Friday, June 1, 2018

Reflections of a NewSpace Skeptic

NOTE: I penned this piece last summer but have only got around to publishing it now. While some of the details have since dated, it still seems to me worth sharing because its purpose, after all, is reflection on the trend of a decade, unaltered by subsequent events.

I recall many years ago running across a headline about Virgin Galactic's unveiling SpaceShip Two. Thinking that progress on the vehicle had gone a lot faster than I had heard, and expecting to see it rolling out of a hangar before the world press, I clicked on it—and saw instead a picture of a broadly grinning Richard Branson holding a model of what SpaceShip Two would eventually look like when it was built.

Of course, headlines commonly promise much more than they deliver. Still, the particular way in which they do so where technology stories are concerned is especially problematic. A company announces an R & D project, or even some scientist mentions a technical possibility—and the journalist in question presents the technology as if were already developed, put on the market, and in satisfactory, practical, everyday use. This kind of writing is, unfortunately, evident all across the spectrum of cutting-edge technologies today, sometimes in publications whose editors ought to know better. (I recall one respectable popular science magazine that, six years ago, made it sound as if submarine communications systems were already encrypted with quantum keys.) Moreover, this kind of distorting coverage does not prove that a particular line of research and development is all smoke and no fire.

All the same, following the news regarding space technology, and the space business generally, it seemed that from year to year we were hearing much more about boldly announced initiatives, or even the discussion of mere possibilities, than about evidence of concrete progress—and that expectations generally were overblown, especially given the combination of financial and technical hurdles to be overcome, especially in regard to the more genuinely exciting opportunities. (Space tourism was one thing, space-based solar power of significance on a macroeconomic scale a much more interesting but much more demanding thing.)

It seems to me that much of what has happened has validated my skepticism. Virgin Galactic was, after all, was supposed to take its first suborbital tourists up in 2007. Ten years on neither Virgin, nor any other private company, has flown a single customer. Quite the contrary, the greatest success story for NewSpace in recent years has not been a matter of tourism, but the more established (and less glamorous) business of launching satellites, and that not by means of newfangled spaceplanes, but multi-stage rockets of the sort we have been using since the beginning of the space age.

The protagonist of this story, SpaceX's Falcon 9, has yet to attain even the reliability of existing boosters in completing its mission. Its success rate, recently appraised at 94 percent, compares unfavorably with the 99 percent success rate of the Atlas V, the 97 percent success rate of the much more heavily used Soyuz-U, or even the reusable Space Shuttle. The same goes for the success rate of its recovery for reuse, its achievement of aircraft-like turnaround times, or its holding up under repeated missions—thus far, the Falcon 9 not yet bettering the track record of the much-derided space shuttle. Only the first stage of the rocket has been recoverable so far, and that just 80 percent of the time, its refurbishment for another flight recently took six months (again, no better than the shuttle, even post-Challenger) and even its most heavily used rocket remains a long way from matching Discovery's 39 safely completed flights.

Is this an entirely fair comparison? I freely admit that it is not. The Falcon 9 program, after all, remains not just a work in progress, but at an early point in its history compared with these other programs. Despite that the price charged by the company makes it plausible to claim its improving on the dollars-per-pound-to-orbit calculus (for the first time, a Western satellite-launcher might be approaching the $2,500 a pound-to-orbit mark, however one regards the terms), while its technique of rocket recovery, even if less complete or reliable than might be hoped, is clearly deserving of the history books. Still, it is worth remembering that the concrete progress we have seen did not happen anywhere near so quickly as some hoped. Moreover, the advances the company has made so far are more a matter of incremental improvement of familiar equipment where space vehicles are concerned, and a turn to developments from outside spacecraft-building, narrowly conceived, like 3-D printing (now being used to produce rocket parts).

I think it plausible and even likely that the company will continue to make headway in improving the rocket's performance according to all the relevant metrics—higher reliability in its launchings, more frequent and complete recovery, and more rapid refurbishment, which in turn may bring prices down appreciably. However, it seems likely that this will go on being a matter of incremental progress with familiar technology, and the broader improvement of production methods, and that the journey to $100 a pound-to-orbit will be measured in decades rather than years. Additionally, even the most guarded projection is a very different thing from a done deal—all this not having happened yet. However, I am much more optimistic about the efforts of SpaceX and the whole sector than I have been in a long time.

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