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.

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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.





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…





Reincarnation Exists! -Bigelow Aerospace and Von Braun’s Project Horizon

28 05 2010

History never fails to surprise and amaze me.  While there is serious talk today regarding the logistics of setting up a lunar base and whispers of Bigelow Aerospace pushing their inflatable habitats as the right modules to compose one, I was awed and humbled when I recently learned that we’ve done this research before.

Half a century ago, in fact.

 

Robert Bigelow explaining a model depicting a Bigelow Aerospace lunar outpost. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Many of us are familiar with the name Wernher von Braun as the father of the American space effort.  However, just how advanced his early efforts were is not common knowledge.  Take Project Horizon, for example.  Horizon is a little-known study conducted by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, led by Wernher von Braun in 1956, which detailed the specific logistics, processes and challenges of constructing and manning a US outpost on the Moon in shocking detail.  (Shocking to me, anyway, considering that this project was produced shortly after my father was born.)

Army Ballistic Missile Agency officials. Werner von Braun is second from right. (Credit: NASA)

In short, Project Horizon was nothing less than visionary.  (While it proposed the creation of a military base on the moon, we should be reminded that this was two years prior to the creation of NASA, and the military was the only place to find rockets of any sort.)  According to the project’s projections, a small logistical space station would be constructed in Earth orbit using spent rocket tanks, and the lunar base would have been constructed of simple, pressurized cylindrical metal tanks, with the program requiring approximately 140 SATURN rocket launches during the course of three years.  The project is exhaustive, defining with striking clarity the equipment and astronaut tool requirements to accomplish the work, space transportation systems and ideal orbits for them, lunar habitat design requirements, and even new launch sites from Earth to optimize the program.  Most impressive is the fact that it looks like they could have actually done it for the cost they proposed, which was just less than two percent of the annual US military defense budget of their time.

For an even more humbling window into the conceptual fortitude of Horizon, let’s take a look at their rationale for building a lunar base in the first place (NASA – take note):

  • Demonstrate US scientific leadership
  • Support scientific investigations and exploration
  • Extend space reconnaissance, surveillance, and control capabilities
  • Extend and improve communications and serve as a communications relay (4 years prior to the world’s first communications relay satellite was lauched!)
  • Provide a basic and supporting research laboratory for space research and development activities
  • Develop a stable, low-gravity outpost for use as a launch site for deep space exploration
  • Provide an opportunity for scientific exploration and development of a space mapping and survey system
  • Provide an emergency staging area, rescue capability, or navigation aid for other space activity.
  • Serve as the technical basis for more far-reaching actions, such as further interplanetary exploration.

With a short list like this, the project sounds to me even more worthwhile than the current International Space Station, (which, I should note, satisfies Horizon’s orbiting space station requirements…) But, the project gets better still.  Horizon went so far as to select potential locations for the outpost based on the most cost-effective orbital trajectories, (between +/- 20 degrees latitude/longitude from the optical center of the Moon,) and they even set up a detailed construction and personnel timeline, which to me reads like a novel:

October, 1963 – SATURN I rocket program is operational, and launches of Horizon orbital infrastructure material and equipment begin.  Construction begins on an austere space station with rendezvous, refueling, and launch capabilities only (no life support), which will allow larger payloads to be delivered to the moon.  Astronauts working on assembly at the space station will live in their earth-to-orbit vehicle during their stay.  A final lunar outpost candidate site is selected.

December, 1964 – SATURN II rocket program is operational, and a total of 40 launches have been conducted in support of Project Horizon so far.  Construction of a second refueling and assembly space station begins using additional spent rocket stages, which can accelerate orbital launch operations.  The first space station is enhanced with life support capability, allowing for longer astronaut stays (if desired/necessary).

January, 1965 – Cargo deliveries from the space station(s) to the lunar outpost site begin.

April, 1965 – The first two astronauts land at the lunar outpost site, where cargo and infrastructure buildup has already been taking place.  (Their lander, it is noted, has immediate return-to-Earth capability, but only in the case of an emergency.  These guys are intended to be pioneers until the advance construction party arrives.)  Living in the cabin of their lander, the initial two astronauts make use of extra supplies already delivered to the site, while they verify both that the environment is satisfactory for a future outpost as well as that all necessary cargo has been delivered successfully.  The length of this tour is at most 90 days.  Cargo and infrastructure deliveries continue.

July, 1965 – The first nine-astronaut advance construction party arrives.  After a hand-off and requisite celebratory send-off, the original two lunar astronauts depart for Earth and the new crew begins Horizon’s 18-month outpost construction phase.  Groundbreaking begins, as the crew uses previously-delivered lunar construction vehicles to move and assemble the previously-delivered habitation modules and manage future deliveries.  Habitation quarters are established, small nuclear reactor electricity generators are placed in protective pits and activated, and the station becomes operational within the first fifteen days.  Crews are kept on 9-month rotations, and cargo and infrastructure deliveries continue.

December, 1965 – After six months of construction activities, the Horizon outpost is composed of several buried (for radiation and thermal protection) cylindrical modules as living quarters for the initial crew as well as a parabolic antenna station for Earth communications.  The main quarters and supporting facilities are being assembled, which will also ultimately be covered with lunar regolith.  Empty cargo and propellant containers are being used for the storage of bulk supplies and life essentials.  The crew is brought up to a full twelve astronauts.

December 1966 – Construction activities are complete, Horizon outpost is fully operational with a twelve-astronaut crew on staggered nine-month rotations.  Capital expenditures have concluded, and funding is reduced to operations-only to allow secondary projects (Mars missions, etc.).

1968, TBD – Expansion construction activities begin on Horizon outpost…

Anyone else as jazzed as I am reading this stuff?  Project Horizon was dutifully methodical, practical even.  Horizon could have actually happened, knowing what we know now about von Braun, the future Apollo mission successes, and the success of the SATURN I and SATURN V rockets…

And yes, it appears that the soul of ol’ Horizon lives today in the heart of Bigelow Aerospace’s lunar ambitions.  Let’s hope they can carry von Braun’s torch all the way back to the Moon.








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