Category Archives: Space History

Starliner

With the upcoming launch today, Eric Berger writes that the surprise is not that it took so long, but that it happened at all.

Has Boeing done anything right, or well recently?

[Update a few minutes later]

Reading in the article about the “incident” at White Sands, I recall that I was sitting next to Chris Ferguson at an Apollo 49th-anniversary dinner at KSC a month or so afterward, and I said something like “I heard you had a little oopsie at WSMR.” He said, “You’re not supposed to know about that.” I’m sure that he wished that I (and others) didn’t know about that.

ULA

Can it get its mojo back?

I think that partially, even largely depends on whether it can get a better owner than the current ones.

[Update a while later]

I have more thoughts over at X.

[This is a good history from @SciGuySpace, but there’s a word missing in it: Starship. Tory’s problem is that he thinks that he’s competing against Falcon, but Elon is going to obsolesce Falcon ASAP. How will Vulcan or New Glenn compete against a fully reusable heavy lifter?

The thing about Elon is that he never faces the Innovator’s Dilemma. His first instinct is to obsolesce his own product line before a competitor can. Anyone who wants to seriously compete against SpaceX has to compete against his future plans, not his current business.

If space launch was just a business for Elon, he’d be as complacent as any other businessman in his position, but it’s not a business; it’s a passion, and he wants to get thousands of people to Mars. So he’s going to continue to out-innovate the competition.

Imagine a world in which SH/SS is flying daily (or more often) on regularly scheduled trips to ELEO at a cost of tens of dollars a pound. Propellant would be cheap enough to deliver a payload to anywhere in cislunar space for much less than the cost of a traditional launch. That is what ULA and BO are going to have to compete with if they want to stay in the launch business.

I know, “But there’s not enough demand for that level of launch activity!” Believe me, at those prices, we will finally see the kind of price-demand elasticity that will drive it through the roof. People will be doing things dreamt of for decades, held back only by launch costs.

So good luck to ULA (and BO) on their upcoming maiden flights this year, but I don’t predict a long future for them. Not to mention SLS… 

I feel like I should write a book about this.

[Monday-morning update]

ULA had a successful maiden flight, but there’s an anomaly with Peregrine.

[Bumped]

Bevin McKinney

Gary Hudson remembers our long-time friend.

(This is my remembrance of my friend and colleague Bevin McKinney. For those of you who knew Bevin, note that I am collecting for his widow to cover final expenses. You can contact me at gary.c.hudson@icloud.com if you wish to contribute, or send a contribution to me at PO Box 2500, Menlo Park, CA 94026.  For those of you who did not know him, please take a moment to obtain a glimpse of the life of an original NewSpace pioneer.)

Bevin C. McKinney, age 73, passed on 5 August 2023. He is survived by his wife of four decades, Gabrielle McKinney.

My interaction with Bevin spanned a similar period, first as a competitor and then as a close friend and business colleague.  We were both alike yet also different.  Born in the same month and year only ten days apart, we had similar childhood experiences growing up at the dawn of the Space Age.  We each were bitten by the space bug at an early age.  Bevin was more mild-mannered, private, introverted and kept his own counsel.  I was brash, extroverted (at that time, less so today) and impatient. These traits, combined with the passion we both had to do something significant to help Mankind along the road to the stars, led us into competition initially. He was co-founder of Starstruck (later AMROC, American Rocket Company) while I became head of several NewSpace companies in the 1980s – both of us working to beat the other to orbit.  

I managed to put the first US private launch vehicle on the stand in 1981 but destroy it in an engine test.  He flew the first successful flight of a privately developed large hybrid rocket (the Dolphin) using a sea launch technique a few years later.  But he too suffered a launch pad failure (for the same technical reason that my first attempt failed – we later bonded over that) late in the 1980s, which ultimately led to the demise of AMROC.

That demise brought us together for the first time, as we both realized we had a better chance of achieving our joint dreams working together rather than as competitors.  As we participated in the fire sale of AMROC assets one day in the early 1990s, we began to make our plans.  Our first successful foray into business flowed out of my work on reusable launch vehicles that culminated in the DC-X program.  That demonstration of the first rocket-powered landing on earth prompted two wealthy Seattle space entrepreneurs to start Kistler Aerospace to replicate the DC-X program commercially.  Bevin and I were invited to meet with them on sunny afternoon in 1994 and a few hours later walked out of the Kistler offices with a $1.4 million contract to build the propulsion systems for their K-0 demonstrator.  I still recall how we both stared at each other getting in the elevator while we were leaving, looking and feeling like we were the dog that caught the bus, and now wondering what we going to do with it.  Fortunately, we managed to make things work, even if ultimately Kistler Aerospace didn’t.  This project kicked off our business, HMX, Inc. (Hudson McKinney Experimental).

Bevin then came up with his most innovative, and perhaps craziest, idea.  He was fascinated by “spinning things” as he called them, and how spinning engines and rotors might enable reusable space transportation.  This fascination led him to discover work done by both French researchers and NASA, suggesting that a rotary rocket engine and rotor recovery device could be combined into a design he labeled the “Roton”.  In my role as the promoter, I authored an article for Wired magazine which attracted investor interest, including from the noted techno thriller author, Tom Clancy.  From 1996 to 2000 we tried, but failed, to turn the concept into reality.  We did build and fly a full-scale test article that now stands as a gate guard at the Mojave Air & Space Port, where many of our original test stands have been repurposed by other space companies.  A bronze plaque at the base of the Roton commemorates Bevin’s seminal role in that project.

During this period, we began to work with Burt Rutan on his attempt to win the X-Prize, with what became known as SpaceShipOne.  Bevin had an important early role in that effort – I still have his original memo recommending to Burt the use of a hybrid rocket motor for propulsion.  Bevin was truly the father of modern hybrid rockets, which have been adopted in several space ventures including Virgin Galactic.

After our Rotary Rocket Company experience, we decided that we’d focus on government business rather than try to raise investor funds again.  This produced a string of small contracts with NASA and DARPA over the years, culminating in the mid-2000s with the formation of Transformational Space Corporation (t/Space) and AirLaunch.  t/Space won a $6 million NASA contract to craft a plan to implement the Vision for Space that was created by the White House, post-Columbia, while AirLaunch won a $40 million contract to build an air-launched liquid rocket under the FALCON program.  What was amazing was we won both in the same week in 2004.

Our business was very much a feast and famine proposition.  A few good years were inevitably followed by several lean years.  Bevin never complained, but doggedly kept churning out ideas, engineering solutions and inspiration.   After the mid-2000s, having blazed the path for the emerging NewSpace firms such as SpaceX, our role became more muted.  We performed various small jobs for emerging and existing space companies, usually around low-cost propulsion systems and occasionally concept design.  With his passing, the torch is being handed to a new generation.  I fervently hope his original and unique contributions will not be forgotten by that new generation, though that is generally the fate of pioneers.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

Universally, the words friends and colleagues have used to describe him are quiet, humble, knowledgeable, wise, and thoughtful.  I would add the motto of the Roman Legions: fortitudo et honos – strength and honor.  I will miss him. 

[Late-afternoon update from Rand]

He was a mensch.