Future SwRI astronauts stomp on the accelerator

26 08 2011

SwRI's suborbital science mission patch. (Credit: SwRI)

A quick note today on the further development of the worlds’ first commercial scientist-astronauts!  The Southwest Research Institute‘s (SwRI) suborbital research program, after its stunning announcement last spring of the purchase of several research seats on upcoming suborbital spaceflights, is showing no signs of slowing.

Recently, after their three commercial scientist-astronauts-in-training, (specifically termed payload specialists,) completed basic astronaut training, they announced the release of their project mission patch (at left).

I’m not sure if anyone else feels the same way, but I’ll be brave enough to admit that something as technically irrelevant as a patch can make an endeavor feel suddenly very real.

According to their recent statements, the team is moving out of the phase of training and the construction of their spaceflight experiments to fine-tuning their payloads and integrating them with future spacecraft.  With SwRI and Dr. Alan Stern leading the way, the advent of commercial civilian scientist-astronauts is upon us, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  I hope to follow right behind.

Ad astra, SwRI!

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Remembering VentureStar

27 05 2011

Lockheed Martin's VentureStar spaceplane lifting off from a hypothetical commercial spaceport. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

With the recent developments in new commercial suborbital spaceplanes, (e.g., XCor’s Lynx, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, Sierra Nevada/SpaceDev’s DreamChaser,) my mind is often turned back toward the premier commercial spaceplane of the late-1990s, which inspired many in my generation toward a career in space science in the first place: the venerable VentureStar.

Test of twin Linear Aerospike XRS-2200 engines performed on August 6, 2001 at NASA's Stennis Space Center. (Credit: NASA-MSFC)

With the VentureStar came the promise of a new era in spaceflight.  -A reduction in launch costs by an order of magnitude, a lifting body-wing design with no expendable parts, (called single-stage-to-orbit, or SSTO,) a bevy of composite materials to reduce weight, automated (pilot-less) flight control, and dual linear aerospike engines.

The project, which began at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works as the X-33 in 1996, was truly next-generation.  For those of us keeping watch in high school and early college, so too was the program’s use of technology for public outreach and engagement – a webcam streamed live images of X-33’s construction.

Due to cost overruns and technical difficulties, NASA scrapped their support of the program in 2001, and Lockheed Martin decided that without assistance their continuing the program alone didn’t make business sense.  Thus, with a dedicated launch facility constructed at Edward Air Force Base and a prototype 90% complete, was an entire new generation of space enthusiasts turned to cynics.

For me personally as well as for many that I know, having cancelled the program so many of us were rooting for instilled a sense of skepticism that human exploration could ever really take off while its funding was tied to Congress.  This meant that the future of space transportation and exploration would be have to be corporate, (which is ironically what Lockheed Martin was attempting to achieve with VentureStar.)

This is why so many of us see NASA support for Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) as a step not only in the right direction but also in the only direction with the possibility of not having the rug swept out from under its feet when a new administration comes in.  Hence, as NewSpace entrepreneurs forge their way into the field, I say their battle-cry should quite aptly be, “Remember VentureStar!”

…and with suborbital commercial success, perhaps we’ll see our SSTO spaceplane yet.





Ultimately, Time Travel is essential for Space Travel

17 04 2011

Long-time readers may note that this blog bounces (veers?) between space-related content and time/temporal physics-related content.  Today, aside from admitting that (not surprisingly) the two topics are primary passions of mine, I’ll tell you why they’re related, and intimately so.

It’s all Einstein’s fault.

After an interstellar trip, a faulty suspended animation chamber reduces an astronaut to an ancient corpse. (From Planet of the Apes; Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Put very simply, according to Relativity: When dealing with events in the universe, it is impossible to separate the distance of space from the passage of time.

This is why astrophysicists and cosmologists speak of actions in the universe occurring and affecting “space-time.”  (Hence the “space-time continuum” that makes such a frequent appearance in sci-fi technobabble.)

What does this mean for us?  Well, in day-to-day experience, not much more than the odd reality that the moon we see is 1 second old.  Similarly, the sun we see is lagging 8 minutes behind us in time.

Why?  Well, it takes the light that bounces off of the surface of the Moon 1 second to cross the 230,000-mile distance between the Earth and Moon to strike the retina of your eye, and it takes 8 minutes for the light that leaves the sun to cross the 93-million mile orbital void to get to Earth and reach your eye.  As a result, we see the Moon and Sun as they appeared when the light left them, not when the light reaches us.

The same can be said of distant stars.  The farther away a star is, the older it is. (Even if it’s 200,000 light years away – then you’re seeing it the way it looked 200,000 years ago.)

So, quizzically, yes – this means that universe we see is actually a horrible garble of apparent objects from intermixed times.  Fortunately for us,  compared to the incredible speed of light, we’re close enough (distance) to everything we need to experience, (e.g., our limbs, food, loved ones, walls, etc.,) so that this time lag is unnoticeable.

But when we start peering out into the rest of the cosmos, this distortion really matters.  Many of the stars we’re studying may have already exploded… but if they exploded a few years ago, we won’t know it until light from the explosion reaches us, which could take millions of years if the star is far away.

Now, let’s take our time-distance thought exercises a step farther and ask what happens if we score the holy grail of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  What if, for the sake of argument, we receive and translate a friendly message from an incredibly advanced race of aliens?  And what if, by fortuitous happenstance, they (hoping to aid other, younger life-forms) offer unlimited knowledge to any beings that can meet them on their world, face-to-face?  Well, the offer doesn’t do us more than a hill of beans of good if it takes us 200 years for a multi-generational craft to get there, only to find that the benevolent race has gone extinct due to a problem with their parent star.  We want to reach them as soon as we translate the message.

We want to separate the distance of space from the passage of time.

So, if we can conceptually and technologically conquer time travel, we will have in essence conquered space travel.  If one can manipulate the passage of time, then the time taken to cross the distance of space with any type of propulsion system becomes an almost trivial tally – little more significant than the miles-per-gallon of a modern automobile.

Conventional propulsion systems will get us around in space for the foreseeable future, and more exotic systems will likely take us to the nearest stars.  However, I believe it will be the mastery of time that will transform our race from provincial planet-hoppers to truly savvy, galaxy-trotting, cosmic-colonial game-changers.

Something to think about.





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








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