26 October 2005

Better Late Than Never

Today at COMSTAC, Brant Sponberg mentioned that NASA was going to be releasing a "procurement synopsis" this week discussing the various commercial space station resupply options that NASA wants to explore. This isn't the full-up RFP that we've been waiting for (that won't be out till the end of the year, with a draft coming out in Thanksgiving), but this should at least clear up some questions, and start the feedback process. I was originally going to blog this when I first heard about it, but was asked by my source to hold off for awhile. However, now that Jeff has the scoop out, I figured it was ok for me to also blog about it.

According to Jeff:
Someone asked what sort of regulations regarding "human-rating" of a crew transport vehicle would apply here. Sponberg said that, during the development phase, NASA would be open to using the FAA's own regulations for the vehicle, since it would only be carrying one or more commercial pilots. However, once NASA starts to procure actual crew transport services, with the vehicle carrying NASA astronauts, NASA would "absolutely" require the vehicle to meet its human-rating requirements.

This does appear to leave the door open for a commercially crewed cargo container operating only under FAA regulations instead of NASA Human Rating requirements. It's kind of funny that NASA feels FAA regulations (ie the AST launch licensing process) is good enough for commercial pilots to fly on, but has to molly-coddle their astronauts with "human rating" requirements.

All that aside, this is potentially very good news. Any time NASA starts acting more like a customer than a tax-funded competitor is a good thing.

Shameless Self-Promotion

Mark Trulson, one of the bloggers at the Out of the Cradle blog, just posted an interview they did with me. The interview provides a little bit more technical detail about XA-1.0, and my thoughts about the new Centennial Challenges that were announced back at the X-Prize Cup. He also asked me if I had any advice for high schoolers and college students interested in getting involved with the alt.space world.

25 October 2005

New Addition to the Blogroll

Hey all, just wanted to draw some attention to a new addition to the blogroll: Out of the Cradle. This is a blog with a bulletin board like system hooked up. There's some good commentary over there that I wanted to comment on myself, but it'll have to wait a bit longer till I actually have some more time.

19 October 2005

ACES Conference Summary Wrapup

Now that I finally have some time to breathe, I want to wrap up my ACES conference summary. It turns out the guys at ACES and Innovation Labs were able to get full transcripts of the whole conference, including pictures, video, etc. up on their site already. Check out some of the snazzy ad-lib art that the Innovation Labs guys did, like this, this, or this.

With all that taken care of, I just wanted to recap a few of the various thoughts or ideas that I saw come out of the conference:
  • While the results of microgravity research using the Shuttle/ISS infrastructure have been relatively unimpressive, with frequent, low-cost access to space, the whole situation can change very quickly.

  • It might be in the best interest of commercial launch providers to subsidize some of the basic research--investing in improving future demand for their launch services.

  • Launch frequency, and overall "hassle factor" are just as important as price when it comes to inhibitting or encouraging commercial space enterprises.

  • The idea of NASA doing the equivalence to "declaring bankruptcy" on the Internation Space Station was kind of interesting. Though they would likely only get pennies on the dollar for their sunk costs, it could free NASA from a lot of otherwise wasted expenses, while possibly spurring the development of commercial space. I'm not positive that there aren't show-stoppers that would make this unworkable, but it at least sounds like an interesting idea.

  • There is a lack of succesful management teams in the entrepreneurial space industry.

  • NASA needs to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to space commercialization. Benign neglect is ok, but quit teasing us!

  • Government is great at creating pent up demand.

  • The idea came up several times to have ACES set up some sort of brokerage system that would help bring together launch service providers, financiers, launch service customers, and potential end users. Brokerage fees would be used to help subsidize the basic microgravity research, to insure that the applied science pump is kept continually primed.

  • Vender financing is an oft neglected method of raising funding for difficult ventures. If you have a vendor who you will be a major repeat customer for, they have a major stake in your success--having them invest in you in order to grow their future business is a win-win proposition (Note: if you haven figured it out, finding ways to craft win-win propositions is one of the keys to entrepreneurship). SpaceHab is a good example of this.

  • If you don't know at least some of your potential customers by name, you don't really have a solid marketting plan--you're just handwaving.

  • One of my favorite quotes from the conference (referring to how NASA runs projects): "When the rewards for success become greater than the rewards for failure, it will be a transforming event."

  • Resident laboratory setups: don't ship the lab up and down all the time. Leave it in orbit. Just ship samples, supplies, and researchers up and down. Most Earth-based researchers don't pack up their lab and take it home with them at the end of each day, why should space-based researchers?

  • NASA should be purchasing services, not products.

Anyhow, other than the announcement by Brant Sponberg (which I'll discuss later), and an interesting conversation I had with Gene Myers (which I'll also discuss later), that about wraps it up.

16 October 2005

Even More Jonny Blogging

Once again a Sunday rolls around, and I realize it's been a while since I put up any pictures of little Jon. :-)

13 October 2005

Bleg: SFF "Speed Dating" Panel

Michael asked me to post this on my blog too to get the word out:
At Return to the Moon 2005 I ran a panel where entreprenurial companies or projects that weren't on the formal agenda could each have five minutes to outline who they were, what they were up to and if there was anything they needed from the audience. Each participant could then take 2 questions from the audience. By the end of the conference we had 17 presentations.

Now I'm going to be doing the same thing at the Space Frontier Foundation's Conference in Los Angeles on October 21st - 23rd. So, if you are a space entrepreneur, your company is doing the work it takes to be a real company, and you are not on the regular agenda, please drop me a note so I can schedule your 5 minute presentation. Unlike RTTM this one is not limited to lunar businesses. Anyone who is doing business in or with the space industry is encouraged to participate. Feel free to contact me at michael@rocketforge.org.

This was a really cool opportunity, and I'd encourage anyone with a small space related company that is going to be there to contact him ASAP.

12 October 2005

ACES Conference Summary Part IV: Supply Panel

Moving quickly along so that I can get it all up here for people to see before it is no longer relevant, the next session was the demand panel. Joe Pistritto, an investor in XCOR (who was supposed to be on the Capital panel, but had to head to the X-Prize Cup) gave his presentation at this time also, but as you'll see, it was at least partially aprapos.

