Space Travel Is Still A Dream

Cost-cutting advances that seemed near haven't panned out

For space buffs raised on the Apollo moon missions and Star Trek, the final frontier once seemed tantalizingly close. They believed that expeditions to Mars, orbiting tourist flights, and factories in the sky were just around the corner; the only problem was the high cost of space travel. But entrepreneurs with moondust in their eyes were ready to tackle that. They laid plans for reusable rockets that could take off and land nearly as regularly as scheduled airlines--and, in the process, open the way to the stars. Even the National Aeronautics & Space Administration got into the act. It hired Lockheed Martin Corp. to build the reusable X-33 launch vehicle. The price of technology was plunging almost everywhere else, and space transportation seemed next in line.

GIVING UP. But now, the dream is dying, foundering on the unyielding laws of physics and finance. At AeroAstro, a Herndon (Va.) startup, for instance, CEO Rick Fleeter has given up on his plan to build low-cost rockets. Instead, he has turned to more mundane rocket motors. "There's just nothing out there that can dramatically reduce the cost," he sighs. "I'm not going to wait the rest of my career for someone to come up with it."

Fleeter is not alone. In San Bruno, Calif., Rotary Rocket Co., which built a flying model of a spacecraft that landed like a helicopter, has cut its workforce from 75 to under a dozen and is struggling to survive. Lockheed Martin's X-33 project has been plagued with fuel-tank ruptures, fabrication problems, and cost overruns of more than $75 million. Many experts think that even if the rocket works, it would raise, not lower, the cost of going to space. With the evaporation of Iridium and other potential satellite customers, startups such as Kistler and Pioneer Rocketplane can't find the money to build the launchers they once envisioned. These days, keeping the dream alive is "like performing open-heart surgery on yourself without anesthesia," laments Michael S. Kelly, chairman and chief technical officer of Kelly Space & Technology Inc. in San Bernardino, Calif.

THROWAWAYS. The basic hurdle for the industry is that earth's gravity is so strong that rockets must attain an enormous velocity--17,500 miles per hour--to reach orbit. That's why the big Saturn rockets used in the Apollo missions had multiple stages that were discarded to lighten the load as the rocket rose. But space advocates hoped that technologies such as lightweight composite materials and innovative engines could produce a breakthrough. Reusable rockets, they thought, could eliminate the enormous cost of throwing the spacecraft away with every launch.

That's why NASA and private companies came up with ideas such as the X-33 program, which began in '96. A stubby, wedge-shaped craft with short wings, the X-33 is designed to take off like a rocket and glide to a landing like an airplane. NASA claimed that it would shrink the cost of lifting one pound into orbit from $10,000 to a mere $1,000.

It hasn't worked. A key component, the lightweight composite liquid-hydrogen fuel tanks, proved difficult to make and ruptured during a test last year. That put the X-33 on hold until NASA and Lockheed Martin can figure out how to solve the problem--and who should pay.

Most experts believe that the X-33 program has fallen far short of the mark. The basic reason? Physics. Fuel weighs so much that a reusable rocket is "vaporware," says John E. Pike, director of the space policy project at the Federation of American Scientists. Mathematics shows that a reusable single-stage craft is "always in danger of winding up with no payload when it gets to orbit--or not quite getting to orbit at all," he says.

Startups thought they could succeed where bureaucratic NASA was doomed to fail. Rotary Rocket, for instance, planned to use an engine fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene instead of liquid hydrogen, thus getting more bang per pound of fuel. Kelly aimed to lift its rocket past 40,000 feet on a Boeing 747 before launching, which would avoid the costs of building a launchpad.

BREAKTHROUGH NEEDED. The entrepreneurs' bold ideas haven't won over investors, however. "All their business plans required one or more breakthroughs in technology," says James W. Benson, CEO of SpaceDev Inc., a Poway (Calif.) startup that builds space probes. The purported breakthroughs are so dubious that the companies haven't even been able to raise the money to test them. "The financial markets just don't seem to be there," says Richard Stockmans, Rotary Rocket's director of business development.

The surprise is that they haven't all given up. NASA, for instance, has several efforts under way, such as an air-breathing engine that would slash a rocket's need for heavy liquid oxygen when it zips through the atmosphere. Beleaguered Rotary and Kistler are still trying to raise the scores of millions they need to build full-scale prototypes. Kelly is staying alive by branching out into consulting work for NASA on new space programs. "We're going to make the concept of launches as we know it today obsolete," Kelly insists. Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas has vowed to build a lunar cruise ship that would shuttle passengers from an earth orbit to the moon. David P. Gump, president of LunaCorp. in Arlington, Va., hopes to send pictures of galactic phenomena and the moon back to earth via broadcast and the Internet. On June 15, his company announced that RadioShack will sponsor a moviemaking roving vehicle on the moon.

Peter H. Diamandis, president of St. Louis-based X-Prize, still thinks it's just a matter of time until the glitches are resolved. His group is offering a $10 million award to any company that can send three adults on suborbital flights twice within two weeks. But, says SpaceDev's Benson: "Wishing a technology into existence isn't going to make it happen." It seems the prize is unlikely to be claimed anytime soon.

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