Ascending into space: John Powell talks about JP Aerospace – part two

This is the second part of our interview with John Powell. The first part is here.

OotC: PongSats fly on the development missions for your other major program, Airship to Orbit (ATO). When I first heard of ATO, it struck me as a little counterintuitive – but the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a strikingly elegant concept it is. Reaching orbital velocity requires the release of a huge amount of energy, and normally it’s all released in one high-thrust eight minute roller coaster ride on the top of a rocket. But you’ve found a way that allows you to attain orbital velocity while releasing that energy gradually (and presumably at lower and safer power levels) over several days. Give us an overview of the Airship to Orbit concept.


Powell: The fun part of working in near space is that everything is counterintuitive. Stuff that should work doesn’t, and stuff that shouldn’t works great. We don’t understand this environment as much as we think we do.

We get criticized quite a bit for not giving out all the details of our approach. The odd thing is that we actually show more stuff then most of the other companies in the space community.

ATO is a huge program. It’s a long-term effort that will take decades to develop all the technology and overcome all the challenges. Fortunately we’re already well into it.

ATO is a three-part architecture. The first part is an airship that travels from the ground to 140,000 feet. The next component is a permanent station parked at 140,000 feet. The final stage is an extremely large airship that flies from the station to orbit.

The final stage airship is part airship, part airplane and rocket. High velocities don’t begin till we’re well above 200,000 feet.

We get criticized quite a bit for not giving out all the details of our approach. The odd thing is that we actually show more stuff then most of the other companies in the space community. We’ve been burned so many times in the intellectual property arena, (mostly from our own mistakes), that we now give out very little detail. Our compromise is to really show what we’ve done. Lots of pictures of our vehicles in the air and what is happening now, more pictures and less artist conceptions.

OotC: Can you tell us about how your next away missions will be validating ATO technology?

Powell: The next two Away missions are real technical jumps for us. Away 27 will test the new command/control architecture. This system should carry us through the initial crewed missions. Away 27 will also be testing a new all wind launch system. If it goes well winds delays and aborts will be a thing of the past.

We expected to have the first crewed flight under our belt by now… …The team is chomping at the bit to start flying.

The Away 28 is a development mission for Dark Sky Station. Away 28 will deploy its balloon in flight. As the vehicle climbs, more and more of the balloon is unrolled from a spindle. The system allows for deploying and retracting the balloon in flight. This tech also has application for balloons on Mars. The Dark Sky Station will have multiple gas envelopes that will need to be changed in flight. The system we are testing on Away 28 is very simple, but it’s the first step in developing the system for Dark Sky Station.

The next big development series is the Mach glider program. Mach gliders are small airships (twenty to forty feet long), that are deployed by rockets and airships. They are equipped with small rocket motors and will be one of the ATO primary research tools. Mach gliders will fly from 100,000 to 300,000 feet and velocities from mach one to mach ten. We’ve built many of the components for the first mach glider mission. We’ve also conducted some deployment tests with the flight hardware. However, we’ve moved the first flight back a year to accommodate new airship construction.

OotC: How far away are you from crewed Ascender flights to altitude? A crewed Dark Sky Station?

Powell: The first crewed vehicle will be a Dark Sky Station. The new DSS can lift the weight, but will have to be put through the paces with no one on board first. We expected to have the first crewed flight under our belt by now, but the finances were tough this year and it made us put priority on the cheaper missions.

The team is chomping at the bit to start flying. There’re so many promises and claims about when manned flight will happen in the space community that I’m not going to say when.

OotC: What kinds of commercial activity do you envision happening on a Dark Sky Station? Do you have business cases where DSS can be profitable and fund further development of ATO?

Powell: The Dark Sky Station is the perfect location for near space tourism. It amounts to space tourism without the expensive launch cost and without the zero-gee toilet. The Dark Sky Station gives a beautiful view of the black sky and the curve of the Earth. It’s standing on the deck with a drink in your hand space tourism instead of the roller coaster.

