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Reusable Launch & Space Vehicle News:
Space Access Society 2002 - Review

Armadillo Test Flight
Copyright 2002- Armadillo Aerospace
January 2002 test flight of Amadillo Aerospace's rocket powered
vertical-takeoff-and-landing prototype. The vehicle has a
seat for a pilot but in this instance was remotely controlled.
Still image taken from video (10MB).

This is a review of the 2002 conference of the Space Access Society. It is held on the last weekend of April in Phoenix, Arizona. A review of the 2001 meeting is in the archive.


See the RLV News for recent links and info. Older material can be found in the archives:

Apr 2002
Jan-Mar 2002
Jun-Dec 2001
Apr-May 2001

Jan-Mar 2001

Jul-Dec 2000
Apr-Jun 2000
Jan-Mar 2000

Sep-Dec 1999
Apr-Aug 1999

April 29, 2002

Space Access 2002 Review

Another great Space Access Society meeting took place last week in Phoenix, Arizona. Congratulations again to Henry Vanderbilt for bringing in an impressive set of speakers.

[See also Leonard David's review: Maverick Rocketeers Pursue Cheap Space Access - Space.com - May.10.02 ]

The Society's one and only purpose is to lower the barriers to space for those who want to go. The primary barrier is cost, of course, but regulations and attitudes (e.g. NASA's resistance to space tourism) stand in the way as well. The talks and panel discussions addressed all these issues.

The speakers came from a wide range of organizations including amateur rocketry groups, aerospace startup companies, the FAA and NASA.

I'll give some general themes from the talks and discussions and then review the highlights of the presentations.

General Themes

  • Sub-orbital Is Where It's At - the sub-orbital arena is no longer discounted but is becoming the primary stage on which low cost rocket vehicle concepts will prove themselves. Several groups are aiming to build vehicles to address various sub-orbital markets, which are looking stronger all the time. The factor of 10 or so lower cost to reach 100km compared to reaching orbit means the funding is far easier to obtain.

  • Space Tourism To the Rescue - Tito was in space during the previous meeting and this year Shuttleworth headed for the ISS on the day the meeting started. So while there were lots of discussion on how big the space tourism market will be, especially with regard to sub-orbital flights, there was no argument that it exists and will contribute to the development of a commercial RLV industry.

  • Build Stuff! - as shown by Armadillo and XCOR, it's tremendously important to actually build real stuff. Studies and simulations are fine for setting general parameters and designs, but to learn tough lessons you must build and test against hard reality. Failures, essential to the process, will show exactly where one's boundaries of understanding lie and thus serve to expand them. Incremental improvements and cheap spares will keep the process going and not leave one stuck on the ground learning nothing, i.e. the DC-X vs X-33 experiences.

  • Oklahoma To Space Sooner - the Oklahoma Spaceport just opened but already is helping the cause of cheap access to space. The amateur group JP Aerospace, in fact, helped to inaugurate the spaceport. OSIDA ( Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority) assisted Armadillo Aerospace in obtaining FAA approval to test its high altitude VTVL vehicles after getting turned down for tests in Texas. Pioneer, TGV and other groups may get tax credits from the state if they base their construction and operations there.

  • Rooting for XCOR - everybody is very happy about XCOR's success with the EZ-Rocket and are rooting for the company's continued progress. After the disappointing failure of Rotary Rocket (from which many of the XCOR people came) and other small RLV projects, it was a great morale boost to see the EZ-Rocket on CNN and to hear news announcers talking about cheap access to space.



Several talks involved projects aimed at developing sub-orbital RLVs:

  • XCOR - The EZ-Rocket was intended only as technology demonstrator, primarily of the company's low cost rocket engines. The company is continuing to develop more powerful engines and other systems (see the recent piston pump announcement). It was also recently included on one of the teams selected for DARPA's RASCAL project.

    XCOR is now planning a suborbital vehicle but in keeping with XCOR's tradition, the company will not say much about it until they actually have some hardware to show.

  • Pioneer Rocketplane - Mitchell Burnside Clapp talked about the company's XP vehicle. It is basically a 50% scale version of the Pathfinder but doesn't need aerial refueling to reach 100km. It uses turbojets for takeoff and landing and a rocket to reach high altitude.

    He seemed far more optimistic this time about the viability of suborbital markets than in previous presentations.

    He also discussed the RASCAL design study contract. He thought the goal of putting a 75kg payload into orbit at an average cost of $750k was quite challenging but believes they can do it.

    He talked a bit about the "mass injection" technique that DARPA wants used to boost the turbojet thrust. In this technique, water or some other fluid is sprayed into the inlet of the jet. This cools the air which in turn allows more fuel to be injected at a later stage. The combination of higher mass and higher temperatures should provide significantly more thrust.

