Private Stages To Orbit

Presented by Adrian Tymes, Michael Wallis, and Randall Clague
of the Experimental Rocket Propulsion Society
at the International Space Development Conference 2003 - San Jose, CA

NASA Budget (1962-2008)

The Current State

For decades, there has been no option for most American citizens to personally go into space. NASA, the US government agency responsible for opening space, has spent more than $325 billion dollars through 2002 and plans to spend an additional $96 billion over the next five years. But despite more than $400 billion in tax-payer funding, the average American is no closer to space now than in 1957. Recently, the Russians have startend marketed such capabilities, but with a price tag of $20,000,000 there have only been a few takers. Some people believe that this will, and should, continue to be the case for the next several decades. We would like to propose an alternative to the present mode of operations in order to enhance space operations and promote American use of the "new" frontier. We will discuss both existing private, commercial programs to develop reusable space vehicles and extending concepts that would allow the government to promote development without employing all the developers.

While it is true that America has commercial access to space at this time, American communications satellites are the primary use we have made of our capabilities. Of late, US government involvement was at regulatory (permit processing and launch license issuing) and range operations (the commercial launch providers rent range services [tracking, destruct, etc.] from the government) levels. Of note is that, contrary to common perception, NASA is not always involved in these cases. If it is not a NASA payload or program or satellite, commercial operators are free to choose a launch provider who meets their needs such as payload integration, launch costs, timetable, etc. This has resulted in a large amount of US launch business going to overseas companies who can compete on costs because of lower overhead.

The Future That Isn't

There has been continued interest in improving the domestic commercial launch industry, and even to include civilian access to space, but such changes require a much less expensive technology. Both goals argue for development of reusable launch vehicles as they can be made more reliable and thus safer, can be cheaper because recurring costs do not include rebuilding your vehicle each time, and can spur the return of lost business to domestic entities. Unfortunately, the existing commercial providers seem to have little incentive to develop these craft.

Existing launch providers feel it should be the government who pays them to develop these new craft because of the high initial costs. That there are no clear requirements and no clear market does not help. Government, on the other hand, feels that if they are going to put up the money they should again control the development process. Examples such as X-33 have, unfortunately, soured everyone's interest.

Entrepreneurial Experimentation

To break out of this mentality may require breaking out of NASA altogether, and that is precisely what several ventures have done. One group, the X Prize Foundation, aims to award $10 million to the first organization to get the same vehicle to 100 kilometers altitude and back, twice within two weeks. A significant number of teams from around the world have taken up this challenge and are progressing towards its goal.

This is but one sign that the Big Players do not have the field to themselves any more. In recent years a number of private companies and organizations have sprung up, staffed by people who are tired of waiting for NASA to open up space. Often funded from their own pockets, these new players are all small by comparison, but what they lack in finances they make up in ingenuity and adaptability. The most successful of them have embraced an engineering concept widely used in other fields: incremental development. For rocketry, that means building a small prototype that one can afford, then testing it to ever-increasing heights. By being affordable (i.e. costing tens to hundreds of thousands verses tens to hundreds of millions), it is possible to rebuild if something does not quite work the way you thought. Over time, you can scale up to the multi-million dollar prototypes because all the subsystems have been tested in actual flight, and pose much less technical (and financial) risk.

The Experimental Rocket Propulsion Society ( ERPS KISS-II liquid fuelled rocketERPS) does incremental development on all of its vehicles. KISS (Keep It Simple Scientist) has flown six times on hydrogen peroxide, and before that it flew seven times on commercial solids. Each iteration of KISS has been an incremental improvement of the one before. KISS II featured an improved recovery system; KISS III featured an internal pressure tank; KISS IV will feature sturdier fins and a modification to the engine, which should allow us to fly the vehicle with a full tank of propellant.

ERPS's second rocket project, POGO (Prototype Of Guidance Operations), will combine KISS with a stabilized electric helicopter we are also developing, to duplicate the DC-X controlled flight regime. POGO will have about a tenth of the performance of DC-X, but at about a thousandth of the cost.

XCOR EZRocket Flight 14 XCOR Aerospace also does incremental development, having stepped in small increments from an 8 pound teacart engine (which they publicly fired on several occasions, including indoors with full approval from the local Fire Marshal) to 400 pound engines, to a flying rocket plane that uses the 400 pound engines. XCOR's next project is Xerus, which will use the experience gained in building and flying EZ-Rocket to push higher, farther and faster.

