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.

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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.

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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.

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Earth Now Has a Ring

July 27, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

If you’re Sci-Fi fan, you’ve undoubtedly seen more than one movie depicting a habitable planet bearing a striking resemblance to Saturn; the main character looking up to see a large, color set of ring spanning from horizon to horizon. And if you were tempted to scoff at the prospect as being no more than an artifact of a fertile imagination, think again. Though the natural ring systems found in our solar system are observed exclusively around gas giant planets — planets with no solid surface on which to land and a crushing gravitational field — Earth does nonetheless have its own ring system. It’s a artificial ring composed entirely of thousands of satellites, both operational and dead, spent rocket bodies plus many more thousands of space hardware fragments that are the products of accidental collisions with one another, secondary collisions of fragments with fragments and even the intentional shooting down of the Fan Yun 1C spacecraft by China as part of an anti-satellite weapon test in 2007. That one event drastically increased the number of pieces of space junk and made much of low earth orbit a much more dangerous place, the impact of which (pun intended) is felt so much more so now that we have people there aboard the International Space Station, tending the orbital laboratory 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Two nights ago such a piece of debris came uncomfortably close to the space station… again. It’s not the first time, and will certainly not be the last. The event underscores the need for a plan to be put in place to 1) stop placing more junk into orbit and 2) begin to remove that which is already there. The US is in the position to lead the charge, but so far there’s been nothing more than talk while one orbit after another fills up with junk at an exponential rate.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be quite so bad if Earth’s ring could at least treat us to the same color display as Saturn with it’s shimmering reds, greens and blues wrapping around the planet’s equator, but it is not to be. What we have is a belt of hypervelocity junk, which represents an increasing menace to space navigation, itself set to increase as commercial, human space flight begins to come into its own.

There are things the government can do right now to help alleviate some of the threat. As it stands, US policy for retiring a spent weather satellite in the geosynchronous orbit is not to return it to earth once its life is over as it should be but to simply boost it into a higher — so-called super-synchronous — orbit and turn it off. This strategy continues to add to the population of junk; it cannot and should not be maintained in the future. It must change and the sooner, the better.

Even this strategy is not adhered to by all spacecraft operators. SpaceNews reports that, “In 2008 and 2009 alone, four geostationary orbiting satellites — the U.S. EchoStar 2 and the Russian Gorizont 33, Raduga 1-5, Cosmos 2371 and Cosmos 2379 — were all left to expire on the geostationary arc without performing end-of-mission orbit-raising maneuvers. EchoStar 2 failed suddenly in orbit and could not be moved.” Then, of course, there is the occasional errant spacecraft like Galaxy 15, which recently ceased responding to commands from the ground and is now plowing uncontrolled through geosynchronous orbit.

The White House has issued orders to NASA and the DOD to begin researching techniques for the mitigation and removal of space debris, but this could take many years before an effective, affordable strategy of space junk removal is put in force. There are thousands of pieces of junk, and to physically remove each one could cost many millions of dollars per piece. Then again, one can easily see the potential for jobs creation in the endeavor.

In the meantime, policy must change. We must adopt strict rules to prevent spacecraft operators from leaving dead satellites in space. Let’s not wait until the multi-billion-dollar International Space Station is crippled or destroyed before we become proactive.

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New Space Policy Cedes Moon To China, Space Station To Russia, And Liberty To The Ages

February 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Civil Space Flight 

by Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut

The Administration finally has announced its formal retreat on American Space Policy after a year of morale destroying clouds of uncertainty.  The lengthy delay, the abandonment of human exploration, and the wimpy, un-American thrust of the proposed budget indicates that the Administration does not understand, or want to acknowledge, the essential role space plays in the future of the United States and liberty.  This continuation of other apologies and retreats in the global arena would cede the Moon to China, the American Space Station to Russia, and assign liberty to the ages.

The repeated hypocrisy of this President continues to astound.  His campaign promises endorsed what he now proposes to cancel. His July celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the first Moon landing now turns out to be just a photo op with the Apollo 11 crew.  With one wave of a budget wand, the Congress, the NASA family, and the American people are asked to throw their sacrifices and achievements in space on the ash heap of history.

Expenditures of taxpayer provided funds on space related activities find constitutional justification in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, that gives Congress broad power to ”promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts.”  In addition, the Article I power and obligation to “provide for the Common Defence” relates directly to the geopolitical importance of space exploration at this frontier of human endeavor.  A space program not only builds wealth, economic vitality, and educational momentum through technology and discovery, but it also sets the modern geopolitical tone for the United States to engage friends and adversaries in the world.  For example, in the 1980s, the dangerous leadership of the former Soviet Union believed America would be successful in creating a missile defense system because we succeeded in landing on the Moon and they had not. Dominance in space was one of the major factors leading to the end of the Cold War.

With a new Cold War looming before us, involving the global ambitions and geopolitical challenge of the national socialist regime in China, President George W. Bush put America back on a course to maintain space dominance. What became the Constellation Program comprised his January 14, 2004 vision of returning Americans and their partners to deep space by putting astronauts back on the Moon, going on to Mars, and ultimately venturing beyond.  Unfortunately, like all Administrations since Eisenhower and Kennedy, the Bush Administration lost perspective about space.  Inadequate budget proposals and lack of Congressional leadership and funding during Constellation’s formative years undercut Administrator Michael Griffin’s effort to implement the Program after 2004.  Delays due to this under-funding have rippled through national space capabilities until we must retire the Space Shuttle without replacement access to space.  Now, we must pay at least $50 million per seat for the Russians to ferry Americans and others to the International Space Station.  How the mighty have fallen.

