Open Space For Business

by Jeff Foust

SpaceViews editor

Space activists, entrepreneurs, engineers, and others exchanged information on efforts to expand commercial space enterprises in Los Angeles last month at the annual conference of the Space Frontier Foundation.

Space Frontier Conference VI, titled "Space: Open for Business" brought a crowd to the Sheraton Gateway Hotel near Los Angeles International Airport Nov. 7-9. Befitting the meeting location, a strong emphasis of the conference was on commercial space transportation efforts and the technical and regulatory hurdles they face. Similar attention was also focused on the commercialization of space itself, from current projects to the promise of space tourism and space power.

The first day of the conference was devoted to the discussion of present and future spaceplane concepts in both the public and private sectors. NASA, Air Force, and industry speakers reported on projects such as military spaceplanes and the NASA Future X program, while small startup companies provide updates on their efforts to build reusable launch vehicles.

Jerry Rising of Lockheed Martin updated conference attendees on the status of the X-33 project, which had just passed its critical design review a week before the conference. Having solved "a number of developmental problems" related to the weight, control surfaces, and liquid hydrogen tank of the vehicle, the X-33 team was moving ahead with production of the prototype, with fabrication of the hydrogen and oxygen fuel tanks already in progress.

Rising said the X-33 design team had already moved on to the VentureStar, the full-scale version of the X-33. The final design of the VentureStar should be complete by the end of 1999, with test flights beginning in 2004. The X-33 suborbital test flights will begin in mid-1999 at launch facilities under construction at Edwards Air Force Base. Up to 15 test flights of the X-33 are planned, although its test objectives could be met in as little as 7.

Michael Kelly, president and CEO of Kelly Space and Technology, discussed his company’s planned Eclipse reusable spaceplanes. The company is developing the manned, suborbital vehicles that are towed aloft behind a 747 and carried to an altitude of about 9,000 meters (30,000 feet). The spaceplane then starts its engines and cuts its tow line, flying a suborbital trajectory that lets it deliver its payload to orbit before gliding back to Earth for landing.

Kelly described a three-phase development approach. First is the subscale Eclipse Sprint, which, like the larger versions, would be rocket-powered and manned. Kelly expects the first Sprint flight by "this time next year.". The Eclipse Express is similar to the Sprint, but can carry a payload with an upper stage, making a viable launcher for small

satellites and a replacement for sounding rockets. The Eclipse Astroliner would be the full-scale version, capable of carrying a payload of several thousand kilograms.

The company has already performed free-flight tests with a QF-106, an experimental remote-controlled aircraft with a delta-wing body design similar to the Eclipse series. Kelly said tow-line tests using the QF-106 would begin in early December.

Gary Hudson, president of Rotary Rocket Company, updated his company’s efforts on the Roton reusable launcher. The Roton takes off vertically using a set of what Hudson called "zero-length aerospike engines" and lands vertically but unpowered, using the autorotation of its nose-mounted rotors to guide it to a landing at a speed of 45 knots.

The company is planning to start construction of its high-bay assembly facility in Mojave, California, in December, and plan to complete it by next summer. Testing of some components, such as a composite liquid oxygen tank, have already been completed. Hudson didn’t provide an estimate of the cost of each Roton, but said it would cost "less than you might think."

Pioneer Rocketplane executive vice president Mitchell Burnside Clapp talked about his company’s Pathfinder, a reusable manned suborbital spaceplane. Unlike the tow-launched Eclipse, the Pathfinder takes off under its own power using jet engines and takes on a load of propellant at about 7,500 m (25,000 ft.) before igniting its rockets for its suborbital flight. It then makes a powered landing using its jets.

Clapp said the company had just received its signed contract from NASA for the Bantam program to develop a low-cost launch system for small payloads. Pioneer and several other companies had been awarded study contracts for Bantam during the summer. Like Hudson, Clapp said the company was not planning its launch vehicle development around the $10-million X Prize, which still unfunded. "The case to build the spacecraft is strong enough without the X Prize," Clapp said.

While each vehicle’s development faces strong technical challenges, all the companies involved again saw the biggest hurdle to success to be regulatory, and not technical, issues. In a separate panel session Saturday, representatives of the companies, as well as space activists and Pete Conrad of Universal Space Lines, discussed the problems with regulations and what they and others can do to remedy them.

A key problem with regulating the new generation of reusable launch vehicles, according to Conrad, is that regulators and legislators to not differentiate them from older rockets, prone to blowing up and scattering debris. "As long as they have that mindset we’re not going anywhere," Conrad warned. This view was echoed by Hudson, who noted that a crash of a fully-fueled Roton would be no more powerful than that of a 747, and likely quite less.

Hudson, who had been optimistic about working with regulators at a July cheap access to space conference, was less so this time. "I’ve been accused of being a toady of the FAA," Hudson said, because he said he could do business with them. "That was before I met their lawyers."

With no choice other than to work with the FAA and other regulatory agencies, though, panel members talked about cooperation. Kelly suggested getting the industry together and come to a consensus of the issues, then approaching the FAA as a united group, a proposal which met with acceptance from the panel. Andrea Seastrand, executive director of the California Space and Technology Alliance, offered her services to help bring the industry together to work on regulatory issues.

Panel members were also in agreement that the government’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) project would not hurt their commercial launch efforts. Hudson called the EELV a "walking corpse" and Larry Hecker, president of Pioneer Rocketplane, said the "difference will be so dramatic" between the price and performance of the EELV and that of commercial launch vehicles than EELV will simply disappear.

