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SS2/WK2 illustration
Although some doubt that SpaceShipTwo can evolve into an orbital RLV, it can generate revenue from suborbital flights that can go into research of an eventual orbital successor, regardless of its design. (credit: Virgin Galactic)

Notes on the state of the RLV industry in 2008 (part 1)

Last year saw more incremental progress towards the eventual goal of low cost, reusable, and reliable rocket-powered vehicles that can reach orbit. NASA is struggling with the Constellation program and has, to all intents and purposes, given up on reusable launch vehicle (RLV) development for the foreseeable future. There are still people at the agency who think that NASA will someday have a role to play in RLV development, but it seems likely that only the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program and the vaguely reusable Falcon 9 rocket/Dragon capsule combination give NASA any sort of toehold in RLV development. Certainly the Orbital Sciences Taurus 2, which is the COTS alternative to Falcon, does not even attempt to be reusable.

The third launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 1 is now planned for no later than June 10. The first one crashed back to Earth and the second one came close to achieving orbit. We shall see how well the team has learned the lessons from these previous mishaps. This rocket may or may not be a true RLV. The company has long maintained that they can make a profit even if they do not recover the first stage. Even if they can refurbish engines and structures it will still be a long way from the RLV’s holy grail of “airliner-like operations.”

Serious work on actual vehicles is still confined to the private, entrepreneurial sector.

The Defense Department has several small RLV technology development programs underway. Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) is interested in the technology but has not put any significant funds into system development. The Pentagon seems to be concentrating on “buying down the risk” by financing a few key propulsion and materials programs. The best news is that there have been a number of breakthroughs in the carbon nanotube (CNT) field. Most notably Nanocomp Technologies, based in New Hampshire, has made a sheet of CNTs measuring 0.9 by 1.8 meters. This may lead in the near future to effective CNT structures for spacecraft including RLVs.

Serious work on actual vehicles is still confined to the private, entrepreneurial sector. Most notably Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipTwo/White Knight Two combination based on the craft that won the Ansari X Prize in 2004. In January of this year Virgin Galactic unveiled the design at a major event in New York’s Hayden Planetarium. The suborbital space tourism vehicle will carry six passengers to the edge of space and allow them to experience weightlessness and to look out at the Earth from a perspective that amazingly few humans ever have.

Many experts doubt that the SpaceShipTwo technology can evolve into an orbital system. That may not be the point. If Virgin Galactic can make money flying people suborbitally they will generate a market for these kinds of vehicles that will, thanks to old-fashioned capitalist competition, lead to better and better ones. Over time the technology will improve until someday these “space ships” will become the real orbital ships that will stay in space and not just pass through it.

Meanwhile Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com is continuing to quietly run his Blue Origin development program. After the first flight of the Goddard vehicle in 2006 flights have continues with little fanfare from their base in Texas. Eventually, perhaps, their New Shepard vehicle may be tested from a more conventional spaceport, and at that time we will certainly learn more about what they have accomplished.

One of the most interesting and important revelations was recently reported in Space News. Lockheed Martin, along with their partner UP Aerospace of Colorado, tested a subscale model of an unmanned RLV at Spaceport America in New Mexico in December of last year. This may be the first time that a major aerospace firm has been caught spending internal research and development money on a non-governmental RLV project. The implications are mind-boggling.

When Boeing, or to a lesser degree, Airbus, decide they need to build a new aircraft to sell to their customers they do not wait for a government R&D contract. Instead they do market studies and talk to the airlines about what is required. They want to make money, and so do the carriers who have to sell seats and air cargo services to the paying public. In the launch business, at least in the US, it has been the government that has, for the most part, determined what launchers will be developed and built.

Lockheed is not going to risk large sums of their shareholders’ money, but the fact that they have moved in this direction is a giant conceptual step for the RLV industry. No longer will skeptical investors ask, “Why are the big aerospace companies not doing this?”

Now a major firm has decided, without a contract, to begin a five-year development “roadmap” that leads towards some sort of RLV, or at least an RLV technology demonstration. This means that someone has decided that this stuff is important and that they do not want to be left behind. Remember Lockheed Martin suffered through the X-33 fiasco, a program that promised too much too soon and which cost the company a very large sum of its own money as well as wasting valuable time and effort.

This new project, whose name is still secret, is different, it is being done on a shoestring and uses a “build a little, test a little” approach. The craft itself, at least as far as one can tell from the published pictures, looks familiar. Spaceplanes, at least at the early phases, can resemble each other. Eventually, when more detailed information is published, it will be easier to compare it with previous designs.

Lockheed Martin has taken a small step. They are not going to risk large sums of their shareholders’ money, but the fact that they have moved in this direction is a giant conceptual step for the RLV industry. No longer will skeptical investors ask, “Why are the big aerospace companies not doing this?” The small companies that have paved the way are going to find that this is a mixed blessing, but at least they are no longer out on the RLV frontier by themselves.


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