Monday, August 05, 2013

Space and futures....

It looks like Armadillo is now dormant or dead.
Based on some hints I've received, I've suspected that this was coming for awhile...

The suborbital business never made any sense to me, its hard and other than artificially created markets (cruiser program) and thrill seekers I see no fundamental business case to be had at a price that is remotely appropriate to the level of effort.  

Its been 10 years since space ship one and I see no one close to having a profitable business
launching suborbital passengers or payloads.

I've stared longingly at this business, I'd really like to do something here, but no matter how hard I look it has never made sense as a business...

There is  remote possibility that someone might come up with a nanosat launch business that makes sense.(I've even written a somewhat optimistic business plan toward that end), but once you add it the difficulties of testing and regulatory compliance the whole thing is really really hard.  For the time being it looks like the only real progress to be made will be done by large well funded organizations like SpaceX and possibly Blue Origin, but even Blue  is subject to the whims of Bezeo's attention, he may find it more fun to play with his new newspaper...(He jsut spend 250M of his own $ on the Washington post)

I'd like to see someone try to build an expendable launcher where the primary aim is automated manufacturing and really low cost. I think that even if Spacex gets its 1st stage re-usability right it would be possible to beat them on cost, they currently have close to 3K employees, at reasonable aerospace wages at 33 flights a year that is 10M a launch just for wages.....  Too bad Beal failed, I think they were really on the right track for low cost space access...

Dam  stubborn gravity well....


Joe Stanton said...

Looking back, a couple years ago the rumble of unhappiness was heard on aRocket when John said something to the effect "I am still trying to get my head around why it took so long to develop a tube rocket" (that crashed). I presume he found his answer due to his comments at QuakeCon as the "creeping professionalism at AA", or perhaps "NASAization" (lots of $$$ for no results).

And of course he mentioned two other facts, first that the investment in AA was always a negotiation with his wife, at $1m a year the past 2 or so years is a serious issue, and he is getting older and memory / focus / multi-tasking is hard (as part of a conversation with his father-in-law).

His primary income source AFAIK is the game engine id develops, and his passion now is for high performance seamless virtual reality / 3D goggles or headgear or full feedback devices .. a technology perhaps just as worthy as rocketry and certainly directly in line with his strong suit of game development. So at some point you have to make a decision, do you follow your vocation or your avocation? And when you have more than one you have to make a choice, which he did by using business analysis.

I have no idea where the people who rolled the dice and converted from volunteer to full-time at AA are, where they will go, how they feel. I hope they feel like they actually did something remarkable, and of value, because the body of work at AA inspired many people to think that extra-planetary operations are possible for the hoi-polloi.

Peter said...

I've been thinking about how the economics of shaking up the launch market would work. At the moment, SpaceX seems very difficult to beat with respect to cost per pound. The only real incentive to make something like a 3U cubesat launcher is to provide either lower launch costs or freedom from various payload integration restrictions (off-gassing materials, orbital freedom). I'm not sure how compelling the latter is, but the former is a function of design costs (fixed), raw materials, and manufacturing labor and energy.

An amateur or nonprofit project can benefit from nearly-free volunteer engineering time, but will be limited in test and verification hardware (broken prototypes are expensive; computer simulations and published best practices are cheap). Reducing raw material costs is probably the most compelling design constraint, but pushes toward vertical integration to avoid paying overhead on submodules. All of this has to be considered while limited to something that could be built in a well-equipped garage. It's a difficult proposition.

It'd be interesting to define a standard boilerplate rocket that could be filled in with community-developed modules (motor, guidance, etc) as they become available, tested, and improved upon.

But that might just be my pipe dream.

mike shupp said...

Peter - re your "pipe dream."

Consider how Linux has evolved. Suppose cheap versatile 3D printers sell for the kind of money. in the kind of numbers, that PCs did. Suppose also designs /templates / programs for rocket parts are shopped about as easily as computer source code is downloaded. Perhaps future "hobbyists" might become as interested in building ever-better rocket components as they are today in programming snippets of kernel code. I can imagine circumstances in which hundreds or thousands of rocket developers team up to design and build "open source spaceships" just as modern programs collaborate to create Debian and other software distributions.

The world isn't running out of bright engineers looking for interesting things to do after all; world population is still climbing, educational levels are going up everywhere; affluence is spreading over time. Kickstarter and PayPal and other non-governmental funding mechanisms exist. Project management via the internet is becoming common.

All this points in the right direction. I don't think rocket building is ever going to be as simple and cheap as two guys building micro computers or dune buggies in a garage, but there's certainly reason to think it can be done with something smaller and cheaper than a government agency.

heroineworshipper said...

If Carmack focused on just 1 mission, using tried & true kerosene from the beginning, he could have done it. So many men just want to have a space gadget, but something about dreamers also makes them bad at staying focused.

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Joe Stanton said...

Paul, what do you think the exit of Armadillo, and essentially yourself, from the "New Space" movement will be? We saw Monroe get very upset and decide to research nuclear rocket propulsion because he felt that if John Carmack did not have the money to make it go, how could he, on a literal shoestring budget make it go? So basically it seems, the "prosumer" version of amateur rocketry is vanished, leaving underfunded low-altitude rocket projects, or ego-centric highly funded projects (Blue Origin, Virgin, etc), as the USA alternative to NASA. Then there is Copenhagen Suborbitals, and I am not 100% sure what that is all about, slick videos, and a lot of stubbornness, but some results.

Unknown said...


You stated: "There is remote possibility that someone might come up with a nanosat launch business that makes sense.(I've even written a somewhat optimistic business plan toward that end), but once you add it the difficulties of testing and regulatory compliance the whole thing is really really hard."

Would you have that biz plan avialable?

We are going to make a run at this and need some discouragement/critique. We've begun the design process, then got sidetracked thinking we could sell our filament winding machine on the way to getting our launcher airborne - but no-one is buying that (see my project at ( ). O

h Well - onward and upward to our launch vehicle.

Turner Hunt

Chris said...

The problem with the space, and aviation industries, is the amount of regulatory red tape. I have always been dreaming of working in aerospace, but the industry is just too conservative, so I went to telecom instead. In telecom we are also facing physical limits, like Shannon capacity theorem (you cannot beat that), but we still manage to innovate. Reliability is a big issue for as too because data-centers need links with 99.9999% availability factor. Sure, if a link goes down we don't have a n explosion, so it makes things less spectacular. Long story short, it is the insurance and regulation that kill the aerospace industry. No one will risk their money in this business unless those to obstacles are removed.

Now, on micro-launchers. This is a tough problem, because launching from the ground implies heavy drag penalties, which are much more severe for a small vehicle. An LV of the size of the ancient French Diamant is probably the smallest that can be reasonably built. BTW, I strongly believe, that building a Diamant like LV with modern technology (i.e. composite tanks for pressure fed engines) is the way to go to build a small, cost effective launcher.

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