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Friday, November 30, 2012

The Next Frontier: An Interview with Lee Valentine

We at The Freeman are excited about the budding private space industry. So we decided to reach out to Dr. Lee Valentine, Executive Vice President of the Space Studies Institute at Princeton and an XCOR Aerospace board member. Here is the result. (Full disclosure: Dr. Valentine has a financial interest in XCOR.)

The Freeman: Space exploration—public, private, or both?

Valentine: That is an interesting way to phrase the question. The real question should be about space development rather than space exploration. 

The Freeman: Fair enough.

Valentine: Both space exploration and space development are, and have been, both public and private. The question is how this mix will evolve.

A peculiarity of space transportation, as opposed to every other form of transport, is that it was developed from a technology base suitable only for a one-way trip. Throwaway engines only make sense for missiles. No other form of transportation, on which so much of the economy depends, uses throwaway vehicles.

This peculiarity was a direct outgrowth of World War II and the subsequent Cold War mentality—in which rocketry was developed primarily for war. Nazi Germany developed the first ballistic missile capable of reaching space at a cost of billions of dollars. The United States and the Soviet Union then built larger and more capable rockets for intercontinental nuclear war. Those rockets became the first space launchers. Cold War exigencies dictated bypassing the development of a reusable space transportation system in favor of winning the Moon Race using existing ballistic missile technologies.

At the very beginning, however—in the United States, Germany, and even Soviet Russia – space development was privately financed. Ordinary citizens financed the German effort, e.g., members of the VfR (Organization for Spaceship Travel). Daniel Guggenheim funded Goddard’s work in the United States. A Brooklyn subway conductor's wages funded Reaction Motors Incorporated, the company that built the engines for the X-1.

So, after a hiatus of nearly 70 years, private enterprise has now resumed the leading role in development of rocket propulsion technology. So, no more throwaway or partly salvageable vehicles. And for sound economic reasons, safety must improve by a factor of a thousand.

Space has become an important part of the global economy. Much of that importance is now telecommunication. Privately owned telecommunication satellites are a multibillion-dollar annual business worldwide.

The real opportunities for people on Earth, however, lie in businesses that do not yet exist because the cost of space transportation is so high. One of those is satellite solar-power stations, which would transmit clean base load electrical energy to Earth from geostationary orbit. For the present design of power satellites, a cost per pound to low Earth orbit of less than $250 should allow them to be economically competitive with ground-based sources of electricity. That transportation number is a factor of ten lower than the present cost, but is well within the range of costs estimated for a mature system. Propellant costs are roughly ten dollars per pound to orbit for a LOX [liquid oxygen]/kerosene launcher.

The Freeman: Why have any exploration then?

Valentine: Both the public and private sectors have specific functions that they must perform. One of the government's functions is national defense. Space is the high ground for reconnaissance. For that reason, the U.S. military will continue to own and operate the satellites that provide ballistic missile early-warning and secure navigation signals. An important defensive function that has been largely ignored by the federal government is defense against asteroid impact. The first requirement for asteroid defense is finding threatening asteroids soon enough to deflect them. In my view, that is the most important job of the government space exploration program. They’re not doing a very good job.

Pure space exploration provides the United States with an element of ‘soft power.’ The primary value of the latest Mars Rover to the American people is not likely to be its science return, but rather the enhancement of softer forms of power of the United States. No other nation has ever done such a dramatic thing in space. Thanks to the Internet, people around the world know about it. Foreign enemies surely ask themselves, “If they can do that, what else can they do?” Having said that, I am sympathetic to Felix Baumgartner's view that the $2.5 billion spent on the Mars Rover might have had better uses.

The Freeman: So are we.

Valentine: Well, the private sector absolutely lowers costs and improves service. We have already seen that a small innovative company, SpaceX, has lowered the price of space transportation enough that neither the Russians nor Chinese can effectively compete. Governments monopolized the space launch market for 55 years with no improvement in the cost of transportation. That unusual era is now coming to an end with the emergence of capable private launch companies. Competition among them should drive the cost of space transportation as low as it can feasibly go.

The Freeman: What do you see as the next big thing(s) for the private space industry? What's possible (i.e., potentially profitable) in the next 20 years?

