Lessons from ComicCon: Is Stark Industries a good model for the new-space movement?

One of the more interesting panels from ComicCon has been a discussion among figures in the so called “new-space” community about whether or not Stark Industries from the Iron Man movies would pose as a good model for the private space movement.

One of the panelists was XCOR engineer Mark Street who talked about how after the first movie came out all the company’s engineers went to see the movie together. Street said they all laughed hysterically when Tony Stark nearly kills himself in his basement labratory after he sets Iron Man’s thrusters at 10-percent and sends himself flying. That’s the way things are at XCOR he said, which is much different from the way Lockheed Martin or NASA operates.

“It never works exactly the way you think it’s going to the first time,” said Street. “The large companies use well established procedures and rules, and they develop the 787 and it flies the first time, but that’s not the approach that will bring prices down.”

While the group expressed varying levels of dis-sapointment in NASA’s post-Apollo human space exploration, most agreed that it was lack of competition that was to blame. Because the current industries don’t have any incentive to bring the prices of roackets down, they won’t.

“The problem we have is that there’s only one NASA, as long as it’s like that we’ll never have competition,” said John Hunter of Quicklaunch.

The most striking thing I heard from the panel was about the freedom from regulation the FAA has given to new-space companies. As Street put it, it’s not that they’re blind to what’s going on at these companies, it’s that the FAA has built in a wide berth until the industry gets off the ground. That means that Burt Rutan’s SpaceShip One and SpaceX’s Falcon won’t have to prove they are safe for their passengers if/when they try to take them into space, they simply have to demonstrate that they’re not a “reasonable threat” to the public at large.

The Mars Society’s Dave Rankin says that the competition from these scrappy companies experimenting with new and innovative methods of building things for cheap, is starting to pay off. NASA had a competition for its commercial orbtial transport system contract to determine what companies would be able to deliver things to the ISS and new-space won hands down.

“Lockheed did compete for the contract,” said Rankin, “but they got beat out because they just couldn’t do the job for cheap enough.”

The panel was also in agreement that manned space exploration was inevitable and that being able to book a ticket and go into space was an unavoidable eventuality. Rankin described a wall at Meteor Crater in Arizona where the names of every astronaut to cross the threshold into space are inscribed. “I think people have dreams of going up there,” said Rankin. “They don’t build walls with lists of all the robots that have gone into space.”

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