Telecommunication companies have already started talking to us about using Dark Sky Stations and Ascender airships commercially. These would be much smaller then the crewed vehicles. We haven’t closed the loop for the ATO development costs, but we’re gaining on it.

OotC: If Paul Allen came visited you with his checkbook open, how much money and time do you think it would take to complete the ATO development, and have a flying prototype in orbit?

There’s no big secret: it’s hard work and solving the problems one at a time that will make it happen.

Powell: We wouldn’t change the time line at all. There are development missions that need to be flown and steps in the process that need to be taken. More money would really help. I spend 80% of my time fundraising. It would prevent delays due to being broke, but the missions still need to be flown.

The balance of the ATO program needs 147 million dollars.

OotC: Are you interested in competing in Robert Bigelow’s America’s Space Prize orbital spaceflight competition? What do you think of it and its chances of success?

Powell: It is outside our time line, but we’re taking at shot at it anyway. Prizes are an excellent way to motivate companies to develop technology. It’s great that Bigelow has stepped up to the plate and offered the prize. The short timeline is going to be the tough part for everyone.

OotC: If people want to become involved in the ATO program, what should they do? Are there any specific skill sets you are currently looking for?

No work, no Kirk.

Powell: We’re in a bad situation right now with new volunteers. We’ve had two incidents now of people who joined, came to a couple of sessions, and then turned out to be just fishing for information and were not interested in volunteering at all. One is touting “Ah ha I now know the ATO secrets and they will never make it work” all over the web, (the weird part is he got everything, without exception, wrong), and other person works for a competitor. It’s all rather silly. There’s no big secret: it’s hard work and solving the problems one at a time that will make it happen, and really we don’t show all the IP and designs and the confidential data to new folks on day one.

We’ve had to start a “by invitation only” policy for new members until we can figure out a solution. It is difficult because it hits at the heart of what were all about: a space program that lots of people can be a part of. There are many skills that we need and many people out there that want to help, but we need to fix this problem first. Every new member signs non-disclosure documents, but without a large legal budget, such documents are just about worthless. Suggestions on this problem are welcome.

OotC: I must confess, I’m drawing a bit of a blank trying to name another aerospace company that has a house band. Tell us a bit about your relationship with Space Vacuum, and how the association came about.

Powell: We put a lot of videos on our website. They are a lot better with music. We wanted to try a co-promotion with bands. We would use the music on the videos and they would get exposure. We met Space Vacuum from Outer Space at a convention where we were giving a talk. The relationship has worked out great. They are a very cool and fun to work with. There are more music fans out there then space fans. It’s been a big success for us.

OotC: I understand that they have been booked to play a gig at Dark Sky Station, once it is emplaced at over 26 miles altitude. Is anyone welcome at that performance? (And will there be a cover charge and valet parking available?)

Powell: What better way to open the Dark Sky Station then with a Rock Concert! Are you coming?

OotC: Just as soon as I get my pressure suit tailored! :) There’s a real flurry of activity going on in the alt.space community at present – the upcoming Falcon 1 launch, America’s Space Prize and the Centennial Challenges. There is the X-Prize Cup, rocket racing, and NASA’s upcoming non-traditional procurement for ISS cargo and possibly crew delivery. What is you view of the various things going on today in the alt.space community?

Powell: The years have made me skeptical. In the last two and a half decades there have been several waves that looked like they would send us all to space. We’ll see. There a lot of good people out there working their butts off in the alt space community. I hope they all succeed.

OotC: Finally, could you give us some thoughts on NASA’s plans to return to the Moon using shuttle-derived hardware. What’s the JP Aerospace take on that?

Powell: I think the new NASA administrator is making a noble effort in the right direction. However, I don’t think they’re going to pull it off. If they just keep at it they have a chance. NASA’s problem is not technology, it is following through. If we’re going to space, it’s up to the private folks. Build spaceships. Remember: no work, no Kirk.

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