Space Islands Group: Crazy Enough it Just Might Work?
The first presenter was Gene Myers of the Space Island Group. If you haven't been around the space industry for the last decade or so, these are the guys who want Shuttle External Tanks delivered to orbit so they can fit them out as wet workshops. Honestly, I really haven't paid them much attention, since most of their ideas really didn't seem to connect too well with business reality, but some of their latest ideas (while still flawed) are getting closer to the realm of feasibility. In fact, one of their ideas is crazy enough it might just get funded. I'll have to go more into detail on that in a later post, but for now I'll just summarize their most recent work.

Their most recent idea is to build a privately developed Shuttle Derived HLV. It would use 5-segment SRBs, a slightly stretched ET with engine mounted on it, and a sidemount ET that is either converted into a cargo carrier, or a space station module, with a DC-X like vehicle on top. The DC-X derivative would only need to handle landing, and abort scenarios, so it doesn't need a huge amount of fuel. They figure they could carry somewhere between 20-30 people, and up to 65 tonnes of cargo to LEO per flight. This is where things get a little interesting. Instead of selling flights to orbit though, they would actually give away the flight to orbit for free, and instead, they would try and make their money off of renting out space in the two tanks that are delivered. Something like $25/cubic foot/day of pressurized, powered, and environmentally controlled space on orbit (which is two orders of magnitude cheaper than space on ISS at the moment). Each tank station could theoretically hit breakeven within 9 months if fully utilized. It's an interesting idea, but there are some issues with it. But I'll have to go into those later in a further post.

Their really interesting and crazy idea is trying to do space solar power. Now the idea has been batted around for decades, but they have an approach that may just be crazy enough to work. Once again, I'll go into more of the details later, but the basic jist of the idea is that they're trying to presell 2 Trillion kW-hrs worth of electrical power (at $0.10 per kW-hr) from a future space solar sattelite to India or China. Basic details are that of the $200B or so, they would get $2B up front per year to develop the power, then starting in 2012 or so, the SPS systems would start being brought online, and the buyer would then pay the remainder of the cost by buying electricity (ie if they had paid 10% of the 200B up front, they would switch to buying electricity at $0.09/kW-hr at that point). The idea being that India and China are both industrializing, and facing a severe energy crunch. They don't have the same NIMBY issues that you have here in the US, and the current Indian President (not the PM, the President) used to head their space agency, so there's some real interest in space related solutions.

It's still a long-shot, but definitely interesting if they can work something out. As I said, more details later.

Joe Pistritto and XCOR: Thoughts on Financing and Development
As I mentioned earlier, Joe Pistritto gave his presentation at this time due to needing to catch a flight. He's on the Board of Advisors for XCOR, and was one of their first angel investors. Joe works with Embarcadero Technologies, and generally knows his business and financing stuff real well.

Anyhow, he discussed a little about XCOR's business philosophy. Basically, you use revenue from contracts and projects to "keep the shop doors open", and you use investment to make progress on your real plan. This allows you to keep going while incrementally working your way toward your goals. Due to the relatively capital-scarce nature of alt.space at the moment, this sounds like fairly sage advice.

Joe then brought up the key things investors look for. If you've heard an angel trying to help space nerds get a clue, this will probably sound familiar:
  • People, people, people: a good team, with good trackrecords is more important than a good plan. Good teams can figure out how to make money even if their original plan falls through. Joe gave Yahoo as an example.

  • Business Plan: the big idea. How you're going to make money, who you're going to sell to, etc.

  • Intermediate Milestones/Stairways to Profit: how can you make money or provide exit points before you actually reach your final goal?

He then discussed the fact that most space financing so far is still in the angels level instead of bringing in VC money because there isn't an existance proof. The running gag in the industry is that this is a great industry to make a small fortune in...just so long as you can start with a large one. Until a SpaceX, or a Bigelow Aerospace, or a t/Space can come along and show small fortunes becoming big ones, this is unlikely to change (but once they do, expect the lemmings to arrive, en masse not too long thereafter). Another reason he gave for the lack of VC interest is that most VCs need to see potential markets of $1B/year or more in the relatively near future--because they're spending other peoples' money, and because only a few of their ventures really take off. Fiduciary responsibility can be a real pain apparently.

He mentioned a few revenue models:
  • SBIRs and other government grants: Good for seed money, but don't get sidetracked. Make sure they're paying for something you needed to develop (or something close to what you needed to develop) anyway. Don't become an SBIR farm!

  • Commercial customers: They do exist, and they're a lot easier to work with than the government. For XCOR, their sweet deal with the Rocket Racing League comes to mind.

  • Firm-fixed Price, Competitive Bid Contracts: If you have to go with government contract, avoid cost plus contracts. You don't have to document you costs, which allows you to be an engineering firm instead of an accounting firm. Small, innovative companies have a hard time remaining small and innovative if they have to be both engineers and accountants at the same time.

  • Prizes: Joe mentioned that winning the prize usually require raising as much money as the prize is worth first. Large, complicated prizes often have a difficult time raising sufficient investment interest to actually get more than one or two teams funded sufficiently. Look at the X-Prize for instance. Other than Scaled, there wasn't really any other team that got a decent chunk of money, and a year later we still haven't seen the second X-Prize competitor fly into space. He suggested focusing on smaller, more focused prizes with high leverage, like the spaceglove prize, a prize for a low cost IntraVehicular Activity suit, or for low-mass nanosat upper-stages.

Next was Dan Bland of SpaceHab. I got to work with (and probably get on the nerves of) Dan quite a bit in several of the breakout sessions and workshops on the second or third day. He's a really sharp character, with a lot of experience, and a lot of battle scars. As one of the few commercial space successes out there, SpaceHab had some valuable lessons to share.

