Suborbital traffic jam?
by Taylor Dinerman
|The big prize is still low-cost access to orbit, and the suborbital vehicles that are now being designed and built are still a long way away from achieving that goal.|
Since then, the Ansari X Prize and a few modest efforts by the US government have pushed the concept of suborbital rocket craft to the point where they are on the verge of becoming viable revenue generating businesses. Tourism, of course, is the one that gets the most attention, but flight testing components and materials is another, as is remote sensing for both national security and commercial purposes. The Virgin Galactic executives even discussed the idea that eventually they could have vehicles that could carry passengers on express flights between New York and Tokyo or on similar trips.
The big prize is still low-cost access to orbit, and the suborbital vehicles that are now being designed and built are still a long way away from achieving that goal. The process is going to be difficult and expensive, but no one who understands the issues involved doubts that there is a real need for reliable low-cost access to orbit. While the exploration and the first bases on the Moon, and perhaps even Mars, can be done using today’s technology, large-scale settlement of the solar system can only be carried out once the cost of getting into low Earth orbit has been reduced to something under $500 a kilogram.
In the long term this can only be done using a fully reusable launch vehicle (RLV). It may be that NASA’s COTS program will lead either Rocketplane Kistler or SpaceX to develop a vehicle that can deliver payloads and passengers to orbit at a low enough price point so as to change the whole nature of the space economy. Perhaps Rutan or one of the other entrepreneurial companies will be able to do so.
If such a vehicle can be built anytime soon it will have to be designed using the technologies of this decade. As much as one would wish for structures made of carbon nanotubes or for wholly new and better types of propulsion, there is little hope for any major breakthroughs in the near term. What is needed is a revolutionary way to use existing technology and materials.
There are a number of very talented designers and engineers working on this problem. Some of them, such as Burt Rutan, are well known and well compensated, while others are anonymously working to solve these problems and are doing so for practically no pay whatsoever. The role of dreamers and ambitious independent businessmen and women cannot be underestimated. While the majority of today’s RLV designs will almost certainly fail, one or two might very well succeed.
|What will make the difference will be if a company can combine a workable and reliable RLV with a sustainable customer base. After that, the economics of the solar system will be changed forever.|
The US government has an interest in seeing that the first successful RLV is built in America by an American firm. The US has its tradition of technological innovation and entrepreneurialism going for it. On the other hand, the US government itself has placed a variety of obstacles in the way of these new companies, particularly the Sarbanes-Oxley requirements, passed in the immediate aftermath of the Enron scandal, that make it hard, if not impossible, for a small firm to raise money via publicly-traded stock markets. The other big obstacle is ITAR, the International Trade In Arms Regulations, which has wrecked many chances for small RLV companies to raise funds from overseas investors and for these same companies to make a few extra dollars selling civilian space hardware overseas.
Sometime within the next few years the small space sector will begin to launch both orbital and suborbital vehicles. It may be that the first successful launches will not be profitable and will not lead to a profitable business outcome. What will make the difference will be if a company can combine a workable and reliable RLV with a sustainable customer base. After that, the economics of the solar system will be changed forever.