Friday, July 23, 2010

Lessons from ComicCon: Is Stark Industries a good model for the new-space movement?

One of the more interesting panels from ComicCon has been a discussion among figures in the so called "new-space" community about whether or not Stark Industries from the Iron Man movies would pose as a good model for the private space movement.

One of the panelists was XCOR engineer Mark Street who talked about how after the first movie came out all the company's engineers went to see the movie together. Street said they all laughed hysterically when Tony Stark nearly kills himself in his basement labratory after he sets Iron Man's thrusters at 10-percent and sends himself flying. That's the way things are at XCOR he said, which is much different from the way Lockheed Martin or NASA operates.

"It never works exactly the way you think it's going to the first time," said Street. "The large companies use well established procedures and rules, and they develop the 787 and it flies the first time, but that's not the approach that will bring prices down."

While the group expressed varying levels of dis-sapointment in NASA's post-Apollo human space exploration, most agreed that it was lack of competition that was to blame. Because the current industries don't have any incentive to bring the prices of roackets down, they won't.

"The problem we have is that there's only one NASA, as long as it's like that we'll never have competition," said John Hunter of Quicklaunch.

The most striking thing I heard from the panel was about the freedom from regulation the FAA has given to new-space companies. As Street put it, it's not that they're blind to what's going on at these companies, it's that the FAA has built in a wide berth until the industry gets off the ground. That means that Burt Rutan's SpaceShip One and SpaceX's Falcon won't have to prove they are safe for their passengers if/when they try to take them into space, they simply have to demonstrate that they're not a "reasonable threat" to the public at large.

The Mars Society's Dave Rankin says that the competition from these scrappy companies experimenting with new and innovative methods of building things for cheap, is starting to pay off. NASA had a competition for its commercial orbtial transport system contract to determine what companies would be able to deliver things to the ISS and new-space won hands down.

"Lockheed did compete for the contract," said Rankin, "but they got beat out because they just couldn't do the job for cheap enough."

The panel was also in agreement that manned space exploration was inevitable and that being able to book a ticket and go into space was an unavoidable eventuality. Rankin described a wall at Meteor Crater in Arizona where the names of every astronaut to cross the threshold into space are inscribed. "I think people have dreams of going up there," said Rankin. "They don't build walls with lists of all the robots that have gone into space."


  1. "That means that Burt Rutan's SpaceShip One and SpaceX's Falcon won't have to prove they are safe for their passengers if/when they try to take them into space, they simply have to demonstrate that they're not a "reasonable threat" to the public at large. "

    Actually NASA and the FAA are holding heated discussions over who gets to regulate the industry and what requirements must be met to launch people. It may be that way now, but by the time Orbital or SpaceX put people on board their systems, there will be very thorough processes to check the safety of passengers

  2. Terrance- I don't think anyone on the panel believes the process isn't thorough.

    They were emphasizing that they are working with the FAA from the start of this new industry and the rules are currently designed to foster innovation. Another very interesting point that came out in Q&A though is: what happens when there is an accident? Will the industry be able to cope once strict regulations are eventually placed on it?

  3. I'm not sure we'll have to wait for an accident, I guess is my point. The jury is still out on whether or not the FAA even has jurisdictional control over private space beyond the atmosphere. Both current NASA appropriations bills in congress define as central requirements of the commercial space project detailed requirements for manned space. SpaceX, for one, has developed their system to current NASA specs under the assumption that the final draft will be similar.

    If we're talking suborbital space, then I'd agree, the FAA will likely take the lion's share of regulation, and I'm grateful that it's being approached the way it is. But for orbital space I think it's going to be a whole lot more restrictive.

    As for when there is an accident, and there will be, I suspect several firms in the increasingly small group that has survived the post-X-prize environment will fold. But I think a few will remain. SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Sierra Nevada, ULA, and Boeing will likely pull through in that they have strong alternate revenue streams. Virgin Galactic and Bigelow are likely in the same camp. Boeing and ULA may back out of the manned business due to their current risk averse approach. Blue Origin may just skate by on Bezos' shoulders and may survive outright if it's on solid enough footing when the inevitable happens.

    So long as there are a few successful flights from a few different companies before any accident involving human life, I think some fraction of the market will survive. And with time it should be capable of growing its niche to be self-sustaining.

    What makes me as confident as I am is mostly the shear tenacity of the companies involved and the business approach taken. SpaceX has seen it's rocket family through the expected early days failures and kept pushing forward. Rotary Rocket and it's generation failed to pass that test. And every last accomplishment they've made so far has been in direct conflict with the prevailing wisdom. In '02 people said they'd never fly a rocket. All the way up to the day before F9 flew more people said it would fail than succeed. Even Musk had strong doubts. Yes, it's partly the money, but it's tenacity as well. Orbital Sciences was another example, and they've been the sole commercial success story for decades now.

    But I think the real value is in the alternate revenue streams. Far too many projects relied only on manned, largely because they simply didn't have the money for anything other than an all or nothing approach. But the companies still in the field mostly have steady streams. And what's most exciting, to me, is that now that a few pathfinders have cut the trail and NASA money is up for the offering, Boeing and ULA have thrown their hats in.

    That, of course, is my opinion. Take it for what it's worth.