Old Space Cadet’s View
Posted on behalf of the Old Space Cadet, this is his position on all things space…
The Old Space Cadet Vents
The comment by Matt Colborn on April 28, 2009 suggesting that the Cynics express opinions about how to advance space development as opposed to lamenting the failures of the current approaches is valid, appropriate, and merits further discussion.
The following represents my opinions and thinking at this time. Consider this an editorial, not a discussion based on technicalities. Others may have differing opinions. Some of those may even take offense at my remarks.
First and foremost, any space entrepreneurial wannabes must engage in reality testing of their proposed approach. That testing must incorporate analysis of any technical issues, market issues, regulatory issues, financial issues, business structural issues, team competence, team competence gaps, and anything else that might affect their approach – either positively or negatively.
Second, the level of unrealistic rhetoric must be toned down. Statements of the type of “Give me a billion dollars and I will give you a single stage reusable orbital launcher in two years” contribute nothing to the process of making humanity spacefaring. When these kinds of statements are made by people who have backgrounds in, for example, information technology and have built a few Estes rockets, they are not only noncontributory, they have a negative effect by repulsing potential investors. Note to readers: This is not to say that a person cannot change careers or that an IT guy cannot learn about and work with rocket technology at a professional level. It says everything about track records and raises the possibility that a computer genius may not understand all the gotchas between a rocket concept and a successful launch without relevant experience. For example, Elon Musk was recently quoted as telling an audience to forget everything he said or promised in the past. He now says that building an orbital rocket launcher is a lot more difficult than he ever thought it would be.
Third, I call for a stop to ad hominem attacks. They are offensive and appear to be more common among the newspace community than among other endeavors. Although I have seen a lot of academic infighting over my career, I have never before encountered the level of personal vilification and vitriol that I have seen in newspace. The following is not whining, but is intended to illustrate. I have personally experienced attacks that include:
1. Being falsely accused of violating the terms of a non-disclosure agreement,
2. Being accused of academic dishonesty in writing a peer-reviewed academic paper in which my conclusions did not concur with the opinions of the accuser (who was not an academic, by the way),
3. Being accused of being a socialist after suggesting that a university consortium might be able to collectively afford to develop and operate a reusable sounding rocket series analogously to operation of large telescopes and particle colliders when they cannot afford to do so individually,
4. A blog comment broadly insinuating that I may be an anti-semite (because of an article on rocketry!!!),
5. Accusations of being against commercial space development,
6. Being immature, childish, and excessively thin-skinned (despite being in my 60’s),
7. Being asked by one “expert” newspacer if I had ever heard of an Atlas even though I had seen one launched before the questioner was born.
8. Being accused of having a vendetta against a space entrepreneurial company,
9. Accused of not understanding the difference between fixed and marginal costs or between nonrecurring and recurring costs (see my April 2009 paper in Astropolitics),
10. Being blackballed as an Advocate for the Space Frontier Foundation. This was done by another Advocate also involved with #2 above at the time I attended a Foundation meeting with the intention of making and presenting a substantial (5 figure) donation, and
11. Being “not with the program” (anti-space).
I am a Space Cadet, or “Space Tragic,” as Shubber calls us, dammit! Remember that our similarities in terms of goals are greater than our differences. I ask that all Space Cadets be treated with a bit more courtesy and respect for whatever technical wisdom we might possess. Some Cadets have been called “morons” and “idiots” in various space advocacy blogs. Argue and debate the merits, but stop the personal attacks.
A corollary to this suggestion has been promoted by the esteemed Professor L. That is, if a person expresses something that you do not agree with, challenge that person directly and respectfully instead of going around him or behind his back on other blogs. There is something wryly amusing and sad about a young Space Cadet criticizing the knowledge base of an expert behind that expert’s back. Can an expert be wrong? Sure. If you disagree, engage that expert in a mutually respectful exchange of ideas. An additional suggestion might be to not read more into an expression of opinion than is actually there.
Now that the reader understands a little of where I am coming from, I will comment on how I see viable opportunities in commercial space developing. History will prove me right or wrong — either partly or completely.
First, I believe that rocket racing and suborbital tourism are niches that will not be on the primary path to human spacefaring. Instead, I believe that point to point exoatmospheric transportation and possibly suborbital tourism will develop down from improved orbital launch capability rather than up from suborbital tourism. That may possibly come from a responsive nanosat launcher that can grow into reusable, larger payload launchers.
