very occasional contributor john hare
I noticed the other day that Space Ship Two is supposed to be flying powered flights by the end of this year, and revenue flights by the end of next year. This is nine years from XPrize victory to revenue service if they make this latest time table.
The development of the hybrid engine receives most of the blame for the long interval in the articles I read. If true, and I don’t know for sure that it is, then the engine choice points up one of the strengths of free enterprise vs command systems. That point is that a possibly poor decision early on, and no likelihood of changing it, has and will cost Virgin Galactic large sums of money in terms of passengers not flown. Many of us, from the outside looking in, think the company would have been better served going with a somewhat experienced liquid engine builder or two. Several companies have produced generations of liquid engines during the time that Virgin has been trying to get that large hybrid operating.
That cost comes in several varieties. They haven’t been making money from flights during the last few years that most of us thought would be profit years for them. The development costs have been accumulating for years on the wrong side of the time value of money. The competition has had time to get competing vehicles closer to flight. The future development of high flight rate orbital transports is now much more likely to be contracted to firms with faster perceived development times. Most of the potential competitors can realistically claim that they have never had the relatively lavish funding that Scaled Composites has had from Virgin Galactic.
If XCOR, Blue Origin, or Armadillo Aerospace beat Virgin Galactic to revenue service by a year or so, that company will most likely get the high value early riders with seat prices decreasing as Space Ship Two enters service with resulting increased difficulty in getting the development costs paid off. The resulting profits could be far lower that Virgin had projected making this a poor investment on their part. Even if Space Ship Two beats the others to market, the period of exclusivity will be considerably reduced will similar reduction in revenue. Even the prestige that Branson is expecting to boost the Virgin brand will be tarnished.
The point is that if Space Ship Two is late to the game because of a stubborn insistence on a troublesome hybrid, then Virgin Galactic will pay through the nose for that mistake. Space Ship One could possibly have flown a bit earlier with the 12k kerosene/LOX thrust chamber that Tim Pickens owned well before getting involved with Scaled Composites. If that had happened, it is just possible that Space Ship Two could have been flying years ago with a better propulsion system than they are likely to have in the next several years.
The beauty of it all is that as taxpayers it doesn’t much matter to the rest of us who wins or loses and who survives as long as some of the companies get there. I’m so happy that I wasn’t the sub-orbital space czar in late 2004, as I would have committed millions of your tax dollars to backing what looks like that wrong horse. This is the true strength of free enterprise vs command economies in that failure of one doesn’t bring the failure of all, or even prevent the industry from developing due to a single possibly premature decision.