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Reusable Launch & Space Vehicle News
November 2002

Copyright of Amadillo Aerospace
(Image captured from video)
Sept. 28, 2002: The first manned flight by an Armadillo Aerospace
reusable, four axis stabilized, liquid fueled," rocket powered vehicle.

Other RLV News Sources
Space Frontier Society * Space Access Society Updates *
NASA SLI News * NASA SpaceTransportation *
NASA Watch Launch System News * OrbiReport - Space Transportation News *
Spacetoday.net (Jeff Foust): Launch Vehicles

This section contains brief articles concerning developments in the field of reusable launch and space vehicles with links to news sources, NASA, company sites, etc.

See the Space Log for entries
on related topics such as amateur rocketry, space businesses, etc.

RLV News Archive Directory

November 29, 2002

News briefs ... The da Vinci Project, a Canadian X Prize entry, has greatly revised their web site. Seems to include additional info such as a page on the evolution of the vehicle design. ...

... The October/November 2002 issue of the Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine has a couple of interesting articles (but unfortunately not available on line so head for the newsstand or library):

  • Sky High: My Climb to the top in the F-104 by George j. Marrett - reviews the F-104, including info about the version with rocket augmentation.
  • Outback Scramble: A University of Queensland Lab has Supersonic Success by Luba Vangelova - a lengthy article about the HyShot scramjet project and recent flight.

... Space fable - How The West Wasn't Won (NAFA) at Space Future

November 27, 2002

News briefs ... Leonard David surveys the challenges involved in developing vehicles for space tourism - Creating Commercial Spacecraft for Space Tourism - Space.com - Nov.27.02 ...

... NASA seeks new RLV engine Sources Sought Notice: Next Generation Launch Technology (NGLT) Prototype Engine Demonstration (PED) - SpaceRef - Nov.26.02

November 25, 2002

XCOR Updates ... XCOR reports that it "has submitted all of the final reports for [their] various RASCAL contracts, and is now looking forward to RASCAL phase II beginning early next year." XCOR collaborated with Coleman Research, Vela, and Pan Aero to compete with 5 other teams for the DARPA program that seeks to develop a reusable small payload delivery system with a horizontal takeoff and landing first stage and an expendable rocket powered second stage.

XCOR will participate in various space related panels at the upcoming Los Angeles Science Fiction Conference (LOSCON) on Nov.29-Dec.1. They will talk "about present projects and future plans, as well as showcasing some never before seen EZ-Rocket and test footage, including highlights from AirVenture 2002". The "main panel will be on Saturday, November 30 at 1:30 pm."

Check out the cool look-down view onto the Xerus in flight as rendered by Mike Massee.

More press attention for XCOR : XCOR stars on newsstands:Magazines sing Valley firm's praises - AV Press - Nov.24.02.

XCOR has some most excellent calendars and other items available in their store.

X Prize Updates... Armadillo reports on starting construction of a new sub-scale unmanned test vehicle that should start flying by the end of the year. Also, they recently began receiving parts for a full scale mockup of their X Prize vehicle (e.g. photo of cone)....

...TGV Rockets has posted its team briefing report (pdf 599kb) on its X Prize entry page. ...

... The X Prize competitors list still includes Cerulean Freight Forwarding. However, this organization was re-organized after the death last year of one of its founders and is now called Kittyhawk Technologies. Their redesigned vehicle is no longer called Kitten but tentatively renamed Tigre, which will hold 3 passengers and a pilot instead of the X Prize minimum of 2 passengers and a pilot...

... The X Prize vehicle from the Canadian da Vinci project has received the name Wild Fire.

News brief... This article - '60s idea for orbital plane back - L.A.Daily - Nov.24.02 - notes the similiarities between NASA's new orbital space plane and the X-20 DynaSoar project of the early 1960s....

