Monday, November 09, 2009

Crystal ball gazing....

Its clear that Armadillo and Masten are going to take their lander technology and pursue scientific and other payloads to the ignoreasphere. (IE the space between 100Kft and 150Km). If we had won any LLC $ at all our plans would be similar. This by itself is not going to change the world. (Masten article in AV week)

In an optimistic scenario it allows both Masten and Armadillo to become cash flow positive and continue to develop. From a pure business stand point one can count the number of heads in the masten shop make some educated guesses about rent and insurance etc.. and one would come up with a burn rate some where between 500K and 1.5M a year. So the new found prize money buys them another year of operation. Today's masten press release had a figure of about 100K per flight. Assuming they have good gross margins and get 20 or so customers a year they have an on-going growing business.

Beyond the scientific payloads to the ignorasphere you will have people like scaled/virgin providing man tended flights to this region for prices double what Masten is quoting for a "Brick" When that starts happening Mastens prices are going to have to plummet to compete.

The next big step is some sort of orbital capability. I don't see a clear revenue path for incremental improvements from high suborbital to orbital. The Technology shown by armadillo and Masten (hover for ~200 sec iat 9.8m/sec) give a DV of 1962m/sec. To reach orbit with a small high drag vehicle (small == high drag) one needs at least 8000 m/sec dv. Giving some credit for vac ISP gains and calling the present vehicles the 2nd of three stages one could probably put a 5 lb "brick" in orbit with a gross lift off on the order of 10000 lb. Is there a market?

Clearly spacex has demonstrated there is a potential market for 200Kg payloads, but 50 to 100 times smaller? Can either Masten or Armadillo grow into this spot without significant outside capital? Only time will tell.

I'm a real fan of simple dumb booster. The series LEO on the cheap has a lot going for it. As I've said before I really liked the Beal Aerospace approach, big simple pressure fed. I just think he aimed too high for the first vehicle. Something 10 times smaller would have been a good start.
Even starting there its hard to rough out a plan that does not take $50M+ to get to cash flow positive and profitable. Virgin recently got investments on that order and maybe they can grow into this space.

I've often thought about writing a detailed business plan to seek funding, but I have major personal resistance to becoming another one on the long list of people that say "just write me a really large check and trust me I'll build a spacecraft that owns the market." To properly assemble a plan that could realistically get funding is a lot of work with low probablity of success.

The engineering is not really even a big part of the problem, one has to also build a functioning organization with Management, recruiting, HR, legal, government liaison, etc.... It would be hard to just bring forth such an organization in a timely manner given infinite funds. Space lauunch is such a broad problem covering so many disciplines It would be really hard to find someone to
organize the business part if you had the perfect engineering team already in place. How many people have a sset up a brand new manufacturing facility on that scale in the U.S. in the last 20 years? Not many.

Where do I go from here? The question is a lot broader than the technical topics discussion I wrote last week. Do I want Unreasonable to be a slightly profitable side business?? Do I want to compete against Masten/Armadillo as a the lowest cost provider? Can I contribute something technically to this 'space'? Do I have the chutzpa to try creating a externally funded start up?
I've worked at funded start ups and my current business that was started with zero outside $ in 1998 was a lot simpler to start and has done well. How far outside of my personal comfort zone would I like to stretch?

I've even contemplated sending a resume to Spacex, but I have not figured out where we could live within driving distance to Hawthorne without a reduction in our standard of living.

On a personal level its been a hard week watching the LLC awards ceremony and having tons of people tell me our accomplishments were amazing. Feels a lot like I think 4th place at the Olympics would feel. Amazing results, just not as amazing as gold,silver and bronze. Its really frustrating at some level.

Over the last year my schedule was up at 5am work on Unreasonable til 8:30 take a shower go to work, come home at 6pm work on unreasonable. This last week I've been getting to work before 7 and leaving around 4:30. Coming home and feeling lost. I still have not gotten up the motivation to tackle the entropy in the workshop.

I'm gathering up some data on the technical performance of Masten, Armadillo, unreasonable and several other interesting ideas and some time in the two weeks I'm going to do an ideas with supporting "numbers" post.


Daryle Dismukes said...

Palos Verdes maybe? I was up in the Redondo Beach area recently looking around and felt incredibly overwhelmed by the unending urban expanse. It made me realize how nice it is here in northern San Diego. I've known of people commuting to LA from SD, but that's got to be exhausting to do that every day.

Eric M. Collins said...

Don't let the commute keep you from a job which you have obvious skills and passion. SpaceX is right next to an airfield. All you need is a sport pilot or general aviation license and access to a small aircraft. It's got to be better than waiting in traffic for hours, and would allow you a much greater range for where to choose to live.

Bob Steinke said...

Maybe that high speed rail will get built.

Joe Stanton said...

Someone has to say it. What about working for Armadillo? I seem to remember an offer of sorts made by Carmack on aRocket. Texas is a great place to live.

Anonymous said...

yours, masten's, armadillo's rockets are stuck between the big boys and the amateur rockets in terms of size and/or complexity. If you are looking for a business niche, I'd say consider thinking about what you can build and sell based on what you've learned to the amateur rocket folks. There's a lot of people out there launching mid and high power rockets. maybe there's a market for a simple, re-usable liquid motor. Now peroxide might not be the answer there, but lox alcohol clearly has been used.

Anonymous said...

