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Rocket Company illustration
The Rocket Company tells the story of the development of an RLV, mxing fiction with the fundamentals of launch vehicle design. (credit: Doug Birkholz)

The men of The Rocket Company (part 1)

First serialized in 2003 on hobbyspace.com, The Rocket Company was published in book form in early 2005 by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, (AIAA). (See “Review: The Rocket Company”, The Space Review, February 23, 2004) It became one of the most talked about space-related books of the past year. Patrick J. G. Stiennon and David M. Hoerr co-authored this novel, which is copiously illustrated by Doug Birkholz.

The book chronicles the efforts of a fictional aerospace start-up company to bring lower cost access to space by developing a reusable launch vehicle. We were able to meet with the two authors and held a little Q&A session, the results of which are as follows:

TSR: You two obviously knew each other prior to working together on this book. How long have you known each other and how did you originally meet?

Patrick: I met Dave when we both worked for Gary Hudson at Pacific American Launch Systems in 1989. I moved back to my home state of Wisconsin when that company folded.

Dave: A few years later, in the midst of what seemed to be a long dry spell for the private space industry, I decided to move back to the Midwest also (I’m originally from Illinois). Patrick suggested the Madison area, and it seemed like a good place to me. So, we’ve been near neighbors for the past 13 years.

TSR: Please pass on my compliments to Doug Birkholz; he did a wonderful job with the various illustrations and cover art for the book. He is also from Madison. Did you know him prior to this project or met him while putting the book together?

Dave: I worked with Doug at Fiskars Consumer Products for a few years, where he was head of industrial design. I was impressed by his design sense and artistic talents, and had seen some of his space-themed illustrations, so I knew he was interested in space.

Patrick: I met Doug back in the mid-90s when Dave introduced him to me. I actually first thought about writing the book back then, and Dave suggested that Doug might be interested in illustrating the book. He was, but at that time nothing came of the book idea but a brief outline, some sketches, and the first chapter.

TSR: You both share an interest in aerospace but that isn't usually enough for a couple of people to sit down and write a book together. What prompted you to do the book?

A lot of things besides the engineering have to come together… But the non-engineers who will have to tackle those things need to understand something about the engineering problems, and not many of them are going to read a book that is full of equations and theory.

Dave: We have always spent a lot of time talking about what was going on—or not going on—in space transportation, kicking around various ideas. Madison is not exactly a hotbed of rocket development (although we do have one small aerospace company, Orbitec, in town), so Patrick and I were a two-man mutual support group, since we weren’t in the business. But it was Patrick who started on the book in 1997 or so. Back then, all I did was introduce him to Doug.

Patrick: In 2002 things looked pretty bleak for anything interesting to actually happen in space. But Dave kept talking to me about how something should be done. The only thing I could think to do was to write the book. When I showed Dave the draft of the first four chapters, he said he’d like to work on it with me. So I drafted it up chapter by chapter and passed them to Dave, and we would work out the final versions together. We got in touch with Doug Birkholz, and fortunately he was still interested in doing the illustrations. Publication on the HobbySpace website—a chapter a week—really helped; it gave us deadlines which made sure the book got written.

TSR: You crammed a lot of facts, figures and data into this book. I found digesting it all a lot easier when it came in the form of "Engineer Briefings" and other storyline methods. Is that one of the reasons you choose to make it a fictional storyline as opposed to a straight non-fictional study?

Dave: That was Patrick’s idea. It really provides a way to stimulate peoples’ thinking about the many topics involved in space transportation, in a way that is difficult to do in a textbook. It was a lot more fun to write it this way, too.

Patrick: A technical book on rocket engineering is going to have a pretty small audience. And I’ve seen many projects keep coming along where individuals would spend considerable sums of money but eventually give up without really making lasting progress toward a solution to what Elon Musk calls “the greatest problem in space exploration: the cost of getting there”. A lot of things besides the engineering have to come together to solve that problem: financing, management, regulatory issues, marketing and sales, etc. But the non-engineers who will have to tackle those things need to understand something about the engineering problems, and not many of them are going to read a book that is full of equations and theory. I wanted to address the engineering topics in a way that would make it easy to get a grasp on the technical issues, and relate them to the other issues involved in a start-up rocket company.

TSR: With all the information you've presented, shy of seven relatively sympathetic and understanding billionaires and an engineering group from heaven, what other missing pieces are needed for someone to develop The Rocket Company?