Not only did Constellation never receive the Administration’s promised funding, but the Bush Administration and Congress required NASA 1) to continue the construction of the International Space Station (badly under-budgeted by former NASA Administrator O’Keefe, the OMB, and ultimately by the Congress), 2) to accommodate numerous major over-runs in the science programs (largely protected from major revision or cancellation by narrow Congressional interests), 3) to manage the Agency without hire and fire authority (particularly devastating to the essential hiring of young engineers), and 4) to assimilate, through added delays, the redirection and inflation-related costs of several Continuing Resolutions.  Instead of fixing this situation, the current Administration let go Administrator Griffin, the best engineering Administrator in NASA’s history, and now has cancelled Constellation.  As a consequence, long-term access of American astronauts to space rests on the untested success of a plan for the “commercial” space launch sector to meet the increasingly risk adverse demands of space flight.

Histories of nations tell us that an aggressive program to return Americans permanently to deep space must form an essential component of national policy.  Americans would find it unacceptable, as well as devastating to liberty, if we abandon leadership in space to the Chinese, Europe, or any other nation or group of nations.  Potentially equally devastating to billions of people would be loss of freedom’s access to the energy resources of the Moon as fossil fuels diminish and populations and demand increase.

In that harsh light of history, it is frightening to contemplate the long-term, totally adverse consequences to the standing of the United States in modern civilization if the current Administration’s decision to abandon deep space holds.  Even a commitment to maintain the International Space Station using commercial launch assets constitutes a dead-end for Americans in space.  At some point, now set at the end of this decade, the $150 billion Station becomes a dead-end and would be abandoned to the Russians or just destroyed, ending America’s human space activities entirely.

What, then, should be the focus of national space policy in order to maintain leadership in deep space?  Some propose that we concentrate only on Mars.  Without the experience of returning to the Moon, however, we will not have the engineering, operational, or physiological insight for many decades to either fly to Mars or land there.  Others suggest going to an asteroid. As important as diversion of an asteroid from collision with the Earth someday may be, just going there hardly stimulates “Science and the useful Arts” anything like a permanent American settlement on the Moon!  Other means exist, robots and meteorites, for example, to obtain most or all of the scientific value from a human mission to an asteroid.  In any event, returning to the Moon inherently creates capabilities for reaching asteroids to study or divert them, as the case may be.

Returning to the Moon and to deep space constitutes the right and continuing space policy choice for the Congress of the United States.  It compares in significance to Jefferson’s dispatch of Lewis and Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase. The lasting significance to American growth and survival of Jefferson’s decision cannot be questioned.  Human exploration of space embodies the same basic instincts as the exploration of the West – the exercise of freedom, betterment of one’s conditions, and curiosity about nature.  Such instincts lie at the very core of America’s unique and special society of immigrants.

Over the last 150,000 years or more, human exploration of Earth has yielded new homes, livelihoods, know how, and resources as well as improved standards of living and increased family security.  Government has directly and indirectly played a role in encouraging exploration efforts.  Private groups and individuals take additional initiatives to explore newly discovered or newly accessible lands and seas.  Based on their specific historical experience, Americans can expect benefits comparable to those sought and won in the past also will flow from their return to the Moon, future exploration of Mars, and the long reach beyond. To realize such benefits, however, Americans must continue as the leader of human activities in space. No one else will hand them to us. Other than buying our national debt, China does not believe in welfare for the U.S.

With a permanent resumption of the exploration of deep space, one thing is certain: our efforts will be as significant as those of our ancestors as they migrated out of Africa and into a global habitat. Further, a permanent human presence away from Earth provides another opportunity for the expansion of free institutions, with all their attendant rewards, as humans face new situations and new individual and societal challenges.

Returning to the Moon first and as soon as possible meets the requirements for an American space policy that maintains deep space leadership, as well as providing major new scientific returns.  Properly conceived and implemented, returning to the Moon prepares the way to go to and land on Mars.  This also can provide a policy in which freedom-loving peoples throughout the world can participate as active partners.

The Congressionally approved Constellation Program, properly funded, contains most of the technical elements necessary to implement a policy of deep space leadership, particularly because it includes development of a heavy lift launch vehicle, the Ares V. In addition, Constellation includes a large upper stage for transfer to the Moon and other destinations, two well conceived spacecraft for transport and landing of crews on the lunar surface, strong concepts for exploration and lunar surface systems, and enthusiastic engineers and managers to make it happen if adequately supported. The one major missing component of a coherent and sustaining deep space systems architecture may be a well-developed concept for in-space refueling of spacecraft and upper rockets stages. The experience base for developing in-space refueling capabilities clearly exists.

Again, if we abandon leadership in deep space to any other nation or group of nations, particularly a non-democratic regime, the ability for the United States and its allies to protect themselves and liberty will be at great risk and potentially impossible. To others would accrue the benefits – psychological, political, economic, and scientific – that the United States harvested as a consequence of Apollo’s success 40 years ago.  This lesson has not been lost on our ideological and economic competitors.

American leadership absent from space?  Is this the future we wish for our progeny?  I think not.  Again, the 2010 elections offer the way to get back on the right track.

