Cluster Analysis | The Economist

IT STARTED with a boom. In 1947, Chuck Yeager, a pilot of the new United States Air Force, became the first man to break the sound barrier and create a sonic one. He flew from Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, the main US center for experimental military flights. This base was safe from prying eyes and surrounded by a landscape in which a crash (and there was a lot of it) wouldn’t bother anyone except the pilot, if he couldn’t eject himself. And its very isolation fostered an intensity of purpose. It was perfect.

Others are now hoping to use that perfection to create another kind of boom, a business boom. For the Mojave Desert appears to be emerging, in the unplanned way these things will do, as the site of a group of spiritual descendants of Brigadier General Yeager. These individuals, the entrepreneurs of what has come to be known as New Space (to distinguish it from the old government-run way of doing things), are a curious cross between a starry-eyed dreamer and a man of hard-nosed affairs, often with the same individual. Their collective goal is to find new ways to enter the cosmic void and then profit from it.

Their center of activity is not really Edwards. It is still an Air Force base, and therefore beyond their limits. Instead, they gathered 30 km (20 miles) northwest, in the town of Mojave itself, around the civilian airfield, now dubbed the Mojave Air and Spaceport (see photo above ).

Currently, 17 rocket and space related companies operate in the air and space port, although not all of them are headquartered there. Some are the aerospace equivalents of the garage start-ups that brought Silicon Valley to life, but with a considerably higher probability of interesting explosions. Others are well capitalized and have been in business for some time. Most hope to make their money, at least initially, by launching satellites. Two, however, are planning to enter the glamorous business of taking tourists into the void.

The Knights’ Tour

The more advanced of the two is Scaled Composites, which was founded in 1982 by Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer, and acquired in 2007 by Northrop Grumman. Scaled Composites designed and built SpaceShipTwo, a rocket plane intended to transport paying passengers to dizzying heights of 100 km above Earth (an altitude officially defined as the inner edge of space) using what ‘a hybrid rocket engine is called.

The existing rockets are either solid fuel, with propellant and oxidizer mixed in a block, or liquid fuel, with propellant and oxidizer stored separately and then mixed in the combustion chamber of the engine. Solid fuel rockets are easy to handle on the ground, but difficult to control in flight because, once ignited, their fuel burns to exhaustion. Liquid fuel rockets are the reverse and also tend to be more powerful. SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid tries to have the best of both worlds, with a solid propellant and a liquid oxidizer. Its power can thus be regulated by modifying the flow rate of the oxidizer.

SpaceShipTwo is an air vessel. It was brought to an altitude of 15 km by a special double-hulled aircraft, with a wingspan of 43 meters (141 feet), called the White Knight Two (also built by Scaled Composites), then released to fend for itself. It was only after that that his rocket ignited for the trip to space. Two motorized test flights and numerous non-motorized glides suggest that this idea works. Virgin Galactic, a UK company founded by serial entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson who paid through its subsidiary Spaceship Company for Scaled Composites to develop the craft, plans to start flights next year for those who have the $ 250,000 needed to purchase a seat. .

Scaled Composites (and Virgin’s) main local rival in the suborbital tourism market is XCOR, led by Jeff Greason, an engineer who helped develop the Pentium microprocessor for Intel. Mr. Greason’s proposed vehicle, the Lynx, has yet to fly, although he plans to correct this omission in 2014. It is also a rocket plane. But it’s a liquid fuel machine designed to take off from a runway on its own.

SpaceShipTwo and Lynx are however toys compared to what is offered by Stratolaunch Systems. This company, Mr. Rutan’s current project (in which he collaborates with Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft), proposes to take the principle of the air rocket and push it to the limit. Mr. Rutan and Mr. Allen act as impresarios for a show that includes Scaled Composites and another well-established company, Orbital Sciences. Orbital already makes an aerial rocket, Pegasus, which is used to put satellites into orbit, and the company also has a contract to resupply the International Space Station.

