To most of us, space flight might bring to mind images of Star Trek in the 24th century. But Pat Bahn, founder of TGV Rockets, thinks of the Barnstormin’ 1920’s, the hay-day of the early aviation market.
“One of the big business models was to fly up and take a picture of your house and sell it to you for $5,” he said. “That was a big deal.
“There were many many things that were done in the 1920’s that did not survive the long term test. Wing walking is not what you would call a real market. Never-the-less, many markets matured and outgrew many of the experiments of the era.”
For the past five years, TGV Rockets has been quietly working on manned suborbital space flight, and the business models required to usher in a new pioneering aerospace age. While many are already setting their sights on private manned and unmanned orbital flight, Pat Bahn believes there are plenty of opportunities below escape velocity.
“Walk before you run, sub-orbit before orbit…there are tons of things you can do with suborbital. If you just look at what’s being talked about a little bit….science and tech work, promotional work, racing and competitive activities…look at the guys at the X-Prize cup. They are talking about competitive suborbital. One of the ones we’ve talked about is maybe scattering people’s ashes at the edge of space. There are hundreds of great ideas yet to be proposed.”
Certainly that other great market of early aviation – military reconnaissance – is also not lost on TGV Rockets. A vertical flight of their proposed Michelle-B rocket from the Baghdad Airport would allow remote sensing coverage across much of Iraq. Furthermore, suborbital reconnaissance would be an “on-demand” surprise, a big advantage over the predictable orbits of spy satellites. Multiply this advantage by TGV’s design goals of a fully reusable, relocatable vehicle with multiple flights per day and this and other markets appear even more attractive.
TGV seeks a robust suborbital design, and to find markets that are possible when suborbital flight is made practical and routine. Bahn continued our 1920’s aviation analogy by saying that the TGV design goals are akin to “little tiny aircraft capable of 30-100 mile range runs on fairly reliable routine business. Basically air-mail capable aircraft. Trying to make orbit is trying to fly from LA to Tokyo.”
Bahn’s Law of Rocketry: Amateurs talk propulsion, professionals talk insurance.
One barrier to space flight today that 1920’s aviation pioneers were not overly concerned with is a highly litigious society. “Insurance is the biggest single problem with this industry,” says Bahn.
Indeed, insurance potentially poses an American disadvantage in the international space market. “I believe the insurance problems are a significant business challenge, and that insurance reflects the liability environment of the United States, and does create competitive issues. The best example of this is that the only competitive American space tourism operation to date uses Russian rockets,” he added.
TGV Rockets is in the process of designing the Michelle-B, a single stage, suborbital, manned rocket vehicle. The Michelle-B would be capable of vertical take-off, carrying one metric ton and a human crew to 100 km. She then deploys aerobraking “petals”, opening up like a flower, to slow her descent towards the ground before making a powered vertical landing. Total flight time would be eight or nine minutes.
The Michelle-B design goals take into account a few practical concerns not generally found on page one of a spacecraft design, such as the height of highway bridges. The proposed dimensions of the Michelle-B would allow it to conceivably fit inside a standard 40′ x 8′ shipping container for easy transport anywhere in the world.
Another fundamental design specification is that the Michelle-B is a crewed vehicle. That seems almost superfluous for many missions at first blush. However, this too turns out to be yet more Bahn pragmatism. In this age of unmanned sounding rockets and military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Bahn was asked ‘why take on the complications of a manned vehicle?’
“You mean a *piloted* vehicle? FAA. If you are ever going to get away from the ranges, the only way you are going to get away from the ranges is if you have a person on-board who will pay the ultimate price for mistakes…if you look at how the military flies UAVs in the United States, have you ever seen it?” he said. “They either fly them on large ranges, or they fly them with an escort ready to shoot them down.
“UAVs are lost at a staggeringly high percentage. Part of our analysis was that the only way to get off the ranges, to get off the Cape, to get off of White Sands, would be to have someone on-board. That was the only option the FAA would accept.”
Even the name of the company, TGV Rockets, emphasizes Bahn’s pragmatic operational approach. TGV is an acronym for “Two Guys and a Van”, the ultimate ground crew staffing for a spacecraft. The Michelle-B design aims for launch with a minimal ground crew to keep operational costs low, simple, and transportable. If they succeed, don’t be surprised to someday see a couple of trucks with a rocketship pass by on the highway to the county fair.