Second, enthusiasts who want to participate in developing human spacefaring should temper their enthusiasm for forming small underfunded C corporations with grandiose goals in favor of small incremental improvements in space-related technology and products. In other words, instead of trying to develop passenger carrying suborbital vehicles, work on developing better attitude control rocket motors, better attitude control systems, better system health-monitoring and failure-prediction systems, better life support systems, better thermal protection systems, etc. If you want to work on launch operations, look to other entities to provide the vehicles. If you want to work on vehicles, look to other companies to provide operational support.
Third, those who cannot give up the idea of being involved in space launch activities, look for ways to blur the lines between advanced high power hobbyists and small professionals. For example, many high power amateurs seem to have the most difficulty in making reliable recovery systems and secondarily in making rockets that remain stable as they go supersonic. Making a reliable recovery system that works for rockets falling from apogees of 50 to 100 km would advance not only the high power hobbyists, but academic space engineering programs. A decent small telemetry package with an antenna system that works with or without the presence of a motor exhaust plume would be a neat little product. Plug and play avionics are the future.
Fourth, commercial orbital launch is a very, very competitive business that requires extremely deep pockets. If your pockets are not very deep, play somewhere else or look for ways to become a subcontractor to a space launch manufacturer or launch provider.
Fifth, many space launch wannabes are running up against quality control. Work on ways to improve manufacturing consistency and component reliability.
Sixth, work to develop ties with academic programs. In working to do so, understand the viewpoint of the academic leadership or you will be working at cross-purposes and will fail.
Seventh, work to improve mathematics, science, and engineering education in this country at all levels. If the next generation is illiterate in these areas, we will not become spacefaring except possibly by depending on other nations and cultures.
Eighth, read the article in TheSpaceReview by John McGowan that appeared on May 11, 2009. Read it again and comprehend it. Then, learn more about scaling issues and think about how that first giant step to LEO is a very big one. After accomplishing these tasks, consider the following. A relatively small rocket (sounding rocket with payload of perhaps 10 kg to 100 km) with a highly reliable recovery system can be scaled up to be a stage for a nanosat launcher. The prototype can be tested incrementally with partial propellant loads as long as it can be recovered by that reliable system. Then, think about how the recovery system requirements change from 1 or 2 km apogees to 50-100 km apogees. After that, think about the motor scaling issues – including thermal and acoustical. Finally, learn about motor lifespan versus required burn time for a flight versus cost. In other words, if a $250K motor is good for 10 flights, but an ablative one shot motor costs $7K, why reuse the motor? If the recovery system is only 80% reliable, your $250K motor will have a shortened operational life as an average of one in 5 flight recoveries fail. Consider all of these issues, and more.
Here is my guess for a potentially successful cheap, responsive orbital launch vehicle concept: The Scorpius series by Microcosm. Their concept uses Tridyne pressurized tanks, no turbopumps, ablative motors, a modular first stage consisting of 6 identical modules and the second stage consisting of a single module. With USAF funding, they have retired a lot of the technical risk by flying two test vehicles within a day of pulling the vehicle and support equipment up to WSMR, they have tested ablative motors capable of more than 2 minutes of proven burn time, with more than 100 to one thrust to weight ratio, more than 10,000 kg thrust, and negligibly low throat erosion over the tested burn lifetime. Their Tridyne pressurization system provides hot gas that avoids the additional mass required for traditional helium pressurization gas because of chilling during expansion. The mass savings is roughly 50 percent over standard stored helium gas systems. Their composite tanks, which have been successfully flown, can have a 40 to one propellant mass to tank mass ratio at 500 psi with a safety factor of at least two. Their use of multiple modules for a first stage allows for higher component production numbers and takes advantage of the learning curve to drive down manufacturing costs. The low parts count of an ablative motor without a turbopump increases reliability and decreases cost. They have examined scalability of the major subsystems with favorable results. Microcosm’s economic studies suggest that the Scorpius series would be relatively cheap as disposables compared to existing launch systems.
Will their Scorpius succeed as a cheap orbital launcher? Will it ever fly? I don’t know. It is largely developed, but there are multiple potential nontechnical show stoppers. The market at current launch rates may not support an additional relatively unproven launch vehicle even if it is cheap.
Still, thinking along these lines may provide the route to cheap launch and initiate the virtuous circle ending in human spacefaring and reusable launch vehicles. Believing in fantasies and refusing to consider reality will accomplish nothing of substance. Neither will failing to understand the difference between respectful, critical discussion and hurling personal insults.