Space Access 2012 Thoughts

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:

XCOR
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
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.

Masten
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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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.
Jonathan Goff

Latest posts by Jonathan Goff (see all)

Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

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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12 Responses to Space Access 2012 Thoughts

  1. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Do you have any notes on the ULA’s presentation?

    (Thanks for the coverage, by the way.)

    -Chris

  2. Pingback: Transterrestrial Musings - More Space Access Thoughts

  3. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Chris,

    Oh, I definitely thought the ULA presentation was interesting, but a lot of it was old news to me at least. The first contract I did at Altius was working for Frank on the gimballed RCS stuff he mentioned. Ian did the GN&C work, and I did the mechanisms design work to show that with just gimballing the four lateral thrusters (which you *have to have*), you could get all the control authority you needed for doing even the most complicated maneuvers they currently do with Centaur. It was a neat project, and the rest of the IVF project is neat, and will have some implications I hadn’t originally thought of. But it’ll still be several years before they’re able to start flight testing, so that’s why I didn’t include much in my summary–I was mostly focused on the new vibe I was getting from my friends in the suborbital world.

    ~Jon

  4. kert says:

    Did Armadillo talk at all about their plans beyond Stig’s ? Is their plan of record back to VTVL or no ?

  5. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Kert,
    Yeah they did talk about it. Can’t remember all the details, but I’m pretty sure the manned rocket they’re doing for Space Adventures will be some form of VTVL.

    ~Jon

  6. Anom says:

    Jon,

    How long do you think it will be before Dan Delong at XCOR or StratoLaunch announce a single-stage-to-orbit reusable space plane that is air launched from the back of a used $15-million 747-400 or from underneath the new StratoLaunch aircraft?

    Do you think that XCOR will use a methane version of their LH2 upper stage engine from their ULA partnership for their orbital space plane? Do you think that Rutan and StratoLaunch will use the methane (or LH2) SpaceX Raptor fuel-rich staged combustion engine for their space plane?

    I estimate development costs at $1-Billion to $2-Billion, which is about the cost of developing a small business jet.

  7. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Anom,
    I think XCOR will be pretty busy for the next several years getting Lynx Mk1 and Mk2 into regular operations. Who knows where the market will be then. XCOR doesn’t tend to be the kind of company to advance something too far out there and speculative before they’re ready to jump in on it.

    That said, it’ll be interesting to see what concepts do come out of them when they feel they’re ready to start working on orbital systems. I’d be surprised if it were an air-launched SSTO personally, even with Dan’s previous work on the topic. But we’ll see when they’re ready to start talking about next steps.

    ~Jon

  8. Lars says:

    Jon,
    Thanks for the coverage since I had to leave early. I definitely felt the same way, leaving the conference invigorated, but it was only my first conference.
    The only let down I had was when Tim Pickens was explaining how they were running out of money. The disappearance of the Falcon 1 at the same time as the cancellation of Constellation kind of ruined the GLXP.

    Anom,
    A stratolaunch-launched SSTO would be 95% as difficult as a regular SSTO, if not more (because of the complications of air-launch). The energy gained from the plane is nill compared to getting to orbit.

  9. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Lars,
    I wouldn’t quite say that it’d be 95% as hard as a ground-launched SSTO. You get quite a bit of a reduction in gravity losses if you do a proper air launch, and you can start with higher altitude nozzles (and design the landing gear and wings more for the empty vehicle landing loads, since you can dump fuel on the way down in the case of an abort). Air Launch actually almost makes SSTO interesting, but I think that SSTO doesn’t mesh well with XCOR’s current company focus/strategy. FWIW, I have an old article on here about Dan Delong’s Airlaunched SSTO concept, under the “Orbital Access Methodologies” tag.

    ~Jon

  10. john hare says:

    Grump, maybe I’ll be able to attend the next one.

  11. Anom says:

    Lars and Jon,

    If you already have a large carrier aircraft available, like the StratoLaunch aircraft or a used 747-400 aircraft (costing $15-million), then air launch of an SSTO is much easier than ground launch of an SSTO.

    Ground launch of an SSTO lowers your engine Isp by as much as 10%, because you have to design an engine with a lower expansion ratio for sea level flight. This can be almost a 1,000 m/s delta V penalty for ground launch SSTO versus the 10% higher expansion ratios of air launch SSTOs. Air launch SSTO payloads are potentially 50% to 100% higher than ground launch SSTOs because of their higher engine expansion ratios.

    The only thing missing for an air launch SSTO is a high-performance/high-thrust reusable upper stage engine, but it appears that the SpaceX Raptor engine and the XCOR/ULA LH2 upper stage engine will provide this breakthrough.

    I think that StratoLaunch and XCOR are waiting to get their 1st generation vehicles into service by 2016, and then they will announce orbital air launched SSTOs that will be operational after 2020. The market for these vehicles and their perceived technical risks will look different by 2016.

  12. I wonder what permits XCOR will be flying Lynx Mk I under.. experimental for all the staff and then an operator license for paying customers?

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