Constellations, Launch, New Space and more…

Forward into the Slipstream…

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
December 9, 2010
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Dragon floats down under three parachutes after its maiden flight to space. (Credit: SpaceX)

The three overused cliches in technology circles are: “paradigm shift,” “game changer,”  and “moving the needle.” The first is vague, meaningless and pretentious with a capital “TIOUS.” These latter two are often used by executives to rally their troops on behalf of one company saving initiative or another. More often than not, they are half right: the needle (market share, profits) moves, but in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, the game remains the same — and they are losing it. Badly.

That being said, it’s not hard to apply these phrases to what SpaceX accomplished on Wednesday. Elon Musk’s start-up rocket company nailed all three objectives.

It’s difficult to understate the importance of what SpaceX did in launching and recovering its Dragon spacecraft this week. The technical achievement was impressive enough, one that only a handful of governments have achieved with much greater resources.  NASA’s own Constellation program never got remotely near orbit, despite billions of taxpayer dollars spent on it. By contrast, Falcon 9 and Dragon have been a bargain for the space agency, which is serving as a type of lead investor.

Just as significant are the political and policy implications. When NASA rolled out its bold plan back in February to turn over human spaceflight to commercial operators, the cries of outrage were deafening. It was madness to turn over things to a “NewSpace” industry that had, to date, been mostly talk and little delivery. And, truth be told, critics had a point. SpaceX, the great hope of the emerging industry, had flown little more than small Falcon 1 satellite launchers, most of which had failed.

This week’s Dragon launch, which followed a successful inaugural flight of its larger Falcon 9 booster in June, should put an end to that argument. Whatever setbacks SpaceX and other commercial companies experience in the years ahead, and there will be many, the commercial approach that NASA has pioneered with industry taking the lead is here to stay.

Nobody understands the importance of this more than Bob Bigelow, the Las Vegas hotel magnate turned space station builder.  Affordable, reliable and redundant transportation is the missing element to commercializing low-Earth orbit and making his dreams of colonizing space a reality. As he wrote on his website:

Congratulations SpaceX!

On behalf of myself and all of us at Bigelow Aerospace, we would like to congratulate our friends at SpaceX on the unprecedented success of the Falcon 9’s second launch and the inaugural flight of the Dragon capsule. Such early success with a rocket as affordable as the Falcon 9 represents an extraordinary accomplishment, and is a testament to the ingenuity and robust capability of the commercial space industry. Moreover, we applaud the demonstration of the Dragon capsule, an achievement that has the potential to substantially reduce America’s human spaceflight gap. Again, we wish to extend our heartfelt congratulations to Elon Musk and his entire team.

— Robert T. Bigelow

If SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft and Bigelow’s own CST-100 capsule with Boeing are successful, then space will be open for business.  Within five years, you could see multiple stations being assembled in orbit. Within ten years, the space industry could be all but unrecognizable.  And, we could be looking back on 2010 as the year in which NewSpace dived forward into the slipstream.

Much hard work lies ahead and many obstacles remain. Rockets are notoriously temperamental beasts. Two launches and a single capsule flight do not a program make. But, it’s a damned fine start.

3 responses to “Forward into the Slipstream…”

  1. Tom Cuddihy says:

    “Within five years, you could see multiple stations being assembled in orbit. Within ten years, the space industry could be all but unrecognizable”

    Word of caution Doug. SpaceX has a track record of not meeting projected deadlines, by integer multiples of their original projections. The general rule with SpaceX is, whatever their published schedule says from 1 year out on, multiply by 2.

    So if they say they need 3 years to get operational with human spaceflight from “go” on the funding, expect 5-6 years.

    • Doug Messier says:

      Fair enough. SpaceX isn’t the only player in the game. The thing that really saved NASA’s CCDev effort was Boeing getting into the game with Bigelow. That’s a key partnership of Big Rocket and entrepreneurial NewSpace, with each learning from the other.

      Crew transport is, of course, the pacing item for Bigelow’s plans. They can plan assembly flights according to realistic assessments of when orbital transport will be available. That will depend in part with how aggressive NASA can be given is commercial crew budget. Congress is moving forward much slower than NASA would like.

      The other issue is the maturity of the rockets involved. How many Falcon 9 flights do you need before you are comfortable flying people on it. Atlas V and Delta IV are probably more expensive, but they’re more proven in terms of flight history. NASA wants redundant access to orbit using multiple capsules and rockets. The way things are developing, they’re in shape for that. Multiple options for crew and cargo with commercial stations helping to make the market viable. If things play out right, this will be an exciting decade for space.

  2. Fred Willett says:

    Gotta take issue with Tom Cuddihy over the SpaceX always slips thing.
    Yes, SpaceX has slipped in the past. Most development programs do.
    The test will be when SpaceX stops being a development program and starts to move into a flight program.
    That will not happen until SpaceX completes COTS (a development program) and starts CRS resupply missions (a flight program).
    For commercial launches on Falcon 9 they still need to complete development of their faring. Once that is done they won’t have any more excuses for slips.
    Until then I think we ought to cut them a little slack.

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