I Know Where Guenter Wendt

August 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Space Pioneers 

You may recall a certain scene in the movie Apollo 13 in which Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) notes the disappearance of one of the launch pad workers who’d only moments before been visible through the capsule window. He quips, “I vonder vere Guenter vent” in a distinctive German accent, making a clever play on words with the man’s name. He was talking about Guenter Wendt, a German immigrant to the United States following World War II who had joined the space program in its early days – even before Project Mercury – and had climbed through the ranks to the position of Pad Leader.

Today marks Guenter’s eighty-eighth birthday. Sadly he left us last year, and it’s worth taking the time to remember him and what he gave to his adopted country.

First, he came to the US with so much to offer. Rather than arriving with his hand out and demanding free government assistance, he offered us his tremendous experience in flight and engineering, which he put to good use beginning with McDonnell Aircraft Corporation.

Beyond that, he offered passion and dedication to every job he took, glamorous or otherwise. I was privileged to talk with him in 2004 about the fascinating times in his life in aerospace and was rewarded with a candid dialog I hadn’t expected. Upon arriving in the US, his search for a job was relentless. After 140 applications he came to a concrete mixing company in need of a truck mechanic. The foreman pointed out, “but you don’t have any references.” Not one to be dissuaded by challenges, he countered, “I’ll make you a deal – It was a Wednesday – I’ll get my tools and work for you until Friday. If I cut the mustard, you pay me and hire me. If not, just tell me goodbye, and you don’t owe me a thing.” The guy said, “That’s not a bad deal. Ok. Come on, and bring your tools.” He got the job, and that was that. If only more folks these days had the same attitude towards finding employment. Here was a man who had been a successful flight test engineer on (at that time) new high performance aircraft who was negotiating for the position of truck mechanic. Rather than regarding it as beneath him, he applied his typical dedication to remain gainfully employed until he could find something closer to his passion. That’s what we call character. And it paid off. He did find his way back to a career in flight. First with McDonnell where he applied his knowledge and experience in designing missile systems to defend the US. It was here in 1958 where he was first bitten by the manned space flight bug.

At that point, NASA was still known as NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and Project Mercury – the first manned space program – was yet to be born. Manned space flight at that time rest exclusively with the Air Force’s Dyna-Soar program, and the range that would become Kennedy Space Center was still undeveloped and snake-infested beaches and swamp.

That was not the situation for long. Months later NASA was born and the US entered into a race to space with Project Mercury, the first in a three-tier effort to reach the moon that would be followed by Gemini then Apollo. Guenter was right there in the thick of it. He and four others were the vanguard from McDonnell to go to Cocoa Beach. From Mercury through Gemini, he was helping to pave the way for humans on the grandest adventure of all time. By the time of Apollo, McDonnell had lost the contract to North American. Deke Slayton, who was chosen as one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and later went on to become NASA’s Chief Astronaut, went to Guenter and asked him to change over to North American.

The company was initially unwilling to allow him what he needed to do the job. He said, ”I talked to them and told them the way I operate. The authority I need. Complete personnel control.”  They couldn’t agree to let me have that.” They said a new hire can’t have that authority. I said, ‘Fine. I can’t help you.’”

And so he stayed with McDonnell. But then came the Apollo 1 fire in which Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee lost their lives while conducting a ground test inside the capsule. An ignition source and flammable materials combined in a cabin pressurized with highly flammable pure oxygen to start the fire. The situation was further exacerbated by a poorly designed hatch and woefully inadequate emergency preparedness that failed even to recognize the operation as hazardous.

Shortly thereafter,” Guenter went on to say, “I got a call from Slayton. He said, ‘We’d like you to run our pad operations.’ I said I can’t do that unless I have the authority I need. He said, ‘I have a guy here who says you can have whatever you need.’”Ok. Put him on the phone.’ The guy introduced himself as Mr. Bergen – I didn’t know who the hell “Bergen” was – He said that Slayton had explained how I do business – on more of a dictatorial basis – and they were pleased to provide whatever I needed. So I said OK. Here is the way I operate. Here is what I need. Here is the way I will do things. If you agree to that, I’ll come over and work for you. They explained again that they had been instructed to hire me.” I said, ‘By the way. Who the hell is that guy, Bergen?’ They said, ‘You see that organizational chart over there? The guy at the top of the pyramid is Bergen, President of North American Aviation.

We’ll never know how things would have gone had Guenter been in charge of pad operations that fateful day, but I’d bet my reputation as an aerospace engineer that the operation would have been seen as hazardous and plans made to emergency egress those astronauts. One of the things that set him apart was to “pre-act” in what he called the “what if” game. It bothered him that people too often simply reacted to problems rather than anticipate and plan for them. He was not willing to leave things to chance. Here again, his character shines through, and we would all do well to head the lessons of his life.

No one ever answered Lovell’s question, but I think I know vere Guenter Wendt. He’s slipped the surly bonds of Earth to join Gus Grissom, Christa McAuliffe and all the other heros who dedicated themselves to space flight. And how lucky we are that he found his way to our shores, fortunate to have had his guidance and how blessed by his friendship.

Happy birthday Guenter. We’ll not forget you.


Falcon 9 and Dragon: Preparing for the International Space Station

August 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Over the last several months, SpaceX has been hard at work preparing for our next flight – a mission designed to demonstrate that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has given us a Nov. 30, 2011 launch date, which should be followed nine days later by Dragon berthing at the ISS.

NASA has agreed in principle to allow SpaceX to combine all of the tests and demonstration activities that we originally proposed as two separate missions (COTS Demo 2 and COTS Demo 3) into a single mission. Furthermore, SpaceX plans to carry additional payloads aboard the Falcon 9’s second stage which will deploy after Dragon separates and is well on its way to the ISS. NASA will grant formal approval for the combined COTS missions pending resolution of any potential risks associated with these secondary payloads. Our team continues to work closely with NASA to resolve all questions and concerns.

This next mission represents a huge milestone not only for SpaceX, but also for NASA and the US space program. When the astronauts stationed on the ISS open the hatch and enter the Dragon spacecraft for the first time, it will mark the beginning of a new era in space travel.

Through continued private-public partnerships like the one that helped develop the Falcon 9 and Dragon system, commercial companies will transform the way we access space. Together, government and the private sector can simultaneously increase the reliability, safety and frequency of space travel, while greatly reducing the costs.

The update below highlights our recent progress towards the combined C2/C3 mission and missions beyond. From the 1,500 team members here at SpaceX, thank you for your continued support, and for joining us in this exciting, vital adventure.


The Week At SpaceX

August 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

This week, we successfully completed a wet dress rehearsal (WDR) for the Falcon 9 Flight 3 launch vehicle at Space Launch Complex 40, Cape Canaveral, Florida. The WDR is a significant test during which we load propellant into the vehicle and perform all operations just as we would on launch day right down to T-1 seconds, at which point we abort and detank the propellant.

