Sunday, July 31, 2011

Back from newspace 2011.

I spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the NewSpace conference.
I enjoyed meeting lots of rocket friends, both old and new.

NASA was well represented at the conference and It's real clear that NASA as an organization has not digested the implication of the shuttle program ending. There are clearly NASA groups that are in denial, they are trying to figure out how to get back to where they were 5 years ago and continue growing their empire. Some of the NASA people see the possible benefit of greatly reduced commercial flight costs, as it opens up new exploration opportunities that were not there before. There are groups that are not completely in denial they think there organizations have real value and that they can market this value to the new commercial space vendors. What they don't realize is that their cost basis makes their facilities and capabilities unusable by the commercial vendors. The NASA cost model says Falcon 9 should cost 4B to develop, it cost 390M. Their basic organizational operational costs are 10X too high to be viable. If NASA can figure out how to sell services at a commercially viable price then commercial space needs to fly 100X as often as the shuttle did to support the same size workforce at the facilities, its not going to happen. I had three different conversations with three different people in different fields that were trying to work with three different NASA centers, all three thought that the value provided was not worth the price paid. This evaluation varied from unbelievably bad to marginally ok. If NASA wants to stay relevant in commercial space going forward they really need to examine why their costing models said F9 was 4B and Elon did it for 390M. Being wrong by a factor of 10 is not a minor thing.

A lot of the conference was about space futures that border on fantasy. Some dreaming or fantasy is good, it gives you a direction and a focus. If the fantasy is physically impossible then it can be destructive as it makes physically realizable space look stupid or dull. As long as we are using chemical propulsion anything that launches from the ground or changes it orbit in a significant way has to look like a propellant tank, if its not 90% tank by mass its not going to work. The gravity well and the rocket equation do not make exceptions for anyone.
Its not clear to me that Hollywood depictions of space, x-wing, star trek shuttle, firefly, etc have not done a disservice to the real space movement by making things look too easy.

A lot of people have read my recent blog posts and I got all kinds of advice.
At space access this year I expressed my concerns about the economy and the direction of the federal government and budget. A lot of people though I was too pessimistic. At this conference I encountered a number of people that were more pessimistic than I. I've become more certain of two things:
1)Commercial space is ready for someone to make an effort at building a truly low cost launcher, not a half price vax, but an apple II. (See earlier posts if you don't get the reference.)

2)Non governmental funding for space does not yet really exist, and governmental funding is the 5 to 10 yr time frame is really really uncertain.

These two "facts" do not sit well together, will a radically lower launch cost create a field of dreams where if you build it they will come, or is it a fools errand? I can't yet answer that question.

Where too from here?
In the real short term, I'm going to spaceup LA next Saturday.
The Sunday after that I'm going to Small Sat in Utah, I've never been, but I'm going with the specific purpose to try and evaluate what commercial market there is for a nano sat launcher.

I'm also looking at possibly submitting a proposal for an SBIR in the current NASA SBIR solicitation, they have a nanosat specific one that looks interesting. I'm not sure if getting on the SBIR tread mill is the best approach, would I be better off spending the time and energy looking for private funding, or just going slowly along on my own dime?

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Launchers and Impossible Lessons from history.

NASA and DOD have spent a lot of effort on creating costing models for aerospace development. By the standard costing model the Falcon 9/Dragon should have cost 4B+ to develop. Using the most optimistic costing model it should have cost 1.6B. The documented actual cost is 390M. All of the traditional aerospace companies would have told you that it was impossible. Accepted "Facts" can be wrong. Spacex now has a backlog of > 3B. It looks like Spacex will be a business success with investment returns in excess of 10x. Elon has proven to be a brilliant business man in multiple fields.

Spacex has assembled a group of really talented people, many of them with a history in the traditional aerospace environment. If you read the bios on the Spacex web site here. You will discover that many of the senior engineering people came from large aerospace organizations. They used their experience to build the best rocket they could. They had a clean sheet of paper and enough resources to do the job.They fixed most of the business problems in the traditional aerospace model, they embraced vertical integration and the rejected the traditional aerospace supply chain. Win, win, win.

Now I'm going to ask you to get into your time machine.
Go back to the late 1970's. Take a large budget and go hire the best and brightest computer engineers from IBM, DEC, Prime,HP etc... . Give them a clean sheet of paper and allow them to fix any problems they see in the traditional computer business. Turn them loose and volia you have a killer minicomputer. It outperforms the DEC VAX and cost 1/2 as much. Its better than the rest of the industry in every way...... Instead of costing 120,000 or so it only costs 60,000. The orders pile up and the traditional computer companies would be worried. Meanwhile a guy named Wozniak with no degree and no experience designing computers is building a computer to impress his friends at the homebrew computer club. The Apple I soon to be an Apple II, in every measurable technical way the Apple II was inferior to the minicomputers of the day, except one, price. If you had asked the engineers from DEC,IBM, Prime, HP etc... to design you a useful computer that could be sold for less than 3000 they would have laughed at you.

So the question I ask is it possible to be a Wozniak in the space access area?

If its possible, you aren't going to get their via SBIR, because the SBIR evaluators with their reality closely tied to traditional aerospace model will be laughing.

You won't be able to do it by selling parts to other aerospace companies, IE Mr Wozniak did not start by building low cost memory cards to sell to DEC, the whole concept of modular cards and back planes as implemented in big computer land cost more than the whole apple I. The whole concept of separate bolt together components going into a launcher will need to be changed. The size scope and scale of what you build will not be appropriate for traditional aerospace.

