Commentary | The ‘X’ Factor

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I recently spent a weekend with the McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper (DC-X) team, a project in which I was honored to play a small part. Like the X-1 through X-15 series, the flights of the DC-X and DC-XA were barrier-shattering and mind-opening to the space community, creating a shift in thinking in the field and leaving a contrail of new ideas and concepts that are still in play decades later. Obvious legacies of the X planes were our first experiences with rocket planes, hypersonic flight, full pressure spacesuits and the concept of two-stage vehicles — much of which found its way into the space shuttle program and today’s Virgin Galactic spaceships and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser, among other vehicles. 

The DC-X, a vertical takeoff and landing project, left its legacy as well, and while many technologies and operational concepts can trace themselves to its flights, its most important achievement was to shatter the myth that anything to do with space had to be extremely expensive, extraordinarily difficult and take decades to accomplish.

It is important to remember the time frame within which the DC-X project occurred. In the early 1990s those of us who were true believers in the cause of opening space were disillusioned by the failure of a bloated and self–serving space shuttle program to deliver its promised 50-plus flights a year and by the already-well-off-the-rails space station, pitched at $8 billion with a first flight in 1992 but already facing massive delays and cost overruns. It seemed the only way to do space was to do it massively, expensively and with huge standing armies of personnel, most of whom spent their time not succeeding but looking busy.

Along came DC-X, the space equivalent of the girl with the hammer in the famous Apple commercial — and the Big Bureaucratic Brother approach to space was shattered. Working with a tiny budget, a small team and a short timeline, DC-X accomplished all of its goals, did it magnificently and did it in a highly visible way. It may not have gone to space, and Congress may have immediately sabotaged its direct legacy with the billion-dollar hoax of the Lockheed Martin X-33 spaceplane, but it lit a fire in the imaginations of a generation, and can be directly linked to everything from the X Prize to Space Exploration Technologies and Blue Origin’s spacecraft development program.

So what might a space transportation X project look like today?

First, while one can point to specific X projects, there is no real and common definition of what such a program is in the public lexicon. The term “X project” can mean anything from a secret rocketship to alien investigations or throwing the best party in history (“Project X” — a recent Hollywood addition to the confusion). X projects live in a world of “know it when you see it” (or in many cases you don’t see it at all).

So I will therefore do my duty and with all humility lay out what I think one might be and what we should do in this realm. To wit:

An X project should shatter one or more concepts commonly held at the time as to some sort of limit or prime parameter in the realm of technology or operations of space systems; create a body of knowledge as to what lies beyond the old concepts; provide enough basic understanding of the path forward and the roadblocks ahead that others can utilize the information to develop practical applications and approaches to move the edge of understanding forward; and catalyze a new level of technology by making sure the knowledge gained is dispersed and available to the appropriate community and customers, either directly or by the applied actions of its participants after the project is completed. It must do all of the above efficiently, with minimum cost and in as short a time period as possible.

In other words a successful X project has to move the goal posts forward while enabling the players in the field to advance in new ways toward the new goals. After all, there can be no end point in the development of technology; the game is measured in movement, not a final score.

And this highlights another point of a successful X project: It should not be just one project, but one project within a program. Each project within an X program should build on the success of the project before, and push the boundaries of understanding beyond the previous program — possibly in new directions entirely, and perhaps even by splitting off into a new branch of inquiry.

And how do we define success in an X project? This is where it gets a little tricky, but we can agree on the metrics listed above: It must take us into new areas of knowledge and technologies cheaply, efficiently and rapidly relative to what might otherwise be the case, and should mark the path ahead while feeding the knowledge gained into the existing user base.

Success in an X project may mean breaking some barriers, like speed, showing new capabilities, like maneuverability, or integrating technologies in a new way that results in a new approach to some challenge. Along the way, it is assumed that the project in question will break things, blow things up and upset traditional systems. Again, it is assumed that things will go wrong and lessons will be learned and applied to the next round of activity until the next thing goes wrong or barrier is reached.

This is a key element of an X project. Its success is not based on flawless performance. The very nature of pushing the edge is that the edge is where things behind the edge no longer work. X projects are inherently risky; that is where they live, and those running them must be both individually and collectively oriented to this fact. Almost more importantly, those supporting or overseeing the program or project must be absolutely clear that breaking things is not failure, accidents will happen, and yes, lives may be lost — in the service of making things that work better, things that are safer and so that others may use the knowledge gained to do things cheaper, better and faster.

A new challenge that any X program must face is how to interface with a private sector that is not slowing down, and is itself in many cases oriented to developing its own “disruptive” technologies. Given how fast the commercial space sector is moving, it is imperative that any government X program include early and constant input from the edge walkers and leadership of the space industry. After all, what is the point of spending the taxpayers’ funds to do something already being worked on with investor money?

Of course the biggest hurdle to creating a new X program for spaceflight is the government itself. Politicians are notoriously shortsighted, ignorant of technology and focused almost exclusively on their re-election based on narrow parochial or special interests. The idea of some bigger national (not necessarily military) goal being supported by a high-risk, semi-secret project that threatens this or that existing constituency and promises no tangible 1-to-1 victory in exchange for the money spent is beyond their ability to comprehend. The politics of various space-interested groups like centers, organizations and contractors add an even more daunting level of complexity to the challenge than the actual technology itself.

Such a program will need to be constructed using all the artistry and applied political knowledge available in our community. It will need to have a political, policy and media team that is able to sell it and keep it sold. It will need strong political champions and clear, easy to understand goals — wrapped within a larger vision that protects them from being judged using the wrong set of standards.

As our government and commercial space pioneers struggle to help us break the bonds of Earth, we need to invest in clearing the path so they can succeed. It is time for a new set of X programs to be created. To do so we need to do the following:

  • Allocate a relatively small amount of funding for each program — let’s say $100 million a year that is guaranteed for 10 years or so at a minimum, longer if possible.
     
  • Set challenging questions to be answered by the projects that are identified by NASA, the Department of Defense and commercial customers as being vital and clearly beyond the scope of their own near-term endeavors. 
     
  • Develop a pipeline through which every couple of years a new system is flown that is focused on that set of questions.
     
  • Put together a focused and protected renaissance team led by strong and visionary leaders that is isolated and protected from the stifling hands of bureaucracy.
     
  • Create a communications system with their fellow edge walkers in commercial space and academia and their customers that is dynamic, interactive and ongoing so that the challenges being undertaken and the information acquired flow in both directions to keep the program on track and avoid redundancy or obsoleteness.
     
  • Define victory in ways the public and other constituents can understand, and work organically with an external support base that exists to facilitate the flow of information outwards, so these very important team members can “protect the baby.”

“X” stands for unknown. It represents the edge of our intellectual envelope, and it is exactly the place we need to be — if we ever hope to expand ourselves beyond this rock.

Along the way we can transform our ability to get from place to place while still here and the way we develop new ideas in all industries and add a new set of images and ideas to our all-too-often depressing news cycles — inspiring and clearing the way for the next generations to reach for the impossible — and making it possible for them to succeed.

 

Rick N. Tumlinson is chairman of Deep Space Industries, an asteroid mining company; founder of the Orbital Outfitters spacesuit company; and co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation and Texas Space Alliance.