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Up for a challenge? PROVE US WRONG. March 9, 2007

Posted by shubber in gauntlet being dropped, PYMWYMI, smack talk.
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(originally posted by Old Space Cynic as a comment on the last post thread, but raised to level of separate post by me to make sure you all had a chance to see it… and see if you will respond…)

AmberJane, you have nailed it again, but the blindly faithful will trash you for doing so.

If a younger, high income, interested professional isn’t the target market for suborbital flight, who is? The old rich farts with hypertension and questionable AV conduction? When the vast majority of the public is not interested in space, the market numbers for suborbital flights make no sense. A number of prepaid deposits held in escrow are meaningless.

An Australian academic recently did credible market research directly supporting your opinion about preferring orbital to suborbital flight. But, like all dissenters to the party line, he is defined as wrong. Just like Dr. Hertzfeld is wrong on economics according to the true believers.

Trying to refute Dr. Bell’s argument with logic based on examples of RATOs (low performance, low energy density) and failure to understand that some severely damaged X-15s were rebuilt using the same tail numbers is both ignorant and silly.

From a business standpoint, are we to accept a hypothetical PowerPoint spaceplane over a tangible data history spanning more than 1/2 century? Which is the more valid approach to guessing reliability numbers? The challenge to the alt.spacers is to prove us wrong: Get the investment capital, build and test and prove the sceptics wrong. Quit arguing about how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin and PROVE US WRONG. If Dr. Bell had used the column headings “major event” instead of “loss” some of the criticism could have been avoided.

We have recently been treated to the spectacle of a BS level engineering space cadet taking on a PhD aeronautical engineer with extensive personal flight test experience and a faculty slot in the UC system over pros and cons of different flight configurations with “opinions” on one side and a wealth of peer-reviewed literature on the other.

I have put my money where my mouth is and have invested in several alt.space companies. Their business plans and structures were clearly flawed, but I hoped that over time they would grow into acting like real businesses. My hopes have not been realized after 4 years. Reading their 5 year projections today is amusing.

You are correct that alt.space investment opportunities are very few and very far between. In my opinion, sure to be trashed as ignorant and ill-informed, the commercial case will not be closed until cheap orbital access is achieved. Suborbital joy-riding will probably not do it. If the space-geeks want capital they have to convince people who think like the Cynics to part with theirs or raise it in other ways. Arguments with ad hominem attacks and distorting logic, omitting inconvenient observations, and the like is best left to the politicians and news media, not to Kool-Aiders frustrated by those who have the wherewithall to fund alt.space ventures but can’t see the business case closing.

Finally, it was amusing to see Rand Simberg’s final dig at you (“Have you changed professions from plastic surgeon to aerospace market researcher?”). This is especially silly – insult a person who brings interest, enthusiasm, and potential investment capital to the table because he or she asks a perfectly reasonable question (“What am I missing?”). Great way to encourage investment in the field, Rand. I suspect Rand has no concept of the analytical resources surgeons and other high income/high net worth people can bring to bear for market research, analysis, etc. as they consider investments – including fliers.

For your further illumination, get Dr. Livingston’s recent lecture at USC on the subject or better yet take him up on his long-standing offer to discuss your approach to alt.space investment analysis on his show. Given the way the community seems to operate, it is unlikely that anybody will call up and challenge you face to face. That will all occur behind your back.

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Comments»

1. adiffer - March 10, 2007

I’m not impressed with Dr Bell’s data as it strikes me as apples and oranges. However, I think the appearance of risk is sufficient to make the case that the customer base will remain small until the operators can prove otherwise. That will take a long time, so I expect most of them to operate at a loss.

The only way I see out of this trap is to run a business in a related field and prove the safety and profitability there. If the relationship is close one should be able to shift operations toward the original market and carry the hard won benefits of the first. I started down my version of this path in mid-2004 and it’s not for those requiring instant gratification. If I succeed, I think I will have proven you right instead of wrong.