  • TGV Rockets - Pat Bahn only briefly discussed the TGV vehicle. He mostly discussed the Oklahoma support for RLV's and the efforts to get US funding for state spaceport projects.

  • X-Rocket - Ed Wright reported on progress in the past year in developing a "rocket racing" sport. Sub-orbital rockets would race each other simultaneously or separately against a time clock. The emphasis now is in developing a fleet of rockets and a "spacebase" where people would come to see them race. (The base would also feature amusement park type "space" rides and so forth.)

    The "Arcangel" concept design would reach Mach 2 and go to about 65km during a 17min flight.

  • Regulation - a panel discussion about RLV regulations included Joe Hawkins of the AST office at the FAA. He seemed quite interested in the experiences in dealing with the FAA and the suggestions of the other panelists that included John Carmack, Randal Clague (ERPS) and Mitch Clapp. He emphasized that the office must insure the public safety but also by law must encourage the development of the industry.


There were several panel discussions on markets and the investment situation. Although the collapse of the LEO mobile satellite constellations made space project financing very difficult, there are nonetheless promising markets in development, especially on the short term for sub-orbitals:

  • Space Tourism - the Shuttleworth flight highlighted the progress made in legitimizing the concept of space tourism, especially with at least 3 other people trying to get on the next Soyuz mission in the autumn. The fact that Space Adventures has had nearly 100 people place deposits on a $98k sub-orbital "experience" is also very encouraging. (Pioneer and several other RLV vehicle companies have signed contracts with Space Adventures that will come into effect when the vehicles are ready.)

  • Imaging & Reconaissance - Pat Bahn of TGV rockets discussed the advantages of using sub-orbitals for imaging at last years meeting and the prospects for this have only improved.

  • Microgravity & Other Scientific Services - these include a wide range of R&D services with sub-orbital RLV vehicles such as running microgravity experiments, validation of equipment going to the ISS or on scientific probes, astronomical observations, etc.

  • Promotions & Sponsorships - the millions of dollars paid to place logos on the sides of racing cars are essential in supporting the sport. Similar logos on the sides of rockets could help pay for their development. Like the Pepsi name placed on the Russian launcher a few years ago, this could become a common technique to bring in a few extra bucks.

  • Small Payloads to Orbit - the suborbitals can also act as reusable first stage vehicles for small expendable second stages that place microsats into orbit as in the RASCAL program. There are many micro and nano-sat projects that would love a cheap ride to space. These projects range from amateur and student satellites to technical demonstrators for the military to commercial satellites (such as low cost constellations proposed for tracking, meter reading, etc.).

Amateur progress:

  • Armadillo Aerospace - John Carmack gave a review of his group's progress in the past year. Although they have not yet flown a person even for a short hop, he feels they are on track to send a person to high altitudes by 2003.

    He and his group of volunteers carried out many, many tests of engines and protoype VTVL vehicles since the last SAS meeting. (See the super video now posted on the Armadillo website that shows highlights of their test flights.)

    He emphasized that he believes that hardware tests are far superior to endless simulations for learning what's really going on and how to move to the next level.

    Also, he finds that costs are nowhere near as high as he expected either for materials or for machine shop work (they mostly do their own shop work but did contract out a few jobs.)

    The engines so far are monopropellant hydrogen peroxide engines and they have extensively studied different approaches to building the silver catalyst packs.

    For the high altitude manned vehicles, they are currently looking at a rocket tipped rotor system similar to Rotary Rockets. He said such a system would make the reentry process much easier than multiple stages of parachutes and rocket firings.

    He also discussed his dealings with the FAA in trying, but failing, to get permission to do high altitude flight tests in Texas. He later negotiated with the Oklahoma spaceport who helped in arranging waivers to do his tests at their site.

  • JP Aerospace - This group wants to be the first amateur organization to put a payload into orbit. Their basic approach is to use a balloon to carry the rocket to 30k meters or so and then fire it from there. (A rockoon is the traditional name for this type of system.)

    John Powell reported on the history of their tests and their future plans. Their previous systems involved the platform hanging a couple hundred meters below the balloons so that the rocket, which is tilted to a small angle at launch, misses the balloons when it fires.

    The current designs involve a balloon structure or wide platform from which rocket launches and other high altitude operations can be performed. They have started tests of these Dark Sky Stations (DSS). (See also the 3D interactive simulation and animations.)

    A DSS flight was intended for the inauguration of the Oklahoma Spaceport but was canceled due to high winds. The flight involved an educational project in which paper airplanes made by Oklahoma school children were to be released at 25km or so. Instead they were released at lower altitude by a weather balloon.

