Jeff Foust has a story today on the current real space race (as opposed to the fantasy one between the US and China)–the new race for customers in the suborbital market. It’s basically a compilation of last week’s XCOR press conference announcement and this past weekend’s Space Access conference, both of which I attended. This to me is the key point:
“Quietly, this has turned into a horse race,” said conference organizer Henry Vanderbilt during a wrap-up panel at the conclusion of the Space Access conference. “There are a lot of people who could be the first to fly a passenger to suborbit at this point. Two years ago I’m sure the money would have been on Virgin Galactic. It isn’t necessarily so at this point.”
“What struck me about the events of this week was that we have finally, with all due respect, broken the mystique of Burt [Rutan],” Rand Simberg, an aerospace engineer and blogger, said. “He has had setbacks”–referring to the engine test accident last July that killed three Scaled Composites employees–“and, this week, now he has a competitor.” The growing awareness of companies other than Virgin “is going to be very good for the industry.”
“This perception of a horse race is probably a really, really good thing for investment,” said Joe Pistritto, an angel investor. “Ninety-nine percent of the people who could invest in this industry don’t know about this industry” but may start to learn about it as the find out about these competing companies.
If it is a horse race, who will win the ultimate prize: not just the first vehicle to enter the market, but the one that wins the market in the long run? The diversity of technical approaches, from the takeoff and landing techniques to the number of passengers, makes any predictions difficult. “If there’s four different operators flying people into space, their offerings are going to be a little different,” said Pistritto. “So you see an actual segmentation of the market around the experience you want, how much money you have, and where you are.”
What I meant about the “mystique of Burt” was the notion that the winning of the X-Prize was some kind of fluke, enabled only because the most brilliant aeronautical engineer in the world applied his genius to it. Many have used this as an excuse to denigrate the efforts of others building suborbital vehicles, which hasn’t made it any easier to raise money for such ventures.
Many seem to believe that it really takes the genius of a Rutan to build a suborbital vehicle. As evidence of this proposition, they point out that no other suborbital vehicles have been flown since 2004.
But in so doing, they display a fundamental ignorance of the nature of the technology and the requirements. There is no “one way” to skin that cat, and never was. Burt’s design was clever, and perhaps intrinsically safer, but it was not necessary, and there are other, better ways to do the job that are safe enough. It’s not at all clear that the SS1 approach is the best one for a commercial application, and if one includes in that the hybrid propulsion, it’s already caused delays (though those are partly due to Scaled taking on a project outside their area of expertise–they’re an aircraft manufacturer, not a propulsion house) in their development program, and it’s certain to result in higher operational costs and increased turnaround time.
The real point is that if only Burt could win the X-Prize, it wasn’t because he was the only guy smart enough to design a vehicle to do it. It was because he was the only guy with the reputation of being smart enough to be able to raise the money to do it. When it comes to space ventures, the hardest part is always raising the money. The technical challenges generally pale in comparison.
So, with schedule delays in SS2, now comes XCOR. XCOR has a reputation of its own, hard won over the past eight years, of underpromising and overdelivering. So when they have a (rare, almost unheard of) press conference announcing that they have the design and the cash to build a suborbital vehicle, with an endorsement from the Air Force Research Laboratory, the world listens, and suddenly it’s a real race.
Evidence that the mystique has been broken is this CNBC story by Jane Wells from last week, after XCOR’s announcement, with the hed “Branson And Northrop May Be Backing “Wrong” Rocket Man!”
Burt is no longer God, other companies are getting serious attention from both business journalists and investors, and it’s been a very good week for the new space industry and space age.