#105 May 1997
Section 126.96.36.199.105.of the Artemis Data Book
Rick WillsBARNSTORMING SPACE: Privately funded, suborbital manned missions ??
Barnstorming Space!? Some might consider the very idea of a private group of people building and flying their own rocket, foolhardy. Others might call it audacious. But, whether you think the idea is foolhardy or not, individuals flying their own rockets is a possibility. Whether or not this will actually happen depends on quite a few things. This article will explore the opportunities and obstacles awaiting anyone taking up the challenge. What efforts are needed and what are the near term possibilities of Barnstorming space?
First, this article cannot hope to cover the entire spectrum of issues dealing with designing, building, and flying a piloted rocket. There are several important topics not covered but which should be closely studied: they are, but not limited to, the design-build-test cycle, flight operations, launch ranges, detailed budgeting, crew selection, crew training, risk avoidance, insurance, and design to cost. The article's general breakdown is 1) mission analysis and the technical feasibility, 2) business and organizational feasibility, 3) regulatory feasibi-lity, and 4) a conclusion.
Let's start by asking a simple question, "What do you want to accomplish?" For purposes of this article, an answer is "I want to ride a rocket." Legend has it an ancient Chinese ruler ordered fireworks strapped on to his chair. He took his seat and the fireworks were lit. Thus the first rocket flight with a human passenger. The legend also suggests that the results were, unfortunately, negative. This outcome was probably due to a small design oversight - no recovery system.
But, building and flying a rocket today has a much greater chance of success. For our purposes, let's make the goal straightforward:
This mission is usually called suborbital: nothing fancy, simply going up and coming down. Given this simple mission, the next question is how high do you want to go? - the first and most important mission performance parameter. This maximum desired altitude drives the vehicle's design, where the vehicle can be launched, the cost to build and fly your vehicle, and a host of other design and operations related factors.
The entire design centers around these two fundamental performance goals: 1) desired height and 2) payload weight. The importance of the max altitude is simple. The higher you decide to go, the more energy needed to get you there, This energy is measured in terms of the rocket's burn out velocity. Burn out velocity is the rocket's velocity after all the propellants are consumed. Another way of saying this is the higher your rocket goes, the bigger it must be at lift off. Also, the larger the payload, given the same desired altitude, the bigger the vehicle. As an example, consider a rocket designed to carry one person up to a peak altitude of 50,000 feet (15.25 kilometers). Peak altitude is the height the vehicle reaches coasting upward after burnout.
Lift off Wt. 7000 lbs Propellant Wt 2000 lbs Specific Impulse 225 sec Thrust 20,000 lbs Burn time 21 sec Velocity at burn out 1400 ft/sec (Mach 1.3) Height at burn out 16,000 ft Maximum Height 50,000 ft
A much larger, more complex rocket would be needed to compete for the X-Prize, an award of $10 million to the first group to fly a privately funded vehicle with the capability to carry three people up to 100 km (330,000 ft = 62 miles) and do it twice in two weeks [with the same vehicle, of course]. There are wide differences in vehicle size and complexity from flying one person up to 15 km to flying three people to 100 km. (Of course, the ultimate and most difficult private flight would be to go to orbit.) To compare the vehicles between the simpler mission and the X-Prize, the latter vehicle would weigh between 25,000 and 50,000 lb at liftoff and require engine thrusts between 50,000 and 150,000 lbs.
The suborbital missions are given [in the accompanying chart] in three categories: Simple Mission, Medium Mission, and Advanced Mission. Fortunately, there are a few break points for arranging and categorizing these missions. Most of the breakpoints are performance derived. Remember, in a suborbital flight, a vehicle simply goes up and comes down; it never gains enough velocity to go into orbit. Note, as the maximum height increases the performance requirements become more demanding and the vehicle more complex. Five technical areas are reviewed to show the increasing complexity; they are 1) life support equipment, 2) structures, 3) propulsion, 4) guidance and control, and 5) recovery.
[WEB EDITOR: scan chart from hardcopy]
Mixing different technology levels can be expected. Using a fully controllable square para-chute on a simple mission is a reasonable mix. Any group undertaking this effort, should seriously con-sider designing their vehicle to be 100% reusable.
A. SIMPLE MISSION - The simple mission must remain below 50,000 ft. The reason is human physi-ology; blood boils above roughly 50,000 ft. To safely go above that height, a pressure suit has been worn as a safety back up. Pressure suits are worn by all military air crews when going above that altitude. This requirement is not absolute, but considering what the regulatory environment could be for pers-onal safety in private space ventures, the pressure suit requirement is a good thing to plan for. Staying below 50,000 feet means no pressure suit.
