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.


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.


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.


One More Giant Leap

NASA announced late last week that they are seeking to buy data from commercial providers that, “reduces risks for future human and robotic lander designs by employing these missions as unique demonstration testbeds,” according to their Broad Agency Announcement. Through their Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD) program, the agency will award $30.1M to private companies already vying for the Google Lunar X Prize, itself valued at an additional $30M. With this latest incentive, private companies now stand to make over $60M for successfully landing on the moon.

The lunar rover built by Astrobotic Technology is set to launch in late 2010 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 bound for the Apollo 11 landing site. The mission has been dubbed Tranquility Trek.

This is great news for lead contender Astrobotic Technology (see The Undiscovered Country, June 23, 2010 STN), a Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company devoted to robotic exploration of the Moon. They’re already well into the hardware testing phase of their lunar rover, set to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 late in 2012 bound for the Apollo 11 landing site. The mission, dubbed “Tranquility TrekTM,” will place a 160-lb, 5-foot-tall rover on the lunar surface for 10 to 12 days until lunar night fall. When the sun rises two Earth weeks later, the solar-powered robot will re-awaken to resume from its deep freeze hibernation after having experienced temperatures plummeting to -298 degrees Fahrenheit. This will be an important milestone for the technology since their plan is to follow on with additional robots to “prospect for the water ice and other volatiles at the Moon’s poles, which can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for return flights to Earth, doubling the productivity of human missions,” said Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, Astrobotic founder and director of CMU’s Field Robotics Center. There in the permanently-shadowed craters of the poles, robots must face the most bitter cold yet recorded in the solar system. This first demonstration flight will serve as a practice run for the deep freeze of the poles. And if these robots do well, they can serve as a first generation of a sort of space-based hunting dog to help in those tasks too dangerous for humans.

Design for a commercial lunar base. Could this be the shape of things to come and only just around the corner?: image courtesy Bigelow Aerospace

Still further, in an exclusive statement to SpaceTalkNOW, Dr. Whittaker said that his company also has plans to explore newly-discovered features on the Moon called “skylights,” (see A New Decade and Infinite Possibilities, January 11, 2010 STN; The Undiscovered Country, June 23, 2010 STN; and Lunar Scientists Need You, July 25, 2010 STN). These features are the collapsed ceilings of long-dead lava tubes, and they hold much promise as possible sources of lunar water as well as for natural shelter against the radiation environment.

This new NASA lunar program represents a giant leap forward in fostering lunar-based commerce around which the settlement of our nearest neighbor in space could arise. Like the COTS and CCDev commercial contracts before it, NASA will not use ILDD to take ownership of any flight or ground systems like was done during the Apollo program when the agency took full ownership of the Saturn rocket, Command Module and Lunar Lander and all their supporting technology. When Apollo died, those vehicles — so hard won — died with it. But this time, things are different. It’s a perfect example of NASA playing the role for which it is so well suited: that of macroeconomic enabler. The ILDD program’s money will spur innovation in the complimentary areas of human and robotic space flight, which is then reinvested to advance the state of the art still further. Private enterprise can then follow NASA to the moon and supply much of the agency’s needs for technology, materiel and logistical support. It’s a match made in heaven.

Once set in motion, lunar-based commerce can grow exponentially, making use of the nearly limitless, untapped natural resources to be found there not only for supplying the base there but for providing Earth with minerals such as Platinum (see Moonrush by Dennis Wingo, ISBN-13: 978-1894959100) which, though rare on Earth, is abundant on the Moon and could serve as a highly efficient catalyst for the first generation of hydrogen-powered, fuel cell automobiles.

Once a critical mass in space commerce is reached, it opens the door to the spread of space tourism, first from the short-duration, sub-orbital flights begun by Virgin Galactic to low earth orbit and then to the surface of the moon. The progression could be remarkably fast given the right set of circumstances. Already, Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace has plans for establishing the solar system’s first hotel on another planetary body. This can happen in our lifetime! All that is needed is the wise investment of both public and private funds. Uncle Sam and private industry can make great partners if they work together. Now the question is, do those in charge on either side recognize the potential? The NASA folks at the Constellation office from which ILDD will be funded obviously “get it.” But will Congress and the Administration pull the proverbial rug out from under them?


SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Preparing for Launch at Cape Canaveral

February 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle is now vertical at Space Launch Complex 40, Cape Canaveral. Following its mate to the transporter erector, Falcon 9 was rolled from the integration hangar to the launch pad where final checks of the pad hydraulic and pneumatic systems were completed.

Falcon 9 is undergoing a checkout of the critical flight connections including fuel, liquid oxygen, and gas pressure systems. Once all system interfaces are verified, the SpaceX launch team will execute a full tanking test of both first and second stages (wet dress) followed by a brief ~3.5 static fire of the first stage. SpaceX has not set specific dates for wet dress or static fire as schedule will be driven by the satisfactory completion of all test objectives and a thorough review of the data.

Credit SpaceX

Credit SpaceX


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


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.


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.


Excalibur Almaz Joins the Space Industrial Revolution

August 21, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Excalibur Almaz Limited (EA), an international space exploration company, today announced plans to open up a new era of private orbital space flight for commercial customers, using updated elements of the “Almaz” space system originally developed by Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia (or NPOM). It consists of two vehicles: the Almaz reusable spacecraft and re-entry vehicle or RRV and its accompanying, expendable Service Module, which will allow the spacecraft to perform flights of up to one week, without rendezvous with a space station. The company says it, “plans for its spacecraft to be compatible with a number of launch vehicles and capable of being launched from worldwide sites.”

EA plans to offer week-long orbital space flights beginning as early as 2013 – taking a big leap beyond the sub-orbital flight market targeted by most other private space companies. In addition to NPOM, other leading aerospace firms in the U.S., Europe and Japan will provide technical support for EA’s space flight operations.

EA Founder and CEO Art Dula said, “Through cooperation with NPOM and with the support of leading space contractors around the world and an exceptionally strong management and advisory team, EA is in a unique position to initiate a new era of private orbital space exploration.”

And indeed the company does have an impressive array of leadership, including Walter Cunningham who was pilot for Apollo 7 and who later served as Chief of the Skylab Branch of NASA’s Fight Crew Directorate; There’s Leroy Chiao, Commander of Expedition 10 aboard the International Space Station; Vladimir Titov, the Russian cosmonaut who set a record for spending more than a year in space for the first time and who also trained for missions using the Almaz spacecraft. Russian Cosmonaut Valery Tokarev who flew on space shuttle mission STS-96 and also spent 6 months on ISS; and then there’s Jonathan Clark, MD, the company’s Chief Medical Officer who is a member of NASA’s Constellation Program EVA Systems Standing Review Board and was a Space Shuttle Crew Surgeon from 1997 to 2005 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. This, just to name a few.

To add still more legitimacy, the company has formed contractor and other alliances the world over with organizations such as Houston-based United Space Alliance (co-owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin and responsible for operating and processing the Space Shuttle fleet and the International Space Station); Tokyo-based Japan Manned Space Systems Corporation (involved in the operations HTV, Japan’s unmanned resupply spacecraft to the ISS) , Moscow-based NPOM (the original designer of Almaz) and Rice University in the US.

From the standpoint of technical expertise, Excalibur Almaz is very capable of placing private citizens into space. The open question at this point is its source of startup funds. Also, the company has not quoted prices for seats or elaborated on the flight profiles other than to say that they will be orbital. There’s also the obvious question of a destination, which they have not yet stated as a part of the flight but through which many companies wishing to establish orbiting hotels could gain their first access to space. Still, the fact that a private company will be offering orbital trips represents are huge leap forward in the Space Industrial Revolution.

It’s easy to envision a partnership with another commercial entity such as Bigelow Aerospace, designers and builders of space habitat modules, two of which are on orbit now and have established proof-of-concept over thousands of successful orbits, and with a third, much larger version in the developmental stage.

Carry the plan just a little further, and one could envisage a complete offering whereby SpaceX, Builders of the Falcon rocket, offer the booster for getting into orbit, Excalibur Almaz provides the spacecraft and Bigelow Aerospace rounds out the service by providing a destination – an orbiting hotel, if you will. This would require a great deal of cooperation, but it’s really not too different from the kinds of cooperation we see in play right now in the terrestrial-based tourism industry, in which hotels, airlines, cruise lines, bus services and car rental companies all work together to provide a complete, end-to-end service offering.

