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.


NASA Unveils Commercial Human Spaceflight Development Agreements and Announces $50 Million in Seed Funding for Commercial Crew

February 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Washington, D.C., February 3, 2010 – At a National Press Club event to “introduce new commercial space pioneers,” the President’s Science Advisor John Holdren and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden yesterday praised the seven winning companies of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) and Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) competitions.  This event followed the announcement on February 1 by the White House that NASA would use commercial spaceflight providers to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

The President’s Science Advisor praised the “complementary strength between NASA and the private sector in order to make human access both to low-Earth orbit and beyond to deep space faster, safer and more affordable.”  NASA Administrator Bolden added that with regard to commercial spaceflight, “It’s not a new idea, but rather, an idea whose time has come.  The future is unfolding before us now, and it couldn’t be more exciting… Kids will be able to realistically envision a career that involves space, either going there or using it.”

Bretton Alexander, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, added, “The President’s new commercial crew initiative is on course to accelerate the growth of a vibrant 21st century commercial spaceflight industry, creating thousands of high-tech jobs and inspiring a new generation.”

Executives from Sierra Nevada Corporation, Boeing, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, Orbital Sciences, Paragon Space Development Corporation, and SpaceX came to Washington DC to attend the event.  Introducing these seven companies and their executives at the press event, Administrator Bolden stated, “These are the faces of the new frontier… We will certainly be adding to this group in the near future.”

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are the funded participants in NASA’s ongoing COTS program for commercial resupply of the Space Station, and Sierra Nevada Corporation, Boeing, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, and Paragon Space Development Corporation were awarded $50 million in seed money for commercial crew through the CCDev program, intended as the precursor to a full $6 billion Commercial Crew Program proposed by NASA.  Both the CCDev and COTS programs are commercially structured so that NASA pays only when performance milestones are met.

Alexander added, “To have a large and diverse group of companies present at today’s event, including both established contractors and newer entrants, emphasizes that U.S. industry is ready to handle the task of commercial human spaceflight.  Commercial spaceflight means growing an entire industry that will generate returns to our economy and allow America to stop sending billions of dollars to Russia to fly our astronauts.”

In addition to other companies that are developing commercial space vehicles, the seven companies featured in the press conference were:

  • Sierra Nevada Corporation, which will receive $20 million in CCDev funds for development milestones for a seven-person spacecraft known as Dreamchaser which will launch on Atlas V.
  • The Boeing Company, which will receive $18 million in CCDev funds for development milestones for a seven-person crew capsule for low Earth orbit transportation.  Boeing partnered with Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing a series of habitable orbital complexes with two prototypes already in orbit.
  • United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that operates the Atlas and Delta rockets, which will receive $6.7 million in milestone-based CCDev funds to begin developing an emergency detection system for ULA launch systems.
  • Blue Origin, which will receive $3.7 million in milestone-based CCDev funds to develop a composite crew test module and a launch escape system for its commercial spaceflight vehicle.
  • Orbital Sciences, which has been awarded $171 million in milestone-based COTS funds and received a follow-on contract for International Space Station missions, and is preparing its Taurus II rocket and Cygnus capsule for initial launches in 2011.
  • Paragon Space Development Corporation, which will receive $1.4 million in milestone-based CCDev funds for the development of an air revitalization system for use in crewed spacecraft.
  • SpaceX, which has been awarded $278 million in milestone-based COTS funds and received a follow-on contract for International Space Station missions, and is preparing its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule for initial launches this year.

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.  CSF member organizations include commercial spaceflight developers, operators, and spaceports.  The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is governed by a board of directors, composed of the member companies’ CEO-level officers and entrepreneurs. For more information please visit or contact Executive Director John Gedmark at or at 202.349.1121.


SpaceX Completes Dragon Spacecraft Cargo Loading Milestone In Preparation For Delivery Services To International Space Station

February 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Hawthorne, CA (February 03, 2010) – Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) recently conducted a three-day long demonstration of cargo loading and unloading procedures for its Dragon spacecraft, which NASA has contracted to provide delivery services to the International Space Station (ISS) starting in 2010.

SpaceX hosted a group of NASA personnel at its corporate headquarters in Hawthorne, CA, including astronauts Marsha Ivins and Megan McArthur, and other key personnel from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The tests covered a range of procedures using actual NASA cargo modules, in a variety of standard sizes, including powered cargo modules that provide temperature control for sensitive items such as medical and biological samples during their journey to the ISS, and return to Earth. Dragon is currently one of the only spacecraft in the world capable of transmitting status on environment-sensitive cargo back to Earth during transit to the ISS.

SpaceX performed the tests in an actual flight Dragon spacecraft outfitted with cargo racks, stowage lockers, as well as interior lighting, telemetry and environmental systems, as will be employed while Dragon is berthed at the ISS.

