Spacemen and Supermodels


Credit: XCOR Aerospace

A couple of good stories appeared today in anticipation of some major milestones expected in the commercial spaceflight business this year. This has perpetually been “two years away” for a long time, but it looks like big things are finally about to start happening.

First, from Reuters: Show Time for Commercial Spaceflight at Hand

“The way some perceive this industry is that it’s about flying rich playboys into space. That is a lie,” said Greason at XCOR Aerospace, which secured $5 million in equity financing, enough to produce the first operational Lynx rocketplane.

“We have ideas about what we do with routine and reliable access to space, with making space a research tool that’s available to engineers and scientists. But whatever our ideas are today, in 10 years they are going to look very antiquated, he said.”

The Reuters piece is a decent introduction for the skeptical or unfamiliar, until it falls into the trap of asking John Pike what he thinks. A more reliable fount of half-baked conventional wisdom is hard to find. Behold as he compares apples to orangutans…

There are still plenty of skeptics. Space policy analyst John Pike, director of Washington-based GlobalSecurity.org, used to be a believer, but he is not any more. “The space business is absolutely the most risky business there ever was,” he said.

Pike believes the success of the electronics industry cannot be replicated in space because of the sheer power needed to pierce Earth’s gravity well. “There’s been no significant improvement in the last 50 years in how many pounds of thrust a pound of propellant can produce,” he said.

(Yawn) emphasis mine. What, exactly, does the rocket equation have to do with suborbital economics? Stick to analyzing defense policy, please.

And from Space.com: Vetting New Suborbital Spaceships

But even if the first several dozen — or several hundred — flights go perfectly, company officials can’t exactly declare victory, XCOR president Jeff Greason said.

“We’re going to need thousands of flights to find out whether we have achieved the levels of reliability and reusability that are economically interesting for this industry to become a real transportation sector of the economy,” Greason said last month during a presentation at the 2012 Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Palo Alto, Calif.

Which is precisely why it’s a good thing the FAA has yet to set down certification and operational standards for these vehicles. The people actually bending metal and getting air over the wings have to get out and fly the things, a lot. As I wove into some dialogue in Perigee, expecting airline-level safety at this stage would be comparable to demanding it right after Orville and Wilbur went wheels-up at Kitty Hawk. It would over-complicate the business to such a degree that it would literally not be able to get off the ground.

Unfortunately, that means some nasty things might happen in the early years. I’d bank on it, in fact. And given the recent trend in some countries (I’m looking at you, France) towards criminalizing aircraft accidents, XCOR and Virgin will hopefully take that into consideration as they negotiate spaceport agreements outside of the good old U.S. of A.

And now…SUPERMODELS IN SPAAACE! If you’re tempted to write this off as Nerd Fantasies, note that one of XCOR’s first passengers just happens to be a Victoria’s Secret model. Enjoy the view up there…

P.S. Happy 10th Birthday, SpaceX!

The geeks shall inherit the earth. Or something like that.

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