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Sat, Oct 15, 2005

Aero-Views: Who Wasn't At The X-Prize Cup

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 contracts.

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 public/private partnership.

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 (or
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 dampers.



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