Chasing the Challenge

“Masten Space Applauds NASA’s New Suborbital Challenges”
“Santa Clara, California – 10/19/05 Masten Space Systems announced today that it strongly supported the recent agreement between NASA and the X PRIZE Foundation to develop two suborbital Centennial Challenges and that, pending announcements on rules, it looked forward to participating.”

So reads the opening paragraph of a recent press release from Masten Space Systems (MSS). Originally announcing their interests at the recent X Prize Cup event in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the press release reaffirms that decision.

Jonathan A. Goff, an engineer with Masten Space Systems, Inc. agreed to do an interview with Out of the Cradle to discuss the challenge, Masten Space and the industry in general.

OotC: The first vehicle in the fleet for Masten Space Systems is dubbed XA 1.0 (eXtreme Altitude). It is a vertical take-off/vertical landing (VTVL), sub-orbital, single stage craft, can you give us a peek at some of the specifications for the craft such as dimensions, payload size, fuel type, and into what we might expect “Extreme Altitude” to translate?

Jon: Well, the XA-1.0 is a Liquid Oxygen-Isopropyl Alcohol powered VTVL space vehicle, which has the public goal of being able to take 100kg of payload on a suborbital trajectory of at least 100km. The vehicle will be a little bit over 20 feet from base to tip, and about 5.5 feet in diameter. We don’t have final figures for the mass budget, but we’re probably talking about something in the range of 9000-10,000lb GLOW, (Gross Lift Off Weight). The final dimensions of the payload bay aren’t out, but it will have the same base diameter as the vehicle, and will likely be 5 feet tall or more. Basically, it’ll be fairly spacious for this sort of payload. Most sounding rocket payloads to date have had to cram themselves into long skinny payload sections, which tends to make packaging more of a hassle.

As for the “eXtreme Altitude” name, we plan on trying to improve the basic XA-1.0 design until it is capable of taking payloads to as high as 500km. Our target for what we’re calling XA-1.5 is 200kg to 500km, but that depends on how well we can solve the issues of higher altitude suborbital reentries. The big problem with higher altitude suborbital flight is that when you come back in a nearly vertical trajectory from these higher altitudes, you hit the atmosphere fast and have a very short amount of time to slow down. The peak heating loads can actually exceed those seen in a ballistic orbital reentry, and the peak G’s can get high really fast. We have some plans for how to go about solving those problems, but we have to get XA-1.0 developed first before any of that matters.

OotC: The VTVL concept has a fairly large following and other designs such as the DCX and Japanese RVT vehicles have a conical shape yet the initial impression of your craft’s profile can be best described as that of a beer can. What were the special engineering concerns with regard to center of gravity, landing gear, etc. as relating to stability in those vertical take-offs and landings?

Jon: It’s interesting to note that our vehicle’s aspect ratio (the length divided by the base diameter) is actually not that different from DC-X. That said, I’m not the aerodynamicist, but as I understand it, the shape we chose happens to be a very well studied shape that has a lot of previous data on it, making our design a bit easier. Also, it makes manufacturing the tanks and innards of the vehicle substantially easier, at least for XA-1.0. For other vehicles, we may have to do things differently, but this should make our lives easier the first time around.

The vehicle is slightly unstable on the way up, but we have plenty of control authority from the vernier engines. On the way down we use a few deployable drag brakes to help insure that the vehicle is ballistically stable. That’s about all I can really say about the aerodynamics.

OotC: With expected turn-around time between launches of a couple hours and the reuse of the engines measured not in single digits or low 10’s but in the high hundreds of uses, what performance compromises such as payload sizes, had to be made to reach those benchmarks?

Jon: I’ll address the engines first; as that is one of the areas we’ve been doing a lot of work in recently. While we don’t have the final numbers for turnaround time and engine lifetime, we’re actively working toward those goals. The engine fabrication style we’re using (a variant of the Chamber-Saddle-Jacket approach used by Swiss Propulsion Labs and XCOR) is a bit heavier than more traditional tube-wall or milled channel type chambers, but there’s good reason to believe that they can deliver much longer operating lifetimes and lower fabrication costs. We’re also going with a relatively low chamber pressure compared to traditional aerospace groups, which tends to help enhance engine lifetimes by quite a bit.

Both of these choices lead to engines with lower T/W ratios, and slightly lower Isp numbers than traditional rocket engines. The lower engine performance requires you to carry more propellants for the same mission profile, but for suborbital vehicles, it really isn’t a big hassle. The mass ratios needed to deliver 100kg to 100km really aren’t that challenging by aerospace standards. More importantly, it’s a lot easier to take a reliable, easy-to-use engine, and make it lighter, than to take a complicated, ultra-light-weight engine and make it reliable and easy-to-use.

As for the overall vehicle operations, the biggest tradeoff is development cost and added dry mass. We’re trying to keep the development cost down by doing things in an incremental build-a-little, test-a-little, fly-a-little fashion. While our first XA-0.1 vehicle might not be the easiest thing in the world to work with, you can be sure that by the time XA-1.0 is finally flying that it will have benefited from dozens of flights worth of operational experience. The dry mass hit does mean that we will likely tend to have a much smaller payload to GLOW ratio compared to most expendable vehicles, but that really isn’t what matters. What matters to a customer is cost, services, ease-of-use, and flight frequency.

