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…





Orbital Skydive = Spacecraft Escape

16 07 2010

Diagram of the jump altitude/flight profile of the SpaceDiver program. Credit: Orbital Outfitters

It looks as though something of a duel is afoot between two ventures vying to be the first to break the sky dive altitude record set by military high-altitude-balloon-jumper Colonel Joe Kittinger in 1960.  The magic number?  -A staggering altitude of 102,800 feet above the Earth’s surface.

Whoever is the first to do it will have to weather extreme cold and near-vacuum followed by intense heat and, likely, intense physical forces as the diver himself breaks the speed of sound.  And, no matter who is the first to do so, the ultimate winners may be future commercial astronauts.  Thanks to these potential attempts, the final practical outcome could be a field-tested emergency space escape method, ready in case something goes wrong during launch.

In one corner, we have private spacesuit manufacturer Orbital Outfitters founder Rick Tumlinson, who is spearheading an attempt for an orbital skydive under the name SpaceDiver.  The project began back in 2007; however, details are scarce and rumors say that the original potential diver has died with others lining up to take his place.  No word exists on recent progress.

Skydiver Felix Baumgartner, seen performing a high-altitude training jump on May 27, 2010. Credit: Red Bull Stratos

In the other corner, sponsored by Red Bull, is a more recently-announced program by Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner under the tutelage of Colonel Joe Kittinger himself.  The project is called Red Bull Stratos and as far as readily-available information would have me believe, is much closer to breaking the Kittinger record.

At least one 24,000-foot test dive has already been completed, and all press material indicates that the space dive is scheduled for later this year somewhere over North America.

So – aside from the safe return of these brave, intrepid souls, it’s my hope that these attempts generate some press, public excitement, useful data, and prove the concept for getting us future astronauts-to-be the heck out of a tumbling, malfunctioning spacecraft that would in the absence of another way down hurtle us to certain death.

I’m further excited that Red Bull is behind what amounts to an extreme space sport – what with the Rocket Racing League also getting off the ground, the 21st Century looks like it might actually live up to some of our “flying car” expectations…





Orbital Tugs shove their way into reality

15 06 2010

Russian Space Tug, "Parom." Credit: Vassili Petrovich

With the imminent retirement of the Space Shuttle and the rise of corporate launch spacecraft, private companies are starting to think seriously about the next logical steps – orbital infrastructure.  A few of them have even zeroed in on the next target in the business case by identifying a capability we don’t have: Orbital Tugs.

What do I mean by an “Orbital Tug”?  -It’s a utility spacecraft designed to go to orbit and stay there to help with orbital logistics.  This includes things like intercepting payloads lofted to low-Earth-orbit (LEO) and moving them to where they need to be, be it a higher orbit (saving on launch costs), the International Space Station, a rendesvous with another spacecraft or space station (Bigelow modules?), or even to someplace farther out like a Lagrange Point (gravitationally-stable points around and between the Earth and Moon.)  Add to this the potential of tugs to offer service contracts to companies and governments for the salvage, rescue, or refueling of existing orbiting satellites (communication, GPS, weather, reconnaissance, etc.,) and suddenly the prospect is a very profitable one.

Who needs a Shuttle when you can pay much less for a LEO rocket delivery and have a Space Tug do the rest?  Why build and launch a new satellite when you can pay a fraction and use a tug to extend the life of the one you already have in orbit?

Three views of the Parom Space Tug. Credit: Anatoly Zak

Several companies are in the queue to get a tug into space first.  Perhaps foremost amongst them is Russia’s S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation, Energia – the company responsible for the safest and most successful spacecraft of all time, Soyuz.  They’ve had a space tug on the books since late 2001, called Parom, which is intended to replace their Progress cargo module, (an unmanned version of Soyuz that currently delivers shipments of supplies to the International Space Station.)  The design of Parom is simple, based around a pressurized (i.e. habitable) cargo cylinder bracketed by two universal docking ports, one on each side.  With its own engines rated to move objects up to 30 tons and fuel transfer lines so that it may refuel itself from a resupply shipment or, in turn, refuel another spacecraft, station, or satellite, Parom is an ambitious craft completely based on existing technology.

