Joss Delage

World's most ambitious privately funded projects

51 posts in this topic

Bezos is very secretive about Blue Origin. But he recently bought 15 square miles in West Texas to use as a test and launch facility. When you start building a test facility, you are pretty far along in the design. At the time he gave a few details. See here and here.

That's interesting. He has applied for a launch license! Even in preparation that sounds promising.

Another thing, the Blue Origin job listings page indicates that they are hiring specialized spacecraft subsystems engineers and technicians. Another sign of being well beyond the conceptual design stage.

Yes, I saw that earlier. He even says that "We are building real hardware -- not PowerPoint presentations." And it covers thermal, mechanical, electronics, propulsion, and a slew of software areas. But, I have seen that sort of noise before in startup companies, some far from producing a real product, so I was not sure of what it all meant. But, when coupled with the site purchase and the launch application, whatever the state of the system, it sure sounds like an interesting place to work.

Thanks for the info.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

An exciting project that I have been following is the Moller Skycar. Paul Moller has made millions with his innovative rotary engines and other projects. He has invested almost all the money he has made to achieve his dream of making a safe, reliable, affordable skycar. Not only is the vehicle prototype visually stunning, but if they meet their stated requirements it will be quite an engineering marvel.

Exhibition models are supposed to be ready in around three years, but as far when they will be generally available is heavily controlled by the FAA. All I can say is that when the Skycar becomes a reality, I will have one the minute I am able to afford it, so probably like 10-15 years from now.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The thing about Blue Origin that separates it from other space start ups is that (1) it is well funded, and (2) Bezos has a track record of execution.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Here's one of the most ambitious private projects I know :

McDonalds attempts to increase sales by selling healthier food.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

When it comes to ambitious private undertakings, nothing beats the Ayn Rand Institute. They are out to reverse the cultural trend of centuries and place the human race on a true and proper philosophical foundation.

Try and top THAT.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Here's one of the most ambitious private projects I know :

McDonalds attempts to increase sales by selling healthier food.

I worked for McDonalds for 2.5 years in the mid-eighties. They tried to change their product line back then and found that it was not profitable. They did this with the McLean sandwich which had less that 7 grams of fat(?), salads, orange juice and other items. They discarded the McLean because it did not sale enough. All the hype about so called healthier food, but not many are buying it. People will still go to McDonalds for the quick burgers and fries, that is what they want and are willing to spend their money on.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
When it comes to ambitious private undertakings, nothing beats the Ayn Rand Institute.  They are out to reverse the cultural trend of centuries and place the human race on a true and proper philosophical foundation.

Try and top THAT.

I think you have out done everyone with your selection. Their is nothing more ambitious than the ARI.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I think you have out done everyone with your selection.  Their is nothing more ambitious than the ARI.

Amen, It's kind of like trying to change the course of an ocean-liner headed towards certain destruction. Only the ocean-liner is a world.

RG

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
One goal of this is as ammunition against the current claim that some projects are too big to be funded by anyone but the government.

ARI is no doubt ambitious, but it's not something that could be used for this purpose...

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
One goal of this is as ammunition against the current claim that some projects are too big to be funded by anyone but the government.  Another goal is just to make me feel good and proud...  :

Here is some ammunition to use against people that make the claim from above. Privately funded and government funded projects are both funded by private citizens, one through choice and the other through force.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Falcon 1 Maiden Flight Update: Posted November 26, 2005 at 5:11 p.m. PST

The SpaceX launch scrubbed today.  We anticipate a new launch attempt in mid-December, depending on the timing of LOX resupply from Hawaii (our LOX plant on Omelek can only produce about one ton per day). As SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated during a pre-launch press conference, the likelihood of an all new rocket launching from an all new launch pad on its first attempt is low.

The reason for the delay was an auxiliary liquid oxygen (LOX) fill tank had a manual vent valve incorrectly set to vent.  The time it took to correct the problem resulted in significant LOX boiloff and loss of helium, and it was the latter that caused the launch abort.  LOX is used to chill the helium bottles, so we lose helium if there is no LOX to cool the bottles.

Although we were eventually able to refill the vehicle LOX tanks, the rate at which we could add helium was slower than the rate at which LOX was boiling away. There was no way to close the gap, so the launch had to be called off.  In addition, we experienced an anomaly with the main engine computer that requires further investigation and was arguably reason in and of itself to postpone launch.

