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.

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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.








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