Imagine

[Before I try and end the speculation about what it is we’re trying to accomplish at Altius, I wanted to give some thoughts about where I think things could go over the next 25-30 years. I think everyone who reads this probably has their own unique vision, but this is to give you an idea of what I think is possible over that timeframe.]

Imagine a future where transportation to and from orbit has become so common that there are dozens of vehicles going to and from orbit every day, from countries all over the globe.

Imagine a future where orbital research facilities can get new parts or materials quickly enough that they can keep pace with terrestrial research labs. And where the transportation costs are low enough that some high end materials are even manufactured in space for use on earth.

Imagine a future where orbital rendezvous and docking has become so simple and reliable that dozens of such events occur on a daily basis, with some facilities handling multiple events at the same time.

Imagine a future where every cellphone on the planet uses LEO satellite platforms for “roaming” when outside of cities, where such systems are competitive enough with terrestrial cell towers, that rural cell tower have been dismantled because they aren’t cost-competitive.

Imagine a future where you can get custom facilities constructed for you on-orbit, with lead-times measured in single-digit years, not decades.

Imagine a future where there are daily flights departing from earth to the Moon.

Imagine a future where transportation costs to the lunar surface are low enough that lunar tourism is the new playground of the rich. And where transportation costs from the lunar surface back to earth are getting low enough that mining companies are beginning to mount prospecting expeditions, in the hopes of returning PGMs to the earth.

Imagine a future where beyond earth orbit spaceflight is affordable enough that space exploration enthusiasts stop arguing over people vs. robots.

Imagine a future where orbital debris is a concern that sounds as anachronistic as worries about the Soviets coming through the Fulda Gap.

Imagine a future where due to remediation efforts for the van Allen belts, radiation levels have dropped to the point that COTS electronics can be used all the way out to GEO, without any concern about radiation hardening.

Imagine a future where more people reside in space than in Antarctica at any given moment.

Imagine a future where microgravity science is a common major at most universities.

Imagine a future where orbital propellant transfer is so common that all spacecraft are designed from the start for refueling.

Imagine a future where in-space search, rescue, and repair is common enough that travel to the lunar surface is no more dangerous than traveling to orbit today.

Imagine.

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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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45 Responses to Imagine

  1. kert says:

    Sell this vision to a good writer, to a major motion picture, and to a major video game developer, now, please.

  2. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    I definitely think the cellphone idea has a lot of potential. It would probably happen even if costs to orbit stay the same, as long as you were able to sell service globally.

  3. Coastal Ron says:

    Imagine this all happening with government-run transportation… uh, I don’t see it happening.

    Now imagine it with commercial transportation, i.e. commercial transportation being paid for by government and private sector business… that is much more likely, especially in your 25-30 year timeframe.

  4. Colin says:

    Jon:

    I found your blog post far too short. I wanted more not because what you gave was inadequate, but because the more you described it the more i wanted to live in that world and understand that world. Thank you. I am also intrigued to see which pieces of this future vision you see your new company pursuing. How are you helping to make this future world “real”? I can’t wait to learn more.

  5. Ron,
    Yeah. There’s no way this is going to happen as part of a government program. There are too many people in NASA (though fortunately not even close to all) who don’t even believe these are possible on any timeline, let alone likely. I expect that NASA will end up playing an important role in turning this vision into reality, though mostly around the edges, and sometimes unintentionally…

    ~Jon

  6. googaw says:

    I could say that you’re a dreamer. But you’re not the only one.

  7. Peter Lykke says:

    2001: A Space Odyssey, anyone?

    But you are omitting the most important: The money. We need something like this: http://www.spacetoday.org/DeepSpace/Stars/WhiteDwarfs/LucyDiamondStarWhiteDwarf.html

    No money, no vision.
    🙁

  8. Steverman says:

    Didn’t John Lennon sing about that world?

  9. Jared says:

    “Remediation efforts for the van Allen belts?” That sounds awesome, but I have no idea what you’re talking about. Has anyone written about this, or know where I could read about it?

    Everything else here is more familiar, and equally interesting. Whatever you’re planning for Altius, good luck…I’m sure it will be exciting.

  10. Nathan says:

    Yeah, that one threw me for a loop too, so I had to look it up. I presume that Jon is talking about something like this:

    http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/radiation_belts_020916.html

    …but I still am guessing that Alteus will be about depots, or necessary precursor technology for depots, such as cheap ‘n’ easy docking systems.

    Absolutely fabulous vision, by the way!

  11. Joe Wooten says:

    I think the Van Allen belts are inextricably tied into the magnetic fields that protect the planet from radiation.

  12. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Regarding the radiation belt remediation bit, that wasn’t really what I wanted to focus on, but as Nathan pointed out, Tethers Unlimited had proposed an electrodynamic tether based remediation system. AFRL and DARPA were also investigating a VLF radio based system (google Radiation Belt Remediation). In both cases the goal is to shove electrons from the belt into the upper atmosphere where they can recombine.

    But as I said, that one was just a fun imagine topic, not my main point.

  13. Paul D. says:

    There have been proposals to use electrically charged tethers in the van Allen belts to perturb the stored particles into the “loss cone”, where they will then hit the atmosphere and be absorbed.

  14. Dan says:

    Imagine a future where every object with gravity large enough to pull into a sphere in the solar system had at least one orbital satellite surveying its surface.

  15. Pete says:

    Imagine a future where beyond earth orbit spaceflight is affordable enough that space exploration enthusiasts stop arguing over people vs. robots.

    There is a significant scale constraint to human exploration, I do not see such exploration vehicles weighing less than a few tens of tons and even then I only see this with staging from larger human exploration vehicles/bases/settlements. Much smaller/cheaper robots will I think still be on the front line, and I doubt human explorers will leave home without a good stock of them.

  16. Bill White says:

    Jon –

    Can you speculate on the revenue streams that might sustain this vision?

  17. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Bill,
    Can you speculate on the revenue streams that might sustain this vision?

    Yes.

  18. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    More seriously, the hard part isn’t revenue streams that would sustain the vision once it’s there. I mean, if launch costs and orbital capabilities have gotten to the point where combo sat/cellphones are possible, there are some pretty obvious revenue streams there.

    The challenge is more how do you get from our current state to that state.

    The statics at the end are easy, it’s the dynamics that require creativity.

    How’s that for a non-answer?

    ~Jon

  19. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Combo sat/cellphones already exist:
    http://www.gearlog.com/2010/03/att_genus_satellite_phone_gets.php
    (a smartphone with integrated sat phone, about the size of a blackberry)

    Here’s another which is a combo sat/GSM smartphone:
    http://www.highspeedsat.com/sg-2520.htm

    Not cutting edge, but still available. Of course, there’s not enough sat-phone infrastructure for everyone to have these or to have them cheap. That will happen, eventually. Just like everyone now has a GPS receiver built in to their phones.

  20. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Chris,
    Yeah, I knew that combo phones were starting to come into existence. My point was that if things are done right, 2nd or 3rd generation combo sat/cell phones could get to the point where the sat portion was competitive enough with the terrestrial cell in rural areas that you started seeing cell providers abandoning rural cell towers. While the process is starting, and may provide a lot of demand for launch services in the future, there’s still a *long* way to go.

    ~Jon

  21. Ed Minchau says:

    Imagine a future where dozens or hundreds of private companies send millions of autonomous or semi-autonomous robots to assay asteroids.

    Imagine a future where an interstellar probe (with a payload smaller than a pin head and processing power greater than a supercomputer) is carried by a a gossamer-thin solar sail to Proxima Centauri, returning close-up data only ten years after launch.

    Imagine seeding Europa and Enceladus with extremophile bacteria.

    Imagine a solar thermal rocket taking you to Mars in one month.

  22. Ed Minchau says:

    (Well, not a month from today, obviously. I meant transit time)

  23. Paul D. says:

    I’d rather see high speed, low latency LEO satellite internet than just phone connectivity. Teledesic-like systems, not Iridium.

  24. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Paul D.,

    Fair enough. But with the way cellphones are going these days, low-latency internet is becoming a requirement to keep up with cellphones. Or at least that’s what I gather from my friends with them fancy iPride 4GS-es…

    ~Jon

  25. Jim Davis says:

    …I wanted to give some thoughts about where I think things could go over the next 25-30 years.

    Jon, many space advocates claim that all this could have happened in the last 25-30 years.

    Are you in that group?

    If so, why didn’t it happen?

    If not, what has now made it a possibility?

  26. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Jim,
    Good question. Honestly I do think that many of those things *could* have happened in the last 25-30 years. They obviously didn’t, and it’s for a wide range of reasons, including overreach, mismanagement, and bad luck. One of the challenges with space projects is that they’re expensive enough that there just haven’t been that many attempts made, and most projects have failed for business/financing/government-funding reasons, not technical ones.

    I think some of the keys are to learn from some of the more successful industry segments around spaceflight (such as UAVs, small satellites, etc).

    Focusing on smaller projects is also something that is starting to make a big difference–we’re finally starting to see some traction in the suborbital front.

    Even with all that, due to the small number of attempts, bad luck, outside factors, personality issues, mismanagement, etc are all still major factors as well. I think the key to dealing with that is focusing on projects small enough that you can get a lot of players. That way even if you have several flake out along the way you still have some that can make it…

    …but you could write a whole book on this question. What do you think? Is there something physically or economically impossible about these visions? What would you do to change things?

    ~Jon

  27. kert says:

    I found your blog post far too short. I wanted more not because what you gave was inadequate, but because the more you described it the more i wanted to live in that world and understand that world.

    Precisely why you need to go sell this vision to an excellent hard sci fi writer.

  28. googaw says:

    if launch costs and orbital capabilities have gotten to the point where combo sat/cellphones are possible, there are some pretty obvious revenue streams

    Yes, but it’s much better to think of it the other way around: if we can identify some good revenue streams that are profitable before prices have gone down and capabilities (besides the ones we ourselves can build) have gone up, we’re much more likely to get the investment funds needed to get launch costs and orbital capabilities to that more advanced state.

    BTW, Lennon jokes aside, pretty good long-term vision, especially the parts that speak to the real needs of many people like being able to use your cell phone anywhere. One I’d add that’s probably easier is texting anywhere. Texting is quite popular these days, as those who are sufficiently young or have teenagers know firsthand. It would be awesome if my cell phone or iPad could just text from anywhere instead of having these artificial and invisible boundaries, and I don’t doubt that tens of millions of teenagers even more adults around the globe would agree.

  29. googaw says:

    Also, if we can make satellite broadcasts more powerful, so that people can get satellite TV anywhere as they move around with a much less bulky receiver — i.e. something more like an antenna embedded in an iPad — it would I imagine be in extreme demand.

  30. googaw says:

    BTW, a crucial vision that both depots and on-demand launches enable is the idea of real options. Or, to put it another way, flexible missions that respond to unpredictable events. For example:

    * The option to replace, if a satellite breaks down before it runs out of propellant (on-demand launches).

    * The option to refuel, if it runs out of propellant while it is still working (refueling).

    If the conversation focuses on averages, you can’t make the sale, because naturally a satellite is designed to last on average about as long as its propellant. But any particular case is unpredictable and in fact there is usually a big difference between when it breaks down and when it runs out of fuel. Refueling eliminates that difference about half the time, and on-demand launching can minimize the downtime for the other half.

    Also, it’s fascinating and productive to redesign or design new kinds of space missions that benefit from the real options provided by refueling. In other words, spacecraft that can move into better positions when unpredictable things happen. Imagine for example a constellation of small telescopes strung along earth’s orbit around the sun. Each time something interesting crosses this orbit (e.g. an asteroid or comet), one or more of these spacecraft consume some propellant to go intercept and take close-up pictures of it. Given the unpredictable nature of many such events (especially very-long-period comets which must be intercepted within months of when they are discovered), there can be a great deal of unpredictability in the propellant consumption. So we put a mobile tanker in the same orbit to move around and top up whichever telescope(s) happen to run low on propellant.

    (The mission planners of Cassinni have been using gravity assists provided by the moons of Saturn to the same kind of end. Only the first part of the mission was planned out ahead of time. Since that first phase they’ve been retargeting the spacecraft to get better views of new ring features, new moons, the fountains of Enceladus, etc. that were only discovered when Cassinni got there).

    One area where propellant consumption is likely to be particularly unpredictable is spy satellites, which is why I’m not surprised that the DoD funds most researching into satellite refueling. They (or their friends at NRO and NSA) will likely be the biggest and earliest users of refuelable sats.

    Imagine also civilian earth observation satellites that quickly maneuver to observe fires, floods, hurricanes, volcanoes, wars, riots, and so on. Within a polar orbit or two Google Earth could be updated with the latest pictures.

  31. Paul D. says:

    Could those things have happened if we hadn’t been unlucky, etc., or is it that those things could have happened if all the stars had aligned precisely? I can believe wonderful things could have happened with extreme luck. For example, I could win the lottery.

    The practicality of space schemes is not to be judged by if they could be done in an ideal world, but if they could be done in the real world. In the real world, there are setbacks, imperfect management, disappointments in marketing, and both good and bad luck.

