Status Report

Wayne Hale’s Blog: Burgeoning commercial space industry

By SpaceRef Editor
December 2, 2009
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Wayne Hale’s Blog: Burgeoning commercial space industry

The Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (aka “Augustine Committee”) has finalized its report and it is no surprise that the proposals and alternatives offered there have been the subject of much review and evaluation by NASA leadership and space policy makers.

Re-reading the report last week I was struck by an early sentence in the executive summary which was repeated in the body of the report:

“. . . there is now a burgeoning commercial space industry.”

OK, I’m an Engineer, not an English major so I had to look it up:

burgeon [bur-juh n]

1. to grow or develop quickly; flourish

2. to begin to grow, as a bud; put forth buds, shoots, etc., as a plant (often fol. by out, forth). ME burjon, burion; shoot, bud, deriv. of LL burra wool, fluff


Let’s see; in the USA we have, what, three or four space launch vehicle manufacturers in active production? Is that “burgeoning?”

Sea Launch, one of the most innovative companies in both their business model and their technical approach is in bankruptcy court. Two of the “old space” major players have formed a joint venture to pool their launch capabilities and fly maybe 5 or 6 times in a good year. The geosynchronous satellite market has largely gone overseas to Ariane or India or China.

As my father, the CPA, taught me: for a business to stay in business, it must make a profit. That is what businesses do. If there is no return on investment, they go out of business. It is not just the technical challenge, nor the production challenge; it is the business challenge and profitability which are inhibiting commercial space flight. If somebody can do the job cheaper than your company, then you are in real trouble business-wise. Ergo, commercial satellites have gone “off shore.”

There are a couple of smaller, entrepreneurial, companies which are making good progress toward medium launch vehicle operations. We applaud them and wish them well and have in fact provided some fiscal support.

But compare where the US commercial space launch business is today with the situation a decade ago when there were at least dozen firms in the space launch business. The proper adjective for US commercial space flight should be “moribund” rather than “burgeoning.”

Not that there aren’t a lot of folks out there who have an idea, a concept, some preliminary engineering feasibility studies and some hopeful powerpoint charts trying to attract venture capital. There are a lot of those folks. Many of these are pursuing the technically simpler and much cheaper sub orbital “market.” Even that is a struggle as we can see by the serious “gap” in suborbital capability since Space Ship One flew twice in 2003 and the next flight maybe in 2010.

But any student of space flight knows that recent history is littered with the wreckage of serious commercial space launch companies hat failed. Just a few names to jog your memory: Conestoga, Beal, Rotary Rocket, Kistler . . . fill in your own favorites. Several of these had serious financial backing, great technical teams, and some even built and launched flight hardware. All are gone.

On my spaceflight shelf is a slim volume with the title “LEO on the Cheap” written by a guy who should have known better. In the 1980’s there was a German organization called OTRAG that had a great plan to get to earth orbit cheaply. Nothing ever came of it.

All of these fledgling companies share a common belief, that getting to LEO should be easy: just eliminate the waste, bureaucracy, and inefficiency of the government or of the “old space” (aka military-industrial-complex) guys and apply the latest management theories and – voila’ – cheap, regular, plentiful access to space will immediately follow.

Many people wishfully believe that it is that easy. I personally wish it were that easy. I cannot tell you how much I wish it were that easy. But if wishes had wings then pigs could fly.

If we are to reawaken the US commercial space launch industry and build it into a vibrant, competitive (which is to say, cheaper), reliable, regular space launch business, many things will need to be addressed. From my knothole it would appear that the ITAR laws are one of the critical components that prevent competition. And ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) has its merits in a dangerous world.

By Federal statute and general interest, NASA is encouraging, promoting, and even to some extent enabling commercial space flight in the US. Could more be done? Absolutely, and we should. Will there be problems along the way? No doubt. Will astounding breakthroughs in cost reduction appear? I doubt it.

Commercial air travel required the revolution from propellers to jets to become really viable. I suspect space travel will require something similar. As long as we rely on chemical rocket propulsion it is likely we will see only incremental cost decreases.

I wish you would find that breakthrough. Meanwhile, the rest of us will plod through trying to incrementally improve the biplanes. And the business ain’t “burgeoning”.

SpaceRef staff editor.