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.





NASA exploration goal to be announced

24 05 2011

Artist's concept of anchoring to the surface of an asteroid. (Credit: NASA)

A NASA media advisory released yesterday alerted the world to what may be a landmark announcement later this afternoon.  Specifically, the advisory states that an agency decision has defined the need for a human “deep space” transportation system.

What does this tell us?  Well, if we visit NASA’s exploration website, the first story would have us believe that we’ve decided to adopt Lockheed Martin’s Stepping Stones exploration plan (see previous story here).  -Will the announcement reveal that we’ve committed to venturing to an asteroid?

Check out the streaming audio feed here at 3:30 p.m. EDT today to find out.  (And cross your fingers.)





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.





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





Boeing enters commercial spaceflight, guns blazing

18 09 2010

Boeing headquarters in Chicago. (Credit: Boeing)

In a move that must have struck simultaneous chords of fear and joy in the hearts of future commercial and tourist spaceflight providers, aerospace titan Boeing recently announced the intent to partner with Space Adventures to sell private seats on its newest orbital spacecraft, the CST-100.  (This passes up Virgin Galactic’s and Armadillo Aerospace’s suborbital spacecraft, which will not achieve true orbit before quickly returning.)  The craft, which will solicit NASA contracts to space in the wake of the shuttle’s retirement, is going head-to-head with SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft on what appears to be an increasingly-open commercial space market.

Rendering of Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft. (Credit: Ben McGee)

No word yet on pricing, but with seven seats per flight on what is promoted as a reusable spacecraft, expect these tickets to be the most affordable means to date to hitch a ride to the International Space Station.

Interestingly enough, Boeing has also recently partnered with Las Vegas aerospace lightning bolt Bigelow Aerospace, which is in the midst of building human-rated, expandable orbital modules for private space stations.  The business case for private space is getting tighter with every passing week, it seems.

Is a 21st-Century space renaissance nigh?

It certainly looks promising.





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…





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…





Space Race Ads, Society, and a Book Alert

17 07 2010

Illustration of a manned nuclear exploration spacecraft and landing capsule in Mars orbit. Credit: Douglas/TIme Magazine, 1963

This one hits close to home for me.  I’ve been collecting space advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s for some time now, and I even have a few gems under glass hanging on my office walls.  Why?  Because they’re meant to inspire.  Truly inspire.  And not just through the now-dated imagery of flashy ships and alien worlds – just the text is intended to fire up the mind and spirit.  Let me give you an example, (sans-illustration for effect):

TOUCHDOWN ON THE MOON (1953)

  • “When the first space ship touches down on the moon, who will be its passengers?  Not the grownups of today, but our grandchildren or great-grandchildren.  In their imaginations may lie the final answer to man’s dream of conquering outer space.  Books for the young that stimulate the imagination are a specialty of Rand McNally …  textbooks and books of nature, science and adventure.  Who knows but that some youngster may find in a Rand McNally book the inspiration that will lead another step closer to travel in space?  And perhaps when that first space ship touches down on the moon, the pilot will check his bearings by Rand McNally maps.”

That’s it.  No pushing of products, no sales pitch for a new line of books or maps.  This is an entire ad funded by Rand McNally that is simply intended to inspire a reader about the amazing possibilities that await, and to let them know that Rand McNally is planning to be a part of it.

The effect is greatly magnified by the dominating illustration of a lunar lander that, for being a concept sketch, looks remarkably like what the real lunar lander would wind up looking like sixteen years later.

Apparently, the entire world was like this for a couple of decades.  Full of vision.  Sprinkler companies took out ads declaring with pride their involvement in nuclear rocket tests by providing fire suppressions systems.  O-ring companies for cars took out ads entitled, “WHEN WE MAN THE IRON MINES OF MARS,” proposing that when off-world resourcing takes off, they’ll work to be a part of it.  We were going to own the future and make it ours.

I don’t think we really realize today just how much of an effect our social marketing has on our outlook on life as a society.  At least, I can say that I didn’t realize it until I started finding and reading these advertisements.  Almost immediately, I found myself suddenly more optimistic about my own dreams of spaceflight.  And then it hit me – these things really do affect what we think about and how we view the world.

Take another example, again (I know, some may groan,) just the text:

HE OPENED THE DOOR TO SPACE…

“It was small compared with the giants men send up today.  And for all the racket it didn’t go much higher than the barn roof.

This didn’t matter to Robert Goddard.  The big thing was that it flew.

They’re all over the front pages now.  Rockets with names like Atlas and Explorer and Vanguard probe the heavens and stretch for the moon, chipping away at space… because a young physics professor from Worcester, Mass., taught them how.

But in those days only boys were supposed to take rockets seriously.  They discovered them in the books of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.  Bob Goddard did.  And he carefully noted in the margins whenever these friends violated scientific fact.

At college his first experiements filled the labs with smoke.  Later, with savings from his modest salary, he shopped hardware stores for “rocket parts.”  And in his workshop a dream began to have shape.

On a cold March morning in 1926, out on his Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn, the dream took flight.  With the first successful launching of a liquid-fueled rocket, Bob Goddard turned science fiction into fact.

And he made us remember something, this stubborn Yankee professor … that America is a land where free men have made a habit of doing the impossible.  In such a climate no boy’s dreams are ever really out of reach.

John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company.”

That’s it!  See?  No pitch!  No promotion!  Just an ad, (a big ad, beautifully illustrated with a painting of Goddard shielding his eyes from the light of that first test on the farm,) making us all remember that we as Americans stare danger in the face and eat impossibility for breakfast.  Incredible!

In the web of day-to-day exposures, especially in the 21st century with digital media coming at us from all directions, our outlook is heavily influenced by what we unintentionally see or read.  Are we an instant gratification culture, or do we think about the future?  Or do we think at all, or just react?  Much may be told about our society at any given time through the eyes of our advertisements.

Not that it would ever happen, but I think modern corporations should take a nod from their fathers’ ad men.  They should take the time, (and, yes, money,) to help us see the world as it might be.  -Help us to remember our strengths and see how we might all participate in creating a better, more exciting future.  We did it before, and then we went to the moon.  I don’t think that’s coincidence.

So, if you’re interested, but you don’t want to go through the time and trouble of finding some of these ads for yourself, don’t worry.  This brings me to my second point – a new book has just been released from historian Megan Prelinger, entitled “Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962.”  In it, she visually documents through page after page of reproduced ads how the companies that would be the first to take us to space recruited the men and women who would be the ones to figure out how to actually do it.

A must-have for any serious, aspiring astronaut as well as the more casual space enthusiast.

-Or maybe for advertising executives that want to change the world for the better.  Again.








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