“SpaceX was honored to host the NASA crew, and pleased by their positive feedback and remarks,” said John Couluris, SpaceX Director of Mission Operations. “We look forward to the day when the first of many Dragons arrive at the ISS delivering actual cargo in support of continued ISS operations.”

Under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, SpaceX will perform three flights of the Dragon spacecraft to demonstrate delivery of cargo to the ISS as well as returning cargo to Earth. Following those flights, SpaceX will begin the NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, conducting a minimum of 12 cargo flights between 2010 and 2015 with a guaranteed minimum of 20,000 kg to be carried to the ISS.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is a medium-to-heavy lift, two-stage launch vehicle capable of lifting approximately 11 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) and in excess of 4.5 tons to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). Designed to the highest levels of reliability and performance, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft were selected by NASA to resupply the ISS when the Space Shuttle retires.

Loading a large M03 standard cargo module into the Dragon spacecraft via the overhead hatch (top of capsule). Credit: SpaceX

A SpaceX engineer installs a Single Cargo Transfer Bag into a storage compartment aboard the Dragon spacecraft. Credit: SpaceX

About SpaceX

SpaceX is developing a family of launch vehicles and spacecraft intended to increase the reliability and reduce the cost of both manned and unmanned space transportation, ultimately by a factor of ten. With the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 vehicles, SpaceX offers highly reliable/cost-efficient launch capabilities for spacecraft insertion into any orbital altitude and inclination. Starting in 2010, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft will provide Earth-to-LEO transport of pressurized and unpressurized cargo, including resupply to the International Space Station.

Founded in 2002, SpaceX is a private company owned by management and employees, with minority investments from Founders Fund and Draper Fisher Jurvetson. The SpaceX team now numbers nearly 900, with corporate headquarters in Hawthorne, California. For more information about the Falcon family of vehicles and the Dragon spacecraft, please visit


Turn Over Low Earth Orbit To The Private Sector

July 3, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

“Quite simply, the key to full utilization of the International Space Station and sustainable exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) is to turn LEO over to the private sector, thereby allowing NASA to focus its resources and expertise on exploration of the Moon and beyond.” This is the recommendation that the Commercial Spaceflight Federation made this week to the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee.

The CSF report to the Committee details how it will be difficult if not impossible for NASA to continue funding of its programs in low earth orbit like the International Space Station without availing itself of the private sector and the investments it can bring to bear. As such, “With private sector development, each dollar of government investment is leveraged by two additional non-government sources of capital: private investment and revenue from other markets.” This drastically decreases the level of risk faces to the government.

That risk is further reduced by the pay-for-performance nature of its agreements with the private sector in which a company “…is only paid upon the successful completion of performance milestones” which “…incentivizes commercial providers to keep development costs as low as possible.”

The kind of symbiosis between public and private sectors suggested by the Federation has already begun to materialize, but it must be expanded beyond its current limitation of cargo-only services. And such an expansion would require “no new private launch vehicle development”, hence no additional costs.

If the government will follow through with the full partnership between civil and commercial space already called for in the NASA Authorization Act of 2008, the US will see further cost reduction in flights to the International Space Station. Without a commercial crew transport system, the US must rely upon Russia and its ever-increasing, per-seat cost to transport its astronauts to the Station. This is an alternative that should be unacceptable to every American.

The private sector has been launching vehicles to low earth orbit successfully and safely for decades now, and from this experience has grown an industry-based expertise capable of fulfilling NASA’s needs for flights to that region of space. But as important as the cost reduction to the government listed in the CSF’s report is the less tangible: “increased public engagement.”

The public’s attention on the X Prize flights of 2004 (see The Ansari X Prize) is just one example of how NASA could benefit from a deeper relationship with the private sector. Resulting from those flights, the “over 5 billion [emphasis added] media impressions, suggests that NASA has a unique opportunity to leverage these private sector talents for public outreach.”

It’s a win-win scenario for the government. The proverbial horse has been led to the water; the question is whether or not he’s wise enough to drink.


About the Commercial Spaceflight Federation

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is the industry association of companies working to make commercial human spaceflight a reality. Commercial Spaceflight Federation members include commercial spaceflight developers, operators, and spaceports. The mission of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation is to promote the development of commercial human spaceflight, pursue ever higher levels of safety, and share best practices and expertise throughout the industry.


A Rock In The Road

June 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

I’ve said it before, and it bears restating. Commercial, human space flight holds immeasurably more promise of opportunities for the common man in space than government-run programs. Constantly-shifting tides and administrations and politicians bent on playing power games have for decades held this dream hostage.

What I call the “space equals NASA” mentality has led to a government strangle hold on space flight, thereby reserving that domain for the elite. The 110th congress enacted legislation to change that situation, but there are those who are attempting to circumvent it. Submitted for your perusal is this case in point.

Section 902 of the 2008 NASA Authorization Act clearly states that “NASA shall make use of United States commercially provided International Space Station crew transfer and crew rescue services to the maximum extent practicable…” The language is unmistakable: the people of this country want a commercial transportation system for moving both cargo and crew to and from the International Space Station. And it’s a solution that makes great fiscal sense.