... Boeing's X-37 contract will allow the company to "...complete the final assembly of the X-37 Approach and Landing Test Vehicle and conduct an atmospheric flight test in April 2004. The contract also initiates a design for an additional X-37 long-duration orbital vehicle, currently scheduled to be inserted into low Earth orbit by a Delta II booster in July 2006." - Boeing Awarded Contract to Complete X-37 Development and Flight Test - Boeing - Nov.25.02

November 22, 2002

News briefs... Sean O'Keefe presents the motivations behind his remake of NASA plans including the decision to drop the X-38 : NASA's Master Plan by Sean O'Keefe - IEEE Spectrum : Opinion - Nov.02 ...

... The presentation given in October at the World Space Congress on the Alternate Access to Station program at NASA is available at Spaceref: NASA's Alternate Access to Station Concept - 53rd International Astronautical Congress - SpaceRef - Nov.22.02 - Powerpoint Presentation (1.6MB). The program wants to "[e]stablish feasibility of commercially produced autonomous cargo vehicle[s]" and to change the approach so that "NASA seeks to purchase services rather than vehicles".

November 21, 2002

News briefs... Rand Simberg points out the self-fulfilling nature of NASA's pessimism towards RLVs - A Policy Cul De Sac - Transterrestrial Musings - Nov.21.02 (re-titled version at Fox News.) ...

... If the NASA policy really is to fly the shuttle until 2020, then it better get serious now about safety issues - Spacelift Washington: The Future of Shuttle Safety (Part I) A Conversation with Richard Blomberg - SpaceRef - Nov.20.02.

November 20, 2002

SLI Funds Flight Demonstrators... SLI awards Boeing $301 million for X-37 orbital flight demonstrator and $53 million to Lockheed-Martin for a "reusable launch pad abort demonstrator" : NASA Awards Contracts for Flight Demonstrators - NASA PR - Nov.20.02 .

Boeing's award continues its on-going X-37 contract and will lead to a "progressive series of approach and landing tests and a space transportation research orbital vehicle. The atmospheric tests are scheduled for mid-2004 and the orbital flight is scheduled for mid-2006."

The Lockheed test-bed vehicle will provide "the capability to test technologies in a launch pad abort situation." It will "use fully instrumented mannequins to provide data on crew environments during the test and check out of crew escape propulsion systems, parachute deployment, vehicle orientation, landing techniques, and external aeroshell configurations."

November 19, 2002

Aerospace Commission Backs Space Tourism... The Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry released its final report yesterday. The commission gave space a high priorty. Chapter 3: Space (pdf,1.275MB) of the report surveys the problems of the space segment of the industry and included the high cost of access to space as a crucial problem.

(It gives a nice table detailing launch costs for a wide array of launchers. BTW: the Orbital Science Pegasus is highest at more than $25K per pound.)

However, it does not recommend the pursuit of a particular launcher technology. It just gives general backing to SLI and urges that NASA and the Defense Department work more closely together to develop RLV systems.

The commission notes the depressed state of launch demand, which has resulted in severe launcher overcapacity. Surprisingly, the commission "concluded that the only space launch sector with growth potential over the next two decades is passenger space travel. All other sectors— both commercial and governmental—have flat-line outlooks." Here "passenger space travel" refers to space tourism. It even recommends that NASA "fly private citizens on the Space Shuttle".

More about the report at

News briefs... When the Orbital Space Plane becomes operational, the shuttle would still be required for shipping large cargo loads to the ISS. However, only a small (2-3) crew is needed in that case and NASA may even use the extra space to install ejection seats : NASA Considering Reducing Shuttle Crews As Orbital Space Plane Comes Online - Aviation Week - Nov.19.02 ...

...O'Keefe has become convinced of the impossibility of near term, large reductions in launch costs - O'Keefe Says SLI's 90% Launch Cost Reduction Goal Was Unrealistic - Aviation Week - Nov.18.02 ...

... Others aren't sure that the new plans really provide a clear roadmap for cost reductions of any size - Space plane plan frustrates advisory panel - Florida Today - Nov.19.02...

