You Can't Get There from Here




Many companies are currently engaged in trying to build a commercially viable single stage to orbit craft that will someday allow private individuals to travel into space for about the same cost as an airline ticket. Some of these craft are much liket the tail sitting rockets of old. Others are permutations of the basic shuttle craft. Others even look like 1950's style flying saucers. The various designs and the companies that create them have a multitude of space enthusiasts supporting them. Every space enthusiast wants to see practical access to space for the masses, but all of these companies suffer from one major setback ... few, if any investors. The problem is that few have been able to engage the interest of bankers or venture capitalists. The "why" of this can be found in the basic economic viability of the low earth orbit marketplace. Two forces combine to eliminate the chances of the small space access company: (1) The market is already well populated with well established government sponsored aerospace giants, and (2) more importantly the LEO marketplace is an extremely small niche market.

Sure, cheap access to space will increase the number of flights available for companies to support. Perhaps, one of these companies, in a competition rich environment, could expect as many as one or two flights a month on which to base it's business. If a company charges $10 million per flight, it can expect to receive an annual income of $120 to $240 million, which just might pay for fuel, facilities, and operating expenses, but will probably not defray the spacecraft development costs, pay taxes, pay insurance, nor ever make the investors happy. In a nutshell, the concept is economically unviable, that dog just don't hunt, that rocket won't fly. It's time to go back to the drawing board and re-examine the roots of the problem, and look for potential work-arounds.


Economically speaking, cheap LEO transportation companies are a giant aeronautical leap from the aircraft transportation companies of today. As such, they leap into an infrastructure vacuum at least as hard as the vacuum of space. Not just an infrastructure vacuum, but a rarified customer space as well. Besides which, once up in space, what are people to do? Sure there's the tourist angle, the drug manufacturing angle, and the semiconductor angle, but then what? These are still very much niche markets, especially when the minimum tour package is conceived to cost between $50,000 and $100,000 for a 20 minute roller-coaster ride. Let's face facts, we space enthusiasts would gladly give our eye teeth to get the chance to travel into space, but space enthusiasts do not a complete customer base make. So what does travel in a vacuum offer the average customer (especially average business customer), of which there are legion? In my opinion, the most obvious answer is speed.


Enter stage right the door into the future, the semiballistic rocket. Just as the US space program didn't put a man on the moon with their first rocket launch, but instead put a monkey and then a man into a ballistic trajectory into space, the private space companies may very well be successful using the same ballistic technique. Launch what is essentially an aircraft from an airport. Angle up the nose of the craft until it is climbing at a 45 degree angle into the sky. Jet engines take the plane to their service ceiling, then the engines are augmented with rockets and perhaps with a direct oxydizer feed to the jet engines themselves take the plane to the upper limits of the atmosphere and beyond, the plane always climbing at a 45 degree angle of attack. Soon after passing out of the upper atmosphere, the craft will reach it's upper safe speed limit of approximately Mach 10. Mach 10 is much less than 1/2 of the speed needed to achieve LEO. The aircraft reaches a top altitude of about 100 miles. Now the craft reduces thrust and travels sideways at great speed for perhaps 30 to 45 minutes. There is little or no effort needed to maintain this speed as the craft is by now in a vacuum. The big problem is maintaining altitude, which is done by standing the craft essentially on it's tail, or at a slight forward angle. Later, engine thrust is further reduced and the craft is allowed to drop down into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, where the craft essentially turns into a hypersonic glider. (But note, this is a hypersonic glider travelling at much less than 1/2 the speed of the shuttle when it hits the atmosphere, so there is need for much much less thermal protection) The aircraft drops down further into the atmosphere until the jet engines begin to work on jet fuel only. This last part happens perhaps a few hundred kilometers away from the intended landing field. Within an hour, the aircraft has crossed the atlantic or even the pacific.

At first, a craft like this will probably be the most valuable to the military, either for reconnasance or for rapid deployment of elite personel or material. In my opinion then, the military is the most likely candidate to fund the R&D for such a craft. The military also has the advantage that it is infinitely more accident tollerant than civilian transporation could be. Next, the aircraft is used by freight companies for critical freight movement. Again this is done because freight companies are more accident tollerant than civilian passenger service could be. Finally, after years of flying for the military and the freight business and having proven itself safe, passenger service comes on board. The cost of a ticket is not that much different than today's airline ticket. People are able to travel to the edge of space on a routine basis because an entire transportation infrastructure and customer base has grown up with the craft(s) that will take them there. The advantage with this approach is the aerospace industry gets to develop safe affordable rocket and re-entry technologies, and to develope a customer base for a much more do-able technology. Natural market forces, especially the economic advantages of more speed/less time for the customer, will propel the technologies until the crafts are travelling at orbital speeds.

Send Comments to