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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Reading List: They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus

Weil, Elizabeth. They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus. New York: Bantam Books, 2002. ISBN 978-0-553-38236-5.
For technologists and entrepreneurs, the latter half of the 1990s was a magical time. The explosive growth in computing power available to individuals, the global interconnectivity afforded by the Internet, and the emergence of broadband service with the potential to make the marginal cost of entry as a radio or video broadcaster next to zero created a vista of boundless technological optimism. Companies with market valuations in the billions sprang up like mushrooms despite having never turned a profit (and in some cases, before delivering a product), and stock-option paper millionaires were everywhere, some sporting job titles which didn't exist three years before.

In this atmosphere enthusiasms of all kinds were difficult to restrain, even those more venerable than Internet start-ups, and among people who had previously been frustrated upon multiple occasions. So it was that as the end of the decade approached, Gary Hudson, veteran of three earlier unsuccessful commercial space projects, founded Rotary Rocket, Inc. with the goal of building a reusable single-stage-to-orbit manned spacecraft which would reduce the cost of launching payloads into low Earth orbit by a factor of ten compared to contemporary expendable rockets (which, in turn, were less expensive than NASA's Space Shuttle). Such a dramatic cost reduction was expected to immediately generate substantial business from customers such as Teledesic, which originally planned to launch 840 satellites to provide global broadband Internet service. Further, at one tenth the launch cost, space applications which were not economically feasible before would become so, expanding the space market just as the comparable collapse in the price of computing and communications had done in their sectors.

Hudson assembled a team, a mix of veterans of his earlier ventures, space enthusiasts hoping to make their dreams a reality at last, hard-nosed engineers, and seasoned test pilots hoping to go to space, and set to work. His vision became known as Roton, and evolved to be an all-composite structure including tanks for the liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants, and a unique rotary engine at the base of the conical structure which would spin to create the pressure to inject propellants into 96 combustors arrayed around the periphery, eliminating the need for heavy, complicated, and prone-to-disintegrate turbopumps. The crew of two would fly the Roton to orbit and release the payload into space, then make a de-orbit burn. During re-entry, a water-cooled heat shield on the base of the cone would protect the structure from heating, and when atmospheric density was sufficient, helicopter-like rotor blades would deploy from the top of the cone. These blades would be spun up by autorotation and then, shortly before touchdown, tip jets powered by hydrogen peroxide would fire to allow a controlled powered approach and precision landing. After a mission, one need only load the next payload, refill the propellant tanks, and brief the crew for the next flight. It was estimated one flight per day was achievable with a total ground staff of fewer than twenty people.

This would have been revolutionary, and there were many, some with forbidding credentials and practical experience, who argued that it couldn't possibly work, and certainly not on Hudson's schedule and budget of US$ 150 million (which is closer to the sum NASA or one of its contractors would require to study such a concept, not to actually build and fly it). There were many things to worry about. Nothing like the rotary engine had ever been built, and its fluid mechanical and thermal complexities were largely unknown. The heat shield was entirely novel, and there was no experience as to how it would perform in a real world environment in which pores and channels might clog. Just getting to orbit in a single stage vehicle powered by LOX and kerosene was considered impossible by many, requiring a structure which was 95% propellant at launch. Even with composite construction, nobody had achieved anything close to this mass fraction in a flight vehicle.

Gary Hudson is not just a great visionary; he is nothing if not persuasive. For example, here is a promotional video from 1998. He was able, over the history of the project, to raise a total of US$ 30 million for the project from private investors (disclosure: myself included), and built an initial atmospheric test vehicle intended to validate the helicopter landing system. In 1999, this vehicle made three successful test flights, including a hop up and down and a flight down the runway.

By this point in 1999, the technology bubble was nearing the bursting point and perspicacious investors were already backing away from risky ventures. When it became clear there was no prospect to raise sufficient funds to continue, even toward the next milestone, Hudson had no option but to lay off staff and eventually entirely shutter the company, selling off its remaining assets (but the Roton ATV can be seen on display at the Mojave Spaceport).

There are any number of “business books” written about successful ventures, often ghostwritten for founders to show how they had a unique vision and marched from success to success to achieve their dream. (These so irritated me that I strove, in my own business book, to demonstrate from contemporary documents, the extent to which those in a technological start-up grope in the dark with insufficient information and little idea of where it's going.) Much rarer are accounts of big dreams which evoked indefatigable efforts from talented people and, despite all, ended badly. This book is a superb exemplar of that rare genre. There are a few errors of fact, and from time to time the author's description of herself among the strange world of the rocket nerds is a bit precious, but you get an excellent sense of what it was like to dream big, how a visionary can inspire people to accomplish extraordinary things, and how an entrepreneur must not only have a sound technical foundation, a vision of the future, but also have kissed the Barnum stone to get the job done.

Oddly, the book contains no photographs of this unique and stunning vehicle or the people who built it.

Posted at October 20, 2013 22:02