Failed Visions (mine)

I just read that XCOR laid off its’ remaining employees with a few core people kept on contract. This is another shot against the vision that I have blogged and commented about many times. The concept being that sub-orbital RLVs would create companies and teams with experience creating RLVs. This is where orbital RLVs would come from. It appears that I was off so badly as to defy excuses.

XCOR seems to have joined a number of other sub-orbital efforts that have folded, or gone into stealth mode at least. Armadillo and TGV being a couple of the best known along with a dozen or so of varying credibility around X-Prize time. I don’t think Virgin Galactic should be considered a validation for my vision even if they are eventually successful.

SpaceX is coming at RLV from the other direction, backing into it from an expendable. I’m sure I’ve posted or at least commented on several occasions that this was a bad idea with little chance of working. Blue Origin  seems to be using its’ sub-orbital RLV as an X-vehicle for its’ orbital class RLV. It would be a stretch to suggest this is similar to my vision as it seems to be a parallel effort rather than serial as I suggested might be necessary. The other orbital companies talking RLV seem to be dragging their heels on any changes so I discount them for this post at least.

It does seem to validate one argument I’ve made from time to time about the difficulty of sub-orbital vs orbital flight. The argument by some others was that orbital flight was 8 times the velocity of sub-orbital flight and difficulty rises as the square of velocity so that made it 64 times as hard. The ones making that argument didn’t believe my calculation that it was more like 4-5 times the difficulty. Maybe they can note that several attemptees have had far more than 1/64 of the funding of SpaceX or Blue Origin with no flying hardware.

There is a bright spot or two though. Masten is still going, and a few others are still in the game. Come on guys, you are the last hope to make me right on this one.

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I do construction for a living and aerospace as an occasional hobby. I am an inventor and a bit of an entrepreneur. I've been self employed since the 1980s and working in concrete since the 1970s. When I grow up, I want to work with rockets and spacecraft. I did a stupid rocket trick a few decades back and decided not to try another hot fire without adult supervision. Haven't located much of that as we are all big kids when working with our passions.

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23 Responses to Failed Visions (mine)

  1. Pingback: Failed Visions (mine) – MeasurementDataBases for Industry & Science

  2. Sam P says:

    I think the important fact is capitalization.

    Suborbital was hoped to reduce the capital needed to eventually get to orbital RLV, but most of the newspace companies were still undercapitalized. Even SpaceX apparently came very close to running out of money while developing Falcon V due to Musk having a personal cash crunch. Bezos, Allen, and Branson are all much wealthier than Musk and can probably fund space startups as long as they care to.

  3. Hop David says:

    I was also saddened to hear the news about Xcor.

    Both you and Jon Goff have noted the difference between orbital and suborbital is exaggerated. Often the kinetic energy of LEO is compared to difference in potential energy between altitudes.

    What Randall Munroe and others overlook is the gravity loss incurred during the vertical ascent to get above the atmosphere. Also the booster stage’s need to have a healthy T/W to minimize gravity loss. The booster stage is a bigger part of the picture than they think.

    For example, the SpaceX Booster Stage is much more massive than the upper stage. And more expensive. But it is up to the upper stage to provide most the delta V to achieve orbital velocity.

    I wouldn’t lament on what direction we’re moving towards reusable boosters. What’s important is that economic re-use is starting to look more plausible.

  4. MAx says:

    Scuttlebutt has it that TGV tested a liquid engine last month.

  5. Paul D. says:

    From where I sit, it looks like suborbital just didn’t have a big enough market. There’s no equivalent of deep pocketed comsat companies spending ~$100M on a launch.

    Had there been such customers, using suborbital as a stepping stone to orbital would have made more sense.

  6. john hare says:

    I guess you are right. It was a potential capability for serving a potential market. It would be interesting to see what would have happened in an alternate timeline with VG making good technical decisions and partnerships. And at least one other technically qualified player getting reasonable me-too funding.

  7. Peterh says:

    It’s likely that the Falcon 9 line will always have a fairly low limit on reflights, limiting ultimate potential for the line. But in the mean time their flight rate and rapid iterate – fly cycle, assuming a lot of rockets will be lost trying what hasn’t been done before, is allowing them to learn a lot about bringing the costs of rocket operations down, and what kind of wear and tear a rocket faces over launch and recovery.

  8. Paul D. says:

    Peterh: the F9 doesn’t have much use for extensive reflight, since it would soon run up against the cost of the expendable component, the second stage. Things get interesting if the second stage becomes reusable, but I consider that a large enough change to be a new vehicle. Reflight efficiency on F9 is likely to carry over to FH though, and FH will have more mass budget to devote to S2 reusability.

    One aspect of operations that may unfortunately be exercised is recovery from pad accidents. One would like the pad to be designed so that recovery time is minimized. I wonder if methane fueled vehicles would be superior for this, since methane may be more likely to vaporize instead of soaking into things and burning. It may just be a matter of having enough spares to quickly replace pad equipment.

  9. Peterh says:

    Depending on the pad material, LOX can be a bigger fire or explosion hazard, soaking into an otherwise difficult to burn material.

  10. John,

    I finally had time to read this, and I agree with you that I figured that the evolutionary path from suborbital to partially reusable SLV to fully-reusable orbital seemed the most likely, and I agree that history has proven that assumption fairly naive, at least so far.


    I don’t know that the failure to raise money has proven the lack of markets per se, but it has demonstrated the inability of sRLV startups to convince investors there was a sufficient market to be interesting to VCs. It’s possible to have a problem big enough that solving it could turn you a tidy profit while still being too small, or too small of a return on investment to be exciting to VCs, especially given the risks seen. That said, other than space tourism, I don’t think many of the suborbital markets really were that lucrative. Masten has found a nice small business niche with EDL flights, but they’ll need to either find a credible path to a VC investable market (say reusable smallsat launch), or find some other next step incremental niche.