He discussed a bit about SpaceHab's history. Apparently they started as a Space Tourism company, trying to fly something like 20 people or so in the cargo bay of the shuttle. Then Challenger happened. After challenger, they switched to focusing on making an orbital lab for the shuttle, and were able to raise about $125M or so from VCs as well as "vendor financing" (which seemed rather clever to me--few are more interested in the success of your company than your suppliers, especially since that translates into their bottom line), and in 1990 got a firm, fixed-price contract from NASA for the job. In 1995 they went public, and were promptly forced by their shareholders to diversify, so they aquired Astrotech (a payloads servicing company) and Jonson Engineering (a manned spaceflight consulting firm). They were doing very well, and had rolled out several new projects, when the Columbia accident happened. They lost a fairly expensive piece of hardware in the accident, and I'm not sure if NASA ever reimbursed them for it (anyone know?). Once again, they were forced to reevaluate themselves. They've managed to get back on their feet, and are cashflow positive again (albeit with about 1/3 the number of employees as they had pre-Columbia).

He then quickly went into some lessons learned. First, he drew a distinction between "commercialization" and "privatization". Privitization is like what is being done with the Shuttle. Boeing and Lockheed via the United Space Alliance operate the system, but they don't own any of the assets, don't raise any private capital. NASA has merely outsourced the exact same work. Commercialization entails actually raising private capital, owning the assets involved, taking risks, having "skin in the game", etc. He then pointed out the following thoughts:
  • Truly commercial companies really need to have gross margins of 30-50% to survive, which means that they can't live with cost-plus contracting (which usually only allows 10% gross margins). They need to do firm, fixed price contracts.

  • Regulations though favor FAR 15 cost-plus contracting.

  • If government is your anchor tenet, it is very difficult to think either strategically or tactically, since everything is at the whim of Congress from year-to-year.

  • Your best customer can become your worst competitor (he then brought up several examples where NASA more or less ripped off their ideas to make similar, government funded substitutes. Lack of full-cost accounting often makes such substitutes look cheaper compared to commercial alternatives because most of the costs for the government provide solution aren't actually counted).

  • He also brought up the fact that from over a decade worth of experience working with NASA, experiments flown by space entrepreneurs, big businesses, and universities actually tended to be more reliable than NASA experiments, not less.

Lastly, he gave a little discussion about their future direction, talking about the APEX program (which I discussed a few months ago on the blog). Basically, they've seen the writing on the wall, and are designing a family of "carrier" vehicles that can function as delivery vehicles or free-flyers. They can provide both up and downmass, and each one is launchable on several potential launchers. This way they are not tied into a single government owned solution. All in all, I think that if any of the space microgravity R&D ideas mentioned in Part II of this summary pan out, that SpaceHab will still be alive, kicking, and profitable for many, many years.

Tether Technologies
The next guy was Joe Carrol of Tether Technologies (of southern California). He was a rather knowledgeable person, and I got the opportunity to pick his brain a bit about tons of various technical topics over the course of the three-day conference. His presentation reviewed various payload return ideas that had been discussed over the years, and then focused on his prefered method: tether based reentry maneuver, ballistic capsule, with helecopter recovery over land using a parachute for decelleration. He also brought up an idea near and dear to my heart: flying payloads on ELVs with reentry capsules, so that even if the launch vehicle fails, the payload can be recovered and reflown.

The two most interesting ideas he brought up were:
  • The heart and soul of profitability in space launch or in any space related business is frequency. Frequent access to space leads to everything else.

  • Disaggregation in the space industry might be a very good idea.

Constellation Services: ISS Resupply Issues
David Anderman was next up. I've known David for several years over the internet and in person. I think he gets a bit of a kick out of being a bit of a wet blanket. However he's also one of those guys who had the annoying habit of being right a lot of the time. He first discussed a lot about the reality of "proximity operations", ie rendezvous and docking.

He discussed the long, and dismal history of autonomous rendezvous and docking, as compared to the much more succesful history of piloted proximity ops. Having a man in the loop on-board one of the two craft makes many things worlds easier than even teleoperation (since most current ground-based teleoperation schemes involve time delays of up to 3 seconds due to the communications infrastructure).

He then brought up an interesting question: can a single company do both the launch vehicle and proximity ops, and do both of them well? He seemed to think that the answer might well be no, and instead suggested the idea of disagregating the container from the ships (much like is done with intermodal shipping containers). He brought up that by decoupling the prox-ops vehicle from the launch vehicle you allow both to benefit from incremental improvements. This is similar to my argument I've been making against the ESAS architecture--it has no real way of benefiting from substantially lower launch costs over the next 15+ years. An interesting example he gave of disagregation was FedEx. FedEx doesn't develop or build the airplanes or trucks, nor does it have a single main customer. It operates other vehicles developed by other people, it flies tons of small cargos from millions of different customers. How this applies to space isn't entirely clear yet, but it is an interesting idea.

For ISS resupply, David suggested the typical idea of NASA as an anchor tenet, but gave the following question as a way of guaging success at a future point: what percentage of the traffic is commercial? If 10 years from now almost all the flights on commercial manned orbital vehicles, and cargo containers is NASA personel and NASA cargo, something was seriously botched.

After all that, he still didn't really discuss at all what CSI's plan is. Those of you who know their company know that this is pretty much par for the course, in fact I think David enjoys being a tease. It's annoying as heck, but they have the right to be as vague and secretive as they want to people who aren't giving them money. He did note however that if NASA finally gets it's thumb out of its nose long enough to get the "non-traditional" RFP out for ISS resupply, that some of his company's strategy would probably then be publically available in the form of their proposal. So, hopefully we'll see.

InterOrbital Systems
The last speaker on the supply panel was Randa Milliron of InterOrbital Systems. IOS is an interesting company I've been following for several years. When I noticed that they were on the speakers list, I decided to pop on over to their website, to see what they were up to lately. I noticed some interesting things I wanted to blog, but ran out of time before the conference (since that was the day before), but Randa brought most of them up in her talk, so I'll mention them briefly here.

She spent a lot of time talking about their Neptune launch vehicle that they're working on. It's a Stage-and-a-Half design, much like the old Atlas ICBM. Basically it has a big booster engine that gets jetisonned after it is no longer needed. This allows the rest of the vehicle to reach orbit without having to do the usual staging, and without having the huge mass fraction issues inherent in SSTO designs. Their system is slated to be launched from a floating position at sea, uses LOX/Methane, and the LOX tanks are designed to be fitted out as a space station on-orbit, for either space tourism or research. The vehicle is sized to carry a fairly spacious 9000lb capsule (if I'm remembering it right) that carries the crew and any cargo.

