Forging Plowshares into Spears

by Dale M. Gray

One of mankind's oldest phrases is "Forging plowshares out of spears" (Isaiah 2:4). It conjures an image of an ancient soldier returning home to the farm after the war. You can almost see the fellow returning to his old life. Hitching up the family oxen to the crude wooden plow, he gets about 10 cubits down the field when the thing gets stuck in the mud. Swearing a blue streak, the ex-soldier extracts the plow and once again sets out to furrow a field. But the plow gets stuck once again. Being a man of action, he leaves the plow stuck in the ground and marches to the nearest town. There he enters th army surplus store and buys a slightly used hammer, some serviceable forge equipment and a supply of army surplus iron. His dad and neighbors watch him set up a iron smithy and comment "how's they've never used metal on a plow -- don't seem natural-like". The man uses skills he learned in the army to fashion a slick ripper point for the plow. Dad and cronies follow the veteran to the field and watch in slack-jaw amazement as he cuts row after row of straight furrows across the field in the time it would take them to get unstuck once. By week's end, the soldier is in business building plow tips for every farmer in the valley. The same thing is going on in adjacent valleys who also have soldiers home from the war. Farmers are able to quadruple their acreage. Although barley prices drop when the biggest crop in history rolls in, farmers still double their income. Housewives in the city suddenly have cheaper grain and can feed their families better. Indeed, both farmer and wife begin buying things with their extra money. A money economy develops and the good times roll.

The image evoked is that of a military frontier technology crossing over into civilian life and sparking an economic frontier. Analysis of a variety of frontier activities reveal that society evolves from activities in five major frontier systems: Political, bureaucratic, military, economic and social. Each has its particular strengths and weaknesses. Frontiers can work in concert or one can serve as a sub-set of another. For example military frontiers are often subsets of political or bureaucratic frontiers). Often the line between the frontiers is indistinct and transfer occurs.

If you think about it, there is no way on God's green Earth that a bunch of Hittite farmers would ever be able to pool enough resources to develop an iron plowshare on their own. They could not develop the mines and manufacturing plants, assemble the talent necessary for materials research, nor develop the large industrial infrastructure necessary to produce cheap iron. A more likely scenerio is that iron working was a product of war.. The war caused the nation's full force to be directed toward developing an ultimate weapon that no one could defeat -- iron tipped spears. In abstract terms, a military frontier was able to cross over a very high Launch Bar (defined below). If the war is a success, at war's end there is a surplus of iron and a infrastructure in place ready to produce more. The government then utilizes the private sector to get rid of surpluses materials and to keep the manufacturing infrastructure intact -- ready for the next war. A more recent example might be when the art of casting cannons was kept alive during peacetime by the conversion of foundries to casting church bells (how could even a wealthy church possibly finance the technological innovations necessary for the casting of giant bells?). The evolution of airplanes and rockets serve as even more recent examples.

One of the most common complaints about the current space frontier is that it isn't progressing as fast as the aviation frontier. By analyzing the two frontier histories in light of the above example, we can see that the aviation frontier had the advantage of the rapid developments of World War I, World War II, and the Korean Conflict / Cold War. About half of the 20th Century was devoted to conflicts in which militaries sought ultimate weapons. Aircraft were used, destroyed or cast aside to make way for a new generation.

So too has the development of the rocket profited from war and threat of war. Solid-fuel rockets have long been a minor tool of war. Rockets used in World War I were little changed from those mentioned in the Star Spangled Banner. Enter World War II. The Nazi war machine was well aware of the potentials of Goddard's rockets and made the development of liquid-powered rockets a national priority. The V-2 rocket could deliver bombs rapidly from a great distance and strike with no warning. Peenemeunde and the infamous Dora were meat-grinders that swallowed men and materials in Himmler's push to get the V-2 into production. Failures occurred, but the military would not be deterred. Scientists learned from the mistakes and pushed on with ever increasing budgets until the problems were solved and the rocket went into production. Although 2,000 people died from the 1,000 V-2 rockets launched toward England, more died in Germany from the creation of the rocket. As a result of this maniacal development pace, in only four years, the state of the art of rocketry went from Goddard's awkward frameworks to the powerful V-2, capable of reaching space itself. (Huntsville Times 02/28/2000)

