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Watch This Space

Attempts by small space companies to win NASA contracts are as perennial as Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football.

The road to orbit is littered with big-talking startups that promised to shake up the launch business—if only NASA would sign on as a guaranteed customer. Each ended up disappointed or bankrupt when the agency balked, delayed, or changed its mind. This time NASA swears it will be different, and that it genuinely wants to nurture a commercial launch sector that can undersell even the Russians (who charge a low $67 million for a three-seat Soyuz flight to the station). Why? Because the government wants to save its money for bigger things.

“We want to get in the exploring business,” says Neil Woodward, an astronaut currently pulling duty at NASA’s Washington headquarters as deputy director for Constellation Systems, the developmental arm for the new moon-Mars exploration program. “Trying to get up to Earth orbit all the time distracts us from going on to the moon, which is what we really want to do.”

It was NASA, in fact, that bankrolled t/Space’s drop tests this year, under two separate $3 million development contracts, as part of its Concept Evaluation and Review Program aimed at sussing out non-traditional approaches to everything from launch to designing moon bases. For that kind of money, the agency usually gets only reports and viewgraphs—not flight tests. The contracting official overseeing t/Space was Michael Lembeck. “In order to get out of the theological and into the practical, they were going to have to actually do something,” he says. “We decided to let t/Space loose to give them some credibility.”

Lembeck, who flew in the chase plane himself and took pictures on the second drop test, called the Mojave demonstration “a good first step to a reliable air launch system.” Without picking favorites, Woodward agrees. “[T/Space] has done very good work for us, and it really behooves us to be able to take advantage of any capabilities that emerge out of that sector.”

Let the competition begin.

T/Space was kick-started into being by the NASA grants, almost over the objections of one of its founders. Gary Hudson was happily working at his latest company, AirLaunch LLC, which in 2003 had received development funds from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Air Force to develop faster, cheaper access to space for small military satellites. The Air Force also hoped that Hudson’s rocket, called QuickReach, could evolve into a hypersonic vehicle capable of delivering a 12,000-pound payload a distance of 9,000 miles in two hours.

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.

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