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.





MPCV: Much ado about (mostly) nothing

25 05 2011

Pressure test of the Orion/MPCV capsule conducted 5-5-2011. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

So, despite what the “milestone” wording in yesterday’s media alert seemed to suggest, the much-anticipated announcement from NASA did not declare a new exploration goal.  Instead, a “new,” “deep space” vehicle was announced: the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV. 

The thing is, it isn’t really a new vehicle. 

As designer/manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s own press release admits, the vehicle is simply their Orion spacecraft (developed under NASA’s now-cancelled Constellation Program) reborn under a new name.

MPCV/Orion in Martian orbit. (Credit: NASA)

Why all the fuss?  Good question.  The rechristening of the vehicle indicates that NASA will continue to support its development, which should be a relief to all of the Orion personnel.  -And, while NASA did not come out and officially adopt the plan and timeline as I would have hoped, all of the subtext seems to indicate that they are embracing President Obama’s (and Lockheed’s) proposal to send human explorers to an asteroid, a Martian moon, and on to Mars.

If this delineation is real, and NewSpace is intended to take over LEO and lunar operations while NASA aims to send astronauts farther out, then I think this is a wonderful development.  There’s room for everyone.

It is my sincerest hope that this is not simply wordplay intended to loft a sagging program with no real defined end-use or objective.





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.)





Following Lockheed Martin’s “Stepping Stones” to Mars

27 03 2011

Diagram and timeline of Lockheed Martin's incremental "Stepping Stones" proposal. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

The wake of the cancellation of NASA’s Constellation Program has been devastating to Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft plans.  They had been counting on the subsequently-canceled Ares series of rockets to loft Orion to the International Space Station (ISS) as a replacement for the retiring Space Shuttle, with eventual plans as the command module for future manned exploration of the Moon and Mars.

After emerging from beneath the Obama administration’s scalpel, (one that admittedly may have simultaneously opened a new channel for commercial space exploration,) all that remains of this once mighty program is the go-ahead to leverage the Orion testing already done so that a stripped-down version might be utilized as an ISS lifeboat.

A mockup of the Orion spacecraft docking with the International Space Station in Lockheed's new Space Operations Simulation Center. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

However, instead of licking their wounds, it appears that Lockheed Martin has wasted no time in capitalizing on their salvaged Orion spacecraft-as-lifeboat.  First, they’ve recently unveiled a new facility designed for full-scale testing and integration of Orion with spaceflight hardware, called the Space Operations Simulation Center.

Secondly, and perhaps more intriguingly, they’ve release a document called “Stepping Stones,” which is a Lockheed Martin proposed scenario that includes a timetable for incremental missions from Low Earth Orbit to an eventual exploration of a moon of Mars (see image above).

Using tried techniques, the outline builds on their previously-released Plymouth Rock scenario and includes an earlier mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, a subsequent mission to the Lagrangian Point over the far side of the moon, a more distant asteroid rendezvous mission, and finally a mission to the moons of Mars, enabling astronauts to control robotic rovers on the Martian surface in real time.

Aside from the fact that logistically, scientifically, economically, and technologically there are very good reasons to visit asteroids, even the final objective sets very technologically realistic goals.  By not shooting to put boots on Mars to begin with, their very savvy scenario bypasses the need to utilize the risky, untried hardware that would be necessary to make a powered landing on the Martian surface and blast off again (presumably to a Martian-Orbit-Rendezvous) before heading back home.

I sincerely hope someone with vision and budget authority picks up this proposal – it’s a serious plan that continues to grow our experience and knowledge base by visiting (and mastering travel to-and-from) new destinations while minimizing risk.

With Stepping Stones, I think we’re looking at the future of manned space exploration.





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





Lockheed Martin’s asteroid gambit

24 09 2010

Orion capsule docked w/ Orion Deep Space Vehicle modification. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

The Obama Administration’s recent space initiative scraps former President Bush’s Orion moon program and planned moon base in favor of three basic components: Private industry, an asteroid rendezvous by 2025, and a manned Mars orbit by 2035.