    I’ve read that the difference between a good businessman and a bad one is that the good one will make the right decision 60% of the time, while the bad one will make the right decision 40% of the time. A realistic plan has to assume things aren’t going to be perfect, since they won’t be.

  32. Itokawa says:

    Imagine an equatorial launch site and an equatorial space station. Now imagine a fleet of reusable launch vehicles launching payloads and people from that launch site to that station 16 times per day: at 1:30am, at 3am, at 4:30am and so forth. Each vehicle inserts its payload into orbit and then lands near the launch site 2 hours later, ready to be readied for another flight.

    Now imagine three such launch sites providing 48 launches per day to that station.

  33. Jim Davis says:

    What do you think? Is there something physically or economically impossible about these visions? What would you do to change things?

    I think that the difficulties of space access, space solar power, space colonization, that stuff you mentioned, etc are much greater than space advocates admit. I think space advocates tend to think with their hearts instead of their heads. The strong emotional appeal that space has tends to warp judgment. I think the oft expressed sentiment that “the problems aren’t technical” is indicative of this. Another indication is the heavy reliance on analogies to persuade instead of merely explain or clarify. And, as you pointed out, the focus on how things might be in 25-30 years instead of how things might be in 5 years is not healthy. It makes space advocates appear (accurately) as a flaky bunch.

    I would change things by encouraging space advocates to give up the notion that there is some future out there that they have to work towards, whether this future is space solar power, colonies, mining asteroids, or whatever. Abandon the notion that one can know what the long term will look like. No one knows what the world will be like 25 or more years from now. Instead focus on those things that can be realized and make money in 5 to 10 years. In mathematical terms, approach the future as an initial value problem (where can I go from here?) instead of a boundary value problem (how can I get from here to way over there?).

  34. Pete says:

    Jon:Is there something physically or economically impossible about these visions? What would you do to change things?”

    Jim:I think that the difficulties of space access, space solar power, space colonization, that stuff you mentioned, etc are much greater than space advocates admit.

    Where are low cost mass produced systems in space? While technology has since improved greatly the historical inadequacy has I think primarily been a non commercial culture. Space got swamped by government and its one off design mentality.

    Small high flight rate low cost RLVs could have been developed long ago. As could have low cost modular mass produced space stations, tugs, satellites, depots and what not. Small personed “forklift” tugs could have also been developed long ago for doing serious orbital assembly and for transferring modules between site and a shirt sleeves environment hanger. Some where along the way, space got made much harder than it needed to be.

  35. googaw says:

    focus on those things that can be realized and make money in 5 to 10 years.

    I second this. While I don’t think daydreams 30 years out are unhealthy in themselves, and indeed I find well considered visions like Jon’s thought-provoking and entertaining, and often indulge in them myself, they can become quite unhealthy when taken too seriously and made into political projects or company objectives. Certainly if you want to attract investors rather than philanthropists, or if you want to start a real business rather than be a NASA (sub-)contractor, focusing like a laser on the next 0 to 10 years is absolutely essential. And when the future doesn’t turn out like you planned (even within that shorter time frame), be ready to adapt. Your consolation is that everybody else is in the same chaotic boat.

    Meanwhile, back to my own grand 30-year business plan to conquer the solar system. It only requires about $60 billion or so of venture capital, and will pay back the investors many-fold, honest. 🙂

  36. Jim, Googaw,
    I’m very much focused on what I can realistically achieve over the next 5 years. Not being someone who made several million in the IT sector, I’m either delivering goods and services that make a difference in the near-term, or I’m going to be working for someone else real soon now.

    That said, the 30 year imagination excercise was more to show a few things:
    1-There’s a lot that can be accomplished with technology that people have already been studying for decades, even without “new physics”.
    2-But there’s also a lot of great ideas that haven’t been executed on, and that proper execution and adaptability is going to be key in making the next 25 years any different from the last.
    3-Most importantly, that the status quo direction doesn’t actually lead anywhere near what we have the potential to achieve, and that a few technology pieces have the potential to drastically change the way things are done.

    My focus as a company is finding those near-term things that can be executed on over the next 5 or so years that will a) meet a near-term need, b) pave the way for the future, and c) change the way things are done substantially.

    More later.
    ~Jon

  37. Paul says:

    Jon,
    Elsewhere, when the subject of lower launch costs came up, someone raised an interesting idea of it lowering satellite development costs too. Instead of sat-makers ordering horribly expensive speciality components that have to be guaranteed to withstand such-n-such-level radiation, temp cycling, atomic-oxygen and micrometeorite exposure, you can just grab standard off-the-shelf components, chips, joints, motors, pumps, shove them into a micro-sat or ten, launch them and see what their survivability is. Once you have the specs for each, you pick the cheapest-for-value components for the real satellites.