And now Excalibur Almaz adds its name to the rapidly-growing list of private space flight providers including Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures, Galactic Suite, XCOR, Spaceport America and Spaceport Sweden. The space adventures we dreamt of as children are materializing before our eyes, thanks to the Space Industrial Revolution. Today, you can book a flight to the edge of space or a 10-day stay on the International Space Station. Soon, you’ll be able to stay at an orbiting hotel and – hang on to your hat – there are plans to offer a trip to circumnavigate the moon!

While NASA and other civil agencies are scratching their heads and pondering how to remain relevant, the commercial sector is planning bold, new ventures that take not only the elite but the common man into space. Once again, we see that past is prologue.


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.


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.


Third Commercial Astronaut Corps Forms

June 22, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

When Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, said at a commercial space flight conference hosted by the FAA in February that it would not be NASA but rather the company’s own commercial astronauts to fly Dragon on its upcoming demonstration flights to the International Space Station, she wasn’t kidding. On Tuesday the formation of a new Astronaut Safety and Mission Assurance Department was announced. And in a very wise move, they selected US Navy Captain and former NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox as its Vice President. Now SpaceX joins the ranks of Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic in forming their own astronaut corps.

“Ken Bowersox is a critical asset to the SpaceX team, as we prepare for crewed missions aboard our Dragon spacecraft,” said Elon Musk, Founder and CEO of SpaceX. “His experience in the U.S. astronaut corps, and aboard the International Space Station, will be invaluable in shaping the future of commercial manned spaceflight.”


Ken Bowersox, Vice President, Space Astronaut Safety and Mission Assurance Department

Ken Bowersox, Vice President, Astronaut Safety and Mission Assurance Department, SpaceX


Captain Bowersox is a US Naval Academy aerospace engineering grad and brings with him the benefit of 19 years experience in space flight, including 5 shuttle missions, 2 as Commander, and was Commander of Expedition 6 aboard the International Space Station. In all, he has logged 211 days in space.

Commercial, human space flight is still under fire (see A Rock In The Road) and it looks as though the path to providing a commercial, crew transportation service to and from the International Space Station (see Commercial Human Space Transportation Now) will not be an easy one for SpaceX. That’s why the selection of a man such a Bowersox is so important. To quiet the remaining naysayers who insist that commercial providers are simply not up to the task of providing NASA with safe and reliable service, the company needs a man in their astronaut department with the right background. And when it’s one of NASA’s own, those dissenting voices have far less over which to object and may eventually fall silent when faced with the reality that they’ve vastly underestimated the expertise and agility of the commercial sector.

Captain Bowersox will shine for far better reasons than politics. He’s the right man for the job and at a time when the company is dealing with flight delays that can only serve to bolster the skeptics of commercial, human space flight.


A Commercial Repair Solution for Hubble

May 25, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Senior project scientist for the Hubble space telescope, David Leckrone, publicly spoke out against the agency last week for what he feels is a loss of engineering expertise in the servicing of space-based instruments. His sentiment stems from the fact that the shuttle is being retired. He feels that without the shuttle, instruments like Hubble are doomed, having told the Washington Post that, “There is no person out there, there is no leadership out there, there is no vision out there to pick up the baton that we’re about to hand off and to carry it forward.” Given Dr. Leckrones position and his reputation as a “superman” of science, it’s a surprisingly myopic view of the state of affairs and bespeaks of the same ‘space equals NASA’ mentality for which this blog was created to dispel. The shuttle was but one engineering solution to repairing and refurbishing Hubble. It is neither the only nor the ideal solution. There are others, which could service Hubble and other spaceborne instruments more efficiently and cost-effectively than a shuttle.