I watched this live today. Well, kinda. I bounced back and forth from working at my desk to watching the live feed in the conference room at work. My first impression listening to the voice loops was that their launch team sounded a bit green, and the second paragraph above confirms that. But they are no greener than I was on Iridium launch #1. By launch #19, a year and a half later, we were no longer green. Just jaded. :)

The forces of evil won a round here. The Air Force evicted SpaceX from its facility at Vandenberg earlier this year to make room for Lockheed's last Titan launch. (Or something like that.) OK, to be fair, it probably didn't help SpaceX's case that they had serious schedule delays themselves.

Trust me, Elon Musk didn't pick the Marshall Islands! Sure, SpaceX likes to talk up Kwaj's southerly latitude, but this payload (FalconSat) is not going to a geosynchronous but to a sun-synchronous (i.e. almost polar) orbit. To you non-orbitologists reading this who are curious, ask me why this is important. The bottom line is SpaceX had to overcome a logistical barrier thrown in its path to get even this far. They are taking on the Good ol' Boy network and are thus far still standing.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The forces of evil won a round here. The Air Force evicted SpaceX from its facility at Vandenberg earlier this year to make room for Lockheed's last Titan launch. (Or something like that.) OK, to be fair, it probably didn't help SpaceX's case that they had serious schedule delays themselves.

.....

They are taking on the Good ol' Boy network and are thus far still standing.

I recently read that SpaceX is suing Boeing and Lockheed Martin "For conspiring to violate antitrust laws to corner the market on U.S. government satellite launches."

As an admirer of Elon Musk's, I was disappointed that he was using anti-trust laws to gain a foothold in the space industry. Maybe the Air Force eviction lead to this lawsuit?

Go 4 TLI, since you are an 'insider' in the Space industry, it'll be interesting to get your take on this. Thanks.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Maybe the Air Force eviction lead to this lawsuit?

Only very obliquely. If memory serves, the events transpired as follows. At first SpaceX had to wait until Lockheed launched that last Titan IV. But by the time SpaceX was ready, Boeing and Lockheed had moved into some buildings downrange of the SpaceX launch site. To be fair to Boing and Blockhead Boeing and Lockheed, I'm pretty sure that the Air Force had an agreement with SpaceX that they had a certain time after which they had to move to Kwajelein. Part of the delay was slips on the Titan launch, but another part was delays in SpaceX's test program as well. So Elon Musk executed pre-existing plans to move to Kwajelein.

As an admirer of Elon Musk's, I was disappointed that he was using anti-trust laws to gain a foothold in the space industry.

Here is a quote that best summarizes SpaceX's position in this lawsuit.

When the Air Force announced in April that it intended to forgo a price-driven competition and instead divide its third batch of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) missions—some 23 launches in all—between Boeing's Delta 4 and Lockheed Martin's Atlas 5 rockets, SpaceX cried foul.

The whole article is here.

I am not a lawyer, so I don't know what recourse Musk has other than to sue under anti-trust. I suspect any laws against government established monopolies (i.e. the true meaning of the word) are quite badly mangled these days.

In the paragraph immediately after the one I just quoted, the author mentioned a $100 million dollar contract awarded to SpaceX for small satellite launches on Falcon I. What the article doesn't mention -- and SpaceX doesn't advertise -- is that this contract has an "on-ramp" for competitors. In other words, when the Air Force solicits a bid for a small satellite launch, it is open to any competitor who can submit a credible bid. No such provision exists in this deal that Boeing and Lockeed has signed with the government.

Also, the article doesn't mention any detail of the history of the EELV program. Back in the late '90's the new rockets designed to replace the old Titans, the Delta III and IV as well as the Atlas V, had a penchant for (ahem!) rapidly disassembling themselves immediately after launch.

Congress considered this a national security crisis. They had a point. A lot of missile detection and early warning, reconaissance, and communications satellites are big and heavy and need a reliable heavy lift booster to get them into orbit. So Congress decided to fund the EELV progam. To be blunt, they gave Boeing and Lockheed more money precisely because their rockets were blowing up.