    Another clever educational project is called PongSat. A pongsat is created by cutting a table tennis ball in half and letting a student put whatever experiment he or she can think of into it and then resealing it. The pongsat will then be taken up by a high altitude balloon or a sounding rocket and later recovered. So far, several hundred students are taking up the challenge.

  • ERPS - The Experimental Rocket Propulsion Society reported on their various projects, especially the recent flights of their KISS rocket.The hydrogen peroxide monopropellant vehicle was flown three times over one weekend. They simply refilled the tank each time after the rocket parachuted back to earth.

Big Ships:

There is a tilt within the SAS towards the view that cheap access to space will first be achieved with small payload vehicles financed by private investors. However, people are certainly willing to listen to proposals for large, ambitious vehicles whose development costs would reach several billion dollars and so could only be financed by a government source, mostly likely NASA in its quest for a space shuttle replacement.

There were two presentations for vehicles of this type:

  • Space Access - Mike Wade gave a lengthy review of the history of Space Access since it started in 1994. Many in the company came from the National Aerospace Plane project and so were experts in air-breathing engines. Their SA-1 vehicle uses a ramjet to power a horizontal first stage to high altitude where it releases a rocket-powered second stage that goes to LEO.

    Most of the story dealt with endless battles with NASA and the Air Force over bids for particular projects (e.g. they tried to make the Air Force consider their vehicle for the EELV funds) or over ownership of intellectual property. Recently, they fought with DARPA over IP questions with regard to their selection in the RASCAL project design phase.

    Despite passing many intensive technical reviews over the years, NASA has apparently never given the SA-1 genuine consideration and continues to say that a shuttle replacement isn't feasible before 2015 or even later. (It reminds me of a receiver in football who is always open but no matter how much he jumps up and down and waves his arms, the quarterback won't throw him the ball because he isn't the receiver the quarterback wants to throw to.)

  • Andrews Space & Tech - Joe Hopkins gave a status report on the Andrews TSTO system that initally flies subsonically with turbojets for 3 hours or so to liquify oxygen from the air and then uses this with LH to power a rocket engine. A second stage is released at high altitude to take a payload on to orbit.

    The "Alchemist" Air Collection and Enrichment System (ACES) is the key technology and the company is building a ground system to prove that it can achieve the required perfomance within the required weight limits.

Other topics of interest:

  • Mockingbird - Jordin Kare gave a review of this fascinating vehicle design that he and colleges at Lawrence Livermore Lab developed in 1994. The vehicle's only purpose was to prove that single stage to orbit and return was feasible.

    The bowling pin shaped vehicle stood only 5 meters tall. It was 1 meter in diameter at the bottom and then tapered to a sharp point at the top. It took off on the thrust of 8 engines designed for low altitudes and then switched to a single central engine for high altitudes. The oxidiser was 98% H2O2 for JP-5 fuel.

    A super lightweight approach, such as very thin walls that served as both hull and fuel tanks, would be needed to achieve a dry mass of 75kg and a liftoff weight of 1500kg. Since it was only meant as a SSTO demo, the fact that it could only take a kg or so of payload was not important (they also called the vehicle the "Bricklifter"). For return an unbrella like shield opened up on the bottom to act as an aerobrake.

    The project was actually approved by the missile defense chief at the time and would have cost about $20M. But the project was canceled when the BMDO leader was transferred.

    Kare says there will soon be a document posted on the web that gives details about the project.

  • Laser Propulsion - Kare also spoke about laser propulsion as he did last year. The technology is being given increasing scrutiny and there will be a conference on it this autumn at MSFC.

    He said previous designs required very high power lasers that could only possibly be funded by military programs, especially by missile defense programs. However, he has now shown that low cost laser diode arrays can be clustered into many "searchlight" type beams. An array of 20,000 such beams would provide 100MW of laser power and could be built for about $2 billion. Such a system could send a continual stream of 140kg payload packages to orbit.

  • Anti-matter Propulsion - Dr. Gerald A. Smith, formerly a professor of physics at Penn State University, and now at Synergistic Technologies in Los Alamos, N.M, is involved with several projects funded by NASA and the Air Force. Last year he spoke primarily about efforts to collect and use antiprotons. This year he emphasized positrons, which are somewhat easier to produce and collect. It appears that it will be possible to produce milli-grams per year of positrons, which would allow for some interesting experiments.

  • Misc Other topics - Dave Salt spoke again about what's happening in European RLV development (not much) and also on a systematic approach to assessing RVL designs....Roderick & Randa Milliron of Interorbital Systems talked about their Tonga spaceport for their RLV and signing up Wally Funk for an orbital trip....G. David Nordley described a rotating tether system (See the HASTOL design at Tethers Unlimited) that would allow payloads to be "thrown" from earth to the Moon or Mars where matching systems would "catch" them.


The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey


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