Watch This Space

Attempts by small space companies to win NASA contracts are as perennial as Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football.

Watch this Space.jpg

IN THE PRE-DAWN DARKNESS of California’s Mojave Spaceport, a group of employees from Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites assembles in a hangar around the twin-engine Proteus aircraft, a Rutan design. Strapped to its belly, held by an old bomb rack from an F-4 fighter, is a rocket booster without engines—a drop test article that 90 days earlier was just an idea in an e-mail.

In a few hours the Proteus will release the first of three such test articles to demonstrate a critical step in a new method of air launch. If successful, the dummy rocket will detach cleanly, be pulled upright by a small drogue chute as if to fire, then plummet 25,000 feet and smash into a dry lake bed. “We do wacky things every day,” says Scaled project manager Bob Morgan, who’s aware that dropping large objects from the sky is unusual even in a startup rocket business.

The fast-moving company behind today’s test is actually a consortium of half a dozen smaller companies, including Scaled. T/Space, short for Transformational Space Corporation, was created in 2004 by entrepreneurs Gary Hudson and David Gump, who hope, as their consortium’s name implies, to revolutionize human spaceflight by dramatically reducing its cost. With luck and NASA’s help, they might just do it. But on this May morning, all attention is on the drop test.

The technique to be evaluated today was masterminded by Hudson’s lead flight test engineer, Marti Sarigul-Klijn, a retired Navy test pilot and missile veteran. Sarigul-Klijn built the t/LAD (Trapeze-Lanyard Air Drop) mechanism for today’s test from parts he found in a hardware store, an aircraft boneyard, and online. Scaled test pilot Mike Mel-vill contributed an old bomb rack he scavenged off an F-4 Phantom years earlier. That would do nicely for the trapeze to swing the dummy spaceship down from the Proteus. Then they needed a lanyard to drop it from the trapeze. A car tow strap had just the right load-bearing capacity. Next, a braking mechanism to stop the strap: An off-the-shelf brake from a Honda motorcycle fit the bill. A small wireless modem and a controlling chip with just 10 seconds of memory would supply the commands and broadcast the drop data.

Finally they needed a release mechanism. Existing air-launched rockets like the Orbital Sciences Pegasus use explosive bolts, but Morgan didn’t want to attach pyrotechnics to the hull of Scaled’s one and only Proteus. So the team developed a pneumatic piston fired by a scuba bottle. For the last few weeks they’d done hundreds of test releases in the hangar, dropping the quarter-scale booster the short distance from the airplane’s underside onto a stack of corrugated cardboard.

Their caution was understandable. One of Morgan’s employees had brought in a military video of bomb release bloopers, which the crew had bravely watched. It showed bombs flying parallel to airplanes after their release, or bumping into the mothership’s fuselage like dangerous suckling pigs, or flying up through wings and rotors.

Before dawn the Proteus, with the dummy rocket almost grazing the tarmac, rolls out of the hangar, taxis, and lifts off quickly toward the test area, half an hour’s flight away. For its full-size rocket, t/Space hopes to commission Rutan’s company to build a larger carrier called the VLA, or Very Large Aircraft, with a gross weight of nearly a million pounds and a payload capability of 150 tons. The wingspan would be 320 feet.

Today, though, it’s the much smaller Proteus. After the aircraft circles the lake bed, the flight engineer starts a countdown. The airplane flies out level, the bomb rack swings down, the chute deploys, the strap snaps out nine feet to pitch up the nose of the rocket, and the motorcycle brake squeezes the strap, pulling the rocket up into the correct position. A small drogue chute deploys next, which pulls it out farther from the airplane. After a heartbeat, the dummy booster is released. Normally the chute’s riser would be burned off, but on this first engineless test, they stay attached a hair too long. The booster noses down toward Earth rather than up toward space, and hurtles to the desert floor. For Sarigul-Klijn, watching from a chase plane, it’s an upsetting moment.

A week later, after tweaking the chute’s release mechanism, Sarigul-Klijn decides to watch the second test from the ground. This time it works flawlessly: After the release, the test rocket is suspended magically upright in the sky. On a real launch, the engines would then fire, and the t/Space rocket with its four-person crew capsule would blast off toward space.

If engineering were the only worry, the odds of that happening would be fair, maybe even good. But Gump, Hudson, and the rest of the t/Space team know that if they want to see their plans through, they have to fight other, perhaps tougher, battles: in Washington and on Wall Street. Ultimately they envision a self-sustaining commercial rocket business carrying freight and tourists into Earth orbit and beyond for a fraction of what today’s Deltas and Atlases cost. In the near term, though, they’ll be competing for crucial NASA contracts to deliver supplies—equipment, food, water, and possibly astronauts—to the International Space Station later in this decade. Whoever wins those contracts will have a head start on the rocket revolution. And whoever doesn’t may be out of the game.

The road to orbit is littered with big-talking startups that promised to shake up the launch business—if only NASA would sign on as a guaranteed customer. Each ended up disappointed or bankrupt when the agency balked, delayed, or changed its mind. This time NASA swears it will be different, and that it genuinely wants to nurture a commercial launch sector that can undersell even the Russians (who charge a low $67 million for a three-seat Soyuz flight to the station). Why? Because the government wants to save its money for bigger things.

“We want to get in the exploring business,” says Neil Woodward, an astronaut currently pulling duty at NASA’s Washington headquarters as deputy director for Constellation Systems, the developmental arm for the new moon-Mars exploration program. “Trying to get up to Earth orbit all the time distracts us from going on to the moon, which is what we really want to do.”

It was NASA, in fact, that bankrolled t/Space’s drop tests this year, under two separate $3 million development contracts, as part of its Concept Evaluation and Review Program aimed at sussing out non-traditional approaches to everything from launch to designing moon bases. For that kind of money, the agency usually gets only reports and viewgraphs—not flight tests. The contracting official overseeing t/Space was Michael Lembeck. “In order to get out of the theological and into the practical, they were going to have to actually do something,” he says. “We decided to let t/Space loose to give them some credibility.”

Lembeck, who flew in the chase plane himself and took pictures on the second drop test, called the Mojave demonstration “a good first step to a reliable air launch system.” Without picking favorites, Woodward agrees. “[T/Space] has done very good work for us, and it really behooves us to be able to take advantage of any capabilities that emerge out of that sector.”

Let the competition begin.

T/Space was kick-started into being by the NASA grants, almost over the objections of one of its founders. Gary Hudson was happily working at his latest company, AirLaunch LLC, which in 2003 had received development funds from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Air Force to develop faster, cheaper access to space for small military satellites. The Air Force also hoped that Hudson’s rocket, called QuickReach, could evolve into a hypersonic vehicle capable of delivering a 12,000-pound payload a distance of 9,000 miles in two hours.

Hudson is no newcomer, having been in aerospace engineering for 35 years, and is largely self-taught. “I’m old enough to have used a slide rule,” he says. He doesn’t care for computers, preferring calculators (he has 20 hand-helds scattered around his house) to spreadsheets and working with pencil, paper, and whiteboards until he’s ready to hand his designs over to a computer operator for conversion to electronic form. He sees engineering as a mix of science and art.

Over the years, Hudson has founded more rocket companies than he can easily recount. The best known of them was Rotary Rocket, which employed Marti Sarigul-Klijn as one of the test pilots and got as far as hover-testing its odd, propeller-topped Roton rocket before folding in 2000 (see “I Survived the Rotary Rocket,” Feb./Mar. 2002). Hudson describes himself jokingly as a misfit in the aerospace business. “I’ve failed, and failed, then failed again, then succeeded a little,” he says.

David Gump is another serial entrepreneur. He started several space business news publications in the early 1970s, just as the Apollo era was ending. Then in 1989 he founded Lunacorp, which aimed to commercialize space through schemes like having customers pay to drive a rover on the moon, or launching boy band singer Lance Bass to the International Space Station, or filming the first commercial in space for Radio Shack (one of the deals that actually went through).

T/Space exists because of Gump, who now serves as its president. He was working as a consultant to AirLaunch in its Reston, Virginia office when he learned that NASA might request proposals for non-traditional approaches to developing its new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) for the moon and Mars. Gump had to work hard to convince Hudson to apply. “They’re never going to give anything to the likes of us,” Hudson said. He was wary of NASA, having watched earlier talk about commercial “alternative access” to the space station come to nothing. But Gump prevailed, saying it was “a different crew, a new NASA.” Hudson had just finished a second-round proposal to DARPA for AirLaunch, and finally agreed it was worth the extra time to write another 30 pages for NASA.