Also, the flight loads for this mission are much less demanding. Because of the relatively low altitude, it could safely fly at one of the locations currently being used by unmanned high power rocket group. The Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where many rocket amateurs go to fly the really big stuff, could be adequate in terms of public third party safety.
B. MEDIUM MISSION - The medium mission is a step up. At this level the design and manufacture becomes more demanding. The vehicle structure needs to be more robust and guidance and control systems would most likely be required. The government should be interested in these missions from a regulatory standpoint. The ranges these vehicles use will undoubtedly need to be certified. Certified components may be needed. Bob Truax's Volksrocket is an example of a medium mission class rocket.
C. ADVANCED MISSION - .At this level, the vehicle is only restricted by the amount of money the team has to spend. The Mercury space capsule is a good design starting point. The vehicle needs to be very strong structurally and incorporate highly reliable subsystems. The range this vehicle flies at will need to be very large and most likely federally approved. This will be an extremely complex and expensive vehicle. Example: the Space Cub.
What type of groups could do this? There are three entities we will consider for this project: a chartered for-profit business, hoping to make a return on investments; a non-profit group, operating in a club style with no formal legal charter; or a chartered non-profit.
The for profit mode of doing business is financially the most risky. A for profit business must generate enough sales to not only pay for the vehicle's development and testing but pay the investors as well. The critical issue is whether or not a market exists for a private piloted rocket. Potential markets could be to sell ready-to-fly certified vehicles, sell vehicle kits, or sell rides. While there are problems with the for profit route, there are advantages as well. A for profit business can build the proper skill mix, where as a club relies on the members' skills [such as they are].
Assuming adequate funding, the professional team should get quicker results than an amateur non-profit team. A for-profit company carries extra business overhead (annual tax returns, corporate shares and value, and annual board meetings, and a host of other legal requirements). Another issue is company valuation, anyone who kicks in money is actually buying part of the company. As members come and go over time (as usually happens), the company's valuation and ownership may go into question. The advanced mission is the most likely one to be done by a fore profit group.
The other two organizational models are a club and an organization chartered as a non-profit. Having a non-profit charter is advantageous in terms of sales tax. Taxes are not paid on goods and services used by the group. This little benefit can save 5-10% of cash resources depending on the state in which the group is chartered. The non-profit will also have a different level of participation than a for-profit group. Volunteer time comes at a premium. The club would be at risk at attempting the advanced mission, but the simple mission should be doable by a club.
Who could step forward to do this? First, it is highly unlikely that an existing for-profit company will step up to try this. Making money on a venture of this nature will be rough. Who, then, and what type of non-profit or club type organization would be able to have a reasonable go at it? Many non-profit groups have a great deal of experience that could be useful. The three or four major amateur rocket groups and the three to five small loosely knit clubs could certainly have part, if not all the technical expertise. The space activist groups could but a team together. The larger space activist groups have skilled fund raisers, project organizers, and established communications network available. These are all useful skills. Schools of any kind would be long shots: they may have the right people but the risk could make this effort unattractive.
Geographical distribution is an issue to be considered along with group communications. A group spread out over the nation has a number of coordination issues to overcome as well as fostering cohesiveness and loyalty. Certain geograph-ical areas have advantages over others. Ample talent resides within a 100 mile circle in the southern California area. The closer a team lives together, the more coherence and interaction they will have. Team communication becomes a very important issue if the team is spread over a multi-state area. Amateur satellite (unmanned) groups coordinate a team spread over the entire nation. They do it with almost daily communication. othe models for this type of activity also exist. Bob Truax's first effort at building a piloted rocket is an interesting story.
Upon first hearing of this type of venture, many people would think that vehicle design or perhaps money, would be the most critical aspect for the project's ultimate success. While a solid design and adequate financial resources are both important, the people doing the work are the most critical aspect of this type of project. The wrong team could easily spend great amounts of time and money and in the end have nothing to show for thir efforts. The right team, the right team skill mix, and the right leaders are critical to the project's final outcome. The right skills at the right time can be invaluable. For example, during the design/manufacture phase, certain engineering skills will be needed. If a group in this phase doesn't have someone skilled in engineering analysis, machining, and welding (to name a few) then they must either learn these skills or recruit people who have them.
Volunteer time is another key resource for a non-profit. A family person with a full time job may be able to contribute only three to five hours a week.
The current US federal space laws say nothing specific about manned flights. There is no current space equivalent to the Federal Aviation Administra-tion's design requirements for aircraft. If a person decides to design and build an aircraft, specific design requirements are outlined in the Federal Aviation Regulations. These cover homebuilt, experi-mental, and production aircraft.
