Holy Furry Dinosaurs Batman!

One of the things I’ve noticed over the past year or two is that my view about the big aerospace primes has been slowly changing. I used to pick on Boeing and Lockheed and Northrup as being a bunch of screwups who couldn’t make a cost-effective space transportation system to save their lives. I still do from time to time. But I think this isn’t entirely fair, and that there have actually been a lot of signs that some of the higher-ups in these companies actually “get it” when it comes to commercial space transportation.

For instance, Northrup is one of the main sponsors for the X-Prize Cup this year. A subdivision of ATK is working with XCOR on developing a regen-cooled LOX/Methane engine potentially for use on the CEV. Both Boeing and Lockheed now have suggested using dry-launch architectures for NASA’s VSE implementation, with propellant deliveries open to all competitors, to help promote the whole commercial transportation industry. Lockheed looks like it’s funding some of the man-rating work for the Atlas V on their own dime, and may even be working on entering the space tourism market (my wild speculation based on the paper I wrote about yesterday). They’re also doing work on cyrogenic propellant transfer which also looks like it might be internally funded.

It’s really interesting to think what this means for the near-term future of the commercial space transportation industry, and particularly for “emergent space transportation companies” like SpaceX, Armadillo, MSS, and others. Unlike some commenters who only see evil conspiracies by the primes to snuff out competition, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more examples of primes teaming up creatively with alt.space companies (and even some being acquired outright) over the next several years. These companies were once just as flexible, quick, and efficient as some of us would like to be, and they haven’t forgotten everything. They have lots of very competent employees, and enough capital to actually accomplish fairly interesting things. The most interesting thing is that it looks like a lot of them really are trying to learn from alt.space’s successes, and adapt.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this thought, but I just wanted to say something nice about the big guys, because we in the alt.space corner of the world are often way too quick to criticize, and slow to give praise where praise is due.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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13 Responses to Holy Furry Dinosaurs Batman!

  1. Randy says:

    Jon:
    Something I wanted to point out earlier but keep forgeting to post.

    From what I’ve been reading, it seems we already have a ‘high-use’ regen cooled Methane engine.

    We also have a Liquid Propane one, and a half dozen other fuels one.

    It’s the RL-10! Seems they got ‘curious’ and ran the heck out of a test engine with just about any fuel that the pumps could handle. From what I’ve read it worked fine and in some cases was both easier to use AND less ‘wearing’ on the equipment than super-cold LH2.

    Makes you wonder don’t it?

    Randy

  2. Olaf says:

    Randy:
    From what I understand the RL-10A was succesfully tested with Methane from which Pratt & Whitney concluded that the conversion of the RL-10 to a full grown methane burning engine was a relatively straightforward and low-cost program. They haven’t actually done the redesign though.

    Appart from this the RL-10A has been replaced by a B version for use in the EELVs.

    Actually we kicked of this liquid rocket bussiness with alcohol as fuel (for the rockets, although the engineers must have had their share)

    Olaf

  3. Monte Davis says:

    Bravo. Most of the big primes’ behavior over the years has been a rational response to the economic incentives set up by NASA/Congress and by the market. They are in business to make money for investors, not to make space fans’ dreams come true. The same will be true of every New Space startup that succeeds.

    Filter out the frustration (“why is it taking so long?”) and the ideology (small aerospace startups = loveable free enterprise, large aerospace incumbents = despised Establishment), and what happens — and doesn’t happen — in space begins to make a lot more sense.

  4. InfraNut says:

    Surprisingly clear talk, free of organizational tunnel-vision and diplomatic (vs NASA) watering down from the “LockMart Atlas Evolution” (AIAA 2005-6815):

    “With the reality of today‚Äôs
    constrained budgets, NASA cannot afford to go it alone, paying for a unique system and ignoring the substantial
    synergy to be gained from shared requirements with other Government agencies and the commercial marketplace.”

    I agree that the big ‘uns deserve some positive coverage sometimes. Especially LM’s rocket business. Their track record of technical successes and pragmatic choices, shows that they unlike the other big ones seldom let organizational and marketing issues override good engineering. (except for the X-33 / Venturestar lapse i judgement)

    Their cost-effectiveness leave something to be desired, but they are less bad in that respect than their main competitor Boeing; Not to mention NASA operating their own vehicles — that is bound to be excessively expensive anyway you look at it.

  5. Bill White says:

    To follow on Monte’s comment:

    Bravo. Most of the big primes’ behavior over the years has been a rational response to the economic incentives set up by NASA/Congress and by the market. They are in business to make money for investors, not to make space fans’ dreams come true. The same will be true of every New Space startup that succeeds.

