Historic Dragon Caught: Dawn of Commercial Space

25 05 2012

(Credit: NASA)

Quite literally, the sun dawned across from the International Space Station minutes ago to reveal history in the making.

During a flawless night-time “grab,” Astronaut Don Pettit used the station’s robotic Canada arm to successfully secure SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft.  This makes SpaceX the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and rendezvous with the station.

(Credit: NASA)

Human history will never be the same.  It is now living fact that entrepreneurs can leave our planet to seek reward beyond.

-And a mythical dragon took us there.

All looks well, and so-called “berthing” of the spacecraft (not to be confused with “docking,” which occurs under a spacecraft’s own power,) to the station should occur later today.

(Credit: NASA)

(Credit: NASA)

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Boeing, Bigelow conduct CST-100 drop test over Nevada desert

30 04 2012

The CST-100 successfully touches down on the playa amid a puff of dust. (Credit: BLM)

Aerospace giant Boeing and commercial space-station manufacturer Bigelow Aerospace, in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management Ely District’s Caliente Field Office, conducted a relatively quiet spacecraft parachute drop test of Boeing’s Apollo-styled Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft this past April 3rd.  The event, attended by local media and several bystanders, occurred over a remote playa in Delamar Valley, located 50 miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Aside from the fact that the test was a success and another commercial orbital spacecraft is that much closer to operation, (see SpaceX’s upcoming launch of their commercial spacecraft, Dragon,) most noteworty in my view is the fact that the event experienced a near-complete lack of media coverage.  To me, this hints at the exciting, implicit truth that an increasingly hum-drum attitude toward commercial space events, (oh, another private spacecraft test,) seems to indicate that the commercial spacecraft market is becoming firmly established. 

-It isn’t necessarily “news” anymore.  It’s (finally!) just reality.  Welcome to the 21st Century.

Personnel inspect the CST-100 following the parachute drop test. (Credit: BLM)

Using an Erickson Sky Crane helicopter, the Boeing-Bigelow joint test was carried out by lofting a test capsule to an altitude of 7,000 feet and releasing it, putting the parachute deployment systems through their paces under true field conditions.

Boeing Commercial Programs Vice-President and Program Manager John Mulholland called the parachute drop test of the CST-100 a “…tremendous milestone that brings Boeing one step closer to completing development of a system that will provide safe, reliable and affordable crewed access to space.”

Additional tests scheduled in 2012 include a second parachute drop test, a series of landing air bag tests, a jettison test of the forward heat shield, and a hot fire test of the maneuvering and attitude control engine.

The ultimate success of the CST-100 is strategically-important to Bigelow Aerospace, which has continually delayed the launch of their first human-rated space modules until comemrcial spacecraft like the CST-100 have been proven spaceworthy.  (Also, a preferred partnership with Boeing means the CST-100 is first in line to transport paying customers to future Bigelow space stations.)

For the complete set of photos of the successful test, click here for the BLM Nevada Flickr image collection.





Airships: A century from prototype to spaceflight?

24 02 2012

An airship that might have been, from "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." (Credit: Paramount)

Airships.  There’s a certain nostalgic thrill to the streamline, art deco aircraft heyday that nearly was.

To the point (and as illustrated above): the Empire State Building’s observation tower was originally intended to serve as a mooring point for airships.

Achieving the power of flight by harnessing a buoyant gas is simple, reliable, quiet, low-velocity, and (after shifting away from using an explosive gas) veritably safe.  -And to many’s surprise, it might soon take us to space.

USS Shenandoah, U.S. Navy ZR-1, under construction in 1923.

Early 20th Century

Many don’t realize that the United States had airships in military service, which were outgrowths of a German design reverse-engineered after World War I.

For example, from 1922-1923, the first rigid airship, ZR-1 USS Shenandoah was constructed.  Several subsequent military airships flew under the American flag prior to World War II until they became tactically obsolete.

Early 21st Cenury

Now, after decades of work, volunteer-based aerospace firm JP Aerospace has its eyes set on an orbital airship as a gateway to the stars.

Ascender airship being serviced. (Credit: JP Aerospace)

How does it work?  The system is essentially 180-degrees apart from the rocket-and-fanfare, minutes-to-space spaceflight that we’ve all become accustomed to.  Instead, two separate classes of airships and a transfer station in-between slowly loft cargo to orbit over a matter of days.

The process is something they call “Airship-to-Orbit,” or ATO.

Essentially, an airship-to-orbit spaceflight program represents finesse versus conventional rocketry’s brute force.

Though there are still engineering challenges ahead, JP Aerospace is powering through tests of their magnetohydrodynamic thrusters and are continuing toward a stunning run of 67 high-altitude balloon and sensor platform ascents.

So, a century from prototype to spaceflight?  It certainly looks possible.  And if there truly is merit to the airship-to-orbit concept, based on how quickly JP Aerospace has been able to achieve flight benchmarks on a volunteer basis, then just imagine what could happen with serious backing by a government space agency.

Food for thought.

Personally, I love the architecture.  There’s something about truly alien competition to conventional spaceflight providers that I think is sorely needed.

