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OK, this time for sure.
Starting off with a thank you. This was his first conference in a couple years that he's had time at the conference to actually see the conference and talk with old friends, because he wasn't consumed with meetings.
XCOR turned a profit last year. A small one, but they're still actively involved in the development of product lines, so all that means is that the money temporarily came in faster than they could spend it. Had about $3.7M in revenue last year, probably about the same this year for reasons to come later. About 34 employees.
They are building vehicles to help us go, but because they are the largest company that isn't well funded, they "flip burgers for a living," in that they look for customers who need problems solved that they also need solved, and have managed to turn R&D from a cost center to a profit center, but it's still useful R&D for their goals.
Nitrous oxide/methane thruster in the fifty-pound class for an attitude control thruster. Customer's application is different than XCOR's, but it's still good.
Pump-fed fueled, pressure-fed lox engine for the rocket racer. They turned out to be ahead of the rest of the schedule for the rocket racer activity, and they were asked to slow down to let the rest of the things catch up. Ramping back up now, though. They will be mass producing engines (a dozen in the first order), with a ten-minute turnaround, which will be an eye opener for the military, particularly in the ORS world. Sixteen sorties a day may change minds and careers.
7500 lbf thrust LOX/methane engine is being developed with ATK (for NASA). Theory was that NASA would talk to ATK and ATK would talk to XCOR, to maintain Jeff's blood pressure. Hasn't always worked out that way, but working with ATK has been surprisingly good, and hopes that it will continue, as a model of how to work with the big boys. Thinks that ATK recognizes the value of the smaller companies, and view them as asset rather than threat. Opportunities for synergy. New engine with propellants no one has considered for forty years and high performance requirements, and so far, so good. Playing video that shows the scale of the new (large) mobile test stand.
Showed the engine burn with a beautiful set of shock diamonds. Now showing a three-piston propellant pump, which runs for hours reliably. Finally showing lox/kerosene engine for rocket racer, in typical burn durations for racing.
"Barring some unforeseen event, by the time I come back next year, I will finally have my first ride." Can't say much about suborbital vehicle effort, but it's progressing, and they're past stage of wondering how they're going to solve various problems. No schedule, but feeling good about it. Seeing some signs of interest from government customers, but can't say much more than that right now. So much contract work, hard to keep track (which is a good thing).
Admires Masten's public posture in terms of communicating technical road ahead without getting too deep in the technical weeds. Have to make it clear to the public that suborbital is by no means the last step on the road. Last year, they ran out of technology problems to solve, so are doing strategic thinking, refilling their plate of problems for getting to orbit, and will be looking for customers to solve those problems, so that they'll be able to move on to the next step.
NASA is a challenging customer for XCOR. The reason is not that they're stupid or incompetent. Have been impressed with competency and experience of the people they're dealing with. The unpleasant surprise is that they're like an alien race so alien that there's no point of contact or ability to communicate, in terms of their culture. Fortunately, ATK acts as an interpreter. XCOR producing engine results that NASA didn't expect to get. Instead of a technology hobby shop that they expected, there is now a place on the NASA product roadmap for methane to go, and all of a sudden this is becoming real (for lunar ascent stage). They have real hope that this engine will have a descendant that will lift astronauts from the moon, but this reality is putting new players in the game, and reexamining results to date.
Taking question now. Will NASA reports be publicly available? Not his department, but much of the high-risk work was done prior to NASA contract and is proprietary.
How about selling rocket engines to the private sector? Opens up lots of issues in terms of maintenance, ITAR, warranty violation, liability, etc. Not to the point of selling them off the rack, even if they were in production, and price can't be estimated until insurance costs can be known.
Asked about relative virtues of various pumps (piston, pistonless, turbo, etc.). Saying that XCOR doesn't subscribe to "magic bean" theory to space--that technologies have to be evaluated in context. Don't see a path on their roadmap for pistonless pump, but that doesn't mean that it's wrong for someone else.
What kind of results were NASA surprised to learn about methane performance? Can't be specific without clearing room for ITAR. They set a high bar for performance to beat hypergolics, and XCOR exceeded them, along with smooth starts and stops. NASA was having trouble believing the data, because it is perceived to be too good. Original application for vehicle was backup for CEV SM, and was pressure fed for reliability, but now looking at a smaller engine for for lunar. However still, pressure fed, again because it has to start.
Ken Davidian asks which parts of NASA they're working with. Langley propulsion, Marshall and another that I missed. Ken wants to make the point that NASA is not a monolith, and Jeff strongly agrees (says that even a center isn't one). We have to consider that NASA seems to be seriously considering putting an entrepreneurial company on the critical path of a safety-critical system for their flagship program. If someone had told him that they would do this two years ago, he would have thought they were smoking something.
Asked about differences between NASA and Air Force. Answer: each customer has their own idiosyncracies and challenges. No one shows up at the door with a big pile of money and says "call me when it's done."
Has some comments on policy, because leaving and will miss policy discussion later. ITAR sucks, but reminds of Jerry's comment about "building a golden bridge." National security is critical: we live in a dangerous world. It is essential that US maintain technical advantage over our adversaries. ITAR is not currently doing that, it slows us down, and does nothing to hurt our adversaries. Alternative approach is to provide a new system that offers the State Department as they have right now, but will actually work. (Devil's in the details, of course).
Second issue: what do we want NASA to be. Doesn't know, but he does know what we want NACA to be. We want it to be existing: dual-use technologies of value to government and private sector. NASA is out, out, out of that business. The entire office that they used to work with on advanced technology is gone. Over turning ever couch cushion called "research" and pulling it out to feed the monster. Air Force and DARPA developing space technologies, but not necessarily dual use. No conscious decision to get out of the civil space R&D business, but that's where we are, and Congress has never actually been confronted with that choice. It's our job as constituents to make the choices clear. Retask NASA with that job, retask someone else with it, or create a new entity, but someone should be doing it, and Congress should be made explicitly aware that this has happened.
Jerry Pournelle pointing out that this situation won't pertain forever--someone will figure out that we're doing no long-term technology planning, and we'll have more leverage if we know where we want to go, and can get them thinking about it early. Jeff points out that Congress does push back on a piecemeal basis (e.g., aeronautics) but not as part of any grand strategy of concern.
Talk over. Ken Davidian next.Posted by Rand Simberg at March 24, 2007 09:34 AM
But will this finally prove that private space ventures can be profitable or will it be viewed as an anomaly?Posted by Steve at March 24, 2007 09:50 AM
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