Enter t/Space, which has been pushing exactly that strategy and which-in light of the trouble with Discovery's mission this summer and a sudden shift in NASA's previous all-eggs-in-one-basket approach to manned spaceflight-is now emerging as a dark horse near-term candidate to replace the shuttle.
In the spring of 2004, the Space was little more than two guys with a vision of economical spaceflight-one of many plans that have been floated in recent years. But founders David Gump and Gary Hudson's approach, in addition to their technology, was different. They proposed a radical idea to NASA: Use contracts that NASA was offering for mere paper studies on next-generation spaceships to instead build actual, working hardware. In Gump's plan, incremental progress toward a fully functional vehicle would be rewarded with additional funding, allowing the project to move forward. "You're crazy," Hudson had told Gump when the latter first broached the idea. "NASA will never give us any business. And even if they did, it would be agony to work with them."
Nevertheless, Gump had sensed that change was in the air at the beleaguered space agency. The traditional NASA system of awarding expensive "cost-plus" contracts to a few big aerospace firms for its development work-contracts that stick the space agency with the bill even when the technologies prove unsuccessful-was showing cracks, and Gump saw an opening for himself and Hudson.
Both men were veterans of space start-ups: Hudson was running AirLaunch, which is developing rockets under an $11.3-million Department of Defense contract, and Gump had headed LunaCorp, which brokered the first TV-
commercial shot on the ISS, a spot for Radio Shack. They knew how to put together a good proposal, but Hudson still didn't think much of their chances at NASA. In fact, he initially didn't even bother to formally incorporate t/Space as a company; he just sent in the proposal and assumed that would be the end of it.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.