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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.



1. SpaceCowboy - May 31, 2009


Oooeeeeyyy, who stuck a burrrr in your saddle! Nice opinions but they are just not realistic! You don’t have any experience in developing space vehicles, infrastructures, etc. so you should just leave it to the experts. Heck all “newspace”, should just sit back down in their armchairs because they don’t have the knowledge to develop space.

Sincerely Yours,

2. Thalia.ad.astra - May 31, 2009

SpaceCowboy –

Can you provide specific references to ‘unrealistic opinions’ in OSC’s post and attempt to back up your claim that these opinions are, indeed, unrealistic?

Perhaps OSC should recount, yet again, the nature of his expertise and experience in space-related matters.

Also, the “experts” (at NASA, I presume?) seem to be so caught up in the bureaucracy that they are running in every direction like chickens with their heads cut off. And honestly…is Ares the best that NASA’s expert engineers can come up with? I’d rather not leave space to “experts” of that caliber…

Charming cowboy rhetoric, by the way.

Cynics – It seems you guys are damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Take care,

3. SpaceCowboy - May 31, 2009


Thalia.ad.astra –

Sorry, I was being the typical NewSpace A$$ to prove OSC’s point. I know OSC credential and I ain’t impressed, but they are nice.

I agree whole heartedly with you about NASA, again I was being an A$$. I believe the worst, crazyiest, hairbrained, NewSpace Kool-Aid is still 10 hundred times better than N(not)A(another)S(sucka$$)A(architecture).

Heck we should send NASA’s budget to North Korea, they would do more and better with it!

And, not just the cynics EVERYONE is DIYDADIYD! It is called trash talking, you can thank the NBA for it!

Sincerely Yours,

4. Jim Davis - June 1, 2009

“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.”

It is not at all unusual for the heretic to be scorned worse than the out and out infidel.

Space advocacy is a religion of sorts and stamping out heresy is what religions do.

5. Professor L - June 1, 2009

Dr. Jurist discussed this Op-Ed on The Space Show on Sunday, May 31, 2009. Here is the direct URL to the archived two hour show:
http://archived.thespaceshow.com/shows/1165-BWB-2009-05-31.mp3. I suggest those of you interested in this topic listen to this program. All comments and questions for Dr. Jurist should be posted here rather than sent to The Space Show or Dr. Jurist. Please do note that your comments and questions are welcome and encouraged.

Professor L
The Space Show

6. Professor L - June 1, 2009

Please listen to the Dr. Jurist Space Show program from Sunday, May 31, 2009 where he discussed his point of view as stated in this post in detail. Here is the direct URL for this two hour Space Show program:

[audio src="http://archived.thespaceshow.com/shows/1165-BWB-2009-05-31.mp3" /]

If you have a comment or question for Dr. Jurist, please post it here on The Cynics blog under the Old Space Cadet tab at the upper right of the top menu bar.

Professor L
Dr. David Livingston
The Space Show


[…] Old Space Cadet’s View jump to navigation […]

8. Thomas Olson - June 2, 2009

The Space Cynic’s dilemma:

“… it is not only the hostility of others that may prevent us from questioning the status quo. Our will to doubt can be just as powerfully sapped by an internal sense that societal conventions must have a sound basis, even if we are not sure exactly what this may be, because they have been adhered to by a great many people for a long time. It seems implausible that our society could be gravely mistaken in its beliefs and at the same time that we would be alone in noticing the fact. We stifle our doubts and follow the flock because we cannot conceive of ourselves as pioneers of hitherto unknown, difficult truths.”

— Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy

9. Stephen Whistance-Smith - June 2, 2009

Hey there SC. I don’t mind your trying to trash OSCs statements, but as he asks, back up your claims. Explain why you aren’t impressed by or discount his credentials, and do you have any alternatives to his suggestions?

Not giving anything of the sort while offering little other than trash talk does nothing to further the state of affairs, although I agree, North Korea would probably make greater progress with the money currently being wasted by ATK trying to make Aries I work.

10. SpaceCowboy - June 3, 2009


Jim Davis – We will Crush You!

Thomas Olsen – I am here to tell the people, “The World isn’t Flat, and the Universe works a Certain Way! Ask yourself, are you a FLATWORLDER or do you see the Universe as I Do? (If you do you will be crazy like me!) BaaBAAA, NO sheep!

Stephen Whistance – 1. We landed on the moon in the late 60’s early 70’s, and we ain’t been back. 2. We don’t have a reusable launch vehicle we can prep and launch within a week to LEO. 3. We don’t have a CIVILIAN SPACE program. I could go on forever…..but I will simply say GovSpace (NASA), and MilSpace are like a two headed Chihuahua: Makes alot of noise, goes round and round, and NEVER does SH#T! (Course could I say that about me also……Maybe!) I am building my alternatives.

11. Matt Colborn - June 10, 2009

Hi all —
Here’s a copy of the email reply I sent, discussing these issues and Old space cadet’s post, above. It mainly concerns the 31st May edition of the space show with Dr. John Jurist.

I’ve also posted it on my blog, cosmic citizen.

Apologies that I have not got back to you sooner, but I’ve been busy and only saw the comments on the Space Cynics site yesterday!

First of all, may I say how flattering it is that so much notice was taken of my comment on Space Cynics? I didn’t anticipate such a positive and comprehensive response, including an edition of the Space Show, which is a podcast to which I listen fairly regularly.

