Investing in a Real-World Space Cannon
Space is indeed the final frontier for mankind – and for your investments. Here’s a sneak peek at why a nascent space cannon investment could change the world in the very near term…
Due in part to the ballooning U.S. deficit, America’s replacement for the shuttle program, Constellation, is being canceled. Once the last shuttle mission is completed, Americans will be riding on Russian rockets to get to the International Space Station. America will, however, return to space exploration. The reason is simply that space, as my old friend Robert Heinlein pointed out, is the high ground militarily. Americans may be willing to share the high ground. They won’t cede it.
Using conventional technology, the costs involved in extending space exploration to the moon and Mars are prohibitive. Alternatives to conventional rocket launch must be found if costs are to be significantly reduced to allow real exploration and commercialization.
For this reason, the cancellation of the Constellation program may be a blessing in disguise. NASA-developed technology has not only served as a vehicle for getting astronauts into space, it has also been an excellent vehicle for delivering pork to congressional districts. In place of rockets designed and built by bureaucratic committee, much of the Constellation funding will now go instead to commercial space companies that will serve up a “space taxi” role.
This is great news for commercial space enterprises and their investors. We’ve already seen the potential of space-based businesses as wealthy tourists buy multimillion-dollar tickets on Russian ships. We’ve also seen the beginnings of private space access from Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites’ collaboration with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group company, Virgin Galactic.
I first interviewed Rutan, by the way, in 1986: before his Voyager craft made history by flying nonstop around the world without in-flight refueling. Today, he is more than able to put passengers safely into orbit. To make the space tourism business viable, however, there has to be someplace nice to stay once you’ve achieved orbit. Conventional rocketry, however, is too expensive for any cargo other than human beings. Fortunately, there exists a vastly less-expensive alternative to deliver payloads to orbit.
Jules Verne once wrote anything a man can imagine, another can make real. In one of the earliest examples of the science fiction genre, Jules Verne wrote of a voyage to the moon enabled by a gigantic space gun. The fictional cannon, called Columbiad, fired a projectile holding three travelers to the moon. Verne was an extraordinary author and his fertile imagination has inspired generations of scientists and engineers. Even Verne, however, would be surprised, I think, to see how some of his more fantastic ideas are moving toward practical application.
During the Space Race of the 1960s, the United States investigated every possible method to gain an advantage. One was a collaboration between the U.S. and Canadian defense departments. Unlike more conventional (and expensive) rocket-based technology that would become the standard method of access to orbit, this project was based on the use of large guns.
In fact, the gun itself was based on a recycled 16-inch naval gun. Called HARP, the acronym for High Altitude Research Project, the project achieved several speed and altitude records. The final versions of the projectile/vehicle, called Martlet, blasted 180 kg payloads out of the barrel at speeds nearing 4 kilometers per second. These reached altitudes of 180 kilometers, after being subjected to a brief and brutal acceleration exceeding 14,000 Gs.
Unfortunately, bureaucratic infighting between the different U.S. service branches, as well as anti-Vietnam War fallout, ended the U.S./Canadian collaboration. Funding was terminated by 1967. The brilliant but enigmatic Canadian mastermind behind it, Gerald Bull, went on to design advanced artillery for Saddam Hussein. A super gun capable of firing a payload of more than a ton a thousand miles was nearly completed. He also improved Iraq’s Scud missiles, the sort fired into Saudi Arabia and Israel during the first Gulf War. In 1990, he was murdered, apparently assassinated, by unknown parties in his Brussels apartment. The movie Doomsday Gun is about Bull.
In the 1980s, the U.S. government revisited the space gun concept, launching the Super High Altitude Research Project (SHARP). Headed by Dr. John Hunter from 1989–1995 and conducted at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, SHARP used technology far advanced over the old HARP project’s. Instead of cordite explosive detonation, SHARP used gas gun technology. SHARP set records for kinetic energy above Mach 9. It also successfully launched hypersonic scramjet test vehicles for the Air Force between Mach 5 and Mach 9.
Since then, Dr. Hunter has started a new company, Quicklaunch Inc. Its goal is to commercialize the technology he helped develop at Lawrence Livermore. The advantages of this technology over traditional rocketry are significant.
From a military defense standpoint, another advantage of the space gun is responsive launch. If there is a critical need to surveil some point on the globe from space, the space gun could put an observation platform in space on demand within minutes or hours.
Quicklaunch owns this technology. There is significant IP and expertise involved in the space gun technology, and Hunter and Quicklaunch have a monopoly there. Obviously, the timeline to profitability is filled with unknowns. We aren’t ready yet to invest in this sort of enterprise, but we will be someday.
In the meantime, if you’ve got significant venture funds and want to make the future happen faster, contact me. I’d be happy to introduce you to Dr. Hunter and the Quicklaunch team.
March 5, 2010
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