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Lauer, Greason, Carmack, Powell
A panel of entrepreneurial executives discuss various aspects of their businesses. From left: Chuck Lauer of Rocketplane Ltd., Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace, John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace, and John Powell of JP Aerospace. (credit: J. Foust)

The post-X Prize hangover

The year 2004 has all the earmarks of a milestone year for the entrepreneurial space industry. There were the successful suborbital spaceflights of SpaceShipOne, the final two of which allowed it to capture the $10-million Ansari X Prize. Those flights, in turn, attracted considerable public attention, raising awareness of these new ventures and the concept of personal spaceflight (or whatever alternate moniker one wants to attach to space tourism) in general. In Washington, some of the regulatory hurdles for the industry were removed with the passage of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act in the final hours of the 108th Congress. Meanwhile, a number of other companies quietly made progress, lining up funding and contracts while designing and testing (and occasionally crashing) vehicles.

However, whether 2004 stands out in the long term as a turning point for space commercialization remains an open question. Will the events of last year be seen as the first visible sign of an emerging profitable industry, or simply an aberration? The answer will depend on the progress that the key players in the field will make over the next few years, starting now. At the recent Space Access ’05 conference in Phoenix—an annual gathering of much of the so-called “” community—many of the companies that are developing suborbital and orbital vehicles, and related technologies, impressed upon attendees that they are indeed making progress on the vehicles they hope will open space to a wider audience.

Suborbital rundown

The atmosphere at this year’s Space Access conference was more subdued than those of the past couple of years, when attendees were energized by the X Prize competition in general and the development of SpaceShipOne in particular. (Scaled Composites, keeping with its tradition of maintaining a low profile with respect to its current projects, did not attend the conference; the company was also absent in previous years.) One attendee likened the atmosphere at the conference to a hangover after the big party that was 2004.

The atmosphere at this year’s Space Access conference was more subdued than those of the past couple of years; one attendee likened the atmosphere at the conference to a hangover after the big party that was 2004.

An example of the change was illustrated by the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). In the past couple of years AST used the conference to make some major announcements: the award of a launch license to XCOR Aerospace last year and the release of a long-awaited definition of suborbital vehicles a year earlier. (See “The trials and tribulations of licensing”, The Space Review, May 3, 2004; and “RLV regulation: licensing vs. certification”, TSR, April 28, 2003.) This year the FAA used the conference to announce jointly with the AIAA the release of a guide to “safety-critical hardware items” for RLVs: an important milestone, but arguably more mundane than a launch license.

The lack of excitement, though, does not imply a lack of progress. As representatives of several companies presenting at Space Access attested, they have been moving ahead on the nuts and bolts—figuratively and literally—of their vehicle designs, from raising money to winning contracts to designing vehicles that will enter service in the next few years.

One of the companies at the forefront of suborbital RLV development has been Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Ltd. Since winning an $18-million tax credit from the state of Oklahoma early last year, the company has reported making steady progress on its suborbital vehicle design. (See “Rocket plane venture star”, TSR, April 4, 2005.) Chuck Lauer, Rocketplane’s director of business development, called obtaining the tax credits in the past the equivalent of winning the “O Prize”, a claim he reiterated at Space Access. “The O Prize was every bit a no-holds-barred competition, just a quiet one,” he said, adding that at one point there were as many as six “serious” competitors for the tax credits.

The funding raised to win the tax credits, as well as the money the company obtained when it sold the tax credits, has enabled the company to press ahead with its efforts to convert a Learjet into a suborbital vehicle on an ambitious schedule. The company currently has 25 people on staff, many of them with past experience on business jet programs; the company plans to double its workforce as its development program continues. A critical design review (CDR) for the XP vehicle is planned for August, with the rollout of the vehicle itself scheduled for June or July of 2006. After a series of 50 test flights, Rocketplane plans to put the XP into revenue service by early 2007.

