"Rocketeers" - a Review

Rocketeers is the contemporary story of the flurry of activity in private space launch development and construction, centered primarily in the US southwest.

Rocketeers by Michael Belfiore
Smithsonian Books
ISBN: 978-0-06-114902-3

Belfiore is a freelance journalist who covered the private sector space launch developers, the epynomous rocketeers, during the short period of the last few years leading up to SpaceShipOne winning the first X-prize, and the immediate aftermath.

It is a fun read, half contemporaneous history, and half cheerleading; the focus is on Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites back-to-back launch of SpaceShipOne on suborbital hops to over 100 km altitude - the nominal border between the atmosphere and space.
He also covers Rocketplane Kistler, XCOR, Bigelow's Aerospace work on inflatable habitable orbital structures - space hotels - starting with the Genesis test module and SpaceX and their Falcon series of launcher, as well as a number of minor players and wannabes.

The excitement and enthusiasm is palpable and conveyed well, in part because the author is clearly genuinely caught up in the excitement.
It is also a true joy to see the hyper-competent and very ambitious nouveaux riche take their well earned capital and do something fun and interesting with it. The dot-commers are not done having fun, and they are mostly techies and space cadets.

The X-prize concept was a brilliant idea, and it has sparked activity that was incipient but lacked focus.
The dream is the "garage developer" a Heinleinesque team of intuitive engineers who will figure out all the tricks and bring cheap, easy orbital access to the masses, free of regulation and bureaucracy and government interference.

It is a dream that it is easy to embrace - NASA has been moribund since the disastrous series of missteps of the shuttle development and inadequate half-assed fixes and aborted technology development to replace it.
The NASA process is broken, it is bloated and the procedures that have cumulated over the decades do not actually improve safety or expedite launches.
The root problem is fairly clear - space launches are artisan craft - each is practically handbuilt, with very heavy labour costs, and overhead.
There are too few launches, hundreds, whereas tens of thousands are needed to simply climb the learning curve - at this rate that will take centuries and some people don't want to wait that long.
The solution is apparently simple: reusable launchers, with small launch teams (hence they must be robust in operation) and frequent launches - weekly, not yearly.
This is conceptually possible, the physics permit this, and it could drive fuel costs to little higher than fuel and recurring labour costs - the overhead costs would be marginal not dominant.
This will happen eventually.

The catch is that the private rocketeers are not at the orbital launch stage, they are doing what NASA did in the '50s, suborbital hops and low mach number rocket planes. To get to orbit they need to go a lot faster, and energy costs go like velocity squared while structural loads typically go like velocity cubed.
They need more poweful engines, higher energy density fuels, better structural materials.
The good news is that there are a lot of clever concepts for doing all this better, and some might work, eventually. Along the way some people will die, and a lot of peope will go bankrupt.

The story is sobering in places, corners are cut, and you can see the onset of the redundant checks and procedures that cumulatively strangle NASA - individually each is a lesson learned, cumulatively they contribute little. You also see the cheap off-the shelf parts failing, and being replaced with more expensive, more custom parts - another slippery slope on the climb to the ultimate goal.

The books is new and was rushed to print, but the developments since then are instructive:
Rocketplane Kistler lost its NASA development contract, failed to attract private capital and looks set to go under, they also dumped their Lear jet fuselage in favour of a custom built body.
Scaled Composites was taken over by Northrop Grumman, for their core competency not their spacecraft development, though at least they have a line on capital, and Northrop may fund them for the Air Force derivative planes - both for the high altitude long duration "motherships" and the sub-orbital hop rocketplanes. Before that, though, they had three staff killed during a minor ground test accident. It will be interesting to see if Scaled Composites is swamped by its new parent or will function as a quasi-independent subdivision retaining its core competency.
SpaceX is moving along, and may launch the large Falcon 9 on or ahead of schedule, but the first two Falcon 1 launches failed, each in their own way. Each a lesson, but also a failure.

But, Virgin Galactic is apparently going ahead with SpaceShipTwo; SpaceX is still capitalized and looks very likely to be able to fly not only its Falcon series but also the Dragon vehicle, FedEx is reputedly taking quiet interest in cheap suborbital launchers, and to keep everyone on their toes the Chinese are going to the Moon.

It is though a wonderfully fun book. Most recommended.
Read it.


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