NASA’s Commercial Crew initiative is getting barraged with cutback requests on Capitol Hill, and now the House is preparing to vote on legislation that would require NASA to immediately downselect a single commercial spaceflight purveyor from the eclectic list of companies vying for NASA dollars. This is a terrible idea as you have no competition with a single purveyor, two would be a much more palatable choice if any. If you choose only one at this early stage in the game than you might as well cancel the program overall as it’s goals would be free of cost saving downward market pressure through competition. Choices currently range from truly innovative to archaic and metaphorically span the history of American spaceflight. Some companies such as Space-X and ATK use the tried and true method of launching expendable or semi-expendable rockets with capsules that return to earth via parachutes. Others, such as Boeing/Sierra Nevada’s entry use a Space Shuttle like lifting body aircraft that will be launched on the tip of a rocket and return to earth like the Shuttle. Where Blue Origin, the mysterious commercial spaceflight company started by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, differs is that Blue Origin’s concepts envision an almost immediately reusable vehicle space vehicle, a goal that has been considered the holy grail of manned low earth orbit transportation for decades. By reusing their vehicle totally, without any need for heavy refurbishment of the craft’s various structures or the need to recover jettisoned boosters out at sea, Blue Origin’s form of spaceflight could truly become affordable and similar to air travel as we know it today. Simply re-stack the components, fuel and fly. The savings that could be realized by fielding such a cost effective system would be game changing to say the least.
So how does Blue Origin plan to make the previously impossible possible? By mixing cutting edge technology and computer automation with a concept pioneered by McDonald Douglas two decades ago. McDonnell Douglas’s DC-X “Delta Clipper” envisioned a rocket system that provided a single stage to launch, meaning the same full spacecraft that leaves the pad comes back down intact. The DC-X rocket concept recovered vertically on pod like landing gear, just like what was seen in the martian movies of the 1950’s. Further the DC-X concept used commercially available parts, ran almost completely automated, and would require just a handful ground personal to operate. The Delta Clipper system was aimed at being revolutionary from it’s very inception.
The DC-X Delta Clipper, the name a throwback to McDonnell Douglas’s pioneering air transportation lineage, was basically a semi-expendable test and evaluation craft designed to prove the required maneuvering principals behind the DC-X as well as it’s austere infrastructure. It was a scaled prototype and never was aimed at flying into space. The Delta Clipper first flew, or hovered really, in August of 1993, and continued to fly for another couple of years while it struggled for funding. By 1995 NASA was forced to fully recognize the value of the program, especially in relation to it’s ongoing quest to replace the Space Shuttle, and began funding it. As part of this funding NASA would see that the aircraft was upgraded with new fuel tanks and control technologies. This second generation DC-X was named the DC-XA “Clipper Advanced.”
The Clipper Advanced had several successful test flights with only minor incidents. The craft was truly amazing to see fly, with those who were lucky enough to be present at the test flights remarking that it was like seeing science fiction materialize before their eyes. In July of 1996 the Clipper Advanced had a gear malfunction on landing and tipped over on the pad. The craft apparently also had a cracked liquid oxygen tank which turned a relatively small and recoverable malfunction into a blazing inferno. The DC-XA was pronounced unrepairable and a subsequent investigation panel blamed the mishap on the relatively tiny ground crew who were found to be highly fatigued and demoralized as they had been pushing the project through on and off again funding cycles for years. Further, the McDonnell Douglas team seemed to have hated working with NASA on the project citing never ending bureaucratic red tape and intense oversight as issues that would clearly limited the program’s true growth potential. The investigation also found that many in NASA saw the program as a “step child” that competed for funds with their “in-house” X-33 Venture Star program, another single stage to orbit system that was being built by Lockheed that would land like the Space Shuttle, a method obviously highly preferred by NASA engineers and Astronauts familiar with Shuttle. At an estimated cost of around $50M to rebuild, the mishap gave NASA the out it needed, and the program was quickly shuttered.