The problem is no regulatory agency has any design requirements for people designing and building piloted rockets. NASA and the military have quite a few published design guidelines, and great amounts of expertise, but their purpose is not regulatory in nature. NASA and the military are good places to search out industry design standards, but they don't set design standards. And only the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (OCST) in the Department of Transportation approves launches.
To obtain a launch licence, the operator of the rocket must apply to the OCST which will review the application and [hopefully] issue the license. To date, no one has launched a private piloted vehicle. Besides the launch permission, the launch operators need to obtain FAA permision to use the airspace.
These permissions should not be viewed as show stoppers. The best strategy is to approach these officers early and be up front with them. Going to regulatory agencies early, could make allies rather than enemies. Government agencies are not allowed to endorse a private project. They can, however, make suggestions and introductions. Introductions might be necessary if federal launch ranges are needed. The people running these agencies are no different from you or me. Treat them honestly, with respect, and you will be treated the same way.
The Advanced Mission has been costed out, including research and development, to be in the $3 - $5 million range. A simple mission is in the $100 to $200 thousand range. Neither of these estimates involve small amounts of money. Consider though, the costs of amateur auto racing range from $10 - $20 thousand a year for a car and races, more to be competititve. A group of three to five people may put up the money to pay for the car. There are other examples of expensive hobbies. A group of twenty people putting up a thousand dollars a year each, for five years, would raise enough money to have a shot at paying for a simple mission. Clearly the simple mission is within financial range of quite a few middle class people, working together.
A lower end medium mission may be undertaken by a club type group but the odds against success would increase as performance demands increase. The advanced mission needs full time people to be successful; the vehicle design and manufacture will demand a great deal of time. Steady funding of some type will be needed. Unless a very rich sponsor is found (remember, Biosphere II was privately funded), the group will be forced to raise funds and pay investors.
Is the project financially feasible? Once again, yes. Even the most advanced projects would fall in the $5 to $10 million range, not an outlandish sum to raise [though it proved impossible in the early nineties for enthused grass roots activists and a respected non profit space institute to raise a similar amount of money for Lunar Prospector - Ed.] Simple missions are financially achievable, assuming most labor is volunteer.
Is it feasible from the regulatory point of view? Here we enter a grayer area; at this point, no specific federal regulations exist for piloted launches. Launch licences can be applied for and the first group to attempt such a project will most certainly be trailblazers. Those undertaking this challenge should remember that to fly, you need a good rocket, and a launch license.
Finally, [is it group-feasible?] what type of group will step up to this challenge? A for-profit group should be able to achieve technical success, but is there a market ready to pay for the experience? [for the pilot and/or crew: * the thrill of blasting off; * a few minutes of weightlessness; * the incredible views, if (a) window(s) is/are provided]
Or is it feasible for a volunteer group to achieve success? This is another big question. The wrong team can spend a lot of money and time and have notheing to show for it. Is there a right combination of people, money, and time?
Flying a rocket is certainly a wild dream. The rationale for building and flying a rocket is not at all clear. Here is an arguable reason for spending the money and the time to chase a dream. As time invariably marches on, many people realize the national governmenbt isn't about to, or, at this time, inclined to provide the means for the common people to venture off the planet. Maybe it's not the governments's responsibiltiy to provide us with the means. Perhaps, we should take responsibility [for acquiring the capacity and the means] to do it ourselves.
These suborbital flights would only be the first step in allowing anyone with the money a ticket to ride, a chance to fly in space. These first steps will be small and like most first steps, not without risks. Yes, even the risk of losing one's life. When a child falls down, it hurts, cries, gets back up, and tries again. Private suborbital flights are the first tenuous steps into a different type of space exploration. A different paradigm, if you will. But be warned, there can be failure.
There can also be success. Vehicles should grow in capability, go higher, faster, and carry more payload. The rockets' reliability will increase, and risk will decline. Lastly, the entire process will gain financability, venture capital for investment will become available, and reasonable profits out of which to pay investors will become possible.
Is it feasible to build a rocket and fly it? Be sure, there are obstacles to overcome. It wouldn't be easy. If it were, someone else would already have done it by now. The idea is tantalizing. But to turn tantalizing dreams into reality is hard work. You need not only a vision of where you want to go, but a belief that you can actually do it, given a fair amount of effort and sacrifice. Yes, this idea is feasible. We wait for someone to turn this dream into reality. It might be you. RW
Contents of this issue of Moon Miners' Manifesto