Large site logo

To Open The Sky

The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter
Work in progress


Flash Gordon's spaceship speeding through the void
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.

Current Contenders

Information based on Space Future and Hobbyspace descriptions.
Australia Kistler Aerospace, Inc. Kistler K-series Series of reusable VTOL rockets Increasing size and value payloads $500M? $400M? Active
Canada Canadian Arrow (?), Ltd. Canadian Arrow Two-stage reusable suborbital rocket Three people to 70 miles $unknown $unknown Active
England Bristol Spaceplanes, Ltd. Ascender Suborbital spaceplane 2 crew, 2 passengers $unknown $unknown Active
Spacebus Two-stage HTOL More than 6 passengers $unknown $unknown Active
Spacecab Two-stage HTOL 6 passengers $unknown $unknown Active
England British Aerospace
(Alan Bond?)
HOTOL Design for air-breathing reusable SSTO spaceplane $? 1984 n/a Unknown
England Reaction Engines, Ltd. Skylon Unpiloted reusable HTOL SSTO Twelve tonnes of cargo $unknown $unknown Active
England Starchaser Industries, Ltd. Thunderbird Suborbital reusable VTOL rocket Three people to 100km $unknown $unknown Active
Nova Suborbital reusable VTOL rocket One crew to 100km
subscale prototype of Thunderbird
$unknown $unknown Active
Japan Japanese Rocket Society Kankoh-maru Reusable SSTO 50 passengers to 200km orbit $10,000 per passenger $unknown Active
USA TGV Rockets, Inc. MICHELLE-B Suborbital sounding rocket Scientific instruments $50M $unknown Active
USA Kelly Space & Technology, Inc. Eclipse Tow-launched HTOL Passengers $400M $unknown Active
USA SpaceClipper International, Inc. Space Clipper SC-1 Suborbital reusable VTOL spaceplane Two crew, up to 10 passengers to 140km $unknown $unknown Active
Space Clipper SC-2 Orbital reusable VTOL spaceplane Two crew, up to 10 passengers (?) $unknown $unknown Active
USA XCOR Aerospace, Inc. Xerus Suborbital reusable HTOL spaceplane Two persons to 100km
microsats & science payloads
$unknown $unknown Active
USA Microcosm Scorpius® SR-S Suborbital rocket testbed Up to 100 lbs. Payload to 130 N. mi. altitude $unknown $unknown Active
USA Microcosm Scorpius® SR-XM-1 Suborbital rocket testbed Up to TBD lbs payload to TBD N. mi. altitude $unknown $unknown Active
USA Microcosm Scorpius® SR-XM-2 Suborbital rocket testbed Up to TBD lbs payload to TBD N. mi. altitude $unknown $unknown Active
USA Microcosm Sprite® Orbital rocket testbed 700 lbs. to 100 NMi Low Earth Orbit $1.8 million by tenth production flight $unknown Planned
USA Pioneer Rocketplane, Inc. Black Horse Pathfinder Orbital reusable HTOL spaceplane
Uses in-flight refueling
Two crew, satellite payloads $300M $unknown Active
USA Scaled Composites, Inc. Proteus First stage for reusable HTOL spaceplane Up to three passengers (2000lb) to 60,000ft. $unknown $unknown Active
SpaceShip1 Suborbital spaceplane (X-Prize contender) Pilot & 2 passengers to 100km $unknown $unknown Active
USA? Starcraft Boosters, Inc. Star Booster Reusable first stage VTOHL vehicle ? $unknown $unknown Active
USA Space Access LLC Spaceplane TSTO spaceplane ? $5B $unknown Active
USA The da Vinci Project Group da Vinci Suborbital reusable balloon-launched VTOL vehicle Three people to 120km $unknown $unknown Active
USA Cosmopolis XXI Suborbital Corporation Cosmopolis XXI Suborbital RLV lifting body Pilot & 2 passengers to 100km $unknown $unknown Active
USA? Star-Raker Associates Star-Raker SSTO HTOL vehicle Up to 200,000lb $100/lb $unknown Active
USA? Cerulean Freight Forwarding Company Kitten Suborbital reusable vehicle Pilot & 2 passengers to 235km $500k $unknown Active
Calico Short-stay orbital reusable vehicle Pilot & 8 passengers (4,000lb) $unknown $unknown Active
Angora Orbital reusable vehicle Pilot & 40 passengers (2-week orbit) $unknown $unknown Active
USA Vela Technology Development Space Cruiser System Suborbital reusable two-stage spaceplane Passengers to ?km $unknown $unknown Inactive
USA? Lonestar Space Access
(formerly Dynamica Research)
Cosmos Mariner SSTO spaceplane Pilot & 4 passengers $100M $unknown Active
USA? ? Pogo Air-breathing first stage of TSTO or MSTO Pegasus-size vehicle to 80,000 ft. $unknown $unknown Active
USA? ? Spacecub Suborbital rocket vehicle kit Four-seater $250k to $500k (less fuel) $unknown Active
USA? Space Tour, Inc. Space Van Reusable TSTO vehicle Three crew & 16 passengers $unknown $unknown Active

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

Above information based on Space Future and Andrews Space and Technology vehicle descriptions.
1 Budget quoted is for test article; full vehicle estimated to need $150 million.
2 The test article rolled out in March 1999 and flew 3 times that year.
3 This is the amount actually spent through cancellation. Total budget was about $5B.
4 This original budget was overrun by 30%. NASA's request for $200M more was not funded, and the project was cancelled in 2001.
5 Intended as alternative to Russian Soyuz for returning ISS crew. Cancelled 2001.
6 The X-15 flew 199 times during the 1960s, reaching Mach 6.6 and over 100k feet.
USA McDonnell-Douglas / DARPA Delta Clipper Prototype of reusable VTOL SSTO vehicle $100 Million 1985? 1993 Cancelled
USA Advent Launch Services CAC-1 Sea-launched suborbital VTOHL rocket $? 19?? n/a Unknown
USA Douglas Aircraft Company
(Philip Bono)
SASSTO Piloted, reusable SSTO VTOL rocket $? 1960s n/a Unknown
Germany Messerschmitt Boelko Blom
(Dietrich Koelle)
Beta Design for a reusable SSTO VTOL rocket $? 1970s n/a Unknown
USA Pacific American Launch Systems
(Gary Hudson)
Phoenix Sea-launched suborbital VTOHL rocket $? 1980s n/a Unknown
USA Rotary Rocket, Inc.
(Gary Hudson)
Roton Fully reusable SSTO rocket $30 Million 1 1980s 1999 2 Cancelled
USA ? (Max Hunter) SSX Modified version of Phoenix $? 1980s n/a Unknown
Germany MBB Saenger Design for 2-stage HTOL launch vehicle $? ? n/a Unknown
USA NASA / Lockheed-Martin X-33 Unpiloted, reusable VTOHL rocket test vehicle $1.3 Billion 3 1995 n/a Cancelled after tank failure
USA Lockheed-Martin Venture Star Planned commercial SSTO follow-on to X-33 $? 1995 n/a Not funded
USA NASA / Orbital Sciences X-34 Unpiloted, reusable HTOL rocket test vehicle $100 million 4 1996? n/a Cancelled
USA NASA / Boeing X-37 Unpiloted, reusable reentry & landing test vehicle $? 1996? n/a Unknown
USA NASA X-38 Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) design 5 $500 million 1995 n/a Unknown
USA USAF / Rockwell International X-15 Piloted, reusable suborbital rocket plane $300M (1968?) 1955 1960? 6 Goals met


Quote without comment

"The breakthrough technology and expert management of Rotary Rocket Company are an exceptional combination," said Afsaneh Naimollah, managing director and global head of the technologies group of Barclays Capital. "It will quickly become the world leader in cost-effective space transportation."

1 The Digital Deli was a computer store on El Camino Real in Mountain View, California from 19?? to 19??.
Valid CSS! Valid HTML 4.01 Strict To contact Chris Winter, send email to this address.
Copyright © 2002-2015 Christopher P. Winter. All rights reserved.
This page was last modified on 24 October 2015.