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NSRC 2020

Past efforts at space transportation breakthroughs, like the Roton, failed because of their high costs and also because the long timelines needed for such developments are at odds with how the private sector works today. (credit: Rotary Rocket Company)

Can the private sector make a breakthrough in space access?

Many space enthusiasts embrace the idea that private entrepreneurs can achieve a breakthrough in space access where large government funded efforts have repeatedly failed. This belief remains widespread despite many years of many failures by the private sector. Previous failures include Kistler Aerospace and Rotary Rocket, among many others. Current hopes are pinned on Elon Musk and SpaceX, Richard Branson/Burt Rutan and Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, and miscellaneous other entrepreneurs and firms. Yet common business practices in modern high technology firms and the historical pattern of major technological inventions and scientific discoveries are in clear conflict, raising serious questions about the probability of success of the current crop of private sector attempts to achieve inexpensive and profitable space access. The rest of this article discusses the differences between common business practices and the pattern of major breakthroughs and suggests some changes to common business practices that may enable private efforts to make the breakthrough probably needed for cheap access to space.

Major breakthroughs take longer than the modern private sector is used to

Most major inventions and discoveries have taken a long time: usually in excess of five years, and often much longer. Consider, for example, that the famous German amateur rocket society the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Exploration) was founded on July 5, 1927. The VfR conducted 87 launchings and 270 static firings of rocket motors at Raketenflugplatz, Berlin in 1931 before receiving funding from the German military in 1932. Germany funded research and development of the liquid propellant rockets from 1932 until the end of World War II, culminating in the V-2 rocket. The United States funded continued development by Werner von Braun’s rocket team from the end of World War II. Von Braun’s effort did not achieve an orbit-capable rocket until 1958 (Explorer 1 was launched into orbit on January 29, 1958). The extremely expensive orbit-capable chemical rockets that have been the mainstay of the space program since the 1960’s took about three decades and probably thousands of trials to research and develop.

Common business practices in modern high technology firms and the historical pattern of major technological inventions and scientific discoveries are in clear conflict in efforts by the private sector to develop new low-cost launch systems.

The research and development of orbit-capable rockets certainly cost many billions of dollars. There are many examples of major inventions and discoveries, including revolutionary power and propulsion systems on much smaller budgets. In rocketry, some early rocket pioneers such as Robert Goddard and Jack Parsons made significant advances on much smaller budgets than the German rocket program. Parsons, in particular, invented the Jet Assisted Take Off (JATO) rockets that were used in World War II. Nonetheless, both Goddard and Parsons worked on their inventions for over a decade with hundreds, if not thousands, of trials and numerous failures. For practical purposes, essentially all of Parsons experiments with solid fuel rockets based on black powder were failures until he conceived of the asphalt and potassium perchlorate mixture that made the JATO possible.

A number of major advances in power and propulsion technology were made on small budgets during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. These include the invention of the separate condenser steam engine by James Watt; the high-pressure steam engine developed by John Fitch and his partner, Philadelphia clockmaker Henry Voigt, for Fitch’s steamboat in 1790; and the invention of powered flight by Octave Chanute and the Wright Brothers. However, all of these inventions took at least five years and many trials and many failures. In all of these examples, the inventors were able to keep the per-trial cost and duration quite low. Watt used scale models of the Newcomen steam engine to conduct research and development. Fitch and Voigt worked on a high-pressure steam engine that was quite small, appropriate for a small steamboat. Fitch’s steamboat was much smaller than Robert Fulton’s much later and more successful steamboat, which ironically used a much larger and much more primitive steam engine. Chanute and the Wright Brothers conducted experiments with inexpensive gliders made of canvas and wood that could be easily and cheaply constructed, repaired, or modified. Although budgets can be small, there are few if any examples of major inventions or discoveries that took less than five years or required less than several hundred trials.

World War II saw the success of several large military research and development projects, notably the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, the German V-2 rocket, and major advances in radar, penicillin, and a number of other less well-known R&D projects. This led to a heavy post-war increase in government support for research, including creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the modern National Institutes of Health (NIH). World War II coincided with a “professionalization” of research in which the role of so-called amateurs declined markedly, universities adopted more corporate structures, formal credentials such as the Ph.D. were emphasized in a number of fields, and a number of other changes occurred or accelerated.

