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RLV News Special Edition:
Review of the Space Access'04 Conference
April 22-24, 2004, Phoenix, Arizona

XCOR License Presentation
XCOR RLV Mission License Presentation

L-R: Jeff Greason (XCOR), Randall Clague (XCOR), and George Nield (FAA AST),

The 11th in the series of Space Access Society annual conferences took place in Phoenix, Arizona from April 22th to April 24th. As with the previous meetings, SA'04 was packed from end to end with talks by representatives from the developing private space transportation industry, the alt space community, and from NASA (see the agenda). The meeting started a few hours earlier this year with the addition of several tutorials.

Below is my general impression of the meeting along with synopses of most of the presentations. Please contact me if you see any errors or glaring omissions.

See also


Previous Space Access Conference Reviews

RLV News Archive Directory

Private Space Takes Off

In my review of Space Access ' 03 I reported that the private space transportation companies had begun to move past viewgraph dreaming and were starting to "get real". This year the reality of such an industry was taken for granted.

The SpaceShipOne is licensed and flying, XCOR got its license during this very conference, and several other companies are designing, building, and testing hardware. While far from a mature industry, the existence of a group of viable enterprises developing low cost space access systems can no longer be denied.

A major emphasis of the meeting dealt with how to insure that the industry grows out of this toddler stage and into a healthy adolescence. While hardware designs and optimizations remained topics of spirited discussion, the hard issues of regulation, liability, legislation, and policy strategies have become of paramount importance. The industry must overcome these challenges if the launch companies are to make the profits required to sustain their growth and to develop subsequent generations of increasingly capable vehicles.

As noted last year, suborbital spaceflight was the focus for manned vehicle development by the commercial companies. SpaceX, which did not participate in the meeting, was often mentioned with regard to orbital access for unmanned cargo delivery.

While most of the organizations have obtained or are still seeking the angel investor(s) who will provide a plentiful and uninhibited supply of cash, other sources of funding slowly seem to be developing. DARPA and Air Force money as well as state grants and tax credits have helped several companies. Memorabilia and educational/scientific payloads look to become significant secondary markets.

Exhibitions and competitions like the X PRIZE Cup could become a good business as well, especially if big time sponsors become involved. Space tourism remains the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but only if the regulatory and liability obstacles can be surmounted.

Henry Vanderbilt & Dave Salt
Henry Vanderbilt & David Salt

It was great fun to meet new Space Access conference participants like Alan Boyle of MSNBC and Michael Mealling of Rocketforge and to see again the many SAS regulars. It was heartening to hear from a number of people that they regularly visit RLV News.

The meeting as always was well organized by Henry Vanderbilt and he put together a dynamite list of speakers. Below I give brief sketches of the meeting.


The announcement of the RLV mission license for XCOR was certainly the high point of the meeting if not of the whole Space Access conference series. (See XCOR Press Release * Alan Boyle's report) Last fall it was announced that the XCOR application was "sufficiently complete", which meant that AST must either issue a launch license within 180 days or notify Congress why it failed to do so.

April 23 was the last day of that waiting period and so everyone was expecting an announcement. I don't know about other people but I assumed it would come out of Washington. So it was a very pleasant surprise when George Nield of AST did an "and by the way" at the end of his talk and ask Jeff and Randall to come up for the license.

Congratulations to the XCOR team.

New Concepts

John Powell of JP Aerospace reviewed the many projects the organization is pursuing with rockets, high altitude balloons, and airships. The Air Force has funded the development in the past two years of huge V-shaped airships that could provide the military with reconnaissance platforms. Sounding rocket flights have also been funded by the Air Force. Another focus of JP Aerospace has been high altitude stable platforms from which rockets could be launched.

John revealed for the first time that the primary long term goal of this diverse array of projects is to develop an airship that will go all the way to orbit. The 6000ft long V ship would start from a high altitude "Dark Sky Station" at 200k ft. Using electric propulsion, the vehicle would gradually gain speed and take advantage of the slight lift provided by the residual atmosphere even at such high altitudes. Simulations show such a vehicle could obtain orbital velocity in about 5 days.

See images of their handout at Michael Mealling's Space Access Pictures.

[Update April 29: See JP Aerospace: Airships to Spaceships.]

Len Cormier discussed his concept for a vehicle that would pull a huge kite to high altitudes using fuel obtained from a gondola. Released from the gondola the vehicle would go to orbit while the kite would return to earth. [May 3, 04 - Len Cormier posts his slides on Space Van 2008: Kite-assisted SSTO ]

John Hare
John Hare demonstrates a low cost pump concept.


Dan DeLong and Aleta Jackson of XCOR reviewed the history of the company and its focus on reliable and robust rocket engines. They also reviewed the EZ-Rocket project. The current emphasis is on an 1800lb engine and the piston pump, which has been funded by a DARPA contract. They are also applying for a patent on a composite LOX tank that came out of technology developed at Rotary Rocket.

Not much was said about the Sphinx vehicle (see Alan Boyle's article) that received the license from the FAA. It will serve as an intermediate vehicle before building the Xerus. With the license they will now have a better chance to obtain the funding to build it.