Dave: That’s really all it would take! Seriously, we don’t need any exotic technical breakthroughs, we don’t need a government mega-project. We just need a well-funded, competent team to build on the rocket and space vehicle technology that has been developed over the past 60 years and go out and do it. It will probably take more money than some of the alt.spacers like to guesstimate, so it may indeed take more than one “angel” to pay for all of it.

Patrick: Although we've done some “back of the envelope” calculations and simulations, and have run the idea by a few experts in the field, nothing like a complete engineering study has been done. The point of the book is to flesh out a scenario for developing a vehicle that everyone with some understanding of the field would have to agree could be done. The problems for which there aren’t such straightforward solutions, like heat shields and recovery systems, are ordinary engineering challenges not requiring any large technology development program.

TSR: What kind of feedback on the book have you been receiving from the general public? Have you been taking some ribbing from friends and co-workers about the whole thing or have they been supportive?

Dave: I’m not sure about the general public, but colleagues in the field seem to find it interesting and worthwhile.

Patrick: The feedback's been very positive; I think if you're into rockets it's pretty hard not to like the book. If you're not into rockets, or at least technology, you're going to have a hard time reading The Rocket Company. I try not to mention the book unless I think the person is interested in rockets or engineering projects and then I usually get a pretty favorable response.

TSR: Speaking of supportive, most of us have no clue what an endeavor developing, writing, and getting a book published is. What were the biggest hurdles you faced on this project and whom, if anyone, did you find yourself turning to for help on those occasions?

The feedback's been very positive; I think if you're into rockets it's pretty hard not to like the book. If you're not into rockets, or at least technology, you're going to have a hard time reading The Rocket Company.

Dave: We discussed various strategies, but Patrick was the ramrod for getting it published, starting with the serialization on HobbySpace. After talking to a couple of publishers who just didn’t see the book fitting in with their typical line of books, Patrick approached AIAA. He worked with their publications manager with dogged persistence, basically selling him on the book. The exposure on HobbySpace really made it easier to get AIAA to take on their first fictional book. It helped that things were starting to happen during the last couple of years—SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize, Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 1—those all fueled our drive for getting the book out there.

Patrick: I started talking to the AIAA in April 2004, and we patiently answered their questions and addressed a few concerns they had. They made some helpful suggestions, such as adding a chapter on the business plan. It seemed like a long process, though. Dave, Doug, and I would get together regularly for lunch to talk about edits, layouts, and the illustrations, as well as the latest developments in the space industry. That helped to keep the enthusiasm going.

TSR: Do you know of any company pursuing a design similar to the one proposed for the DH-1?

Dave: For suborbital vehicles, Armadillo Aerospace, TGV, and Blue Origin that are developing VTVL vehicles, so there are some similarities. Whether or not they have plans for orbital systems that would be like the DH-1, I don’t know for sure. The vertical trajectory for the first stage is still an issue for some; for an orbital system, you do lose some performance, sure, but we feel the gains in operational simplicity far outweigh the losses. Let’s face it, at a time when the total actual demand for cargo to orbit is a tiny, tiny fraction of terrestrial cargo traffic, does it really matter if your payload is 5,000 pounds [2,270 kg] vs. 7,000 pounds [3,175 kg]?

Patrick: John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace has said the book uses his favorite approach. The Kistler Aerospace K-1 had some similarities. My own suspicion, based on very little data, is that Blue Origin is heading in the general direction of an “almost single stage,” as Carmack terms it. The SpaceX Falcon 5 has similar engine thrusts, mass properties, tank technology, staging ratio, and engine configurations, i.e. RL10 on second stage, as those on the DH-1. Still, the Falcon 5 is a very different vehicle with a different trajectory and different operating scenario. But if Elon builds the Falcon 5 you wouldn’t have far to go from the Falcon V to the DH-1.

TSR: We here at Out of the Cradle have been chronicling the efforts of Elon Musk and SpaceX with their efforts to develop and launch Falcon 1. What effects do you see from their eventual success (or failure) in those efforts?

TRC: Their successes will only make it easier for others to decide to invest—whether their own or their clients’ capital, their careers, their companies—in the space business. I hope that whatever failures they will experience will be taken as unfortunate but inevitable steps on the road to developing a thriving new industry. Aviation certainly has never been required to be a “failure is not an option” kind of endeavor. Human fallibility will always make it an option—whether you’re building airplanes, bridges, or space transports.