The state of the art of rocketry did not immediately enter the commercial sector. The Germans lost the war and their rocket technology. In the competition of the Cold War, development was once again pushed forward. Former Nazi scientists were reharnessed into development of US and USSR missile programs, albeit at a much cooler pace. In the 1960s, the military rocketry frontier crossed over into both political and commercial frontiers. Politicians waged symbolic war in the race to the Moon. Military ICBMs were pressed into service and rapidly evolved as humans entered orbit and landed on the Moon only eight years after President Kennedy set the goal. A few modified ICBMs were also put into service delivering commercial communication and spy satellites into orbit. However, most of the rockets were carefully tended in bunkers, thankfully unused. With so many rockets in storage, there was actually a pressure inhibiting evolution -- though Cold War fears did add a new generation of missiles in new bunkers from time to time.

With the end of the Cold War in 1990, we suddenly had an immense surplus ICBMs and rocket plants with no reason to stay open. The Challenger disaster created a renewed market for commercial satellites. Up till then, the Shuttle was envisioned to be capable of delivering all the commercial and military satellites needed by the US. After Challenger, surplus Atlas, Titan and Delta rockets were pressed into service launching satellites. When inventories began to be depleted, assembly lines were dusted off and new Atlas and Delta rockets began to be produced. With new production came new ability to tweak designs to make them more efficient, new technologies could be employed throughout the design and manufacturing process.

We are the modern Hittites forging the tools of war into the tools of trade. Information has replaced grain, but our economy is thriving in part because of the commercial satellites in orbit delivering information rapidly and cheaply into our offices and our homes. However, no one can deny that without the military development of the rocket, there would have been no rocket technology and no industrial launch infrastructure. Can anyone picture Ma Bell or RCA knocking on Goddard's door and asking him if they could spend billions of dollars on rocket technology so they could launch communication satellites. Not likely. Germans enjoyed pointing out how little America cared for Goddard's achievements at the end of the 1930s. It took the unrelenting goal orientation of the military and the ultra-deep pockets of national economies to produce a rocket capable of entering space.

Understanding Launch Bars

In the past few years, the space activist community and the commercial space community have been seeking Cheap Access to Space (CATS). Many believe, and have pledged their personal fortunes, that technologies such as Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLVs) and Single Stage to Orbit (SSOs) systems are vital to lowering the Launch Bar of commercial space activity.

The Launch Bar is indeed the key to understanding the frontier development of space. This term was suggested by Robert Oler in 1994 during discussions in the CompuServe Spaceflight and Florida Today forums. In its simplest form it refers to the combined costs of setting up business, producing a product and getting it to market for the first time. In 1849, the Launch Bar for the California Gold Rush was the cost of a wagon, team and supplies, the sweat to cross a continent, the money to buy a prospector's outfit, the grubstake to keep the prospector alive while he learned the skills and managed to stumble onto a gold strike. Added to this is the cost of developing a claim, gathering the gold and any transportation costs associated with carrying the gold back to civilization.

There is a big difference in the Launch Bar if there are established trails and roads, newspapers publicizing the strike, legal protection of claims and efficient tools to remove the gold. Simply put these factors fall under three headings: Technology, Legislation, and Charisma (TLC). These factors can and do move the Launch Bar up and down. This, as it turns out, is important. If you want to survive on the frontier, you had better understand frontier Launch Bars.

