Friday, May 13, 2005

The Space Captains Of Industry In The World Of Today

This is the most recent in a series of posts derived from the Space Access Conference 2005. More than a few rocket companies talked about their plans and activities at the conference. Here’s a sampling of the presentations given by companies who are working on getting into suborbital space now.

XCOR - Jeff Greason.

He said XCOR (click here for website) formed to get into orbit. They will not be satisfied with suborbital alone. Their development plan is to build pieces of what they need for their own vehicle design for the government. In this way their government contract helps to pay for the development of XCOR’s own vehicle.

Two of the markets they see for reusable suborbital launch vehicles are passengers and payloads. Regarding payloads they see microgravity experiments, astronomical instruments, and launching second stage expendable payloads from a space plane as payload markets.

They’ve done their own market projections, which are less expansive than the Futron study results but they see the suborbital market as sufficient to make a living.

Suborbital rockets is a regulated industry and will remain so but the regulatory risk is no longer in the top 3 of risks for the first time since 1999 when they formed their company.

With respect to capital investors they have some but none are “super-rich.” Their good recent financial news is they landed a government contract that will pay them 1 million per year up to 7 million per year if NASA exercises their option. The NASA contract is a fixed price contract. XCOR chose to avoid the classic aerospace pattern of cost-plus contracting. In Greason’s view cost-plus contacting results in “bright people spending a lot of time and creativity trying to figure out how to make things cost more.” A result of cost-plus contracting in his view is making a lot of money but not building anything.

The contract is to develop a composite fuel tank based on a patent they have filed but that has not yet issued. The material retains flexibility at cold temperatures and it could eliminate the micro-cracking that occurs in current fuel tanks that occurs when the plastics that must be used in the tanks freeze and become brittle.

XCOR’s EZ-Rocket will fly at the Mojave Air Show on September 21, 2005.

With respect to future flights they obtained a license last year. The license had 5 conditions on it that were not conducive to XCOR’s plans. Four have been renegotiated and one is in the process.

XCOR is also doing upper stage work with DARPA.

Rocketplane LLC - Chuck Lauer

The Rocketplane XP program (click here for website) is building a resusable suborbital rocket that takes off and lands like a plane. The design uses a modified Lear 25. One big story of Rocketplane LLC is how they got financed.

Lauer describes their financing as coming from “The O Prize.” This is his term for Oklahoma’s competition for a research and development investment tax credit which the state awarded to Rocketplane. The purpose of the tax credit was to attract a space R&D company to Oklahoma to bring back the jobs the state lost when the Clinton-Sherman Airbase was shut down by the federal government. The Clinton-Sherman Airbase is now the Oklahoma Space Port.

Rocketplane won the investment tax credit, valued at $18 million and turned around and sold it to a bank that actually had Oklahoma tax liability for $12.5 million.

Rocketplane has taken that $12.5 million and hired a staff of 25 people composed of “skunk works” people but mostly commercial jet people. They plan to hire 25 more.

The company’s main engineering office is at Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City but they are building their rocketplane at Guthrie Municipal Airport.

As for the rocketplane itself, it is based on a Lear 25 with modifications for rocket flight. It is intended to take 4 people from a runway to 330,000 feet and return to the same runway. Their operations goal is two flights per week. He wouldn’t say their estimated cost per flight. The plane would have a normal shirt-sleeve environment inside. The flight would involve flying as a jet to 23.000 feet where the rocket would ignite and carry the craft into suborbital space.

The craft will be entirely a fly by wire vehicle using LI batteries. The entire mission could be flown robotically but the normal mission will use human pilots. Lauer said they believe a tourist flight to suborbital space from Oklahoma will have a view of both coasts of the United States at the top of the flight.

Their test craft has undergone low speed wind tunnel tests so far but they are scheduled for supersonic runs at Marshall Space Flight Center.

Rocketplane LLC’s long-term goal is to have a family of spaceplanes. Their target markets are tourism, International Space Station cargo delivery, point to point travel, for instance 1 hour transoceanic flights delivering passengers or packages. Lauer pointed out that the package delivery market is $40 billion and some percentage of that market should be open to suborbital delivery.

A derivative product from their testing is a 6 passenger supersonic business jet.

They intend to fly in 2006 with a first paying customer in February of 2007. They have sufficient funding now to launch their prototype craft.

TGV Rockets - Pat Bahn

TGV Rockets (click here for website) is located in Oklahoma. TGV was founded to continue the DCX program. It opened in 2003 and now has 15 full-time engineers, which Bahr described as the reconstituted DCX program. Bahn said his key design criterion for his rocket is what he called “roadability.” The capability of putting the rocket on ground transportation. In their case, the back of an 18-wheel trailer.

The goals of their project are to create a vertical take off and vertical landing resusable suborbital vehicle. The design is intended to be simple and robust, modular and scalable. The goal is robust operations. Their objective is to send 1 metric ton to 100 kilometers at the lowest possible price. He described his business model as the 1-1-1 plan: 1 metric ton to 100 kilometers at $1 million.

Bahn was not forthcoming with some of the details of his operation. He wouldn’t say whether he had obtained a license from the FAA yet but he said he didn’t view it as a serious problem. Software is what he described as a serious problem in rocket design. He also said they have identified their prime contractors and put them under contract but he wouldn’t say who they are.

He also said his aim was to create an entirely new market, but he wouldn’t reveal what that market is. He did say he did not intend to get into space tourism. He described space tourism as a “hellacious business model” in which the day the first billionaire dies is the day the business dies and goes to lawsuit “hell.”

He did say that he is not just in the business of building a reusable suborbital rocket but he will be operating it as well. He said he believed there is more money in operations than in manufacturing. So their plan is to be a launch service and manufacturing company. The only details he gave for future market projections were multiple military applications, microsatellite launching, and commercial science work.

He said their earliest flight opportunity is 2008. He also claimed to have two paying customers.

Orbital Recovery - Dennis Wingo

Orbital Recovery (click here for website) has found a niche market and has gone to Europe to make it work. OR has developed a satellite tug that is launched on Ariane 5. The tug has the capability to fly to GEO, dock with an ailing satellite and move it. The disposal orbit is 280 miles past GEO. Once the tug is done with one mission it can decouple and move on to another job.

The tug’s mission starts with a launch by Ariane. From there the tug uses its electric propulsion (117 kilograms of xenon) to travel to GEO in 190 days. The tug uses solar energy, 6 panels on 2 wings, and LI batteries. Once at the satellite, the tug inserts a pole-like capture tool into the nozzle of the ailing satellite to dock.

Orbital Recover is in due diligence with 2 customers. Their target market is to do 3 replacements per year. The market for replacing satellites for the next 10 years is 200 replacements, which appears to leave a wide-open niche market for would-be competitors.


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