Anyhow, they've been around making big claims for a while, and I had just about written them off as being all-talk, but they are claiming two very interesting recent successes that definitely make them worth at least watching.

First off, they've apparently ground tested a work Expansion-Deflection type rocket engine. This is an altitude compensating nozzle design that as I understand it had previously been tried, but nobody had gotten it to work very well. Basically, an E-D engine has a centerbody of sorts that deflects the exhaust outwards toward the walls of the engine. In theory, at low altitudes, the core in the middle is supposed to stay at about ambient pressure, which results in an annular exhaust jet that isn't overexpanded even though the expansion ratio on the engine may be as high as 100:1 or more. As altitude increases, and the pressure in the void drops, the jet fills up more and more of the nozzle, until eventually it reconnects in the middle and you have a full nozzle with a very high expansion ratio. At least that's the theory in a nutshell. The problem is that it tends not to work that way. The fast flowing gasses surrounding the void tend to asperate so much gas that it quickly drops well below the ambient pressure, causing the engine to act as though it were in a vacuum, more or less elminating most of the benefits of the design (while keeping all the drawbacks). Apparently though IOS claims that they've succesfully eliminated or avoided the asperation problem (though obviously they didn't explain how). It's relatively easy to tell if your E-D nozzle is working on the ground, because if it isn't working, the flow will separate from the nozzle walls if you have a high expansion ratio. If it doesn't separate, it means that the E-D nozzle is at least doing most of its job. If they've really solved the problem, this might be a technology worth licensing out to other alt.space firms. I'm sure most of us would like having altitude compensating rocket engines.

The other interesting news is that they've now presold their first spaceflight. IOS, since it doesn't have the credibility of a Space Adventures or Virgin Galactic is offering a rather unique (and hopefully legal) deal to help raise money. Basically, the first several passengers get a $250k flight deal (instead of the $2M/seat normal price) with a full refund two years after their flight. IOS plans on raising the money for its orbital vehicle through by preselling enough tickets. Apparently this presell that they've finally managed was enough to fund the rest of their Sea Star, nanosat launcher (a subscale version of the Neptune), which they claim should be flying within the next 10 months or so. As it is, it should be interesting to see if they can pull it off.

Microwave Thermal Rockets for a Lunar Tug?

Before I continue with my ACES reporting, I wanted to bring up an idea that I had recently. A few days ago, both on Hobbyspace and on one of the mailing lists I was on, someone posted a link to this article about microwave thermal rockets. Now for some serious techno-nerdlichkeit.

Their basic idea is that you use a ground based microwave array that focuses its energy on a heat exchanger on the launch vehicle. The vehicle flows LH2 through the heat exchanger where it gets nice and toasty, and then that now GH2 is flowed through a nozzle, yielding a really high Isp (750-1000s). The nice thing about this idea is that there are currently existing microwave systems capable of putting out this kind of power, and only the heat exchanger has any really complicated parts in it. Also the heat exchanger can double as a reentry shield. The paper documents a 1000kg GLOW SSTO RLV based on the idea.

Now, I'm not so sure if this idea makes tons of sense for the Earth-to-Orbit launch market, due to the really high G's needed toward burnout, and the really low payload, but it got me thinking about other things.

Basically here's my crazy idea. Use a ground based microwave system about the size mentioned in the paper (around 300MW, using 300 1MW gyrotrons in a phased array). Have a small (20klb or so) tug in LEO. The tug has a modified RL-10 that can either burn a normal LOX/LH2 mix, or can route the hydrogen through the heat exchanger and directly inject it as a hot gas. Say designed for something like 800s Isp. You then have about 45% of the mass in propellants (mostly LH2 with a few tiny LOX tanks), some 10-15% in structures, and then about 40% in payload (about 8000lb). The whole thing could probably be launched on a Falcon IX and refueled by Falcon Vs or Dneprs. The earth departure burn would be done with the microwave thermal system, and the lunar insertion and earth return burns are done with the LOX/LH2 mode (until a similar system could be setup on the lunar surface). The system would return to LEO using aerobraking. The microwave system would probably be located in the tropics on a high mountain (like say in Ecuador), and the earth-departure burn would be made as soon as the vehicle appeared over the horizon relative to the microwave station.

The interesting thing is that such a system could probably allow for 2-4 lunar flights per month, and could support as many as 12 two-person lunar landings per year per transfer vehicle.

Anyhow, just a crazy idea. We now return you to your normally scheduled program.

08 October 2005

ACES Conference Summary Part III: The G-Lady

Now that I have a bit more time, I'll continue with my long and painfully drawn out discussion of the ACES conference. :-)

After the first panel, and a quick lunch, but before the next panel, there was another keynote speaker, Dr Joan Vernikos. I got to work with her during a breakout Dr Vernikos is a space life sciences researcher with many years of experience working with astronauts, and researching the effect of microgravity on the human body. As she pointed out, one of the best ways to study the effect of gravity on a human body is to study what happens when the body is no longer subject to gravity.

She described in her talk some of the things that happen to people exposed to long-term microgravity. Only some of this was new to me, but since many of you probably haven't been corrected by Henry Spencer as much as I have, some of it might be news to you. Anyhow, when you're in free-fall, the fluids in your body redistribute themselves, since gravity is no longer trying to pull them down into your feet. The end result is that your head and upper body end up with a lot more fluid in them than normal. Some sensory organs in your neck notice after a while what appears to be too much fluid in your body, which triggers a mechanism causing you to need to pee a bunch, until the fluid level in your head is back down to the level it would be on earth. The problem is, at this point your body has actually started dehydrating itself! Talk about the danger of sending false signals.

