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RLV News Special Edition:
Review of the Space Access'03 Conference
April 24-26, 2003, Scottsdale Arizona

RLV Regulations Panel
RLV Regulations Panel Discussion

L-R: Brian Walker (Rocket Guy), Jay Garvin (FAA AST), Neil Milburn (Armadillo),
Michelle Murray (FAA AST), Jeff Greason (XCOR)


The 10th in the series of Space Access Society annual conferences took place in Scottsdale Arizona from April 24th to April 26th. The SA'03 meeting was jam packed (see the agenda) with talks from many leading lights in the nascent private space transportation industry.

Below I give my general impression of the meeting and brief synopses of most of the presentations. Please contact me if you see any errors or glaring omissions. See the Updates for corrections so far.

See also

Previous Space Access Conference Reviews

RLV News Archive Directory

Private Space - Getting Real

At Space Acess ' 03 no one revealed an orbital rocketship, a space hotel under construction, or anything else so dramatic. However, of the six conferences that I've attended this one gave me the strongest sense that real stuff is happening and not just viewgraph dreaming. Real hardware is getting built, real honest-to-God rocket vehicles will soon start flying to high altitudes, and people are going to spend real money for rides for themselves and for their payloads. It will be many years before the startups reach the orbital highway but they have found the on-ramp and just need to keep moving along it one small step at a time.

The suborbital ramp has clearly become the focus of private space access efforts. Several talks dealt with projects to build crewed vehicles for routine access to altitudes from 50 to 100 km. Very few talks dealt with orbital access or operations. The FAA is also thinking a lot about suborbitals and the representatives at the meeting revealed the new official definition of a suborbital vehicle (see Jeff Foust's RLV regulation: licensing vs. certification The Space Review - Apr.28.03), which took several months to develop.

Burt Rutan did not show up but the recent debut of the SS1 certainly gave a boost to the morale of everyone, even to those in competition with him for the X PRIZE. His involvement in private space development puts the whole industry into the spotlight and opens doors to new sources of funding. The announcement over the weekend that Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com has his own suborbital rocket project only added to the sense that a wave of space development is building and that this time it is sustainable.

Ten Years Working for CATS

Henry Vanderbilt
Henry Vanderbilt

As he has since the first meeting in 1993, Henry Vanderbilt did a great job with the organization of the meeting and in gathering a fascinating array of speakers. In thanks for ten years of working to support cheap access to space, Henry Spencer and XCOR treated Mr. Vanderbilt to a fine set of vintage rocketry and space books and a couple of very large and tasty cakes that we all enjoyed.

Presentation Synopses

I give here brief summaries of most of the presentations. I've divided them into three rough categories :

Hardware

XCOR - Dan Delong and Aleta Jackson reviewed the history of XCOR and the successful EZ-Rocket project. They recently obtained funding for development of their piston fuel pump and they moved to a much larger building on the Mojave Airport grounds.

Development of the Xerus two seater rocketplane is coming along but full funding has not yet been obtained. (Ed Wright, see below, revealed that XCOR will build the lower altitude Archangel if that project is funded and the Xerus is not.)

John Carmack
John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace

Armadillo Aerospace - John Carmack opened his presentation with another hilarious animation (available on the AA homepage.) He then discussed progress and setbacks in the previous year and plans for the near and far term.

The short flight of Russ Blink last September was a milestone in their development of their vertical takoff, vertical landing vehicles. Major components for the full sized X PRIZE vehicle have been built and testing has begun including drop tests of the crush cone top. A sub-scale version has begun short tethered flight tests.

However, there were significant problems with companies refusing to deal with them due to liability concerns. Two parachute firms would not sell to them and two hydrogen peroxide suppliers so far have refused to provide them with the high purity H2O2 needed for their primary propulsion system. They have a bi-propellant backup scheme but they still have hopes of obtaining the H202.

The shortage of peroxide, which has become a problem for many advanced rocketry projects, forced them to conserve the amount they had on hand over the past several months and this severely cramped their "build-a-little, test-a-little" approach. This put them behind where they expected to be by now. They have begun distilling their own peroxide but this will only be in quanitities sufficient for modest flight tests.

The current X PRIZE design is only meant for winning the contest and not for practical applications such as suborbital tourism. The occupants will take off facing backwards, for example, so that they will be facing upwards when they land (which will produce much stronger g forces.) There is no window in the vehicle. To save weight their will be no fins on the vehicle and instead it will be dynamically stabilized via control of the 4 engines.