Now, almost two decades later, the the DC-X team’s pioneering vision, one possibly to far ahead of itself at the time, is rising from it’s ashes. Blue Origin has now made their concepts known to the public and they are clearly based around a DC-X like concept. In fact it is said that multiple engineers who worked on the Delta Clipper have been snapped up by Blue Origin to see an offspring of the DC-X concept brought back to life. Currently Blue Origin has disclosed two designs that showcase a clear developmental evolution and path to operational maturity. Their sub-orbital “New Shepard” craft, and its orbital successor, will take the best tenants of traditional and proven rocket/capsule derived spaceflight and combine them with the DC-X’s vertical landing capability and highly automated control into one vehicle. The craft will launch like a rocket and after a few minutes time the capsule will separate from the rocket section and continue on it’s way traditionally. The capsule will eventually return to earth using the tried and true parachute retarded landing method. The rocket section, or possibly rocket sections for orbital flight, on the other hand will descend back to earth tail first, and make a rocket assisted landing near where the complete stack originally blasted off. Both the capsule and the rocket sections will be almost immediately reusable for subsequent launches.
So why is such a unique combination of reusable space vehicles so revolutionary? Because traditionally large, complex, and expensive rockets are used only once, or their boosters have to be extensively refurbished after a single payload. That is like buying a Toyota Camry and throwing it away after a single family road trip to the beach. Further, you cannot fully test flight a system that will only be used once. You can try to build it as closely to the other examples that have worked in the past as possible but you really cannot validate each individual vehicle until you fly it. What Blue Origin’s craft, and it’s DC-X progenitor have the capability of doing is turning spaceflight away from the “expendable” mode and into one very similar to air travel as we understand it today, where a craft gets certified as a reliable design through flight testing, then it fly’s regularly, with a cursory inspection before and after each flight, until it is scheduled for preventative maintenance. What this does is it morphs the major cost of launching any payload into space from the prohibitive cost of a full throwaway rocket to mainly just the fuel and expendables that goes inside the rocket. Once again, using the family road-trip metaphor, no longer are you throwing your brand new Toyota Camry away after a single tank of gas, instead you are just refilling the tank regularly, and getting oil changes and new tires periodically so that you can make hundreds of trips to the beach. Eventually you even “get to know” your car by driving it a lot and in doing so your will learn how to drive it more efficiently, and your mechanic will be able to identify ongoing costly issues with your particular vehicle and others. This data will then be used by Toyota so that they can fix the issue in it’s next year model. This reusable, “fill and fly” approach would cut launch costs down to a tiny fraction of what they are today.
It would seem that the vertical landing fully reusable rocket is not just an area of great interest for the incredibly shy Blue Origin, Space-X, which was founded by another internet billionaire, PayPal creator Elon Musk, is also looking at utilizing the retro-rocket assisted vertical landing concept for their designs in the future. This is an interesting omission, as the company is about to make it’s first operational flight to the International Space Station in a rocket system that uses a much more traditional, and costly configuration.
If the bunsen burner keeps getting turned up underneath NASA when it comes to it’s controversial commercial crew initiative, and development funding shrinks considerably, it may just be inevitable that the hugely promising Space-X, currently the first to the “space gate” with operational knowledge compounding by the day, and the secretive Blue Origin, a company that is betting the farm on the highly promising fully reusable technology derived from the DC-X, a technology Space-X is admittedly interested in, may find it mutually beneficial, if not necessary to join forces. This would allow such a consortium to provide the mature capability NASA needs yesterday, and a pioneering spaceflight vision for the near future that the world needs tomorrow. A vision where payloads can make it into orbit for millions or even hundreds of thousands of dollars instead of tens of millions or hundreds of millions dollars.
From a spectators standpoint, it almost seems like the two companies are a perfect fit for one another, Space-X providing traditional launch services for the time being and Blue Origin working almost as Space-X’s Skunkworks and space tourism arm, developing game changing commercial technologies for the future and flying wannabe astronauts suborbitally in a safe and inexpensive fashion. Further, both companies were founded by similar internet innovators who are in it seemingly more to change humanity and to satisfy their own Star Trek induced fantasies than for the money. I cannot fully predict such a future merger, but I sure can hope for one. If such innovative and creative teams were to join forces, maybe we will realize that we do not need NASA as a developmental agent at all, instead the rich and adventurous, along with their loyal band of super nerds, can take mankind boldly where no one has gone before, and in this case the vehicle to do so may just end up being the cousin of a McDonald Douglas design dreamed up almost a quarter century ago…
The McDonald Douglas DC-X Circa The 1990s:
Blue Origin’s Test Craft:
Space-X Video Of The Same Concept In Multiple Stage Form: