Articles

TEDxSanJoseCA – Jeff Greason – Rocket Scientist: Making Space Pay and Having Fun Doing It


Translator: Fran Ontanaya
Reviewer: Capa Girl I know I have one of the coolest jobs on the planet. I run a spaceship company — here comes the mic — and I get to fire big rocket engines all the time, and I now have my first ride on the rocketship. But, it is not easy, in fact, it is by far, the most difficult thing I’ve ever done with my life. And I assure you there are easier ways to make money. (Laughter) So, why do it? Well, a few years ago my son looked up at me one night and asked me — sorry it still breaks me up — “Daddy is it really true that they used to fly to the Moon when you were a boy?” And that shook me and it still does. It shook me because that’s how a dark age begins. A dark age is not just when you as a civilization have forgotten how to do something — it’s when you forget that you ever could. It’s been fourteen years now, since I walked away from a great career in Intel that I was enjoying and that paid very well to work on solving the problem of affordable and reusable and reliable space transportation. And there’s a lot of reasons why I did that but ultimately for me it’s about avoiding a new Dark Age. I’m a child of Apollo. The greatest influences — do I still have somebody clicking — I had growing up were NASA and Star Trek and the works of Robert Heinlein. Those of you younger than I am probably can’t quite grasp it when I say I didn’t just believe we were going into space — I expected it. Space was obviously our next frontier. And I knew I wanted to be a part of it. But I didn’t see much point in studying how to build rockets. They were already flying. So instead I studied all the neat things we’d be able to do in space, once the transportation problem was solved. And the Space Shuttle was going to solve those problems. It was going to make space transportation affordable and reliable. But by 1981, when it finally flew, it was already clear that that promise was not going to be fulfilled. And only a few years later in 1986 I lost my faith that NASA was going to pave our way into the frontier. Some of you will remember watching over and over and over again, as they replayed the tape, Challenger explode live on national television. A lot of people who are in this business now have some Challenger story, mine is pretty simple. As a student at Caltech — we were obviously interested in space, but without special knowledge or expertise. I had known about the O-ring problem that doomed Challenger. A lot of people had. It was no secret. And I remember saying on the morning of the accident, “That looks like an O-ring! But that can’t be. They already found that problem.” Because it had never occurred to me, in my wildest nightmares, that you would have found something like that and not fixed it. One of my professors was on the accident investigation committee for Challenger, and what he found was, that hadn’t it been the O-rings it would’ve just been something else. The Shuttle was riddled with problems like that. And the culture at NASA at that time was not one of fixing them, it was one of explaining why they weren’t that serious. And that’s when I knew that, no matter how great the accomplishments of NASA had been or would be and no matter how much money Congress gave them or didn’t give them, they were never going to put me, and people like me into space. They were not going to open the frontier. So, getting into space is hard. (Laughter) But it’s not that hard. You hear people say things about rockets like, “We’ll never get into space if we don’t have something better than rockets”, or “We’ll never get into space cheaply, because the propellant costs too much”, or things like that. This is nonsense. And anybody who studies the problem can show you that it’s nonsense. It takes about a hundred million dollars to launch somebody to orbit on the Space Shuttle. It takes about twenty million dollars to launch somebody into orbit on the Soyuz. And in both cases, the cost of the propellant, the fuel and the oxidizer used, is about one one thousandth of that cost. So, where’s the rest? Well, it’s not in the materials. Rockets are built out of aluminum, just like airplanes. They are not built out of diamonds. So, where is it? It’s in the labor. It’s in the labor to run an assembly line for a big rocket that we use once and then it’s gone. Or it’s in the people to take a rocket that we get back, like the Shuttle, strip it down to individual pieces, inspect every one, replace the ones that are broken and put it back together again. And that takes about ten thousand people. Takes about three thousand people to run a production line for a rocket. Now, an airliner, carries just as much propellant as a rocket does, it’s just as big, and they are actually far more complicated than a rocket is. But then we use that airliner ten thousand times during it’s amortization life, at least. And we operate it with less
than one hundredth the people that it takes to operate a rocket. Or at least that has been taking to operate a rocket. And that’s why it takes $100,000,000 to take a person to orbit on the Space Shuttle, and $100 to take them on the Boston to New York shuttle. Furthermore, as for safety, we have flown people to space less than five hundred times since Yuri Gagarin did it for the first time in 1961. The Wright Brothers did more than 700 glider flights to get ready for their first powered flight attempt in 1903. The Space Age has not yet opened, we are at the very beginnings of it. That’s why I came into the rocket business. Because what we need is not magic, we just need for rockets to go through the same kind of competitive improvement process that aircraft have gone through. And the technology that we are missing is capitalism. That’s what has been lacking in the space business. Free enterprise, the same thing that makes things work in every other arena of modern life. So in our company we started out to develop rocket engines that would last. That we could fire over and over again and didn’t have to take apart between flights. That was a picture of my son running that engine per one thousandth time. It’s taken us ten generations of development to reach the engine you just saw that are now the full scale and full performance that we need for our vehicles. We have tested those engines in two generations of flight vehicles now — rocket powered aircraft. The first, the EZ Rocket, was built to demonstrate low cost operations. By the end of it’s flight history, we had demonstrated we could do the second flight of the day for $900 per flight. Which is many orders of magnitude cheaper than anyone had ever attempted with a manned rocket vehicle before. Our second vehicle, the X-Racer was developed primarily to push the operational tempo, how fast could we do things. I should mention this in there anyway — it’s a heck of a fun ride. I was flight test engineer on flight nine. By the end of its program, which lasted about forty flights, we had demonstrated the ability to land and prepare the vehicle for reflight in ten minutes, and to do seven flights in one day. And now –if the video cooperates– the work of many years is coming to fruition and we are finally building our suborbital vehicle, Lynx. A ride I can’t wait to take. That would take people up out of the atmosphere and back routinely. It would carry private individuals, corporate and goverment researchers, scientific experiments up out of the atmosphere and back. And we can use it to launch nanosatellites into orbit. And that combination of markets is what is going to pay for us to build up — finally to build up the enormous flight history that we need to find out what actually takes to do affordable and reliable space flight. We have competitors in this business, thank goodness we have competitors in this business. It takes competition to make us all do our best. You’ll notice that we are all flying test vehicles that look radically different from each other. Just like the early days of airplanes when [noone] seemed to figure out how many wings there were or they went on the front or the back. And I hope that they all succeed, and I hope only that we end being just a wee bit better than they are. (Laughter) (Applause) So, why should you care about any of this? I mean, space is neat, rockets are cool but this is way more than some kind of spectacle. The things that we had to do to make rockets work really are the same things that make the rest of society work — Competition, capitalism, free enterprise. And you don’t have to be a pessimist to look around the world or to look around at history, and see that these things aren’t inevitable. Humanity has a long history, but the society that we live in now is unique in human history and is in many ways a historical accident. Most of human history is the story of the strong few ruling over the poverty stricken many. We have something precious, which goes by many names — Renaissance Culture, the Industrial Revolution, Western Civilization, Liberty — call it what you want. That kind of society depends on creative destruction it depends upon a willingness to allow new ways of doing business to displace the old. And it also depends on continuously harnessing the creative energy of people who may be outside the system, of Edison or Tesla or Wright Brothers. In short, it can’t exist for long without freedom. And that in turn rests upon a deeper more fundamental belief. A belief that life is not a zero sum game. If you believe that life is a zero sum game then to you it makes sense to defend what you have at all costs. Because any change must be for the worst, right? It may make sense to you, if you want something, you should go steal it. Because what difference is it between making and stealing it if everything is a zero sum game? I don’t believe that for a second. Life is clearly better now than it was when I was younger. Any study of history shows me that as long as civilization has been around, smoothing out the peaks and the valleys, life has been getting better in measurable terms. Life in the state of nature was nasty, brutish and short. So I believe in progress, it’s not a dirty word. And I believe that as a beneficiary of that civilization it is my duty to add to it. To extend it, to carry it forward. And I believe that if you are a beneficiary of that civilization it is your duty too. Now the importance of a frontier is not just in the material or energy resources that it gives us — Now, they are there. Space is full of them. Everything we consider scarce here is abundant somewhere out there. The energy that it takes to power civilization is flooding through the Solar System in quantities we can scarcely imagine unused. While we sit here, debating and quivering with concern over whether we may be raising the temperature of the Earth by a fraction of a degree, Mars is sitting there waiting, begging for us to come and raise its temperature just a few degrees. And kick it over to a warm, wet world where we can live. And it is no more ambitious and no more crazy for us to consider doing that today, than it was for our ancestors to consider throwing railroads across the Sierra Nevada and building huge reservoirs and waterworks to bring water and power to California. And we could not live here today, in the numbers that we do, without those engineering works. Which we have come to regard as natural. But the most important element of a frontier is psychological. Because it’s hard to sustain that belief in limits, that belief in the zero sum game, when you can see stretching before you new lands untamed, untapped. I don’t think it’s an accident that the Industrial Revolution coincided with the age of Sail. I don’t think it’s an accident that the United States was founded on the edge of a very sparsely populated, untapped continent. And this time the lands that we see are truly unpopulated, they are waiting for the gift of life. Space is truly the final frontier. It’s final because once we reach it, it’s limitless. We aren’t going to need another one. But we have to reach it now. We have to reach it while the belief in dynamism and liberty is still with us. The stakes can’t be higher than they are right now. We are facing the choice about whether or not we leave a cradle in the nick of time and set ourselves on a course that would extend civilization for tens of thousands of years to come. I can’t imagine what that would bring. Or, to fail the test and fall into stasis and decline. Don’t fall into the trap that so many seem eager to set for you. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that we already have all that there is. The future can be better than the past. We can leave a better world, or better worlds, for our children. So it’s hard. It is hard. But how can I ask for a better job? I get to wake up every day and try to make all this possible. And all of you, in your own fields, are facing that same choice. And you’ve heard today people who have faced that choice creatively and you’ll hear more, but all of you face the same choice. Don’t just accept the benefits of civilization — add to it. Extend it. Preserve it. Thank you. (Applause)

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