Traditional aerospace customers will laugh at you and ridicule you... until one of you ends up unemployed and looking like a fool.

Clearly the microcomputer revolution was enabled by Mores law and the physics of space flight will not have any such exponential favoring factor.

Wozniak did not build any custom silicon, he use commercial off the shelf parts in new ways. I believe that modern CNC, 3D manufacturing and automated composite construction can be leveraged in a similar way.

This concept of comparing aerospace, old minicomputers and the PC revolution is not an original idea of mine. Charles at has used this comparison for years.
Frankly I never really got it. I thought it was a bit too much of a stretch. For the last 4 years I've been reading, studying and brainstorming on really low cost launch concepts. I've also been a rabid Spacex fan following what they are doing and cheering their success. In my though experiments I keep coming up with differnt solution concepts than Spacex. The Spacex solutions keep looking like traditional aerospace, but with much better execution, why is that? Is the traditional super high tech method the only way to achieve space launch? Then it dawns on me that Elon/Spacex hired the wizards from DEC, IBM, HP etc.. to build a better computer. In that context it ALL makes perfect sense.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Life business and rockets.

Life business and rockets.
I'm really proud of what Unreasonable rocket accomplished in pursuit of the LLC contest. I think we effectively showed the world that unreasonable people can accomplish. more than expected. At the same time the LLC and its end has been personally really hard. I've never worked that hard on a project in my life, I gave it everything I had, and got really close. Over and over my wife asked me if I was going to be ok if we failed. I always said yes I'd shown the world what could be done and I'd be ok. Keeping that promise has been a lot harder than I expected. Failing took a lot out of me.

The bright hard goal of a hard task to accomplish is very seductive.

So I failed at the LLC and this removes a nice bright hard goal, and replaces it with my business as CTO of NetBurner. 13 years ago my business partner Tom and I started Netburner. If I look back on the my career the times I've been most happy have been when I'm learning something new and accomplishing something really hard. Starting NetBurner and writing a robust embedded network ecosystem from scratch was all of these things, lots to learn, hard, a task worth putting 100% into. From a personal financial and business sense NetBurner has been a success, but at the same time from a personal technical challenge the code base is now mature and I spend at least 80% of my time messing with hardware and code that I created 5 or more years ago. From a personal sanity standpoint I need to do something different.

As I've stated here and elsewhere helping humanity reduce the cost of accessing all of the solar systems resources is probably the most important task that a human can attempt. I'd like to contribute to that effort. Clearly any effort in this direction has to be commercial, if it can't create value and a profitable business, it won't be self sustaining. How best to contribute to that?

I could go work for an existing organization, but I'm not sure how well the transition from leader/owner to employee would go.

I could liquidate all my assets and bet the farm on starting a NanoSat launcher business in an unreasonable fashion. Based on projections this would be grossly under capitalized and even if I acomplish this its not clear that having an organization where the value lives in the head of the one old wizard really creates value. ( At some level I've already a got a business that looks a lot like this )

I could write a business plan to create a larger organization where the value is in the organization and systems created and and go out on the begging for investors road trip. I've personally seen some very smart people fail at this. I've also seen some really creative people be consumed by the continuous process of finding the next funding round. Business schmooze is not my thing and unless the process can be setup with enough resources to succeed upfront I'm hesitant. Business have natural size scaling issues. Some where between 5M and 20M there is a discontinuity where things like HR and overall business management come into being and
trying to learn the 20M business organization game at the same time as trying to do a really hard technical problem seem personally daunting.

I could do some hybrid like working 1/2 time at NetBurner and liquidate some assets to build an all volunteer space business in San Diego (The Armadillo model) Unreasonable rocket has generated a lot of interest but the number of people that would show up once or twice a week on a regular basis for years seems to be vanishingly small.

I could say I'm done playing the rat race game, buy a Chris White Atlantic 48 and sail off into the sunset. (At one time this was a personal goal, my wife thinks I would be bored out of my mind.)

There are a million complicating issues:

The vast majority of the current U.S. space revenue comes from the government in one form or another. The U.S. government is broke and the recent NASA budget proposal is only the beginning. If the politicians get serious about getting the budget under control then all discretionary spending has to go to zero. NASA and non-military space is the poster child for discretionary. If the politicians don't get the the budget under control we are headed to a fiat monitary collapse or hyperinflation. In either case the current discretionary space funding goes to zero. One might even see this as an opportunity if could become the lowest cost launch provider by an order of mangnitude.

My son, who was a key part of the Unreasonable Rocket effort, is rightfully starting his own business and his own life. I doubt I will ever find someone that is as personally easy to work with. As my wife says don't play pictionary against thoose two they have some sort of personal telepathy.

I turn 49 in September, I have a lot of experience wisdom and gray hair, I can see that the brute force problem solving CPU is not what it was when I was 25. Can I find a way to harness the experience and hard earned wisdom without being the one primary CPU?

What is my personal responsibility to existing stakeholders in my life? Is it fair to sell the house and live with in an industrial space with my wife?. (She says she's fine with that, I'm not sure I am) What do I owe to the existing NetBurner stakeholders? A lot of independant consultants
base their lively hood on our eco system. I need to leave enough assets there to make sure NetBurner continues as a strong viable business while at the same time its my primary asset .

Lots to think about.