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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 www.spacex.com

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Commercializing the International Space Station

January 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Director General, Jean-Jacques Dordain made a call last week urging the partners of the International Space Station to extend its life to “at least” 2020. “I am convinced that stopping the station in 2015 would be a mistake because we cannot attract the best scientists if we are telling them today ‘you are welcome on the space station but you’d better be quick, because in 2015 we close the shop’,” he said.

Dordain would like to see the US, Europe, Japan, Russia and Canada start talks aimed at finding ways to fund the station beyond that time frame, saying “The decision must be taken early enough to put the budget in place, to build the hardware necessary and to decide on which transportation policy we shall use between 2015 and 2020. There are lot of aspects to be discussed and if decisions are not taken by the end of this year – beginning of next year – it will become more and more difficult to have the approach under which we will exploit the space station.”

To decommission the International Space Station in 2015, 2020 or any other preset date flies in the face of logic. Anyone paying attention over last 11 years of its construction knows that it has been a very hard road getting the station assembled. More than once, narrow-minded politicians and technocrats have attempted to kill it. Thankfully, clearer heads prevailed and today we see it nearing completion, though in a smaller configuration than was originally envisioned.

But how do we save it if the funding is due to run out by 2015? Dordain suggests ways such as reducing the number of ground support stations that provide 24-hour support from four to two, but in the end, strategies like this will likely fail to produce substantial enough savings to make a real difference. The answer lies in commercialization.

Before going a step further, it’s important to point out that commercialization does not mean painting a huge Coca-Cola or Nike logo on the side of the station. That has not been suggested in any serious discussions.

A two-pronged approach could insure the longevity of the ISS not just beyond 2020 but indefinitely. The first step is to manage the station under a private space port authority. The second is to open it up to the private sector for fee-based use.

These are not new ideas. According to the ESA Commercialization Program (made defunct in 2006 as a result of dubious, internal politics), “The idea of commercialising the ISS was mentioned officially for the first time at the ESA Council meeting held in Brussels in May 1999, when Ministers asked ESA to prepare proposals to encourage the private sector to share in the use of the International Space Station.” This commercialization program was promoting the ideas of “private sector use of the ISS for research and development” and of “using part or all the ISS for sponsorship, merchandising and publicity to maximise revenues.”

In 2001 the Space Frontier Foundation forwarded the idea of turning the International Space Station – or Space Station Alpha as it was called then – into “Alpha Town.” The way they saw it, the station “would become the kernel of the first economically self sustaining town in orbit” and serve as the “financial and institutional hub of a business park.” And they suggested that once established, commercial ventures could be launched such as tug services; refueling depot services; derelict satellite salvage, refurbishment and resales; and hotel modules. All these things would “act to encourage private investment in space.” But still further, such a thriving “town” as they put it would constitute the critical, space-based infrastructure that is so desperately needed to lower the cost of not only getting into space but staying there.

And most recently the idea of turning the International Space Station over to the private sector was embraced by the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee, also known as the Augustine Commission. It’s an idea whose time has come. Government agencies excel at research and development. In them should lie the mission of deep space. They are not suited to or set up for the job of landlord. That task should be left to the commercial sector. It is where they excel.

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A New Decade and Infinite Possibilities

January 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

The outset of the last decade was met by a mixed sense of hope and dread. Some of us were convinced that the world as we knew it, our transportation, our communication, our energy, the bulk of our infrastructure then (as it is now) controlled by computers, would fall victim to the ever-publicized Y2K bug and come crashing down around our ears. The Dot-Com bubble was at its peak as venture capital continued to pour into and feed an explosion of commercial growth in the Internet. That bubble would burst by March, however, with an estimated loss of $5 Trillion in market value. Still, things stabilized after a time of adjustments.

Before the close of 2000, the Human Genome Project produces the first available assembly of the genome, promising quantum leaps in medicine; Expedition 1 moves in as the first resident crew of the International Space Station, a US-lead, international effort in new space-based research and promising advances in medical and materials technology and serving as a beach head for all other points in the solar system; And as California suffers the first of two years of rolling blackouts and the notorious ILOVEYOU computer worm tears its way through millions of computers worldwide, NASA prepares for another series of Mars launches including Mars Odyssey, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Phoenix Mars Lander. Clearly, the emphasis at this point is Mars. Among the policy makers at the agency, it’s taken for granted that our nearest neighbor in space, the moon, is nothing more than a celestial backwater, a dead end not worthy of any serious consideration or funding for human exploration, and lunar robotic space flight is all but completely stymied by a mars-centric culture. In the decade of the aughts, missions to the moon flown by non-US entities outnumber NASA’s by 2 to 1. Within NASA, missions to Mars outnumber those to the moon by 3 to 1. During that entire ten-year period, NASA sent only 2 spacecraft – arguably but a single mission since they flew literally on the same rocket and shared many objectives.

But oh what a difference a single decade makes. The day we entered Y2K America’s only space transportation system was a space shuttle that had proven itself far less capable and safe than the capsule-based system it replaced, leaving humans stranded in the purgatory of low earth orbit; the idea of commercial human spaceflight – the vehicle through which we would finally realize the painfully elusive goal of affordable access to orbit – was barely a dream; and we still operated under the delusive notion that water – critical for making any manned, off-earth venture affordable – found in the lunar rock samples gathered by Apollo astronauts was mere contamination from earth. On that day the machines, infrastructure and vision for establishing a permanent human presence on another world were no nearer our grasp than they were at the outset of the space age four decades earlier. The wheels of progress in space had gotten hopelessly bogged down. But today? Today is a very different day.

