Watch This Space
Attempts by small space companies to win NASA contracts are as perennial as Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football.
- By Geoffrey Little
- Air & Space magazine, January 2006
(Page 3 of 7)
Hudson is no newcomer, having been in aerospace engineering for 35 years, and is largely self-taught. “I’m old enough to have used a slide rule,” he says. He doesn’t care for computers, preferring calculators (he has 20 hand-helds scattered around his house) to spreadsheets and working with pencil, paper, and whiteboards until he’s ready to hand his designs over to a computer operator for conversion to electronic form. He sees engineering as a mix of science and art.
Over the years, Hudson has founded more rocket companies than he can easily recount. The best known of them was Rotary Rocket, which employed Marti Sarigul-Klijn as one of the test pilots and got as far as hover-testing its odd, propeller-topped Roton rocket before folding in 2000 (see “I Survived the Rotary Rocket,” Feb./Mar. 2002). Hudson describes himself jokingly as a misfit in the aerospace business. “I’ve failed, and failed, then failed again, then succeeded a little,” he says.
David Gump is another serial entrepreneur. He started several space business news publications in the early 1970s, just as the Apollo era was ending. Then in 1989 he founded Lunacorp, which aimed to commercialize space through schemes like having customers pay to drive a rover on the moon, or launching boy band singer Lance Bass to the International Space Station, or filming the first commercial in space for Radio Shack (one of the deals that actually went through).
T/Space exists because of Gump, who now serves as its president. He was working as a consultant to AirLaunch in its Reston, Virginia office when he learned that NASA might request proposals for non-traditional approaches to developing its new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) for the moon and Mars. Gump had to work hard to convince Hudson to apply. “They’re never going to give anything to the likes of us,” Hudson said. He was wary of NASA, having watched earlier talk about commercial “alternative access” to the space station come to nothing. But Gump prevailed, saying it was “a different crew, a new NASA.” Hudson had just finished a second-round proposal to DARPA for AirLaunch, and finally agreed it was worth the extra time to write another 30 pages for NASA.
Their proposal made bold promises to launch four people into Earth orbit for the phenomenally low price of $20 million, and included plans for transportation to the moon. The actual work—everything from ground services to propulsion—would be done by a network of subcontractors that included Rutan’s Scaled Composites.
Hudson remained pessimistic about their chances, not even bothering to incorporate t/Space after submitting the proposal. Then, in July 2004, soon after DARPA awarded him an $11 million Phase II contract to design and test systems for a fast, cheap rocket, he got another call from NASA. He phoned Gump. “Are you sitting down?” he asked. “We got both!” T/Space was launched, and Hudson and Gump had to scramble to incorporate and get their paperwork in order that same day.
While Gump started fleshing out the t/Space concept, Hudson used the new money to advance his technical design, including the propulsion system. The engine would be built on contract by Tim Pickens’ new Alabama-based company, Orion. Pickens had helped design the innovative, self-pressurizing nitrous oxide- and rubber-burning engines for X-Prize-winner SpaceShipOne.
As with that engine, simplicity was essential for t/Space. No turbopumps, no supercooled hydrogen—just propane fuel and liquid oxygen, which are easy to handle and store on the ground. Pickens built a 20-ton test stand at Mojave, not far from Hudson’s abandoned Rotary Rocket launch pad, and fired the new rocket engine in July. Hudson stood about 300 feet away. “It’s a beautiful exhaust,” he says, “Almost transparent.” What’s more, the engine started and stopped cleanly. Over the next year Orion will conduct dozens more test firings under the DARPA contract, which will be key to t/Space’s future.