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© 2005 by Donald F. Robertson.



This article may be distributed at will, but only if it is not changed in any way, and only if the author's name, the copyright notice, the name of the journal it first appeared in, and this notice remain attached. In addition, this article may not be sold for money, or published for sale in any way, without the author's prior written permission.

This article originally appeared in International Space Review.

Time to Put Up: the Kistler saga


Donald F. Robertson

Bay Harbour Management LLC’s apparent decision to reverse course and limit its investment in Kistler Aerospace has a distressingly familiar ring.

In March 2005, Bay Harbour had invested $15 million to bring Kistler out of bankruptcy. This was to keep the company alive long enough for NASA to select its fully reusable launch vehicle, also called the Kistler, to re-supply the International Space Station. Six months later, NASA’s money was not forthcoming, and on 30th September Bay Harbour radically reduced their funding without quite pulling the plug.

Frustrated space entrepreneurs, sometimes called the “ community,” claim this story repeats itself like a broken record. Startup companies propose some dramatic new way to reduce costs and NASA shuns it, favoring in-house development or familiar aerospace contractors in spite of high costs. Without NASA as a guaranteed market, entrepreneurs say they cannot raise capital from the investment community.

On the other hand, a friend who works for a major NASA contractor told me their rockets are, indeed, expensive – but they have not failed in a long time. While he did not use these words, his argument boiled down to, you get what you pay for.

This was only the latest chapter in the Kistler soap opera. I remember traveling from San Francisco to Seattle in the Fall of 1994 to cover Kistler Aerospace’s announcement of their new Kistler launch vehicle. At that time, the new company planned to orbit the hundreds of networked mobile communications satellites Iridium and Globalstar would need to renew their constellations, as well as additional spacecraft for their competitors. When low Earth orbit communications satellite industry collapsed, Kistler managed to get contracts from NASA to test fly new technologies for the Clinton-era Space Launch Initiative. That morphed into a contract to supply flight test data to NASA, placing the firm in the front-running for the Space Station re-supply contract. Competitor SpaceX contested that contract, claiming correctly that it was awarded without competition (although SpaceX has its own share of thinly disguised development subsidies from the Air Force and other agencies). When it became clear that the General Accounting Office agreed with SpaceX, NASA withdrew the contract. With vehicle development approximately three-quarters complete, and given the continuing slow pace of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services solicitation, Kistler appears to have run out of lives.

The Kistler idea was and remains remarkable for its unique combination of conservative technology and radical implementation. The company designed, and largely developed, a fully reusable two-stage launch vehicle using left over engines from the giant N-1 rocket the Soviet Union developed attempting to beat Apollo to the moon.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Aerojet bought the relatively simple N-1 engines from the Russians. At Aerojet’s plant, approximately 150 kilometers inland from San Francisco, the engines were modified to be fully reusable, refurbished, and tested. N-1 engines do not push the state-of-the-art, burning Kerosene, which is easy to obtain, handle, and store.

The two-stage Kistler vehicles’ structure featured large margins and line-replaceable parts, and would use airbags to land. In theory, this would enable one-hundred re-flights with limited refurbishment between missions. The launch system was designed to “deliver up to 3,200 kilograms of pressurized cargo to the International Space Station”, according to Kistler. Addressing a major logistical issue with the post-Shuttle station, it could also “return up to 900 kilograms of recoverable down-mass.” In addition, “Kistler is capable of providing up to forty kilometers of re-boost and attitude control for the” orbital outpost.

All this might be hard to believe were it not for the sterling credentials of many of the managers and engineers who signed on to the company. Certainly the investment community was convinced, pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars before the low Earth orbit comsat market collapsed and Kistler entered bankruptcy.

As a second-generation reusable rocket, Kistler’s apparent failure is a significant loss to the space industry. NASA was correct to offer money in return for flight data, and SpaceX was wrong to oppose the deal. SpaceX’s Falcon is a relatively conventional expendable rocket using innovative construction and operations techniques to reduce costs. The Falcon, at least as it is publicly described, is not capable of producing comparable flight data.

The SpaceX Falcon is designed to compete with Orbital Science’s Pegasus, with larger follow-on vehicles taking on the Boeing and Lockheed-Martin Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles. SpaceX is financed by its owner’s personal fortune. Thus, the Falcon is one of the most financially credible proposals – but so far the only thing the company has to show is promises. Worse, are the ever more grandiose nature of the promises – the latest being for a Saturn-class vehicle capable of lifting one-hundred tons. SpaceX’s hubris, without having achieved a single flight in what was supposed to be a relatively straight-forward development project, makes me wonder if my friend is right and the business of flying to orbit really is as difficult and expensive as NASA makes out.

The Falcon may have flown by the time this newspaper is circulated, and if successful, the difficulties and hubris will be forgotten. However, until SpaceX or Kistler, or somebody else, has a number of successful flights under its belt -- and unless those flights are substantially cheaper and / or more reliable than those NASA’s traditional contractors can provide -- why should NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin listen to the community’s increasingly bitter complaints about NASA’s refusal to buy their products in advance?

After all, we have been through this before. Orbital Science’s air launched Pegasus was supposed to be a cheaper alternative – until an up-rated version repeatedly failed. When NASA tired of losing expensive spacecraft and insisted Orbital achieve reliability levels comparable to the space agency’s traditional suppliers, Orbital’s cost advantage evaporated.

It is past time for the community to put up or shut up. There are clear markets, now, for their services. These range from the types of experimental satellite launches SpaceX has gone after and won, to the promise of Space Station and lunar logistics missions, to space tourism. More importantly, if can convincingly promise the investment community lower costs and risk, and develop a successful launch vehicle, the traditional markets for commercial, civil, and military applications and scientific satellites should quickly fall into their laps.

The space industry is a mature industry with well-understood and stable markets, albeit distressingly small ones. With strong engineering and good marketing plans, the community should be able to raise their own funds. It is sad to see Kistler fall away, but Dr. Griffin is right to insist that show him real hardware before he buys.

If companies want to displace the big boys, they need to grow up and fly.

Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco. He is a small shareholder in Aerojet and Orbital Sciences.


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