Anyhow, this and other related effects cause a slew of other biological effects to start occuring rather rapidly. For instance, bones don't absorbe calcium as well. Muscles develop a resistance to insulin, which decreases their ability to absorb blood sugar, which in turn causes the muscles to atrophy. Sleep problems have been reported extensively, in spite of perfectly normal EKG readings. You don't wake up a bunch or something like that, but when you do finally get up, you feel as though you hadn't slept at all! The immune system gets suppressed. And all of that is before you start looking at the effects due to not having to hold up as much weight! It also appears that to-date most exercise in space has proven more or less useless. It helps a little, but the key problems appear not to be related to not using your muscles, but due to the body's actual response to lack of gravity!

After a sufficiently long flight, there are other effects. Stuff like lack of balance, impaired coordination, fainting, feet hurting, nocturnal diuresis (having to pee a bunch at night), reduced stamina, more fragile bones and heart, etc.

There are some additional problems that while not explicitly verified there is some evidence for. Stuff like wounds wounds and bone damage taking longer to heal, decreased or changed effectiveness of drugs and nutrients, vision changes, cognitive and emotional problems, and our favorite: gastrointestinal problems.

[Note: most of these effects take a while to start occuring. Suborbital flights aren't long enough for any of these to really start taking place, and orbital flights of a few days probably are also insufficient to run into most of these problems. We also really have no clue what the result of long-term exposure to gravity levels between zero-g and 1g are, we just have no real data. I think that adding even a little gravity will be likely to drastically reduce many of the effects of microgravity on the body, but there are many others who disagree.]

One of the things that was noticed fairly early on in the space age (by both Russians and the US) was that many of the symptoms of extended exposure to microgravity were very similar to the effect of long-duration bed rest. She also pointed out an interesting correlation to the effects of aging. The key difference being that the effects of microgravity and bed-rest were reversable, which kind of begs the question if aging effects might be reversible, preventable, or at least delayable.

She then went on to some of her hypotheses on the matter. She thinks that by taking greater advantage of gravity (through better posture, standing up instead of sitting when you can, and a bunch of other ideas), that some of these effects may be decreaseable. She suggested that there may be a correlation between more and more leisurely jobs (which tend to have people sitting down at a desk for long durations) and the higher occurance of aging related symptoms at younger and younger ages. She then suggested that in the future we may see hypergravity gyms. Stuff like man-powered centrifuges and the like.

All in all a very interesting talk, that I'm probably butchering a bit. She has a nice book out on the topic, though I didn't pick one up. Might be worth checking out.

ACES Conference Summary Part II: Keynote Speaker and Demand Panel

After Phil's intro, a keynote speaker, Nobel Prize winner, Dr Baruch Blumberg, started things off. Dr Baruch was one of the scientists who discovered a lot about how infectious diseases like Hepatitis B spread and his research led to the development of the first HepB vaccine, which has saved many lives. In an effort to be kind of brief, I'll just highlight a few of his good points:
  • Basic science almost always leads to unanticipated discoveries and results, and those discoveries are what can then lead to practical inventions.

  • It's hard to have real continuous innovation in practical applications without continuing to do basic science research.

  • In the robots vs humans debate, he pointed out that robots are only really good at finding what you expect to find--that they weren't any good at asking questions and synthesizing unexpected observations. Sometimes you luck out and are able to adapt the robot to further studying the new discovery, but humans are much better at adapting to the unexpected, or for drawing new conclusions.

Demand Panel: Tourism, Biotech, and Protein Crystals, Oh My!
After Dr Baruch's address, the first panel of discussions talked about the demand for space access, ie real markets for commercial space launch.

The first presenter was David Gump of t/Space, and he discussed the potential for orbital space tourism. His presentation was very similar to the part of t/Space's CE&R presentation that I previously discussed on the blog back in August. David discussed a bit about Air Launch's progress, and on t/Space's CXV bid. He mentioned that t/Space was going to push for NASA to allow them to retain the IP on their CXV if they ended up winning the bid for commercial ISS resupply that NASA is supposed to releasing "Real Soon Now"[TM]. He also mentioned that if Air Launch is able to win the Falcon SLV downselect, they hope to be having their first launch (of a Falcon I equivalent booster) sometime in late 2007. He stated that t/Space was hoping to market it's flights at a price of around $5M per seat per flight, which it figures could lead to hundreds of people flying to orbit per year by the middle of the next decade. Noting Mark's mention over on Chair Force Engineer that there have been a total of 250 manned space flights in human history so far, it's exciting to think that we may soon have worked our way up to the point where we launch that many passenger flights every year.

One of the key take-aways from David's presentation was the fact that the high potential flight rates caused by space tourism make it easier to do space research by providing assured, reliable, affordable, and frequent access to space. If you know that there's a flight up to the Nautilus station or ISS every week, it makes it a lot easier to slip a researcher and some cargo into the manifest on the way up with only short notice, and equally easy to come back when the experiment is done. An analogy I can think of, it's a lot easier to do field research when it is near somewhere that has regular commercial flights--instead of having to charter a plane or a boat or something, you can just buy a ticket, and pay for FedEx to ship your stuff.

The next presenter was Dr Neill Pellis of JSC. Dr Pellis talked about various interesting aspects of microgravity biotech research. It's sometimes hard to communicate technical concepts clearly to someone outside of your field, but I had a fun time trying to tease out what the various jargon actually meant in layman's terms. Apparently one of the big issues with growing tissues for research, or for producing various chemicals, antibodies, or other useful things, is that gravity causes the cells to settle to the bottom of the growth dish. When the cells reach the bottom wall, they tend to grow outward in a very thing 2-D layer along the wall of the dish. The problem is that these 2-D tissues apparently lack many of the important morphological properties of real 3-D tissues, which limits their utility in biological research. Not only that, but in cases where surface area matters, the difference between even a small 3-D tissue and a 2-D tissue can be several orders of magnitude more surface area.

