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William Gaubatz speaking at the DC-X 20th anniversary symposium on August 16, 2013, at Spaceport America in New Mexico. (credit: J. Foust)

Remembering Bill Gaubatz

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Twenty-one summers ago, a small team of McDonnell Douglas employees, working on a contract for the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) in the New Mexico desert, operating below the horizon of most in the space community, sought to change the future of space access with a small program called Delta Clipper Experimental, or DC-X.

“The DC-X was the perfect blending of vision, goals, experience, and expertise with passion and trust,” recalled William Gaubatz, who was the DC-X program manager at McDonnell Douglas in the early 1990s, during a conference last August in New Mexico marking the 20th anniversary of the DC-X’s first flight (see “Can lightning strike twice for RLVs?”, The Space Review, August 19, 2013). “It was not just a job, it was a calling.”

“The DC-X was the perfect blending of vision, goals, experience, and expertise with passion and trust,” Gaubatz said last year. “It was not just a job, it was a calling.”

The hope of Gaubatz and others was that DC-X would pave the way for development of single stage to orbit (SSTO) reusable launch vehicles that would drastically reduce the cost of getting to space: something of interest not just to SDIO, but to nearly everyone in the industry. “The successful completion of the SSTO program would ensure reliable space access for peaceful uses, as well as for the defense of free nations, and establish the spaceways through which commerce will flourish,” he said.

That vision of space activity is still enticing space advocates, but it’s also still an unrealized one, despite the efforts of Gaubatz and his DC-X team, and their successors in industry and government. And, sadly, it’s a vision that Gaubatz won’t be able to see achieved, despite his considerable efforts over the years: he passed away on Saturday, his family at his side.

It was clear from last year’s 20th reunion of the DC-X team that Gaubatz supported his team, and they supported him, building bonds than endured long after the end of the program. “DC-X was a good example of what could be done with a small, highly-dedicated crew with a customer who understood the rules and got out of our way,” recalled Nino Polizzi, part of that DC-X team, at the reunion.

“I think you can see now why this was one of the greatest teams assembled,” Gaubatz said at the end of the first day of the event, after former team members recalled the various roles they played on the program and how they backed each other up. “It really was an integrated team, not just in words but in practice.”

DC-X did not, as advocates hoped two decades ago, immediately pave the way for RLVs, be they single stage or two stage. The program itself, despite initial successes, got caught in budget battles and turf wars among government agencies. It eventually found its way to NASA as the DC-XA, making several more test flights before a landing gear failure caused it to topple over and catch fire at the end of a July 1996 flight. By that time, NASA was already planning to move on to the X-33, only to have it cancelled in 2001 after a series of technical setbacks.

For many in the space community, though, DC-X was an inspiration. It demonstrated the potential of RLVs, and of the ability of small teams to make major progress. Fifteen years after the DC-X’s first flight, companies like Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems were flying their own vertical takeoff and landing vehicles—technology precursors for proposed future suborbital and orbital vehicles—with teams and on budgets that made DC-X look gigantic by comparison. (One of Gaubatz’s post-DC-X activities was serving as the chief judge of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, a NASA-funded prize won by Armadillo and Masten.)

Even as late as last year’s reunion, Gaubatz was still looking to build upon the DC-X legacy and continue the development of RLVs. Part of the last day of the reunion was a workshop, where attendees split into groups to examine what was needed for a new generation of X-vehicles to advance technology and operational expertise needed for RLVs. The goal, Gaubatz said at the end of the workshop, was to focus on “what can we do next in X-planes to recreate a DC-X-type of atmosphere.”

Gaubatz said at the end of that event that he and others would review the results and see how to move that effort ahead. It’s not clear, though, what they were able to do with the workshop results, or how it might feed into other programs.

At last August’s conference, Jess Sponable, who was the SDIO program manager for DC-X in 1993 and is now a DARPA program manager, spoke of the need for more X-vehicles to test technology for future RLVs. “An X-plane can answer a lot of things if it is set up and managed properly,” he said.

Today, he’s doing just that, as program manager for Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1), a DARPA program announced just a month after the DC-X 20th anniversary conference. The goal of XS-1 is to develop a vehicle that can serve as a reusable first stage of a launch system that, with an expendable upper stage, can place payloads weighing up to a couple thousand kilograms into orbit. The XS-1 would demonstrate the ability to fly ten times in ten days, and fly to Mach 10 on at least one of those ten flights (see “The return of the X-vehicle”, The Space Review, October 7, 2013).

“XS-1 breaks the cycle of escalating space system costs,” Sponable said in a presentation about the program at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles in May, with the potential of reducing launch costs of payloads in that mass class by as much as an order of magnitude. That, in turn, could affect the way satellites are designed, he argued, allowing for “disaggregated” constellations of spacecraft versus larger, more expensive “monolithic” spacecraft. “It’s on a path to affordable space.”

If, one day, one of more of those vehicles does achieve those long-held dreams of low-cost space access, they will have Bill Gaubatz to thank for helping demonstrate what’s possible with a small team and a big vision.

After issuing a Broad Agency Announcement for the first phase of the program last fall, DARPA is starting to make awards. On June 27, it announced a contract valued at nearly $3 million to Masten, the first of several DARPA is expected to make for the initial phase of XS-1. The announcement didn’t disclose details of the contract, but past documents from DARPA indicated it would make several “system design task” awards valued at $3 million each for companies to begin initial work on XS-1 vehicle designs, including technology trades and conceptual designs leading to a preliminary design review “tailored for commercial practices.” DARPA also planned to make some smaller awards for “critical risk reduction tasks” for the program.

The future of XS-1 will depend on the outcome of phase one over the next year. “In the middle of ’15 we’ll go talk to our management and sort out where we want to go in the next phase,” Sponable said in May. The goal is to have a vehicle flying in fiscal year 2018 at the beginning of what he called a “fairly long” flight test program.

And he left open the door for future follow-on X-vehicles to XS-1. “We’re hoping there’s going to be a -2, a -3, and a -4,” he said. He harkened back to the original era of X-planes in the 1950s and ’60s, when there was a wide variety of such vehicles, as well as companies building them. “I think that era is still ahead of us in the space program.”

And outside of DARPA, there’s considerable activity in the private sector, from various suborbital vehicle concepts to SpaceX testing a reusable first stage for its Falcon 9 rocket. None have progressed as fast as anyone has hoped, to be certain, and many have failed, but overall those efforts continue nonetheless.

And if, one day, one of more of those vehicles does achieve those long-held dreams of low-cost space access, and establishes the spaceways through which commerce will flourish, its developers will have Bill Gaubatz to thank for helping demonstrate what’s possible with a small team and a big vision.