Not wasting any time on nostalgia, aerospace industry giant Lockheed Martin, who had been helming the all-but-cancelled Orion spacecraft development, has seized on the suggestion and released a comprehensive proposal for how NASA can make the next off-world visit using their existing (or nearly-existing) Orion technology.

Citing a trinity rationale, “Security, Curiosity, and Prosperity,” Lockheed Martin’s proposal details how two Orion capsules and service modules (or one standard Orion capsule plus a SuperOrion they call the Orion Deep Space Vehicle,) can rendezvous with and explore one of a small class of Near-Earth-Objects (read: asteroids) that happen to swing close to Earth.

Orion spacecraft parked in orbit of an asteroid. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

So, what does, “Security, Curiosity, and Prosperity” mean?  Lockheed Martin ventures that security is a reason to visit an asteroid so that we can develop necessary interception know-how and experience should we ever have to try and divert one.  Curiosity is reason to visit according to the plan because of the potential scientific boon exploring an asteroid would be for solar system formation research and planetary geology.  Lastly, they mention prosperity due to the fact that there is a very real possibility that “mining” an asteroid for natural resources could be quite lucrative.

What are the pitfalls?  The primary added risk of the asteroid mission over a lunar mission is distance.   Should something mechanically or medically go wrong, the shortest possible emergency return trip is on the order of months instead of days.  There is also a more prolonged exposure to radiation to consider.

However, the risk of an asteroid mission is also significantly reduced compared to a lunar mission in that two return capsules are taken along, so if something goes wrong with one, astronauts can still use the other to get home.  More importantly, there is no landing module, no landing and launch logistics to manage, and therefore no real chance of crashing.  Because an asteroid of this nature is so small (and its gravity weak), astronauts could literally park their Orion spacecraft next to the asteroid and spacewalk over to it.

Personally, I think this is fantastic.  This may just the geologist in me talking, but I think Lockheed Martin’s “Security, Curiosity, Prosperity” concept is a home run.  We really should be developing skills necessary in case we find an inbound asteroid with a high probability of a strike.  (Else, why are we spending so much time and effort looking out for asteroids that might hit us?)  The curiosity factor is a given, and I have personally been championing the “resourcing” of asteroids, (if I can make that a verb,) for years as a way of enabling larger space endeavors while reducing the “resource load” on Earth…

It’s also worth noting that the general experience of traveling through deep space would also be very, very useful experience for future trips to Mars.

So, will NASA go for it?  I think they’d be wise to.  They’ll be hard-pressed to find a more well-motivated mission with acceptable risk, redundancy, and potential payoff.





Military powered exo-skeleton to create future SuperAstronauts?

15 08 2010

Lockheed Martin's HULC exoskeleton field trial. Credit: Lockheed Martin

A quick note today on emergent technology.  Right now, aerospace and defense mega-contractor Lockheed Martin is working with the military to develop the HULC exoskeleton.  (That’s “Human Universal Load Carrier.”)

The exoskeleton, which is moving into human beta-testing now, improves the endurance and load-carrying capacity of a given person nearly an order of magnitude.

My immediate thought turns to the non-military, obviously, and to considering what an asset technology like this would be to a future astronaut.  Imagine navigating rough planetary terrain loaded up with scientific equipment.  That crater slope too steep?  Never fear – HULC is here!

Rough terrain faces future planetary explorers. Credit: NASA

Seriously – one of the most practical aspects of powered exoskeleton technology may be in future planetary astronaut logistics, where a small number of people will be in the position to perform any number of jobs.  In addition to extending or quickening scientific sorties, imagine the logistics of unloading a drop-shipment of crates at a future moonbase.  With technology like this, it would be possible for an astronaut to act as both scientific investigator and powered loader, minimizing the amount of equipment to haul up to the moon while maximizing the number of things an astronaut could do on a single EVA.  Something to consider.

See Lockheed Martin’s promotional video of the HULC in action here.





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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