Their proposal made bold promises to launch four people into Earth orbit for the phenomenally low price of $20 million, and included plans for transportation to the moon. The actual work—everything from ground services to propulsion—would be done by a network of subcontractors that included Rutan’s Scaled Composites.

Hudson remained pessimistic about their chances, not even bothering to incorporate t/Space after submitting the proposal. Then, in July 2004, soon after DARPA awarded him an $11 million Phase II contract to design and test systems for a fast, cheap rocket, he got another call from NASA. He phoned Gump. “Are you sitting down?” he asked. “We got both!” T/Space was launched, and Hudson and Gump had to scramble to incorporate and get their paperwork in order that same day.

While Gump started fleshing out the t/Space concept, Hudson used the new money to advance his technical design, including the propulsion system. The engine would be built on contract by Tim Pickens’ new Alabama-based company, Orion. Pickens had helped design the innovative, self-pressurizing nitrous oxide- and rubber-burning engines for X-Prize-winner SpaceShipOne.

As with that engine, simplicity was essential for t/Space. No turbopumps, no supercooled hydrogen—just propane fuel and liquid oxygen, which are easy to handle and store on the ground. Pickens built a 20-ton test stand at Mojave, not far from Hudson’s abandoned Rotary Rocket launch pad, and fired the new rocket engine in July. Hudson stood about 300 feet away. “It’s a beautiful exhaust,” he says, “Almost transparent.” What’s more, the engine started and stopped cleanly. Over the next year Orion will conduct dozens more test firings under the DARPA contract, which will be key to t/Space’s future.

Depending on NASA’s as-yet-unspecified requirements for resupply flights to the space station (how much cargo? three passengers or four?), the same engine could be scaled up or flown in clusters. Hudson quickly worked out the rest of the design. To differentiate their resupply vehicle from NASA’s larger CEV, which will be built for the longer-duration moon voyages, t/Space dubbed it the Crew Transfer Vehicle, or CXV.

Hudson’s design for the CXV was inspired by the snub-nosed Corona/Discoverer capsules that reentered Earth’s atmosphere more than 400 times in the 1960s, carrying top-secret pictures taken by spy satellites. To protect against the fiery reentry, the CXV fuselage will be smooth, like the Corona’s, with no protuberances and an aft hatch. As further thermal protection, t/Space plans to use an insulating silicone tile developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center for Mars-bound spacecraft. The design adds an external water misting system to reduce fuselage temperatures further.

Last spring t/Space unveiled a full-scale (14-foot diameter) mockup of the CXV at the International Space Development Conference in Washington, D.C., which showcased many of the “emergent” space companies. Attendees—among them Buzz Aldrin and other space veterans—spent the next few days clambering in and out of the CXV, admiring the clean design, the touch screens, the spacesuited dummy, and the rotating seats for “eyes out” (more comfortable) reentry. As they climbed the stairs to the capsule, the most recent t/Space hire stood near its base, ready to discuss the vehicle he’d had a hand in designing. A genial, salt-and-pepper-haired southerner, veteran astronaut Jim Voss had joined the t/Space team in March as vice president for human spaceflight engineering.

Gump first met Voss at the 2002 All-Star Futures exhibition baseball game, when Voss threw out the first pitch as part of a Lunacorp promotion. (The same ball was later flown to the space station and “thrown out”—via TV—as the first pitch of that year’s World series.) When t/Space was gearing up in 2004, Gump called Voss and asked him to come aboard as a consultant. Since leaving NASA in 2003, Voss had been happily teaching aerospace engineering at Auburn University in Alabama, and had no desire to work for an aero-space giant and “manage a program on paper.” But the five-time astronaut liked the simplicity of t/Space’s plans. He had learned to appreciate simple, robust flight systems while training in Moscow for his 2001 space station stay. In Russian-built systems, he says, “not everything is done automatically. Sometimes all you need is a switch in front of you to turn on and off.”

While working on t/Space’s NASA proposal with Gump and Hudson, Voss would fly his Rutan-designed Long-EZ, which he’d built himself, up from Houston or Alabama. But the lightplane was not good in heavy weather, and he knew he was getting serious about t/Space when he convinced his wife that he needed a new Cirrus for the more frequent commutes to Washington. Voss is now in charge of all human-related spaceflight engineering.

