Thursday, September 28, 2006

Benson Space and other topics

A colleague and I were discussing why Jim Benson started a new company to market his Dream Chaser vehicle. He couldn't understand why Jim Benson didn't just set up a new division in his company specifically for building the Dream Chhaser.

My response was that US companies, (and by extension most western companies) prefer to have a single focus for their business rather than branching out in a lot of different directions. Here in Korea it is quite common for even a relatively small to medium size business to have a lot of different projects going at once. I learned this from a Polish guy I met in Korean class who worked for a Korean software company with about five different unrelated projects going at once. I suppose it's a kind of insurance. If one part of the business goes belly up, the other parts can continue as normal like a kind of corporate octopus. It is even more evident with the Chaebols (the oversize Korean companies such as Samsung and Hyundai) which are involved in ventures as diverse as department stores and army tank manufacture.

I could have also pointed out that SpaceDev is a publicly listed company and so it probably would have been a bad idea to keep using it as a funding source for a speculative venture.

On another topic...

Virgin Galactic have released some interior views (via Hobbyspace) of their SpaceShipTwo vehicle. Also for some reason Gizmodo (also courtesy Hobbyspace) is the only place I could find sketches of the shape of SpaceShipTwo plus two georgeous looking 3D renderings.
Cosmic Log has an interesting comparison of SS2 with the Rocketplane Kistler's Rocketplane XL.
In terms of readiness my impression is that VG is clearly in first place followed by Rocketplane Kistler (although they also claim to be aiming to start operations in 2009) with XCOR and Jim Benson's venture competing for 3rd place and Blue Origin poised to rapidly move up the rankings. (Sorry if you think I got the order wrong. It's my best estimate without doing proper research ;-) ) The rest of us are either tinkering or in watch and wait mode to see how it pans out.

Talking about how it pans out. I think there may well be a secondary market for people who just can't get enough suborbital flight! I'm hoping these people, once they've tried one flight, will then want to try out various different types of vehicles in search of the one that gives them the best buzz.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Wow: Anousheh Ansari, Bigelow, Lockmart!

What a week for space travel! It started off with the safe arrival of Anousheh Ansari to the space station which was great. Then, on a different topic, Jon Goff pointed out that LM (Lockheed Martin) are planning on man rating their Atlas V. He also commented wisely that the big aerospace companies are not really all that bad and are capable of working in partnership with new-space companies. This turned out to be prescient because lo-and-behold now LM and Bigelow are joining forces, with LM planning to provide the launch vehicle to transport people to the Bigelow space habitat. In his most recent entry Clark Lindsay lists all the space transport related projects LM are involved in: Orion vehicle, Ares 1 (assuming they get the contract), EELV, subcontractor to rocketplane/Kistler and now the Bigelow partnership, and wondered if they know what to make of it themselves.
I think they certainly understand the situation. Someone has looked at all these projects and realized that hey- all they need to provide a complete manned space transportation system is a manrated launch vehicle and a habitat - and Bigelow are showing they can provide the habitat. (orbital propellant transfer, which LM are also looking into, will be the icing on the cake) It seems to be quite rare for aerospace primes to fund their own large projects, but keep in mind that LM's net profit last year was around $1.8B, so they could certainly fund a fairly major design project with a relatively small dint in the bottom line. Why would they do it? Well, most other tech companies depend on re-investing large proportions of their operating profit back into R&D and new projects. They have to do this just to survive. If LM think there is even a chance that commercial space could really take off, they would certainly be well advised to invest in such a project or risk being relegated to the aerospace history books. Even if it doesn't they will still be able to claim to be the only company in the world capable of supplying such an infrastructure. The bragging rights alone might be worth the investment.

Some potential problems:
-If they show they are serious about building a crewed rocket could it destroy COTS? Could NASA then claim that they don't need to invest further in private launchers and close down the program? Possibly. I don't know. But what will mitigate against that happening is that the COTS contestants, especially SpaceX, are probably capable of developing their systems much more rapidly than LM. I wouldn't be surprised if SpaceX are already ferrying supplies to the ISS by the time LM has finished its preliminary design.

-Could NASA, in a fit of jealousy (and fear of being upstaged), deny LM the Ares contract thus preventing LM from obtaining one of its key technologies? I don't know but I really don't think NASA are as bad as all that.

Personally I think it will be a Good Thing. Even SpaceX may benefit by being able to supply a low cost cargo delivery service which LM doesn't seem to be interested in trying to do.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Bigelow and sidebar links

Sorry for the gap in posts. Been kinda busy.

I've added some energy related pages to the sidebar links:

-Energy Outlook is a nice, fairly conservative blog on just about any energy related matters.
-The Energy Blog mainly consists of reports of alternative energy company news releases.
-The End Of Cheap Oil is an entertainingly alarmist blog from someone in the Peak Oil camp, without some of the shrill political rubbish that accompanies many of the other peak oil sites.

Also it looks as if Bigelow have not lost their sense of creativity!