The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has already demonstrated the technology for autonomous servicing of satellites in space. In 2007, they launched the Orbital Express mission consisting of two satellites: a “servicing” satellite and a “client” satellite. The servicing satellite was able to locate, maneuver around, rendezvous and dock with the client satellite. It performed a visual inspection of the entire client spacecraft using a video camera mounted on a light-weight, robotic arm. It then set about refueling to the client. And as if those two history-making maneuvers weren’t enough, it was also able to replace batteries and computers on the client. And all of this was performed with complete autonomy. Imagine that: One spacecraft docked with and completely repaired another. Of course, the two were designed with common interfaces and any spacecraft attempting to service spaceborne instruments would necessarily have to carry this same design consideration. But this is hardly a show-stopper. In the case of Hubble, we have an instrument that’s already flying. A servicer would have to incorporate into its design those specific interfaces; again, very do-able and likely with a price tag far less than a shuttle mission. With a technology transfer from that program to the private sector, a commercial solution could be made available with great cost savings.

The shuttle’s space-plane design is not a necessary component for servicing Hubble or anything else. A capsule-based architecture like that of the shuttle’s successor Orion can also do the job. NASA spokesman Grey Hautaluoma stated that, “There is nothing about the [Orion] architecture that would preclude satellite rescue work,” and former Administrator Michael Griffin has also said that Orion will be capable of a servicing mission. The problem there is that Orion may not be available for a mission like this for another decade, perhaps more, but there is another solution: a commercial, manned mission. SpaceX is in the advanced stages of flight testing for its Dragon spacecraft that could do the job. Given the opportunity and CEO Elon Musk’s stated desire to become more involved with manned space flight, it is very likely they could deliver a commercial solution with significant economy.

By its very nature, repair work is a natural fit for the private sector. It requires the standardization of all processes, hardware and software, which industry handles with more proficiency and fiscal agility than NASA, which is by its nature is a research and development organization. Make no mistake, there is a broad distinction between operations (which include repair) and R&D. Whereas operations relies upon standardization and repetition, R&D seeks the unique solution to what is at the time a unique problem: getting people to Mars for the first time is a good example. With operations and R&D, each has its place, but if you’re seeking economy, unique solutions and the large-scale development programs that they require, are not your goal. And for the first time, private industry is in the position to offer repair solutions. Organizations like that of Hubble should open their eyes to this fact. 

The bottom line is that shuttle is history. In my view, its retirement can’t come soon enough. It was a white elephant from the beginning, never having delivered on its promises of a quick flight turn-around and cost savings over its expendable predecessors. In the end, it was too expensive both in terms of money and human lives. Add to that the fact that it could never fly higher than low earth orbit — and thus is useless for moon and Mars missions — and it becomes painfully obvious that we desperately need a new system. In both its NASA and commercial forms, the architecture of that new system will be capsule-based. And why not? It proved itself safe and reliable time and again with Apollo. It even served as the basis for the US’s first space station: Skylab. SpaceX was wise to choose it, and once their systems reach even a modest level of maturity, the number of missions of which they are ultimately capable will open many doors to many as yet unforeseen opportunities in space. In the meantime, a commercial repair solution for Hubble and follow-on missions like the James Webb Space Telescope still makes the most sense.



Commercial Astronauts: A New Breed

May 22, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 


faa_astr_wings2Until very recently, the only astronauts were those trained and certified either by the military or civilian space agencies such as NASA. That changed on June 21, 2004 when the US Federal Aviation Administration issued the first pair of commercial astronaut wings to Mike Melvill for the final test flight of SpaceShipOne. That day, he flew to an altitude of 328,491 feet or about 62 miles. I might add that he made this flight at the age of 63 years, proving that you can still spit rocket fuel even when your peers are retiring.

I had the good fortune to meet Mike when I was there covering his history-making flight for a professional astronautics journal. He’s not what you might expect to find in a test pilot. One of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, I found no overblown ego, no arrogance, no cold detachment. Instead, I saw a surprisingly approachable man, friendly and good-natured; very humbled by his experience. The only coolness he exhibited was the professional sort like that he demonstrated earlier in the day when SpaceShipOne went into a series of rolls, brought on by a fault in an actuator on the flaps. Mike suddenly found himself in a vertical corkscrew maneuver, and being the consummate professional pilot he is, calmly and quickly brought the Ship under control with no more fuss than most folks would display in parking the family car at the grocery store. After the flight and with a sly grin, he quipped about holding, “…the world’s record for victory rolls at the top of the climb.” Cool? Well, only when it counts.

