We live in a time when all about us are signs and portents. Like distant voices whose utterances are just beyond the discernible, they hint at coming change, but a wondrous change. The evidence is building that we stand at a nexus, a connection point between two, distinct eras: one in which space exploration is the purview of a handful of elite explorers and another in which space is where the common man looks for new opportunities and high adventure. We cannot yet place the epoch of the latter, but it is near and will surely herald the next step of our evolution when we realize a multi-planet civilization. The signs are all around. Just look.
Investment in private, human space flight is up. I study performed by the Tauri Group of Alexandria, VA, based on interviews with 22 US spaceflight companies found a greater than 25 percent increase in personal spaceflight services. Carissa Christensen, co-founder and Managing Partner of Tauri, was quoted in Space News this week as saying of the study that “the real highlight is the sizable investment that is not government related.” This is an important point. The industry should be able to stand on its own. In order to do that, it should not be overly reliant upon tax dollars, i.e. government programs, as have all manned space flight programs to date. And here we have early signs of its development that show the industry emerging as self-supporting an autonomous.
The Augustine Committee concludes that commercial entities should transport humans to low earth orbit and run ISS. Sally Ride, a committee member and astronaut, said “We would like to be able to get NASA out of the business of getting people to low Earth orbit.” It would seem that the sterile grumbling of naysayers to commercial, human space flight such a Senator Richard Shelby are being drowned out by a rapidly-growing cacophony of voices — voices in a position to know — who believe as the Committee when it comes to the capabilities of the private sector.
An op ed appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week in which 13 NASA astronauts went on the record as enthusiastically endorsing the idea of commercial, human space flight taking over the task of transporting people to low earth orbit. The statements made in it were sanguine, unequivocal and certain. This large group of astronauts who have participated in every manned space program since Apollo have publicly proclaimed in one loud voice that “NASA should put its unique resources into pushing back the final frontier and not in repaving the earth-to-orbit road it cleared a half century ago.” This, they “wholeheartedly” believe, should be the purview of the private sector.
Virgin Galactic announced that SpaceShipTwo will be unveiled in December in preparation for regular passenger-carrying service. In the space of 5 very short years, the idea of the common man having access to space has gone from science fiction to a fact of every-day life. And now we must update our dictionaries with a new term: spaceliner.
There has begun a serious effort to place a base on the lunar surface. The Vision For Space Exploration begun under the Bush administration is now yielding fruit, and as you read this article, NASA is building new technology to support humans on the moon. Take for example research the agency has begun into fusion power production using Helium-3 mined from lunar regolith. There’s also the Lunar Electric Rover as well as a series of habitat modules being considered, to name just a few of the new technologies being developed. And just as private companies are partnered with the government to provide logistical support for bases in the Antarctic, so too will the private sector follow NASA to the moon and provide a host of services. A happy byproduct of their involvement will be the reduction of the costs of these activities, not to mention the opening of opportunities to countless people to make careers in space. So many that we’ll see the emergence of the blue collar space worker.
Three well-funded and expertly-managed companies are moving towards orbital destinations: Galactic Suite, Bigelow Aerospace and Excalibur Almaz. Following as the next step in private space travel beyond sub-orbital flights, having a destination is crucial for the growth in commercial, human space. A flight aboard one of Virgin Galactic’s new spaceliners to the edge of space is going to be a fantastic, life-changing experience, but add a destination and it opens up a whole, new universe. From orbiting laboratories to hotels, a new infrastructure will soon emerge hanging just a few hundred miles above our heads. It will begin as an outpost and rapidly grow into a floating city and point of departure for any other place in the solar system.
In order to reach these destinations, a transportation system is needed capable of reaching orbit. SpaceX is developing both a booster and a spacecraft that are up to the task. They’re already under contract by NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station using their Falcon 9 heavy lift rocket and Dragon spacecraft. The Falcon 9 is set for its maiden flight this year, and the Dragon — while formally contracted for cargo — has been designed from the beginning with a human crew in mind and can easily be upgraded for the task.
Put all these signs together, and they portend a radical shift of paradigm but one whose time has come. It’s a logical and necessary step in our civilization’s evolution for the private sector to begin laying down the infrastructure on those beachheads long established by NASA, and in so doing, create the first settlement off earth. Low Earth orbit is one such place. It could well become the Jamestown of our time. But whether that is in orbit or on the moon, the journey has already begun.
From John Gedmark, Commercial Spaceflight Federation
Washington, D.C., October 16, 2009 – Commercial human spaceflight received a strong endorsement today by a group of thirteen former NASA astronauts who published an opinion piece titled “Commercial Spaceflight: All Systems Go” in the Wall Street Journal.
Astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Ken Bowersox, Jake Garn, Robert Gibson, Hank Hartsfield, John Herrington, John Lounge, Rick Searfoss, Norman Thagard, Kathryn Thornton, Jim Voss and Charles Walker stated, “We strongly agree with the Augustine Committee’s endorsement of commercial human spaceflight, and we encourage the White House and Congress to embrace this positive vision for our nation’s future in space.”
The thirteen astronauts have collectively flown a total of 42 space missions and logged a total of 2 years and 48 days in space aboard six different space vehicles including Gemini, Apollo, Space Shuttle, Soyuz, Mir, and the International Space Station. The group included the following excerpts in their op-ed:
- “We believe that the commercial sector is fully capable of safely handling the critical task of low-Earth-orbit human transportation.”
- “NASA should put its unique resources into pushing back the final frontier and not in repaving the earth-to-orbit road it cleared a half century ago.”