Armadillo and Masten have not only mastered the technical side of things, they have flown the profile multiple times, created the team of people necessary to run the business, and demonstrated their ability under pressure by winning the contest. They are certainly good candidates for future funding/investment because they have created value as an organization. If I were an investor I would probably look at those organizations first. They also pass the "one guy hit by a bus" test.

No man can be all things. Maybe you could consider joining one of those organizations and work on the technology and strategy? Work forward from the successful infrastructure they have built?

Martin said...

I watched your progress over a half of year and it was great adventure. I was really wandering if you can compete the rivals but there is no real reason for frustrations. Nobody is able to win all competitions in his life. And from my point of view the man is not living because he must defeat universe. Highest challenge is to realize himself through small particular adventures.

Best reagards from Czech Republic.

heroineworshipper said...

Since sounding rockets were doing these flights for $50,000 years ago, $100,000 for suborbital flights doesn't sound feasible unless your government monetizes more debt than expected.

Anonymous said...

@heroineworshipper; if you are referring to the Masten numbers, didn't the material you read also state that sounding rockets were once a month and LLC derived craft are twice a week? And guaranteed time of day, whereas sounding rockets did not have that sort of scheduling reliance capability. At least that's what I read.

Blackjax said...

I just wanted to drop a note to respond to the idea from Eric M. Collins about the pilots license. Speaking as a private pilot, I am not certain the idea is all that practical. Flying is only a fast way to get someplace vs driving when the car trip would be several hours. The reason for this is that when you total up the time it takes to get to an airport, preflight the plane, and get the plane into the air, you have already spent quite a bit of time. Coverint the actual distance is extra time. Preflights in particular can eat a significant amount of time if you arent complacent about it. Beyond that, unless you are IFR rated and can handle landings in tough conditions, there will be a fair number of days where you won't be able to fly. Don't get me wrong, flying is great and does give an added dimension of mobility that few people have (I can do day trips to Nantucket or the Finger Lakes from central NJ!) but it is not especially practical as a routine commuter option.

Paul Breed said...

I grew up in Alaska and had my PP SES (single engine Sea) before I graduated high school.

I have single engine ladn,sea, Multi-engine land, glider, and an instrument rating. I'm also a licensed A+P mechanic.

I have not been flying since I started working on rockets as one can't just fly once in awhile and be safe to my standards of safe.

I've looked at flying as a commuting option before and it really only works if you live on or within short walking distance of an airport and are flying to an airport. Once you drive to an airport, do your notams and special flight happening due diligence, pre-flight the plane and then fly to your destination and tie down the plane etc...its 45 minutes not counting the flight time If you lived on a residential airpark it might make sense.

Joe said...

I saw a guy at FAR on Halloween that said "It's the 21st century, where's my aircar?" Now there's a cashburning business model.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I think you did win, and I'm sorry the judges were too myopic to see that. Armadillo had a head-start by several years, and lots of funding. You used an olympic metaphore... Well, in the olympics, AA would have been viewed as a paid professional, and not allowed to compete! Masten is the same. It was not a level playing field.

If I had ideas on how give you the Richard X-prize (and have it have any value to you), you'd have it.

Anyhow, it seems to me there are a few issues in front of you:
1) you have technology that is somewhat proven. It needs to be develloped though.
2) you need funding to continue devellopemnt.
3) its not clear you want to run that business
4) its not clear you can make that business profitable

Not wanting to sound like a linux fan-boy, but a piece of me thinks you should consider "open-sourcing" what you have:
- you could publish (free or not) all plans, allowing others to reproduce what you've done
- encourage them to share their mods with other builders
- manufacture parts to order so that people can use your stock parts in places as they choose (and giving you a small revenue stream)

This would allow you to tackle the parts you care about, and make money, and get more personel at little to no cost, and possibly at a profit. Meanwhile, you don't have to co-ordinate with the governments of the world on your customers' launches, *or* you can position yourself as *the* consultant to help them navigate the bureaucracy.

Anyway, you're a smart guy, I'm sure some of this has occurred to you already. What I really don't want to see is your hard work, experience and success shelved because VC is pain to manage and you lost one competition.

Grant said...


You mention the possibility of working for SpaceX; have you ever considered joining the Blue Origin team? I worked as an intern there last summer and was blown away both by the magnitude of the program they're working on and the level of professionalism, talent, and competence of the team. They're always looking for people who are knowledgeable, motivated, and not afraid to get their hands dirty with real hardware, and I think your experience with Unreasonable proves you'd fit right in with this culture. I don't know how the cost of living compares between Seattle and southern California, but if you'd consider moving up there send them a resume. With any luck you'll at least get offered a tour of the factory, which is quite an impressive sight.

Just Jerry said...

You already live in the nicest place in the world. You could live in Laguna or Malibu, but considering I have been to your house I would suggest you think of them as second homes to flop at midweek. If you worked at SpaceX. Or you could simply follow my plan . . . :-0

Joe said...

If I had all the assets in place that you have Paul, I'd personally improve the Silver Ball and work on solidifying my QC processes. E.g., source code control and versioning, the methodology of fuel flow/thurst/consumption calculations, and so on. Set your goal to be among the first to boost to 100,000 ft and return to same pad TWICE in one day. Even if there is no competition for it, you should keep on going. Forget the market. Do what you like to do and take some of these ideas of open source/design. Great concepts and would turn the aerospace world upside down.

Joe said...

I meant 100,000 meters in order to get into suborbital space.

Anonymous said...

Any more thoughts on doing your own startup or applying to spacex?