Dr Pellis described a rather neat invention that was used to do ground-based research that could partially avoid this problem, it is called a bioreactor, or a rotating wall vessel. Basically imagine two concentric tubes, lined up with their mutual axis going horizontally compared to the ground. The annulus between the two walls was filled completely with growth media and a suspension of cells that you wanted to grow (with all air bubbles removed). The two walls are then slowly rotated, at the same RPM, which quickly causes the whole fluid to rotate with the walls at the same RPM. This allows the cells to stay in suspension, as though they were in free-fall, without inducing the kinds of shear forces that you get when you stir the solution. Apparently, a lot of the cells they study can easily be harmed or destroyed by even the amount of hydrodynamic shear you see in a blood vessel! These bioreactors can provide a free-fall like analog for days, weeks, months, or even years. The problem that Dr Pellis pointed out is that while this allows them to grow some limited 3-D tissues, it still isn't really anywhere near as good as doing the same thing in genuine microgravity. It allows some preliminary work to be done inexpensively on the ground, but is not a complete substitute for eventually doing the micrograv research.

Dr Pellis also made a few suggestions about what they would need to do this research. First he highlighted the fact that they would need frequent access to space. Probably in some sort of a free-flyer. He pointed out the fact that leaving the equipment in orbit, and only exchanging the samples and researchers was a far better approach than hauling the whole facility up and down each time. He quipped that he "had a lab here on earth, but he didn't pack it up and take it home with him every time he went home for the night". It's a good point.

The last presenter on the panel Larry DeLucas of the University of Alabama. Larry's work revolved around Protein Crystallography. Apparently all proteins have complicated molecular layouts or "structures". Apparently, the structure of a protein can greatly effect how the protein actually interacts with other objects, thus making it very important in the development of new drugs. Better structural information can help design drugs that produce less side effects, reach the market faster, and run into less snags during their development. Saving even one year in the development of a drug could be worth 10s of millions of dollars. But, in order to get good structural data via X-ray Crystallography, you need large, high quality crystals.

Dr DeLucas pointed out that after the Human Genome Project finished mapping out the human genome, his group as well as several others were asked to start getting structural data on the various proteins within the human genome. Over the past several years, attempts have been made to get structure on somewhere above 10,000 different soluble proteins, but of the ones that made it to the crystallization process, only about 1/3 of them actually succesfully yielded structural information. Counting both soluble and insoluble proteins, apparently somewhere less than 1% of the proteins investigated to-date have succesfully yielded structural data!

This is where microgravity Protein Crystal Growth comes into play. In orbit, the microgravity environment allows for much purer, larger, and higher resolution crystals to be grown. From my previous dabblings with microgravity materials science, I think this may be partially due to the lack of natural (ie gravity driven) convection.

[As an interesting aside, this ultra-pure crystal growth phenomena is not isolated to protein crystals, many inorganic crystals can also be grown of exceptionally good quality on orbit. Dr DeLucas mentioned as an aside that he had suggested growing artificial rubies on orbit, and then selling them on earth to get revenue for some of the science projects, but got shot down by NASA. It's an interesting idea nonetheless. While at least by my experience, artificial gemstones have a bit of a stigma to them, space-grown artificial gemstones might be valued high enough in the jewelry market to make a tidy profit off of such a venture. Gems are a high value per weigh and value per volume product, and the demand might be high enough to close the business plan even with the cost of doing stuff in space.]

Anyhow, Dr DeLucas pointed out that there is a quantitatively measurable improvement in protein crystals grown on orbit compared to on earth. There have been some problems in the past with microgravity PCG, particularly due to flying the particular protein only once, and having too-short of a flight (due to the fact that they were done on a 2-week shuttle mission). Apparently the crystals were finer than terrestrial grown crystals, but they were too small for good crystallography, having had too short of a time to grow. There are ways to overcome these issues, but they require frequent flights, and sufficiently long growth periods. Basically, the more times you fly the protein, and the longer you can keep it up per flight, the higher the probability of producing a substantially better crystal. As Dr DeLucas put it, if they could fly every two weeks, he'd guarantee that they could produce better crystals than were possible on earth.

In fact, Dr DeLucas was confident enough of the technical maturity of the process, and of the real delivered benefit, that he's going to try and craft a business plan between now and the next ACES conference. He wants to get some feedback and then try and carry out the plan. ACES really wants to see at least one or two succesful proof-of-concept businesses launched in the near future to start showing that space has real commercial potential. One of the keys to that plan as he sees it is to couple the space PCG capability with a very high quality terrestrial protein crystal growth and X-ray crystallography capability.

Key Take-aways for Launch Providers
There were a couple of important lessons for potential future launch providers:
  • There are several real markets that could buy rides on commercial vehicles if the launch costs drop a bit.

  • All the major markets benefit greatly from much higher flight rates, ie they need frequent access to space as much as they need low-cost access.

  • High-G ballistic reentry for biotech specimens are doable with extra complications like freezing the samples and such, but lower-G reentries are preferable.

  • Most of the applied biotech phenomena require microgravity timescales of several weeks, with most of the needing 4-6 weeks per experiment.

  • Space Tourism may be an enabler for these markets.

  • Before either of these markets will really take off, they need at least one or two solid, visible successes.

  • Of the microgravity research areas, Protein Crystal Growth is probably the closest to producing profitable businesses.

  • Space Tourism is a lot more dependent on low-cost to orbit, while the applied biotech research is more dependent on frequent access.

  • Timescales matter! While most of the timescales for microgravity biotech research is on the order of days or weeks, there are a few specific areas of basic biological research that can be carried out on suborbital flights. However there are lots of other areas of non-biotech microgravity research that do have short enough timescales to benefit from suborbital flights.

  • Having the ability to either have man-tended operations, or at least teleoperations for biotech research is a lot better than trying to do things autonomously.

  • It is better to fly the lab up only once, and then you only have to fly the raw materials and personel back and forth.

  • Most of the markets are either selling an experience, or selling information. There are very few products that have a high enough price/lb to actually be profitably made on orbit (though artificial space gems might be one of them).

Anyhow, hope that much was informative. I sure learned a ton about the market. I'll have to get to the other panels, and then the workshops on the second and third day later on tonight.

ACES Conference Summary

Sorry the blogging has been so light over the past several days. Over the past three days, I had been attending the three-day Commercial Opportunities in Space Forum put on by the Alliance for Commercial Enterprises in Space (ACES). It was free, nearby (NASA Ames is only about 15-20 minutes down the road from our shop), and had potential customers and investors there, so we figured it would be a good idea to have someone there representing MSS.

