A few observations about the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Orlando last week:
The State of the Industry is Strong
It was impressive to see reps from all five flight providers â€“ Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, Virgin Galactic and XCOR â€“ together on one panel. This rare alignment of cosmic forces really brought home the diverse approaches being taken to suborbital space, and how the field will be dominated by America companies at the start. That’s a good sign for a country hoping to regain its standing in commercial spaceflight.
These companies could really revolutionize space access. Like the builders of the DC-X, they are all aiming for reusable, frequent access to space with low operating costs and quick turnarounds. If the technology and operating principles can be applied to orbital flights, then space will truly be open for business.
All five companies still have significant challenges to overcome before we see regular suborbital flights to space, much less orbit. A great deal of development and flight testing remains, government funding remains uncertain, and the market size is unknown. The positive thing is that this emerging industry is very much aware of those challenges, and it has built the institutions and networks required to address them.
As they work on the technical side, the suborbital user base is growing. There is a lot of enthusiasm for what these new vehicles will allow researcher to do in microgravity. Once it gets going, there will be new experiments and applications that nobody has even thought of yet.
Spotlighting the Other Guys
Although Virgin Galactic got a lot of attention, the conference shone a much welcomed spotlight on lesser known companies like Masten and Armadillo that may leap out ahead in the suborbital experiments market. Both companies are already flying vehicles, and they are poised to make great strides in flight testing this year. Their spacecraft are much smaller and less complicated than the ones XCOR and Virgin are building. And they are working with smaller budgets.
Another company that gets little attention is Blue Origin â€“ although this is by design. Jeff Bezosâ€™ secretive startup presented at the conference, and it even showed a picture of its vehicle under construction. Beyond that, they said very little. They seem to be still planning flights in 2011-12 period, but thereâ€™s no way to judge whether those claims are realistic. And Blue Origin likes it that way.
I had hoped that after Blue Origin received funding from NASAâ€™s CCDev program last year, it would be more open about what it’s doing. That has proven to be a false hope. NASA should make that a requirement if the space agency awards additional funding to the company under CCDev II. At the very least, we should get a look at the escape system that Blue Origin is building with taxpayersâ€™ money.
XCOR on a (PR) Roll
Meanwhile, XCOR’s PR operation is heading in the opposite direction. The company announced a flight purchase deal with the Southwest Research Institute on Thursday, three days before the conference began.
I thought the timing was odd, given that it came only hours before the final Discovery flight blasted off the planet. In fact, one story going around was that the wrong date was put into the form on PR Newswire.
Actually the goal was to upstage Virgin Galactic, which made its own announcement three days later. At the same time, XCOR played its second card, announcing the establishment of a global network of suborbital payload processors.
It was an impressive bit of one-upmanship by XCOR, whose PR strategy has often seemed to involve doing the opposite of what Virgin Galactic does (and what common sense dictates). The company is a long way from being able to equal Sir Richard Bransonâ€™s PR expertise â€“ although, in truth, it doesnâ€™t really have to. Ultimately, itâ€™s what these companies do in the air and space that matters. Weâ€™ll see whether XCOR will bring it.
Still Working on Itâ€¦
Other than the flight deal with the SwRI, Virgin Galactic didnâ€™t say much else new. CEO George Whitesides says they are hopeful that SpaceShipTwo, which is currently undergoing glide tests, will begin powered test flights later this year. The first suborbital flights would occur by the end of 2011 or early 2012, with space tourists flying at an unspecified date once the FAA gives its OK.
That sounds good. And it all depends upon SpaceShipTwoâ€™s engine. And how is that going? Well, Whitesides says they are preparing for a 40-second ground test, which he says gets them a lot of the way there. The rocket will need to fire 70 seconds for SpaceShipTwo to reach suborbital space.
In short, after six years of effort, itâ€™s still going.
The Fireworks Fizzle
Despite the presence of five competing companies on the same panel, I knew enough about the individuals involved not to expect any real fireworks. But, that didnâ€™t stop someone from trying.
The dueling press releases from XCOR and Virgin Galactic, with their claims of historic firsts relating to the SwRI flights, led to a question from the audience and a Rodney Kingesque plea of “Can’t we all get along?” To their credit, neither Whitesides nor XCORâ€™s Jeff Greason rose to take the bait.
In truth, there’s not much there and neither party is in the wrong, as I had explained earlier that day. SwRI’s flights with XCOR are on the Lynx Mark 1 vehicle, which will fly to 61 kilometers. The institute’s flights on VG’s SpaceShipTwo are set to pass the 100 kilometer altitude that is generally considered to be border of space. XCOR’s Lynx Mark II successor is also designed to fly above that altitude.
Whitesides astutely observed that the distinction is much more important for passengers who want to say they have flown in space than for the suborbital community, which is more concerned with getting useful periods of microgravity during their flights. Altitude is less important than the flight profile and the quality of the vehicle’s microgravity environment.
Fly Baby, Fly
At the end of the day, none of the talk and hype and plans will matter much until these folks start flying vehicles and experiments into space and start making money at it. Success will depend upon a tricky mix of technology, marketing and financing. It will be exciting to see how it all works out in the years ahead.