Second on my list of potential Space Tugs is a nuclear-powered satellite servicing tug from a private American firm called IoStar – though recent scandals and infighting make me worry that bankruptcy is in the company’s future.  At the very least, a recent ruling against IoStar in favor of a former employee with allegedly “proprietary” information leads me to suspect an uphill battle – but I’m rooting for them.

SMART-OLEV. Credit: Orbital Satellite Services

Orbital Satellite Services is another private venture, based in Sweden, to keep your eyes on.  Their SMART-OLEV or Orbital Life Extension Vehicle, while not pressurized or as burly as the Parom, may be able to make that weight savings its best advantage and take the fast track to orbit as the first functional space tug.  SMART-OLEV is designed to target and dock with telecommunication satellites and extend their lifespans for up to 12 additional years by providing supplemental propulsion, navigation, and guidance.

Developing an orbital logistics infrastructure is the essential next step to the corporate development and utilization of space.  Godspeed, tug-builders.  Let’s get off this rock.





Dawn of the Corporate Scientist-Astronaut

14 05 2010

For those of you who have known me a while, who have had to endure my many rants during the last decade-and-a-half about the future and the promise of corporate space exploration, I have four words:

I told you so.

It’s with an almost electric sense of expectation that I am pleased to report a change in the tide of space exploration.  It’s a change that history has never seen before.  -With the advent of private spacecraft, (e.g., Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace,) a critical mass must be near or already achieved, because suddenly the Corporate Scientist-Astronaut has taken shape.  Companies are stepping up to provide training, and pioneers are filling out the flight suits I hope to one day wear.  It’s thrilling.

FAA approved centrifuge training. Credit: NASTAR Center

For example, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has recently awarded safety approval to a private firm to offer astronaut training – known as the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center, it’s the first of its kind.  Their services include centrifuges, hyperbaric chambers, technical training, and custom flight simulators, and they’re state-of-the-art.

Then, there’s Starfighters, Inc. – the first company of its kind to get both the FAA and NASA’s approval to provide live suborbital training to corporate astronaut-hopefuls using a small fleet of F-104 Starfigher jet aircraft.

Suborbital flight training. Credit: Starfighters, Inc.

Meanwhile, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a non-profit applied research and development organization, has started taking advantage of these training opportunities for its own scientists to prepare for the new corporate space opportunities as they arise.  Dr. Daniel Durda, one of the first SwRI scientists to participate, says, “We’re finally arriving at the day when space scientists can conduct their research ‘in the field’ in the same way that botanists, geologists and oceanographers have been doing all along. We hope many of our fellow researchers and educators in the diverse disciplines that will benefit from frequent access to space will also get in line to fly.”

IS3 spacesuit. Credit: Orbital Outfitters

And, then there’s the Astronauts4Hire initiative – with a collection of young up-and-coming space scientists vying to get their training at the aforementioned facilities sponsored so that they too can “get in line to fly.”  They’re marketing themselves as burgeoning commercial suborbital payload specialists, the idea being that when companies/universities/etc. want to perform suborbital research using the new spacecraft around the corner, it’ll be cheaper to hire these guys than to train and certify their own staff for spaceflight.  -I think it’s a fantastic idea.  Heck, I’d be jazzed to sign up with them one day if the opportunity arose.

The market is so ripe that company Orbital Outfitters, a private spacesuit manufacturer, has formed to offer standardized “get me down” spacesuits to supply suborbital researchers.  Known as the Industrial Suborbital Spacesuit, or IS^3, the suit provides at least 30 minutes of emergency life support at at an altitude of 90 miles and offers imbedded communication equipment and biometric sensors, enhanced visibility, and can even be integrated into a parachute harness.

The future is now, and it looks like my dream of becoming a corporate astronaut is more realistic than ever.  All I have to do is find the right way to get my foot in the door…. er, airlock.








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