That revenue service, Lauer said, will be focused on tourism. While the company at one time planned to devote 20 to 30 percent of its flights to microgravity research, Lauer said that changes in national space policy have led them to believe there will be no market for such flights. “Microgravity research has been gutted on the altar of the Vision for Space Exploration,” he said. Instead, Rocketplane will offer flights for less than the roughly $200,000 currently planned by Virgin Galactic. How much less? Lauer didn’t say, but did say, “Thank you, thank you, Sir Richard [Branson], for raising the price from $100,000 to $200,000.”

Rocketplane Ltd. no longer believes there is a market for microgravity research flights. “Microgravity research has been gutted on the altar of the Vision for Space Exploration,” Lauer said.

Rocketplane Ltd. had its origins in Pioneer Rocketplane, a company founded in the mid-1990s to develop a larger suborbital RLV designed primarily to launch the large numbers of telecommunication satellites then proposed for launch. While Rocketplane is the successor to Pioneer Rocketplane, the latter still exists as a separate company, co-founder Mitchell Burnside Clapp revealed during a separate presentation at Space Access. Clapp said he had left Rocketplane Ltd. over “creative differences” and had several projects underway under the Pioneer Rocketplane banner. Those projects include a “novel” rocket engine cycle that uses the energy flux created by propellants at two different temperatures—liquid oxygen and kerosene—as a heat engine that can generate pressures of several hundred psi without running the rest of the engine: ideal for preflight tests. “If you’re going to rely on vertical landing, then you need a non-catastrophic engine start sequence,” he said.

Another company making quiet progress is Rocketplane’s in-state rival, TGV Rockets. The company, which has been focused on suborbital markets long before they became fashionable (see “Oklahoma is OK for suborbital”, TSR, July 2, 2004), has been developing its vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing (VTVL) RLV.TGV CEO Pat Bahn said at Space Access that the company, with 15 people on staff, is on track for a preliminary design review (PDR) this month. The company plans to continue risk reduction work throughout 2005, with the first flight opportunity of TGV’s vehicle scheduled for the first quarter of 2008.

Unlike Rocketplane, TGV is disdainful of space tourism, concerned about the liability issues should a tourist-carrying vehicle crash. “Tourism is a hellacious business model,” Bahn said. “It gets people into a lot of trouble.” The company has instead looked at other markets, including reconnaissance, microsatellite launches, and “military applications.” (TGV claims to have sold two vehicles to unspecified customers—believed to be within the defense establishment—giving the company a positive cash flow.) However, Bahn is willing to hedge his bets a bit. “If tourism does prove worthy, I can sardine in a metric ton’s worth of tourists.”

Just down the flight line at Mojave Airport from Scaled Composites, XCOR Aerospace has been making steady, if slow, progress on its own suborbital vehicle. Although the company won a launch license from AST last year, the company hasn’t built the vehicle or even lined up funding for the vehicle’s development, instead focusing on a number of smaller projects for customers like DARPA and NASA. Last month XCOR announced a NASA contract for the development of a liquid oxygen tank using new composite material technologies. The contract is worth $1 million in the first year and up to $7 million if all the options are exercised.

These contracts, XCOR president Jeff Greason explained, are a way to develop many of the key technologies the company will later need for a suborbital vehicle, even if the extended process of negotiating a contract with NASA was, in his words, “not fun.” Greason said that the company has had a tough time raising the money needed to develop its vehicle—which he estimated to be between $2 and $10 million—but added that most other companies have been in similar straits “unless you have Paul Allen on speed dial.” Despite those difficulties, Greason said, “I am more optimistic than I used to be that this condition will not persist.”

“Tourism is a hellacious business model,” Bahn said. “It gets people into a lot of trouble.”

Armadillo Aerospace is best known for experimenting with a wide variety of rocket-powered contraptions, often spectacularly crashing them. John Carmack said at the conference that two of its most recent vehicle crashes due to engine failures, including one where an engine was shut down during a low-level test where the vehicle was secured to a crane by a strap. Unfortunately, the strap—weakened by the existence of a knot in it—snapped when the engine shut off, which “pretty much wrecked the vehicle.”