We enter this new decade vastly better equipped than the last. The dust of ignorance has been wiped from our eyes, and we can clearly see a fact that, in one fell swoop, brings within our reach the permanent human settlement in space that once evaded us: the moon is not the barren wasteland it was once believed to be. We can indeed live off the land, as it were, because we now know it to harbor the raw materials we need. The lunar surface contains ample amounts of water for drinking and for conversion into air for breathing. This singular and very recent discovery was a game-changing event! It meant that the round-trip travel time between earth and our first outpost could be placed at 6 days rather than the year it would be for Mars; a fact that, in turn, enabled the commercial sector to participate. And it is the commercial sector that is key to sustaining human space flight, because it reduces the cost so dramatically.

Space travel is no longer the one-dimensional construct it was. The emergence of commercial human space flight brings with it the financial and technological agility so desperately needed for the advancement of human exploration as a whole. The civil and commercial human space flight sectors work increasingly in concert to achieve, together, our new goals in space.

And with new goals have come a change in the technology we’ll use to carry them out. In an ironic turn of events, the space shuttle is being supplanted by a much-advanced version of its predecessor, the capsule. Even neglecting the glaring deficiencies in safety suffered by the shuttle, it’s a change that had to occur since the shuttle is unable to travel to the moon or any place else in the solar system. It was never designed for such a flight.

Both NASA and the private sector now have their own designs for a capsule. And despite what you may have read, they are not mutually exclusive nor will they compete with one another. Each has a distinct and important mission.

NASA is building the Orion and Altair spacecraft. Similar in concept to the Apollo Command Module but with greatly advanced systems  and double the crew capacity, Orion is designed as an interplanetary transport. It will carry astronauts from earth orbit  to the moon and beyond. Once it reaches its destination, the crew will transfer to and descend to the lunar surface via Altair, itself conceptually similar to the Apollo Lunar Module but also with pronounced advancements over its predecessor. Together these vehicles comprise the next-generation deep space exploration system. Their point of departure is earth orbit, but how do they get from the surface to orbit? That’s where the commercial sector comes in.

A company based in Hawthorne, California named SpaceX is taking up the task of producing the vehicle that can carry both cargo and crew to orbit. Its Founder and CEO Elon Musk, who also co-founded Paypal, has long carried a deep passion for human space flight and realized the importance of reducing its cost. Using his own money, he began developing the Falcon series of rockets as well as a companion spacecraft called Dragon. After several successful flights of the smaller Falcon 1 rocket, SpaceX is now preparing for the maiden launch of its Falcon 9, which will go on to regularly deliver cargo to the International Space Station and has the ability to carry crew as well when NASA gives its approval to begin development of the additional systems for Dragon necessary to support humans, such as the crew escape system.

Here for the first time we see civil and commercial space working together, providing different but complimentary systems that support the overarching goal of putting people on another world. The private sector provides transport to earth orbit and the logistical support surrounding that leg, and the civil sector provides the advanced systems needed for crew transport to the final planetary destination. It’s a beautiful symmetry.

So now that we’ve turned our sights to the moon, now what? Exactly what regions of the moon are we to explore first? And what will be the basic needs to be met for such an outpost?

Recent discoveries have uncovered water in prodigious amounts both in and around the Cabeus crater at the lunar south pole. Extraction of that water from within the interior of Cabeus and surrounding craters presents technological challenges we’ve not yet faced. First is the simple matter of descending into a crater. It’s never been done, so it will be necessary to develop new — or modify currently-existing, earth-based — technology to perform that task. Second is the extremely cold temperatures to be found inside the craters. At approximately -370 degrees fahrenheit (-223 degrees Celsius), they are the coldest regions we have yet to encounter in the solar system. Fortunately, however, we can get our feet wet (pun intended) on the simpler task of extracting water from the much more accessible and warmer areas near the crater rims.

But there may be an alternative — or additional, depending on how you look at it — source of lunar water. Less than three months ago, the Japanese Kaguya spacecraft took the first picture of what’s been termed a “skylight.” Having long been suspected by lunar scientists as a fairly common structure on the moon, a skylight is an opening to a lava tube. Vulcanism on the moon died out billions of years ago, so these tubes have spent the intervening eons vacant and hollow. In places, their roofs have collapsed, exposing the interior, and it may be possible that the same mechanism that deposits water into the cold traps within craters in the lunar polar regions has also left water here. Possible advantages provided by skylights are that they can be found at much lower latitudes, lending to better line-of-sight communications with earth, and that they could serve as natural shelters against solar storms, which can deliver intense doses of radiation.

As important as water and oxygen to the outpost will be power. Given that a single lunar night lasts for two weeks, solar cells are clearly not a viable source of energy; therefore, nuclear power is a must. Already NASA is working on the development of such a system, along with new building construction techniques, lunar surface vehicles for transporting astronauts between them, and many other technologies that will be necessary for sustaining a lunar outpost leading to a settlement. And here again, the commercial sector will be capable of providing logistical support, thereby reducing cost in much the same way it does with arctic bases on earth. As that commercial presence in space increases, so does the demand for jobs. Speaking in relative terms, we’re headed for a population explosion in space, made possible by a hand full of dreamers, of bold entrepreneurs willing to put their hard-earned fortunes at risk to realize the dream of a multi-world civilization all of us have imagined for so many decades.