For some reason I was slightly concerned previously that once they start developing the full scale habitat they might lose their creative spark due to focusing too much on achieving a tightly defined set of requirements, possibly to obtain government contracts. Just like a hotel on Earth, I would expect the habitat to cater for a wide variety of users, and being too requirements driven might kill demand, not to mention the fun aspect they are carefully cultivating.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Spacefaring society technologies

Jon Goff relatively recently (over 2 weeks ago?) posted an interesting article listing the various technologies required to make a civilisation spacefaring. I was going to comment on it last week, but I got distracted, and then after that I was on vacation last week at Jeju Island in Korea.
Basically if the technologies listed were developed, it would allow relatively easy transport between the Earth and many locations in the Solar System. In effect, it is the makings of an interplanetary highway system. I love it!
But after reading his article and the subsequent responses and additions I still felt that there was something missing. But then I realized that his proposal is in fact quite comprehensive for what it is intended for - interplanetary travel. But this is only one side of the coin.
Jon Goff starts with a criteria that inteplanetary travel should be able to support at least the population of Tehachapi in order for the operators to qualify as truly spacefaring. I had to use wiki to find out that the population of Tehachapi is about 30,000 including surrounding areas. That's a pretty sizeable population to keep fed and pressurized.
Clearly the inhabitants of such a settlement would not, for the most part, be trading off the cheap real estate against the longer commute to Earth. Telecommuting is probably not a good idea either. The bandwidth might be ok, but the ping times to the company server would be dreadful. No, most of their work will be providing goods and services to one-another.
However the system won't be entirely closed. In order for such a population to thrive, there needs to be something they can barter for necessary supplies. Unless some kind of government subsidies are available for the goods being supplied (in which case is the country providing the subsidies really spacefaring?), the value of the exports should at least match the cost of the supplies, including transportation costs (Some government subsidies for the transportation infrastructure Jon described may be possible given that it will likely also be used by government space agencies and, possibly, military vehicles). It's unlikely, in my opinion, that mining, even rare earth elements, would be worthwhile at first. The exports with the most value for money would be services rather than goods and hardware. I could easily envisage such a community providing valuable scientific research, as well as other privately funded services such as virtual tourism. However would these kind of exports be of sufficient value to supply all the spacesuits, regolith moving equipment, housing components, etc that the settlers will need? I don't think so - in which case the settlers will have to be largely self sufficient, even while gradually expanding the size of the settlement.
Jon touched on this in mentioning ISRU and closing the water cycle, however what the settlers will also clearly need is a set of tools to allow them to be independent with the exception of small, hard to manufacture items. One key item is something that allows them to build custom structures from the available regolith. Think 19th century settler building a log cabin. They may also need to manufacture their own spacesuits, which may be quite crudely made at first and/or robotic equipment, and will require food production (farming) equipment, not to mention furniture, plumbing and other items to make the settlement reasonably liveable.
For a population to reach 30,000 in a space settlement, they would probably already have to have all the above capability, therefore these technologies would be required not just to maintain the settlement at that population, but to enable it to grow to 30,000 people in the first place.
What this all implies is that we really need to start putting some serious effort into developing the technologies to allow the maximum possible level of self sufficiency in a space settlement. In fact I would like to propose that until this technology is within reach there just isn't sufficient motivation to lower launch and space transportation costs to a reasonable level simply because until then there will be no feasible permanent 'there' to travel to. Robert Bigelow's space habitat is a fantastic start, but even so it won't allow anywhere near the level of independence necessary to start a colony, and without a nearby source of raw materials it won't be possible for residents to expand it significantly.
Note that I haven't been specific about whether the settlement is on the Moon, Mars, or a minor (dwarf?) planet or anywhere else in the Solar System. I really don't want to get into that debate.

One idea to get things moving is to offer (yet) another prize to be awarded to the first team to double the population capacity of a simulated settlement from 5 to 10 people over the period of one year with additional supplies limited to less than, say, 500kg. Initially a team of 5 would start with, say, 2 tons of equipment, which they could design themselves prior to starting the attempt, and would have to include an airtight habitat, pressure suits and oxygen. To make it more realistic, they could be provided with additional electrical power, in exchange for any solar cells they include in their initial equipment set, or manufacture on the spot. They would also be provided with an unlimited supply of simulated regolith.
I've no idea how much should be offered as the prize, but it would have to be substantial. If the above seems impossible now, even with some reasonable adjustment of the allowed equipment weight, it just proves how little effort has been put into making space settlement feasible and how much work remains to be done.

Another thought is that this kind of work could easily be undertaken by a space agency other than NASA. It won't require billion dollar investment, and there is plenty of potential for valuable technology spinoffs. Later on there will be recognition that this work is just as important as developing better boosters. I wish a country such as Australia (I am Australian, of course ;-) ), with significant in house mining and ore processing capability, as well as a can-do innovative spirit would get behind such a project. The benefits would be out of all proportion to the investment.