Ascender 6000 on approach. (Credit: JP Aerospace)





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.





Red-Letter Day: NASA Astronauts wanted; NSRC spaceflight giveaway

15 11 2011

Today has been quite a big day for aspiring astronauts:

NASA Seeks New Wave of Astronauts

Prototypical astronauts Tom Stafford and Alan Shepard Jr. studying a mission chart, Dec 1965. (Credit: NASA)

On one hand, NASA finally opened another selection announcement for the next class of astronauts.  Until the end of January 2012, anyone with the grit, drive, and the moxie to put their hat in the ring will be stacked up against the best of the best for a handful of new astronaut positions.

Contrary to what many believe in the post-Shuttle NASA environment, what awaits these future spacefarers is more than just maintaining the International Space Station, showing up at press appearances, and performing (much needed) education public outreach.  …NASA is also hard at work, developing a new, Apollo-style spacecraft intended for deep space missions (Orion MPCV) while exploring the possibility of using it to visit and explore near-Earth asteroids.

-Not to mention that these new astronauts will also be on the cusp of helping to break open a new era of commercial spaceflight.  (For more information on the many developments there, see CCDev to get started.)

Not a bad time to get involved, all things considered.

Spaceflight Giveaway for Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher

The XCOR Lynx suborbital vehicle. (Credit: XCOR Aerospace)

As if that weren’t excitement enough for the day, on the commercial spaceflight front, the Southwest Research Institute announced a partnership with XCOR Aerospace to offer a free suborbital spaceflight to one exceedingly lucky attendee at the next Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher’s Conference (NSRC)!

That’s right, a research seat in a spacecraft may be yours for the cost of attending and participating in the conference, slated for the end of February 2012.  The only obligations of the winner are to find their own way to the waiting spacecraft and create and provide an experiment for the trip.

The NSRC, the third conference of its kind, brings together commercial spaceflight industry pioneers, regulators, and both private and federal researchers to explore the opportunities and possibilities presented by the many private suborbital spacecraft currently in development.

For more info, visit nsrc.swri.org – and sign up!  (I can speak from personal experience: the conference last year was thrilling to those for whom spaceflight and microgravity research holds an appeal.)





Room with a (global) view

3 11 2011

When you gaze outside of your spacecraft, what do you see?

What’s it really like to be there?

With the advent of digital photography in the hands of determined astronauts willing to make time to steal moments to snap images like the above, now we can know. 

Have a look.  Blow the image up with a click.  You’re really just sitting there, looking out the window; A perfectly mundane act performed from an extraordinary vantage.

This reality represents (to me, anyway) one of the most inspirational aspects of 21st-century human space exploration: for the first time, the human experience of spaceflight is being not just communicated but also shown to those of us on the planet surface in real-time (via Twitter, for example,) to great effect.

I believe it is the responsibility of those who support and/or are professionally involved in space exploration to promote imagery like the above, for I truly believe it will be via exposure to this media that the next generation of planetary explorers will be engaged to careers in the student-starved sectors of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (see: STEM).
 
-And the more ordinary orbital space feels, not only will the goals of work off-world feel attainbale, perhaps the next generation will be even more compelled to see the world as a fragile, interconnected system and seek out the extraordinary in their experiences farther beyond…




Veteran astronauts propose new space station law

6 07 2011

Debris from the reentry of the Russian space station Mir. (Credit: AP)

In a letter written to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and posted to SpaceRef last week, a contingent of veteran astronauts, while urging that the space shuttle not be retired, made a very interesting proposition:  A new, international rule for large objects in orbit.

So, what is this rule?  The letter states, “Any object placed in orbit that is too large for an uncontrolled reentry must have a spacecraft available to support independent EVA repairs.”  In short, the adoption of this rule would require the maintenance of the Space Shuttle as a viable craft beyond the last currently-scheduled launch later this month.  The Space Shuttle is the only spacecraft currently in operation with its own airlock and robotic arm – components necessary to conduct “independent” extra-vehicular inspections and repairs.

NASA's space station Skylab. (Credit: NASA)

Let’s take a step back for a moment.  Why is the ability to conduct independent EVA repairs important?  Back in 1979, Skylab, NASA’s troubled but pioneering space station, suffered an uncontrolled reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.  The event became an international fiasco with hyperpublicized potential for debris impacts in populated areas.  (Debris did land unexpectedly in Australia, though no injuries or significant damage were reported.) 

Should current or future space stations suffer damage from a meteor or orbiting debris, the ability to conduct an independent EVA and repair would be necessary to prevent that station from eventually falling victim to an uncontrolled reentry.  -And the impact may not be as forgiving as was Skylab’s. 

In general, I don’t disagree with the proposition, though I’m not sure continuing to pay through the nose to keep the shuttle aloft is the way to go.  Perhaps there is even a hint of a commercial service market here, with on-orbit tele-operated inspection and repair space-tugs available for a fee?  Certainly, I feel the necessity of rapid orbital inspection and repair is a pressing one, which deserves a conversation of its own.

Food for thought.








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