SpaceX chasing rocketry’s Holy Grail

24 01 2012

As many who follow and support spaceflight are well aware, a Holy Grail of modern space transportation is the concept of the fully reusable rocket, or Reusable Launch System/Vehicle (RLV).  Now, NewSpace orbital spacecraft provider SpaceX might just have this elusive target squarely in its sights.

1950s-era painting of a Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing, fully reusable spacecraft. (Credit: Chesley Bonestell Estate)

Many solutions have been suggested to achieve the true RLV space technology benchmark, which would herald a new era in space transportation by driving launch prices down at least an order of magnitude.  However, only a very few of these designs have lofted from the drawing board, and none have yet been successfully implemented.

Amongst these attempts are practically all of the famed, V-2 rocket-inspired Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) concepts, such as those Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing (VTVL) rockets populating 1950s science fiction (right), as well as the Vertical-Takeoff, Horizontal Landing craft (VTHL) such as Lockheed’s Venturestar from the 1990s.   

However, SpaceX, which has a cargo contract with NASA in-hand, is showing no signs of taking a breath prior to their first demonstration flight to the International Space Station later this year.  Instead of the traditional, expendable rocket stages typical of space transportation, SpaceX is aiming to make their Falcon 9 rocket fully reusable (and has been quietly doing so since 2009). 

This bears repeating.  SpaceX plans to try and save their spent stages.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. (Credit: SpaceX)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. (Credit: SpaceX)

In a draft environmental assessment filed last fall, SpaceX calls the first reusable stage of the Falcon 9 the “Grasshopper,” and proceeds to generally describe potential launch and testing operations to be conducted from a test site in the city of McGregor, Texas.

The concept is simple.  With a little extra fuel, forethought, and extendable legs, each stage could conceivably guide its own return for a powered landing (video available here). 

(After all, the Lunar Lander Challenge is finding innovative solutions to this same vertical-landing problem from the other side of the conceptual fence.)

If successful, this forward drive from SpaceX could represent a watershed moment for conventional rocketry.  Perhaps, should Grasshopper prove the viability of the RLV, it will no longer be seen as permissible or competitive by launch providers to waste spent rocket stages.

Then, for the first time, we could see a substantial launch price shift along with the largest widening of the doorway to space since the 1960s.

Keep your eyes on this one.





Russia announces new Nuclear Rockets for manned Mars trip

16 04 2011

1960s Aerojet General rendering of a nuclear rocket in flight configuration.

For the first time in possibly four decades, two electrifying space technology phrases have managed to show up in the same sentence in earnest.  Quietly nestled in the murky details of a somewhat thrilling AP news story about a potential new Russian spacecraft to be produced in the next few years are the words: “manned mission to Mars,” and, “new nuclear engines.”

This is fantastic, as “nuclear engines” can only mean a resurrection of the triumphant nuclear thermal rocket technology pioneered and successfully tested during the Cold War.

Why is this significant?  First, U.S. and Russian testing of nuclear rockets during the Cold War proved not only that the relatively simple technology worked, but that it was amazingly efficient.  So efficient, in fact, that the rockets tested under the NERVA Program are still twice as powerful as our best rockets today, (half-a-century later!).  Secondly, these rockets are of the weight and power necessary to significantly trim down travel times and make interplanetary manned missions feasible.

So, if the nuclear rocket technology is superior, why don’t we have this technology today?  Well, politics and paranoia led to the death of the nuclear rocket back in 1972, when:

  1. a new project called the Space Shuttle drew funding away from the NERVA Program and set our course in space exploration for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) instead of back to the Moon and Mars, and
  2. in the Cold War nuclear holocaust climate, the word “nuclear” became (understandably) a source of irrational fear.

Only a few experts remain alive who worked in the thick of original nuclear thermal rocket research and testing, and with NewSpace set to take over LEO cargo and crew transportation services, it is time to set our sights back on the more ambitious goals of lunar settlements and expanded human exploration of the solar system.  Nuclear thermal rockets will be the technology to take us there.  The Russians apparently realize that, and perhaps an international kick in the pants is what the U.S. research and industrial community needs to realize that it’s time to pick this research back up.

A nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia nearly ended the world.  It seems a fitting contrast that in the 21st Century, a nuclear space race between the U.S. and Russia could help humanity settle new ones.





Tales from a nuclear rocket station

21 02 2011

One of the great pleasures of my research into the ’60s development of nuclear rockets for space exploration are moments like the following, which I pieced together from archival records and oral history…  (If I find enough of these to write, I might collect them into a book sometime.  Feedback welcome.)

Moonrise over the Nevada desert.

Richard Nutley, a supply manager for the joint NASA-Atomic Energy Commission Nuclear Rocket Development Station (NRDS), stood with an infuriated NASA accountant next to the partially-constructed Engine Test Stand One.  The year is 1961.

The test stand was a maze of pipes connecting two giant, white, spherical hydrogen reservoirs to a towering concrete-and-steel gantry.  It appeared much like a lone launch pad in the middle of the sage-covered desert valley where the nation’s most advanced propulsion system was being developed and tested.  A network of rail lines crisscrossed the flats, connecting the test stand to several other structures where nuclear rocket reactors were assembled and prepared.

Together, the NRDS represented the nation’s attempts to build a rocket powerful enough to take bases to the Moon and astronauts to Mars, and they were meeting with great success.

Richard grinned, trying not to laugh as the accountant, who’d arrived from NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. that morning, dusted off his suit and attempted to empty gravel from his Italian leather shoes.  A mighty dust devil had swept across the construction site without warning, catching the accountant completely unprepared.  Already in a sour mood from the unexpected hour-and-a-half drive from Las Vegas to the Nevada Test Site earlier that morning, the whirlwind was the last straw.

Richard shook his head.  Anyone who’d bothered to look into the NRDS knew better than to wear nice clothes to the site.

Walking back toward the car parked at the fence-line to the test stand and stifling back laughter, Richard looked up to see that the moon had risen over Vegas, and it loomed on the horizon.  “That’s where we’re going with this thing,” he said.

“Where?” the accountant replied, annoyed.  “What are you talking about?”

“The moon,” Richard said flatly.

The NASA accountant looked at Richard and said, “You would never see the moon in the daylight back East.”

Richard drove the NASA accountant back to Vegas and never saw him again.





Liberating Ares in commercial rocket fray

10 02 2011

Rendering of the Liberty Launch Vehicle. (Credit: ATK)

The NewSpace rocket environment is growing from a band of determined forerunners to a healthy platoon.  Salvaging what they could from NASA’s cancelled Ares I rocket, industry giant ATK (responsible for building Space Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, a critical component in the Ares rocket design,) has teamed up with Eurpoean company Astrium (of Ariane 5 fame) to develop a new vehicle: Liberty.

Maiden launch of NASA's Ares I-X rocket in 2009. (Credit: NASA)

The vehicle, which will marry ATK’s bottom booster stages with an updated version of Ariane’s second stage and fairing, is the latest in an increasingly-heated competition for NASA contacts to ferry crew and cargo to the International Space Station after the retirement of the Space Shuttle.  Highly reminiscent of the Ares I design, Liberty joins the competetive ranks of commercial rockets such as SpaceX’s Falcon IX, Boeing’s Delta IV, the Russian Proton, and Lockheed’s Atlas V.

I am personally glad to see the Ares expertise utilized in a commercial design, and we who hope for widening access to space couldn’t hope for a better situation – one increasingly likely to stimulate competetive rocket vehicle pricing, innovation, and development.





Falcon Dreams

11 12 2010

I’m a bit behind the curve here these last couple of weeks, as meetings (plans are afoot,) preparing for and delivering/taking final exams, and reviewing and submitting a couple of nonfiction and technical papers has kept me running on empty and burning the midnight oil.

However, I’m emerging from the fog of war and wanted to assure readers that I’m still around and have some intriguing posts on deck.  -And to start, I just wanted to cast my official thoughts on SpaceX‘s recent successful Falcon 9 rocket launch and Dragon spacecraft recovery into the mix:

I would like to offer a hearty congratulations! to the SpaceX and the Falcon 9/Dragon team for not only injecting a fresh pulse of raw enthusiasm into NewSpace endeavors, but for also anchoring the first stepping stones toward commercial orbital spaceflight reality.

