Chair Force Engineer

Friday, May 25, 2007

Running Down a Dream

Benson Space and SpaceDev have unveiled the third design for their "Dream Chaser" manned spacecraft since the concept was announced in 2004. First they started with a clone of the X-34, as recommended in a paper by Marti Sarigul-Klijn. In November 2005 they changed to the HL-20, which was better suited for orbital spaceflights. They even went as far as negotiations with United Launch Alliance for use of the Atlas V 431 rocket. Yesterday, they unveiled this version of Dream Chaser, based on the X-1 and X-15 rocket planes.

I must say I was a bit disappointed to see the HL-20 design discarded. To be honest, I think Benson/SpaceDev's current design would be better for suborbital space missions, but the HL-20 clone would be better for orbital flights. If Benson Space succeeds in breaking into the suborbital tourism business, they should commission SpaceDev to design an all-new craft by the time they're ready to get into the orbital spaceflight market.

It's all a question of what direction Benson Space wants to go with its space tourism efforts. Do they want to go suborbital first, then get into orbital flights as the technology improves? Or do they want to leapfrog over the competition and go straight to orbit? While the latter strategy could play out in the long run, it would appear that the jump straight to orbital flights would be "a bridge too far" for most new-space companies.

In a way, the decisions facing the New-Space firms are similar to the choices made by US and Soviet space officials in the late 50's. The US committed to a brief suborbital program using the Mercury Redstone. The Soviets had planned on suborbital manned flights with a V-2 variant, but cancelled that program based on the success of the R-7 and Vostok rockets.

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