The CXV’s nylon seats were prototyped and built in three months by his undergraduate engineering class at Auburn, working with a small t/Space grant. “They’re essentially ready for production,” Voss says proudly. The original task was to design a seat that rotated 180 degrees for reentry, but the students got hooked on the assignment and within six weeks were on their fourth full-scale working prototype. Toward the end Voss got into it too—it wasn’t unusual to see him sewing or working metal late into the night with the undergrads, says Jonathan Metts, the student project leader.

Gump values the ex-astronaut’s store of knowledge. He says that when Voss is in a meeting with NASA “and someone across the table says ‘I don’t think that’s going to work,’ Voss quietly replies, ‘Well, I’ve had some experience with that, and I believe it will.’ ”

Now Gump needed a player who could win at the Washington power game and provide access to decision makers. Having left the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, 34-year-old Brett Alexander was looking for a job in the private sector. One of the authors of the Vision for Space Exploration that President Bush announced in January 2004, Alexander remembers typing the words “retire the space shuttle fleet by 2010” and feeling the full weight of the words as he did so, having witnessed Columbia’s first launch in 1981 as an 11-year-old.

From then on he wanted to be in the space business. After getting a master’s in aerospace engineering and working at several space-related jobs, he landed a staff position in Bill Clinton’s White House science office, then survived the transition to a new Republican administration. After the Columbia disaster, Alexander stayed on to help write the new space policy before joining the private sector. With a wife and child and new house in Fairfax County, Virginia, he had his eye on a prime aerospace/military contractor or a satellite company like XM satellite radio. Then a friend, another policy consultant working with Gump, urged him to come to Reston to check out a new company with an unusual name, t/Space.

Alexander knew a bit about Gump and Hudson, who had been knocking around the edges of the space business for years. He looked at their Web site and listened to his friend’s pitch at t/Space’s small rented offices in Reston. His initial reaction was different from Voss’. These guys are crazy, he thought. Most commercial space companies had failed, and here was one more saying it could launch people into orbit in under four years, for less than half a billion. He told his wife about t/Space, then put them out of his mind.

But like Voss, Alexander didn’t want to end up working on a paper program for a huge contractor. His wife would ask him every few weeks about “that small company” which she said “sounds like your dream job.” In February 2005, Alexander joined t/Space as vice president for government relations.

It remains to be seen whether this assembled “supergroup” of talents—the astronaut, the marketing guy, the rocket designer, the policy expert, plus the celebrity (Rutan) in a supporting role—will be the ones to finally ignite the spaceflight revolution. They aren’t the first to promise low-cost launches, nor the first to assemble a team of aerospace veterans in hopes of winning NASA business. Another rocket startup, Kistler Aerospace (see “Rockets for the Rest of Us,” Feb./Mar. 1998), tried a similar strategy and even spent millions to buy proven Russian rocket engines, but ended up in Chapter 11.

Another contender is Elon Musk, who made a fortune founding and selling the online purchasing service PayPal; he is further ahead in developing his Falcon rocket, which was due to debut this fall. Musk’s company, SpaceX, has also won NASA development funding, and has a more traditional ground-launched rocket of its own design and manufacture. Starting small, with small payloads, Musk aims to get the cost to orbit down to $1,000 per pound, or one-tenth the current price.

Gump says that t/Space, and a few other “” efforts like Musk’s, are like small, intelligent mammals running around among the dinosaurs, the traditional aerospace contractors that supply NASA. Recently, he says, some of the big companies have been “rubbing up against us, to get a little of that mammal smell.” If t/Space and the others make something happen, the aerospace contractors may end up coming to them, or incorporating their ideas.

First they’ll have to survive, though. For now, it’s not certain how NASA means to encourage the upstart companies, who typically don’t have the experience or the money to compete with the big boys. Says NASA’s Neil Woodward, the paperwork alone can be crushing for a company with a small staff, like t/Space. “They don’t have dozens of people in accounting and personnel to deal with the huge amounts of data that we would normally be required to ask for under the federal acquisition regulations,” he says.

Fast-moving entrepreneurs like Hudson have generally preferred working with the Department of Defense. “DARPA buys smart,” he says, basing its contracts on results and performance goals rather than on pages of detailed specs that have to be followed to the letter. He’s hopeful NASA will convert to that practice as well.