OotC: What sort of control systems will the XA vehicles have? Are you looking at having a pilot in-the-loop (if not on the vehicle), or full autonomy? What influenced the choice?

Jon: As I understand it, for XA-1.0, we’ll have a pilot in-the-loop, but not onboard the vehicle. The computer will be given a preprogrammed flight plan, and it will execute that, unless the pilot takes over. Even then, the computer will still perform stability augmentation stuff, but the pilot can make decisions on where to steer toward, and what the right thing to do about that flashing light is. Down the road, we’d like to put the pilot onboard the vehicle. We do eventually plan on doing manned flights with the XA-1.0 or the XA-1.5, and the XA-1.0 is specifically sized to fit someone the size of my boss comfortably. However, we want to make sure that the rest of our system is working safely and reliably before we try to put people on board.

OotC: Is MSS fully funded for XA-1.0 development?

Jon: We are funded through a significant part of our R&D development path but we will need to bring in outside capital to finish XA 1.0 on schedule and with the performance we need. Michael Mealling, (our VP for Business Development) is the one to speak with if anyone wants further information about that.

OotC: With none of the principal management team exactly what you’d call “crusty gray-beards,” is the environment more of a “California laid-back” or how would your describe the work atmosphere?

Jon: We’ve got a rather eclectic bunch working here, but yeah I’d say it is a very laid-back work environment compared with traditional aerospace companies. We’re still learning how to strike that critical balance between having just enough structure to make sure things work smoothly but not enough to stifle innovation, however we’re getting more and more into a decent groove for development. It is a challenge some days to make sure we don’t get too far off onto tangents about arcane economic theories, polycentral legalism, space development, or foreign policy, but we tend to have a lot of fun and, more importantly, make decent progress.

OotC: As we currently understand the two new Centennial contests, (pending the actual release of the contest rules), do you see any additional engineering challenges facing the XA 1.0 design, to meet the requirements of the contest?

Jon: Depends a lot on the contest rules honestly. If they ask for 1600km for the high altitude suborbital contest for example, that’ll probably require us designing a reusable upper stage. 1600km requires about as much energy as getting to orbit, and the reentry environment is probably heinous. If they ask for something closer to 500km or so we should have a good shot at it. It’ll take some serious TPS development work, and maybe even some redesign of the aeroshell (to lower the ballistic coefficient), and maybe even some other tricks, but it’s something we’re now planning on giving a shot.

As for the lunar lander prize, a lot also depends on the rules. We would love to eventually work on lunar landing equipment, and something like this prize would definitely encourage us to move that up on the development schedule. As a side note, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past several years studying and advocating commercial development. Our VP of Business Development, Michael Mealling, has also been heavily involved in the leadership of several lunar oriented groups (like the Artemis Society and the Moon Society). So, yeah we have a lot of interest in commercial lunar development here at MSS, and we’re really thrilled that NASA may actually be doing something smart to help make commercial lunar development more of a reality.
As for engineering challenges, unless there are a bunch of requirements in the final rules that haven’t been mentioned yet, it should only be a bit more challenging than what we’re already planning on doing for XA-1.0. It’ll require some work or some cleverness (or likely a lot of both), but I feel it’s not too far from what we’re trying to do for XA-1.0 and XA-1.5.

OotC: I gather that MSS intends to operate its own vehicles. Would you consider becoming more of a vehicle manufacturer, in the future, and selling vehicles to other operators?

Jon: While we would be interested in selling vehicles, I’m not sure if we’d want to become just a manufacturing outfit. I’m a Manufacturing Engineer by trade, so I’m not too opposed, but we might just license production out to someone else if we have enough demand. Not sure yet to be honest, we’ll have to see.

OotC: On the company’s website, it is said MSS is targeting a cost of $300 per Kilogram (2.2 lbs.) for payload, which is estimated to even fit the K-12 education market. This question is coming from a guy who, while in high school saw the introduction of consumer level pocket calculators. You’re a bit younger than me, but stepping back from the adult engineer for a moment, how sweet would that be as a 16 or 17 year old, to see your high school science project launched on a sub-orbital flight?

Jon: Dang Sweet. Seriously, there’s been a lot of talk over the years about using space to try and encourage kids to get interested in math and science and engineering. However the odds of actually becoming an astronaut and then flying even one spaceflight for NASA is less than the odds of becoming an NBA basketball player. Actually having the opportunity to build and fly something into space is, I think, going to be a lot more personally exciting to high school kids than reading endless numbers of pithy NASA-PR hype, glitzy IMAX movies, or watching government employees position flags on other worlds. But that’s just my rather biased and self-serving opinion.

OotC: At $300 per kilo I’m tempted to fly a small payload myself, just for the souvenir value. (As an aside, you’ll know you’re doing your job of opening the frontier properly when flown items become so common that they lose their value). When do you expect to be making the first revenue-generating flights?

