“In some ways, the most dangerous thing that can happen to true believers is to give them everything that they’re asking for and watch them fail.” So said Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace, in his talk Friday at the Space Access ’10 conference in Phoenix. While supporters of NewSpace might argue that they haven’t gotten everything they’ve wanted yet, clearly there is more interest in, and scrutiny of, the commercial space industry in general and entrepreneurial space ventures in particular. “I am both thrilled and terrified at the magnitude of the opportunity that is now facing our industry,” he said.
Greason, in a panel on key technologies the previous night at the conference, had expressed concerns about the decline of the American space industrial base, which he reiterated in his longer speech. “The dinosaurs are dying off faster than we can evolve to fill their niches,” he said, referencing an old analogy that likens the old space industry to dinosaurs and NewSpace to mammals.
That is putting pressure on the industry to step up, something that he worries it might not be ready to handle. “I’m not sure we’re ready to do all the things the United States government is depending on this industry to be able to do,” he said. “That’s just too bad, because we’re going to have to do it anyway.”
That means, he said, that it’s time for the commercial space industry to mature. “It is time to grow up,” he said, saying that it needs to adopt the characteristics of more mature industries: “They are much more interested in growing the pie than they are in fighting over the scraps. They sell pieces to each other. They do not tear each others’ efforts down.” That extends to not just NewSpace companies but also established companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. “Like it or not, we are all now on the same team.”
Greason cited one example—without naming names—that demonstrated that NewSpace in particular wasn’t yet mature. “In a rational universe, what would happen is, if you have a program that has a vehicle and no engine, and you have other companies that are building vehicles and have engines, you would go and buy engines, because you would then have a vehicle and could make money,” he said. “For whatever reason that’s not happening. I would be glad to sell people engines, but they don’t want to buy them.”
Greason said one could argue that if a vehicle developer bought an engine from another vehicle developer, each would be enabling a competitor, but both would be making money as a result, “so who cares?” Greason said there will come a time when the industry will reach a tipping point and shift from vertical integration to horizontal integration. “That’s part of how we’ll know we’ve crossed an irrevocable threshold as an industry,” he said. “We’re not there yet.”
“So it’s a hard road, it’s a long road, but we’re getting there, and the size of the opportunity that we’re faced with is terrifying and wonderful,” he said. However, he also said that might be the last chance for the commercial space industry in the US to demonstrate its capabilities. “If we blow it this time, I don’t know that we’re going to get another chance, because I’m not sure there’s going to be a United States space industry for us to work for.”