Modern “professional” research has not overcome the need for large amounts of trial and error to achieve major breakthroughs or significant inventions and discoveries. Indeed, the number of actual breakthroughs may have declined with increased funding and professionalization, at least in part because the per-trial cost has risen relative to funding. (See “Cheap access to space: lessons from past breakthroughs”, The Space Review, May 11, 2009) In space, a full launch attempt costs on the order of $50–100 million, depending on the vehicle, meaning that $1 billion can fund only 10–20 trials, a small number relative to the hundreds or thousands usually involved in a major breakthrough. There has been minimal progress in power and propulsion in aviation and rocketry since about 1970.

Even five years is an extremely long time by the standards of modern business, especially the high technology companies often looked to as examples of how to achieve cheap access to space. Venture capitalists, for example, typically invest in projects with an expected return (an initial public offering, merger, or other so-called “exit strategy”) within three to five years. During the Internet bubble, some venture capitalists appeared to have invested in a large number of dot-coms with very short turnarounds, little more than put up a web site and go public in a few months or years.

Major breakthroughs involve research that the modern private sector avoids

In addition, venture capitalists and other sophisticated investors in high technology emphasize investing only in “technically feasible” proposals in which the core technology is proven: a working prototype, proof of concept, or something similar already exists. Yet, this is exactly the opposite of the situation in a major breakthrough. In a major breakthrough, the hard technical work is to develop a working prototype, to prove technical feasibility. In the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, some entrepreneurs like James Watt and the Wright Brothers were able to build successful businesses and make fortunes by conducting basic core technology research and development, at least during the early stages of their business. This was rare even then and has become almost unheard of in the modern business world.

Major breakthroughs often involve many years of frustrating failure before the breakthrough or breakthroughs occur.

One might sensibly ask where the working prototypes come from today? With the sharp increase in government support for research and development during and following World War II, the nominal private sector has frequently been able to rely on the government for the development of working prototypes of new technologies. Indeed, Silicon Valley, often cited as a shining example of free market capitalism, in part grew out of government spy satellite programs at Moffett Field. Similarly, the Internet and the World Wide Web were developed to the advanced prototype stage—really a working system—entirely with government funding by DARPA, NSF, CERN, and several other government agencies. A range of favorable legislation such as the Bayh-Dole Act have made it easy for private businesses to license the fruits of government research and development programs on excellent terms.

What this means is that “private” high technology investors and entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos often have negligible experience with the research and development of core technologies comparable to rocket engines. This differs from iconic historical inventors like James Watt and the Wright Brothers. Institutional investors such as venture capital funds also have little experience evaluating, funding or managing the sort of research and development of core technologies that is probably required to achieve cheap access to space.

Major breakthroughs often involve long periods of frustrating failure

Space enthusiasts and others often extol the private sector for its putative results orientation, contrasting this with the waste, inefficiency, and politics of government funding agencies such as NASA. However, major breakthroughs often involve many years of frustrating failure before the breakthrough or breakthroughs occur. The German rocket program labored for over a decade before producing the V-2, a weapon that worked but was not militarily significant without a warhead such as an atomic bomb, which Germany lacked. Robert Goddard never produced a working product. Jack Parsons took almost a decade before he invented the JATO. Parsons, who might euphemistically be described as eccentric, soon had trouble with the corporate environment of Aerojet, the company that he helped to found. In fact, the hardheaded business emphasis on measurable results, profit, quarterly earnings, and so forth conflicts with the realities of most major breakthroughs.

Market romanticism

Prior to the invention and widespread adoption of printing, we have limited information on the invention of many key technologies. We have only myths about the discovery of how to make fire. Ancient sources attribute some scientific discoveries to figures such as Pythagoras, but for the most part our knowledge of ancient inventions and discoveries is neglible. It is likely that many key technological inventions were made by blacksmiths, craftsmen, and others whose names are lost to history.

