Absence Of Aerospace Primes Indicates Ill-Placed Arrogance
By Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien
New Space was there, mostly. Old
Space wasn't, mostly. That's the conclusion after toting up the
attendance sheet for the Countdown to the X-Prize Cup.
New Space includes such ventures as sounding rocket companies UP
Aerospace and Beyond Earth, as well as such manned-space exponents
as XCOR and T/Space, and former X-Prize competitors ARCA,
Armadillo, Canadian Arrow, GoldenPalace/daVinci, Rocketplane, and
probably a few others.
Old Space means those old Aerospace prime contractors, the
cost-plus Cold Warriors: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop
Grumman. And I suppose you could include most of their
subcontractors, companies addicted to the crack of government money
and unable to compete on civilian terms.
They know how to scramble to the top of a Pentagon pigpile, but
they can no more develop a machine that conducts safe tail landings
and takeoffs for $2.5 million (as Armadillo Aerospace has done)
than put men in space for $25 million (as Mojave Aerospace
Ventures/Scaled has done). A single serial production V-22 costs
almost three entire SpaceShipOne projects (and the V-22 price is
still spiraling upward).
As in the old saying, "the exception
proves the rule." The exception to the New Space rule was X-Prize
winner Scaled Composites/Mojave Aerospace Ventures. Obviously,
their spacecraft was not available, hanging as it is in the
Milestones of Flight Gallery at the National Air and Space Museum.
Virgin Group attended with a rather cheesy and unconvincing
SpaceShipOne replica, but actual Scaled folks were not here, unless
they were in stealth mode. Word on the street was that they were
both busy and not too impressed with the event.
And the exception to the Old Space rule was Arianespace, which
made its interest in private space entrepreneurs clear: "we're
looking to see if there's anybody we want to buy."
If that's not a thumb in the eye of the old-line Aerospace
primes, I don't know what is. The perfidious French, snagging
technology from under the noses of the primes.
Here's another thought about the primes: any one of them could
theoretically have pursued, and won, the X-Prize. Some of them have
spent more on advertising campaigns than Paul Allen spent to change
history; they had the money. All of them employ swarms of
engineers; the difference is that New Space engineers are
empowered. Nobody at Scaled just double-checks CAD dimensions or
just works on shimmy damper design. So Boeing and Lockheed-Martin
and Northrop Grumman had the money, and they had the people. They
just didn't have the courage.
Last week in Las Cruces there was a
smell wafting over the mountains from Southern California and
Washington. The smell was gangrene, the putrefaction of the
aerospace primes. They are dead in place, being kept alive solely
by the life support of government welfare, in the form of cost-plus
To be fair to Old Space, NASA was involved in many different
ways. But then, NASA is to some degree a faith-based organization.
NASA's people believe in space. They legitimately want to see a
But the aerospace prime contractors that didn't show up, well,
they have their reasons. They're way bigger than this, and can't be
bothered. After all, did the railroads take any notice of highways
airlines) in 1955?
But, it's not entirely true to say that Old Space wasn't at the
Countdown. In a way it was -- in the persons of staffers,
especially engineers, who came down to Las Cruces for a variety of
reasons: to see how the other half lives; to see what kind of
technology necessity creates; and perhaps, to get the flavor of
companies where engineers, not slick, shifty K Street
lawyer/lobbyists, call the shots.
The best will be leaving behind their bright cubicles and
showing up in dingy hangars. The rest will hang on with the primes.
Maybe they'll bring back an idea or two. Maybe someone will listen
to them. Probably not.
But hey, somebody's got to be the go-to guy for shimmy