Some personal background: I am a 35-year old UK resident, with an MSc. in cognitive science and a doctorate in experimental psychology.

I’ve been deeply interested in space, astronomy and the future all of my life, and am an enthusiastic amateur astronomer. My childhood interest in space was deflated somewhat in 1990, with the cancellation of plans for the US to go to Mars and the Moon. This put me off spaceflight for a long time. The situation with the Constellation program seems like history repeating itself!

However, I do appreciate having lived through a very exciting decade of robotic missions to the planets, and witnessing the building of the ISS. The discovery of worlds around other stars is also fantastic, and I hope to live to see the discovery of Extraterrestrial life. The founding of Space X and the winning of the X prize by Burt Rutan have also been encouraging. So I do not see the space scene as entirely negative!

Comments on the Space Cynic website: I acknowledge that the space cynics do offer positive alternatives, but would comment that before my April post, these are somewhat hard to see alongside the various dire (and I must say, largely well argued) predictions about the short-term prospects for human space flight. My only comment about cynicism, per se, is that sometimes it can distort thinking just as much as mindless optimism. In my view, a balance must be sought.

Comments on the Space Show: Was very flattered you felt my comment was important enough to read in toto on air. I certainly wouldn’t have used cuss words if I’d know this to be the case! I’m also, again flattered that people of such calibre took my comments seriously, and I think that the discussion as a whole was very interesting and constructive.

As far as I can see, two big issues arose. The first concerned the offering of pipe-dreams based on little reality. This has been –correctly so in my view – a persistent theme of the space cynics, but I was appalled at some of the examples Dr. Jurist mentioned (i.e. offering wormhole technology as a viable business investment). I hadn’t appreciated the level of fantasy to which some of New Space descends!

Maybe some of the more fanciful of the entrepreneurs should consult books like Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of highly effective people. Covey emphasises that a positive attitude needs to be based on a comprehensive, realistic appreciation of the current situation. Only by doing this can realistic, practical progress be made. My own early space-disillusion bears this out; my policy is to enjoy the dreams of space travel, but, as far as the real world is concerned, only believe what I can see!

The second issue is that of factions not talking, listening or respecting one another. I could hear the frustration in Dr. Livingstone’s voice as he described his attempts to get groups to listen to each other. This is a big problem that’s not just confined to the New Space community. I think it was Alfred North Whitehead who called such situations ‘dialogues of the deaf.’ I have to say that electronic communication often fuels these fires. Agreed strongly with Dr. Jurist’s comment about counter-productive paranoia and secrecy.

This is a difficult situation, and it’s important to draw a line between dialogues or controversies that are constructive and worth having and those that are not. It sounds like the disputants need to go on a course of non-violent communication! Maybe the various disputants need also to meet face-to-face more, as this can help to clear up various misunderstandings. My own fairly limited experience with the space advocacy community bears this out. In 2004, I gave a talk at the Mars Society UK conference on the ethical dimension of going to Mars. There seemed to be a number of receptive and fairly realistic heads there.

Peer review for technical proposals: Yes absolutely. This is basic science. Constructive technical and business criticism is an essential part of building an objective view of a situation. Real peer criticism is a basic, basic need and a lack of it is maybe an indication that alt.space is immature as a problem-solving community.

Anyway, thanks again for your considered response, and I look forward to a reply!


12. anon - August 11, 2009

i don’t think the microcosm model scales well.
Essentially Beal Aerospace tried the Microcosm system.
Big, Dumb, Pressure fed boosters, now they were headed
at Peroxide and they were looking at larger vehicles, but,
they fired a 250K motor and were well on their way to a 2M lb motor.

The problem is in pressure fed, the birds get big fast.

I guess I’d ask Joh why he thinks the Beal people did not succeed?

13. Oldspacecadet - September 4, 2009

With pressure fed conventional construction, things do gain mass disproportionally with increasing size. However, Microcosm has an advantage of composite tank technology that works in their favor.

As far as why Beal did not succeed, I believe Beal attributed it to chasing a moving target in that NASA kept changing the rules of the game. He also believed that NASA was deliberately working to make him fail. In Beal’s own words:

“The BA-2C program was the largest privately funded program ever in existence to build a large capacity space launch system. Unfortunately, development of a reliable low cost system is simply not enough to ensure commercial viability. Several uncertainties remain that are totally beyond our control and put our entire business at risk. The most insurmountable risk is the desire of the U.S. Government and NASA to subsidize competing launch systems. … There will never be a private launch industry as long as NASA and the U.S. Government choose and subsidize launch systems. While Boeing and Lockheed are private entities, their launch systems and components are derivatives of various military initiatives. Very little new effort takes place without significant government subsidy, control, and involvement. While we believed that we could compete successfully against the government subsidized EELV launch vehicles, the characteristics and depth of subsidy for NASA’s new initiative as well as its ultimate performance are impossible to determine or evaluate. … We have elected to cease operations.” [quoted in Ref. 15]

14. anon - January 2, 2010


Not to be a dick, but wasn’t Beal using Composite tanks too?

Beal quit over the X-33, which never even got assembled.

shubber - January 5, 2010

Close, but not quite. Beal quit due to competition with government-funded programs such as NASA’s Space Launch Initiative (SLI) and the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) was an “insurmountable risk” against the commercial viability of Beal Aerospace. While X-33/Venture star was part of the SLI, it wasn’t the only piece.

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