As with previous decades, we enter this one with the same mixture of hope and dread. We’ll have our times of difficulties and adjustments, but we also have one thing that previous times failed to produce: a real shot at the final frontier — not just for an elite few, but for the common man. Recent discoveries, unparalleled relationships forming between public and private sectors and a change of destinations would all seem to signal the next chapter in history. We’ve opened a new decade, plotted a new course, and the possibilities are infinite.

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SpaceX Training NASA Space Station Astronauts

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

Hawthorne, CA (December 3, 2009) – Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) recently conducted its first Dragon spacecraft operations training for a group of NASA astronauts and personnel at its corporate headquarters in Hawthorne, CA.  The October training focused on how the crew will interface with the Dragon spacecraft while it is approaching and berthed to the International Space Station (ISS).  Three of the participating astronauts—Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Shannon Walker and Douglas Wheelock—will be on board the ISS when Dragon makes its first visit under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

The astronauts were briefed on vehicle ingress and egress, habitability of the spacecraft, payload handling and commanding through SpaceX’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Ultra High Frequency (UHF) Communication Unit.  The training was a key step in SpaceX’s progress towards providing NASA an alternative for cargo transport to and from the ISS when the Space Shuttle retires.

“This was the first time the NASA astronauts who will interact with Dragon during its early missions were actually inside a Dragon flight vehicle” said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO, SpaceX.  “SpaceX was honored to host the ISS crew for this preliminary training exercise, and we look forward to serving NASA further under the COTS program and CRS contracts.”

Also in attendance were NASA astronauts Marsha Ivins and Megan McArthur, as well as other key NASA personnel from the NASA Astronaut Office and Mission Operations Directorates.

Under the COTS program, SpaceX will execute three flights of the Dragon spacecraft. Dragon will pass in close proximity to, and berth with, the ISS as part of the second and third COTS missions, respectively. Upon completion of these demonstration flights, SpaceX will begin to fulfill the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract for 12 cargo flights between 2010 and 2015 and represents a guaranteed minimum of 20,000 kg to be carried to the ISS.

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A Case For The Moon and
Virgin Galactic Gets Investment Partner

August 7, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

When the White House recently commissioned the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee — also known as the Augustine Committee after its head, Norman Augustine — to review current plans for human space flight and to explore alternatives, it was decided that the next destination for human exploration should be one of the items for review. To that end, a separate subcommittee was formed, and public meetings are being held in which subject matter experts are called to speak. During one of those meetings this week organized by the Mars Society, NASA Ames Research Center planetary scientist Christopher McKay voiced his opinion that NASA should not bypass the moon, as a few like Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society and author of the book The Case For Mars, have been so ardently enunciating in a bid to derail current plans to establish a permanent lunar base.

That handful of dissenters (some of whom are certainly acclaimed) argue that going back to the moon is a dead end. Zubrin even went as far as to say that, “The reason we didn’t stay on the moon is there was nothing worth staying for.” In his determined yet single-minded attempt to rescue what he believes to be a waning opportunity for humanity to reach the red planet, he belittles the one destination that holds so much promise not only for getting humans back into space but for keeping them there.

I personally hold a great amount of respect for Zubrin. He holds his view that Mars should be our only focus deeply, unabashedly and without reservation. He’s simply wrong.

His argument is underpinned by conspicuous non sequiturs and oversights. The first is that going back to the moon will be at the expense of Mars. This is not so, and Dr. McKay answered that charge well when he said, “Mars ought to be a goal, but it doesn’t have to be the only goal… we can do both.” 

Zubrin also fails to take into consideration the tremendous cost of going directly to Mars, one that neither NASA or any other national space agency can bear alone. Cost will easily place any Mars mission in jeopardy without the intrinsic and embedded participation of the commercial space sector to balance government investment. Furthermore, there is the necessary prerequisite of going to the moon in order to establish the hardware and operational experience that will be needed for long-term planetary missions. When NASA and the commercial sector reach this level of experience and as a team, then and only then will we be ready to go to Mars. As Dr. McKay put it, “If we can’t establish a long-term base on the moon that is done at a reasonable fraction of NASA’s budget and do it for fifty or a hundred years, we can’t do it on mars.”

That’s not to say that we must wait that long before we go to Mars, but we must establish permanency and learn the lessons that it has to teach us. The best place to do that is the moon, and it was gratifying to listen to one of NASA’s own state this in very matter-of-fact, terms in this my favorite quote from Dr. McKay:

What do we have to learn on the moon? We have to learn how to operate a base for years on end: in terms of technology; in terms of human factors; in terms of life support; in terms of operation. The most important lesson we have to learn on the moon is how to transition from an exploration base, which may take an enormous fraction of NASA’s budget, to a mature base, which becomes a small part of the overall budget. A moon base should be operated in perpetuity, and it should take no more than 20% of NASA’s budget to do that. That’s going to be a hard lesson. We’re going to have to go to a contractor-operated-based transportation [system]. SpaceX should fly us to the moon, not NASA.

The last line is one that should be shouted to every corner of Washington, because it’s the key to both cost-effective space exploration and the opening of space to for settlement. The latter is a natural consequence to the former.

Dr. McKay argues some of the same central points for which SpaceTalkNOW.org was established: 1) that it is shortsighted to plan programs with the goal of simply reaching some destination. The point of all our human exploration should be to remain in space, permanently. And 2) that we should employ the commercial sector as our partner.

