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Ups and downs on the space frontier

The commercial space race has had its downs and ups in recent days, with Rocketplane Kistler facing financial troubles and Google signing on for a new $30 million X Prize competition. Here's an update on some of the main and lesser-known players – including good news from SpaceX and reports about a couple of teams who are hoping to chase that lunar X Prize.

First, there's some additional bad news for Oklahoma-based Rocketplane: The Abercrombie & Kent luxury-travel company is seeking up to $3.4 million from Rocketplane because the company is behind schedule on development of its suborbital space jet, according to The Chicago Tribune. Cindy Cashman, who was angling to become the first bride in space, is quoted as saying she wants her deposit back, too.

Rocketplane has said it's continuing to work on its suborbital XP craft - and hopes to salvage its deal with NASA as well, even though the clock is ticking toward termination in early October.

Like Oklahoma-based Rocketplane, California-based SpaceX won financial support from NASA last year for its orbital spaceship development effort, with the idea that NASA might later buy transportation services for sending cargo and perhaps even crew to the international space station.

Unlike Rocketplane, SpaceX has been signing up (and announcing) other customers for its rockets - and those contracts count toward convincing the space agency that private enterprise has "significant skin in the game," to use NASA Associate Administrator Scott Horowitz's phrase.

That's part of the reason why SpaceX is hitting its financial as well as technical milestones, according to Elon Musk, the dot-com millionaire who founded the company. Among the more recent positive developments:

  • SpaceX passed a critical design review for its Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon spacecraft "with flying colors," Musk told me.
  • The company has also completed the first phase of a safety review for hooking up with the space station. "According to the NASA guys, we passed Phase 1 in record time," Musk said.
  • Today, SpaceX announced a deal with Britain's Avanti Communications Group for the launch of one telecom satellite on a Falcon 9 in 2009, with options for three more launches that together could amount to $150 million.

SpaceX hasn't yet put a payload into orbit successfully, but Musk is hoping that his third Falcon 1 launch, now scheduled for early 2008, will reassure customers as well as NASA that the company is staying on track. For now, he said, the potential for turning a profit is in sight - and he's not looking for outside investors.

"We've not solicited any funding," Musk said, contradicting some claims that have appeared in the press. "We've not approached a single person for funding, and we don't even have a private-placement memo written up, so I don't know what the hell people would look at."

Musk already has a growing launch manifest, but he's willing to provide launches at cost for competitors in the Google Lunar X Prize. "We don't expect to generate any extra sales out of this," he said. Instead, Musk - who is a member of the X Prize Foundation's board of trustees - sees this as a way to contribute to the success of the X Prize program.

"This prize is going to be super-helpful in generating public interest in space," he said. "The whole space industry should look at this as something that will be helpful to them whether they're government or commercial. It's exciting."

Some teams are already making themselves known: On Thursday I referred to Carnegie Mellon University's Red Whittaker, who has been working on lunar rover prototypes for years and now wants to field an X Prize entry. Rocket engineer Allen Newcomb, who was part of the team behind the SpaceShipOne rocket plane and is now part of the BonNova team in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, told me he's also interested in the real lunar challenge.

"Since we have already built a Lunar Lander analog ... we could scale up our design to carry the rover for the new prize," Newcomb said in an e-mail. "We could design and build the rover also, and/or partner with some other team for launch services."

That may well be how the Google Lunar X Prize will develop, with "New Space" players coming together with other elements of the tech frontier. Whittaker knows as much as anyone about robots, but he's going to need a little help with the rocketry part. That's the way NASA manages its Mars missions, for instance, with roles for companies ranging from Lockheed Martin to Honeybee Robotics.

Doug Graham, spokesman for California-based XCOR Aerospace, told me that's how success stories in commercial space will likely play out as well. XCOR, for example, recently earned a place on Inc. magazine's prestigious list of 500 "Fastest Growing Private Companies" (at 446th place, to be exact) - even though its main business is currently to supply rocket know-how for other people's ventures.

"Rocketplane Kistler's problems are particular to Kistler," Graham said today. "We're on the Inc. 500. We're going strong. And it's going to be very interesting to see how the new prize is going to generate even more activity."

Although XCOR isn't planning to field its own team for the Google Lunar X Prize, it's ready to provide an assist to anyone who needs a hand, he said.

"I think we're going to see some of the players bonding together. ... It's very possible that if somebody's competing for this prize, they're going to go to the players who have the expertise in the various fields rather than reinventing the wheel," he said. "And of course we'll be happy to help someone who needs our advanced rocket engine technology."

For still more on the commercial space race, remember to plug into Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport News, Jeff Foust's Personal Spaceflight and Ferris Valyn's Space Revolution News. Rand Simberg has some interesting thoughts on the lunar X Prize over at Transterrestrial Musings, and if there are other Web musings you'd like to pass along, feel free to leave them in the comments section below.

Update for 12:10 a.m. Sept. 16: After the lunar X Prize was announced, I asked Armadillo Aerospace's John Carmack whether he'd want to enter the competition. At the time, he was intrigued, but he noted that a launch to the moon wasn't his top priority and that he'd be in no hurry to sign on.

Since then, however, he's had some time to think about the possibilities - and in a posting to the venerable aRocket discussion list, he sounds as if he's more than just intrigued.

Carmack notes that his development path calls for building modular rockets that can rise higher and higher, straight up - then build an upper-stage booster that could make the extra push into orbit. "That same upper stage, if launched into orbit instead of just straight up to 100 km, could fly to the moon and land, with some performance to be cannibalized for lunar operations," Carmack wrote.

So suppose Armadillo was able to develop this upper stage, after a progression of relatively inexpensive tests. Carmack wrote that the technologies for an even longer trip could be worked out during a series of orbital launches.

"After putting a half dozen vehicles in orbit, we could try and find someone to spring for a [SpaceX] Falcon 1 launch to put the fully fueled vehicle in orbit.  Alternately, we might be far enough along to scale our own design up for the initial orbital launch.

"The only real design concession would be building the upper stage at a size and mass that would allow it to be launched by Falcon 1. This is conveniently rather close to what we were already planning."

SpaceX's Musk told me that Carmack and the Armadillo team were his favorites to win the lunar X Prize. Could this be a match made in the heavens? Stay tuned ...

Update for 7:20 p.m. Sept. 16: This weekend brought sad news from Paul Breed, head of the Unreasonable Rocket father-and-son team. Breed had hoped to compete in this year's Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, but some parts literally shook loose from his rocket engines as they were being driven out for a static-firing test.

"The trip killed the vehicle," Breed reported on the Unreasonable Rocket Web log. "This ends the 2007 effort."

Carmack's Armadillo team remains the front-runner for the Lunar Lander Challenge's top prize at next month's X Prize Cup competition in New Mexico - but it's not a slam-dunk. Even if Armadillo wins, Breed is hoping some of the leftover prize money will still be available next year.

Update for 3:05 p.m. Sept. 18: Masten Space Systems is also bowing out of this year's Lunar Lander Challenge race due to tank fabrication problems, as Bill Hensley notes in the comments section below. Masten's blog provides the details.