To Profit and Beyond

January 26, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Man’s greatest discoveries have most often led to great commercial gains – some more rapidly than others. Take, for example, the mere decade it took to go from Kitty Hawk and Orville Wright’s maiden twelve seconds in the air, during which time Wright traveled only 120 feet, to the first commercial air flight, piloted by Tony Jannus, which traveled from St. Petersburg to Tampa on January 1st, 1914. We all know how many industries have been developed since that time, that are either directly or indirectly related to air travel. If it were not for entrepreneurship and the private sector, flying might never have been developed to the extent it has for the general public.

Though flight was the foundation for space travel and lunar exploration, leaving Earth’s gravitational pull has been a very different business model. But all that is changing. Back when Neil Armstrong’s left boot hit lunar pay dirt on July 20th 1969, those of us fortunate enough to remember it probably did not know that the Apollo missions were costing the United States seven percent of its national budget. It has been almost forty years that Gene Cernan has held the title “The last man to step foot on the moon,” and that’s in no small part because of stricter government funding. The technology and manpower exist to return man to the moon, but until recently, national space programs were the only routes to get there. However, with the advent of business interests in space and lunar exploration, private funding is increasingly becoming available, which will allow man to truly understand the resources beyond Earth’s atmosphere, as well as to explore and expand possibilities of extended life support in space.

The private sector’s time has come. Lunar exploration has yielded interesting finds about resources for which mankind has a pressing need. With some of Earth’s resources rapidly depleting, both governments and businesses alike have been searching for more methods to recycle dwindling resources like water and petroleum, and to develop new ones such as bio fuels. But recent lunar exploration has proven what was earlier doubted, namely that the Moon has both large quantities of water, which may be made potable and a resource for hydrogen, as well as the Helium 3 ion, a crucial element of fusion power that is almost non-existent on Earth. Fusion power, unlike nuclear power, creates almost no waste, and could become mankind’s primary power source if harvested sufficiently. Still further, lunar platinum could bridge a large gap in the amount of the metal needed to convert all current internal combustion engines over to hydrogen power cell technology. As it stands, all the platinum on earth would not be enough to fill that gap, but the moon may have many times that here at home.

Obviously, with many national space programs lacking adequate funding, the private sector sees a great opportunity in lunar exploration. Lunar exploration can offer not only a significant harvesting ground for vital resources, but can also function as an outpost of the Earth for further space exploration. With only a single second time lag in communications, the Moon is close enough to our planet to allow man to control robots and other machines remotely, and can conveniently serve as a much-needed launching pad for any future private or national deep space telescope and research facilities. And along the way, a space-based infrastructure will be built to support these flights, reducing the cost of repeat flights and making the entire venture profitable and thus sustainable.

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Help NASA Find It’s Wayward Nanosat

I report on opportunities for the public to get involved with space exploration whenever I find them, and here’s the most recent.

If you’re a ham radio operator, you’ll be interested to know that NASA is asking for your help. This past November when the agency launched its Fast Affordable Scientific and Technology Satellite or FASTSAT, the NanoSail-D solar sail microsat stowed inside failed to deploy upon reaching orbit and was thought a loss until yesterday at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time when a “spontaneous” ejection was detected.

Unfortunately, no confirmation has yet been received that NanoSail-D is active, and this is where you come in. NASA reports that the beacon signal can be found at 437.270 MHz. They ask anyone detecting a signal at that frequency to report the findings to the NanoSail-D dashboard at http://nanosaild.engr.scu.edu/dashboard.htm.

Artists rendering of NanoSat-D with its solar sail fully deployed. Courtesy NASA.

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Astrobotics: First Iteration of Rover Solar Array

January 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

From the Google Lunar X Prize site, comes this update from the Astrobotics team. And if you’re not familiar with this outfit, you’ll want to read the June 23, 2010 STN post titled The Undiscovered Country. Led by “Red” Whittaker of the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, they’ve got the best lunar exploration plan I’ve seen to date.

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Our power systems team reached a major milestone by integrating a full complement of four solar panels into the rover’s avionics. These solar panels, which were fabricated in house, provide power to the rover’s electric motors and computers during field tests. A second iteration of the rover solar array is in development; this next iteration will incorporate space rated materials and be flight worthy.

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Taking the Next Step: Commercial Crew Development Round 2

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

December 8th 2010 marked an incredible accomplishment for SpaceX.  As most of you know, we became the first commercial company to successfully recover a spacecraft from Earth orbit.  This is a feat previously only accomplished by six other nations/government agencies, and was made possible only through our ongoing partnership with NASA.

While the flight was a significant technical achievement for SpaceX as a company, it was probably most significant for the American taxpayer.  The United States has an urgent, critical need for commercial human spaceflight.  After the Space Shuttle retires next year, NASA will be totally dependent on the Russian Soyuz to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station for a price of over $50 million per seat.

The December 8 COTS Demo 1 flight demonstrated SpaceX is prepared to meet this need–and at less than half the cost.

We believe the now flight-proven Falcon 9 and Dragon architecture is the safest path to crew transportation capability.  Both vehicles were designed from the beginning to transport astronauts.  The cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft will be capable of carrying crew with only three key modifications:  a launch abort system, environmental controls and seats.

In addition to last month’s successful demonstration, SpaceX recently took another critical next step towards the development of an American alternative to the Russian Soyuz.  On December 13th, we submitted our proposal to NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev2) to begin work on preparing Dragon to carry astronauts.  The primary focus of our CCDev2 proposal is the launch abort system.  Using our experience with NASA’s COTS office as a guide, we have proposed implementing the crew-related elements of Dragon’s design with specific hardware milestones, which will provide NASA with regular, demonstrated progress including:

  • initial design of abort engine and crew accommodations;
  • static fire testing of the launch abort system engines; and
  • prototype evaluations by NASA crew for seats, control panels and cabin

SpaceX has proposed an integrated launch abort system design, which has several advantages over the tractor tower approaches used by all prior vehicles:

  • Provides escape capability all the way to orbit versus a tractor system , which is so heavy it must be dumped about four minutes after liftoff.
  • Improves crew safety, as it does not require a separation event, whereas any non-integral system (tractor or pusher), must be dumped on every mission for the astronauts to survive.
  • Reduces cost since the escape system returns with the spacecraft.
  • Enables superior landing capabilities since the escape engines can potentially be used for a precise land landing of Dragon under rocket power.  (An emergency chute will always be retained as a backup system for maximum safety.)

Click here to view the video.

While the maximum reliability is designed into our vehicles, there is no substitute for recent, relevant flight experience when it comes to demonstrating flight safety.  The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to fly at least 11 more times and the Falcon 9 launch vehicle is scheduled to fly 17 times before the first Dragon crew flight.  Given the extensive manifest of Falcon 9 and Dragon, the SpaceX system will mature before most other systems will be developed.

The inaugural flight of the Dragon spacecraft confirmed what we have always believed—the responsiveness and ingenuity of the private sector, combined with the guidance, support and insight of the US government, can deliver an American spaceflight program that is achievable, sustainable and affordable.  The SpaceX team is excited about the new opportunities and challenges the New Year will bring.   Thank you for your ongoing support and we look forward to helping build America’s future space program.

Illustration of Dragon spacecraft in orbit. Credit SpaceX.

Photo of actual Dragon spacecraft after its first successful orbital flight. Credit: Mike Altenhofen / SpaceX

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Space Adventures Concludes Agreement to Offer Commercial Spaceflight Opportunities to the International Space Station

January 12, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Three seats available beginning in 2013

January 12 2011

Space Adventures, the only company that has provided human space mission opportunities to the world marketplace, announced today the conclusion of an agreement with the Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation (FSA) and Rocket Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia) to commercially offer three seats on the Soyuz spacecraft bound for the International Space Station (ISS), beginning in 2013.

These seats will be made available through the increase of Soyuz production, from four to five spacecraft per year. Each flight will be short duration, approximately 10 days, and will contribute to the increase of launch capacity to the ISS.

“We are extremely excited to announce this agreement and would like to thank our Russian partners in increasing Soyuz production and providing Space Adventures these well sought-after transportation services on the only commercially available manned spacecraft currently in operation,” said Eric Anderson, Chairman of Space Adventures. “Since Guy Laliberte’s mission, there has been an increase of interest by private individuals, organizations and commercial entities seeking ways to access the space station. We have been speaking with these parties about science, education and multi-media programs and hope to make some major announcements in the coming year.”

Space Adventures became world-renowned 10 years ago with the launch of Dennis Tito, the world’s first privately-funded space explorer. Since then, the company has arranged seven additional missions to the ISS. Cumulatively, our clients have spent almost three months in space, traveling over 36 million miles, and have been true ambassadors in sharing their experience and explaining to millions of people around the world why it’s important to explore space,” continued Mr. Anderson.

“We are very pleased to continue space tourism with Space Adventures. Also, the addition of a fifth Soyuz spacecraft to the current manifest will add flexibility and redundancy to our ISS transportation capabilities. We welcome the opportunity to increase our efforts to meet the public demand for access to space,” said Alexei Krasnov, Director of Human Spaceflight of FSA.

In support of the continued partnership between FSA, Energia and Space Adventures, Vitaly Lopota, President of RSC Energia, commented, “We were first in the space tourism marketplace and we are glad to expand our capabilities by adding a fifth Soyuz and to use these three additional opportunities for commercial flight participants, starting in 2013.”

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.

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