During the hearings on EELV one man, Andy Beal, dissented on the program. His story reads like something out of Atlas Shrugged. He is a Texas multimillionaire who made his fortune in banking and real estate and decided to build a rocket with his own money. He even got to far as to test a second stage engine that generated 800,000 lbs of thrust. That's the second most thrust of any liquid rocket in history, behind only the Saturn F-1!

Beal pleaded with Congress not to fund anybody's development programs. Let them fund their own design and test programs and award the winners with launch contracts, he argued. But Congress ignored him and funded the EELV program. Beal didn't think he could compete with a government funded Boeing and Lockheed, and he refused to become one of their clones and seek EELV money. So he closed his rocket company down.

So now along comes another man who wants to build his own rocket with his own money. If he delivers on his promise of heavy lift launch services for $70-$80 million (compared to the ~$280 million for an EELV launch), a lot of people at Boeing and Lockheed as well as in the government will be pretty embarassed. Boeing and Lockheed are trying to do to Elon Musk what they did to Andy Beal. Of this I have no doubt.

As far as how Musk should fight back I have no advice to offer other than, "with both barrels".

I hope this clarified things a bit.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Very interesting insider take, thanks. I was curious as to what had happened to Beal, and now I know.

This whole thing sounds exactly like "Tucker"... I suspect that any effort to get government contracts will be inherently subject to that kind of political favoritism. I think it's either/or - either a new space development company should deal with private parties and shun government contracts, or just plunge exclusively into the dirty swamp of Washington. I have little doubt that a would-be competitor to the politically connected big guys could easily be strung along by some bureaucrat and then be financially bled dry by a well designed series of destructive changes in decisions/programs/funding.

It's hard to believe that there isn't a market, at some price point, for orbital tourism, especially orbital "hotels", and I do not understand why there isn't some really serious effort to do just that. Surely people could do better than paying $20 million to ride in some Russian garbage. To hell with Washington, go after the private capital and if necessary operate outside of U.S. jurisdiction, as I recall Beal did in Anguilla for the extent of his efforts.

I can't believe that the capital isn't out there. As recently as 5-6 years ago, a mere magazine, The Industry Standard, blew through about $300 million. The sum total that people have paid for private yachts is doubtlessly in the billions. The technology to get material to orbit, assemble it, and then get there and back, is surely known by now, and it can surely be done far cheaper than a NASA - what's the holdup?

Incidentally, what's your take on the feasibility of the space elevator concept now that carbon nanotube filaments are available? I've read a bit about it but no effort seems particularly serious so far.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
As far as how Musk should fight back I have no advice to offer other than, "with both barrels".

There is certainly some poetic justice in using anti-trust to break up government established monopolies. It is unfortunate that Boeing and Lockheed, being private companies themselves, are in cahoots with the government.

I hope this clarified things a bit.

It was a very interesting read that definitely helped clarify the issue. Thanks a lot!

To be fair to Boing and Blockhead .....

.... had a penchant for (ahem!) rapidly disassembling themselves immediately after launch.

BTW, I rather liked these characterizations :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
...  I suspect that any effort to get government contracts will be inherently subject to that kind of political favoritism. I think it's either/or - either a new space development company should deal with private parties and shun government contracts, or just plunge exclusively into the dirty swamp of Washington. I have little doubt that a would-be competitor to the politically connected big guys could easily be strung along by some bureaucrat and then be financially bled dry by a well designed series of destructive changes in decisions/programs/funding.

It doesn't have to be such a dichotomy. And certainly having the Air Force as a customer for launch services, just like anybody else, is desirable. Beyond just desirable, it is necessary for a company like SpaceX. Remember that military launches constitute the lion's share of the launch market. I forget the exact number, but it is at least 75% of domestic launches. And there is nothing inherently corrupting about such sales to the government. It doesn't automatically corrupt Smith and Wesson, for example, to sell firearms to the police and military.

And most mid-level military officers -- the lieutenants, captains, commanders, and colonels -- I have encountered are mission driven and share my contempt for the big boys. But unfortunately, they and not even the generals they work for have the final say on many of these contracts. Congress does. And therein lies the rub.

Congressmen often are downright corrupt, as today's headlines reveal. But worse, the welfare state mentality pervades the culture. Congress critters are all too often pork and patronage driven rather than mission driven. And that mindset has crept into the defense contractors as well. When I first started out in this business, a new trend was just starting: losing bidders protesting a contract award. Now it is standard practice for the big boys to basically say, "How dare you say we didn't earn this contract. We need it!"

