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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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.





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.





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…





SpaceX’s Falcon 9 fired up for late May launch

7 05 2010

President Elon Musk of SpaceX and President Obama viewing the Falcon 9. Credit: Associated Press

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) continues to prepare their Falcon 9 rocket for its premier launch from Cape Canaveral late this month.  Should it be successful, it will herald the beginning of truly private crew-capable space transportation as an industry – a cornerstone of President Obama’s new space initiative.

As of yesterday, SpaceX reports they are in the midst of final testing, and they actually make it sound frustrating.  It seems that they’re as impatient for the next stage in commercial spaceflight as the rest of us are.

May is getting pretty crowded at the Cape, so if they can’t get by the preflight tests and system certifications quickly enough, they’ll have to wait until June.

The restlessness is at least doubled by the fact that resting on the success of this test flight is the next launch, which will be the first officially conducted under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program.  Falcon 9 Flight 2 will carry SpaceX’s first fully-operational Dragon spacecraft to orbit and is scheduled for a few months after Flight 1.

-If they can get past the blasted pre-flight tests, that is.

We’re with you, SpaceX.  Tell the guys on deck to hurry up.





SpaceX fires up first Falcon 9 rocket

13 03 2010

Test firing of the first Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX

A short update – SpaceX successfully test-fired its first Falcon 9 launch vehicle today at the Cape in Florida, which will eventually carry their Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station as part of a first-of-its-kind contract with NASA.  Dragon is reusable and designed to carry unpressurized or pressurized cargo, ultimately including astronauts.

Stay tuned, guys.  If my sense here is correct, the ultimate success or failure of this system will define the role of private industry in space exploration for the next couple of decades.

Here’s wishing SpaceX well.








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