We’ve seen quite painfully the results of human space programs that fail to account for perpetuation and thus stability. Apollo was one such example. For all its grandeur and accomplishments, it left the generations since orphaned from the promises of space exploration and settlement. And the mentality that created it left the exiguous few, fortunate enough to travel into space at all, marooned in low earth orbit. It’s a mistake we cannot afford on — any level — to repeat.

Speaking in familiar terms, McKay extolled a new idea whose time has come when he said, “I grew up on star trek; the original series, or course. And I was always enamored by the, ‘to boldly go.’ But I realized that we’ve got the wrong verb. The verb that we need is not to ‘go.’ Going is easy. The verb we need is ‘stay.’ The challenge of space is not to go; it’s to stay. It’s time for a change of verb.”

But in order for that epiphany to be made manifest, the antiquated ideas must be replaced, beginning with our national space agency. We must think it terms of decades, not short-term gains. Again, Dr. McKay showed great insight when he said, “NASA has a tradition of thinking that projects have a 5, 10-year lifetime, and then that’s it; you throw them away and do something else. We could go to Mars. There’s lots of designs that show we could go to Mars, but we’re not ready to stay on Mars. We’ll end up doing what we’ve done before: boldly go and then stop and come back, and that’s it.” Indeed that would be a mistake, and a costly one at that.

As the Augustine Committee settles on recommendations, it will place cost as one of the primary considerations. And it would seem that they’ve already dismissed a Mar-first plan. The Houston Chronicle noted yesterday in an article titled ‘Mars First’ Advocate Receives An Icy Response that, “Neither Augustine nor any member of the panel questioned Zubrin after a fast-moving briefing where the witness belittled rival proposals to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972.” In an apparent snub, Augustine told Zubrin dismissively, “We’ll read your book.”

The current environment places ever more emphasis on costs, and if for no other reason than this, we must bring in the commercial sector in to help shoulder that burden. Another case where this strategy would serve the public well is the International Space Station. Space News reports this week that, “Keeping the space station in service through 2020 — five years longer than NASA has budgeted — would cost an addition $9.3 billion to $14 billion, depending on the level of utilization.” If savings are sought by NASA with which to bolster its exploration program then it makes no sense for the agency to continue to operate Station. Why not turn over ISS to a private spaceport authority? Not only would this translate into tremendous cost savings, but it would place this valuable and incalculably important asset in the hands of an organization dedicated to its administration, health and prosperity. It would enable the station to serve us as both a science laboratory and as the first node in a space-based infrastructure (see The Writing On The Wall, April 11, 2009). Under a spaceport authority, further commercial presence could be enabled, thereby setting the stage for the emergence of whole new industries that have been waiting for their first foothold in space.

In other parts of the space industry, Aabar Investments PJSC, a company based in Abu Dahbi, United Arab Emirates, has just agreed to invest $180M in the Virgin Galactic company. Though the backing was not a prerequisite for the first flights of SpaceShipTwo, the first passenger carrying spaceliner due to begin service in 2011, the investment will no doubt greatly strengthen Virgin. The two companies are also planning a satellite launch capability, for which Aabar will be investing a further $100M.

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Shuttle Returns and Harrison Schmitt Speaks Out

July 31, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

The space shuttle wraps up its 16-day mission today and returns to earth after conducting 5 space walks outside the International Space Station to deliver and install fresh batteries, large spare parts and a “porch” for what is now the station’s largest component, Japan’s Kibo science lab. The Porch, as it is called, is a large platform on which outdoor experiments will be conducted. One of the space walks was cut short when a canister that removes carbon dioxide from Christopher Cassidy’s suit failed to keep up with his eager, fast pace, forcing he and fellow space walker David Wolf to end their work half an hour early.

Shuttle and crew left the Station and their Expedition 20 crew mates on Wednesday but remained in orbit until this morning so that they could deploy two, small satellites then begin packing up and inspecting the orbiter’s outer shield for damage, as well as checking out its flight control systems and thruster jets in preparation for reentry.

The mission set a record for the most people in space, simultaneously: 7 space shuttle joined 6 Station crew members for a total of 13 astronauts!

On Tuesday, members of the Augustine Committee stated unanimously that the International Space Station should be continued beyond 2016 when current plans call for it to be decommissioned and de-orbited into the ocean. It’s difficult to imagine a more sickening waist of the proverbial blood, sweat and tears than if those plans were to be carried out. The Station has endured a never-ending train of short-sighted nay-sayers, budget cuts and delays to get to this point. To end its life after only 6 years of useful service would be foolish, to say the very least. What is desperately lacking for the establishment of a large-scale human presence in space is infrastructure, and the ISS could serve as the corner stone from which future growth could expand. The very last thing we should desire is to throw away such a hard-won foot hold in space so close to earth. The fact that the Augustine Committee has resoundingly endorsed the idea of keeping it is a much needed breath of fresh air amid a flurry of stagnant and lifeless ideas like continuing shuttle flights at the expense of going forward with flights to the moon or bypassing the moon altogether.