Before the development of mass production, craftsmen were numerous, widespread, and probably highly skilled in many cases, with the necessary skills, knowledge, and tools to invent key technologies. A blacksmith or other craftsman often faced downtime during his business when he lacked a project and when he (or she) could experiment at negligible marginal cost. Materials and tools were readily available from an ongoing business. Consequently, a would-be inventor could invest the many years in the research and development of an invention such as the stirrup or metal casting (a key breakthrough of the 14th century).

With the advent of printing and the modern patent systems, we have more detailed information about some inventions and discoveries. Thus we know the names of clockmakers such as John Harrison, the inventor of the nautical chronometer that made possible accurate measurement of longitude, or John Fitch’s partner Henry Voigt, who designed and built the high-pressure steam engine used in Fitch’s steamboat. We have detailed records of inventors like Watt and the Wright Brothers who followed in what was probably an ancient tradition.

Space enthusiasts who hope for the dynamic private sector to achieve cheap access to space are often unwittingly looking back romantically to an earlier era that has mostly disappeared with advances in mass production and the heavy growth of government funding of research and development.

The growth of mass production, factories, and modern corporations has steadily eclipsed this traditional system of invention and discovery. Significantly, the economics of a modern corporation differs substantially from craftsmen like Watt or the Wright Brothers. Watt made teaching models of the Newcomen steam engine for professors at the University of Glasgow. When he lacked a project, he had free time to research the Newcomen engine. Success would make him a fortune. Failure would cost him nothing. The Wright Brothers had a seasonal business selling bicycles during the summer. Researching powered flight during the winter mostly using materials and tools already available in their bicycle business could make them rich and cost almost nothing. In contrast, a modern corporation can often find more profitable immediate projects than a high-risk long-term research project, or simply lay off employees during downtime. Mass production has eliminated many of the independent craftsmen like Harrison, Voigt, Watt, or the Wrights.

Space enthusiasts who hope for the dynamic private sector to achieve cheap access to space are often unwittingly looking back romantically to an earlier era that has mostly disappeared with advances in mass production and the heavy growth of government funding of research and development. Mistaking the modern system of government research and nominally private commercialization of government-sponsored research for a romantic idealization of the old pre-World War II system can be a costly error. I should add that I feel that we need to recover some aspects of the old system to achieve a higher rate of technological progress both in space and other fields, in particular to solve problems that require major conceptual leaps, something the modern system seems to perform poorly.


A number of modern business practices, common in high technology business, are incompatible with the general pattern of major breakthroughs. This is not to say that these business practices will always prevent a breakthrough, but in general there is a serious conflict. For this reason, private sector attempts to achieve cheap access to space are likely to continue to fail.

To succeed, public, private, and public/private attempts to achieve cheap access to space must consider carefully the cost and duration of trials. Most major breakthroughs have involved hundreds to thousands of trials. The total cost and schedule is thus driven by the cost and duration per trial. Thus, technologies and approaches with high per-trial costs and durations are likely to fail, even if they otherwise seem promising, absent very heavy funding. Thus, efforts to achieve cheap access to space need to look closely at traditional methods such as scale models for affordable research and development of space access.

The private sector needs to develop funding and management mechanisms that are consistent with the longer time frame of major breakthroughs. The issue is not necessarily one of money. At least historically, major breakthroughs have sometimes been made on small budgets. It is not clear that this cannot be done with space access. However, these breakthroughs usually take a long time and involve numerous frustrating failures. Sharply lowering the per-trial cost can help make this process more acceptable. As a practical matter, it can be rather difficult to sensibly manage a process that usually involves long periods of repeated failures.

A closed investment fund with a lifetime of five to thirty years that provided a stream of funding to a basket of high return research and development projects that could demonstrate a low per-trial cost up front might address many of these problems. There are many potential breakthroughs such as cures for cancer and other major diseases, much cheaper energy sources, and so forth for which large markets almost certainly exist. The primary risk of these research and development projects is technical, not marketing. A clear billion-dollar market for cheap access to space, such as might be associated with space solar power, asteroid mining, or space tourism, has yet to be demonstrated.