Sunday, February 22, 2004
Rocket Man Blog: A Readers Rebuttal: "Mark makes the statement that without new engines, low cost access to space is impossible. I responded in an e-let that, excluding some reliability and maintainability concerns, engines aren’t currently a significant roadblock to cheap, reusable space travel. Mark thought what I was saying would be worth a post, and invited me to make one.

I started my software/systems engineering career at the Johnson Space Center in the shuttle flight planning offices and mission control support operation. In the late 1980’s I moved to Reston, Virginia and worked on the Space Station Freedom program for a few years before winding up at NASA HQ in the office of space access technology. Almost all that time I worked for McDonnell Douglass, and had some friends involved in other programs such as SDI/DARPA's DC-X project. So I know a little about this. Don’t blow me off out of hand.

One of the things I like about DARPA's launcher projects is that they develop breakthrough systems by adapting off-the-shelf equipment. The DC-X demonstrated likely cost reductions of at least a factor of ten over the shuttle (i.e., costs of less than $1,000 per pound of cargo to orbit) while flying only as often as the shuttle. Of more interest is that folks inside McDonnell Douglass’ DC-X program privately assured me that frequent fleet operations might get costs to orbit down to perhaps $200 per pound of cargo. They did that using RL-10 engines first marketed in the ‘50’s, avionics left over from an airliner, and a bunch of parts so off-the-shelf that some were out of a junkyard! (The condensation trays were hubcaps from an old Toyota connected to a length of garden hose.)

How could such old equipment make such breakthroughs in costs, and how could a subscale, very sub-orbital craft prove it had done so? To be blunt, they studied what was expensive in the shuttle, and excluded it in designing the DC-X"

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