Scaled Composites’ contribution will be a giant version of White Knight, called Roc. This will have a wingspan of 117 meters, making it, by that measure, the largest plane that has ever flown. Stratolaunch therefore built one of the largest aircraft hangars in the world in Mojave, to accommodate it.

The battle between rocket planes, such as SpaceShipTwo and Lynx, and the more familiar type of space rocket, a vertical cylinder with a cone at the top and engines at the bottom, dates back to the early days of serious rockets. brigadier general Yeager broke the sound barrier in a rocket plane, the Bell X-1, but it was the successor to the V2, the first long-range military rocket, designed by Wernher von Braun, which actually put rockets into orbit. satellites and astronauts – and modern versions of those are also in development at Mojave.

Masten Space Systems, the creation of David Masten, an expert engineer in project management, wants to give the traditional vertical rocket design one of the great advantages of rockets-planes over it: controlled landing. This would mean that the material now lost during launch (the rockets used to put satellites into orbit usually end up at the bottom of the sea) could be stolen over and over again. Using a series of experimental vehicles called Xombie, Xoie, Xaero and XeusMr. Masten experimented with liquid-fueled rockets that can both take off normally and land on their own, much like the lunar modules of Project Apollo.

Other companies are also trying to improve the von Braun setup. Firestar Technologies, led by Greg Mungas, is developing a liquid fuel composed of a premixed propellant and an oxidizer. It only requires one tank and no complicated mixing mechanism in the engine, which simplifies engineering. Meanwhile, Interorbital Systems, led by Roderick and Randa Milliron, is trying to modularize things, designing inexpensive little rockets that can be tied together in bundles, using as much as needed to lift a given payload into orbit.

Mojave therefore looks like a real technological cluster, with companies that are both competing and collaborating, and a mix of large and small companies. Much of the money still comes from wealthy individuals, such as Mr. Allen, who would probably not hesitate to be described as “space cadets”. But a combination of high-end tourism and the market for commercial satellite launches (worth around $ 3 billion a year) means that if they can get the right technology, some, at least, of these companies should soon to become real businesses, with appropriate income. flows and maybe even profits. To do so, however, they will have to face competition from elsewhere, as two of the tallest and wealthiest space cadets avoid the California desert.

One of them is Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Its space company is called Blue Origin and its launch facilities are located in Texas. Like Mr. Masten, but with a lot more money behind him, Mr. Bezos is working on a rocket that can both take off and land on its own. He calls him New Shepard, named after Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut.

The falcon’s prey

The other man outside of Mojave’s orbit is Elon Musk, one of the entrepreneurs behind PayPal. Mr. Musk’s company, SpaceX, is based in Hawthorne, a suburb of Los Angeles. He currently launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., And Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, just south of Kennedy Space Center, the NASA launch facility in Florida, but he and Mr. Bezos both have the All eyes on pad 39A at Kennedy, which space shuttles were once sent from. And on December 13, NASA chose SpaceX.

Mr. Musk’s route into space right now is a traditional-looking liquid-fuel rocket called the Falcon (though he’s also experimenting with a rocket, called Grasshopper, which takes off and lands under tension). And he is already well in business. The devices launched by the Falcons refueled the International Space Station and the Falcons also put two communications satellites into orbit in 2013.

Mr Musk also plans to send people into orbit, perhaps as early as 2015. And he longs to send them further than that, as his goal is ultimately set on Mars.

It is not known if there is any money to be made on Mars. A round trip would take years, so only the most dedicated tourist would be interested. And whatever minerals are on the surface, extracting them and bringing them back to Earth would be extremely expensive. Mr Musk himself has said he yearns to die there, but “not under the blow.” A retirement home for billionaires, perhaps?

Correction: The original version of this story demoted Chuck Yeager to colonel. He retired as a brigadier general. Sorry. This was corrected on January 1, 2014.

This article appeared in the Science & Technology section of the print edition under the title “Cluster Analysis”

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