I’m still in the process of recuperating from Space Access and the long drive home from Phoenix, but I wanted to give a few thoughts on this year’s conference. I’ve now been going to Space Access for a full decade (other than 2009, when Tiff was within a week of her due-date for Peter), so it’s been interesting to see how things have progressed over the past 10 years.
The first thing I wanted to mention was that this was the first Space Access in three years that I actually came away from feeling recharged and excited. 2010 was a very difficult conference, with the strains that led to the second Masten reboot coming to a head, and some personal and petty disappointments on my part that at Masten we hadn’t even tried to give XCOR any real competition when it came to selling ULA on a partner for their RL-10 replacement engine project.
By 2011, I was running full-speed ahead with Altius, which was exciting, but the feeling I came away from Space Access with that year was frustration. Masten was making headway on its reboot, but hadn’t really caught its stride yet, Armadillo had had a depressing year, and XCOR was still struggling to raise the rest of the money it needed to really get into its Lynx work. The industry had fought and lost the NASA 2010 Authorization battle, with its main win being that the much suckier House version hadn’t been passed. While that would’ve been disastrous, it was still pretty clear that the antibodies had won that round. I won’t belabor the point any further, but the last two Space Access conferences before this one hadn’t recharged me or excited me the way that previous conference had.
Fortunately, at least to me, the feeling I took away from this year was a lot more invigorating and optimistic, mostly due to progress at the three main sRLV companies that have been regulars at the conference: XCOR, Armadillo, and Masten. I’ll touch on each of them briefly:
By far, XCOR impressed me as the company at the conference the closest to seeing its vehicle become a reality. With the funding round finally closed on Lynx, and the aerodynamics work winding down, they’re hot and heavy in the processes of parts detailing, manufacturing drawing development, quoting, working with suppliers to get parts made, and then integrating the pieces as they came in. The design work they showed at the conference gave me a lot of confidence–I personally think that that HTHL vehicles like Lynx are actually more complex in many ways than VTVL vehicles–and XCOR’s presentation showed a design reaching the level of maturity, detail, and sophistication you would expect in a vehicle that is being built and readied for flight test. While they’ve got a lot of integration to go, with all its opportunities for delays, rework, and development snags, if you’ve been at this point in a prototype vehicle development effort, it almost makes you giddy with excitement. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I think there’s a high probability that XCOR is going to be there in force at next year’s conference, showing pictures and videos from Lynx’s first few flight tests. There’s still a long way from there to a commercially operating Lynx Mk2, but I think that so long as they can keep a decent war-chest of extra cash available to work through the inevitable slides, it’ll be exciting to see the race between them and VG over the coming year or two. To be honest, I wish I had some XCOR stock about now.
Armadillo also gave reason to be excited. Simply put, they already flew a vehicle to 95km that actually probably could’ve been coaxed over the von Karman line with a little more patience in the engine characterization and such. While they are stepping up to a larger vehicle, and going back to a cold-gas RCS system (which worries me–I think you’re really going to want hot-gas RCS for a full 100km flight), I think they’ve got a good shot at being the first of the Space Access regulars to make it over the von Karman line. Now admittedly, this is with a vehicle that’s basically a liquid sounding rocket, but it’s a good first step. It’ll be interesting to see where AA goes as they try to transition the info learned from Stig-B back into their VTVL vehicle development.
The things that gave me the most hope about Masten were actually from a side conversation from Dave outside the conference itself. A lot of the technical issues that I had been sweating while still working there look like they’ve found a good rigorous approach to solving. While they still have a lot of execution between them and success, and while they’re by far the most undercapitalized of the three, it looks like they’re taking the steps and getting the outside help they’ll need to make a reliable VTVL rocket system. The Xeus work and the other contracting stuff is also cool, but to me I was able to walk away with the warm fuzzy that Masten’s on a good track for getting Xaero and eventually Xogdor flying.
My hope with all of this is that next year, each of the teams will have enough solid accomplishments under their belt that we’ll have many of them back in larger numbers to collect some hard-earned bragging rights. We’re still growing up as an industry, but I feel pretty excited about the near-term prospects of at least this corner of the industry.
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