Further, in doing so, SpaceX has carried aloft ashes of the spacecraft dreams of the 1990s.  Like many space enthusiasts in the ’90s, I followed with great zeal the likes of Kistler Aerospace and Lockheed-Martin’s Venturestar, only to have these dreams dashed by politics, market volatility, and funding woes.

SpaceX, these dormant hopes have been rekindled through your perseverance and dedication, and for that you have my personal gratitude. -And I know I’m not the only one.

Three cheers for SpaceX, and best wishes for the remaining demonstration Falcon 9/Dragon flights!

SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon liftoff on 12/08/10. (Credit: NASA/Alan Ault)





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





Foraging for Nuclear Rocket Secrets

12 10 2010

A NERVA program file at the National Archives in Chicago.

I spent this past Thursday at the National Archives in Chicago as one of the few humans in the last three decades to track down the project files for the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) Program from the 1960s.

National Archives analysis room. Credit: Ben McGee

The experience of using the National Archive was exactly like and completely unlike what I’d imagined, and in both cases it was extraordinarily cool.  The facility was nestled next to a National Guard depot in the thick of Chicago’s South Side.  (Plenty of character there.)  -After involuntarily entering a somewhat stylized, ’60s-looking sleek structure onsite that ended up being the wrong place, (the Federal side,) I found myself through the doors of an inconspicuous red brick building not unlike an annex to any standard university library.

Once inside, the seriousness of the place was palpable.  Much paperwork and many login signatures were required prior to my being able to access any records.  A resource area lined with long tables and power stations stood ready for researchers once inside, and a set of swinging, authorized-personnel-only double doors offered glimpses of an adjacent Radiers-of-the-Lost-Ark-style warehouse filled to the ceiling and as far as the eye could see with shelves of artifacts, documents, photographs – living history.

Box SNPO60 at the National Archives.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the joint NASA-Atomic Energy Commission nuclear rocket program has become more than a passing side interest of mine, due in large part to professional decontamination and decommissioning work with which I’ve been a part.

I had only a few hours at the archive, and haven’t yet even had time to go through all of the documents I copied (photographed – no flash.)  Specifically, I was after documentation of program challenges.  NERVA accomplished so much in so little time, and I’m trying to put together what their magic recipe was.  Loose oversight?  Temporarily unlimited funding?  A transformational leadership style?

How were they able to develop nuclear rockets that outperform our best rockets today, do it in only a single decade, and have done it all half a century ago?

More importantly, what can we learn from NERVA, not only about space propulsion technology, but also about how to successfully develop and manage it?  -And can historians and industrial archaeologists serve a role in preserving partially-developed spaceflight technology until the political and social pendulum swings back to enable the work to restart once again?

I’m after the answers, and I’ll report back what I find.

 





Space spirals, UFOs, and modern rockets

28 08 2010

Space spiral over Norway, December 09, 2009. Credit: Jan Petter Jørgensen via Vaeret

Many of us remember the splash made when a mysterious (and somewhat terrifyingly bizarre) spiral was seen in the sky over Norway late last year.  Admittedly, at first glance, it looks like a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

However, take a closer look.  It appears to be dusk.  The wild, spiral display is still in sunlight, even though the ground is not.  This indicates that the spiral is something not just up in the sky but rather in orbit (extremely high altitude).

Then, once you’re able to peel your eyes from the spiral, you’ll notice that a spiraling blue contrail is visible behind the centerpoint of the design, and this seems to indicate a rocket of some kind.  Once you’re there, you’ve got it figured.  The trick is that the above display is in 3D, not a flat plane as it first appears.  The blue contrail is coming at the photographer from extreme distance, as is the spiral, it would seem.

Keep playing the thought experiment forward.  A spinning rocket?  What would a spinning rocket venting a material of some kind into space look like from the Earth?

And there you have it.  It came out days later that the display was caused by a Russian nuclear missile test.

Fast-forward half-a-year, and we have the momentous launch of the first Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX:

Falcon 9 liftoff, June 04, 2010. (Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX)

Then, not 24 hours after the launch, another spiral!