... The Air Force has begun a program to "develop revolutionary and innovative technologies by the year 2010 that will permit a doubling of rocket propulsion capabilities over 1993 state-of-the-art technology" - Combine Solicitation: Program Research and Development Announcement PRDA 03-01-PKT, Integrated High Payoff Rocket Propulsion Technology IX (IHPRPT) - Air Force/SpaceRef - Nov.18.02

November 18, 2002

New HobbySpace Interview...Please check out A Conversation with Paula Berinstein, the author of the book Making Space Happen: Private Space Ventures and the Visionaries Behind Them. We discuss a wide range of topics related to non-governmental development of space such as sub-orbital RLV projects, commercial lunar missions, and others.

News briefs... The Canadian da Vinci X Prize entry gets another sponsor: The DA VINCI PROJECT Relies on ANSYS to win International X PrizeRIZE® Competition - ANSYS Inc - Nov.14.02 ...

... The latest Armadillo update includes a video of the Tube launch and flip at Burns Flat and a summary of the main suspects for the failure and planned fixes. They are proceeding with design of the next vehicle that will use "four large engines that are differentially throttled, instead of the single large engine and four solenoid controlled attitude engines."...

... Space Equity provides a status report on the X Prize in its latest issue: The Current Status of the X-Prize - Space Equity - Nov.15.02...

... A review of the studies of the Kankoh-maru design for a space tourism vehicle : Japanese Rocket Society's Rocket Symposia 1995-2001 by Yoshifumi Inatani - posted at Space Future

November 16, 2002

News brief... A flight at the Burns Flat, Oklahoma of Armadillo Aerospace's Tube vehicle ended in a crash. New frame under construction. More details in John Carmack's next log update in a day or two.

November 15, 2002

Canadian Arrow Wants You!... Check out the Canadian Arrow's fancy new astronaut candidate site. They are looking for "three pilot-astronauts to train for the Canadian Arrow X PRIZE flights." Selection will occur by March 31, 2003. Application form.

Shuttles to Obtain Senior Discount Cards... NASA latest 15 year plan requires the shuttles to keep flying until the middle of the next decade. Will they make it? Probably. Fifty year old B-52s, afterall, keep flying, although they periodically undergo major overhauls and undergo less stressful flight regimes.

Nevertheless, the shuttles have begun to show their age. Last summer the discovery of fuel line cracks caused a significant delay in flights and expensive repairs. Now metal fatigue is showing up in some oxygen pipes to the cabin of Endeavour : Shuttle oxygen leak points to metal fatigue - New Scientist - Nov.15.02.

If such problems continue to appear, there will be increasing pressure to speed up the development of the CTV else repair costs will eat up the transportation budget.

Ralph Hall: Never Say Die X-38 ... Rep. Ralph M. Hall of Texas points out the gap beween 2006 and 2010 when there will be no return vehicles available for the ISS.

Reps. Hall and Gordon Comment on NASA's New Transportation Plan - House Science Committee Democratic PR - Nov.13.02

Russia's committement to supply Soyuz vehicles expires in 2006 and an operational CRV in the latest NASA plan will not appear till 2010. (Because of restrictions on dealings with Russia due to sales of nuclear and military items to Iran, NASA cannot simply buy or trade for Soyuz modules.) Hall continues to push for the X-38 development path, which he believes will lead to quicker development of a CRV.

November 14, 2002

Demo Spaceplane by 2006... According to the article, NASA chief outlines plans for orbital space plane - Florida Today - Nov.14.02, NASA will build a demonstration version of the CRV/CTV in four years and the first operational version by 2010.

This probably refers to the X-37 project (see Cowing's review, part 2), which apparently is now seen as a general spaceplane technology testbed rather than just a military space maneuvering vehicle (SMV) prototype as originally envisioned. (There is also the related Autonomous Rendezous Experiment project.)

News briefs... The Canadian Arrow and daVinci projects are looking for passengers for their X Prize vehicles - Rocket scientists plan to launch ordinary Canadians into space - CBC - Nov.13.02

November 13, 2002

New NASA Space Trans Plan Released... It's official - NASA may deliver a reusable crew return module by 2010 and a crew transfer vehicle by 2012. (See timeline chart at Spaceref.) A decision on a full RLV perhaps by 2009 and first flight around 2015. The shuttles will run at least till 2015. (~5 launches per year for around $3.5B => $700M per flight).