Photo: Kyle Cothern / SpaceX

Since our last flight, we have made significant upgrades to the launch pad to streamline the countdown. For example, we installed new liquid oxygen (LOX) pumps that reduced our previous loading time from 90 minutes to under 30. Improvements like this are getting us closer to our long term goal of Falcon 9 going from hangar to liftoff in under an hour. This is no easy task for a vehicle with about the same takeoff weight as a fully loaded Boeing 747, but if a 747 can do it reliably day after day, then Falcon 9 can too.

Photo: Roger Gilbertson / SpaceX

In a SpaceX clean room shown above in Hawthorne (Los Angeles) California, technicians prepare the Dragon spacecraft for thermal vacuum chamber testing. The open bays will hold the parachutes. NASA has given us a launch date of Nov 30, 2011 for Falcon 9 Flight 3, which will send a Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

Photo: SpaceX

Also in Hawthorne, we have conducted separation tests of the Dragon trunk from the Falcon 9 second stage (shown above). Release mechanisms hold the trunk (top, with solar panel covers on left and right sides) to the stage (bottom). When activated, springs on the Falcon 9 push against the Dragon trunk. The trunk separates and the test fixture’s counterbalance system raises the spacecraft up and away.

Photo: SpaceX


In the Hawthorne factory high bay, we tested the Dragon solar array rotary actuator by hanging the full array from the ceiling. The actuator (top center) turns the entire array. In flight, the solar panels will track the sun for maximum energy capture.

Clockwise from upper left: First stage tank, with domes and barrels for the second stage; all nine Merlin engines have been individually tested in Texas and then returned to California for integration into the thrust assembly; the pressure vessel for the CRS-1 Dragon spacecraft has 10 cubic meters (350 cu ft) of interior volume; composite interstage structure that joins the stages. Photos: Roger Gilbertson / SpaceX

We are well into production with all parts (shown above) for the following launch, Falcon 9 Flight 4 and its Dragon CRS-1 spacecraft, which should be the first commercial cargo resupply mission under NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program. Significant additional tooling and automation with be added to the factory, as we build towards the capability of producing a Falcon 9 first stage or Falcon Heavy side booster every week and an upper stage every two weeks. Depending on demand, Dragon production is planned for a rate of one every six to eight weeks.


Photos: Melissa Heilman / SpaceX

Demolition work continues at Space Launch Complex 4 East, our new launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central coast of California. Recently, the crew dropped the big “hammerhead” overhanging structure from the legacy Titan IV Mobile Service Tower (sequence above). Removing the tower is a major step in upgrading the pad for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. We are targeting late 2012 to bring Falcon Heavy to Vandenberg for vehicle to pad integration tests and 2013 for liftoff. Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in the world.

Stay tuned for more updates on the combined COTS-2 and COTS-3 mission to the ISS, slated for launch on Nov 30, 2011.


Manned Mission To An Asteroid: Eureka Moment Or Dead End?

With the shuttle program behind us and International Space Station construction now complete, we begin a new era in space exploration. The long-sought foothold in space that Station provides has finally been established, and it serves as our jump off point from low Earth orbit to all points beyond. More than that, it stands as the corner stone of a new orbiting infrastructure that will be needed for any course we choose to undertake next.

The choice of our next destination sets in motion the many cogs and wheels that make up the much larger machine of space exploration. It is with great care then that we must consider the direction in which we set off before that machine gains momentum. We’ve already seen the cost of breaking that momentum: the $9 billion that went into the now cancelled Constellation program, for instance; squandered money that could have gone a long way towards moving mankind out into space on a sustainable path. The original Vision for Space Exploration embodied in the Constellation program underwent too many changes, too many course corrections. By the time of its demise, Constellation bore little resemblance to the program initially set in motion under the O’Keefe leadership of the early to mid two thousands. This sad fact underscores the importance of staying the course.

Where should we go next? The answer to that question must address the sustainability of space exploration. Anything less is to repeat the mistakes of the past. Sustainability means infrastructure, which can be thought of in much the same terms as we think of infrastructure here on Earth: roads; bridges; airports; utilities; communications; waste disposal; shipping, emergency services, etc. The list goes on. There is an entire infrastructure that will be needed in space to support a human presence there, long term. The International Space Station – aside from its function as an orbiting laboratory – is the first baby step in that direction. Where we pick to go into space next must foster and support the emergence of infrastructure. The logic is inescapable. Just as inescapable are the economics. That’s why when we speak of building infrastructure, we’re necessarily going to be limited to the area close to home: Earth orbit; cislunar space or the space between the highest Earth orbit and the moon; and the lunar surface itself.

The Obama Administration’s vision for space exploration is to send NASA astronauts to an asteroid, purportedly as the means to save civilization in the event one was discovered to be on a collision course with Earth. Exactly what humans would do once there hasn’t been worked out. Without any means to carry out its objective, the plan is vague and without substance. At the outset, it conspicuously fails to address the important issues we’ve just laid out.

First, a mission to re-route an asteroid does not need humans. Such an endeavor can be effectively carried out with robotic spacecraft. The methods proposed, ranging from firing nuclear bombs to focusing light beams on a menacing asteroid, do not require or use astronauts.

Its secondary mission is to serve as a stepping stone for future missions to Mars, but an asteroid is very different from a planet and thus requires different technologies. Tools such as jetpacks, tethers, bungees, nets and spiderwebs to allow explorers to float just above the surface of an asteroid while attached to a smaller mini-spaceship are all redundant to the ultimate missions the administration claims they support.

When we consider these facts in the light of day, the Obama plan begins to appear frivolous; more a stunt than serious exploration. An asteroid is no more than the cosmic analog to an iceberg. Yet plans are being drafted to send astronauts there on a mission that would not advance a human presence in space in any way, whatsoever, beyond the hand full of individuals making the trip. Can you imagine figures of history having committed the same folly?

Since the dawn of the space age it was the civil space program alone to amalgamate our drive for exploration beyond Earth. But things are changing and evolving. The private sector is stepping in to shoulder some of the loads traditionally carried by the government like building and operating rockets to low Earth orbit. Of course the private sector has partnered with the space agency from the beginning, so what’s different today? Though most commercial entities – the larger ones in particular – still prefer the safety of the more traditional public-private partnership in which the government assumes all the risk, a few bold entrepreneurs have stepped up and taken a seat at the table. They are seeding the development of space systems and vehicles using their own private capital. Founder of Paypal Elon Musk, cofounder of id Software John Carmack who made such computer games as Doom, Sir Richard Branson who founded the Virgin conglomerate, founder of Budget Suites of America Robert Bigelow, founder, president and CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos, and Microsoft cofounder Paul Alan are among the most notable people to invest hundreds of millions in the aggregate so far.

Those investments were and continue to be anything but a safe bet. The men and women investing their fortunes and reputations in the very risky business of human space flight know that they stand to lose it all, yet they continue despite that risk. Why? Because the dream of exploration, the yearning to set out for parts unknown, is not the sole domain of NASA. All the passion and the scientific and engineering talent for which the space agency has come to be known exists in spades in the private sector.

There is something, however, that sets the private sector apart from the government; something that we take as a tacit to the urge for space travel, yet has never been part of NASA’s charter. That something is the impulse to colonize and see everyone benefit from the limitless resources and opportunities of space.

We often assume that it is the role of NASA to colonize space since so much of what they do can lead to that end, but that assumption is entirely false. The agency’s function is that of research and development of new space technologies. That those technologies either could or should be used for the colonization of space lies completely outside their purview. It may be at some future time that their charter is amended to include colonization, but for now, it is strictly R&D.

Even without a mandate for colonization, the government still has the obligation to set clearly defined goals that advance sustained human access to space. Not only does the Administration’s mission to send NASA astronauts to an asteroid fail to meet this requirement, it fails even to justify the stated reasons for carrying out the plan. Indeed it smacks of not-invented-here: a malady that would seem to afflict Washington with each successive administration.

The market forces that drive business are fortunately very different from those of politics. If a company were to radically change course every 4 years as so often happens inside the Beltway, it would not remain in business for long. The instability and indecision our government has displayed over the past 10 years in matters of space have resulted in its current languor. Without a change of leadership , the government cannot be relied upon to pursue the obvious course that scientific discoveries on the moon have brought to light, so it is likely that private enterprise will have to rise to the occasion.


A New Dawn Arising

As far back through antiquity as Aristotle it was theorized that the physical world in which we live is made up of atoms. And though the ancients’ mastery of deductive reasoning led them to great leaps of enlightenment, it was not enough to accurately describe reality. “Close, but no cigar,” as they say. Complete atomic theories forged in the fires of rigorous scientific examination would have to wait more than two millennia.

The modern scientific method is, in simplest terms, a three-step process: observe; theorize; and test. It’s proven to be a very successful way of discovering nature’s secrets, but the process is far from finished when theories have passed this stage. They must withstand rigorous scientific debate and challenges, in which peers from throughout the discipline examine every aspect of the experiment from the data to the underlying mathematics and finally to the conclusions. Not until it has survived this intense scrutiny can we embrace a theory and allow it to be taken as a law.

Albert Einstein, whose theories of the macroscopic world have revolutionized our understanding of time and gravity and Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, had some of the most heated debates in scientific history over their theories. Challenges – even angry and passionate – among piers in science form a necessary fixture in its discourse and one that we relax at our own peril.

Today the peer review process serves us well as an absolutely essential part of science. Because our understanding of the universe is built in layers, with one set of laws building upon earlier ones iteratively, imagine the consequences of discovering that something we’ve taken as a fundamental law is flawed, or worse, false. Such an event would be catastrophic, so the importance of remaining diligent with peer review cannot be over stated.

Yet as strong as this process tends to be, there are those rare times when it breaks down. After all, it is a human endeavor, and humans are fallible, so when a breakdown does occur, the wise man pauses to understand why and how. He endeavors to prevent it from ever happening again.

We see just such a break down occurring in recent history following the Apollo lunar flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s when samples of rocks were returned from the moon and examined by scores of scientists. When the lunar dust settled and the papers had all been published, the scientific world proclaimed that the moon was more arid than the driest desert on earth.

That’s the way things stood for four decades: a kind of lunar science dark ages in which notions of returning to the moon, of building upon those gains so hard won at the expense of much national treasure and three astronaut’s lives, would be bluntly dismissed. Aside from the fact that the political goals behind the missions – sadly, their biggest driver – had been achieved, it simply made no scientific sense to return. Mankind was beginning to cast an eye around the solar system for a place where he could explore and perhaps settle. Any serious consideration of where next to go would necessarily have to include the concept of ISRU, or in-situ resource utilization. It’s what early pioneers called living off the land, and the idea behind it is simple. Exploration must be carried out with attention to its costs, which are kept at a minimum when consumables and materiel can be found and used at your destination. Each pound carried with the expedition costs money, so the less you take with you, the smaller the cost and the more exploration can be accomplished and made sustainable. With water being one of the most important and costly resources of any expedition, and with the lunar surface having been found utterly devoid of it, the moon was unceremoniously written off. Our nearest neighbor in space, what many call the eighth content, was now considered a dead end.

Just as the dark ages on Earth were followed by the Renaissance, the lunar dark age has given way to a enlightenment. 2009 saw new, robotic missions sent to the moon. They carried state-of-the-art instruments and beamed down to Earth volumes of new data to be examined by a fresh eyes. Within months, those science teams were sending out an electrifying discoveries that would send shock waves across the world. Water! Water had been discovered trapped in the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar South pole! More analysis revealed that the entire moon is covered in a thin veneer of water deposited by the solar wind, making it a renewable source.

The really big shocker was yet to come. A Brown University freshman! by the name of Thomas Weinreich published a paper in a May, 2011 edition of the journal Science in which he announced the results of a study he had recently conducted on 40-year-old rock samples from the moon. And his findings? Water! It had been there all along.

Only five years before, Alberto Saal, a professor at Brown, and some collaborators had applied to NASA to look for water in Apollo rocks. Colleagues laughed at his obvious naiveté.

How is it that so many brilliant minds could have concluded with such certainty for so long that the moon was utterly arid? Two words: Group Think. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Group Think is “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.” This is precisely the reason behind our long-lived ignorance of water on the moon. Those early assertions that no water existed in lunar rock samples should have been challenged and would have had it not been for the very the arrogance that Dr. Saal encountered. It was Group Think that effectively shut down the peer-review process for decades.

As a new dawn arises on lunar science and we again look towards the moon as our next home away from Earth and source of natural resources and new opportunities, it’s important that we weigh and consider the aftermath of a certain pitfall in the human psyche. What it cost us was 40 years and an entire generation of would-be astronauts and pioneers left orphaned when Apollo was ended. We cannot allow this to happen again, so it behooves us to scan our horizons – and those hidden places right under our noses – for signs that scientific consent is being manufactured. Can you think of any? Perhaps a theory on how the Earth traps and releases energy? Could there be a theory out there in which it is proclaimed that the time for debate has passed on a science that is “settled”?

Think about it.


The Price of Duplication

August 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Civil Space Flight 

NASA’s proposed next big effort is to build a rocket to replace the space shuttle. And the price tag? Thirty-eight billion dollars or about 10 times what private industry, as exemplified by SpaceX, will charge for the same job. Is this really the best use of taxpayer dollars?

Proponents argue that a government-owned rocket is needed as an alternative in the event that the commercial sector fails to deliver a viable system, but that alone is not sufficient reason for going ahead with the plan. There must be a justifiable cost benefit. If the current debt crisis teaches us anything, it is that the US government is not a bottomless pit of cash.

Over the projected 10 years that it will require to design (and yes I know it will stem from heritage shuttle systems, but it’s hardly plug-and-play), build, test and put into operations this new system, it is expected to fly only twice. That’s a flight rate than doesn’t begin to cover even the paltry rate of the shuttle. First, it was promised that the shuttle would be cheaper to operate than the single-use rockets like the Saturn V it replaced. That did not materialize. The life-averaged cost of operating the shuttle was about $1.3 billion per launch. Much of the reason for that astronomical price tag was low flight rate, which brings us to item two. The shuttle was to have flown every 30 days, but in it’s final 5 years of flight, it averaged about 4 flights per year: just 25% the rate originally sought. In every measurable sense, the space shuttle failed to deliver on the promise of exceeding it’s predecessor’s capabilities. And now, NASA proposes to build another, even more expensive system demanding 19 times the operations cost of the now-retired orbiters. The term used to describe this class of vehicle is “heavy lift,” referring to it’s ability to lift large payloads into space. But perhaps it better describes the force required to lift the tons of cash required to operate it.

R&D is something the space agency does extremely well, yet it continually strays into areas well outside its bailiwick. There is no other reason for this than poor management; one with a chronic lack of focus and understanding of its own charter.

Seasoned space professionals recognize a term used early in this article: operations. The word is the very antithesis of research and development, which is the stated purpose of the space agency. Once a technology moves from the R&D world into regular use – as rockets now have – it becomes operational, at which point it should be tasked to another entity with the manufacturing and fiscal agility to deliver the system at a reasonable cost. This in no way describes NASA.

It’s one thing to deliver criticism and another to follow it with better ideas. To formulate them, we start with a premise and a question.  Our premise is that our sole purpose is in creating something never created before; in other words, research and development. The question is simple: where is research and development in space most needed? Infrastructure. And why is that? The biggest impediment to making space exploration attainable on a permanent basis is cost, and the biggest contributor to cost is a lack of infrastructure to support the venture.

Consider this: every time a spacecraft leaves Earth, it must carry absolutely everything with it that will need during the mission. This one fact adds tremendously to the cost per flight. Remove that restriction, and the cost dramatically drops.

A giant leap forward would be to develop orbiting refueling stations. NASA has begun to fund this type of research but at levels so modest as to amount an afterthought. It has awarded $2.4 million to four companies to begin looking at ways to store cryogenic fuels on orbit. The contention here is not that the agency has failed to identify fuel depots as a need but rather that it grossly underfunds the effort. The priority given the rocket development program should instead go into infrastructure, but the proverbial cart has been placed in front of the horse.

There are still other infrastructure technologies that should be getting the fast track as well such as on-orbit manufacturing processes. If we’re to build interplanetary vehicles and support system in a cost-effective manner, we’ll need to know how to assemble them in space. Building complete systems and launching them from the ground is too expensive, not to mention restrictive. But it all comes down to one thing: focus. NASA has taken its eye off of what’s important and concentrated it on duplication of effort, and it comes at the expense of forward momentum in space exploration.

Perhaps we’ve become so accustomed to thinking in terms of “some day” that we fail to see what’s possible here and now if we simply stay focused and prioritize. Why don’t we try taking a recommendation from Larry The Cable Guy and “git-r-done.” Heck, if for no other reason than to see what happens when you think outside the box.


Growing Pains

August alone will see a thousand jobs lost as a result of the shuttle’s demise; a scary development to be sure. But it’s hardly the first time the manned space program has faced this kind of hardship and transition.

You may recall a certain scene in the movie Apollo 13 in which Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) notes the disappearance of one of the launch pad workers who’d only moments before been visible through the capsule window. He quips, “I vonder vere Guenter vent” in a distinctive German accent, making a clever play on words with the man’s name. He was talking about Guenter Wendt, a German immigrant to the United States following World War II who had joined the space program in its early days – even before Project Mercury – and had climbed through the ranks to the position of Pad Leader.

In his 2001 autobiography title The Unbroken Chain (available through Apogee Books, which I can enthusiastically recommend) Guenter speaks about the angst he himself – a top ranked and well known space professional – faced as the Apollo program came to a close. Describing launch day for the final Saturn rocket, the so-called Apollo-Soyuz Test Project meant to ease strained relations between the US and the former Soviet Union, he writes:

Later that day, Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton, and Vance Brand became the last three men to launch into space atop a Saturn rocket. I watched the final launch from the fallback area, fully aware that our pioneering days were over. Never again would an Apollo spacecraft enter space. And with the Shuttle program still several years away, many people were observing their final manned launch of any type. As the vehicle arched out over the Atlantic, I watched union shop supervisors hand out termination notices. For many, many dedicated workers, the end of the chain had been reached.

The fact is, just as we endured the pains of transition in those days, so too must we today, though one could make a compelling argument that moving from Apollo to shuttle was a step backward. We find ourselves in the precarious and expensive position now of having to reinvent much of the technology used back then, albeit with upgrades to the underlying computer systems that have made quantum leaps forward since. Even so, the space capsule design demonstrated so successfully by Apollo and its precursors, was invented half a century ago.

Whether you feel the shuttle was a necessary next step following Apollo or a pointless detour on the road to deep space, the time has come to boldly embrace the next era. At some point, Lewis and Clarke had to move from the river bank to the interior in order to realize the goals of their expedition. Low earth orbit, which was by design the limit of shuttle’s capabilities, has been our riverbank. We cannot afford to take our eyes from the real objective: deep space. More than that, we cannot afford to continue a program that proved far, far more expensive than its designers promised. Let’s get off the riverbank on which we’ve been stranded for too long and move onward and upward. Yes, the process of growth is painful, but just as Guenter Wendt did eventually find his next job in space and flourished there for decades until his retirement, we’ll emerge from this temporary slump in a place that will allow us unlimited and continuous growth and perhaps a little something extra: seamless transitions between technological steps. Imagine that.

What is required from us now is courage, vision and determination; qualities we have in spades once we leave our comfort zone. Remember the words of Christopher Columbus who said, “You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”


First Space Flight Sweepstakes Announced

August 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Organizers of the 50th anniversary of Seattle’s Space Needle want to celebrate by sending you into space, and they’ve teamed up with Virginia-based Space Adventures and with Armadillo Aerospace to offer the winner of their Space Race 2012 sweepstakes a suborbital flight. If realized, the trip is sure to be the ride of a lifetime.

Space Adventures has already placed 7 people onboard the International Space Station, the last being Cirque Du Soleil creator Guy Laliberte in 2009. And Armadillo of Mesquite, Texas has been designing a vertical-launch vehicle that is presumed will be the carrier. But here’s the catch: though the company has designed piloted vehicles like their Black Armadillo, this one will carry no pilot. The only persons on board will be it’s two passengers. I’m guessing one to light the fuze and one to pray. Curiously, the term “spam in a can” comes to mind.

As much as I would jump at – almost – any chance to board a space flight, I think I would choose to sit this one out. Aside from the obvious regulatory hurtles that any such launch system is sure to face, there is a far safer choice making its way through flight testing now. SpaceShipTwo, the upscaled successor to the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne built by entrepreneur and aerospace genius Burt Rutan, has been designed from the beginning to be the safest space launch platform available. It’s pilots (note the plural – it has two per ship) by virtue of a feathered wing, can literally fold their arms and the vehicle will align itself in the correct attitude for what is aptly named the “carefree re-entry.”

But if you’re the truly adventurous type, the Grand Prize might be for you.

If you don’t make the cut from among what is predicted to be entries numbering in the millions, there is a First Prize flight aboard Zero G Corporation’s G-FORCE ONE. You’ll take a ride on a Boeing 727 specially modified to take passengers on parabolic flights. These are where the airplane climbs and descends in a series of arcs, the apex of each will simulate a zero gravity environment like that you would encounter in space. It’s a concept that’s been in operation to train astronauts for decades and has proven quite safe.

Though not a fan of the launch system currently being proposed for the worlds first space flight giveaway (the design of which could change, by the way), I applaud the decision to conduct a sweepstakes offering a flight into space, and I suspect it’s but the first of many to come. When average guys and gals begin returning from space to describe to their friends and family an experience that has left them with a deep and abiding sense of awe, that has completely changed the way they view the world and mankind, heads will begin to turn upward to the sky with new expectations and a realization that before our very eyes the final frontier has transformed itself from the fanciful backdrop of a science fiction story to a real place of real opportunity for real people.


For more information on Space Race 2012, visit http://SpaceNeedle.com.


American Industrial Might Still Second To None

July 31, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

When I attended an Ansari X Prize competition flight press conference in 2004, Burt Rutan who had designed and built the SpaceShipOne craft (which now hangs in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC) presented a sign that an onlooker had made. Everyone chuckled at the clever quip, “SpaceShipOne, government zero.” For the first time in history, a one-hundred-percent privately funded venture had outdone a massive government agency in spaceflight. Not only had Rutan and his Scaled Composites company managed to build and fly a spacecraft far more cheaply and safely than NASA, but they had also overcome technical malfunctions in a tiny fraction of the time it would have taken the space agency and went on to capture the prize.

And this theme, far from being a flash in the pan, continues.

Now a company called Space Exploration Technologies – more commonly known as SpaceX – is poised to become the champion of space transportation to earth orbit. Having successfully test flown their new Falcon 9 rocket (a variant of Falcon I, capable of lifting much heavier loads) and Dragon spacecraft despite the grumblings of many nay sayers, on November 30th they will become the first private company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Their ingenuity and agility are remarkable. The company has managed to combine what was to have been two flights, a final test flight and the first cargo delivery flight, into a single mission and thereby accelerate the time table for regular Station delivery flights to begin. And if that were not enough, in a show of true pioneering spirit and American innovation and industrial prowess, the company designed Dragon from the beginning with the intent that it carry astronauts, as well as cargo. As you read this article, they are designing and building the final components that will make Dragon the transportation system so desperately needed to fill the void in US space lift capability left by the end of the space shuttle program.

But their plans still don’t end there. Also in the works is a “heavy” variant to the Falcon 9 (you guessed it; called the Falcon 9 Heavy) which will carry twice the heaviest load as the space shuttle and at one third the price of their nearest competitor, the highly government-subsidized United Launch Alliance. And if you’re still drying the tears over the end of shuttle, consider this: Falcon 9 Heavy will place payloads into orbit for less than one tenth the cost of the now retired orbiters!

For many years, the holy grail of space launch has been to put payloads into orbit at or below $1,000 per pound, but no one has been able to come close. It loomed like some impenetrable barrier. Like… what was it the narrater in The Right Stuff said?

There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.

And like the sound barrier, the cost barrier stood firm for decades. That is, until now. Two weeks ago at Vandenberg Air Force Base, SpaceX broke ground on the launch complex from which the new super rocket – the most powerful in the world – will rumble through the clouds into black skies beyond like a space age Hercules.

This is game changing, boys and girls. And why is that? Because at the prices SpaceX will be offering lift into orbit, flight rates can dramatically increase leading to an economy of scale that will open up space to the common man, once and for all. You and I are going to witness the building of the first space hotels.

And remember little SpaceShipOne? Well, it’s big brother SpaceShipTwo is in testing. The next stage is powered flights, and after that the production models will be delivered to Virgin Galactic to begin service as the first spaceline. The debut flights will be expensive, but again, economy of scale will drastically reduce the costs. Remember the first pocket calculators? They were $400 in the early 1970′s when they first hit the US market. Today that would be over $2000! but thanks to economies of scale, we can buy them for a few dollars. Anyone can afford them.

Only through private industry have we been able to realize such forward leaps in space, and only in America do we see the dreams taking form and taking flight. So what’s next? Go outside any time after about 1:00 in the afternoon next weekend, and look up.


Shuttle Replacement A Duplication of Effort and Years from Reality

July 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

NASA is now estimating that the shuttle replacement will enter flight testing in late 2017. Once the testing program has concluded some 5 years beyond that, we are told to expect the first missions carrying people to begin in 2025 with a flight to an asteroid. And even when manned missions do commence, only a single flight per year is expected.

Of course, any estimates going beyond 4 years or the end of any given administration – which ever comes first – are pure fantasy. If history teaches us anything, it’s that one may safely add an additional 5 years to estimates, which invariably prove to be overly optimistic.

Even the space shuttle with its exorbitant cost of operation flew at a rate of 4 to 5 per year, so if the government is unable to maintain that level, how can it possibly expect to produce a cost-effective space launch system for the American people?

In the business of making space affordable, costs are driven down in large part through economy of scale. That means the highest possible flight rate, and once per year doesn’t even begin to make a dent.

American innovation can and is making all the difference, but it would seem that it’s not coming from the historical source. It’s coming from private industry. With little fanfare in the mainstream media, a company called SpaceX, headed up by a pioneer in the truest sense, has set itself in the position of offering access to space at the lowest prices on earth, bar none. It’s nearest competitor United Launch Alliance or ULA, the highly government subsidized collaboration between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, lags behind in a distant second place.

From the beginning, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has had a clear vision of how to propel the US back into the forefront of space exploration. He and his engineers have designed their Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules with the idea of carrying people, and they’ll have them in production and ready to carry out missions years before the government can field its own system. With Russia, China and India eagerly poised to spring ahead of the US with flights to the moon, Musk and a cadre of other American astronautical trailblazers will undoubtedly frustrate those efforts. China is publicly admitting that they cannot hope to match the prices offered by SpaceX. Still further, Bigelow Aerospace, another American company, is prepared to turn out space stations like hotels and seed humanity in space by the thousands.

In the final analysis, government is attempting a role suited to private industry. It should stick to what it does best: research and development. The space launch system being proposed by NASA, and the huge sums of money it will require, amount to a duplication of effort. Those funds should instead by devoted to designing systems for the purpose of carrying people from earth orbit to deep space.

For the last couple of years our leadership has feverishly stabbed at the question, “With what do we replace the space shuttle?” But it’s the wrong question. Real space visionaries ask instead, “What’s next?” The former presupposes a need for another machine to perform the same job as it predecessor, the latter looks beyond to the next frontier, to deep space. And to be sure, earth orbit is not the frontier.

NASA has forgotten its purpose, and it’s a sad state of affairs we’ll likely endure until a change of leadership.


Former Senator Schmitt Reflects On America’s Space Program: Past, Present and Future

The 42nd Anniversary of the humankind’s first lunar landing by Apollo 11 on July 20, 2011, followed by the return of STS-135 on the next day, concluding the final flight of a United States Space Shuttle, places a capstone on the remarkable accomplishments of the post-Apollo generations of space engineers, builders and operators.

Those of us who were in attendance at the launch of Atlantis on July 8, 2011, felt both pride in this final accomplishment and sadness at another unnecessary, ill-conceived and excessively prolonged break in America’s commitment to lead humankind in space. Pad 39A, the Vehicle Assembly Building, and the Crawler Transporter stand in the Florida sunshine as still functional but unwanted relics of past glories. Unfortunately, these momentous events also starkly frame the deficiencies in American space policy relative to long-term national interests. This policy began its slow decline in 1968-69 when the Johnson and Nixon Administrations began the process to end procurements of the Saturn V boosters and spacecraft advocated by Eisenhower and Kennedy for the Apollo Moon-landing Program.

The absence of any significant national goals epitomizes current space policy. That policy lacks any coherent strategy to lead humankind in space and promote liberty there and on Earth. Failure of all Administrations and Congresses since Eisenhower and Kennedy to maintain a sustainable, indefinite commitment to human deep space exploration and settlement has undermined America’s status in the world and the technological foundations necessary for national security and economic growth. We have reached a point where America and its partners depend on Russia for future access to the International Space Station. More critically, we will be ceding the Moon and deep space to China. This should be an intolerable situation to American taxpayers who paid for most of the Space Station and whose Astronauts blazed the trail for humankind to the Moon.

President George W. Bush provided the Nation with a space policy in 2004 that met critical geopolitical requirements. If it had been properly funded by Congress, Bush’s policy would have created a replacement for the Space Shuttle by 2010 and, more importantly, provided for a return to the Moon on the way to Mars. Mr. Bush, however, did not ask Congress for the funds necessary to fully implement his Constellation Program. Constellation nonetheless could have been executed fully when President Barack Obama took office in 2009, although with a several year delay in the availability of the Shuttle replacement spacecraft (Orion).

President Obama, however, soon canceled Constellation, reflecting his personal bias against American exceptionalism and anything identified with Bush. His visions of largely unsupervised private contractors providing astronaut transportation to space and an unproductive visit to an asteroid are just that, unproven “visions” but hardly visionary. In light of increases of trillions of dollars in recent federal government spending, the $3 billion per year cost of implementing a “shovel ready” and “employment ready” Constellation Program appears, relatively, very small. The enormous geopolitical damage to America’s world leadership role that its cancellation has brought about will cost us dearly in the future.

Atlantis’s final arrival in Earth-orbit was historically comparable to the arrivals of the last covered wagon at Western destinations just before the Union Pacific, Central Pacific, Santa Fe and other railroads reached rapidly expanding local economies in the late 1800s. Unbelievably, and unlike the replacement of covered wagon technology with railroad technology, no American replacement exists for the Space Shuttle. Now that Obama has made NASA largely irrelevant in America’s future, the next President and Congress must consider how to reverse this damage to national security and to the future motivation of young Americans.

The next President must seriously consider focusing United States’ space goals on deep space exploration. Until the Space Station must be shut down and deorbited, NASA can continue to be responsible for managing related international obligations. A separate and intense focus on deep space, however, could be accomplished by reassignment of most NASA functions to other agencies and the creation of a new National Space Exploration Agency (NSEA) [see http://americasuncommonsense.com, Essay 46]. This would be a proper tribute to the sacrifices made on behalf of America by the personnel of NASA and its contractors since 1958. A clear commitment to deep space would also restore America’s geopolitical will to lead humankind into the future.


Harrison H. Schmitt is a former United States Senator from New Mexico as well as a geologist and former Apollo 17 Astronaut.  He currently is an aerospace and private enterprise consultant and a member of the new Committee of Correspondence


Former Senator Schmitt Proposes Dismantling of NASA and Creation of a New, Deep Space Exploration Agency

May 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: National Space Policy 

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced to a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American to the Moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of that decade. President Kennedy’s confidence that this Cold War goal could be accomplished rested on the post-Sputnik decision by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to form the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and, in January 1960, to direct NASA to begin the development of what became the Saturn V rocket. This collection of essays on Space Policy and the Constitution [1] commemorates President Kennedy’s decisive challenge 50 years ago to a generation of young Americans and the remarkable success of those young Americans in meeting that challenge.

How notions of leadership have changed since Eisenhower and Kennedy! Immense difficulties now have been imposed on the Nation and NASA by the budgetary actions and inactions of the Bush and Obama Administrations between 2004 and 2012. Space policy gains relevance today comparable to 50 years ago as the dangers created by the absence of a coherent national space policy have been exacerbated by subsequent adverse events. Foremost among these events have been the Obama Administration’s and the Congress’s spending and debt spree, the continued aggressive rise of China, and, with the exception of operations of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station, the loss of focus and leadership within NASA headquarters.

The bi-partisan, patriotic foundations of NASA underpinned the remarkable Cold War and scientific success of the Apollo Program in meeting the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. Those foundations gradually disappeared during the 1970s as geopolitical perspectives withered and NASA aged. For Presidents and the media, NASA’s activities became an occasional tragedy or budgetary distraction rather than the window to the future envisioned by Eisenhower, Kennedy and the Apollo generation. For Congress, rather than being viewed as a national necessity, NASA became a source of politically acceptable “pork barrel spending” in states and districts with NASA Centers, large contractors, or concentrations of sub-contractors. Neither taxpayers nor the Nation benefit significantly from this current, self-centered rationale for a space program.

Is there a path forward for United States’ space policy? When a new President takes office in 2013, he or she should propose to Congress that we start space policy and its administration from scratch. A new agency, the National Space Exploration Administration (NSEA), should be charged with specifically enabling America’s and its partners’ exploration of deep space, inherently stimulating education, technology, and national focus. The existing component parts of NASA should be spread among other agencies with the only exception being activities related to U.S. obligations to its partners in the International Space Station (ISS).

Changes in the Space Act of 1958, as amended, to accommodate this major reinvigoration of the implementation of space and aeronautical policy should be straightforward. Spin-off and reformulation of technically oriented agencies have precedents in both the original creation of NASA in 1958 by combining the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the creation of the United States Air Force in 1947 from the Army Air Forces.

The easiest change to make would be to move NASA Space Science activities, including space-based astronomical observatories, into the National Science Foundation (NSF). At the NSF, those activities can compete for support and funding with other science programs that are in the national interest to pursue. Spacecraft launch services can be procured from commercial, other government agencies, or international sources through case-by-case arrangements. With this transfer, the NSF would assume responsibility for the space science activities of the Goddard Space Flight Center and for the contract with Caltech to run the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Also, in a similarly logical and straightforward way, NASA’s climate and other earth science research could become part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA could make cooperative arrangements with the NSF for use of the facilities and capabilities of the Goddard Space Flight Center related to development and operation of weather and other remote sensing satellites.

Next, NASA aeronautical research and technology activities should be placed in a re-creation of NASA’s highly successful precursor, the NACA. Within this new-old agency, the Langley Research Center, Glenn Research Center, and Dryden Flight Research Center could be reconstituted as pure aeronautical research and technology laboratories as they were originally. The sadly, now largely redundant Ames Research Center should be auctioned to the highest domestic bidder as its land and facilities have significant value to nearby commercial enterprises. These actions would force, once again, consideration of aeronautical research and technology development as a critical but independent national objective of great economic and strategic importance.

NASA itself would be downsized to accommodate these changes. It should sunset as an agency once the useful life of the International Space Station (ISS) has been reached. De-orbiting of the ISS will be necessary within the next 10 to 15 years due to escalating maintenance overhead, diminished research value, sustaining cost escalation, and potential Russian blackmail through escalating costs for U.S. access to space after retirement of the Space Shuttles. NASA itself should sunset two years after de-orbiting, leaving time to properly transfer responsibility for its archival scientific databases to the NSF, its engineering archives to the new exploration agency, and its remaining space artifacts to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Finally, with the recognition that a second Cold War exists, this time with China and its surrogates, the President and Congress elected in 2012 should create a new National Space Exploration Administration (NSEA). NSEA would be charged solely with the human exploration of deep space and the re-establishment and maintenance of American dominance as a space-faring nation. The new Agency’s responsibilities should include robotic exploration necessary to support its primary mission. As did the Apollo Program, NSEA should include lunar and planetary science and resource identification as a major component of its human space exploration and development initiatives.

To organize and manage the start-up of NSEA, the experienced, successful, and enthusiastic engineering program and project managers should be recruited from industry, academia, and military and civilian government agencies. NSEA must be given full authority to retire or rehire former NASA employees as it sees fit and to access relevant exploration databases and archives. An almost totally new workforce must be hired and NSEA must have the authority to maintain an average employee age of less than 30. (NASA’s current workforce has an average age over 47.) Only with the imagination, motivation, stamina, and courage of young engineers, scientists, and managers can NSEA be successful in meeting its Cold War II national security goals. Within this workforce, NSEA should maintain a strong, internal engineering design capability independent of that capability in its stable of contractors.

NSEA would assume responsibility for facilities and infrastructure at the Johnson Space Center (spacecraft, training, communications, and flight operations), Marshall Space Flight Center (launch vehicles), Stennis Space Center (rocket engine test), and Kennedy Space Center (launch operations). Through those Centers, NSEA would continue to support NASA’s operational obligations related to the International Space Station. NSEA should have the authority, however, to reduce as well as enhance the capital assets of those Centers as necessary to meet its overall mission.

Enabling legislation for NSEA should include a provision that no new space exploration project can be re-authorized unless its annual appropriations have included a minimum 30% funding reserve for the years up to the project’s critical design review and through the time necessary to complete engineering and operational responses to that review. Nothing causes delays or raises costs of space projects more than having reserves that are inadequate to meet the demands of the inevitable unknown unknowns inherent in complex technical endeavors.

The simple charter of the National Space Exploration Administration should be as follows:

Provide the People of the United States of America, as national security and economic interests demand, with the necessary infrastructure, entrepreneurial partnerships, and human and robotic operational capability to settle the Moon, utilize lunar resources, and explore and settle Mars and other deep space destinations, and, if necessary, divert significant Earth-impacting objects.

Is this drastic new course for national space policy and its implementation the best course to repair what is so clearly broken? Do we have a choice with Cold War II upon us, with American STEM education a shambles, with domestic engineering development and manufacturing disappearing, and with an ever-growing demand for American controlled, economically viable, clean energy?

Harrison H. Schmitt is a former United States Senator from New Mexico as well as a geologist and former Apollo Astronaut.  He currently is an aerospace and private enterprise consultant and a member of the new Committee of Correspondence.

Note Cited in Text

1. Essays Nos. 7, 18, 20, 25, and 35 were revised and collected together into a special booklet entitled Space Policy and the Constitution with a Foreword written by Michael D. Griffin, NASA Administrator (2005-2009). The present essay formed the Preface to that booklet, which is available from the “Downloads” page of the AUS website.—Ed.


Space Adventures Planning Lunar Trip

May 6, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

May 5 2011

Today, Space Adventures, the only company that has provided human space missions to the global marketplace, outlined a forecast for commercial orbital spaceflight and announced details of how additional living space will be made available during the company’s planned circumlunar mission.

“As we celebrate the 10 year anniversary of Dennis Tito’s pioneering orbital spaceflight, and the seven other private spaceflight missions that have launched since, we need to stay focused on the future. As always, I remain optimistic; but, there will only be a robust market when there is more than one commercial launch provider and more than one destination for private missions in low-Earth orbit,” said Eric Anderson, Chairman of Space Adventures. “We must credit Dennis Tito for helping to create the business model for space tourism. If it were not for him, the commercial spaceflight industry would not have progressed as far as it has to date.”

As part of a market sizing exercise for NASA’s Commercial Crew Development bid, submitted on behalf of the Boeing Company, Space Adventures estimates that by 2020 approximately 140 more private individuals will have launched to orbital space. These participants would include private individuals, corporate, university and non-profit researchers, lottery winners and journalists. Destinations would include the International Space Station, commercial space stations and orbital free-flys.

“The next 10 years will be critical for the commercial spaceflight industry with new vehicles and destinations coming online,” continued Mr. Anderson. “But, in order to truly develop the industry and extend the reach of humanity over the course of time, there will need to be breakthrough discoveries made and innovative propulsion systems designed that will bring the solar system into our economic sphere of influence.”

In working towards the goal of extending private space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, Space Adventures continues to pursue its planned circumlunar mission. After consultation with Rocket Space Corporation Energia, modifications to the Soyuz TMA configuration have been agreed upon. The most important of which is the addition of a second habitation module to the Soyuz TMA lunar complex. The additional module would launch with the Block DM propulsion module and rendezvous with the Soyuz spacecraft in low-Earth orbit.

“Space Adventures will once again grace the pages of aerospace history, when the first private circumlunar mission launches. We have sold one of the two seats for this flight and anticipate that the launch will occur in 2015,” said Richard Garriott, Vice-Chairman of Space Adventures. “Having flown on the Soyuz, I can attest to how comfortable the spacecraft is, but the addition of the second habitation module will only make the flight that more enjoyable.”

Space Adventures, the company that organized the flights for the world’s first private space explorers, is headquartered in Vienna, Va. with an office in Moscow. It offers a variety of programs such as the availability today for spaceflight missions to the International Space Station and around the moon, Zero-Gravity flights, cosmonaut training, spaceflight qualification programs and reservations on future suborbital spacecraft. The company’s advisory board includes Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, Shuttle astronauts Sam Durrance, Tom Jones, Byron Lichtenberg, Norm Thagard, Kathy Thornton, Pierre Thuot, Charles Walker, and Skylab/Shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott.



Why the US Can Beat China: The Facts About SpaceX Costs

May 4, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

by Elon Musk

Whenever someone proposes to do something that has never been done before, there will always be skeptics.

So when I started SpaceX, it was not surprising when people said we wouldn’t succeed.  But now that we’ve successfully proven Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Dragon, there’s been a steady stream of misinformation and doubt expressed about SpaceX’s actual launch costs and prices.