Systems test apparatus in flight Armadillo Aerospace in Texas, an X Prize contender, does incremental development the same way, by building something small, testing it, building something bigger that incorporates the lessons learned, testing that, etc. Using this technique, they have gone from flying a card table sized hopper, to a small car sized lander, to a limousine sized VTVL rocket. In the lander, they demonstrated the first ever manned, rocket powered, vertical takeoff and vertical landing.

da Vinci, one of the Canadian X Prize teams, has done some incremental testing; they build small prototypes of their subsystems and test them separately. They have also been static testing ever-larger engines in Mojave for several years, gaining experience and improving their technology at minimal cost

Micro-space has been incrementally testing their engines, building from small and cheap to loud and noisy (the joke is that the switch is not labeled OFF/ON; it is labeled QUIET/LOUD).

Even Starchaser, the guys in England trying to win the X Prize on a cluster of hobby rocket motors, is doing incremental development. They started with small, very modest rockets, and over the years, as they learn how to build and fly them, they have moved to larger rockets. They recently flew their first manned rocket, though again incrementally - they flew unmanned the first time.

Flying Outside The Box

Scaling these practices up offers the chance to achieve technological advancement with minimal economic risk - more likely to get a bang for your buck. Issues focus on the physical size and operational improvements to the vehicle rather than "will it work at all". Scaling is not to be taken lightly - you can not just build a bigger vehicle, but most systems will have been tested separately under conditions similar to those they would experience in actual flight. Integrating known quantities is always easier than integrating unknowns. This drastically reduces the cost of the inevitable setbacks as they happen to parts rather than whole vehicles. It also generates data on the endurance of each subsystem. Incremental testing produces this data without risking the high expense of a full-up vehicle.

The question becomes, how does one motivate companies to follow an incremental development plan while developing reusable launch vehicles funded by the government? It can be done by breaking the overall goal into steps or phases that expand upon the demonstrated capabilities of the previous phase. Each needs to be designed to foster a number of different competitors, with the ultimate aim to have several commercially viable for-profit launch vehicles, completely independent from each other. Each of these vehicles should be far cheaper to operate, and able to sustain a much higher launch rate, than what is presently available.

Changing The Funding Paradigm

What we would like to propose is a shift to "pay for performance" funding and away from the current "pay to play" approach. Incentives to demonstrate a desired capability should be rewarded with large prizes rather than the government prepaying to see if something is possible and sometimes getting little or nothing of value for their (or should we say our) money.

Tradition would dictate that NASA should set up a Program Office to investigate the possibility that there may be some new technology that would be useful. The office can then grow as new ideas are fermented, money is added to their budget, RFPs issued, and contracts granted to those who meet the predetermined qualifications. And soon we have another perpetual bureaucracy that spends as much time keeping itself alive as doing engineering designs, but we do not have much new technology. What is needed instead is a system to set forth goals, establish payments for meeting those goals, monitor the progress of those hoping to claim an award, and issuing checks to the successful ones. This is what an Awards Office does, and this is what we need.

Leading Rather Than Managing

To this end, we propose the establishment of the Fund for American Space Transportation (F.A.S.T.), which would operate based of the following simple rules:

  1. Prize money will be awarded for practical demonstration of the goals as set forth by the FAST Awards Office, from funds already placed in escrow.
  2. There will be five (5) phases in the competition, each requiring the demonstration of more technical skill and achievement. The first competition will commence once the escrow is fully funded and each phase shall last two years.
  3. If all prizes in a phase are distributed before the end of two years, that phase ends with the awarding of the final prize, and the next competition begins immediately.
  4. In the first phase, ten awards will be made of 10% of that phase’s funds. For subsequent phases, awards of 60%, 30% and 10% of each phase’s funds will be made to the first, second and third individual, company or consortium of companies to meet the phase requirements.
  5. The GMT date and time of completion of each monitored demonstration flight will be used as the official Time Of Completion for the purpose of making awards.
  6. If there are less than 3 awards made by the end of any phase, the FAST Awards Office will award the remaining prize(s) to the individual, company or consortium of companies closest to meeting the stated goals.
  7. The FAST Awards Office will close its doors within 30 days of the presentation of the last award, or at the end of ten years, whichever comes first.
  8. All patents, rights, and technology must be assigned to a non-governmental body or released to the public domain.
  9. The program escrow amount shall be $1 billion.

