunch is lox/propane rocket dropped from back of C-17. Going to Critical Design Review this fall. Flight test planned next week with actual fully-fueled (but inert) rocket from C-17. ARES "hybrid launch vehicle" requires minimal new technology, But technology can carry on to next step, which is reusable upper stage. Will be lox/hydrocarbon, could be horizontal or vertical landing, will be tested from ground initially, with incremental flight test. Hope that technology can be spun off to New Space industry. Looking for "takeoff point" where industry "grows like mad."

Describing relationship between conventional aerospace, DoD, and the emerging private-sector industry. Discussing parallel between current space industry and dawn of aviation, with smart government investment spurring growth. Also wants to ensure that thriving industry is supportive of emerging defense needs for Operationally Responsive Spacelift. Sees emerging industry consensus on ways for government and industry can cooperate, leveraging relationships. Had a conference this week in Dayton where there were presentations of technologies being developed by the government to the industry. Hoped to link up commercial sector and defense vendors with technologists. Wants to know where to go with this in the future, to continue the development of relationships. Thinks that there's an overlap of interests, and wants to figure out how to continue to build on it.

Charles Miller giving a history of aviation, pointing out that we lost the lead in aviation early in the century, having to use European designs in WW I, due to patent fights between Wright and Curtiss, and poor coordination of the industry. NACA gradually helped fix this, and we need a new version of NACA for space.

Jim Muncy describing new types of "prizes" where the government paid for results, rather than effort. Sounds like a good thing, except that when you do that, Congressmen don't know which district the money will go to, Also, since we don't know when money will be awarded, and the money has to be set aside. Congress also doesn't understand why it can't spend money this year if the prize isn't going to be won, and is reluctant to set aside money unspent. Bureaucracy doesn't like it, either, because they lose control (Can't "help" the contractors, don't know how the job is going to be done, etc.). Not normal procurement and contracting, and doesn't work in Washington--only in the real world. But there's hope because there's some legislation working to give the Air Force some prize authority. NASA already does, but some in the Congress don't believe that they should actually get money to give out. He also notes that prizes are useful but not a panacea for all ills. Can't be too easy, or too hard. Good for incremental achievement. Were instrumental for huge breakthroughs in aviation when properly designed.

Comment from the audience that prizes are just a part of the solution, because there's a consensus that the general procurement process for the government is badly broken. Citing development cycles in private versus government, with dramatic differences in time to market. Jess response: agrees except no comment as to whether or not the current process is broken. Jim Muncy asking for formal written comments from small companies to Jess on the RASTE conference this week on this subject. We need to come up with a way for the entrepreneurial firms to do business with the government without becoming "little Boeings." Need to avoid buildup of infrastructure and bureaucracy in the company, and that needs to be written down and submitted to the Air Force.

Another audience comment: if having to build DeHavilland airplanes during the war was embarrasing, how embarassing is it that so many companies in this country have to use Russian launch vehicles? Jess comments that he agrees, but that fixing it (particularly ITAR) is above his pay grade.

Ed Wright suggests having future RASTE conferences in Mojave or at the X-Prize Cup so that industry participants can actually see things fly. Jess thinks it's a good idea, but they're currently funding limited.

Next talk in a few minutes--space ports.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 22, 2006 10:31 AM
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