As noted last month by a Chinese government official, SpaceX currently has the best launch prices in the world and they don’t believe they can beat them.  This is a clear case of American innovation trumping lower overseas labor rates.

I recognize that our prices shatter the historical cost models of government-led developments, but these prices are not arbitrary, premised on capturing a dominant share of the market, or “teaser” rates meant to lure in an eager market only to be increased later. These prices are based on known costs and a demonstrated track record, and they exemplify the potential of America’s commercial space industry.

Here are the facts:

The price of a standard flight on a Falcon 9 rocket is $54 million. We are the only launch company that publicly posts this information on our website (www.spacex.com).  We have signed many legally binding contracts with both government and commercial customers for this price (or less).  Because SpaceX is so vertically integrated, we know and can control the overwhelming majority of our costs.  This is why I am so confident that our performance will increase and our prices will decline over time, as is the case with every other technology.

The average price of a full-up NASA Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station is $133 million including inflation, or roughly $115m in today’s dollars, and we have a firm, fixed price contract with NASA for 12 missions.  This price includes the costs of the Falcon 9 launch, the Dragon spacecraft, all operations, maintenance and overhead, and all of the work required to integrate with the Space Station.  If there are cost overruns, SpaceX will cover the difference.  (This concept may be foreign to some traditional government space contractors that seem to believe that cost overruns should be the responsibility of the taxpayer.)

The total company expenditures since being founded in 2002 through the 2010 fiscal year were less than $800 million, which includes all the development costs for the Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Dragon.  Included in this $800 million are the costs of building launch sites at Vandenberg, Cape Canaveral and Kwajalein, as well as the corporate manufacturing facility that can support up to 12 Falcon 9 and Dragon missions per year.  This total also includes the cost of five flights of Falcon 1, two flights of Falcon 9, and one up and back flight of Dragon.

The Falcon 9 launch vehicle was developed from a blank sheet to first launch in four and half years for just over $300 million. The Falcon 9 is an EELV class vehicle that generates roughly one million pounds of thrust (four times the maximum thrust of a Boeing 747) and carries more payload to orbit than a Delta IV Medium.

The Dragon spacecraft was developed from a blank sheet to the first demonstration flight in just over four years for about $300 million. Last year, SpaceX became the first private company, in partnership with NASA, to successfully orbit and recover a spacecraft.  The spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket that carried it were designed, manufactured and launched by American workers for an American company.  The Falcon 9/Dragon system, with the addition of a launch escape system, seats and upgraded life support, can carry seven astronauts to orbit, more than double the capacity of the Russian Soyuz, but at less than a third of the price per seat.

SpaceX has been profitable every year since 2007, despite dramatic employee growth and major infrastructure and operations investments.  We have over 40 flights on manifest representing over $3 billion in revenues.

These are the objective facts, confirmed by external auditors.  Moreover, SpaceX intends to make far more dramatic reductions in price in the long term when full launch vehicle reusability is achieved.  We will not be satisfied with our progress until we have achieved this long sought goal of the space industry.

For the first time in more than three decades, America last year began taking back international market-share in commercial satellite launch.  This remarkable turn-around was sparked by a small investment NASA made in SpaceX in 2006 as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.  A unique public-private partnership, COTS has proven that under the right conditions, a properly incentivized contractor—even an all-American one—can develop extremely complex systems on rapid timelines and a fixed-price basis, significantly beating historical industry-standard costs.

China has the fastest growing economy in the world.  But the American free enterprise system, which allows anyone with a better mouse-trap to compete, is what will ensure that the United States remains the world’s greatest superpower of innovation.



Commercial Spaceflight Federation Applauds Winners of Round Two of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program

April 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Washington, D.C., Monday, April 18, 2011 – The Commercial Spaceflight Federation congratulates NASA’s announcement today to award a total of $269 million through NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Round Two (“CCDev2”) Program.  The winners include CSF members Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and SpaceX.  The Commercial Spaceflight Federation would also like to congratulate the Boeing team that includes CSF Member Bigelow Aerospace.  The awards will allow US commercial companies to achieve critical milestones on the path to achieving commercial human spaceflight capabilities, thereby enabling America to end America’s reliance on Russian vehicles to send humans to space, lower costs to the U.S. taxpayer, replace some of the capabilities of the Space Shuttle when it retires later this year, and help spur new technology innovation and job growth in the U.S. space industry.

The CCDev2 program represents the continuation of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (“COTS”) Cargo and CCDev programs, under which companies have been developing various commercial launch vehicles and spacecraft. Awards will take the form of milestone-based, fixed-price, pay-for-performance NASA investment using Space Act Agreements instead of traditional government contracts.  The program will culminate in a Commercial Crew Program in which companies will demonstrate the capability of taking NASA crews to and from the International Space Station.

“Today is a landmark day for commercial spaceflight.  This is a big step towards opening up the space frontier,” said John Gedmark, Executive Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.  “Leveraging private investment is the only way NASA can make its dollars go farther in these times of belt tightening.  And by investing in commercial spaceflight rather than continuing to sending billions of dollars to Russia, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is creating American jobs instead of sending them abroad.”

“Today’s announcement marks a critical milestone on the path to a commercial human spaceflight sector that will lower the cost of space access and open new markets,” said Eric Anderson, Chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.  “To have a large and diverse group of U.S. companies among today’s winners, including both established contractors and newer entrants, emphasizes that American industry is ready to handle the task of commercial human spaceflight—safely, affordably, and rapidly. We expect immediate job creation across the United States, including in Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Virginia, and Washington state.”

Anderson added, “A major advantage of commercial spaceflight programs over traditional NASA procurements is that the CCDev program is commercially structured so that NASA pays only when performance milestones are met.  These agreements are fixed-price, milestone-based, and leverage private investment.  These companies are investing their own money alongside NASA’s money adding even more investment in the final system.  Each taxpayer dollar goes farther.”

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is pleased to congratulate:

• Blue Origin of Kent, Washington, which will receive $22 million for orbital commercial spaceflight vehicle design and development, including testing of its pusher escape system and engine testing.

• Sierra Nevada Corporation of Louisville, Colorado, which will receive $80 million to mature the Dream Chaser human spaceflight system, focusing on multiple spacecraft items.

• SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, which flew its Dragon capsule to orbit and recovered it successfully last year, which will receive $75 million for items including launch escape system engine maturation and crew accommodation prototype development.

• The Boeing Company of Houston, Texas, whose team includes CSF member Bigelow Aerospace, which will receive $92.3 million for CST-100 crew spacecraft maturation and launch vehicle integration, focusing on multiple items including launch escape system propulsion.

About the Commercial Spaceflight Federation
The mission of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) is to promote the development of commercial human spaceflight, pursue ever-higher levels of safety, and share best practices and expertise throughout the industry. The Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s member companies, which include commercial spaceflight developers, operators, spaceports, suppliers, and service providers, are creating thousands of high-tech jobs nationwide, working to preserve American leadership in aerospace through technology innovation, and inspiring young people to pursue careers in science and engineering. For more information please visit www.commercialspaceflight.org or contact Executive Director John Gedmark at john@commercialspaceflight.org or at 202.349.1121.


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