Monday, January 1, 2007

Modern Conestoga's

Instapundit links to some books on space, and at the end, throws out an interesting thought:

The book I'd like to see -- I considered writing it myself, but didn't ever get around to anything -- is a book tracing the ongoing private space race among private entrepreneurs ranging from XCOR to Armadillo to Scaled Composites and Blue Origins. A sort of space version of Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine. I'd certainly buy a book like that, and I suspect that a lot of people would.

(UPDATE: Just as I finish the post, I find Mr. Belfiore's blog. His forthcoming book, the Rocketeers, answers the mail)

I'd like to see that also. Whoever you are, future author (or pamphleteer?), drop me a line when you get it done, so I can buy me a copy. In the meantime, let's flesh out your bibliography a bit.

See, I am a science fiction freak. But my taste runs more towards the sort of "just beyond the fingertip" kind of SciFi. Look, the suns going to explode, there's a galaxy on a collision course with us and somewhere out there, giant matrioshka brains are tunneling through hyperspace having swap meets and exchanging copies of Accelerando as a cautionary tale.


But that's to big for me. Me, I figure if I get to see Saturn with my own (or Kurzweil Enhanced) eyes, then I could die a happier man. Guess that's why I was among the three or four fans of Star Trek: Enterprise.

What follows is my look at the current state of the art of "Private Space Ventures (PSV), the Making of the Modern Conestoga" (hey, there's your title).

This post has three sections: Getting Up, Staying Up, Getting Around.

Full disclosure, I received a D- in Celestial Mechanics without ever having, you know, ever enrolled in course about Celestial Mechanics. So there's not going to be a lot of discussion about Delta-V's, energy cost and whatnot. That's for those smart dudes who are going to take us up and out there.

Getting Up:

1. Scaled Composites. The get pride of place because they've actually launched a ship, SpaceshipOne. SpaceshipOne captured the AnsariX prize back in 2004. Winning the prize required going above the karman line, twice in two weeks. Scaled Composites Chief Operating Brain, Burt Rutan, has linked up with Virgin Atlantic's Stud in Chief Richard Branson to form the Spaceship Company, now branded as Virgin Galactic. Seems like I'm not the only one fascinated by this approach. The Marines are looking to go all Colonial Marine with a slightly more butch version. Defense Tech's David Axe did a cover story for PopSci on the Marine's SUSTAIN plan. Semper Fly. A sweet idea, but I think we'll being seeing Orwell's Floating Fortresses ( Operation Prime Chance?) before SUSTAIN comes to fruition.

Snapped this pic of Spaceship One at the Smithsonian:

Gizmodo provides some helpful pictures of what this venture may end up looking like.

PopSci and the Marines:

2. SpaceX. Paypal founder Elon Musk's venture. Based in El Segundo, CA (along way from Sanford & Sons to SpaceX). SpaceX uses a two stage partially reusable rocket, called the Falcon, to launch payloads into orbit. While Rutan is looking at moving people, SpaceX's short term focus is to move stuff. According to their wikipage, they aim to be the uHaul of Low Earth Orbit. They've got a contract with the USAF for something called IndefiniteDelivery/Indefinite Quantity (where are those Vulcan Copyright Lawyers when you need them). The USAF wants a reliable way to launch "responsive small spacecraft." Probably part of it's Force Application Launched from Conus (FALCON) architecture.

3. BlueOrigin Started by Jeff Bezos, the world's most visionary bookseller. Can't really say much about them. Located in Seattle, the wikipage says they're focusing on space tourism. But this is Bezo's, remember? He'll probably load it up with a couple of 3-D printers, and send them straight to the moon, to start a little in situ resource utilization.

4. XCOR. Old Rocket Scientist never die, they simply move onto the next startup. IAW the wikipage, XCOR is made of refugees from the Rotary Rocket (Tom Clancy, an early backer). XCOR focuses on engines, and is looking to start the Rocket Racing League.

These four are an example of what an old boss of mines would call "brute force and ignorance" (that is a compliment, BTW. Means getting the job done). You basically gather up some volatiles and light a match. So what else is out there?

5. The Space Elevator. UPDATE: Adding Liftport, based on a great recommendation in the comments. Next to a "Blimp to Space" modality, it's probably my favourite way of getting into space. If I could get my Engine of Infinite Energies (which my wife derisively refers to as a leaf-blower with green tape) to work, I'd build a space elevator tomorrow. That said, I'm agnostic about the whole process. Whoever wins, gets a six pack of the finest beer, on me (we'll call it the SerenissXma Prize).

6. JP Aerospace. Or Airship-to-Orbit. Learned about them from the Speculists Blog. Basically, in it's "far out" configuration, you ride an airship up to where the atmosphere runs out, and take off from there.

7. DaVinci Project: Now, I thought these guys were defunct. But it seems as if they've linked up with a company called DreamSpace and reentered the race. The original DaVinci Project floated the rocket on a balloon, and when it reached launch altitude, sent it straight into space. Look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Staying Up.

So once you get into LEO, what do you do? Well, check in.

1. Space Island Group: Basic idea was instead of throwing away the external fuel tanks from Shuttle Launches, you'd orbit them, string them together, and build a space station. Seeing how NASA is getting out the Shuttle business, we'll see how that goes.

2. Bigelow Aerospace: Or maybe, Blimps in Space? Robert Bigelow, the entrepreneur behind Budget Suites of America, is the founder and driving force behind BA. BA's idea is to send inflatable habitation modules into orbit. In fact, they've already launched Genesis I as a proof of concept for inflatable POOFs.

They've even got a section where you can design your own habitat.

Getting Around:

In the short term, we don't. Private Space Ventures focus on low earth orbit, at this time. But I hope these space venturers follow the sage advice my father gave me when I left for college: "get out, and stay out."

In the meantime, check out Mr. Robinson's site, BamBam131. Some stunning images of what is, or could be, just around the corner.



Larry said...

How can you put Space Island Group above Bigelow.
All SIG has done is make nice pictures and spread lies about having a fleet of 20 space shuttles.
Bigelow has actually put something up there.

phred said...

You're absolutely right. Post came as a sort of "what can I remember." The Space Island concept caught my fancy early on, and that's why they went in first. But, yeah. Vaporware.

Brian Dunbar said...

Just a thought - you could also post a link to Liftport as well as The Space Elevator Reference.

The diff being that Liftport is all about exploring the idea of a space elevator but we're also a real company with real hardware that might make bring in some funding in the near-ish future.

Just saying. Nice post and great imagery.

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