Armadillo Aerospace - John Carmack reviewed the tough challenges of the past year - first with difficulties in obtaining high purity H2O2 and then with finding a suitable launch site. They switched to a mixed propellant (H2O2 and alcohol) that provides a good solution to their propulsion needs.

For a spaceport they switched from Oklahoma to White Sands in New Mexico. However, their parachute return system could in extreme cases bring the vehicle down outside the boundaries of the base. So they are switching back to a powered landing approach that will limit the area where they could possibly drift.

Due to the various delays he doesn't expect to accomplish an X PRIZE attempt before the deadline, though they may do high altitude flights by the end of the year. If the SS1 wins the prize, they will switch back to a focus on one man vehicles.

TGV Rockets - Pat Bahn showed a video on the DC-X and explained that TGV would take the vertical-takeoff, vertical landing concept that the DC-X demonstrated and develop a commercial system.

Rocket Guy Brian Walker had various personal problems in the past couple years and was distracted from his rocket project. However, in the past few months he has returned to the project and made progress with various support systems such as a H2O2 distillation facility and a centrifuge. He is even building a 6g rocket sled. He said he expects to do a test flight of the rocket later this year.

George W. Herbert gave two talks. The first dealt with very low cost ELVs to deliver bulk cargo such as water and fuel to LEO. Since the failure to deliever such payloads would be no great loss, the lower reliability of ultra-cheap expendables could be acceptable and provide for very cheap flights.

In his second talk, "Orbital Space, Plain", he reviewed space capsule designs and suggested that small, low cost versions could fly on smaller, cheaper vehicles than the EELVs as currently planned by NASA. He even said a one man capsule project could be developed and launched on the SpaceX Falcon I for around $20M.

Leik Myrabo of RPI reviewed beamed propulsion projects around the world and urged people to attend the 3rd International Symposium on Beamed Energy Propulsion, which he is organizing. He is continuing to pursue his Light Craft project and other beamed propulsion concepts with his students. However, money shortages are delaying progress.

Henry Vanderbilt and Dave Salt reviewed projects in the US and Europe that were not represented at the meeting. Blue Origin, for example, is hiring but not talking except to say that it is pursuing a suborbital vehicle.

Dave said that a new 35M euro ESA project has been initiated to study various technologies that could lead to an RLV in the 2020 time frame. He also mentioned that Alan Bond's Reaction Engines company is staying alive on small grants from private investors and government sources. A study of the crucial heat exchanger component seems to have been successful.

Other hardware :

  • ERPS team discussed their various projects, including systems to produce high purity H2O2.

  • John Hare presented his ideas for air breathing propulsion using a turbine based combined cycle engine. (Write up posted on sci.space.policy.)

  • Andrew Knight introduced the design of his Rotating Spindle Pump that would be simpler and more robust than turbopumps yet provide similar performance.

Companies & New Marketing Ideas

Dennis Wingo
Dennis Wingo of Orbital Recovery Corporation.

Peter Diamandis reviewed the history and status of the X PRIZE. Champ Car recently became a "presenting sponsor" and contributed a "seven figure" donation to the organization. More sponsors are in the works.

He then focused on the X PRIZE Cup. The Cup event could start as early as 2005 with exhibition flights. Competitions would start in 2006. The 14 day event would involve many rocket flights per day and be combined with a Champ Car race, high power rocketry competitions, and other events. The RLV competition categories could include fastest turnaround time, max altitude, etc..

Peter Diamandis also presented the status of the Zero Gravity Corporation. The commercial parabolic flight service should finally begin service this year. One plane is ready and another is in preparation. The price for a seat will be $2950. To reserve the whole plane you will need $79,500. They will base the company in Miami and later have a second operation running out of Las Vegas.

Joan Horvath of Global Space League and Takeoff Technologies urged that the launch companies seek out science and education payloads as additional markets for their vehicles. She recently published an article in Scientific American about the new private launch companies and found that few scientists had heard of such companies or programs like the X PRIZE.

Dennis Wingo presented the status of Orbital Recovery Corporation, which is developing a space tug. The tug will dock with communication satellites that are disabled or nearing the end of their station keeping fuel and it provide propulsion to save or extend the life of the satellites. There are over 200 comsats that will near the end of their working lives by 2012. The tug will use highly efficient electric propulsion to provide several extra years of service.

The company is working mostly with European companies and ESA. The first flight could occur by 2007. The tugs will launch as secondary payloads on the Ariane V. The existence of such a tug should reduce insurance costs since it will reduce the risk of total loss of a satellite if it develops a propulsion problem.

Joe Latrell of Beyond- Earth Enterprises in Colorado Springs reported on their recent launch of their first large sounding rocket. They plan to launch every six weeks, each time with a bigger vehicle that will go to a higher altitude. They expect to reach 100km in the autumn. To pay for their program they provide the opportunity to fly memorabilia, student experiments and other payloads. Packets can be obtained via their on line store.

TOSPACE chief Laurie Wiggins again presented her company's business of sending memorabilia, sci-fi paraphernalia, and other items to space and back to enhance their value. They had one flight so far and are looking for more rides to 100km suborbital.