NASA now claims SLI's original goal of a next-Gen RLV by 2010 is not feasible because of the drop in the commercial launch market (so the contractor can no longer expect to amortize part of the cost of development with commercial business) and the "the fact that four independent estimates have projected the total development cost of the new RLV at $30-35 billion." (I wonder if these studies will ever become publicly available?)

I'm sure these numbers must be a bit surprising to companies like Andrews Space & Technology and Space Access that always claimed numbers in the $6 Billion range for their shuttle replacement sized vehicles. Even LockMart gave a $6 billion number for VentureStar. Where did the factor of 5 suddenly come from?

Looks like a comfy full employment decade and a half for the majors when these development contracts are dished out.

XCOR Receives Awards... Three magazines recognize XCOR for its achievements with the EZ-Rocket and small engine development: Esquire, Popular Science, and Scientific American Honor XCOR and the EZ-Rocket - XCOR Aerospace - Nov.13.02

See the articles at

November 11, 2002

X Prize Updates... The X Prize site recently added some additional info about the entries:

News brief... News briefs... NASA's grand new scheme for RLV development, the Shuttle program and the ISS for the next 20 years is described in detail by Keith Cowing: The Big Change: NASA Hits the Ground Running - Spaceref - Nov.11.02 ...

...John Carmack has posted a report and a video at the Armadillo web site about the first hover tests of the Tube vehicle (see below).. Also, the report describes tests of the rocket launched emergeny parachute system and includes a video...

... I would expect many of the X Prize vehicles will use emergency parachutes of some sort. See my entry in the Space Log section about airframe parachutes and the first "real life" deployment by a Cirrus aircraft.

...Short article about space tourism, X Prize, & Starchaser - Space tour pioneer aims for star prize - Guardian - Nov.11.02

November 9, 2002

News briefs... More articles on NASA's switch from shuttle replacment to CTV.

(None of the articles discuss the question of why it will take 8 years to develop the CTV.)

November 8, 2002

News briefs... NASA announces officially that it will change its 2003 budget request to reflect changes in its plans for vehicle development: NASA Statement on the Integrated Space Transportation Plan - NASA PR - Nov.8.02 * at Spaceref

X-33 Info... The site Human Access to Space: An Introduction to RLVs, built by Cornell undergrads, provides a good overview of RLV issues and a nice list of RLV Links.

In particular, the X-33 Liquid Hydrogen Tank Failure Investigation section provides an informative overview of the composite tank failure .

Other X-33 info

I think one should be careful about stating what lessons the X-33 project teaches with regard to RLV or reusable SSTO feasibility. I don't want to go too far into X-33 implications, but I'll make a few points
  • Ideally you would build a spherical tank to obtain minimal structural weaknesses and, second best, a cylindrical tank with spherical caps. A triangular tank, on the other hand, provides all sorts of challenges. The extensive structural reinforcements needed with the X-33 tank, in fact, obviated the lightweight advantages of the composite material. The aluminum replacement that was under design before the project cancellation actually weighed about the same as the original composite tank.

  • This brings up the fact that the other two competitors for the X-33 chose conventional cylindrical structures. Instead of vehicles with which incremental steps could be made, NASA selected the LockMart design that required successful development of several leading edge technologies before it could leave the ground.

  • No X-33 technology was found to be completely out of reach. For example, an aluminum LH2 tank would have sufficed and the aerospike engines, which had initial problems, eventually came along quite nicely. However, the development problems and delays led to high skepticism within NASA that the orbital VentureStar was feasible, at least within the budgets they had in mind. This, coupled with the big overrun in the project cost, led to the project cancellation.

November 7, 2002

The Tube Takes Off... John Carmack reports on the ERPS (Exp. Rocket Propulsion Society) mailing list that the Tube rocket hovered successfully on Tuesday. After an inital problem due to the nozzle too close to the ground ("Krushnik effect"), the tethered vehicle was placed on blocks and then it lifted off a few feet and came back down safely. A video will be posted in the next log update at Armadillo this weekend.