Those failures have led Carmack to abandon Armadillo’s “mixed monopropellant” hydrogen peroxide system in favor a more conventional methanol-liquid oxygen bipropellant setup. Carmack said Armadillo plans to have a new vehicle ready for low-altitude flights at this October’s X Prize Cup exhibition in New Mexico. After that, he said they plan to develop a vehicle that could carry 100 kilograms to 100 kilometers altitude. While Armadillo’s current designs are for VTVL vehicles, he hinted that he is open to alternative designs. “I am more sympathetic than I used to be about sticking rocket engines on the backs of planes,” he said.

Beyond suborbital

Space Access has taken on a focus in recent years on suborbital vehicle developers, but those looking at orbital efforts have also been represented to one degree or another at the conference. Jim Muncy, representing Transformational Space Corp. (t/Space), outlined that company’s efforts to develop an architecture for NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration that has a stronger reliance on commercial capabilities. “They have to invite the private sector to the party,” Muncy said of the space agency. “There are people within NASA who take this [commercialization] seriously.”

The t/Space team—which includes AirLaunch LLC and Scaled Composites—plans to use commercial vehicles to launch most of the elements of the exploration system, including using EELVs to launch the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) unmanned. Crews would instead travel to orbit on a separate crew transfer vehicle (CXV) that would be launched by an enlarged version of AirLaunch’s QuickReach vehicle under development for DARPA’s FALCON program. That rocket would be carried aloft by a “stork” version of a 747 with lengthened landing gear, or by a custom-built aircraft that Scaled is developing “for other reasons,” said Muncy.

“According to 9,000 Slashdotters, I am a complete idiot,” joked John Powell about the reaction to his company’s ATO concept.

While not a space transportation company, Orbital Recovery Ltd. has made strides with the commercial development of ConeXpress Orbital Life Extension Vehicle (CX-OLEV), a spacecraft designed to mate with and extend the life of existing GEO communications satellites. Dennis Wingo, CTO of Orbital Recovery, said at the conference that the company just completed a “Phase B1” study of the CX-OLEV, a €2.4-million effort half-funded by the European Space Agency. The study concluded with a successful baseline development review at the end of March. “The B1 study was a huge confidence builder for us,” Wingo said. Orbital Recovery is now planning to have the CX-OLEV in commercial service by 2008, and anticipates a market of three such vehicles a year from satellite operators who want to keep their existing satellites operating as their stationkeeping propellant runs low.

One of the highlights of last year’s Space Access was JP Aerospace, which used the conference to unveil its radical “Airship to Orbit” (ATO) concept. (See “Floating to space”, TSR, June 1, 2004.) The concept—which involves two different airship designs and a station floating at the top of the atmosphere—gained the company a fair share of attention—and ridicule. “According to 9,000 Slashdotters, I am a complete idiot,” joked John Powell, referring to the popular web site that featured a spirited discussion on the ATO concept last year.

Despite the negative reaction, JP Aerospace is continuing work on the ATO program. “We’re right on schedule for a timeline drafted over two and a half decades ago,” Powell said. Work continues on the low-altitude Ascender airships, and while providing few other details about the progress JP has made, Powell predicted that the first orbital flight for the ATO program is about six and a half years out.

No lack of passion

While this year’s Space Access was a relatively low-key affair, those people building businesses on the basis of commercial suborbital or orbital spaceflight remain as passionate as ever. At one point a brief, testy exchange between representatives of two companies was cut off by conference organizer Henry Vanderbilt with a simple admonition: “Play nice, kids.”

That passion showed itself in other ways. As he described how Rocketplane Ltd. has grown over the last year, Chuck Lauer became visibly emotional. “This is the most rewarding thing I have ever done,” he said, choking up. “At least,” he added after a moment’s pause, “until I fly myself.”