I had promised I would write a summary, but I've been having a hard time getting started. Other more talented writers like Jeff Foust seem to be able to distill out the Zeitgeist of other conferences in a short, two-page article, whereas my last conference report ended up dragging on for about a week and a half after the fact. In spite of the fact that I still haven't been able to find my own Handy-Dandy-Zeitgeist-Distillation-ma-DooHickey, I'll try to at least keep things shorter than last time.

Before I go into any specifics about the conference, I have to give kudos to the Innovation Labs guys who helped run the show. During the various presentations, some of their guys were sitting off on the side of the room with eisles capturing what was being said in a graphic, almost cartoon-like format. I have to say, I was fairly impressed at both the quality of the art, as well as how well they were actually recording the information, especially seeing as how they were doing this real-time, on-the-fly as the presentations proceeded. They said that sometime soon they'll put all the notes (and pictures of all the storyboards) up on-line for people to see, so I'll link to those once they're available.

Phil Smith of ACES (who is apparently not the Phil Smith who frequents online space groups like spacepolicy.com) started the conference off by pointing out the interesting situation we find ourselves in at the moment. Lots of money has been, is, and will be expended (in the relatively near future) towards lowering the cost of space access, and improving the througput and reliability of that access. There's still a long way to go, but it looks like there's a good chance this wave will be the one that finally succeeds in creating truly commercial space access. In addition to space access, there is a huge restructuring going on at the moment in the goverment side of space. With NASA's shall we say "Non-Kosher" approach to returning to the moon, Life Sciences and other areas within NASA's microgravity research program are being gutted at the moment, and their people are all of the sudden realizing that their jobs and their research are now in jeapordy if they can't find private sponsors and revenue streams ASAP. Lastly, Phil highlighted the rapid improvements in biotech research, developments regarding the human genome, and how vibrant a part of our economy biotechnology really is.

The goal of the conference was to try and engage commercial industry to act on the opportunities created by these realities, and in particular to figure out what would be needed to take us from where we are right now to a point where the business cases were solid enough to start bringing in real capital for commercial space markets like these to get off the ground.

07 October 2005

SpaceX Update June-September

Just received the SpaceX update for the summer, and it appears that I get to beat Clark Lindsey to writing a summary again.

Anyhow, Elon took a bit of time explaining the genesis of the Falcon IX. Apparently they had a customer who needed a launcher with more payload than a Falcon V. They tried a bunch of different design options, but the only one that didn't reduce the flight safety, or add a bunch of expense or complexity was going with a 9-engine first stage.

He then reviewed some of the safety features they've taken into consideration in order to insure that they really have engine-out capability on those engines. After the rumors of the teststand failure last month, I think some people were wondering if having 9 engines would actually decrease the safety level of the Falcon IX. Elon mentioned the various blast shields and debris protection systems, as well as the systems for shutting off flow to severed lines in event of a failure. Not sure how much of that was in the design originally, or how much of that was done in order to eliminate failure modes brought up by the failure last month.

Apparently they're getting a lot of interest for the Falcon I and Falcon IX, with 6 contracts for the former, and 2 for the latter. He feels that Falcon IX will net a lot of comsat business that's currently going to EELVs and foreign boosters. However he emphasized that they fully plan to stick with the Falcon I, which they hope can become a very highly utilized smallsat launcher over the ensuing years.

He commented on preparations there at Omelek Island, where they hope to have their maiden Falcon I launch on Halloween.

He also discussed the design progress on the Falcon IX. Apparently they've got the 3Mlbf capable "very large test stand" (which is for some reason called the BFTS instead of the VLTS) mostly ready. Apparently they plan on doing a full duration hold-down test of the Falcon IX first stage next spring or early summer. Unlike what some have been assuming, it looks like the Falcon IX development is going to go a lot faster than the Falcon I. The team is further up the learning curve, the engines are pretty close to off-the-shelf, and they're already getting practice welding up tank sections using their new manufacturing processes.

Anyhow, things are definitely looking quite interesting. Here's to a succesful launch on the 31st!

04 October 2005

Nanoparticle Fuel Enhancements for Rockets?

Paul Dietz finally got around to posting on the blog he's had for a while. His post was talking about one of the more interesting (and practical) near-term applications of nanotechnology: better rocket propellants.

Now, nanotechnology is one of those areas that I think has seen way too much hype (much like space elevators, or nuclear fusion), but this more "mundane" application strikes me as the kind of useful advance that is actually worth bringing attention to. I have read elsewhere about what I'd call "practical nanotech" advances, ie applications that take advantage of nanoscale physical phenomena for useful purposes. One example that I recall reading about was using small deposits of silver nanoparticles as an anti-bacterial/anti-viral treatment for various medical and food-handling equipment.

Paul's suggestion is also one I'd consider to fall under the category of "practical nanotech". Apparently it has been found that suspending a very small amount nanoscopic particles of copper in some fluids can increase their thermoconductivity by 40% or more. Paul suggested that by adding nanoscale aluminum or carbon particles to hydrocarbon fuels, the thermoconductivity could be greatly increased, which would make them better regenerative coolants. Now, I'm not sure how copper or carbon suspended in rocket fuel would do to the chamber liner. More importantly, I'm not sure if a concoction of that sort could be made cheap enough to be worth the slightly higher thermoconductivity, but it is definitely a thought.

Such advances aren't really required for lower cost space access, but they definitely can't hurt. It'll be interesting to see what kind of other weird rocket-relevant materials advances will come out over the next several years.

Commercial Space Opportunities Forum at NASA Ames

Well, while everyone else is out having fun at the X-Prize Cup, I'll be attending a forum that's being put on by the Alliance for Commercial Enterprises in Space. The forum will be held tomorrow through friday at NASA Ames, which is only a few miles down the road. What with the recent announcement with Google, and some other rumblings, it appears that at least some people at Ames are starting to "get it" with regards to commercial space.

