T-minus 1 week: Aiming for NASTAR

2 05 2011

The NASTAR Center. (Credit: NASTAR)

I’m coming up on a positively Everest-ian milestone in my ongoing quest to become a commercial astronaut, and it’s been a long time coming:  Astronaut training.

Supported by my spaceflight consulting firm, Astrowright Spaceflight Consulting LLC, I’m heading out in a week to attend highly specialized training offered by the only FAA-certified civilian spaceflight training outfit around.

The location?  Philadelphia, PA, at the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center.

NASTAR simulator-centrifuge. (Credit: NASTAR)

Among the NASTAR Center’s many aerospace services, not only do they provide generalized spaceflight training for the many civilian tourist “spaceflight participants” who are planning sub-orbital jaunts in the next couple of years, (e.g., on Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft,) but they also offer specific sub-orbital scientist training designed to prepare researchers to withstand the forces and avoid the distractions of spaceflight so that they can do what they’ve been wanting to do for (at least in my case) an entire career:

Perform quality science off-world.

For a taste of what the training is like, (which was developed in part by SwRI and NSRC civilian scientist-astronaut forerunner Dr. Alan Stern,) check out this excellent article written by Space.com contributor Clara Moskowitz, where she chronicles her experiences attending the program last October.

In addition to more traditional classroom instruction, the program involves thrilling (to me, anyway) “right stuff” rigors, such as oxygen deprivation training, high g-force (centrifuge) simulations of spacecraft launch and re-entry, and an array of supplemental components.

Needless to say, this training will help to round out our firm’s technical expertise so that we can begin offering expanded service beyond our current pre-flight fitness training and radiation dosimetry services into full-fledged (atmospheric) microgravity and sub-orbital payload specialist territory.

Many thanks to the family and friends that have helped me to get to this point, and it goes without saying that I’ll be blogging like a maniac as I head through the program.  Expect more on this in about a week.

T-minus 168 hours and counting…





Bigelow Aerospace accelerates station plans

17 12 2010

Sundancer, Bigelow Aerospace's proposed first habitable module. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Recently, two companies have arisen to challenge Bigelow Aerospace’s  domination of the commercial space station market.  Now, quietly, Bigelow has fired back where it hurts most: Timeframe.

It seems that the first to get a station to orbit will be in a position to pluck the ripest government and corporate space station user contracts.  In this light, Bigelow faces serious, direct competition against the likes of Excalibur Almaz of the British Isles and Russia’s Orbital Technologies, who have each come out and declared a target year of 2015 for launch and deployment of their own stations.

While before the economic collapse Bigelow’s target launch date for Sundancer was 2010, it should come as no surprise that Bigelow’s more recent target date for lofting human-habitable modules was also 2015.

Now, only a few months after Almaz and Orbital Tech announced their station plans, a quick check of Bigelow Aerospace’s Sundancer module page now lists 2014 as their targeted launch date.  Because Bigelow already has hardware built and launched, I believe them when they shift up a timetable.  The operations and capabilities of Excalibur Almaz and Orbital Technologies are a little more nebulous – I imagine their 2015 date is being optimistic.

Will either be able to up the ante on Bigelow and declare a 2013 target launch date?  Time will tell.  However, any competition that can accelerate the deployment of additional destinations in space, even by only a year, is fantastic in my book.

Ad Astra, space station manufacturers.  Ad Astra.





America’s other other space program

4 11 2010

Test-scale Dark Sky Station 2. Credit: JP Aerospace

A quick note this morning on one of my personal favorite space ventures, JP Aerospace.  As a truly DIY space endeavor, the firm has been making a name for itself for more than a decade with their concentrated, unconventional, volunteer-based business model and regular deployments of high-altitude-balloon-lofted platforms complete with telemetry, imaging equipment, and in some cases, secondary rockets (as “rockoons”).

What few realize, (even those who are aware of JP Aerospace,) is just how bewilderingly active they are.

Image from JP Aerospace "Away 35" mission. Credit: JP Aerospace

To start, there’s JP Aerospace’s high-altitude image program.  For a modest sponsorship fee, images are splashed on their balloon-lofted structure exteriors and imaged, providing slick stock material of a sponsoring business’s logo against the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth.  (Toshiba even funded one of their “away” missions entirely to collect one-of-a-kind footage of an orbital floating chair for a commercial.)

While this admittedly flashy aspect of JP Aerospace is what typically gets the most press, the image sponsorship program merely helps to fund the rest of their activities, which are devoted to the development of a truly unique spaceflight architecture: Airship to Orbit (ATO).  As a three-phase process, the ATO spaceflight architecture includes an Ascender airship (transfer to 140,000 feet), a Dark Sky Station (transfer station at 140,000 feet), and an Orbital Ascender airship/spacecraft (transfer from 140,000 feet to orbit), for a smooth transition to space requiring no conventional rocketry at all (!).