2. Ray - March 11, 2007

Well, I’m not an aerospace engineer or personally involved with alt.space except as an observer, so I’m not going to try to prove either side wrong. I hope the actual tourist flights for suborbital rides would be well within the stresses demonstrated in the test programs.

I also think it would be useful to find other uses for these vehicles besides tourism. Instead of every little company trying to beat Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, what about some alt.spacers trying to partner with them and their competitors? Could these vehicles be used for 0G science tests? Testing of space hardware? Remote sensing observations or cross-calibration with concurrent satellite observations? Upper atmospheric sampling? If so, maybe there is a niche for some small company. Could they find a market for the experiments or measurements? I don’t know. Could they work it out with the suborbital companies so they both benefit, develop any new technology needed, and make money? Again I don’t know. It seems like it would be useful, though, to have some such non-passenger work going on and earning money during the test programs to reduce the temptation to bring on the passengers before the vehicle is ready.

3. oldspacecadet - March 12, 2007

Thank you for your thoughts. Such market niches are being sought by some of the more academically oriented startups. The announced suborbital joyriders seems to have adopted the “my way or the highway approach.”

The niches you describe are addressed by the kinds of companies who exhibit at SmallSat.

4. Jon Goff - March 14, 2007

Ray,
As OldSpaceCadet mentioned, there are several alt.space companies that do not have suborbital tourism as their primary market. I can think of at least three of them, TGV Rockets (which is focusing on suborbital reconnaissance/earth-observation for the government), Up-Aerospace which is providing suborbital sounding rocket rides, and my company, Masten Space Systems (which is focused on providing flights for several of the markets you mentioned). Sure, we’d love to get to manned suborbital flights in the future–as that’s about the only way I’m ever going to afford the trip, but we want to build up a solid experience base over several vehicle iterations and as many flights as we can before we try and tackle that problem. We also feel that corner of the market isn’t anywhere near as crowded and that there’s an opening for a company that is focusing on trying to deliver a vehicle specifically for those purposes, instead of tourism vehicle that can be pressed into serving as a research vehicle if necessary.

So, yeah, there is some real diversity in the market. It’s just the suborbital tourism companies that get most of the media attention.

~Jon

5. Tom Cuddihy - March 22, 2007

Jon, I did a detailed analysis of TGV’s proposal in grad school (and that’s what it was, a proposal that congressional support got to the powerpoint “CDR” stage without ever building hardware.) They can say they’re pursuing whatever. But, unless something at DARPA/NRL has drastically changed in the last year, I can tell you DOD has and has always had minimal interest in what they continue to propose.
TGV’s entire DOD-funded effort was forced by a congressional plus-up, not any DOD interest. They took their already-existing Michelle-B design (very much like a sturdier DC-X) and attempted to wedge it into an ISR role, something suborbital flight is spectacularly ill-suited for. It was apparent to me throughout the process that their only purpose was to get DOD to fund Michelle-B, despite the fact that there was no suitable application for it.

There were smarter options that would better suit several DOD needs, but TGV had to ignore those because funding those options would drive them away from their desired development path which was
1.get DOD to fund Michelle-B. Use DOD funding to do all the shakeout and ops issues with the flight systems
2. Use that experience to upgrade Michelle to an orbital rocket.
However, TGV never proposed that as an option, knowing there is no support for that kind of write-off by DOD.

In the end, no one’s getting fooled. TGV will continue to market Michelle-B to congress. DOD will continue to support as ordered, but not risk other dollars on it.

6. tallcat601 - April 10, 2007

Dr Bell

is probably being conservative.

The loss rate of aircraft in the first 30 years of
flight were staggering. Loss rates in training
for WW2 were higher then combat loss rates.
Loss Rates Flying Air Mail exceeded Loss Rates
in WWI. I believe it was in the first 3 years
that the Wrights had their first fatal crash.

That said, one can draw some lessons from the
approaches taken at that time to reduce losses.

This can be discussed if there is any interest.


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