He says the emergency parachute system will be tested this Saturday and then the vehicle will be ready for flight tests that will probably take place in Burns Flat, Oklahoma due to problems with the FAA in Texas.

(Thanks go to RLV News reader Yossi Preminger for passing along this news to me.)

November 5, 2002

Beaming into the News... The Beamed Energy conference mentioned below is getting quite a bit of news play. In particular, Gregory Benford's plan to test microwave beaming to the Cosmos sail has received considerable notice

:UCI physicist announces plans for satellite to be 'boosted' into orbit by a microwave beam - UC Irvine - Nov.5.02

Leonard David reports on the Cosmos plans and other news from the conference: Beamed Propulsion: Out Of the Lab Into Space - Space.com - Nov.5.02

Keep up with the latest at the ISBEP Conference News Page

Phase I Test Goes Well... The second test flight of the Japanese Phase I spaceplane quarter scale prototype took place today on Christmas Island in the South Pacific. Japan's unmanned experimental space shuttle passes second test - Spacedaily - Nov.5.02 * Videos of both flights at National Aerospace Lab HSFD. The jet powered vehicle will test autonomous takeoff and landing systems at subsonic speeds. Landing descent angles will follow close to those of a reentry vehicle.

November 4, 2002

Beamers Meeting in Huntsville ... This week the leading lights of the beamed energy propulsion world will meet in Huntsville for the first major conference on the topic -

Check out the program, whose breadth and depth indicates to me that the field has moved from the fringe to the mainstream of propulsion alternatives.The topics span a wide range of laser and microwave propulsion schemes both for ground and in space applications. Also, a healthy number of experimental results will be presented.

Speakers include Jordin Kare and Leik Myrabo, pioneers in the field and frequent speakers at the Space Access Meetings. BTW: Andrew V. Pakhomov, head of the laser propulsion group at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and co-organizer of the conference, has told me he will try to attend the next SAS meeting.

Hurling RLVs and Conjectures ... Carlton Meyer, who publishes the independent Magazine of Future Warfare, has posted the essay Scrap the Space Shuttle Program. He makes what I consider a number of valid points including the fact that the 4 billion or so dollars that go each year to support 3 to 5 shuttle launches could instead go to accelerate the development of far cheaper and more practical vehicles.

Meyer's favored alternative is the Space Ramp, which employs a jet or rocket powered rocket sled as a first stage catapult for a reusable orbital vehicle.

While a sled launcher is a perfectly valid proposal, I think he makes a number of claims that are highly debatable, to say the least. For example, he greatly overstates the significance of the X-33 cancellation. The X-33 program involved all sorts of technical and management flaws that have little to do with SSTO feasiblity.

He makes a more relevant comparision to two stage RLV systems, but here I also think he too quickly dismisses the advantages of a booster stage. A detailed cost analysis, as well as more experimental data, are required to determine whether a fixed ground catapult system reduces costs so much that it trumps the capabilities and greater flexibility of a two stage RLV.

The Tube to Launch Soon... John Carmack reports in his latest log update on progress with Armadillo's largest and first streamlined vehicle, which they pithily call the Tube. He provides several photos of the Tube, whose dry weight lies "just under 300 pounds[136.4kg]", including this pose in patriotic colors.

He says "all elements are in place for a flight to moderate altitude". First, though, they will begin with :

"..hover tests and parachute tests next week, but we still haven’t heard from our local FAA office about our flight waiver, so we may need to drive to Oklahoma to do the first flight at Burns Flat."

(Note that Tuesdays and Saturdays are the primary activity days for Armadillo.)

For high altitude flights and the X Prize vehicle they will need to work out regulatory issues, especially with the FAA. An Armadillo rep attended a COMSTAC meeting and also met with officials at the office of the FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST).

BTW: As mentioned before, John and several other space entrepreneurs will be speaking on Thursday at the Southwestern Oklahoma State University Center for Economic & Business Development Fall Conference.