Three and a half months later, Brian Binnie became the second commercial astronaut when he flew SpaceShipOne to nearly 70 miles altitude. Brian is an ex Navy aviator and test pilot, having graduated from the US Naval Test Pilot School. He flew many different aircraft while in the military, but it wasn’t until he left and began flying commercially for Scaled Composites as a test pilot that he was to become an astronaut. This is a story that I predict will be become more and more common: people turning to commercial ventures for the next great opportunity and adventure.

Both Mike and Brian beat the high-altitude record held since the early 1960′s by the X-15, an experimental military aircraft. Now, for the first time in history, people are flying into space as part of a private endeavor.

The identities of the next batch of commercial astronauts are not yet known, but the likelihood is that they’ll be flying for Virgin Galactic. Another in the Virgin Group brand of companies started by Sir Richard Branson, Galactic will be flying the newest spaceliners fresh off the Scaled Composites assembly line. These sleek, six-passenger vehicles are the next generation of rocket planes following SpaceShipOne, which won the designer Burt Rutan the Ansari X Prize. And where are the pilots coming from? Where else? Virgin Atlantic airline. No doubt the airline experienced a sharp increase in pilot resumes when that news leaked out.

And hot on the heels of Virgin Galactic will be another set of commercial astronauts flying the Dragon, currently being designed and manufactured by a company called SpaceX. The President of the California-based company, Gwynne Shotwell, announced on February 6th at a conference hosted by the FAA that if COTS-D (see Commercial Human Space Transportation Now) is funded, the astronauts to fly the demonstration flights of Dragon to the International Space Station will not be NASA but rather their own commercial astronauts. For several moments, you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. Up to that very moment, the assumption had been that the astronauts would be NASA.

This reminds me of the riddle about a father and son involved in a car accident. When the ambulance carrying the injured boy arrives at the hospital, the attending doctor looks at the boy and exclaims, “Oh my god. He’s my son!” What is the identity of the doctor? Of course it’s the boy’s mother, but you’d be surprised how many — both men and women — either get it wrong or return a blank stare. Why? I won’t get into a political debate over the reason; suffice it to say that the word “doctor” has been burned into our collective consciousness as a male figure. Something similar has happened in our minds with the term “astronaut.” Without thinking we associate the term with NASA. Likewise, we associate “cosmonaut” with the Russian Space Agency. Neither terms conjure up images of a private company. It’s what I call the “Space Equals NASA” mentality, and it’s a way of thinking that is quickly becoming antiquated.

As more and more commercial ventures in space begin, we’ll see the ranks of the commercial astronaut swell to meet the demand. And that demand will rise quickly. Plans are being drawn for space hotels (see The First Space Settlement) and if the European Space Agency and some within the Space Frontier Foundation get their way, even the International Space Station will be commercialized, opening the door for it to become the nucleus for an entire city in earth orbit. I must admit that it’s something I, too, would like to see come to pass. The commercialization of space makes sense on so many levels, and every opportunity should be seized. 

Take a good look at the commercial astronaut wings in the picture. The next time you see them, they may be pinned on the lapel of your pilot.







The First Space Settlement

May 18, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

If humans are to go into space en masse, there must be a destination, and that destination must be capable of providing at a minimum a few, key elements.

The first is that it must be able to support all the basic needs of the people there: shelter, air to breathe, food and the equipment for its preparation, water, personal living space and health needs. It must be able to expand to support population growth for unlimited periods of time. And to do all of this, it must support commerce. What we’re describing here is a permanent settlement, and we’ve not yet established one, which requires that we first identify its form. But what would that be?

The US and Russia have been operating space stations since the early 70′s, but none of them meet our requirements for a destination, including today’s International Space Station. The ISS is what it was designed to be: a scientific outpost. But there is a world of difference between an outpost and a settlement. That’s not to say the station could not grow beyond the limitations of an outpost. During a series of congressional hearings in 2001, the Space Frontier Foundation proposed that the International Space Station be transferred to a spaceport authority once its construction is complete. This would open the door to commerce and could well establish the station in its current form as the nucleus for the first city in space. The design does allow for expansion. It’s essentially a series of cylindrical containers connected together at their ends to form the overall structure. If one wishes to expand, simply attach more cylinders. Commerce is the only missing element.

