Radian’s Laden Spaceplane; A LEO Economy?

Radian’s Laden Spaceplane; A LEO Economy?

From a May 2011 press release titled “Confidence in Skylon”:

“The UK Space Agency’s commissioned report concluded that ‘no impediments or critical items have been identified for either the SKYLON vehicle or the SABRE engine that are a block to further developments’.”

“‘Ere, he (Reaction Engines) says he’s not dead…”

Reaction Engines limited had been developing SABRE during the previous two decades prior to that press release. The European Space Agency awarded 100 million EUR to Reaction Engines Limited about two years before UKSA’s assessment, predicting that something like Skylon would be operational in ten years. Nearly thirteen years have passed since that award, but nothing like Skylon flies through the Earth’s atmosphere. Other “impediments or critical items” popped up during that time.

It’s also relevant today, as the excitement of that time, the awards and press releases were all about a spaceplane that could fly from a runway and achieve a high enough speed to orbit the Earth. It would do this using a unique engine that Reaction Engines developed, which worked both in air and space. Surprisingly, Reaction Engines is still alive and developing that engine. With the decades of development behind it, the company likely understands that developing a spaceplane is difficult.

I bring up Skylon, SABRE, and Reaction Engines as parts of a cautionary tale, which should be kept in mind while reading about Radian Aerospace. Radian touts that it’s the developer “...of the world's first fully reusable horizontal takeoff and landing, single-stage to orbit spaceplane.” If the company didn’t know about Reaction Engines’ efforts, that’s concerning because its management didn’t do its homework. But if, instead, it’s basing that statement on a technicality or merely using hyperbole, it follows the well-trod path littered with misleading statements from other space startups. This is a terrible path to follow. Although–none of the possible rationales for the statement are good ones.

“It’s a simple question of weight ratios.”

According to the company, it will use its spaceplane for low Earth orbit (LEO) operations and terrestrial point-to-point transportation. That would be interesting if Radian could pull off building a spaceplane at all. If it can do it in less time than the decades that Reaction Engines is requiring, that might be unrealistic, but a positive sign. If it can use its spaceplane to transport cargo and people for less than the projected per kilogram cost of Starship, that would be amazing.

Based on the company’s information, Radian’s spaceplane will lift about 2,700 kg to LEO, which is more than smallsat-dedicated rockets such as Rocket Lab’s Electron can lift, but far short of a Falcon 9’s mass capability. Reaction Engines was advertising that its Skylon would lift about 15,000 kg, so Radian’s offering would be at a disadvantage if both spaceplanes materialize. Radian has provided no per kg costs nor schedule projections; there’s no other detail, which means it hasn’t distinguished itself from any other startup with a website and a CAD rocket.

Despite the lack of information, Radian just announced it raised nearly $30 million in seed funding. That implies that the company is not nearly as far along as Reaction Engines was when ESA gave it the 100 million EUR. Radian was founded in 2016, and if Reaction Engines is any indication, Radian is not even a third of the way through its journey in fielding an operational spaceplane.

“Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?”

What makes this spaceplane different from all the proposed spaceplanes from other companies? According to one of the company’s advisors and investors, it’s:

“...leveraging a unique combination of technologies with an optimized business model to unlock what I like to call 'the potential of space,' serving existing aerospace markets and catalytically enabling new ones."

Those lines explain nothing while using all sorts of combinations of nonsensical buzzwords. It’s hard to tell if that obfuscation is deliberate or part of a culture that doesn’t understand links between communication and words. (Seriously, if I ever say or write something like that, please, someone, call me on it. That will cue me to kill myself ;-).)

That advisor also noted that this type of spaceplane is the “Holy Grail'' of space access. Radian will use a sled/catapult to assist in launching its spaceplane. However, it seems that the engine technology for Radian’s spaceplane is in flux. Also, the existence of a sled/catapult makes it pretty clear that Radian’s spaceplane will be disadvantaged because it can’t launch from any old runway.

Of course, this may all be beside the point because there are challenges that need to be overcome besides the mere acts of building an operational spaceplane and seeding the market that will use it.

“And now for something completely different…”

Deloitte Consulting pulled out this nice piece of space industry optimism earlier this week: “The time is now: opening the low Earth orbit economy.” Unusually, some of the authors’ points are true even though they indicate that there’s no better time than now to invest in the LEO economy. But those points get obscured by statements that are weirdly specific and not entirely on point, such as:

“Fueling both manned and unmanned technologies are emerging companies that are developing large-scale additive manufacturing capabilities that will likely have significant implications for the advancement of manned as well as unmanned launch services.”

Let’s see…startups using huge 3D printers are the future of space launch? That describes one company: Relativity Space. I’ve already posted some thoughts about that company. Still, the article’s authors focused on genuine space-related topics and challenges to the industry.

A quick observation on the number of challenges: identifying just seven challenges seems to cater to the superstitious readers (lucky number seven). A few examples identified in the article, translated:

  • Startups falling back on public (government) needs because the commercial demand isn’t quite there.
  • Government procurement (acquisitions) interferes with market-driven behaviors, often reinforcing a willingness not to change or rock the boat.
  • Not enough business to incentivize launch services to lower costs.

They list a few more challenges, and I agree that they need to be overcome. But, these very fundamental reasons are also why it’s going to take longer than 13 years for the LEO economy to become vibrant. According to the authors, “vibrant” means there will be more space stations for people to visit and that they’ll be able to get to them easily. They also think that orbiting factories and servicing robots will contribute to the vibrancy. The LEO economy, then, isn’t a new idea (CISLunar economy, anyone?). And most of the challenges listed apply more to the overall space industry and not just a LEO economy.

Combinations of words, such as “the LEO economy” or “New Space,” obscure space industry activity while selling a concept. And that concept isn’t served when the authors use suborbital fun rides to support the idea of a growing LEO economy. The authors seem to think it will be vibrant in 13 years. Still, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are notorious for moving slowly, with neither company yet having an operational system that can achieve orbit. It’s also interesting the authors used those two as demand-side examples instead of SpaceX, which has transported tourists to orbit and back. That example would have made more sense.

The article is a mixed bag, but it is short and might be an interesting read.