Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Upwards and onwards.

After yesterday, the alt-space movement branches out onto a variety of paths and possibilities. There's a lot here today because there are many different things going on. The regular season is over, but the post-season is in full swing, and there are a lot of wildcards still in the running. The completion of the Ansari X-Prize race was but a single step on a long ladder, the end of the beginning if you will.

What's next?

For Paul Allen and Scaled composites, yesterday's flight appears to have been but a single step in a much longer business plan. This is a Good Thing. Our future in space depends on business, not stunts or amusement park rides.

  • Scaled Composites

    In addition to design work on SpaceShip Two (VSS Enterprise), Scaled has a contract to use White Knight as the carrier vehicle for drop tests of the X-37. (NASA Watch also has a brief article on this.)

    My recommendation? Don't get too exited about this one folks. Contrary to popular belief, the government does business with small firms all the time.

  • Virgin Galactic

    MSNBC has an article with a picture of Richard Branson holding a model of the proposed VSS Enterprise. (Is the proposed name a surprise to anyone?) Overall the new craft appears to be a slightly stretched and enlarged version of SpaceShip One.

    De Doc surmises that Sir Richard may have his eye on intercontinental package and passenger delivery. Many have surmised that intercontinental vehicles may be the next logical step between the sub orbital X-Prize and a full orbital craft, I agree with that philosophy.

The first to market isn't always the winner, let alone a survivor of the inevitable shakeout. They do however influence investors and Wall Street's view of the market. We don't need a dot-bomb or a trophy here, but a viable and visible business.

Let's not scoff at big business and dinosaurs. Building a commercial space venture takes real money and business acumen. It's not an accident that the names most associated with commercial space development today, Branson, Musk, Carmack, and Bezos, all have bank accounts with lots of zero's behind the numbers. When Disney builds a suborbital ride, or a transport in brown livery departs these green hills, then the race is over.

More prizes, more goals.

There is more than one race on the schedule, and more than one prize to be won.

  • The X-Prize Cup (an annual race) will be hosted by New Mexico, possibly at the historic White Sands Missile Range.

    Myself, I look forward to the day when such races (and prizes) are the province of the well-to-do or the garage tinkerers, and no longer have a bearing on the workaday world of space travel.

  • Bigelow Aerospace

    This is the Big One folks. Bigelow has announced a $50 million dollar prize for a capsule that can carry 5-7 passengers to Bigelow's proposed space hotel by the end of the decade. Unlike the X-Prize, the America's Prize isn't for prototypes that may or may not be able to be upgraded to be viable in commercial service, but is a direct request for a demonstrated operational technology.

    I've seen it suggested that the Falcon V is a logical candidate for the booster, but the prize rules do not require a US booster. (And the Falcon I has yet to fly.)

And then there were many.

Let's not forget however that there are other companies in the wings with future plans as well.

  • Armadillo Aerospace has long since announced they intend to continue development of their craft. John Carmack discusses their current status here.

  • Da Vinci has vowed they will overcome their difficulties and is pressing on with plans for an October 2004 launch.

  • SpaceX is reported to be on pace for a November launch of the first Falcon I vehicle. In addition, Bigelow hopes to use the Falcon V for tests of his inflatable modules.

  • And them there is the ever mysterious Blue Origin...

Formal word hasn't emerged from the other X-Prize teams, but I have little doubt that more than a few intend to push ahead. There is potentially a big market out there, and competition is a Good Thing. We no more need a single company, or a small group of companies, to dominate this emerging industry than we need a few governmental organizations to dominate.

As 'Crash' Davis said; "the moment is over", time to look forward and put shoulders back to the grindstone. While keeping our eyes on the stars...


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