Valentine: The next big thing will be flights of the first fully reusable space launcher. That will be the two-man XCOR Lynx Mark 2 that should enter service in 2014. (The Lynx Mark I prototype spacecraft will fly early next year, but will not reach space as officially defined.) That vehicle will be a game changer for the scientific-sounding rocket market currently valued at about a hundred million dollars per year. Lynx will be able to carry scientific payloads to space for a fraction of a percent of their current cost, and then return those instruments to the researcher for re-flight. For $20 million and an operating cost (per hour) less than a military jet, an organization can have its own manned space program. It is hard to predict how many private astronauts will be created over the next few years. But between XCOR and its competitors I expect the number to be many, many thousands.

Within the next ten years, I expect XCOR and one or more of its competitors to field a fully reusable orbital transportation system. If the cost per pound to low Earth orbit is as low as our CEO Jeff Greason believes it can be, many new market segments will be profitable. The first of these may well be large high-power communications relays in low Earth orbit. With low-cost launch, it will become economical to assemble orbit satellites of much larger size and much higher power than currently exist. The large engineering costs associated with making highly reliable satellites, because they cannot be repaired, will disappear. Cheaper, larger, and more effective satellites, assembled in orbit, may replace much of the terrestrial cell phone infrastructure.

With a mature Earth-to-orbit transportation system, space hotels will be affordable for people with a few hundred thousand dollars to spend. The orbital tourism market is now about $50 million per year, but should expand smartly as the cost comes down. Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace is confident enough in that market that he'll be spending a few hundred million dollars over the next few years to develop it.

Another market—a huge one—is building satellite solar power stations in geostationary orbit to transmit electrical energy to Earth. 

It is also possible that we could be mining extraterrestrial resources within twenty years. Fifty years ago, Arthur Clarke, the visionary inventor of the geostationary communications satellite, forecast asteroid mining in 2030. He may yet be right. The supply of platinum group metals on Earth is extremely limited. These metals have so many potential uses that a cheap supply would revolutionize many aspects of engineering. With a cheap supply of these refractory metals it would be possible to increase the efficiency of turbine engines by 30 percent. That would increase the range and decrease the cost of every jet airliner, and would cut the fuel bill for gas turbine generators by 30 percent. So there is a powerful reason to search for a cheap source of these metals. No richer source exists than the metallic asteroids. A for-profit company, Planetary Resources, has been started to exploit asteroidal resources.

The Freeman: Can you talk a little bit more about what XCOR does and how it fits into the bright future you describe?

Valentine: The company was founded to develop a mature transportation system for orbital flight. The characteristic of a mature system is that its operating costs are a single-digit multiple of its energy cost. That characteristic cost is typical of automobiles, trains, ships, and airplanes.

The key technology that is required for a mature space transportation system is highly reliable and long-lived engines. It is not generally appreciated that the rocket engines for all previous space launchers wear out after a few dozen on-off cycles. So, if you had recovered the vehicle for reuse, you would have to replace the engines every few dozen flights. Since the engine cost is one-quarter to one-third of the total vehicle cost, it should be obvious that replacing the engines every few flights cannot give the low transportation cost typical of a mature system. A robust, reliable, pump-fed, long-lived propulsion system is the sine qua non of a mature space transportation system, and only XCOR has that technology today. That remarkable engine technology is a reason United Launch Alliance has contracted with XCOR to develop a new upper-stage engine for ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles.

A mature—that is lowest-cost—system must also be safe. That should be obvious. If a vehicle is unsafe, it must be replaced frequently, increasing costs. If a vehicle is unsafe, insurance costs might dominate the total cost of operation.

The Freeman: What do you know? The market helps ensure safety.

Valentine: Yep. All of XCOR's vehicles are designed to be recovered intact from any point after brake release. That is why they are all horizontal takeoff and horizontal landing vehicles. Vertical takeoff, vertical landing rocket ships all have dead zones in which the vehicle will be destroyed, if, for example, there is an engine failure. XCOR's design philosophy is to have backup systems for all flight critical hardware except the wings. The wings have a high safety factor.

