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Tap tap tap… October 21, 2007

Posted by shubber in CRATS, death, Manned Space, NASA, rocketplane, space, space tourism, suborbital tourism, Wasting Money.
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that sound, dear friends, is the sad accompaniment to the activity of driving a nail into a coffin.

RPK Coffin

In this particular instance, the coffin would be that of RpK’s COTS efforts. It appears that NASA has finally determined that RpK was not going to be able to meet the already missed milestones or upcoming ones, and has therefore informed Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane of its decision in a letter from Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Rick Gilbrech.

In the next breath, of course, NASA then went on to mumble something about “A vibrant commercial space industry will help NASA fulfill its promise to support the International Space Station, retire the space shuttle and return humans to the moon.” This from Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office.

Of course they’re going to say that. It’s not like they can ever just come out and fess up on what a colossal SNAFU the entire manned space program is, right? And just what vibrant commercial industry are they referring to, anyway?!?

Meanwhile, NASA says that the unspent money will be re-awarded to other aerospace firms in a new competition.

Here’s a question for those who are excited at the prospect of the money being up for grabs again…. Has anyone noticed a common theme amongst the new space access companies: SpaceX, Blue Origin, Armadillo, Virgin/Scaled, and even Beal (before it went bye bye)?

Here’s a hint: the investors/developers in these NewSpace launch technologies are all gazillionaires or backed by those people. So who does NASA plan to award the remaining $170+ million from RpK’s lost contract? I can’t say for certain, but i’m pretty sure I know who WON’T be getting the money…

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Comments»

1. Brian - October 21, 2007

The old line is appropriate: “How do you make a small fortune in space launch? Start off with a large one.”

2. Ashley Zinyk - October 22, 2007

By the time SpaceX got its COTS award, it had done a lot more than Kistler ever did, for less money and in less time.

Another thing that distinguishes SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Armadillo (and maybe Virgin Galactic; I’m not sure) is that they’re not seeking investor dollars while failing to produce any results. In each case, the group leader is spending their own fortune, and they’ve all achieved at least some success. Groups like Kistler, the da Vinci Project, and Starchaser were always showing flashy computer graphics, mock-ups, or less, while asking for money. Their main activity seemed to be fundraising rather than building rockets.

I think Blue Origin will probably not amount to much (although there isn’t much public information, their capital burn rate seems too high and their achievements seem too modest), but at least they’re not scamming public investors or the taxpayer. Unlike the government or a publicly-traded corporation, Blue Origin has no fiduciary responsibilities. A private individual like Bezos has the right to waste his own money.

Virgin/Scaled has mostly spent Paul Allen & Richard Branson’s money, which is good, but they also took deposits from passengers when they had no means of serving those customers, which is bad.

Armadillo may take some government money this weekend, but the government is more of a customer than an investor in this case. Unlike projects like the X-33, if Armadillo can’t do 100% of what was asked, it won’t get a cent.

SpaceX is taking some COTS money, but I think COTS is better than traditional government aerospace procurement. A conventional government aerospace project can drag on for years after it’s become clear that it will never succeed, or “succeed” only over budget, behind schedule, and producing less than was required.
Look at how fast RpK had its funding cut off (not fast enough, but still an improvement).

3. Jonathan Goff - October 22, 2007

Shubber,
While I agree with your point that having a billionaire on board sure does make things easier, there have been a few fairly successful space startups that don’t have billionaire backing, such as XCOR and Orion Propulsion. Neither of those have built an orbital vehicle yet, but both are doing very well when compared to the amount of funding they’ve had. They’ve got (as far as I can tell) pretty solid business models that allow them to tough it out in the long run in spite of not having bottomless supplies of funding.

So, I wouldn’t necessarily write-off the less-well-heeled startups. Sure, there’s a lot of startups that haven’t been as well funded that also haven’t been successful. But as you pointed out in your own post, even having large amounts of money behind a venture doesn’t guarantee success.

~Jon

4. Jim Davis - October 23, 2007

Jon,

I’m sure we all can agree that if a start up company has modest goals and modest means and a solid business plan that doesn’t require putting anything in space (much less in orbit or beyond) they can enjoy a (modest) measure of success.

The problem comes in when the goals are ambitious and the business plan *does* require putting something in space and the means *remain* modest.

Jim Davis


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