To Open The Sky
The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter
THE UPSTART STARTUPS
Flash Gordon's spaceship speeding through the void
Copyright © ???? Edward Rowles
Analogies are risky; but the situation is somewhat analogous to the computer industry in 1975. You remember; at that time there were a few big companies that made mainframes (the so-called "big iron") and a handful of medium-sized companies producing minicomputers. Handheld calculators had appeared, at very high prices. That was the year Popular Electronics broke a cover story about the first personal computer. It was huge and heavy and costly and complicated and finicky — but it did the job. And it was, of course, merely the earliest trickle through the floodgates. They soon opened wide as a host of computer startups introduced new designs, and storefront outlets like the Digital Deli1 sprang up to introduce the public to them.
Those were brave days. A bunch of scruffy, jeans-clad idealists, with their visions of "a computer in every home" and "information wants to be free" went up against an establishment protecting its turf by claiming that microcomputers would never work (or if they would, they still made no business sense) — and the idealists won. Nothing less than a true revolution in the means of computation was under way. The advent of this disruptive technology gave us many benefits. One, tangential to the computer revolution but relevant to my topic, is Rick Cook's Hackers, a fictional evocation of a similar revolution in space transportation.
Today, a series of startup companies have been trying to bring us a real-life version of Hackers. Note that I said "series". The reason is that, technically, it's roughly ten times harder to build a reusable SSTO vehicle than to build a personal computer — in the sense that roughly ten times as many technical specialties are involved — and also because the SSTO's unit costs are orders of magnitude greater. There will be, therefore, no host of garage startups making personal rockets. But there may be a succession of larger companies that, over time, get closer and closer to success, and finally achieve it.
That is in fact what we have been seeing. The names of some of those companies are Pacific American Launch Systems, and Rotary Rocket, and Beal Aerospace, and McDonnell-Douglas (because they built the Delta Clipper). Those particular companies are gone, now; but others remain and still others are yet to arise. It won't be as easy as Rick Cook's story made it seem; the technical problems, and the difficulty of raising capital, will see to that. Yet I maintain that I will see this dream realized in my lifetime. When I do, I'll raise a toast to another victory by the upstarts.
Most folks probably won't see that victory coming. Very little coverage of space activities is provided today by the major media, and space entrepreneurs get even less from them. But most companies have their own Web pages, and a number of independent Web pages provide background information. (A few are linked at the end of this page.) Arguably the most complete source of information on such path-breaking activity is Space Future's Vehicle Designs Page. From data found there and elsewhere, I've compiled tables that summarize the current contenders and some noteworthy former entries.
My goal for the "Current Contenders" table is to provide funding data for every vehicle. However, this is not always easy to find, and if found it may not be accurate. There's also the "constant dollar"problem of adjusting the amounts for programs from different years so that valid comparisons can be made. Please bear with me, and consider these tables a work in progress.
Take a minute and compare the costs in the above table (where development costs are given) with the budgets for the past projects listed below. Do you see a difference? There should be a markedly lower cost for the current crop. This difference shows up most clearly in the X-33 and X-15. Both were "X vehicles", remember. Yet comparing the budgets, we find that development plus 199 flights of the X-15 was $1.6 billion (in 2004 dollars) while the $1.3B X-33 never flew, was never even completed.
Projects of the Past
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1 The Digital Deli was a computer store on El Camino Real in Mountain View, California from 19?? to 19??.