    Would that idea be something your new company would do, or something that would benefit what you do.

    Pete,
    “and a shirt sleeves environment hanger.”

    I often wondered if the ISS (hell, even the shuttle) would have benefited from a non-pressurised EVA-work module. If the cost would have been less than the complexity (and risk) of normal EVA’s.

    (You do a “real” EVA, in full suits, grab a component needing repair, bring it into the hanger. Then switch to “inside” EVA suits for the 12 hour shifts you need for the actual repair work.)

    Think how much easier it would be to do a complex EVA inside a module. And how much easier it would be to make an EVA suit that never went outside, supplied with unlimited power, comms, life-support and cooling by plugging suit hoses into sockets along the module walls. The suit needs no micro-meteorite or radiation protection, doesn’t suffer direct sunlight/insolation. Should be a hell of a lot easier to maintain. Plus you can’t drift off, or lose a tool or a bolt. And I suspect you’d need much less oversight.

    Meanwhile, because the module is unpressurised, it should be cheaper than a fully pressurised (shirt-sleeve) hanger. (Most of the walls don’t have to be structural, for example. And neither the walls nor the oversized main outer hatch have to be airtight.)

  38. Pete says:

    Meanwhile, because the module is unpressurised, it should be cheaper than a fully pressurised (shirt-sleeve) hanger. (Most of the walls don’t have to be structural, for example. And neither the walls nor the oversized main outer hatch have to be airtight.)

    Assuming a carbon fiber pressure vessel I get around 3kg/m^3 of habitat volume (double wall and 2xSF). Volume is cheap, it is life support that is expensive – one largely pays for how many people a habitat can support, not how much volume each person has. Seals and hatches, if well designed, need weigh little more than a comparable section of the shell.

    On a side note, a carbon fiber pressure shell made from clip together sections would be lighter than an inflatable habitat, would pack perhaps as well, could be added to, would directly enable hatches, but would take a little assembly. I am somewhat agnostic as to which would be generally better.

    I agree that large multi layer tents (with well spaced layers) would be a good idea as work spaces – also to place habitats within, but fundamentally, pressurized hanger space really does not need be that expensive. I would also advocate a small ship with robotic arms that a person could fit into for doing course assembly work outside (and transport modules to and from the hanger). This need not be much heavier than a suit and docking directly it would be a lot less hassle to get in and out of. With well designed infrastructure, EVAs should not be that necessary.

  39. Jim Davis says:

    Small high flight rate low cost RLVs could have been developed long ago.

    That’s personal conviction, not fact. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong (although I think you are) but I’m going to have to see more than personal conviction to convince me you’re right.

  40. Pete says:

    “Small high flight rate low cost RLVs could have been developed long ago.”

    That’s personal conviction, not fact. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong (although I think you are) but I’m going to have to see more than personal conviction to convince me you’re right.

    If you are looking for absolute facts – well, this world is not so kind. Which is not to say that some convictions are not worth more than others.

    As you well know, the last 40 years of NASA RLV development, and a few hundred billion, has been largely wasted. What would have happened if it had not been?

    The original non camel fully reusable shuttle designs with better TPS? DC-X? Roton, Millennium Express, do you think all such designs, assuming good management, were necessarily destined to failure?

    Do you think that once small low cost RLVs are developed, that people would not be able to then go back and do it with 1970s technology? Sure later technology helps, but as others have suggested, I think this was largely always a systems engineering problem. There were far too many hints over the years that failure was not necessary.

  41. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Jim,
    As Pete pointed out, all counterfactuals are by definition opinions and not facts. While I am of the opinion that there have been technological advances that do make some of the challenges easier, most of the pieces that I think are necessary were at least originally thought of and investigated decades ago. That’s not to say that there isn’t a ton of engineering work to go to make these things reality. Having the right idea, and having working hardware on the shelf are two *vastly* different things. I think the problem is that people assume that just because we don’t have the latter (COTS RLV hardware), that the former (good ideas on how to solve the problems that have some theoretical and lab work done on them) don’t exist either and that RLVs thus require some advanced black magic/new physics/warp drive.

    It’s a challenging and nuanced argument to make, and I’ll admit to being less than the most eloquent engineer on the planet. I just think that one can realistically realize that we’re in for at least a decade of hard work while still realizing that we’re not actually inventing that much new technology so much as maturing ideas that have been around for decades.

