Speaking of Big Bangs, I’ve been corresponding with Luke Colby, one of the lead propulsion engineers working on SpaceShipTwo, aka SS2, for Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic. SS2 is on the verge of inaugurating regular passenger service to the final frontier with an air-launched, rocket powered airplane. In fact, the ship’s first flight to space could come as early as…this morning.
I imagine that Mr. Colby is pretty busy at the moment prepping for launch day, but when he’s not so busy at Scaled, he’s busy doing what may turn out to be even more important work in the quest to take spaceflight from niche market to one of the world’s biggest economies.
Every successful industry needs a network of suppliers and behind-the-scenes innovators making possible the big, high-profile successes. Apple, for example, has built its computer and mobile empire on components built by other, less-well-known companies.
The spaceflight industry has until recently been a rarified ecosystem of big-ticket defense contractors and monopolists who have been able to charge what they want, because their customers have been major governments and corporations. In such an environment, innovation has stagnated.
Now, with the proliferation of so-called NewSpace companies like Virgin Galactic, there’s a market for suppliers who can provide good quality products at low cost.
As Downes and Nunes point out in their book, Big Bang Disruption (which hit shelves this week) today’s exponential innovation economy breaks the venerable paradigm that you can offer cheap products or high quality products, but not both in the same package. As new technologies both improve at an exponential rate and fall in price, new opportunities are created for small, nimble companies and entrepreneurs like Colby who can outrun and outperform the incumbents.
Colby’s startup, Rocket Thermodynamicx, provides off-the-shelf availability and pricing for rocket motor components. The company isn’t trying to make headlines; they just want to provide the foundation for others to do so. Its first product is a valve for suborbital sounding rockets. Universities are among the customers who may now be able to afford their own space programs.
“Affordable off-the-shelf rocket parts are sorely lacking. It was this deficiency in the market that was one of the primary motivations for developing a lower cost product that can be made inexpensively enough to stock the item rather than have to make them to order with 12-16 week lead times. Furthermore, this was also the impetus behind offering our products in an online store, with upfront pricing; the quotation process is a HUGE frustration for anyone working in Aerospace.”