The project has cost him about half a million dollars so far [$150,000 in year 1, $300,000 in year 2, and at least $50,000 so far this year]. After the X PRIZE they will concentrate on vertical takeoff, powered vertical landing vehicles. [Corrections May.1.03]

TGV Rockets - Pat Bahn would not explicitly state that the company has obtained funding but he did say they are now taking deposits (with penalty payments if they don't deliver) for flights in 2006. The piloted MICHELLE-B VTVL vehicle will take 1000 kg to 100km and back. Their main markets include imaging for remote sensing and reconaissance, missile defense test targets, and scientific experiments.

Rocket Guy definitely gave by general acclaim the most entertaining presentation . The affable Brian Walker recounted his experiences and preparations over the past few years since he first announced his intention to launch himself to 30 miles in his own homebuilt rocket. Using money obtained from his toy designs licensed to Disney and other companies, he has built a wide array of support facilities, such as a centrifuge capable of 8g tests, and an impressive mobile launch platform with a compressed-air system for getting his vehicle off to a flying start. (I later heard some other rocket builders saying they would look into such a booster for their vehicles.)

His vehicle will use hydrogen peroxide engines built by [Arvil Porter, who has made rocket motors for dragsters] and he is also distilling his own fuel supply [with a system from Tecnología Aeroespacial Mexicana.] [Corrections May.1.03]

X Rocket - Ed Wright described a Rocket Academy adventure tourism project in which participants would spend two weeks using simulators and undergoing various training experiences, culminating in a ride to 50 km in an Archangel. XCOR is designing the two seater rocket vehicle, which takes off and lands horizontally. The flight with a pilot and one passenger would take about 17min. The vehicle could also be use for flight training and education. An external hardpoint, for example, could carry scientific payloads.

The design has now matured to the point that they will now start looking for funding and could be flying two years after its availability. If the higher altitude Xerus is funded separately, then they will use it instead.

Len Cormier discussed his "Bear Cub" system in which a Russian Tupelev Tu-95 Bear Bomber would carry a two staged winged rocket vehicle. The 2-staged system with a winged vehicle could send a pilot and 450kg to LEO.

He also briefly discussed his X PRIZE entry, which previously used a Sabre-40 jet airframe but now is based on a LearJet vehicle. Microcosm engines would provide the boost.

Other Launchers:

  • Pat Kelly of Vela Technology presented designs for an air launched suborbital carried by a large powered soft wing system such as a parafoil, sail wing or Kite Ship. Though they move farily slowly, such systems could carry a payload rom 10 to 2000 tons to high altitude.

  • Wes Kelly of Triton Systems discussed his Stellar-J winged horizontal takeoff and landing vehicle. It could serve suborbital markets or orbital when combined with a second stage.

  • Jordin Kare presented the latest on laser launch technologies. A major conference occurred last November in Huntsville, Alabama where work going on around the world was presented. A number of university groups are now concentrating on laser propulsion such as the group in Huntsville. Laser ablation is the most popular approach. Kare, however, has developed a heat exchanger approach in which a laser heats up a plate with microchannels through which hydrogen flows. Such a system is calculated to provide an ISP of 600s. He believes a $2 billion system with arrays of lasers could send a stream of 100kg payloads to orbit.

Advanced Rocketry:

  • Flometrics chief Steve Harrington discussed his company's innovative pistonless dual chamber rocket fuel pump, which they plan to do a static test on soon and later fly on their sounding rockets. The pump is about two orders of magnitude cheaper than a turbopump but provides similar performance, weighs less, and has no catastrophic failure modes. It is scalable to large systems and allows for redundant systems.

  • ERPS members Michael Wallis, Dave Masten and Sean Lynch discussed the various projects of the group including flights of the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) rocket, the small POGO vertical takeoff and landing (ala DC-X) vehicle, and a plug nozzle engine design. They also have peroxide supply problems and have begun producing their own.

  • Jonathan Goff presented his work on a coaxial pintle injector as part of his graduate work in production optimization techniques and "mass customization".

 

Markets, Companies & Funding

John Carmack
Peter Diamandis of the X PRIZE and ZERO-G corporation.

Peter Diamandis presented the status of the Zero Gravity Corporation, which this summer will begin offering rides on airplanes flying parabolic trajectories with up to 25 to 30 seconds of microgravity per parabola. The company will rent planes and pilots from an air cargo company. Air cargo planes normally do not fly during the day so this works out well for both services (ZERO-G actually received a business patent for this approach.) The project first started informally nearly 10 years ago and much of the effort since then went into overcoming regulatory challenges. It took over 3 years to obtain the necessary FAA "Supplemental Type Certificate".

Each flight can carry up to 25 passengers and 5 trainers and will provide about 20 parabolas. The initial set of 5 or so parabolas will provide Mars like gravity. Then the next set will provide lunar like gravity. The final parabolas will go for high quailty zero Gs. It's hoped that this stepped approach will reduce motion sickness.