- “We are fully confident that the commercial spaceflight sector can provide a level of safety equal to that offered by the venerable Russian Soyuz system, which has flown safely for the last 38 years, and exceeding that of the Space Shuttle.”
- “We enthusiastically endorse this robust vision for the future of human spaceflight— a vision in which NASA is free to concentrate on the challenges of exploration beyond low Earth orbit while private commerce enables increased activity in Earth orbit.”
Following the publication of the astronaut op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation welcomed today’s show of support by the community of former NASA astronauts. Bretton Alexander, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, stated, “As the nation’s policymakers consider the future path of our space program, the commercial spaceflight sector is honored to receive today’s strong endorsement by these distinguished former NASA astronauts. We agree with these astronauts that a robust commercially procured crew capability will help enable our nation’s space program to reach new heights.”
The European Space Agency’s SMART-1 team has released new images of the future impact site of NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), after the LCROSS team announced a new target last week. LCROSS will search for water ice on the Moon by making two impacts into a crater named Cabeus at the lunar South Pole. The impacts are scheduled for 11:30 and 11:34 am UT on 9 October 2009.
Bjoern Grieger, the liaison scientist for SMART-1’s AMIE camera, and Project Scientist Bernard Foing have searched through SMART-1’s database for images of Cabeus, taken four years ago. The SMART-1 images are at high resolution as the spacecraft was near its closest distance of 500 km from the South Pole. The SMART-1 images of LCROSS potential targets were discussed on 18 September at lunar sessions of European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) in Potsdam, Germany.
Cabeus interior is permanently shadowed, so ice lying inside the crater could be protected from the Sun’s harsh rays. LCROSS will send the upper stage Centaur rocket crashing into Cabeus and a shepherd spacecraft will fly into the plume of dust generated and measure its properties before making a second impact with the lunar surface. Astronomers will observe both impacts using ground and space-based telescopes. The SMART-1 spacecraft also concluded it mission with a controlled bouncing impact on 3 September 2006. The event was observed with ground-based telescopes ( a “dry run” for LCROSS) and the flash from the impact was detected at infrared wavelengths.
“The Cabeus topographic features as observed by SMART-1 vary greatly during the lunar rotation and the yearly seasons due to the polar grazing illumination conditions” , says Bernard H. Foing, ESA SMART-1 project scientist. “The floor of Cabeus near LCROSS targets shows number of small craters , and seems old enough to have accumulated water ice delivered from comets and water-rich asteroids, and might have kept it frozen in its shadowed area”.
“These ESA SMART-1 observations of Cabeus crater can help in the final planning and interpretation of LCROSS impact observations. The coordination and exchange of information between lunar missions as recommended by the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG), is an important step on the path to future ‘villages’ of robotic landers and international lunar bases”, he added.
In a statement this past Friday, Sergey Kostenko of Russia’s RSC Energia corporation announced that the company will be increasing production of the Soyuz spacecraft from 4 to 5 per year beginning in 2012. With 4 of the five committed solely to International Space Station missions, this leaves one per year each year dedicated to taking private space adventurers to the station. For these flights, Virginia-based Space Adventures — the company that contracts these flights — would pay for the construction of the spaceship, the launch services and the salary of a Russian cosmonaut as crew commander.
“We have been working on this project for a number of years. Each Soyuz will carry two tourists and a professional astronaut. One of the tourists will have to pass a year-and-a-half training course as a flight engineer,” Kostenko said. He went on to say that Google co-founder Serguy Brin is a candidate for one of the those flights. Space Adventures announced Brin as a possibility in April.
In an article titled Space Tourism Yet To Fly, 5 Years Since 1st Flight the Associated Press reported yesterday the apparent angst of one customer who has placed a deposit on a Virgin Galactic flight that he has yet to take. And though not particularly critical, the article does fail to make a critical point: that much of the delay was caused by a re-design of SpaceShipTwo.
The re-design was prompted by customers. They expressed the desire for plenty of cabin and window space, and Virgin Galactic listened — and wisely so — intently to their customers, knowing that it meant a non-trivial delay in the vehicle’s rollout date. When was the last time you heard GM, Ford or Chrysler delay the rollout of a new car, answering customer’s requests for more features? The decision to delay must have been painful. After all, unlike The Big Three, VG does not enjoy the benefit of a mature industry already making a profit. The space tourism industry is still very much in its infancy, but the company opted to do the right thing even if it hurt to do so. I think they call that character.
Let’s keep things in perspective. We’re witnessing the emergence of something new, something never before tried in the history of mankind — and if you doubt that, try finding the word “spaceliner” in your favorite dictionary. Sending people into space on a massive scale and doing it with a safety level at least a hundred times that of current systems is no small matter. And it’s hardly a feat one can place on a strict time table. The fact is the delays only amount to roughly two and a half years, so the title of the AP article is at best poorly chosen and at worst misleading.
Virgin Galactic has announced that the new spaceliner, the first of which is called Enterprise, will be rolled out this December with a busy flight testing schedule to begin shortly thereafter. White Night Two, the jet-powered carrier aircraft that will lift Enterprise and her 4 companion spacecraft to over 50,000 feet before rocket ignition, has enjoyed a very successful test program. Spaceport America, to become the new home of Virgin Galactic in Upham, New Mexico, is under construction. Regulatory restrictions have been removed. Investment continues to flow. All the pieces have come together to insure that the next era in space travel comes to fruition.
So here we stand a mere 5 years from the flight that proved the concept of space travel for the common man, and the dream is but a hair’s-breadth away.