The height of a Launch Bar is directly related to two aspects of economic frontiers: speed of development and number of participants. The higher the Bar, the slower the frontier develops. Getting into a space-based enterprise may cost $400 million just to get started. On the other hand, a person can start an e-Bay based business with a $400 used computer system. The Internet has advanced so fast in the past five years that it can no longer be classified as a frontier, but is constantly spinning off secondary frontiers. Space on the other hand has an extremely high Launch Bar and as a result evolves extremely slowly. Iridium was not aware of this when they scheduled their first payment on their loans. Relatively minor technical delays pushed the onset of a revenue stream well after the first note came due. Chapter 11 bankruptcy was the direct result.

The second important aspect of Launch Bars is the number of participants. The higher the Launch Bar the fewer the participants. This is vital for commercial frontiers. Failure rates for front-line frontier activities is estimated to be around 90 percent. As a result, as the launch bar goes up, fewer individuals, companies and conglomerates have enough surplus cash to risk on frontier development. When billions of dollars are at stake, only the "best of the best" of conventional approaches can be attempted. Often the threshold is so high, only a handful of participants throw their hats into the ring. If the threshold rises due to changes in legislation or difficult technological challenges, participants either join forces or fold out of the game. With low threshold frontiers such as the Internet, failure is shrugged off and something else is tried. Remember all those funny-looking early airplanes and race cars? The ability to fail gives freedom to try a wide variety of approaches to problems.

This is known as the shotgun approach. It can be visualized as a thousand miners climbing over a frontier mountain. Each one digs a hole at a likely spot. However, most excavations on the mountain will just be holes. Others show some promise and are subject to further development. A few of these actually "pan-out" as producing mines. the system does not necessarily need experts or experience to succeed, but it does need access to a venture capital once the discoveries are made.

For a commercial enterprise to pass over the Launch Bar requires capital. At different levels, different fiscal devices are available. These steps usually involve incorporation, debt financing, Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) and other fiscal devices that trade control or share in future profits for access to development funding. In some cases, the company has to forge a conduit to the public treasury to get their operation off the ground. When the Launch Bar is too high and fiscal resources too low, participants will often join forces to get over the bar (The merger of PrimeStar with DirecTV). This increases their survival odds, but at the same time reduces the number of approaches to the problem.

The Launch Bar for Cheap Access To Space (CATS) is indeed high and raising capital has been problematic for start-up companies. There are less than a dozen viable contenders. Kistler, Beal, Rotary Rocket, Kelly Space, Universal Spacelines and a small handful of other start-up companies are attempting to privately fund CATS. Every milestone of development has come with the price of a pound of flesh. Funding is in place for many of the companies, but it is thin enough that even minor set-backs can put them out of the game.

Another approach is to develop infrastructure in already active frontiers and use designed evolution to cross over the Bar and into the new frontier. A good example might be the conversion of radio stations to television stations in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Orbital Sciences is moving into the RLV competition using variations of their established Pegasus launcher. However, the Launch Bar is so steep that they have had to fund it through an $85 million NASA development program and that doesn't include the development of the Fastrac engine to be used in the vehicle!

A third approach is that of the X-33 prototype of the Lockheed Martin VentureStar. This vehicle seeks to develop an Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) system by developing advanced technology. However, the price tag for such an approach is far beyond that of any megacorporation of the 20th Century. As a result, the approach cannot be viewed as a viable entry into the economic frontier competition. Rather, it is a different breed of cat altogether, the product of a political frontier. If, and/or when, it succeeds, the infrastructure developed may be transferred into the commercial sector, but it cannot be viewed as a participant in the current commercial CATS effort. Political frontiers are notorious in their short attention span and high price tags. They can bring success in programs such as Apollo, but they are equally likely to drop the ball just as success is reached (okay Apollo again).

This brings me back to the current need for Cheap Access to Space and perhaps a heresy on my part.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Launch Bar for CATS is very high indeed. This is reflected in both the slow speed it is moving forward and the few remaining viable participants. While many wait in the wings, they will progress no further until someone gets over the bar. Then investors may come forward with the funds for development. No one has come close to the threshold and a number of significant challenges remain for the best of the entries. With the high Launch Bar, there may not be enough participants left to assure that one has the technological approach, management system and good fortune to get over the Bar. Don't assume these enterprising free-enterprising companies are out for the count, but perhaps it is time to hedge our bets.