Ascender 175 airship floating in a JP Aerospace hangar. Credit: JP Aerospace

-And don’t let the volunteer/grassroots feel fool you – these guys are serious professionals with a passion to rival that of any other NewSpace venture I’ve seen, and they’re in it for keeps.  With more than 45 incremental data-gathering and structural test flights behind them, aerodynamic and microgravity drop tests, high-altitude structural and construction tests, a flight and cargo-capable airship (Tandem-class), a full-scale Dark Sky Station crew cabin mock-up, magnetohydrodynamic generators being tested as I type, one book out on the process, and with another one on the way, JP Aerospace isn’t messing around.

Check them out if you get the chance.  For more information on JP Aerospace’s latest activities, check out their website, their blog, or their YouTube channel.  (-And pick up a JP Aerospace shirt or cap if you’re so inclined.  Proceeds help keep them flying!)

Systems diagram of the proposed Orbital Ascender spacecraft. Credit: JP Aerospace





Virgin Galactic hints at Orbital Domination

2 11 2010

Virgin Galactic astronaut aboard a SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. Credit: Zero G

At the recent dedication of the main runway at the world’s first devoted commercial spaceport, Sir Richard Branson (of Virgin Galactic fame) slid in an apparently innocuous but Hiroshima-sized comment.  While Virgin Galactic has practically cornered the space tourist market with the successful suborbital space flights of SpaceShipOne and upcoming flight tests of SpaceShipTwo (the larger, tourist-rated version,) apparently Branson has his sights set much higher.

According to reporters in attendance at a press conference following the dedication, Branson said, “We plan to be in orbital travel within the next few years.”

I would be shocked if this didn’t set off a tsunami through the NewSpace circuits.

Furthermore, Branson said that Virgin Galactic is in talks with some of the serious commercial orbital space transportation contenders, (SpaceX, Orbital, Boeing, Lockheed, Armadillo Aerospace, etc.,)  and will soon decide whether or not to partner up to pursue NASA and commercial orbital contracts or fly solo, so-to-speak.  Official word is due in early 2011.

What does this mean?  Well, Branson’s formidable Virgin brand carries with it an overriding seriousness, even considering the intrinsic unknowns of commercial spaceflight, (as their clinching of the Ansari X Prize proved all-too-well.)  At this point, however, I believe a statement like this is a declaration that it continues to be a great time for the promise of free-market spaceflight.  It is only fitting that the comment was made at the dedication of the country’s first spaceport launch and landing lane.

Let’s hope this competition continues to force NewSpace innovation and the acceleration of hardware to orbit!

VMS Eve and VSS Enterprise circle New Mexico's Spaceport America. Credit: Mark Greenberg





NewSpace Station-Race begins

1 10 2010

Rendering of the Commercial Space Station (CSS) with Soyuz space vehicle attached. (Credit: Orbital Technologies)

This week has been pretty big for private space, (including astronomy / exoplanetology and development of space-related commercial products – more to come in future posts).

In something of a surprise announcement, Russian NewSpace startup Orbital Technologies announced a volley of corporate agreements and a proposed private, commercial space station to launch by the year 2015.

With what they call (unassumingly) the “Commercial Space Station,” or CSS, Orbital Technologies hopes to challenge Vegas space-habitat manufacturer Bigelow Aerospace‘s current monopoly on the private-space-station market.

Cutaway of the CSS. (Credit: Orbital Technologies)

The proposed Russian CSS will rely on proven Russian Soyuz spacecraft for crew transport and resupply (via Soyuz “Progress” cargo modification.)  In doing so, Orbital Technologies has (at least in concept) been able to leverage the most reliable spacecraft on Earth to date as part of their business model.  While there has been no evidence of “bent metal” so far, (unlike Bigelow, who already has two test modules in orbit,) the seriousness of the commercial relationships this company demonstrates out-of-the-gate makes them a definite contender.

In offering a space station along with Soyuz transportation to get there, Orbital Technologies is perhaps the only firm in direct competition with Bigelow Aerospace, which has partnered up with U.S. aerospace giant Boeing to supply CST-100 space transports to Bigelow’s inflatable space habitats.

Not-so-coincidentally, Bigelow Aerospace also has a target launch date of 2015 for their first manned space station.