And speaking of going back to the moon, I spoke to you during the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing back on the 20th about the great importance the moon holds for humanity in igniting a space-based economy and I also told you about the most outspoken opponent to current plans to return to the moon like Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Buzz believes the moon is, as he puts it, a “dead end.” I couldn’t disagree more, and neither could Apollo 17 astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt. Like me, astronaut Schmitt believes that the moon is an ideal place for commerce and for homesteading. In a letter to the editor published yesterday in the Washington Post, he said

My fellow Apollo astronaut and lunar module pilot, Buzz Aldrin, favors Mars over the moon ["Time to Boldly Go Once More," op-ed, July 16]. His vision for space policy, however, requires clear thinking instead of just “bold thinking,” and Mr. Aldrin missed on several points.
The moon is hardly a “dead end.” If that were true, China and other countries would not be so interested. Rather than being “a poor location for homesteading,” the moon is ideal for that purpose. Its soils provide resources necessary to support settlements, including an economic base of exports of helium-3 as a potential fusion fuel.
The fact that the “moon is a lifeless, barren world” means that it is the only place with a scientific record of the early history of the solar system.
Returning to the moon gives the fastest path to Mars. Without lunar water resources, radiation protection may not be feasible. Without lunar operational experience, risk on early Martian flights greatly increases.
Without lunar oxygen and water, payloads to Mars may be prohibitively large. Without lunar rocket fuel resources, we might not be able to even land on Mars.


Harrison and I are not the only two who feel that the moon should be our next destination. Despite the fact that there are a few voices out there who see the opportunity to resurrect the Mars-first argument after it was defeated by a majority of scientists and engineers recommending we go to the moon next, most professionals in the space field still agree that the moon is by far the most logical next step.

NASA is already working on lunar strategies and the space systems we’ll need once we get there. On Monday, The Technology Review published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported that, “NASA has developed a robotic device that can help astronauts live and work on the moon and eventually Mars.” It’s a new robotic arm called the Lunar Surface Manipulator System, and it’s capable of lending a “helping hand for astronauts living and working on the moon. It could, for example, move large payloads and precisely position scientific experiments.” This is very exciting news. Already, we’re making strides towards fulfilling the Vision For Space Exploration. “The manipulator did everything we wanted it to, from lifting large simulated airlocks and habitats to more delicate tasks, such as precisely positioning scientific payloads,” said John Dorsey, a senior aerospace engineer at Langley Research Center where the LSMS was built and is being tested. The robotic arm could carry loads between 100 to 3,000 kilograms (200 pounds to over 3 and a half tons).

Jonathan Goff, an engineer with Masten Space Systems in Santa Clara, California presented a white paper to the Augustine Committee in which he suggests establishing a series of orbiting fuel depots to help rockets get to the moon and beyond. It’s a very good idea, though not a new one. In his book titled Space: What Now (Publish America, 2005, Baltimore: 310 pages), author and astronautics professional Tom Hill explores this very idea. He says, “Orbital supply depots provide a practical solution for enabling frequent commercial access to low earth orbit.” Such stations can act as orbiting gas stations, helping to enable smaller and less expensive vehicles to lift payloads to their destinations. In addition, they serve as elements of – your guest it – orbiting infrastructure. In the interest of full disclosure, Tom is a friend and colleague of mine, but his ideas are fresh and I can enthusiastically recommend his book.

We’re making tangible progress towards earth orbit, the moon and the untold opportunities they will deliver if we don’t lose our focus and determination. With a public/private partnership like that developing as a consequence of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract (COTS) between NASA and Hawthorne, CA-based SpaceX (who, incidentally, just announced the successful completion of qualification testing for human rating their powerful Falcon 9′s launch vehicle first stage tank and interstage) for the delivery of cargo and possibly crew to the International Space Station, as well as others that are likely to develop in such a positive environment, we stand to realize our dreams of space travel for the common man… today. Let’s not blow the most brilliant and worthwhile opportunity in human history by changing horses in mid stream.

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Blue Collar Astronauts and XCOR Begins Testing Lynx

July 27, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

In the civil human space flight sector, they turn astronauts into electricians, plumbers, mechanics or whoever else is needed. This is because theirs is a research and development field. But with commercial space flight there will — by necessity — come a change of paradigm. We’ll witness hundreds, even thousands of people going into space to live and work, pursuing the limitless opportunities that space has to offer. And instead of turning astronauts into electricians, we’ll see electricians becoming astronauts. For human space flight on a large scale to become viable, the cost must be minimized. This means a more conventional approach to human resources.

If you’ve been reading SpaceTalkNOW or listening to my Podcasts, you’ve heard me talk about the economics of space flight. I’m neither a professional economist nor a professor of the subject, but history has shown time and again that such pursuits always come down to currency. It’s one of the reasons why prizes have been so instrumental in getting new technology ventures going (see Competition and Technological Advancement, May 14, 2009).

Training and staffing, the way it is done in the civil arena, will not be sustainable in the commercial space flight realm. Spending a million and a half dollars creating a military pilot then several more transforming that pilot into an astronaut with the goal of turning out a craftsman makes little sense. More than just a matter or money, it’s just as illogical from the standpoint of obtaining and retaining expertise. When it comes time to build structures in earth orbit and on the moon, we’ll see the emergence of a completely new kind of tradesman: the blue collar astronaut.

I’m a staunch supporter of the International Space Station, believing that it has the potential to be far more than even its designers envisioned. But one must admit that the cost of building it was as astronomical as its locale. If such a structure were to begin construction today, commercial services for the transport of its components and their assembly in orbit could vastly reduce the cost. Without a doubt, commercial services will do just that for current designers of space stations like Bigelow Aerospace and Galactic Suite (see The First Space Settlement, May 18, 2009), as well as those contemplating the venture. And once investors are conviced that a pocket book as vast as space itself is not a necessary ingredient for successfulness and profitability, the list of commercial off planet projects will come fast and furious.