The company will not sell rides directly to the public but will sell them through adventure travel companies. (The ticket price should be around $4k.) They also expect to provide flights for scientific research and hope to take over all of NASA's parabolic flight duties. An unnamed movie project has already used 6 flights.

Peter Diamandis also gave a talk on the X PRIZE. He expects several teams to do test flights in the coming year and doesn't believe Burt Rutan has the competition all sewn up.

The struggle to fund the full prize money was quite tough and led to the insurance policy approach that sets a deadline of January 2005. This kind of deal is referred to as a hole-in-one policy as it is like a bet on a hole-in-one occuring during a golf tournament. Apparently, the company involved does aerospace insurance and will not be terribly unhappy to lose the purse if it results in selling policies later to lots of new RLV companies.

Peter indicated that a follow-on contest might involve a "down range distance" competition. Also, there could be a yearly X PRIZE Cup get together in which vehicles would compete head to head.

TOSPACE chief Laurie Wiggins presented her company's business of sending memorabilia, sci-fi paraphernalia, and other items to space and back to enhance their value. They already have several customers and TOSPACE is actively seeking rides both to orbit and to 100km suborbital. They will pay up fo $2000 per kg for certified rides over 100km high. (This definitely made a stir with the launch people at the meeting!)

ExoTerra was described by Terrance Yen as a non-profit organization that will sponsor a credit card whose commissions will go into a fund dedicated to supporting launch and space companies. Holders of the cards will vote via the web on what projects the funding will support.

Jess Sponable was a top Air Force manager for the DC-X project and retired from the service a few years ago. He is now back working as a civilian manager for the Air Force at Wright Patternson AFB in Ohio. He gave an overview of some new programs in the Air Force dealing with new launch technologies.

The AF is pushing a program for "responsive, reusable spacelift" development over the next 20 years. By 2015 they would like to have the capability of launching a microsat to LEO on a few hours notice. The Pentagon's new National Aerospace Initiative is also working towards an unmanned spaceplane, ala X-37/Space Maneuvering Vehicle, that could fly by 2008 with a 7 day turnaround capability.

Sponable emphasized that there will be considerable funds available for RLV related technology development from the AF, DARPA and other sources in the coming years. Small companies have a good chance to obtain grants for new ideas.

SpaceDev's Jim Benson gave an overview of his young company. Their CHIPSat small scientific satellite flew successfully this year and they won an Air Force contract for developing a space tug that would use the hybrid propulsion systems they have been developing based on technology from the old AMROC company.

The most exciting news, of course, for SpaceDev is their competition for the contract to provide the motor to power Rutan's SpaceShipOne. See the images and videos of a firing of the SpaceDev motor.

RLVs & Orbital Assembly - Dave Salt gave an update on his study of the business case for using relatively small RLVs (4 to 5 tons to LEO) to serve the GEO comsat market. In the scheme he looked at, the RLV would use 3 or more flights to deliver a small tug and fuel for it to LEO and then with the final flight bring up the comsat empty of fuel. After rendezvous with the tug, the comsat would obtain its station keeping fuel and then be taken to GEO orbit by the tug.

If such a RLV and tug (like the one under development by Orbital Recovery) could be built for around $1 billion and if the system could capture 40% or more of the yearly GEO comsat market, the business case closes with a hefty profit.

Regulations for Private RLVs

Pat Bahn
Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets & the Suborbital Institute

Jeff Foust has already posted an excellent summary of the situation with RLV regulations and the discussions during the meeting: RLV regulation: licensing vs. certification- The Space Review - Apr.28.03.

The issues came up not only in the panel discussion with the two representatives from the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation office (see the top photo) but repeatedly during the meeting. This says something about how close companies are to flying.

Updates

May 1, 03 - Steve Harrington corrected me: it's Flometrics not Flowmetrics. And they will be doing a static test of the pump before the sounding rocket tests.

John Carmack says he has spent "about half a million" instead of the million that I originally wrote. The spending rate has been "$150,000 in year 1, $300,000 in year 2, and at least $50,000 so far this year."

He also informed me that "Brian Walker's engines are made by Arvil Porter, an old rocket dragster guy, not Juan Lozano, who made the still he is using" and that the "ToSpace offer is only for 100km flights, not 50km."

May 7, 03 - Leonard David's review : Rocketeers: Setting Their Sights on Suborbital Flights - Space.com - May.7.03

May 14, 03 - Jeff Foust's review : The fifth stage of the RLV grieving process by Jeff Foust - The Space Review - May.14.03

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