We ensure reliability through exhaustive testing. It does not rely on [modeling] analysis or simulation that is often erroneous. It insists on rigorous and exhaustive testing in the real environment.

Our culture is designed to generate and test innovative solutions to engineering problems as rapidly as possible. The rapid testing of alternative engineering solutions is one of the secrets of Intel Corporation's success. Jeff Greason, XCOR's CEO, introduced that part of Intel's culture to XCOR.

We have about 46 employees, so it's about the same size as the famous Lockheed Works of SR-71 fame. The small size and high caliber of our technical employees allow development to proceed much more rapidly than in a larger company. Although XCOR's employees work long and hard, they have a perk: They will all become astronauts when they fly in the Lynx.

The successor to the Lynx spacecraft is a piloted two-stage orbital vehicle. For safety reasons, it is also a winged vehicle, which takes off from a runway. Both the first and second stages will be piloted. The orbital vehicle is already well along in development. It incorporates much Lynx technology, as well as lessons learned from Lynx development, in both the lower and upper stages. That vehicle should be in flight test before the end of this decade. The senior engineering team expects the cost per pound for cargo to low Earth orbit to be below $250 per pound. That number is below the $600 per pound price point at which the space transportation market [is expected to take off].*

The Freeman: Describe the Lynx for us, if you can.

Valentine: Lynx is XCOR's third rocket plane and the world's first fully reusable space launcher. It is a two-person suborbital spacecraft. Lynx will fly to a maximum altitude of about 68 miles and a maximum speed of Mach 3.5. It is a horizontal takeoff, horizontal landing spacecraft. It looks like a jet fighter. Four rocket engines burning liquid oxygen and kerosene power it. Each engine generates about 3,000 pounds of thrust. Lynx can fly four flights per day with a ground crew of five and a pilot.  Except for reloading the propellants, no ‘touch labor’ is required on the spacecraft between flights.

That's quite a difference from the nine months of rebuilding required to turn around the Space Shuttle.

Lynx was designed to serve three markets: private astronaut flights, scientific missions, and small satellite launch using an expendable upper stage. The Lynx is designed to carry a dorsal pod that can carry up to 750 pounds of external scientific instruments, or a small satellite and its disposable upper stage.

The Lynx has redundant systems for all flight functions except for the wings. The reaction control system engines, necessary for maneuvering the spacecraft in space, are dual string redundant. Spacesuits provide backup to the cockpit pressure vessel.

The pilot’s eyes are backup for the cockpit instruments.  He can visually line up the reentry vector without recourse to the instruments. To maximize safety and minimize operational costs, Lynx uses only non-toxic propellants. The spacecraft's structural components have a safety factor of two, approximately 1.5 times greater than NASA safety factors.

The Lynx is the operations and technology pathfinder for XCOR's next operational spacecraft. That vehicle will be a two-stage fully reusable horizontal takeoff, horizontal landing piloted orbital spacecraft designed to fly at least once a day from spaceports in the United States.

The Freeman: If you could change anything—a policy, a rule, or whatever—for the private space industry, what would it be and why?

Valentine: That would be contingent fee lawsuits and sky-high punitive awards. Here I'm going to quote Bob Lutz, “[these] are cancers eating society, dangers to commerce, killers of intelligent risk-taking and innovation, and disincentives to improvement.” Despite its long history, space transportation is still an immature industry. To obtain the immense benefit of a mature space transportation system, continuous improvement and intelligent risk-taking and innovation are essential.

The Freeman: How important is all this?

Valentine: The opportunities and benefits of bringing the rest of the solar system into mankind's sphere of economic activity are so immense that people don’t believe it if you tell them. As an example, the entire Earth receives one 500 millionth of the sun's energy output. The resources of the solar system are sufficient to support a human population a billion times larger than that of Earth until the sun dies. A robust, private, and competitive American space transport sector will begin to unlock these enormous resources within the next few decades.

*This figure comes from the Commercial Space Transportation Study

  • Max Borders is author of The Social Singularity. He is also the founder and Executive Director of Social Evolution—a non-profit organization dedicated to liberating humanity through innovation. Max is also co-founder of the Voice & Exit event and former editor at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). Max is a futurist, a theorist, a published author and an entrepreneur.