TSR: One thing I found compelling in the book was the description of the kinds of activities a reusable launcher like the DH-1 would enable. I found the last couple of chapters particularly inspiring. Are these just ideas you guys came up with, or did you look to historical analogs, or some other source?

Dave: Well, a lot of it goes back to ideas for space that people have been talking about since the early days. Except maybe the lunar monastery—that’s another one of Patrick’s innovations. But you never know; such a thing is certainly plausible, and may even be a real aid to settling the Moon or even Mars. Speaking of Mars, Patrick and I have discussed his “slave ship” concept for sending colonists to Mars off and on for years. I was initially skeptical, but I think he’s right—if you want to get a lot of people to Mars, you’re not going to do it via luxury liner.

Patrick: Mainly the ideas are variations on activities suggested by the work done by Gerald K. O'Neill relating to space colonies. A lot of useful research and even design was done in the mid-70s to the mid-80s on how to develop space.

TSR: Many people feel that NASCAR racing forces the various racing teams to push the envelope to remain competitive and thus helps to advance automotive technologies. Do you feel the new Rocket Racing League will have a similar effect on rocket technology or will its main service to the alt.space sector be one of marketing and public relations by piquing the interest of the general public?

I hope that whatever failures they [SpaceX] will experience will be taken as unfortunate but inevitable steps on the road to developing a thriving new industry. Aviation certainly has never been required to be a “failure is not an option” kind of endeavor.

TRC: The performance envelope for the rocket racers is such that the rocket engines they will use will be in a very different class than those required for orbital transports. Likewise, they won’t need life support or thermal protection systems anything like what is required for space flight, at least in the early generations. That said, sure, there is every possibility that some of these folks may come up with some slick engineering solutions to perennial rocket design issues that may be applied to larger, more sophisticated vehicles. Probably, the greatest value will come from increased public awareness of and interest in rocket and space flight, and in helping develop an attitude that “rocket science” isn’t so far outside the ken of mere mortals. Perhaps even more importantly, though, things like the Rocket Racing League will provide training and experience for the next generation of rocket designers and builders, giving them the kind of hands-on, practical experience that is almost impossible to get by working for the traditional aerospace “big guys,” whether in industry or the government.

TSR: It seemed for a while that the X Prize had everyone thinking and working along on the same lines. Is that a good thing and, if so, how do we build such a consensus and maintain it after the initial incentive (i.e. the prize) is gone?

Dave: It’s a good thing if those lines are the right lines. Sometimes the consensus can lead to a lot of fruitless and expensive work that doesn’t go anywhere. In that category I’d place the “consensus” that airbreathing spaceplanes were the way to go, back in the late 80s and early 90s. But the X Prize certainly provided legitimacy to the whole idea of “private spaceflight” that didn’t exist before, and did a great job of getting the general public interested in it. It also provided a public forum and context that drew attention to Burt Rutan and Paul Allen’s achievement by providing the PR that would probably have been lacking if it was just one or two groups working in the background. Even though there was only one official winner, a number of other teams have done some useful engineering work on reusable launch vehicles. And again, it provided a way for some bright people to get some actual experience with rocket hardware.

We like to think that the book can help form, or at least provide a foundation for building, a consensus about what it will take to build truly low-cost space transports. The key points for that include the idea that existing technology is adequate, that we need to massively increase the supply of space lift capacity before new demand can be brought into being, and that that can best be done by actively pursuing an industry in which there are a lot of owner/operators buying a lot of vehicles. A related concept is that for a nascent rocket company to thrive, it’s going to have to sell vehicles, not launch services. That’s what it took for the aviation industry to get up and running. It’s going to take a while for people to figure out exactly how to use low cost space transportation most effectively; we need to give them the tools to be able to do that.

We like to think that the book can help form, or at least provide a foundation for building, a consensus about what it will take to build truly low-cost space transports.

And while we don’t pretend that the DH-1 is the only solution to how to design a commercial space transport, we feel it provides a good starting point, especially in terms of what kind of first generation vehicle would be easiest to build. That said, while there were a number of concepts for air vehicles in the early days (biplanes, monoplanes, dirigibles, piggy-back transoceanic aircraft, and so on), the most successful aircraft have all been pretty similar in form. So while there are still issues to be resolved (landing mode, TPS), here’s a concept that could be built.

If the consensus results in a successful commercial vehicle, then the resulting capabilities and momentum should keep things rolling.


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