Add to that the fact that the major aerospace companies have been transformed from the private companies they once were to quasi-government bureaucracies, and aerospace engineers have been leaving the field in droves. That was another concern raised in the '90s. Case in point: when I graduated my alma mater averaged 50 new aerospace engineers a year. These days, it averages about 6.

I can't believe that the capital isn't out there. ... what's the holdup?

After the dot-com bust, it is very difficult to raise venture capital money for space ventures. It takes cyber-entrepreneurs like Paul Allen, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos to fund these out of their own pockets. As Musk once put it, when he formed SpaceX he wanted to see how quickly he could turn a large fortune into a small one. Space is still a very risky business.

Incidentally, what's your take on the feasibility of the space elevator concept now that carbon nanotube filaments are available?

I'm aware that people are looking at this concept more closely, but I can't help but roll my eyes. I always say that we don't know how get into low earth orbit yet. Even at Elon Musk's prices, were are still a long way from a ride to LEO being like getting on an airliner. This to me is like listening to people talking about the express elevator to the 100th floor of a building while I'm still trying to figure out how to mix the concrete, let alone pour the foundation. Space elevators will happen, but in a future I don't expect to be around to see.

BTW, I rather liked these characterizations  :)

Thanks. Another one I like -- more in rocket science parlance -- is, "The spacecraft achieved an omni-directional Delta-V." :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The Chunnel was privately funded, if memory serves, and it's making so much money, there are plans to build a second set of tunnels.

JohnRGT

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I have some bad news. There has been a setback. ;)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I have some bad news. There has been a setback. :)

That's such a shame. ;) But, Musk's comments sound encouraging - he sounds like a man with determination and I hope this setback just spurs him to try harder. I thought his 'Moore's Law of Space' was a neat idea.

On a positive note, the British designed scramjet Hyshot III (a governmental effort and not a private one) was successfully tested. Good for them!

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4832254.stm

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
The Chunnel was privately funded, if memory serves, and it's making so much money, there are plans to build a second set of tunnels.

JohnRGT

I can't let this pass - Eurotunnel is 6.4 billion pounds in debt, financially its been a total disaster...there trying to get the banks to wipe some of the debt (more specifically the interest on the loans).

BBC News: Troubled Eurotunnel in debt talks

BBC News: Eurotunnel announces 900 job cuts

Eurotunnel hopeful over debt deal

Chief executive Jacques Gounon states that unless they can come to an arrangement of the loans, they face bankruptcy. The expected profits were lost to low fares airlines and ferry services.

To my knowledge there are no plans to build a 2nd set of tunnels, and I would be very surprised if they did.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It's unfortunate that a project that got so much privately funded press is failing. (I seem to remember the Chunnel being referred to as a success by John Stossel.)

I appreciate the corrections, and like all of us, I hate the fact that this project is close to catastrophic failure.

Charles - if you can, don't let anything pass!

Regards,

JohnRGT

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The tunnel wasn't a true privately funded project. It was the worst case of mixed-economy project. Small stockholders in articular were completely swindled by an aggressive campaign in favor of the tunnel, strongly supported by the French government (and I assume British) and displaying completely irrationally optimistic financial projections.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
That's such a shame.  ;) But, Musk's comments sound encouraging - he sounds like a man with determination and I hope this setback just spurs him to try harder. I thought his 'Moore's Law of Space' was a neat idea.

Elon Musk is determined as well as gracious, as indicated on the SpaceX website:

It is perhaps worth noting that those launch companies that succeeded also took their lumps along the way.  A friend of mine wrote to remind me that only 5 of the first 9 Pegasus launches succeeded; 3 of 5 for Ariane; 9 of 20 for Atlas; 9 of 21 for Soyuz; and 9 of 18 for Proton.  Having experienced firsthand how hard it is to reach orbit, I have a lot of respect for those that persevered to produce the vehicles that are mainstays of space launch today.

Indeed, I read on the blogosphere that in the early sixties after 25 tries, the original Atlas was 12 for 13. Granted, they had less experience and deeper, Cold War funded pockets. But the bottom line remains the same: this is rocket science.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites