Monday, February 28, 2011

How are you going to fund your GLXP entry: The Nanosat Launcher Challenge Contracting

This post originally appeared on our official GLXP blog.

Detailing the Contracting

In our previous post, we talked about how we are going to pay for our GLXP bid. One of the methods was through manufacturing rockets for teams that are working on the Nanosat Launcher Challenge. We have contracts with three teams (Vog Rockets, Seraphim Aerospace and Soneplanar Space Systems) to build them a series of rockets for fixed prices. When we did this, we made it plain that we would NOT be willing to build them a rocket right off the bat that would be orbital capable.

There were two reasons for that. The first is that it is a bridge too far for us just yet. Getting into orbit is hard and building a rocket with that capability is as yet beyond us. So, we needed to build up our expertise in manufacturing between Lunar Lander Challenge capable rockets and orbit shot capable ones. The second reason was that we were VERY concerned about the teams having enough responsibility and experience to handle an orbit shot rocket. That size rocket is big. It is mean. It could make a very nasty crater. It'd be less responsible to hand over a orbit shot rocket to an inexperienced client than handing over the keys to your Tesla Roadster to a kid that has never driven before.

So, given that we couldn't quite build the orbit shot rockets yet and the clients are not experienced enough to be trusted with such a powerful monster, was there some sort of intermediate step that we could take?

Yes, there was. Actually, there were two.

Enter the Zephyr Aurora

The rocket pictured above is called the Zephyr Aurora. It's the first of a series of rockets - the Zephyr series - that we are building for our three clients and others if they put down the deposit and happen to be US citizens ( does not mess with the ITAR). Each step in that series is meant to be a teaching tool. This is for us and this is also for the client.

The Zephyr Auroras are made from aluminum and steel with a 550 lb-f thrust graphite engine. They stand at seven feet in height. They mass in at 140 kg GLOW. Theoretically, it has a dV of 2 km/s. The engine uses RP-1 and LOX. Zephyr Auroras are the equivalent of a lunar lander challenge rocket. They are simpler than our own The Wind at Dawn, but are also meant to fly a lot faster. On the other hand, they are also hobbled contractually until the teams actually complete the LLC requirements: fly from pad to pad and back first following the prescribed flight pad that the X Prize Foundation laid out. We had to observe the flight, too. Until they did, we also required that they could not place an aeroshell on the rocket, not go faster than a few meters per second, and could go higher than a few hundred feet. Plus, they had to get insurance. Lots of insurance.

The whole point of the Zephyr Aurora is to teach the client how to fly a rocket in a controlled manner and how to interact with all the elements of the rocket beyond just the hardware: ground ops, air ops, working with sites for flights and above all else, the FAA. We are also doing this, it ought to be noted, for a fraction of the price that others have offered their equivalent rockets for. We're talking tens of thousands of dollars rather than half a million. Again, this money is intended NOT to paid for people time, but to pay for what we cannot get through sponsorship.

We expect to deliver the first Zephyr in the next 30 days. Knock on carbon-carbon composite.

However, a Zephyr Aurora only has about 1/5 the delta V needed to reach orbit. That's still a huge jump. There has to be an intermediate step between and there is. We mentioned that there were two steps before an orbit capable rocket.

The Next Step and the Step(s) After

The next step in the series to Zephyr Theone. The Zephyr Theone stands at seventeen feet. It is made from the composites we have developed. It masses in somewhat over 3 tons and has a theoretical dV of 5400 m/s. It too will use LOX/RP-1. The ZT, like the ZA, is also a single stage rocket. We're being a bit vague here because of the intellectual property that we are working with. Some of it is in the patent process. Other bits are industrial secrets. We are also being vague because the design process is still underway. We do not expect to start building the Zephyr Theone prior to July. We have a lot to do between now and then.

The reason for the Zephyr Theone though is to teach the clients how to operate a high delta-V, high altitude, multi-use rocket. This is a whole lot more complicated than a dealing merely with a LLC class vehicle. The regulatory requirements for a Zephyr Theone are at least an order of magnitude more than the Zephyr Aurora. It is a steep learning curve even after having done the LLC class vehicle and regulations.

This, too, is a learning process for us. That's why this sort of rocket, at least until its a proven technology, is still less expensive than an LLC class rocket sold by a 'competitor.' However, it is a lot more expensive than a ZA. Again, this money is going to our GLXP bid and pay for materials and whatnot, not our salaries. Had we done that, it'd be a lot more expensive. A LOT more expensive.

The next step after the Zephyr Theone is a branching point. We are not going to get into much of the way of details here. Each team has made some specific requests that we wish to honor their own differences of approach. When they are ready to talk about them, we will, too. However, there are two planforms being developed at this point for their orbital shot rockets. These are different between the two designs and their names reflect that fact: Zephyr Orestes and Zephyr Hydra. Both designs build heavily on the previous ones though. They are also rather expensive: significantly more than the Zephyr Theone. However, they will be orbital capable. We do NOT expect to start to build these for more than a year from now. The teams need time to work with what we are delivering.

A Wrap

Each of these contracts will bring in over $1.2 million if there are no replacement rockets ever built: hmm...think there might be one or two ordered? ;) We have other teams that are waiting in the wings to see how well the hardware works and if it meets their needs, they will be placing their own orders. These "maybe" orders are not counted to what we are expecting to pay for our GLXP entry, fwiw.

It is interesting to note that the FAA gave us a big thumbs up with regards to this approach (step by step with restrictions and hand holding). A stock rocket that has some customized bits appeals to them so that they can focus on the differences while already understanding the general design. It will also allow them to evaluate the individual teams, their safety plans and their procedures in direct comparison to ones that they approve of with very similar hardware.

As stated before, Team Phoenicia is something of a Boeing of the Bay (for rockets). We think in the longer run this is an excellent model for aerospace. Let people that build rockets well focus on that and let those fly rockets focus their business plans on that. Along the way, Team Phoenicia will be helping to foster NewSpace start-ups. This seems like a win all the way around. We get the moon. They get their startup business. Its a victory no matter how we cut it.

We have had a number of posts at the main team blog. Please take a look for the ones entitled "Zephyr Aurora: Taking Shape." The presentations such that we were allowed to post from the Team Phoenicia/TechShop Nanosat Launcher Seminar are also online.

As a note though, we will be having an unveiling party for the first Zephyr Aurora rocket for Vog Rockets. We are coordinating this with Vog and will let the public know where and when.

Happy friday, folks.

Ad astra per luna.

Will Baird
Team Leader
Team Phoenicia

No comments: