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  ACSA Chairperson's politely critical opinion of Rutan and Branson Space Flight designs.
  by Debbie Maher, ACSA Advances Magazine, January 22, 2008

-- Playfully Invites Burt Rutan and Lord Branson to join "the real Space Age"

Dr. Jack Shulman, chair of the American Computer Science Association, himself an expert in design and automation control of asymmetric high altitude fixed wing fighter/bomber/trans-atmospheric and trans-orbital aircraft, a past contributor to the Space Shuttle defense payloads program and the flight control system on the B-2 Bomber (as well as other flying technologies) indicated his polite displeasure with the approach taken by Virgin Galactic in its efforts to "go where no man has gone before":

"To put it mildly, Rutan, Branson and Allen have an overblown sense of their own accomplishment.  Yes, it's a wonderful thing.  No, it's not really space flight. I have a feeling many of the 170 celebs who've signed on for a flight, do not realize we're talking about a 5 minute weightless glide in total darkness with a 160 mile round trip under extremely rough rocket boost power on the way up and on feather braked stomach on the ceiling glider action on the way down.  What that makes it is the rocket powered equal of a Steel Pier Amusement Park Ride. This is not about John Glenn making a dozen orbits of the earth as a Senior Citizen Shuttle Passenger, taking photos and landing. Despite the magnificence of what they have achieved at Virgin Galactic, incredible in the scale of corporate sponsorship private enterprise, it's far less a space race there and more of a flying grasshopper match, or like a frog leaping between lily pads... to coin a phrase."

Dr. Shulman commented: "There is no doubt Burt Rutan is a genius in every sense of the word, a modern day Howard Hughes combined with a modern day Jon Luc Goddard, but with great sense when it comes to his amazingly lightweight yet "strong as heavy duty" aircraft he's designed over the years. There is likewise no doubt that Entrepreneur Billionaire Lord Richard Branson is every bit the spirit of exploration and entrepreneurship, such as embodied early NASA Astronauts just ready and raring to go into space; he is likely the ultimate 'responsible venture capitalist' as well as something of an Indiana Jones-like figure. What the two and Paul Allen, no less of 'the spirit of entrepreneurship' than Branson, have accomplished is extraordinary for so small a budget, particularly given their flight safety record which is exceptional.  However, what they have accomplished in light of the possible goals they could have set for themselves, is rather un-extraordinary. It's 'one small hop for a Manned Rocket, one tiny little itty bitty leap for private enterprise, heraleded by Corporate mockery of government'.  However: that in fact is entirely unwarranted mockery."

SpaceShipOne lands after a successful spaceflight, completing the first leg of the X-Prize competition.  Photo by Mike Massee
Space Ship Once Landing Photo (copyrighted by Mike Massee)

"To begin with, the resemblance and design of Space Ship One to the original Air Force Bell X1 is quite apparent if you look closely, and it doesn't stop there. Resemblance of Space Ship Two to the NASA X15 Rocket Plane, is by any leap of the imagination, impressive. Yet, aside from the 'feather' braking system and fuels/engines in use, and the limited electronics design (more like basic Avionics Computers than Space Control Systems), however innovative (today, the Space Shuttle uses a 'braking maneuver' to achieve the same thing, as in its weight class a 'feather' such as Burt uses would likely shear right off), these steps in progress are not on a par with vehicles like the Shuttle or the B-2 Bomber or the Rocketry used by the Russians and Americans or newer Trans-Atmospheric Technologies. The two Rutan Space Craft designed for Virgin Galactic do not represent major leaps in technology however innovative they may be. In fact, they represent short cuts in technology, literally rocket powered high altitude X15 and X1 type aircraft which have the ability to leap like rapidly propelled fish out of water, up and just beyond the uppermost atmosphere only to fall back and need something to slow them down, hence the feather, which is revolutionary in that it need not use fuel to slow the craft like a de-orbit burn engine such as the OMS engines on the Shuttle.  However, from there they go essentially no where but down.  Nonetheless, to break into the "real space race" they need more than the feather brake: which would mean larger, more energetic propulsion systems, lots more weight and payloads that were worth the trip."

Virgin Galactic
Space Ship Two (centered in Twin Hull booster Jet)

"The weight to power ratio necessary to leap like a fish out of the water and fall back into the atmosphere is miniscule by comparison to a long range shot at the moon or even a long term orbiter, even versus any vehicle which must carry a significant payload, and even less so for any craft which would be used for sight seeing around the galaxy or solar system ala Star Trek.  Once in the vacuum of space, the so-called 'feather' becomes a vestige of airborne flight, essentially incapable of slowing a vehicle, thus requiring a de-orbit burn thrust system of sufficient rocket propulsion power to weight ratio to achieve a controlled de-orbit burn and reentry into Earth's Atmosphere.  There is no air to feather in empty space, once in Orbit.  There exists another problem, that being to achieve orbit, the speed you then need to re-enter the atmosphere is so high, one has to have special heat shielding to absorb it or you can burn up in the Atmosphere even after braking.  And one bad mistake, you burn up anyway, as in Discovery's case."

"I recall Paul Allen and others posting 'Corporations 1, Government 0' after Space Ship 1's historical mini leap above the top of the atmosphere. In fact, that is just Paul and other's magnificent zeal.  Paul and his peers have always had such zeal.  Unfortunately, there are limits to what the zeal has produced here.".

The theory and practice behind Virgin Galactic's
Limited Flights into Space (to date)
Click Picture for Full Size Image

"Let's face it: what we have here is a moving reproduction of test flights engaged in by the Air Force and young NASA when technology for space flight was very young, and the thought of a 'Space Plane' approach was still being entertained. Remarkable: yes, Revolutionary Space Flight Approach: no."