Space spiral as seen over Australia. June 5, 2010. (Credit: Baden West)

Like Norway, UFO reports were filed all over Australia.  Unsurprisingly, it was confirmed as the Falcon 9.

So, it seems that, as a globe, we really need to get with the times.  We launch space rockets, and we’ve been doing it for the better part of a century.  Strange displays in the sky, while admittedly doomsday-looking (ever seen a solar eclipse?), will only become more commonplace with time.

What’s the take-home here?  In the future, count on a lot less “U” next to the dazzling “FO,” and take it to heart before calling 911 to tell the dispatcher about it.  =)





New Boeing spacecraft announced!

13 08 2010

Boeing's new CST-100 spacecraft. Credit: Boeing

Boeing has jumped into the lineup of new spacecraft vying to fill the Space Shuttle retirement gap with the recent announcement of the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft.

Similar in design to SpaceX‘s Dragon spacecraft, larger than NASA‘s Apollo Command Module spacecraft, but smaller than NASA’s canceled Orion spacecraft, (which may or may not end up serving as a lifeboat for the International Space Station,) the capsule-shaped CST-100 is designed to carry up to seven astronauts to low Earth orbit.  With a combination landing system comprised of both parachutes and airbags, the CST-100 can soft-land, swap heat shields, and be re-used up to ten times.

If that weren’t forward-enough planning, in what may be a business-model coup, the CST-100 is designed to mate with a great many existing rocket types, including Lockheed’s Atlas V, Boeing’s own Delta IV, and even SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

And, perhaps the most interesting part of the announcement is the fact that in addition to NASA as an intended end-user, Bigelow Aerospace is specifically named, including the below image of a CST-100 rendezvous with a future BA space station.

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

(Link here [YouTube] for a Boeing “B-Roll” video animation of the CST-100 transit to, docking, and undocking with a proposed Bigelow space station.)

With serious corporations working both ends toward the middle like this, and with both business models relying on the other, (space stations relying on craft to get people there, spacecraft requiring destinations to fly to,) a serious presence off-world is more likely than ever!  In all, a fantastic development for the commercial spacecraft as well as commercial space station industries.

Oh, and for the curious, the “100″ in CST-100 conveniently refers to the 100-kilometer altitude that marks the “edge” of space.  This begs the question: Does the fact that a number is there imply we might see a CST-200 or CST-300K [lunar orbit] sometime in the future?  Interesting…





This Week: Space Falcons and Solar Sails

11 06 2010

It’s with no small sense of excitement that I report two important developments this past week.  First, of course, is the successful inaugural flight of the Falcon 9 rocket I’ve been following for some time now (herehere, and here).

Liftoff of the Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral, June 4, 2010. Credit: SpaceX

As the frontrunner corporate replacement for NASA’s retiring Space Shuttle, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has proven with this launch that they have the right stuff.  Their proprietary Merlin-class engines, Falcon series rockets, and their Apollo-styled Dragon spacecraft are primed to keep the good ol’ USA in the space transportation game through the transition, lessening our reliance on Russia’s (Energia’s) Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.  Details of the Falcon 9 launch include what SpaceX claims is an “orbital bulls-eye” -a near-perfect circular orbit at an altitude of 155 miles- and a wealth of aerodynamic data during ascent that they will use to refine future launches.  If you haven’t seen it, check out a high-def video of the launch here.

IKAROS solar sail partially unfurled last week. Credit: JAXA

Secondly, I’d like to applaud the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA‘s) recent successful full deployment of their IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by the Radiation Of the Sun) spacecraft’s solar sail.  (An illustration showing this process can be found here.)  The breakthrough craft, which was launched in late May, employs a hybrid sail intended to use solar radiation as a passive means of propulsion as well as a source of electrical power.

IKAROS is now on its way toward our sister planet, Venus.  During the next six months, JAXA researchers will step on the gas, orienting the sail for maximum acceleration to see how fast they can get IKAROS to go.  Should the light weight and utterly practical technology prove successful, look for similar systems to begin showing up on future spacecraft.

In all, a very exciting time, with much more on deck.  Stay tuned.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,731 other followers

%d bloggers like this: