NASA As A Regulatory Agency?

April 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is responsible for licensing and certifying commercial spacecraft. In the future, NASA plans to fly its astronauts, scientists and payloads on some of those craft. Should NASA also become a part of the regulatory process in addition to FAA/AST? Take the quick poll to the right in the side bar.


The Writing On The Wall

April 11, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

The Constellation Program is NASA’s next step in human space transportation. From it will come three major systems. The first is a rocket called Ares to carry humans and their stuff into earth orbit, the first stop on any interplanetary journey. From this staging area, Ares will separate from it’s so called “upper stage.” That’s space lingo again for the top part of the rocket, inside of which is nestled a second vehicle: Orion. It’s job is to ferry astronauts and cargo between planetary destinations. Once there, a third vehicle is needed to reach the surface. That will be Altair. And if any of this sounds familiar, it’s because the technology is an updated version of another, much earlier system called Apollo that landed 12 men on the moon in the 60′s and early 70′s. That’s not to say that it’s the same system. It’s not. The avionics (onboard, controlling electronics) alone are a huge leap forward compared to that of Apollo, the computing power of which is exceeded by today’s cheapest pocket calculator.

Collectively Ares, Orion and Altair will be far more capable than any space transportation system NASA has ever flown. But the system carries with it a huge price tag, and it will not be available before 2015. That leaves the US space program with an interruption of at least 5 years between the end of the Space Shuttle and the first flight of Orion; the so called “Shuttle Gap.” What are we to do in the intervening time? The International Space Station must continue to be crewed and resupplied, and allowing ourselves to become reliant on Russia – or any outside entity, for that matter – for fulfilling that mission is a questionable proposition, at best. It places us in a very weak position.

But there is another vehicle, which has been under development in recent years by private industry that can easily fill most of the Shuttle Gap, and in my estimation go a great deal further. It is being flight tested even as you read this article. It’s name? Dragon! The vehicle and its booster the Falcon 9 are the brainchild of Elon Musk, Founder and CEO of a company called SpaceX. The name is ostensibly a shortened form of Space Exploration Technologies, but I could argue that it’s short for “vision, ingenuity and tenacity.” Tenacity, because Mr. Musk has built this system with his own money.

If you’ve not heard of SpaceX or Dragon, it’s because the mainstream media has paid them little attention, choosing instead to cast their spotlight on Constellation, NASA’s gleaming, new program. The oversight is the result of a stubborn affinity for an antiquated paradigm: what I call the ‘space equals NASA’ mindset. The reality is that space is no longer the exclusive domain of the agency. Private industry stands ready to fulfill many science and commercial space missions and at a fraction of the cost of government programs.

Another great example of private industry making huge strides where government programs seem to be at a standstill is the partnership between Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic. Scaled has built and is now testing SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft WhiteNightTwo. Once testing is complete, they are to be delivered to Virgin where they’ll begin flying regular folks into space from their permanent home at Spaceport America in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Imagine that. Space for the common man.

The systems being built and flight tested today as part of a new industry that has been termed “personal space flight” have gone largely ignored. They work quietly in the background, diligently creating space vehicles and their support systems that will be capable of anything that government programs can turn out and at a fraction of the cost. The signs are all there, but because the systems are associated with space tourism they’ve gone unnoticed. The connection has not been made between these companies and our national goals for space as laid out in the Vision For Space Exploration.

The possibilities offered us by private industry are enormous and untapped. Take as another example Bigelow Aerospace. Here again we have a visionary entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow, who used his own money to build and demonstrate a space system, which can be used to get humans into space, en masse. His product is a habitat module, and it’s a marvel of innovation. The whole structure is flown into space in a collapsed configuration to save space in the booster. Once on orbit, it inflates into living space for people to carry out any objective they choose, be it a scientific investigation, manufacturing of materials and pharmaceuticals possible only in a microgravity environment, staging of an interplanetary mission, tourism and the list goes on. And the structures are modular so that they can be connected and made into a space station, the ultimate size of which is unlimited!