"After analysis of needs, NASA rapidly returned to the ICBM design, the Saturn C-5 series booster rockets, in attempting to tackle a trip to the moon, staged payloads and micro-light materials for the LEM Lunar Lander. It wasn't until decades later, in the 70's, that the Space Shuttle plus Solid Rocket Booster plus Hydrogen fuel tank was adopted to handle the power to weight ratio needs of boosting significant payloads into orbit so that larger craft could be built once there, along with space stations and space telescopes and other satellites. When you go into space, "real space" as in orbital or super orbital flight: you have to take 'oodles' of Air, Water, Fuel, Food, and supplies. You need backup computers and a heck of a repair toolkit, patching materials, anti-G slings, safety equipment, space suits... the list is endless, plus a craft of sufficient size, propulsion and fuel to take you there and get you back."

"This can not be sacrificed on longer space flights, flights longer than a few seconds at the very top of the Atmosphere.  Accordingly, however magnificent the gesture of having light duty sub-orbital space craft may be, they are steps into the past, updating technology that can accomplish little more than what was accomplished 50-60 years ago.  Capture the imagination? Yes.  Achieve orbital and super orbital Space Flight with them? No.  Produce a commercial return for Virgin?  I doubt it.  Once the roller coaster ride like novelty wore off, the commercial flights based on any design to date would likely be rapidly scrapped."

"The approach taken by Branson and Rutan is one which leads, essentially, no where but down. Orbital craft based on their SS2 and similar such designs would be beyond the risk factor and would not carry sufficient numbers of 'tourists' to financially justify. They'd need large de-orbital engines, mucho gasses and liquids and supplies, and at that, the size factors begin to multiply: no longer tiny, gossamer winged Rutan-esque 'dragonflies', but full fledged, super-flight-frames instead that might dwarf a 787.  Today's Virgin designs are off the mark: the payload ratio is way too small to achieve a useful orbital posture and reentry - particularly lacking the ability to carry enough passengers to make them commercializable in any sense (unless a passenger list of three is postulated). What Branson and Rutan and the Press are inadvertently doing is suggesting that these designs are more than one and the same type of Test Flights as were entertained by the Air Force and NASA in the 40's through the late 50's prior to the Moon Landing program.  They aren't.  And as Corporate loot makers: they're pretty big Zeros.  If nothing else, they're GREAT promotional literature for Lord Branson, Bert Rutan and Co.  And Paul Allen, he owns five gigantic yachts last I counted, I doubt he needs anything but his return to health and something to do with the time on his hands: as he has demonstrated in quite a number of recent projects his Team Vulcan has demonstrated around the USA..."

"Nevertheless, ff Branson and Rutan are truly serious, they should join the rest of us in "the Real Space Age": they should be designing a fully commercializable orbital vehicle with substantial human payload and supplies capacity capable of reaching Earth Orbit and then returning under control and being reused. If they need something to inspire them, rent '2001 a Space Odyssey'.  Then build what is not just a leap frog test platform that punches into the darkness of space and then glides down to Earth, but a real Space Craft capable of full orbit, long range, and ticket sales that make economic sense for Virgin. As they say, once you conquer one problem, try taking on a lot bigger problem."

"If Branson is serious about eventually reaching Galactic Exploration status with his vehicles, he should START with this, so that he can leverage Orbital Flight for longer and longer term Tourism, and long super-orbital hops between one side of the planet and the other, selling seats to those who want to travel from Arizona to India in 1 hour or less, by by a Virgin Galactic Trans Atmospheric Orbiter (TAO). Everything done to date has been the 'play it safe' approach of limiting their activities to reproducing the programs of the X1/X2 and x15. To my knowledge, there is no TAO on the drawing boards at this time.  There should be, and yes, Mr. Rutan, I do know exactly how much money, risk, engineering and development that will take!"

"I would invite Bert and Richard to consider being somewhat more expansive in their approach: design for Orbital operations, including longer term Tourism flights and shorter term runs from one side of the planet to the other in an hour or less. Achieve the 22,000 MPH+ or more to get there, with a craft large enough to carry a meaningful number of passengers and/or payloads, and eventually commercialize. Then you can say, Paul: 'Corporation 1, Government 1'."

"Until that time, what you've accomplished, however amazing and meritorious for a modest sized space program is a rather resounding congratulations, but not comparable when compared with the accomplishments of the Department of Defense and NASA.  The things they do weekly and monthly, even with the aging circa 1970's Space Shuttle, with all the risks, and even the originals, the Atlas Agena-B's and the Saturn C-5s, dwarf Virgin Galactic by an enormous magnitude."

"Show me you can orbit 10-20 Paying Passengers for 8 Orbits and land them in New Zealand, Lord Branson, and Dr. Burt Rutan, and Paul Allen, and then I'll jump for joy and book a seat!"

Dr. Shulman indicated he had no criticism for the actual designs and was considering offering a $10,000,000 prize for accomplishment of 8 full, mid-altitude Orbits of the Earth in a privately designed and built space craft, along with a landing at a designated port 1/2 way around the world, with 10 passengers: as an ACSA Prize in the near future.

"This would require developing an actual transport vehicle capable of full Orbital Flight, a full enough passenger capacity, and safe, reasonable landing ability, leading to a real commercial value for the future - both for putting things in Orbit and for using Orbital Flight to beat the pants off that wonderful Concorde... But maybe $10 million is not enough of a prize for that..." Shulman added. "Or, maybe it is..."

(c) 2008  American Computer Science Association Inc.
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