Five Phases to Space

Phase 1 - "Controlled Flight"

The vehicle must reach at least 25 kilometers (82,021 feet), stay above that mark for 1 minute, then make a controlled directed landing (specifically not just drifting with the winds on a parachute), while carrying at least one adult human being. The vehicle must make this entire trip in less than one hour, launch to landing, and must achieve 25,000 meters altitude within half an hour of launch.

Ten prizes for this phase: $ 1 million.
Total for this phase: $10 million.

Phase 2 - "Federal X Prize"

The vehicle must reach an altitude of 100 kilometers (323,084 feet) twice within 14 days, carrying three adult human beings. The crew must fly substantially the same vehicle (at least 90% dry mass) on the second flight, but it does not have to be the same three people on the second trip. If qualified, the first team to achieve this Phase may also be able to pick up the X Prize's $10 million

First competitor gets: $12 million.
Second competitor gets: $ 6 million.
Third competitor gets: $ 2 million.
Total for this phase: $20 million.

Phase 3 - "Rocket Express"

The vehicle must demonstrate the ability to travel between two points at least 3,000 kilometers apart in less than 30 minutes, a trip only attainable by rocket. This is about the minimum distance where rocket transportation starts to become commercially viable. Again, the vehicle must carry three adult human beings during its trips. The crew must fly substantially the same vehicle (at least 90% dry mass) on the return flight within 7 days to claim the prize, but it does not have to be the same three people on the second trip. The launch site and landing sites at each location must be within 50 km of each other.

First competitor gets: $42 million.
Second competitor gets: $21 million.
Third competitor gets: $ 7 million.
Total for this phase: $70 million.

Phase 4 - "Long Range Rocket Express"

The vehicle must demonstrate the ability to travel between two points at least 10,000 kilometers apart in under an hour. The performance needed to achieve this is just short of that needed to achieve orbit. Again, the vehicle must carry three adult human beings during its trips, and the crew must fly substantially the same vehicle (at least 90% dry mass) on the return flight within 72 hours to claim the prize, but it does not have to be the same three people on the second trip. The launch and landing sites at each location must be within 50 km of each other.

First competitor gets: $180 million.
Second competitor gets: $ 90 million.
Third competitor gets: $ 30 million.
Total for this phase: $300 million.

Phase 5 - "Orbit"

The vehicle must demonstrate the ability to fly from some point in American territory and complete at least one and a half orbits at an altitude of not less than 200 km. The vehicle must land within 50 km of launch point and fly a second orbital trip (as described above) within 24 hours of landing. At least three adult human beings must be carried to orbit and safely return, but it does not have to be the same three people on the second trip. Again, at least 90% of the dry mass of the vehicle must be reused in the second flight.
First competitor gets: $360 million.
Second competitor gets: $180 million.
Third competitor gets: $ 60 million.
Total for this phase: $600 million.


To encourage a wide range of competitors, a single entity may only claim at most one prize from each phase. For this purpose, wholly or partly owned subsidiaries count the same as their parent organizations.


Since we are seeking to promote commercial development, the FAST Awards Office should have a very small but dedicated staff. There needs to be an accountant, three technical advisors and a manager. Ideally they would be experienced civil servants between the ages of 45 and 55 because when the ten-year program has run its course or all prizes have been awarded, the staff should be given full retirement benefits at two pay grades above their operating level and the Office closed. Why? The people who administer the program need to have an incentive to not become a bureaucracy. They should be rewarded for seeing the goals achieved and closing the doors.

The funding would need to be approved by Congress as a one-time expense and placed in an interest bearing escrow account administered by the FAST Awards Office. While there are rules limiting multi-year funding of programs, this is a single funding appropriation that is paid out in a single year but administered over no more than 10 years.

It would not be that difficult for any number of government agencies to fund the FAST Awards Office as a one-time expenditure. Staff salaries and other expenses for the operation of the Office can and should come from the interest accrued on the escrowed fund.


What we have proposed is an improvement to the existing launch capabilities of the country, funded in a single appropriation of $1 billion (about the cost of two shuttle flights) that provides both bureaucratic and entrepreneurial incentives to follow an incremental development approach. The vehicles succeeding in each phase progress toward the goal of achieving much higher flight rates and much lower costs than any current space transportation system, domestic or foreign. Such a program could, in a short time, for a small amount of money, develop these capabilities and create multiple classes of vehicles that would finally allow the beleaguered taxpayer to participate in the future of space travel, and in the process, expand American influence to the heavens.

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Version: 1.0.5
Dated: 24 Mar 2006