Revolutionizing Space Flight
by Pat Bahn. Space News, February 23, 2004

By the time this editorial is read, the dust will have settled on the presidentís new space strategy. Budget proposals will have started to work through the Congress, architectures will have been drafted, opinion pieces will opine upon numerous aspects of a moon-Mars plan, and industry will have weighed in to replicate a goal achieved when I was 6 years old.

Meanwhile, a quiet revolution will have started away from the spotlight in obscure parts of America where a new breed of rocket ship will be taking flight. The Suborbital Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) will be finding its place in the skies of America and in the markets of the American consumer.

To understand the meaning of this, a little history lesson is needed. In the late 1970ís, Business Week magazine ran a cover story on the latest Cray supercomputer and how it was going to revolutionize American business. Deep inside that same magazine was a small story mentioning that Apple computer was now selling micro-computers. Business Week was correct that a computer was going to revolutionize American society, they were just wrong about which machine it was going to be. Fifty percent of the American public and 99 percent of the aerospace industry are convinced that a moon program will revitalize and grow a new space era. Meanwhile, 1 percent of the industry is working on the systems that will actually do that.

For the last 2 years a quiet change has been occurring. Small, privately funded teams have been flying prototype systems that have not received much notice. Armadillo Aerospace in Dallas, XCor and Scaled Composites in Mojave, Blue Origins in Seattle and TGV Rockets in Norman, Okla. have all begun pushing equipment off of the drawing boards and into the skies.

Three of these companies have now begun flight tests of early generation vehicles and have managed to grow and progress forward. What is rather interesting is that for less then $50 million between all of them, they now have dozens of flights and have reached altitudes approaching 21,000 kilometers and minutes of powered flight.

While the suborbital community is not producing papers for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics or interesting doctoral theses, they are rapidly outproducing what came from the mainstream research community in the past 20 years.

All we have to show for the last two decades are programs like:

  • the X-30 National Aerospace Plane program, which cost $4.5 billion and never produced a test flight;
  • the X-33, which cost NASA and its contractors about $1.5 billion and also never flew;
  • the X-34 which cost $180 million was canceled and also never produced a flight test;
  • the X-38 Crew Rescue Vehicle program, which cost $300 million and so far produced only drop tests, and;
  • the X-43 which cost $100 million, but broke up when the Pegasus booster launching it suffered structural failure 8 seconds into flight.

What differentiates companies such as Scaled Composites or TGV from the above projects is that the companies do not focus on research and development.Instead they concentrate on cost management and on doing sub-orbital flight for its own sake.

Pure suborbital rocket ships have a long history of success. The X-1, the X-2, the X-15 and the DC-X/DC-XA were highly successful and economical programs. Over the next 12 months we will see several credible attempts on the X prize and quite possibly the first revenue generating flights. Applications for suborbital space transport include remote sensing, reconnaissance, scientific experiments, spacecraft instrument testing, and giving rides to people who want to experience spaceflight for themselves rather than watching a few government employees enjoy the experience.

The U.S. government has begun to recognize this prospect. The Department of Commerce, for example, issued last year a lengthy and positive report on emerging suborbital markets. The Senate and House both have pending legislation that directly involves the regulation and support of suborbital spaceflight.

Challenges remain. The road is always unclear; financing is always a challenge; operations need to mature; and the industry might fail to realize its promise.

However, a small fast growing industry based upon modular scalable technologies with short program lifetimes is more likely to revolutionize spaceflight than an interplanetary program scheduled to produce results no sooner than 2020, the year I turn 60. I donít want to wait that long, not when I know a better way.

Pat Bahn is chief executive officer of TGV Rockets, Inc. and Washington director of The Suborbital Institute, a trade association for the emerging sub-orbital industry.