CST-100 rendezvous with a Bigelow Aerospace space station. (Credit: Boeing)

The architecture of the CSS appears to be a single module, and options for expansion are not discussed in Orbital Technology’s literature, as opposed to the Bigelow Aerospace station, which is intentionally modular and expandable.

Power on the CSS is also an apparent issue, with no visible solar panels in the renderings supplied to-date — drawing power from a docked Soyuz spacecraft is an option.  (If true, this differs significantly from the Bigelow architecture, which includes onboard power for each module via solar arrays.)

Competition in a very real sense can only be a positive force for the development of destinations in space.  So, let the NewSpace Race begin.

It’s about time.





Columbia shuttle disaster board supports commercial spaceflight

6 09 2010

A short note today on welcome news.  While it isn’t necessarily new news at this point, it’s something that didn’t get a lot of play when it came out, and in my view it really should have.

CAIB members examine Columbia space shuttle debris in 2003. (Credit: Rick Stiles)

So, what is it?  It’s a sigh of relief for everyone rooting for the success of commercial spaceflight:  Former members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) released a statement in early July announcing their support for the commercialization of low-Earth-orbit space travel.

Yep – those responsible for ensuring that the safety lessons of the Columbia space shuttle disaster are incorporated into all future NASA space activities have endorsed contracting astronaut flights to commercial aerospace firms.

To quote a portion of the statement, which was in the form of a letter to senatorial science subcommittee chairwoman Senator Mikulski, the former board members write:

  • “The new strategy will task an array of companies, including both established industry stalwarts with decades of experience as well as newer service providers, to build simple spacecraft that are exclusively focused on the mission of sending crews to low Earth orbit. By using existing launch vehicles that are already accumulating extensive track records to launch these spacecraft, NASA will ensure that crews would not be risked on a vehicle that has not repeatedly demonstrated its safety and reliability.”

For everyone who feels that “private industry” will somehow sacrifice safety when compared to NASA initiatives, this is in my view a much-needed blast of cold water.  Using the launch vehicles that have been putting satellites in orbit for nearly half-a-century leverages much tried-and-true experience that normally flies under the radar.

So, just a reminder.  Commercial space will likely be safer than any new NASA launch vehicles.

The people who investigated our most recent space disaster say so.





Personal orbital spacecraft within reach

25 08 2010

Rendering of a Boeing CST-100 capsule mated with an Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Though few may realize it now, the stage is set for the first time in human history to enable someone or a small venture (with considerable financial backing) to assemble his or her own spacecraft using private, commercially-available, “off-the-shelf” spacecraft and equipment.

And I want to fly one.

The reality is that all of the current NewSpace competitors who are each scrambling to capitalize on the few orbital dollars that are out there right now have actually created a matrix of vehicles for new architectures in space.

Take my current favorite, Boeing combined with Orbital Sciences, for example.  Currently, the two companies are (directly or indirectly) pitting their CST-100 and Cygnus spacecraft, respectively, against each other in a competition for NASA crew and cargo contracts to the International Space Station.  Little do they themselves probably realize that together, the two spacecraft come very close to assembling a truly independent orbital spacecraft (see above rendering).

The CST-100 is meant to be reusable up to 10 times, (which could probably be stretched with proper maintenance,) and the Cygnus is based on tried-and-true, pressurized, and crew-capable Italian Space Agency‘s Multi-Purpose Logistics Module technology.  The seven seats aboard the CST-100 are unnecessary except for ferrying full ISS crew compliments, so why not trade out a couple of those seats for cargo or experiment package space?

Cosmonaut Yuri P. Gidzenko aboard Cygnus-predecessor MPLM Leonardo. (Credit: NASA)

While we’re at it, why not leave half of the Cygnus interior for cargo, and slide in a couple of sleep compartments and life support systems on the other side.  Couple a female-female docking adapter to the leading Cygnus docking port, (the only novel modification,) pack a small airlock on the dorsal side and a female docking port on the ventral side, and boom – you have a orbit-faring Cygnus/CST-100 hybrid.

According to this architecture, the Cygnus would remain permanently in orbit with (perhaps somewhat enhanced) station-keeping and orbital transfer capability, while the CST-100 ferries crew and light cargo to-and-from.

Anyone for orbital salvage, rescue, satellite repair, or (relatively) cheap two-person charter to the Internal Space Station or a Bigelow Module?  Here’s your ticket.  I see a business model.

Now, if only there were venture capital.  Or a reality show.  And a name.  The ships need a name.  Is it too over-the-top for the Cygnus craft to be named Daedalus and the CST-100 Icarus?  One stays aloft and the other returns?

Like the potential combinations of the many different spacecraft coming online in the next decade, the possibilities are limitless…








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