Damnable foot dragging by the so-far headless agency notwithstanding, NASA has set aside $150M of the new Stimulus Bill for the COTS-D option (see Commercial Human Space Transportation Now) that would result in a crewed demonstration of the new SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. Yet Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) would seem to think he knows better than both houses of Congress who made the bill into law last September. A ranking member of the Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee within the Senate Appropriations Committee, he’s holding up the release of funds approved by Congress in February, arguing against the funding of commercial crew and cargo systems.

At a hearing on the NASA FY2010 budget request, he referred to the Commercial Crew Initiative saying, “I ask, is this the hope we will hitch our dreams of the future of manned spaceflight to?” With his state set to profit from Constellation, could it be more a question of self interest than of dreams? We’re also left to wonder which part of “NASA shall make use…” of this option he doesn’t understand? The time for debate has passed. Opinions over whether or not it’s good idea are, with all due respect to the senator, irrelevant. It’s the law.

Whether intended or not, Shelby is circumventing the will of the people of this country by hijacking money that was clearly meant to go to a commercial crew capability. He so much as admits his desire to see all public funds for human space flight instead go exclusively to government agencies, stating that, “I believe that manned spaceflight is something that is still in the realm of government, because despite their best efforts, some truly private enterprises have not yet been able to deliver on plans of launching vehicles.” As for the first part of that statement, we must consider the fact that Marshall Space Flight Center — one of the larger NASA space centers and a key player in the government’s Constellation program — are in the senator’s state. Are we to ignore the obvious conflict of interest there? And the latter is pure subterfuge. The fact is that SpaceX, builders of the Dragon spacecraft the senator is trying so diligently to shoot down, has met its flight goals and is on schedule to make its cargo (and crew if that option is  funded) demonstration flights. And there’s one other key point the senator seems to be conveniently forgetting, as pointed out by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) in a separate hearing: “… you would not even have to pay until the COTS-D partner was able to successfully demonstrate that capability.”

Yes, it’s business as usual in Washington. A program that could be incredibly impactful lies desperately wrapped around the axle, captive to the will of a single bureaucrat guided — it would seem — by self interest rather than a sense of the greater good. Call me old fashioned, but I rather thought that once a bill is made into law, it’s a done deal. The government is obligated to follow it at that point. If you agree, you might want to challenge the good senator. You can reach him at

Private industry stands to get a real shot in the arm by providing a commercial crew capability to the ISS. And a healthy commercial space industry will naturally lead to opportunities for regular folks, off planet.  Government-centric thinking has resulted in the current situation where space belongs exclusively to an elite few. If we want that to change, it will require a break with the “space equals NASA” mentality. But before we can do that, we may have to move a few rocks from the road.


The US Hitching a Ride To Space

June 2, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

History was made twice over last Friday when the crew of the International Space Station was increased from 3 to 6. For the first time in its ten-year history, the station has taken on a full crew compliment with the arrival of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk. The three joined mission commander, cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, astronaut Michael Barratt and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata already there from Expedition 19. With these six crew members of Expedition 20, all five of the station’s partner agencies are represented on the station simultaneously for the first time: NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

For a period of two weeks next month, the station will make history again with the largest crew ever of 13 when the shuttle Endeavour transports another 7 astronauts, there to deliver and install the Japanese Kibo laboratory. This will add to its already huge span longer than a football field. And with construction of the station nearly complete, it’s finally able to realize the science mission for which it was conceived and built. 

Things are certainly looking bright for the future of the International Space Station. But the situation isn’t quite so reassuring for the US and its prospects of getting to the station after the shuttle retires next year. As a [presumably] contingency measure, NASA signed an agreement with the Russian space agency to ferry astronauts to the station through 2012… for a price, or course. For the paltry sum of only $51M a seat, the Russians will be happy to give us a ride. Oh but the cost of doing business is rising fast, you see. Materials aren’t cheap, you now, and the cost of labor… Well, huh.

In only a matter of a few weeks, the cost of a seat has gone up $16M above the price they charged the most recent space tourist, Charles Simonyi, an American software entrepreneur who flew in March. Better book now while the cost is still so low.

I say that, tongue-in-cheek, about the Russians. They saw an opportunity to make money, and they took it. That’s how it works: supply and demand. Let’s just hope that the folks at NASA take advantage of that rising star SpaceX: the company that at this moment is in the advanced stages of developing a spacecraft capable of carrying our astronauts into space and at a small fraction of what the… er hem, “other guy”… will charge. Problem is, NASA’s dragging its feet funding the crewed portion of that contract (see Commercial Human Space Transportation Now).

We buy seats on a foreign carrier for an exorbitant price while a domestic company stands ready to fulfill the need, yet unable to move forward for lack — so far — of funding. Go figure.


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