While the emphasis of the conference was on medium and large commercial launch vehicles, the conference also brought the efforts of small amateur rocket development to light with the announcement of its Cheap Access to Space (CATS) prize. The prize will award $250,000 to the first team that lofts a payload of at least 2 kg. (4.4.lbs.) to an altitude of at least 200 km (125 mi.) within three years using a rocket not "substantially" derived from government designs.

The prize, which was endorsed at the announcement reception during the conference by Harrison Schmitt and Tom Rogers, also offers a secondary prize of $50,000 for a similar rocket that exceeds 120 km (75 mi.) but goes less than 200 km, provided no rocket has yet exceeded 200 km. [Ed. Note: more information about the CATS Prize was published in the November 15 issue of SpaceViews Update.]

While much of the conference focused on the technical and regulatory issues of space transportation, several sessions looked at the use of space in the present and future, including some new examinations of some long talked-about space industries.

As a new generation of reusable launch vehicles promise to reduce the cost of space access, there has been a resurgence of interest in space tourism, either in brief suborbital trips into orbit or week-long stays in orbital hotels. This interest in space tourism is just as strong in Japan as it is in America, according to space tourism expert Patrick Collins.

Collins, a British economics professor who has spent several years in Japan studying space tourism with the Japanese Rocket Society (JRS), says interest in space tourism is very strong in Japan. He said a recent poll of young Japanese showed space travel as the number one thing most of them wanted to do.

Collins talked about a series of studies made by the JRS, where they designed a large SSTO spacecraft similar to the Phoenix spacecraft designed, but never built, by Gary Hudson in the 1980s. Collins said the study showed a potential for a market of 1 million or more touristsworldwide a year, growing at a rate of 100,000 a year, at $10,000 a ticket.

Collins’s work was supported by Jay Penn of the Aerospace Corporation, whose own studies show the market for space tourism would range from 150,000 passengers a year at $72,000 a ticket to 5 million passengers a year at $2,000 a ticket. Penn’s study showed that Lockheed Martin’s VentureStar vehicle could serve the orbital tourism market, either by itself or as part of a two-stage launch system.

Solar power from space also got attention as Dr. John Mankins from NASA Headquarters discussed the recent "new look" study presented to Congress last month. The study is the first major one since a 1979 reference study which proposed 60 5-gigawatt satellites at an "untenable" cost of $250 billion.

Mankins said the study looked at two options for solar power satellites (SPS). One proposal, the "Suntower", would place 2000-3000 metric ton satellites into a 12,000-km (7,500-mi.) orbit. The satellites would use solar concentrators and photovoltaic arrays to generate 400 megawatts of power that could be beamed to sites within 30 degrees of the equator. A system of 6 such SPSs would cost $50 billion.

The other proposal, the "Solar Disc", would use large spin-stabilized discs in geosynchronous orbit that would remain pointing at the Sun at all times. Such a system would generate more power but would be more difficult to build and cost up to $200 billion.

For such SPS systems to be feasible and generate power at costs similar to large terrestrial projects, like China’s Three Gorges Dam, launch costs would have to drop considerably. Mankins said that a separate study in advanced launch systems, studying technologies like magnetic catapults and waveriders, may provide insight on how to reduce launch costs to necessary levels.

Conference speakers also kept an eye on possibilities beyond Earth orbit. Robert Zubrin discussed his Mars Direct proposal, and announced a new project. Seeking a way to involve the thousands of people who have written him about going to Mars, Zubrin announced the formation of a "Mars Society". Patterned after the Cousteau Society, the organization will raise funds for expeditions to Mars, starting with small spacecraft or hitchhiker experiment payloads on NASA missions.

Zubrin said a steering committee for the society has already been organized, calling on Mars scientists Carol Stoker and Chris McKay, science fiction writers Kim Stanley Robinson and Greg Benford, astronaut Scott Horowitz, and others. A founding conference is planned for Colorado next summer.

The success of the recent Mars Pathfinder mission, specifically its Sojourner rover, has helped one moon-bound company. David Gump of LunaCorp reported that after Sojourner showed the public’s interest in robotic rovers, his company had received inquiries from American and foreign television networks, amusement parks, and other potential sponsors, interested in LunaCorp’s lunar rover project.

In addition, Gump and Jim Dunstan announced a spinoff from their efforts to develop telepresence systems that would enable people to feel as if they were on the moon. Working with a motion platform developed by the ViRtogo company, they’ve developed "Lunar Defense", an arcade game due out in December where the user defends a lunar base from incoming asteroids, moving with six degrees of freedom in response to the game’s events. Dunstan said this project might help them fund their real lunar rover "one token at a time."

The Space Frontier Foundation also handed out several awards for contributions to the organization and to general space efforts. Celestis won the "From Vision to Reality" award for offering to launch samples of cremation ashes into orbit as a memorial; their first flight was on a Pegasus rocket earlier this year. IMAX Corporation won the "Best Vision of the Future" award for its film "L5: City in Space" which premiered last year. A similar award went to the Los Angeles special effects company Foundation Imaging, which provided many of the special effects seen in the Babylon 5 television series.

Several individuals were also honored. The "Service to the Frontier" award went to David Anderman, for his work running the Space Frontier Conference and the Cheap Access to Space symposium in Washington DC in July. Prospace gave its eponymous award to Mike Heney, for he and his wife’s work helping organizing the series of "March Storm" grassroots space activist efforts. Tom Rogers was given the Founders Award for his lifetime contributions to space, particularly space commercialization.

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