Already t/Space, Kistler, and the rest of the crowd are frustrated that NASA has taken months to put out its call for commercial proposals to resupply the space station. “We’re as frustrated as they are,” says Woodward, who pleads for patience in an era of upheaval for the space agency. This time, he says, NASA wants to get it right, and not end up doing more harm than good to the emergent commercial sector. “NASA is a huge organization. We deal with large systems, large sets of requirements, lots of money. It’s very easy for us to pervert the market, in a totally unintentional fashion. Something that’s not a big deal to us is a huge deal to a smaller company.”

Still, the agency has to satisfy itself that any unproven company can deliver what it’s promised, safely, for the advertised price. And it needs a Plan B in case the new guys don’t come through—the CEV is in fact being designed to take people and cargo to the space station (as well as to the moon) just in case. Regarding safety and reliability, Woodward expects that t/Space and others will fly its own crews and payloads first to prove that the system works. “When it gets to the point where they’re flying NASA personnel—astronauts or scientists or what have you—or interacting with a NASA facility like the space station, we would have to look at the ‘human rating’ rules. But if they have a well-designed vehicle and a well-tested vehicle, that’s not as large a hurdle in most cases as a lot of people make it out to be.”

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who has experience in the nimbler Pentagon space procurement culture as well as the commercial sector, said during a news conference in September, “NASA has not had at its upper levels a manager or an administrator more supportive of commercial enterprise than I.” Griffin has publicly stated that he will initiate a commercial market for the station resupply service and that he will “place some bets” (probably by investing R & D funds) on this market. He would prefer that proposers “have skin in the game,” shorthand for bringing in private equity, to show financial health, because one or two NASA missions a year won’t be enough to sustain a business. But that may not be an inflexible requirement. Says Woodward, “It would be best if NASA were agnostic on this. I don’t care where you’re getting the resources that you need. I don’t care if you’re getting them because no one in your company is working on salary, or you’ve got a rich brother-in-law, or you’ve got a [venture capitalist] who’s willing to stake you.”

As of mid-October, the t/Space team couldn’t predict exactly what NASA will request, or when. But they know what they’d like to do. If funded in early 2006, they’ll propose a first manned test flight in early 2009 (ahead of NASA’s CEV), using their own crews. They’ll fly multiple times in orbit to prove to NASA (and all other comers, including potential space tourists and astronauts and scientists from other nations) that their system is safe, then contract it out at $5 million a seat—eventually less.

“People have spent billions trying to do what [t/Space] hopes to do for millions,” says one observer, Lori Garver, a former NASA policy official and now a space analyst at DFI International in Washington. “But Gump and Hudson are in it for the long haul. Both of them have made personal sacrifices in their lives to try to make commercial spaceflight happen.”

Another former NASA official, now working at one of the established, or “heritage” (read: dinosaur), aerospace contractors, thinks that the t/Space price projections—$20 million a launch and $500 million to develop the entire system—are optimistic. “You can demo anything once or twice,” says the official, who asked not to be identified. But “when they need to scale up, they will come up to costs that may be comparable with the offerings of the major contractors.”

Hudson, Gump, Voss, and Alexander relish the opportunity to prove him wrong. With the last of their $6 million stake from NASA this year, they decided to do one more test. Having demonstrated their air launch release mechanism, fired their engine (for DARPA and the Air Force), and mocked up the capsule design, they elected to test the reentry. Last August, they chartered a Sikorsky S-61 helicopter flying out of Crescent City, California, and took a full-scale, water-ballasted 8,000-pound CXV capsule up 10,000 feet over the Pacific. Then they dropped it to see how the chutes would open and how the crew and craft might fare.

Gump was in Crescent City for the test, but the rest of the team was working other jobs. Voss and Alexander were in D.C. for a rare bit of face-time with the NASA administrator. During their meeting, the test results came in from California. Gump reported that two of the three chutes had opened, and that the capsule was intact and being towed back to the harbor for inspection. Hearing the news, Griffin said to his guests that two out of three wasn’t bad. “Shows you’ve got some redundancy built into the system,” he said.

With a NASA administrator like Griffin, and with the shuttle about to retire, perhaps the planets really are aligned this time for a new kind of launch business.

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