And yes, that’s my personal opinion, but it’s one borne out by history. Let’s face it, there’s no one on earth who can say with absolute certainty how successful, large-scale space construction projects will be conducted, because no one has yet proven a concept. We’re treading on undiscovered country here. But if you accept the premise that space is for everyone then you must naturally arrive at the conclusion that we’re turning the corner on a new era in which the blue collar astronaut joins the ranks of the professionals to form a well-balanced space work force.

Projecting a bit far into the future, you say? Well, we’ll see. In 2003, if you were to have told the average Joe on the street that soon companies were going to begin flying tourists to space, he would have grinned and dismissed you as a foolish dreamer. But isn’t it amazing the difference only a few, short years makes.

___________

In the second section of today’s report, the Mojave-based company XCOR announced Friday that it has begun wind tunnel testing of a 1/16 scale model of its Lynx rocket plane at the U.S. Air Force test facility located at Wright-Patterson Air Base near Dayton, OH, as part of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA).

“The CRADA allows us to form productive partnerships between the U.S. Air Force and private sector companies,” says Barry Hellman, an aerospace engineer at the Air Vehicles Directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright Patterson AFB. “We will work together to develop the aerodynamics of the Lynx which will provide valuable knowledge to help the Air Force develop future access to space systems.”

XCOR hopes to begin flying paying customers into sub-orbital flights soon. Jeff Greason, the company’s CEO, was recently named to the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee. Their Chief Test Pilot is Richard Searfoss, a former NASA Astronaut and Colonel, USAF (Ret). Colonel Searfoss was the Chief X Prize Judge overseeing the SpaceShipOne Flights (see The Ansari X Prize, April 6, 2009).

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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.

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A Different Way of Doing Things

June 30, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Civil Space Flight 

Aerospace experts are telling congress that NASA cannot achieve its goals in space with the current funding plan, but is the agency being asked to do too much? Has the time come to narrow its scope to increase its effectiveness at meeting the aggressive exploration goals placed on it?

Since its inception the US civil space program has accomplished many great things, which are arguably on par with the great exploration endeavors of the past: Magellan, Christopher Columbus, Ponce DeLeon and Lewis and Clark. But imagine if, along with all the other financial and logistical concerns they bore, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were also to have been responsible for factoring in provisions and money for the continuance of all the beachheads that had been established to that point in the young republic. Of course the notion is absurd, but could that be precisely what we’re doing with our space program? Could we be imposing continuance of the space-age equivalent of a beachhead secured long ago? And in doing so, doesn’t that dilute the agency’s strength and effectiveness?

The beachhead I’m referring to is called Geospace. It’s a region that spans the radiation environment from the Sun to Earth’s upper atmosphere — considered to be the fourth physical geosphere after solid earth, oceans, and atmosphere. I know; kind of a mouth full, but the importance of the latter will be made clear in a moment.

The mission to Geospace is a mature one. So much so that it has entered the realm of regular operations. So it may be no less absurd a notion to ask that NASA continue its presence in that region than it would have been to include the Lewis and Clark expedition as part of the same funding and administration blueprint used to explore the Boston or New York Harbors. At the very least, our capacity for space exploration has reached a level or maturity for which prudence would dictate a re-examination of how we structure our programs and agencies. Streamlining, even redefining scope and purpose may be a reasonable and warranted course.

Look at what NASA was able to achieve in the 1960′s and early 1970′s when the bulk of its resources and talent were aimed at the frontier. Were the stunning successes of that era due entirely to a much larger budget, or was it more a matter of focus? It’s a proven fact that individuals achieve more when there are fewer distractions. Is it inconceivable that the same process is at work at the organizational level?

If the mission of NASA were to be refined with a focus on Constellation, the program for going back to the moon then on to Mars, the resulting organization with its resources and funding redistributed and streamlined could achieve far more. But does this mean that other programs not in line with that goal are simply dropped? Certainly not.

Let’s go back to the missions to Geospace. Those should be placed under an agency for which this is already its mandate: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the words of its new Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA’s reach, “goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor…” Sound familiar? If you said the Geosphere, you’re right.

So it is no stretch at all to reassign every mission looking at the sun or the earth to NOAA. Indeed, NOAA is already performing that mission with its constellation of GOES satellites. More than just weather observation platforms, these spacecraft monitor the sun, the earth and the interplanetary space between. Geospace is already within their mission statement. And they fly these missions with their own cadre of world-class scientists, engineers and controllers. To reassign all remaining programs currently under NASA studying the earth and the sun to NOAA is not only technically feasible and fits within the current political structure, but it would also eliminate much redundancy and coordination between the two agencies due to the overlap in missions, thereby saving money. Those cost savings can then go to fund programs turning out tangible results rather than wasting them on dispensable layers of bureaucracy.

But there’s another facet of NOAA that lends still more credence to the argument for its dominion over Geospace: their space arm is inherently an operational institution. This stands in contrast to NASA, whose bailiwick lies purely within the domain of research and development. And the question of operations vs R&D is quickly becoming an issue with the International Space Station. Construction of the ISS is nearing completion, after which NASA will find itself in a position for which it has no experience: that of landlord, where operations — not R&D — are the prime concern.

So why not place Geospace strictly under NOAA and leave NASA to what it does best? deep space exploration of the frontier. Sometimes the best way forward is to take a step back.

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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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