Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Lifelong Goal

Back again!

It's been kind of hard to figure out my priorities lately, what with young Joseph appearing on the scene, and trying to accelerate my Korean language studies. I had decided that learning Korean would be a higher priority than writing this blog because I am now at a stage where I'm able to start applying what I've learned in the real world. The unfortunate consequence was that blog entries ended up being put on hold permanently. I'm now seeking a more balanced approach, with blog entries hopefully taking around 5 to 10% of the time I had allocated to language study. That way I can still contribute something even if not as often as I'd like.

The post below is what this entry's title is about. I've been planning to post it for a while but held off because I wanted to get it right since it concerns real people and real companies.

Supposing you found out that someone who had passed away had left a trust in their will especially for you. The terms of the trust are that you will receive $10,000 per month for the rest of your life, for the express purpose of designing and building a crewed spacecraft. Under the terms of the trust you are legally obliged to use the money only for developing the spacecraft - nothing else until you build the first orbital vehicle, then the next billion is yours to keep. Lets assume that the amount per month is indexed to inflation so that it gradually increases over the years, although the actual income in today's dollars remained the same. Could you make an orbital vehicle with that much cash within your lifetime? What about suborbital? What if the amount of cash per month were more or less than $10,000? How much do you think you would need? How long would you need to live?

For some new space and other engineering related ventures based on a paradigm changing but expensive idea, whose funding is a constant trickle, either from various projects and spinoffs they maintain on the side, or out of their own pocket or from an angel investor who sees the project more like a hobby than a serious capital investment, this must surely be a relevant question.

In the normal course of events no-one is going to get to orbit on $10,000 a month. So the first goal of many companies is to try and find ways to turn that funding into $1 million a month. Remember all those small companies with X-Prize winning vehicles on the drawing board, with the 'invest' button at the top of their webpage? (Does your webpage have an 'invest' button?) That's the easiest way, but probably also the least effective. The more successful ones like Spacedev are set up as real businesses with useful products and skills that are in demand in the real world.

That's the obvious professional approach but it's intriguing that there are also other methods to make the cash go further. One of the great things about space is that it generates an incredible amount of enthusiasm among certain groups of people. I have absolutely no doubt that this enthusiasm translates to genuine cost savings for many NewSpace companies, whether is is the capacity of the employees to work in inhospitable environments, (think Mojave desert, or for that matter Korea!) or work longer harder hours than they would otherwise, or put up with or otherwise ignore and don't care about crumbling facilities, and in some cases perhaps genuine financial hardship.

Taking this idea a step further, the people at Armadillo Aerospace and JP Aerospace work for free - that is, they are volunteers. However I have no doubt if those companies later on start to turn a profit, the initial group that had the vision to put in their spare time toward a revolution in spaceflight will enjoy a correspondingly generous share of the rewards.

There is another method of making money go further and it's interesting that companies which choose this method are also likely to be staffed by volunteers - changing the technology paradigm.
At Armadillo, they are now thinking about developing systems based on the OTRAG concept, which consists of clustered, multiple self contained propulsion systems, each complete with its own propellant supply and rocket engine. The idea is to start off with a very simple system with relatively limited range and thrust, and bolt multiple copies together to make something equivalent to a much larger system but at much lower cost. It appears that OTRAG failed for political reasons rather than economic ones. Having said that it seems strange that until now, as far as I know, no-one else has picked up the idea as they did with the DC-X.
On the other hand JP Aerospace plans to go to orbit ... by balloon! - that is more specifically by airship. John Powell seems confident that the Airship To Orbit (ATO) concept is sound but most observers have their doubts.
Both these companies base their hopes on throwing out the current big launch vehicle paradigm of getting into space in favour of something completely different, with a much lower investment level required.

Finally, one individual stands out in my mind for sheer unbending determination, although not in the area of spaceflight. Paul Moller, founder of Moller International has been pursuing the goal of developing the world's first commercially successful vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL)flying car for most of his life, and has reportedly burned through over $100 million and three marriages in his effort to make it work. Much of the money has come from spinoffs and other investments. (investors beware - it seems likely that unwary investors have contributed to his efforts over the years with not much to see in return.) He is now 70 years old and claims, perhaps humorously that he hopes to extend his life with almond butter (of all things) in the hope of seeing his dream come to fruition.

Lets hope that the dawn of the new space age brings more concrete achievements, and that I don't need to start consuming almond butter in the hope of living long enough to learn Korean.


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