  11. Jim Davis says:

    Masten has found a nice small business niche with EDL flights…

    Has Masten ever flown anything above 100km? How often? When was the first time?

  12. Jim,

    No, Masten hasn’t yet flown anything to 100km. The EDL flights I’m talking about are testing EDL sensors and algorithms for JPL, Draper Labs, and other groups (like Astrobotics), under the Flight Opportunities program. Sorry if I was unclear, but it’s enough to keep the doors open with a team that’s 3-4x the size it was while I was there during the NGLLC. Not sure if it’ll last indefinitely though, which is part of why I’d like to see them find another, higher-performance niche.

    AIUI, the main reason they haven’t been pushing very hard on reaching 100km has been lack of capital to do so, combined with not having enough committed customers who need that capability. They are working on the capability, but only as their limited internal R&D budget permits. One of the drawbacks of not being tied to a space billionaire is having to take a more round-about route to things.

    Honestly, IMO if Masten does get to 100km flights, it’ll most likely be as part of a reusable smallsat launcher development effort, not as an end in itself (which kind of goes back to the point John was making–suborbital hasn’t really panned out as a good incremental market on the way to orbital RLVs).


  13. Jim Davis says:

    AIUI, the main reason they haven’t been pushing very hard on reaching 100km has been lack of capital to do so, combined with not having enough committed customers who need that capability.

    Thanks, Jon. I remember being assured that scientists and universities nationwide would be queuing up to get their payloads on a reusable sounding rocket.

  14. Paul D. says:

    Off topic: laser propulsion advocate Jordin Kare died today in Cleveland. He had undergone heart valve surgery but was unable to make a recovery. He was 60 years old.

  15. Jim,

    Yes, we were wrong about that. Does that make you feel better?


  16. Jim,

    Or at least I should say that market hasn’t materialized outside of some limited Flight Opportunities test flights. If Blue gets their system on the market, we’ll have a better idea of if there really was a market for suborbital research to tap. My guess is it’ll be at best a pretty niche market–possibly one Masten could’ve made a small profit on if it had had the funding to get to a Xogdor-class sRLV, but likely too small to be of interest to traditional VCs.


  17. john hare says:

    Paul D,
    Thanks for letting us know. I only talked to him once or twice at Space Access. I got permission from him just a few weeks ago to play some games with one of his concepts on laser assisted chemical engines. He was my age, scary.

  18. Dave Salt says:

    Recent history has made it abundantly clear that commercial boot-strapping is an extremely difficult, if not impossible, way of developing orbital launch systems. Nevertheless, I believe that the suborbital market will grow, once someone offers a real service and not just promises that continually slip into the future.

    Sam P is obviously right – capitalisation is the key factor. Unfortunately, those pursuing concepts that have the greatest potential have been substantially undercapitalised (e.g. XCOR) while those pursuing concepts that have the least potential have been substantially capitalised (e.g. Virgin Galactic).

    My frustration with Musk and Bezos is that both seem to be approaching reusability by evolving ‘missiles’ rather than developing ‘space ships’, though this may be expedient in order to get something flying that matures their engineering skills while earning revenue from existing markets.

    As for the sad news of Jordin Kare, I always thought his idea of laser launch was probably the best long-term solution to space access – much better than a space elevator. Let’s hope his work will prove fruitful and help us become a truly space-faring civilisation… ad astra per aspera.

  19. Jim Davis says:

    Yes, we were wrong about that. Does that make you feel better?

    Ouch. No, my track record as a prophet is no better than the next guy’s. For example, I never thought this barge landing deal was going to pan out. It just seems that wishful thinking is a lot more prevalent in space advocacy than elsewhere.

  20. Paul D. says:

    Jim: barge landing is a bit different as that’s a technical problem, which lives or dies based on technical details that may not be at all obvious. Suborbital’s issue was the market, not the technology (except insofar as the small market limited what technology could be developed.)

    I think Musk’s real genius has been focusing on manufacturing, btw. He can make rocket engines and stages more cheaply than the competition, and that’s even before reuse. This meant he could attack existing proven markets instead of adding a market gamble to a tech gamble.

  21. Titus Ou says:

    I’m here to offer slightly different view 🙂

    SpaceX Falcon9 is not orbital RLV… not-yet…

    Why I’m saying is, is because the stage1 currently been recovered/refly, never really go orbital. In NROL-76 mission, which have best stage1 live-stream video ever (due to stage2 live-stream is nono for NRO bird), video show stage1 reach ~166km at the top of trajectory. Assuming boostback burn doesn’t causing deceleration on on vertical speed, that’s how high it will go if fly purely by inertia after MECO.

    In certain way, Falcon9 stage1 is a sub-orbital stage that push stage2+payload to 1664mps (don’t know what’s hori/verti speed is) at 66km height, that’s where MECO happened for stage1. Rest belong to stage2.

    I’m not saying it’s unimpressive, SpaceX actually did something amazing in the last few year. But Falcon9 stage1 really only did sub-orbital flight. Until SpaceX able to do stage2 reentry/recover/refly, Falcon9 is not orbital RLV, closed but not-yet.

    I don’t think anyone would really do ground-launch stage1 as true orbital RLV, as that will make it SSTO somehow 🙂

    Maybe it’s picky, but I think it’s a different prospect to look at launch vehicle.

  22. Paul D. says:

    “Copenhagen Suborbitals co-founder arrested on suspicion of murder”

  23. Paul D. says:

    XCOR has filed for Chapter 7 (liquidation).

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