Space industry faces choice for next direction

Joel AchenbachWashington Post

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, 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 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 spaceflight 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."

The glory days of Apollo were the direct result of an astonishing, but temporary, infusion of national resources driven by the Cold War and the desire to beat the Soviets to the moon. In the mid-1960s, NASA consumed nearly 5 percent of the federal budget. The agency commands just a 10th of that today. That's about $17 billion, with the largest chunk still going to human space flight, including the international space station.

With the shuttle now retired, NASA is moving to a new set of hardware, including a jumbo rocket, the Space Launch System, and a capsule, Orion. Both projects are still in process. Orion won't fly until next year at the earliest. The SLS won't fly until 2017. The first flight of both with a crew aboard won't be until 2021.

Where these things will go and what exactly they'll do remains unclear.

Both the rocket and capsule are overbuilt for routine missions to the space station. The new rocket could launch Orion to the moon, but without a lunar lander, the capsule could only go into lunar orbit and then come home. NASA recently announced a controversial plan, fraught with technical uncertainties, to send astronauts in 2021 to rendezvous with an asteroid that would be redirected to lunar orbit.

Haphazard though some of this seems, there's a deeper strategy at work. NASA retired the space shuttle so that it could devote resources to bold, deep-space missions -- true exploration. There was always going to be an awkward transitional era.

Right now, American astronauts can get to the international space station only by traveling to a spaceport in Kazakhstan and catching a ride on a Russian rocket. That costs about $71 million per ticket. The U.S. Treasury is sending more than $400 million a year to Russia for launch services.

NASA hopes New Space will come to the rescue.

A huge strategic shift came when President Barack Obama canceled the Bush-approved Constellation program, which would have sent American astronauts back to the moon. That decision killed a new NASA rocket, the Ares I, and roiled the Old Space community. The administration extended the life of the space station and decided to count on commercial companies to put astronauts in orbit.

In the space business, "commercial" is a debatable term. For the better part of a decade, NASA has been boosting the entrepreneurial space sector through a series of agreements that have funneled $1.8 billion to companies developing private spacecraft and other hardware. The government still writes a lot of the checks in the commercial industry. The biggest change is in the nature of the contracts.

Traditional "cost-plus" contracts limited the incentives to keep costs down. The government owned the spaceships and rockets. With the new, commercial contracts, the private companies assume more risk and put more of their own money into the projects. They design and build their spaceships and rockets, with NASA hovering in the background as a customer, not as a supervisor.

SpaceX and the Dulles, Va.-based launch company Orbital Sciences have already succeeded in hauling cargo in unpiloted vehicles to the space station under one NASA program. Next comes a competition for the contract to launch astronauts. Three companies appear to be in the running: SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing. That's two New Space companies plus an Old Space stalwart.

SpaceX and Boeing have developed capsules that will launch on top of rockets. Sierra Nevada has a winged vehicle, a kind of miniature space shuttle, called the Dream Chaser.

In a recent test flight near Mojave, the unmanned Dream Chaser was dropped from a helicopter at 12,500 feet, and, flying autonomously by its on-board navigation system, glided back to Earth admirably -- falling with style, one might say. It touched down on the center line of the runway.

Unfortunately, the landing gear hadn't deployed properly. The Dream Chaser flopped on its side and skidded off the runway, into the desert.

It was the latest reminder that this spaceship stuff is never easy.

The Washington Post