According to the email I received, and the further info on their website, the forum is meant to:
[B]ring together experts to strengthen and connect the four pillars needed to support a wide range of profitable endeavors in space over the next decade. Discussions will benefit from (1) customers with a demand for space access and services; (2) commercial firms who can supply that need; (3) investors willing to provide the enabling capital to make commercial space ventures successful; and (4) experts in developing the public policies and fostering the public awareness necessary to accelerate commercial uses of space.

This could be potentially interesting. From other sources on their site, there appears to be a strong focus on the Biotech sector and potential microgravity research done in space for biotech companies. ACES also seems to be focused mainly on Low Earth Orbit commercialization, but I'm sure that there will probably be some interest in suborbital microgravity services and other similar ideas.

Looking at the list of speakers, it appears that I know at least some of the speakers: Dave Anderman of Constellation Services Inc, Joe Pistritto (an investor in XCOR and a Space Access regular), David Gump of t/Space, and I've at least heard of Randa Milliron and her company (Interorbital systems).

I'll be there representing Masten Space Systems, and I intend on blogging my notes from the conference. If someone in the area wants to loan me a laptop and a digital camera, I could try live-blogging the thing, but I'll probably just do a writeup on my notes like I did for RTTM VI. With the timing of the forum relative to the X-Prize Cup though, I wonder how the turnout is going to be. I guess we'll see.

[Note: If any of you faithful readers are going to be there, please look me up. I should be the only one wearing a MSS shirt, but if you want to buy one of your own, you can get some here....]

03 October 2005

XCOR and the Rocket Racing League

I've been friends with several of the guys at XCOR for many years now, and have been quite grateful for the work they've done toward making commercial space a reality. Especially with all the trailblazing they've done in reducing the regulatory uncertainty by working with the AST over the past several years. While I'm obviously rather fond of my company, and hope to see us become a profitable suborbital launch company, I've always hoped that the industry would be big enough to allow other groups like XCOR to also see the success that they truly deserve. With the announcement this morning of the Rocket Racing League, it looks like XCOR may have just had the lucky break it needs to achieve their dreams.

The idea of rocket racing has been around for a while. A friend of mine, Ed Wright, of X-Rocket unsuccesfully tried to pull off a similar rocket racing idea a few years ago. At the time I couldn't quite wrap my brain around how such a race would work, but the details that are coming out about the Rocket Racing League seem to make a lot of sense. The idea of having a racing league where each team flies the same basic airframe with the same engines takes most of the technical risk out of the project. It also makes it more of a people race instead of a technology race. By keeping the vehicles so similar, it puts most of the chance at success or failure into the hands of the pilot and his/her pit crew. I've never been much of a professional racing person myself, but for something like this, I'd probably put down some money at least once.

And with gorgeous LOX/kerosene engines, the fresh memory of SpaceShipOne in most peoples' minds, and the solid team that Peter's put together, they stand a real chance of succeeding with this. It may take longer to ramp up than expected, but if anyone can pull this off, Peter Diamandis is likely it.

As I said earlier though, if this is succesful, it is going to be a huge windfall for XCOR. They're currently selected as the sole supplier for the propulsion systems for the RRL "X-Racers", using the larger LOX/Kero engines they've been working on for the past year or two. While I doubt this will end up with hundreds of X-Racers, I wouldn't be surprised if XCOR didn't end up making more money off of this contract than they did off of their NASA contract for Composite LOX Tank development. Between that and all the publicity they'll be getting, they may have finally found enough money to develop the Xerus vehicle they've been tantalizing us with for the past two years.

Congratulations guys. Hopefully once we have as much experience under our belt as they do, we can twist Peter's arm into making a VTVL rocket racing league with MSS as the airframe provider.

Hey, one can dream, can't he?

[Update: Apparently, XCOR will be making a lot more money than I had originally supposed. According to an entry at Michael Belfiore's blog:
Initially XCOR will build 10 rocket racers. My editor tells me that these babies will cost $1 million each, so that will be a nice boost to XCOR's finances. I'll find out more when I see the XCOR folks at the XP Cup.

Now, this is a total SWAG on my part, but having seen their operation, and knowing how much money is likely going to go into our vehicle (which is actually quite a bit more complicated), I'd be surprised if it cost them more than $250-500k per vehicle to do the manufacturing and assembly. That means that they're almost definitely making more money off this deal than they did off the NASA Cryo LOX Tank work, and in fact the amount they should be clearing is about the number they've been touting over the years as being neccessary to develop Sphinx or Xerus. It looks like the competition is just about to get hotter in our corner of the alt.space world.]

Hot Flamey Stuff

Sorry it's been several days since I've had a chance to post. Just about two years ago, I saw a funny quote referenced on Rocketforge.org. Apparently somebody had asked:
How come on real rockets they always have funnel like things on the back of the thruster thingo?

To which a rocket historian, Peter Alway replied:
Because the hot flamey stuff that comes out of the thruster thingo is accelleratized to the fastness of that noisy stuff you hear by passing through an other-way funnel-like thingy before it reaches the funnel-like things you see, and by going through the funnel-like things it embiggens, which acceleratizes it to several times faster than that noisy stuff you hear. The faster the flamey stuff leaves the thruster thingo, the faster the rocket travels when it runs out of the gunk it burns.

Ever since then, the phrase "hot flamey stuff" has kinda stuck.

Well, last weekend we conjured up some of our own "hot flamey stuff", making Masten Space Systems a real rocket company! Man was that impressive! I was standing about 1/4 mile away from the trailer, manning a fire station, and you could feel the power coming out of that bad-boy. We definitely aren't yet an XCOR when it comes to engine development experience, but little-by-little, we're getting there.

We still have a lot of work left to go before we have a flight-ready engine, but if our igniter experience is anything to go off of, now that we've finally had one firing, everything else should start moving a lot quicker. The engine we were testing was a water-cooled workbench version of our 500lbf LOX/IPA throttleable vernier engines that we'll be using on our XA-1 suborbital rocket vehicle. Once we have a set of four vernier engines working reliably and safely, we intend to fly them on a demonstrator vehicle, the XA-0.1, which is currently under development. Maybe by the time the actual X-Prize Cup competitions start next October, we'll have a vehicle in the race too.

But, dang that was sweet!
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