    Suppose NASA were to fund this research and adopt dry-launch with EELVs in place of ESAS and Ares. The desire of the big aerospace primes to maximize corporate profits would mean that LM would undertake this exact same project with a cost-plus mentality.

    If Lockheed does this on their own dime, maximum results for minimum investment is the policy they will follow.

    = = =

    I predict that true low cost access to LEO will not occur until genuine non-taxpayer sourced revenues are located. Otherwise, the incentive to milk the taxpayers are simply too large.

    Whether CEV flies on Ares or Atlas V is a smaller issue long term. Geting the private sector to spend its own money and develop private sector markets is the long term issue. If Atlas V had “won” the CEV launcher role, LM would not be funding furry dinosaurs on their own dime.

    If Lockheed (or SpaceX) actually deploy a LEO fuel depot and a lower cost LEO access to service a Bigelow space hotel, then its all good.

  6. Jon Goff says:

    Randy, Olaf,
    Yeah I had read about the alternative fuels run on RL-10. Those are fairly amazing engines. Complicated, but amazing. The fact that almost no part of the turbomachinery even gets warm to the touch during operation is a big win for longevity. It’s a tad expensive for my taste, but you’re definitely getting your money’s worth on that one.

    ~Jon

  7. Jon Goff says:

    Monte,
    Well, I wouldn’t say that the way things developed was inevitable, or that it all stemmed 100% from the incentives. There’s also been a string of dumb decisions, lost opportunities, and mistakes over the past 40 years by pretty much all players (NASA, the primes, and alt.spacers of all eras). So saying that the present was inevitable, and all complaints to the contrary are just whining by kool-aid drinkers, I think isn’t helpful or accurate.

    ~Jon

  8. Jon Goff says:

    Bill,
    Suppose NASA were to fund this research and adopt dry-launch with EELVs in place of ESAS and Ares. The desire of the big aerospace primes to maximize corporate profits would mean that LM would undertake this exact same project with a cost-plus mentality.

    Only if NASA structures it that way. As it is, I expect that NASA isn’t going to get a clue until *after* commercial space (including the saurian kind) has demonstrated on-orbit refueling.

    Once that’s the case, I think that natural incentives will actually lead Lockheed’s behavior in a positive direction. Read their papers. They realize that there are other potentially lower cost launch providers, and they’re trying to find a way to keep a good place in the market by focusing on what they can do best–tugs, on-orbit cryo handling, etc.

    While I generally prefer truly private development, if we’re going to be giving NASA billions of dollars a year to spend on exploration, I’d rather see that spent in a way that actually catalyzes and speeds up commercial development, instead of pouring down the drain.

    ~Jon

  9. Karl Hallowell says:

    Monte, I think your description is incomplete. They have some considerable influence in Congress. So they have contributed to the state of things.

    In that light, the current moves appear even better since if successful, they are moving to become less dependent on public funds. That means these companies will have more of a stake in a healthy, competitive space industry and their interests will share more common ground with everyone else’s interests.

    Finally, it is a positive signal that an increase in commercial activity in space is on its way.

  10. Monte Davis says:

    So saying that the present was inevitable, and all complaints to the contrary are just whining by kool-aid drinkers, I think isn’t helpful or accurate.

    I agree, and generally find myself somewhere between the absurd poles of “the present was inevitable” and “we’d be on Mars already if only [some political or technological or economic path with p=.000001] had happened.”

    I began with “bravo” because I was welcoming your self-described shift away from the view that the primes are “a bunch of screwups who couldn’t make a cost-effective space transportation system to save their lives.”

    Karl: yes, they are actors as well as acted-upon. The space industry is largely a stiff-jointed oligopoly, just like its big brother in DoD R&D and procurement, and with many of the same players. I agree 100% that having more and more promising upstarts chewing on their ankles is a very good thing.

  11. Bill White says:

    Jon & others:

    If Griffin had chosen Atlas V as the CLV would the deal with Bigelow have gone through?

    Uncle Sugar surely would have paid Lockheed more for each Atlas V 401 than Bigelow ever will.

    http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/content/?cid=4823

  12. Bill White says:

    PS — The news of LM hooking up with Bigelow is all good. 1000% good news.

    Even if SpaceX & Kistler now have some real well funded competition.

  13. Jon Goff says:

    Bill,
    Yeah, I saw your link to the article (and posted my own commentary on it in another blog posting). Interesting.

    I was actually working on an article this morning about the economics of such a system, but I hadn’t finished it before heading into work.

    As for the deal happening without Ares I? I dunno. I imagine that Lockheed might prefer to have both contracts. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind the money. 16 extra flights per year is a bunch, even if NASA is giving you 12 already.

    ~Jon

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