Perhaps it is time to beat our plowshares back into swords.

By this, I mean, we should reexamine the reintroduction of military frontier development into the development of launch infrastructure. Indeed, though it is peacetime, the military has not quit pushing for advances. The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) competition which is producing the Delta IV and Atlas V is a classic example of military frontier advancements. Using the Russian-derived RD-180 upper stage rocket engine, the Atlas V "double dips" by creating a hybrid from the military heritage of both the US and USSR military space programs.

One of the viable commercial RLV entries, the Kistler approach, seeks to tap into a former military frontier with their entry. Soviet military technology in the form of the NK-33 and NK-43 rocket engines will power their entry, then be returned to earth using parachutes and airbags to cushion the landing.

It may not be enough to adapt antique military technologies from the Cold War. The path over the Launch Bar may require an active military frontier.

No I am not advocating war -- far be it. I would rather space percolate along slowly than to repeat the horrors of Dora or the near-bankruptcy of the Cold War. However, the preparation for war is an entirely different matter. Many Cold-War weapon systems did their job without ever being used in anger against an enemy. Further, war is rarely fought between two forces of significantly different power. I am not saying it is fair, but radical advantage on one side actually reduces the threat of war (tyrants excluded).

What we need then, is a military mission that requires rapid response time and the safe delivery of small packages (initially) through reusable ballistic or orbital launch systems. Something that could be developed through a series of hurdles and potential failures by the military. Perhaps something with strategic value in the immediate support of ground forces anywhere on Earth. Any private corporation contracted to build such a system could hardly miss seeing the potential for use by the private sector. Federal Express has built a global business on one day service. There is an identified market for two hour global delivery service. The military would have built the infrastructure. This infrastructure could cross over to the private sector through the private contractors who built the systems. The Launch Bar would be crossed. From there, directed evolution of the market place could increase the power and the capability of the systems. Supply of ISS or Mir, for example, would be a relatively easy secondary frontier spawned by the first.

As usual, the military is marching ahead of the historian. On March 4 as I prepared this article, I read in SpaceFlight Now and that Boeing and Thiokol Propulsion are teaming to produce a military system with many of these characteristics. Using a winged three-stage Thiokol rocket launched from a Boeing 747, the AirLaunch system is touted by Boeing to be able to deliver 3,000 kg to LEO with launch on demand. It is primarily designed for launching the proposed USAF Space Maneuver Vehicle. However, Boeing is quick to advertise that it can also deliver commercial payloads using the Conventional Payload Module. It is not a RLV or an SSTO. At worst it will provide competition for the Orbital Sciences Pegasus system, at best it may just be the missing link to CATS.

I still believe that commercial evolution of space enterprises is the preferred method of moving our society into orbit and beyond. One way to improve the odds of success is to pull commercial Launch Bar down through changes in the Legislative environment. This next week I will be in Washington D. C. lobbying as part of ProSpace's March Storm. We will be briefing legislative offices on the Prospace Commercial Space Transportation Investment Incentives Act of 1999 or better put "Zero-G, Zero tax". By making investment money easier to obtain, some of the start-up CATS companies may just make it over the Launch Bar.

The movement of our society into a space-faring civilization is not a small undertaking. Indeed, future historians will rank its significance above Columbus and on parr with early humanity's first expansion out of Africa. The magnitude of the change is such that may well take a concerted effort of all five Frontier systems. The economic frontier system, may take the lead, but it is rift with risk and success is by no means assured. Cross-over from Military, Bureaucratic, Political and even Social frontiers will be necessary in supporting our society's expansion into space. In the race towards Cheap Access to Space, the economic frontier is already faltering. Perhaps it is time to"Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears" (Joel 3:10).