NASA and “New Space”

November 26, 2013

[A programming note: I am in charge of the turkey this year and am going to brine it. This is the sensible thing to do, but doesn't it add a whole 'nother layer of drama and risk? What if I over-brine, or use the wrong kind of salt? It seems to introduce the possibility of inedibility. My computer says that's not a word but I think we all understand one another. My turkey, by the way, cost $64, which is a lot for a bird, I think we can agree. For that kind of money I expect a bird to be alive, with colorful plumage, and capable of speech. But I got it at the gourmet meat market and my conscience is soothed by the knowledge that the bird had a pleasant existence roaming some pastoral farm in a lovely valley before someone came along and gave it the unfortunate news that actually it is considered by our species to be food.]

[That game last night -- what's to say? Talk about Might Watch TV from here on in...]

You may have seen my story Sunday on New Space (I’ll paste some of it in below). This is Part 3 of our series entitled “Destination Unknown.” There will be a relatively modest Part 4 in a few weeks in which I’ll try to explain what it all means (I guess that doesn’t sound so modest, huh).

MOJAVE, CALIF. — The air is so clear the mountains in the distance look almost fake, as if added digitally. The desert floor is runway-flat, with a few Joshua trees popping up randomly, like lost cowboys. The dominant feature is the sky, preposterously vast, beckoning test pilots, rocketeers and would-be space travelers.

Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier near here in 1947. Neil Armstrong flew rocket planes. Tom Wolfe immortalized the Antelope Valley’s hard-drinking, sky-shattering aviation pioneers in his book “The Right Stuff.” The place is chockablock with history — and yet it’s the future that everyone’s buzzing about.

To hear the dreamers tell it, this is the next Silicon Valley. The Mojave Air and Space Port is the spiritual heart of the industry that people call “New Space.”

Old Space (and this is still the dreamers talking) is slow, bureaucratic, government-directed, completely top-down. Old Space is NASA, cautious and halting, supervising every project down to the last thousand-dollar widget. Old Space is Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman. Old Space coasts on the glory of the Apollo era and isn’t entirely sure what to do next.

New Space is the opposite of all that. It’s wild. It’s commercial, bootstrapping, imaginative, right up to the point of being (and this is no longer the dreamers talking) delusional.

Many of the New Space enterprises are still in the PowerPoint stage, with business models built around spaceships that haven’t yet gone to space. A bold attitude and good marketing aren’t enough to put a vehicle into orbit. The skeptics among the Old Space people will say to the upstarts: Where’s your rocket? How many times have you launched? Can you deliver reliably? Repeatedly? Safely? We put a man on the moon — what have you done?

If there’s one thing that New Space has going for it, it’s that Old Space is in trouble. Old Space and New Space turn out to be symbiotic. New Space companies need NASA contracts, and NASA needs New Space companies to pick up the agency’s slack.

The true believers imagine that, someday soon, robotic vehicles will mine asteroids for precious metals, including gold and platinum. Moon dirt will be transformed into rocket fuel for missions to Mars. Closer to home, FedEx will send a package from New York to Tokyo, via space, in half an hour.

Space tourism will be common, the believers insist. Maybe you will fly above the Arctic and see the aurora borealis from space. Tourism will eventually go lunar. “Tourists Walk on Moon” will blow up on Twitter one morning.

You can already buy a ticket on a spaceship. Mojave-based Virgin Galactic says that it will begin carrying passengers into space (the price recently jumped to $250,000 a seat) on suborbital flights in just a matter of months, with its flamboyant founder, Sir Richard Branson, and members of his family along for the ride. The company’s vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, is kept out of sight in a hangar.

Next door, a company called XCOR Aerospace is assembling what it says will be a suborbital space vehicle, the Lynx.

“My life goal is to go to space,” said Jeremy Voigt, 26, an engineer. “I’m going to take care of that here at XCOR. Everybody in the company gets to fly.”

Earthlings vs. gravity is an enduring David vs. Goliath story. Human beings on the surface of the Earth are at the bottom of a gravity well. To get anything out of that well and into even a Low Earth Orbit still costs upward of $5,000 per pound. It’s hard to come up with a reasonable business plan as long as launch costs are that high, which is why the government still dominates the space industry.

Another problem is that space flight has to work. The margin of error, between success and catastrophe, is minuscule. It’s not like the computer business, where you can deliver a product and work out the bugs later. As Jeff Greason, the chief executive of XCOR, puts it, “We’re not an industry that can ship the beta.”

This is why Elon Musk, the chief executive of SpaceX, said in a recent telephone interview that he’s “sweating” the launch, scheduled for Monday, of his Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla. It’s supposed to put a communications satellite into a high Earth orbit, but a lot of things have to go perfectly.

“The thing with the rocket is, the passing grade is 100 percent. You can’t issue a recall or do a patch,” Musk said. “You either get it all right or you’re screwed.”

[and the story continues from there... Please read and share via social media if you wish. FYI, Musk also said to me, in complaining about negative media coverage, particularly regarding Tesla: "We’re not under a spotlight, we’re under a laser beam. Its just mad." And then, about himself, as this glamorous Tech-era innovator and tycoon: “I don’t think people should envy my position. They would be incorrect to think that it’s great.”]

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · November 22, 2013