Congress did not act on the recommendations of the SFF, so no plans have been made for a spaceport authority through which to operate and maintain the ISS; however, this may be the best time to re-examine the proposal with construction due to finish just around the corner. My own research leads me to conclude that such a move will, if proposed again, be resisted by NASA. I believe there are elements within the agency that feel it would amount to a black mark on their reputation to allow any entity other than themselves to operate ISS. This is utter nonsense, of course. NASA is a research and development organization and has no business in operations, but that’s a topic unto itself.

Where do we turn, if not the ISS, for a destination? In a word: hotels. And because an orbiting hotel could no more exist alone than one of the old west could have existed without the general stores, livery stables and yes, even saloons, it will bring with it a host of other businesses that operate in conjunction with it.  The hotels and the supporting infrastructure that will necessarily accompany them will constitute our first settlements in space.

But that’s far off into the future, you say. It won’t be available in my life time. Let’s be realistic. If you’re talking about hotels in space, you’re talking science fiction. If this is your viewpoint, let me be the first to set you straight.

There are currently two, serious contenders who have the resources for building a hotel in earth orbit. At present, I wouldn’t place a bet on who gets there first, because they’re both backed by plenty of vision, technical know-how and — not to put too fine a point on it — cash.

The first is Robert Bigelow who became a multimillionaire with his earthbound Las Vegas hotel chain Budget Suites of America. He had the vision and fortitude to capture the technology from the cancelled Transhab program when he purchased the rights to the patents developed by NASA. Transhab was a program that the agency cancelled, but not before it had developed a space habitat module much stronger than the rigid body construction like that found in the International Space Station. The whole assembly is flown into orbit in a compressed form to save space on the launcher, then inflated with air to expand to its operational size and shape. The multilayer, inflatable shell is a marvel of innovation, capable of withstanding strikes from micrometeorites and other similarly-sized pieces of space debris. Several layers are made from a material called Vectran, which is twice as strong as Kevlar used in bullet-proof vests. Bigelow saw the immense potential of this technology and is now building it into his prototype habitats, two of which are flying high above earth as you read this article: Genesis I and II. His prototypes will  culminate in a space hotel called the CSS, or Commercial Space Station, Skywalker.

Anyone can produce eye-catching, computer-generated graphics and claim that they’ll begin producing real hardware in the near future. But “the proof…” as they say, “is in the pudding.” Here with Bigelow’s designs, we have flight tested hardware, real stuff you can go and lay your hands on  — well, that is until it launched. As of this date, his full-scale habitat module is on the launch manifest for 2011 aboard a SpaceX (see Commercial Human Space Transportation Now) Falcon 9 rocket. Where others are producing nothing more than hype with cool pictures and a website, Bigelow is flying now.

There’s one other company that has a real shot at creating the first orbiting hotel: Galactic Suite Limited. Based in Barcelona, they’ve assembled a very competent team to cover the technical end. And they, too, have the cash with investors from the US, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. Their ace in the hole is a yet unnamed investor who has put up $3B for startup. A hefty sum, and let’s face it; with the technology well in hand for at least the past two decades, money is the bottom line to getting a project like this from the drawing board to selling tickets.

Galactic Suite also has a vehicle for getting clients aboard their orbiting accommodations: the Russian Soyuz. All the best designs will add up to nothing if you have no way of getting people to and from orbit, but they have this base covered, too. The usage of the Soyuz is not ideal, and will drive up ticket prices, but it will do nicely for the beginning of flights. In the meantime, they’re keeping their eye on the various X Prize-Generation (XP-Gen companies are those who came into being in response to the Ansari X Prize – see The Ansari X Prize) companies designing and building commercial spacecraft, including the two, top contenders: Scaled Composites and SpaceX (see The Writing On The Wall). 

Which of these two companies ultimately makes history with the first orbiting hotel, or whether it’s another company, is really not that important. The fact is that we’ll soon see a new star in our night sky, and it will have people on it just like you and I. The dawn of a new age is breaking and with it comes the hope and the realization of decades of dreaming about space. Neil Armstrong said, “The regret on our side is, they used to say years ago, we are reading about you in science class. Now they say, we are reading about you in history class.” Now try to imagine a day soon when we will be reading in history books about common folk and their experiences in space. You need not strain to imagine it. Indeed, we may just be reading about you!


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