November 1, 2002

Another Sub-orbital RLV project... I just came across this Interview with Joe Latrell at SpaceFuture. I was not aware of his Colorado based Beyond-Earth Enterprises, which is developing the Raven X Prize class vehicle.

Radical vs Good Enough in Large Quantities... A RLV News reader took issue with my statement below that the Aerospace Corp paper was not "radical" even though it proposes that launch prices to orbit could fall to $15k per seat. Again, without reading their paper it's presumptuous of me to make any statement at all about it. But since it is my column I'll do it anyway!

I was only stating that the description of the launch system - a flyback booster with a second stage orbital spaceplane - doesn't sound particularly "new or radical". Instead it sounds like they get the big drop in launch costs primarily from economies of scale.

I should emphasize, though, that I think this is a good thing, as I will explain.

I suspect that the authors show that if the space tourism market is big enough to demand several thousand seats per year, then the high flight rate alone will drive down costs. Just like airline seats or widgets, the more you make and sell of some good or service, the price of making or serving one more unit will drop since the fixed costs - paying debt, salaries, etc. - grow slowly compared to the production rate.

A common criticism in fact of RLVs by ELV proponents, especially those who like the big dum booster approach, is that RLVs only achieve low costs with very high flight rates. This is based on the assumption that development costs of a RLV will be significantly higher than that for an ELV of comparable payload capacity. See Economic Model of Reusable vs Expendable Launch Vehicles - pdf-125k by Microcosm chief James Wertz for such an analysis.

Economies of scale have long been emphasized in RLV and space tourism studies. For example.

"...high utilization of the space transportation vehicles will be critical -- including turnaround times of some 24 hours (roughly 100 times shorter than today's individual Shuttle experience).... As these technical-operational goals are achieved, the price per ticket could drop below $50,000 per passenger, and might eventually reach the range of $10,000-$20,000."(my emphasis)- General Public Space Travel and Tourism by D. O'Neil, I. Bekey, J. Mankins, T. Rogers & E. Stallmer - March 1998 - posted at Space Future.

The biggest challenge for private company RLV builders has not been in finding a radical new technology but in convincing investors that a market will grow as costs go down, i.e. become elastic. A study described in the paper Designing Reusable Launch Vehicles for Future Space Markets by Jason E. Andrews Dana G. Andrews - Oct.1.01 indicates that markets could remain inelastic until prices drop to $600/lb (1320/kg). In other words, income would actually decrease as the launch company reduced prices until they got them below $600/lb.

During the press conference last Spring for SLI's Milestone Review, top NASA manager Dennis Smith said, in response to a question about the 1 accident in 10,000 launches safety goal, something to the effect that he could not conceive of a reason there would ever be 10,000 launches. This view pervades NASA: an RLV will only make a few flights to the ISS per year and launch a few satellites. So dramatic advances in technology are required to drop costs significantly for such low flight rates.

I hope that the high credibility of the Aerospace Corp authors will help to counter this view. It will bolster those who argue that large markets await to be served by RLVs and that current technology will suffice to lower costs without waiting several decades for so-called 3rd or 4th generation systems.

[Note: I've skipped any discussion of the need to lower operating costs and how sub-orbital systems will help in learning how to reduce those.]

[See Japanese Rocket Society's Rocket Symposia 1995-2001 by Yoshifumi Inatani - posted at Space Future for a similar analysis of a high flight rate space tourist vehicle that leads to $15k tickets - Nov.17.02]

News briefs ... Leonard David reviews the status and prospects for space tourism, including sub-orbital flights and the X Prize, in Public Space Travel: Playground for The Rich? - Space.com - Nov.1.02...

... Industry group predicts NASA will abandon 2nd gen development and go directly for 3rd gen RLV technology - Forecast Predicts NASA Will Cancel Second-Generation RLV - Aviation Week - Nov.1.02 ...

...More CRV/CTV discussion: 'Lifeboat' efforts sinking for NASA: Space station staffing cuts possible because of delay - HoustonChronicle.com - Nov.1.02


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NewSpace Watch at NSG


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