    ~Jon

  42. Jim Davis says:

    If you are looking for absolute facts – well, this world is not so kind. Which is not to say that some convictions are not worth more than others.

    Of course, but as always, the burden of proof is on the believers, not the doubters.

    As you well know, the last 40 years of NASA RLV development, and a few hundred billion, has been largely wasted. What would have happened if it had not been?

    If it had not been wasted on RLV development? That depends on what it would have been used for. If it had been used on the aero side of the house perhaps the relative decline of the US vs the rest of the world would not have happened or been less marked. If used on deep space probes perhaps we would have discovered water on the moon or Mars much earlier. Or more asteroid sample missions. Who can say?

    The original non camel fully reusable shuttle designs with better TPS? DC-X? Roton, Millennium Express, do you think all such designs, assuming good management, were necessarily destined to failure?

    In retrospect, it is hard to see how they could have succeeded. This was even appreciated at the time. Which is why we got the shuttle we did or why Anderson bailed on Roton after sinking $30 million in it.

    Do you think that once small low cost RLVs are developed, that people would not be able to then go back and do it with 1970s technology?

    My guess would be, no. However, even if in retrospect it becomes clear that there were no technological reasons why they could not have been built earlier there still remains the issue of whether the knowledge existed earlier. For example, there is no technological reason why, given the appropriate set of drawings, why a 1918 vintage Fokker D.VII could not have been built much earlier, say in 1900. But the aeronautical knowledge of 1900 was inadequate to produce such a set of drawings. Such knowledge had to be obtained through very intense experiments and operations over the intervening years including a world war.

    Sure later technology helps, but as others have suggested, I think this was largely always a systems engineering problem. There were far too many hints over the years that failure was not necessary.

    I think that given the interest in RLVs, over many years by many people in many countries, has yet to produce an RLV suggests that the problem is not merely managerial or administrative. The advance over the current state of the art that would be required to develop an RLV has also deterred many from attempting it who are not noted for managerial problems. Jerry Pournelle once boasted that given the money that was spent on X-33, two SSTO RLVs could have been developed, one managed by himself and one by Burt Rutan. Given that Rutan is now approaching that kind of money on the much less demanding Spaceship Two effort, that boast seems really naive. Also note that Musk, who is very interested in RLVs, did not share your view that lack of proper management or systems engineering was all that was holding them back.

  43. Jim Davis says:

    …most of the pieces that I think are necessary were at least originally thought of and investigated decades ago.

    But that’s not the same thing as saying it could have been built decades ago which is what we’re discussing. If say it the distant future an insterstellar ramjet is built I doubt anyone will claim it could have been built back in the 1950s because Bussard conceived, investigated, and discussed the interstellar ramjet back then.

    If and when RLVs appear I don’t think they’ll resemble von Braun’s 3 stage ferry rocket of the 1950s, Bono’s SSTO VTVL’s of the 1960s, all the space shuttle proposals of the 1970s, the NASP proposals of the 1980s, the Roton, Black Horse, etc of the 1990s, etc, etc except superficially, the way Henson’s Aerial Steam Carriage of 1842 resembles 20th century aircraft.

    Shubber Ali has often remarked how 80% of all space enthusiasts don’t think that any given RLV proposal will work. It’s just not the same 80% for each proposal. The message that comes through to potential investors is that 80% of very smart people don’t think RLVs will work.

  44. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Part of the problem of RLVs is that it’s a bad business strategy if you are a big player. You have to get through the “valley of inelasticity,” where lowering the price-per-kg-to-orbit will lower your profit. Once the price gets low enough, though, your profit increases by lowering cost to orbit. And even then, your total profit is still lower than it is now, unless you also provide other services that take advantage of the low cost to orbit. This may be why it takes really small players to make this happen.

    Another problem is the low current flight rate (which is related, obviously). Oddly enough, when the flight rate gets up high enough for even just EELVs to be cost-effective, NASA (in their HEFT review) says that is an “excessive” number of launches! We’ve somehow institutionalized high costs for space launch and are now stuck in the inelastic part of cost curve.

  45. Chris,
    The valley of inelasticity problem is only a problem if your RLV is going after markets that are already being serviced by your ELVs. Like any disruptive technology, the key is to find low-end customers that aren’t well serviced by the existing supply. It is entirely possible for ELVs and RLVs to complement each other.

    As for the “excessive” number…it’s kind of silly, and shows a pretty myopic vision of how to do the launch logistics.

    ~Jon

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