When you put all the pieces together, what you have is an ability within the private sector to deliver an orbiting infrastructure and at a price that is fiscally attainable. Earth orbit is no longer the frontier. We’re now ready to go beyond a mere outpost there to having orbiting cities. But this requires three things: infrastructure, infrastructure and infrastructure. It’s a vision that can be made reality through a partnership between the citizens and private space entrepreneurs. History has already shown us that the big government programs cannot do the job. They haven’t done the job, and it’s fair to say that they shouldn’t be expected to. NASA’s job is research and development. When it come to space, that means pressing back the limits of the frontier. Colonization has never been written into its charter. That requires something else entirely. It requires the kind of fiscal agility that only the private sector possesses.

The writing is on the wall. Space tourism is the key to a space-based infrastructure leading to a large-scale human presence in space. But don’t approach Burt Rutan, Richard Branson or Elon Musk with that suggestion just yet. Their emphasis is rightly on getting their systems flight ready and proven, on turning a profit for their companies. Asking them to think about colonization would be like approaching the inventors of the laser while they were still working on the first prototype and asking them if they had considered Lasik as an application for the new invention. They likely would have politely but firmly dismissed the idea as premature, but we all know where that lead. The laser completely revolutionized not one but dozens of industries and in doing so changed the course of human history. And so it will be with space tourism, that is if we finally shed the notion that space equals NASA.


The Ansari X Prize

April 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 


“Our challenge is in front of us, and we’ve only begun.” 
— Burt Rutan


Being present at the making of history is a rare and humbling experience. And so it was when I attended the two X Prize flights in 2004. I was there to cover the story for the Space Operations Communicator journal, but to be perfectly honest I would have gone any way I could.

When I reached the Mojave I carried with me all the hopes and aspirations of a lifetime of dreaming about space, not to mention a lifetime of frustration at the dismal lack of progress by NASA. Say what you will about the development and service history of the Space Shuttle. To go from putting men on the moon and having a lunar colony within your grasp to falling back to low earth orbit and remaining there for the next several decades would be like Lewis and Clark returning home from their expedition in 1806 and, being asked what they discovered and what the next step should be, proclaiming they found nothing but a few trees and it really wasn’t worth all the fuss.

The Space Shuttle was far less capable than its predecessor Apollo, far too expensive both in terms of dollars and lives, and stunted advancement in space exploration. But here in the high desert a small group of audacious engineers, backed by an even smaller group of investors – visionaries one and all – were preparing to prove what can be accomplished when men dare to put everything on the line for a dream and without a government safety net.

The outcome of those flights is now a matter of history, but two amazing truths surfaced that summer, which I hope, through my writings, I can bring to the collective consciousness of the public: that the future of human space flight leading to eventual colonization need not be determined or dictated by any government program and that space is more than a topic of conversation or a literary device; it’s a destination.

And that destination is one that any of us can set for himself. One need not be the youngest, the richest, the brightest, healthiest or bravest to shoot for the stars, but you will need to pack your satchel with plenty of daring and tenacity. Mike Melvill has shown us the way. He was 63 when he made the final test flight and the first of two prize-winning flights in SpaceShipOne. He overcame all the dangers and challenges of space flight and went on to redefine the word “astronaut.” He now holds the first pair of commercial astronaut wings ever issued.

The article that follows is one that I wrote just after the X Prize competition concluded. Like my earlier article covering the final test flight, it comes to you devoid of the usual media nonsense and sensationalism.






On October 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne captured the X Prize when it flew above the Karman Line into space for a second time following its first flight 5 days earlier. Richard Searfoss, Commander of the STS-90 Space Shuttle mission and Chief X Prize judge, reported that the radar at Edwards Air Force Base recorded an apogee altitude of 367,442 ± 100 feet MSL. This second flight, piloted by Brian Binnie, not only secured the X Prize, but it beat the high altitude record held for decades by the X-15 of 354,200 feet. When Brian landed at 8:13:10 PDT, he returned to a world no longer quite the same place it once was. The difference is that there is now a successfully demonstrated vehicle capable of carrying the common man on sub-orbital flights. Space is no longer reserved as the playground of an elite few.

Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a cooperative project of Burt Rutan and Paul Allen, started the competition with the flight of September 29th. Pilot Mike Melvill, 63 of Tehachapi California, flew to 337,591 ± 100 feet MSL. On the ascent stage of that flight, the craft began a series of rolls that many in the media attempted to sensationalize into a near disaster. The truth of the matter is that SpaceShipOne has too much dihedral: the upward sweep angle of the wings. A known design problem, it causes the Ship to be overly sensitive to roll inputs from the pilot. When the rolling began, Mike had no difficulty in nulling out the angular rates with the reaction control system, or RCS: a cold gas system of thrusters built into the nose and wings. There never was any danger that he would lose control. Any implication to the contrary is simply erroneous.

In designing the SpaceShipOne system, comprised of a turbojet aircraft first stage and a solid rocket propellant driven second stage, Burt Rutan exceeded the requirements of the X Prize and made innovations even beyond the scope of the contest. First, competition requirements held that the overall system must be 90% re-usable, at a minimum. The SS1 system exceeds this by a comfortable 7%. Since only 3% of the system is replaced after each flight, the turnaround time between flights, as demonstrated, is merely a few days. Once the follow-on vehicles enter service and flights are scheduled regularly over the course of months to years, it’s likely that this time will be substantially reduced. But for any system seeking to carry passengers to become viable, it must demonstrate a high degree of safety. Speaking at the press conference after the second flight, Burt said, “We’ve identified some major breakthroughs that make us confident that manned space flight can be flown at very high safety levels compared to current manned space vehicles. Very, very high safety.” One of these breakthroughs is the so-called “carefree re-entry.” Most of us have seen the videos by now of the Ship in re-entry mode where the rear half of the wing “feathers” or rotates to a perpendicular position relative to the longitudinal axis of the craft. In terms of safety, this was a stroke of genius – so simple, and yet so elegant. In this configuration, the wing will align the craft into the correct attitude; nose first for re-entry without the need for any input from the pilot.

Modeled after the Orteig Prize designed to spur on aviation in the early 20th century, the X Prize has accomplished a similar goal to jump-start private space. It was a prize that motivated Charles Lindbergh to team up with Ryan Airlines Corporation to build the Spirit of St. Louis and fly it non-stop from New York to Paris in May of 1927. Soon after, investment in aviation increased by several orders of magnitude and a new industry was born almost over night. It is a prize that has brought the engineering talent and investment dollars necessary to take on this next step in flight, and history repeats itself. Already we see investors stepping up to meet the challenge of building the new industry of space tourism. Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin group of companies has put up $14M, and in what may well signal the start of the next “space race”, an agreement has been reached with Scaled Composites to design the vehicles that will enter service with Virgin Galactic to make astronauts by the thousands. Far from winding down after winning the X Prize, Burt’s efforts are ramping up. Speaking of the new agreement with Virgin Galactic, he said, “Thanks to [Sir Richard Branson's] plan to move this into the next step… our challenge is in front of us, and we’ve only begun.” One can only wonder at this point how far he can ride this wave of success. If history is any indicator, there is no limit. After sub-orbital flight, the next challenge will be to attain orbit – not a simple thing to do. It will require a great deal more energy. Also, there is the issue of heat shielding. Still, Burt is the kind of engineer who thinks well outside the box. If anyone can pull it off, he can.

Now we find ourselves with a small annoyance. There has been a new term entered into the English lexicon about which all our spell checkers will be complaining with those darned red underlines: “spaceliner.” This little bother serves as perhaps the subtlest clue that we stand on the precipice of a new era.

There is a deep, underlying urge for humanity to move forward as a race into space. It is a desire that cannot be quenched or dissuaded. Far beyond the baby steps we’ve taken thus far by an elite few of us, there is a yearning among the populace to live and work in space, permanently. But after half a century of the trailblazing efforts of NASA, we’re still no closer to seeing humans enter space en masse now than we were during the Nixon administration. A new direction has to be taken to make this happen. It’s time to change course.

Mark Twain once wrote that, “The Mississippi is remarkable… [in] its disposition to make prodigious jumps by cutting through narrow necks of land, and thus straightening and shortening itself. More than once it has shortened itself thirty miles at a single jump!” Like the mighty Mississippi river driven by the unyielding forces of nature to find the shortest route to the Gulf of Mexico, mankind is making one such cut-off to establish a shorter route to space – and not only for the elite but for the rest of us.

On November 6th, The Mojave Aerospace Ventures team will be formally presented with the X Prize and a check for $10M at a ceremony in St. Louis. Yet this will not be the end. The competition will continue with the X Prize Cup. The Cup will be an annual event held in Las Cruces New Mexico where teams will compete to continue to expand the envelope in areas such as greatest altitude reached, time to climb and greatest payload carried.


The Last Test Flight of SpaceShipOne

April 4, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

“The next twenty five years is going to be a wild ride” — Burt Rutan

I wrote the following article back in 2004 after watching the final test flight of SpaceShipOne, which led up to the two Ansari X Prize flights. Originally published in the Space Operations Communicator journal, I’m re-posting it here for your enjoyment.

You’ll find the account of this flight to be completely free of the media misinformation and half truths that surrounded the event at the time.

sso22In the predawn hours of Monday, June 21st, the media begins to assemble by the hundreds along the edge of the taxiway for runway 30. SpaceShipOne, slung underneath the belly of its turbojet carrier aircraft White Night, is being prepared for its historic flight to become the world’s first commercial spacecraft. Less than a week after the FAA formally granted the license to establish the Mojave Airport as a commercial spaceport, throngs of spectators estimated to number near 50,000 watch and wait as the sun slowly begins to peak above the mountains in the distance. There’s an almost palpable feeling of optimism and hope hanging in the desert air soon be broken by jet wash.

The weather on this launch day is “VFR to the moon” in pilots’ jargon. Visibility is unlimited; winds are light and out of the south. On the public address system, Copeland’s Rodeo plays, lending to the feeling that this is the wild west of space history that is unfolding. One could not help but reflect back on the earliest days of aviation – ca 1908 – when there were, as Burt Rutan put it the day before, “…only ten people who had flown. And something phenomenal happened in four years. In just those four years, and in 39 countries, there were now hundreds of new types of airplanes, and there were thousands of pilots. They did barnstorming. Then they had mail planes, warplanes and airliners. But can you imagine that in only four years something had sprung up from nothing, and all of that happened?”

Scannsso33ing the faces of the many people who had turned out to witness today’s flight, it’s easy to see the, “…enormous pent up hunger to fly in space” as Burt put it. This may be only the beginning of a more sustained, private effort to include the common man in space travel and exploration. Even now there are companies like Mojave-based XCOR Aerospace who are poised to take up the challenge of developing a “revenue generating” flight program, says its CEO Jeff Greason.

13:47 Zulu and T minus 63 minutes. With a temporary airspace restriction in place, the White Knight-SpaceShipOne mated pair has taxied into position on runway 30. As it passed the media and VIP areas, cheers began to erupt in support. Those cameramen of the press not lucky enough to have secured one of the limited spaces on a riser or bleacher dodge one another in an attempt to get just one more photo before takeoff. Everyone here, including the Civil Air Patrol cadets assigned to crowd control and local law enforcement, is riveted to the scene. With only a short pause, White Knight throttles up and roars down the runway. Now airborne, it begins its hour-long climb to 47,000 feet.

Only minutes before, three chase sso5planes took off and are circling the airport, each waiting its tu

rn as escort for its assigned altitude range. For low altitude chase, pilots Coleman and Bird are flying an Extra. High chase is covered by pilots Karkow and Scherer in a Beechcraft Starship and by pilots Van der Schueren and Johnson in a Dassault Dornier Alpha Jet. When WN-SS1 reaches the altitude of the chase planes, the formation takes up positions around it and the group began its ascent in a slow, upward spiral around the spaceport.

14:33 Zulu and T minus 17 minutes. By now Brian Binnie, pilot for White Knight, is reading off the pre-launch checklist for SpaceShipOne, and Mike is setting his trim. Also around this time, an announcement is made over the public address system that transmissions to and from the space vehicle are being impeded. Apparently someone on the ground is using a portable aviation transceiver, has found and tuned to the unpublished frequency for this mission, and has a stuck mic.

14:43 Zulu and T minus 7 minutes. The announcement has just come that Spacsso6eport Mojave has given clearance to land. Before SpaceShipOne can be launched, it must be known that all is clear for an unobstructed landing to be made. And there comes the word… “Go for light!”

14:50 Zulu and T minus 0. Matt Stinemetze, flight engineer for White Knight, releases the space ship. As Mike drops off, he hits the arm switch and lights his hybrid rocket motor. Immediately he’s experiencing 3 Gs, “eyeballs on” and SpaceShipOne begins to execute a non-commanded snap roll 90 degrees left. In response, Mike stomps on the rudder and regains a wings level attitude. Next stop: space.

Late in the boost phase, Mike has lost the primary pitch trim. In this regime, it’s no longer possible to fly the spacecraft using the stick; trajectory is now controlled by use of the redundant pitch and roll trim mechanisms. With the primary pitch trim inoperable, the backup takes over, but Mike still has no use of it, so he’s flying with the trim settings he has. Now, however, he’s forced to deviate from the planned trajectory. The apogee is going to be lower than expected.

The motor has burned out now at 180,000 feet. Mike is coasting up to apogee. He’s spending the next three and a half minutes weightless, so he’s decided to have a little fun the experience. And why not? Having feathered the wing to maintain alignment of the spacecraft without pilot input and with nothing to do for the next few minutes, he’s taken out a bag of M&Ms and let go of a hand full in front of his face. Sure enough… they float. Now, with the curvature of the earth clearly visible outside the windows, and despite the control system anomaly – the most serious flight test anomaly so far – he’s done it. In what he later describes as an, “…almost religious experience”, he’s passed the threshold by 407 feet and has made it into space. Lacking enough velocity to achieve orbit, gravity take its toll, however, and after what must have seemed an all- too-short space flight, he’s beginning to fall back to earth. Now the pucker factor ramps up in a hurry. He knows he’s got to head back to the spaceport as fast as he can. Already, the control system anomaly on the way up means that he’s going to re-enter south of tsso71he intended recovery point. With a little luck, it’ll still be well within his vehicles glide capability.

14:55 Zulu and T plus 5 minutes. Now in the descent phase, the spacecraft has accelerated to Mach 2.9, and Mike is exceeding 5 Gs. At this speed, he’s really, “hauling the mail!” As he descends deeper into the atmosphere and the air becomes thicker, the spacecraft is being buffeted harder. The kinds of sounds coming through the vehicle are a bit unsettling. Then, all of a sudden, a loud bang! But there seems to be no affect on the handling. Whatever it was, it doesn’t look as if it was a critical system. Still, can’t help but be a little worried.

Descending now through 57,000 feet, and Mike de-feathers the wing, converting SpaceShipOne into a glider. It’s going to be a long 20 minutes from this point to reach the spaceport and return to the same runway from which he took off.

15:01 Zulu and T plus 11 minutes. The announcement has come over the public address system that Mike is at 31,000 feet. He reports, “…a good visual on the airport.”sso101

15:06 Zulu and T plus 16 minutes. The word everyone has been waiting for arrives: confirmation that Mike has made it above 100 km. “We did it! Mission accomplished.”

Burt Rutan and Paul Allen have left mission control and are standing on the tarmac shading their eyes from the sun, looking down the approach end of the runway. A few more moments pass as they strain to catch the first glimpse of SpaceShipOne on final approach. And there it is… coming in fast with the Extra off its right wing. Over the numbers and Mike pulls back slightly on the stick to enter the landing flare. First the main gear touch down. Then, slowly, the nose begins to drop until its skid makes contact. Cheers and applause erupt yet again as this newest of space vehicles rolls to a stop.

Meanwhile, it’s taken White Knight slightly longer than its payload to return to the spaceport. As SpaceShipOne is being hooked up behind the tow vehicle, White Knight descends for sso12a low, victory pass over the runway. Before reaching the end, it pulls up sharply and banks left. Without the extra mass hanging below its fuselage, it’s amazingly agile. In seconds, it’s out of sight. A minute or two later, it’s back; this time, with the other two chase planes. The trio flies in formation for a final pass over the spaceport. All around, faces are smiling, and a few heads are shaking in amazement as it begins to sink in. Wow. They actually did it.

Coming up the taxiway is a white, Ford pickup truck, and behind it is SpaceShipOne securely in tow. As he passes, Mike waves out of the open porthole, grinning from ear to ear. Tow vehicle and space ship come to a halt, and with the hatch now open, Mike jumps out to be greeted with hugs and handshakes, and you could swear he’s walking a foot off the ground. Burt later admits that he’s glad he resisted the suggestion to have a mic there to record the first words spoken. The emotion is so strong that the moment is best left private. But we can all imagine the kinds of words being exchanged. It’s taken these brave men of uncommon vision years of hard work and sso131commitment, and of the proverbial “blood, sweat and tears” to reach this moment. From the beginning, it’s been a gamble. Burt told the press on the day before launch, “We stuck our necks out a mile by developing an in-house motor.” Unable to buy one suitable enough for their specifications, they were left with little choice. But the gambles all paid off. Now, in front of the world, Burt, Paul and Mike stand shoulder-to-shoulder and extend their thumbs up.

This was not a nominal test flight, however. Work lies ahead to determine why there was a control system anomaly. Before they can move on to the X-Prize flights, the cause of the anomaly must be found and fixed. Also, the question of whether Mike shut down the motor or it shutdown on its own remains unanswered. Still, there were some spectacular successes today. The apogee is on the record as being 328,491 feet. There’s no question about it. They achieved what they set out to achieve with this test flight. On hand are representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration and from the Guinness Book of Records. The FAA awards Mike the world’s first pair of commercial astronaut wings, and to the team, Guinness presents a certificate for the first ever, privately-funded, manned space fight.

The loud bang Mike heard turned out to be thermal buckling in the motor’s nozzle faring. In order to decrease drag by another three to four percent, it was installed the first time sso14for this flight. The buckling (seen as a dent just below the nozzle) was never a risk to the spacecraft. Burt reports that, “The nozzle would not hurt the airplane if it fell off.” And indeed there were, “No issues at all with the motor.” The faring is a minor issue.

There’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that SpaceShipOne is going on to make the X-Prize flights. And if the Scaled-Vulcan team wins, what comes next? Understandably, Burt is very tight lipped about future plans: A sound strategy. But he did manage to drop us a little hint when he said at the pre-flight press conference that, “We’re going to orbit sooner than you think.” If Burt does have his sights set on an orbital vehicle, it’s sure that he will not stop until he realizes that goal.

For now, we can all take great satisfaction in the certainty that a new era has begun. If you doubt that, Administrator Stu Witt has a few words for you: “Mojave Spaceport is now open for business.”



In a telephone interview with Wired magazine on July 6, Burt Rutan said that the control system anomaly has been resolved. The source of the problem was an actuator that delayed moving one of the flaps because it “had run against a stop,” limiting its movement. The glitch helped push the spacecraft off course. Burt went on to say that they have new information on the source of another anomaly. Mike Melvill’s initial feeling that it was not his input that caused the spacecraft to roll left after engine light was correct. The unexpected roll was caused by wind sheer.

In interview with US news network MSNBC, Mike revealed new information on the source of the loud bang he heard during the flight. He stated that it was caused when a chunk of solid fuel jammed the rocket nozzle for a split second before the pressure built up and expelled the chunk. “It was something weird we hadn’t seen happen with that rocket motor.” The most exciting news, however, came when he announced that they plan on trying for the X-Prize flights toward the end of September this year!


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