Red-Letter Day: NASA Astronauts wanted; NSRC spaceflight giveaway

15 11 2011

Today has been quite a big day for aspiring astronauts:

NASA Seeks New Wave of Astronauts

Prototypical astronauts Tom Stafford and Alan Shepard Jr. studying a mission chart, Dec 1965. (Credit: NASA)

On one hand, NASA finally opened another selection announcement for the next class of astronauts.  Until the end of January 2012, anyone with the grit, drive, and the moxie to put their hat in the ring will be stacked up against the best of the best for a handful of new astronaut positions.

Contrary to what many believe in the post-Shuttle NASA environment, what awaits these future spacefarers is more than just maintaining the International Space Station, showing up at press appearances, and performing (much needed) education public outreach.  …NASA is also hard at work, developing a new, Apollo-style spacecraft intended for deep space missions (Orion MPCV) while exploring the possibility of using it to visit and explore near-Earth asteroids.

-Not to mention that these new astronauts will also be on the cusp of helping to break open a new era of commercial spaceflight.  (For more information on the many developments there, see CCDev to get started.)

Not a bad time to get involved, all things considered.

Spaceflight Giveaway for Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher

The XCOR Lynx suborbital vehicle. (Credit: XCOR Aerospace)

As if that weren’t excitement enough for the day, on the commercial spaceflight front, the Southwest Research Institute announced a partnership with XCOR Aerospace to offer a free suborbital spaceflight to one exceedingly lucky attendee at the next Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher’s Conference (NSRC)!

That’s right, a research seat in a spacecraft may be yours for the cost of attending and participating in the conference, slated for the end of February 2012.  The only obligations of the winner are to find their own way to the waiting spacecraft and create and provide an experiment for the trip.

The NSRC, the third conference of its kind, brings together commercial spaceflight industry pioneers, regulators, and both private and federal researchers to explore the opportunities and possibilities presented by the many private suborbital spacecraft currently in development.

For more info, visit nsrc.swri.org – and sign up!  (I can speak from personal experience: the conference last year was thrilling to those for whom spaceflight and microgravity research holds an appeal.)

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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.





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.





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.





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…





NASA’s Orion spacecraft escapes doom

12 05 2010

Successful firing of the Orion capsule launch-abort system from the White Sands Missile Range, N.M. Credit: AP/Craig Fritz

A quick, bittersweet post: NASA recently tested the launch-abort system for their all-but-cancelled Orion spacecraft, rocketing it into the air under its own power and letting it parachute to a safe landing.  Orion, which was intended to be the replacement for the retiring Space Shuttle, is modeled after an Apollo-style teardrop-shaped capsule atop a booster rocket. 

New Orion crew capsule parachuting to a safe landing after the launch-abort test May 6th. Credit: AP/Craig Fritz

The launch-abort system is designed to save astronauts on the launch pad or during the ascent to orbit, and while it was not actually attached to a rocket booster, the system was “live” tested as if it were attached to a malfunctioning rocket.  As it would appear, the test was a complete success – a triumph for the Constellation and Orion program workers, but bittersweet in that now, Orion will likely never splash down carrying astronauts fresh from leaving boot tracks on the Moon.

Certainly a nostalgic sight, the triple-parachute style carries over from the Space Race era, conjuring feelings of heroes returning from the Moon.  However, with the recent cancellation of the Constellation bid for the Moon and Mars, Orion is no longer a full-fledged replacement for the Space Shuttle.  Instead, under the new Obama directive, Orion has eeked out an existence amidst private space corporations vying for NASA launch contracts as a crew escape vehicle for astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

With images like these, it’s hard not to imagine the Orion that might have been.








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