Legislation, Regulations, Liability, & Space Policy

Insurance Panel
Jim Muncy of Polispace, Jeff Greason of XCOR, and Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets
in a panel discussion of liability issues.

Liability panel discussion began with a review by Jim Muncy on why space and aviation insurance systems are so different - mostly due to the different treaty obligations and to the small size of the space market. Other items discussed included:

  • Insurers are accustomed to $100M per launch systesm and don't know how to deal with low cost suborbital vehicles.
  • There are only about 8 major insurers in the world for launch systems.
  • XCOR obtained insurance to fly the EZ-Rocket for $7000 per year.
  • Launch risks are shared for third parties (i.e. the "uninvolved public"). The companies must obtain insurance for "most probable loss" (MPL) up to $2.2B. The government indemnifies for losses above that.
  • Simply obtaining factory floor insurance, so-called "slip and fall" policies have been very hard to obtain for the launch companies. The mere word "rocket" scares them off. (One company has been turned down by 22 insurers so far.)
  • Second party insurance (i.e. paying passengers) is a big question mark. Uncertain whether any waiver can truly protect a company from lawsuits.
  • Pat Bahn suggested that Commerce or AST fund a study of the liability issues for manned RLVs.

Jeff Greason of XCOR gave a tutorial presentation on the steps required to obtain a launch license. Items that he emphasized included:

  • Both the vehicle and the launch site need separate licenses.
  • Environmental impact studies involve significant effort and time. Avoid "green field sites" if at all possible. Either use a site that already has a license or has legacy advantages like an old military base.
  • The 15 second burn time limit for amateur rockets is an arbitrary limit set for historical reasons related to the early development of model rocketry. Can get waivers but this rule should eventually be eased to allow for a testing phase without all the red tape.
  • The experimental permit specified in the pending HR3752 legislation would be a big help.
  • One of the biggest headaches was proving that if the vehicle lost power/control at any time during the flight, the impact zone on the ground would never include a significantly populated area.

George Nield reviewed the history of the FAA-AST office and its dual assignment to regulate and promote the launch industry. He discussed the difficulties of modifying existing regulations such as the 15 second rule. Takes up to a year to change a rule like that.

Pat Bahn gave a brief overview of the Suborbital Institute. During May 17-18 there will be another Suborbital Action Days campaign to inform Congressional staffers on issues of importance to the industry.

Jim Muncy gave an overview of space policy, regulation, and legislation. He focus particularly on the HR3752 act that was passed by the House and is now in the Senate. Will probably be modified but has some chance of passing if it can ever get a vote. [Apr.29.04: For more info about Jim's talk, see A Legislative Breakthrough - Rand Simberg - Apr.28.04]

Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation discussed space advocacy, space policy issues, why he hates the term "space tourist", and upcoming alt.space meetings. The annual October meeting this year may include a one day Space Access session to act as a 6 month update on this meeting.

Jerry Pournelle
Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle presented a spirited review of the history of the DC-X and other X projects and how they should be the model for vehicle development projects. DON'T use them to develop new technology but rather to combine current technologies so that they accomplish something new, e.g. exceed the sound barrier or demonstrate low cost operations for a rocket vehicle.

He advocated the use of large prize awards for projects such as a manned lunar base rather than funding NASA to do them. The "huge standing army" just absorbs the money and accomplishes very little.

Brant Sponberg of NASA reviewed the new space exploration initiative and then focused on the Centennial Challenges prizes program. There will be a workshop in June to discuss possible competitions for the awards. Currently they are limited to $250k per award. Congressional approval will be needed for bigger awards.

The competitions will avoid complex rules, must be at the right level of difficulty, and the results must show some benefit to NASA's exploration plans. Some of the suggestions so far include a better astronaut glove (suggested by Rand Simberg), precision landing, autonomous drill, and very low cost suborbital launches for science.


Henry Spencer gave two extensive review talks. The first - "The Other Half of the Problem: Beyond LEO" - looked at orbital mechanics and spaceflight considerations as one moves out from LEO. Topics ranged from radiation intensities, Hohman transfers, geostationary orbits, Lagrange points, Lunar resources, inner solar system, asteroid mining, and onward to the stars.

The second talk surveyed the various spaceports around the world. No one spaceport provides the ideal launch site for all orbits. For example, trying to find a good spot at 0 degrees lattitude for equatorial orbits not as easy as you might expect. Sea Launch, in fact, decided to tow their own launch pad to get a good spot.

Barbara Thompson of NASA gave a nice introduction to Space Weather. This is an important for preventing damage to satellites and even to power distribution systems on the earth from large solar flares and coronal mass ejections. In addtion, keeping space travelers safe will become an increasingly important task as more and more people stay longer and longer in space.

Jeff Greason - see the entry above about his intro to RLV licensing.


May 3.04 - Len Cormier posts the slides to his presentation on Space Van 2008: Kite-assisted SSTO
April 29.04 - Added links to JP Aerospace: Airships to Spaceships.
April 28.04 - Added links to Rand's posting.
April 28.04 - added entries on the tutorials.

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