Jon: Our first revenue generating spaceflights are scheduled to start some time in 2007. If someone wants to pay us to do flights previous to that for one reason or another, we can probably arrange a deal. We have no qualms with making revenue before we get all the way into operations, especially if it helps create more demand for the operational vehicle.

OotC: Alt. Space engineering appears to be an up and coming occupation, how does a guy holding a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Bachelor’s degree in Manufacturing Engineering from Brigham Young University land such a cool job, working on such cool projects?

Jon: I don’t actually have that Master’s Degree yet, since I still haven’t had time to finish doing my thesis project (which unfortunately isn’t rocketry related), however I can tell you a little bit about how I landed the job. Briefly put, I decided to do a project at the university related to finding a way to automate parts of the rocket injector design process for pintle injectors. I had been involved on various space related newsgroups and fora over the years, and had heard about the Space Access conference, so I contacted Henry Vanderbuilt and asked if I could give a brief presentation about my work. He consented, and after my presentation some longhaired, computer-savvy rocket nerds came up to ask me some questions about my presentation. We ended up collaborating a bit further on the project over the next several months, and when I went on a trip out to visit various rocket companies and organizations in California that summer I stopped by the shop for their rocket club. They showed me some engines that they were working on for a VTVL peroxide monoprop demonstrator called POGO. A few months later I went to a “Business Plan Competition” meeting there at BYU (promising myself that this year I wasn’t going to come up with an idea and end up wasting hours and hours and hours like I had last year, and that I really was only going to the meeting to score some free pizza). But alas, I soon had a pesky idea jump into my head. So I shot an email off to Pierce Nichols (one of those longhaired, computer-savvy rocket nerds from the conference), to see what he thought of the idea. He mentioned that he was already involved with a startup doing just that. Before you know it, we were sitting around a table in Santa Clara with the other longhaired computer-savvy rocket nerd (my boss, Dave Masten), planning the start of Masten Space Systems as a cofounder. And it’s been a crazy ride ever since.

OotC: As it relates to the work you do today, what one thing do you thank your lucky stars for gaining from your education at BYU?

Jon: I’m not sure if there’s any one specific thing at BYU that I learned that sticks out, but if I had to pick something, it would have to be the basic entrepreneurial background knowledge I got from some of the MBA classes I took for fun during my undergrad and graduate studies. Most MBA courses are worse than useless, but BYU has a very good Center for Entrepreneurship, and I really owe a lot to some of the entrepreneurially-focused classes that the MBA program put on because of that. All the engineering in the world won’t bring real space development into being without solid business skills and wild, entrepreneurial wheeling-and-dealing going on at the same time.

OotC: By the same token, what one thing most caught you by surprise regarding the work you do today?

Jon: Maybe just how broad of a field engineering really is. There are so many various disciplines that tie together in the development of a rocket vehicle. As I mentioned in the answer to the previous question, it isn’t just engineering disciplines either. At this stage in the industry, unless you have a huge amount of money from somewhere else, get used to becoming a jack-of-all trades. You may be doing CAD work one hour, electrical wiring the next, using a die-grinder to fix a design error later, and then the next day be doing safety documentation for a potential test site, or helping the marketing guy get the promotional material and graphics just right. It’s a dang cool mix, and keeps you on your toes.

OotC: How does it feel, going to work every day knowing that the vehicles and systems you are building are actually destined to go into space? And that what you are doing at MSS is right at the vanguard of efforts to open up a whole new frontier?

Jon: It’s really cool to be honest. When you finally have a system debugged and it works the way it’s supposed to, it is always kind of impressive to think that you’ve actually built functioning rocket hardware. When we had our first 500lbf engine test firing a bit ago, I was standing up on a hill about a quarter mile away from the stand. When the sound of the engine firing hit me (and trust me, it was powerful enough that you could feel it, not just hear it), the thought went through my mind “holy crap, I built that!” It’s an amazing feeling indeed.

OotC: Finally, in closing, do you have any thoughts or advice to those high school students looking to join you in the alt. space engineering fraternity?

Jon: Find a project and then go do it. Find a mentor if you can, some sort of patron saint who can hook you up with raw material and know-how. Do cool stuff. Learn how to build real test hardware. Make sure you can handle yourself around a machine shop, behind a CAD package, with a soldering iron. Even if it is in another field, hands-on-experience with stuff like cars, planes, and boats is very valuable. One of the best engineers on our team was a gear-head who cut his teeth on making racing modifications for his cars. Even if you end up doing mostly engineering or business related stuff, knowing how to do the gritty technical stuff will make you that much better of an engineer (or even a business person in this industry).

If you want to work in this industry, also make sure you’re at least going to the annual Space Access Conference down in Phoenix. Make friends with some entrepreneurs. Find a local entrepreneurs’ roundtable, and hang out with them. Learn to speak their language. Volunteer to help them do menial stuff in exchange for some mentorship. Learn how to create win-win business deals. Learn how to communicate with others. Learn how to be confident without being an arrogant pain in the backside. Be at least slightly ADD.

You probably don’t need to do all of the above to get into the fraternity, but those were my thoughts.

Out of the Cradle would like to thank Jon and Masten Space systems for a look inside a company that is willing to take the “Challenge.”

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