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)





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.





What happened to Zero-G Football?

6 10 2011

Even team sports are possible on larger "zero-g" aircraft. (Credit: Space Adventures)

Back in late 2005, a company called IPX Entertainment, (headed by Haughton-Mars Project veteran Rocky Persaud,) began promoting microgravity sports.

With an interview with Leonard David, another on Ajax Developers Journal, and a piece written by Rocky himself on The Space Review, he championed the promise of repeat customers for viewing and participating in zero-g sports as a way to break open the NewSpace market to the masses.

The plan included a reality show, “Space Champions,” which would chronicle the development of a proprietary sport, first called “Parabolic Football,” or “Paraball,” and then intriguingly changed to, “Zero Gravity Football.”  (Was “Paraball” too confusing a term?)

Rendering of a Virgin Galactic suborbital space passenger. (Credit: Zero G)

A Zero Gravity Sports League was also on the books, as were flagship microgravity Zero Gravity Football teams in the U.S. and Canada.

This appeared to capitalize on the rush of attention given to Virgin Galactic SpaceShipOne’s  clinching of the Ansari X Prize, and by all accounts, the situation as of this late 2006 interview was looking up.

So, what happened?

I actually don’t have a direct answer.  The company no longer exists, and the corporate charter has been revoked.  I suspect the fact that the commercial suborbital space market didn’t mature as quickly as many hoped played a role.  Also, the failure of the Rocket Racing League to take off (yet), which is also a “space sport” intended to rally public interest in private space, may have made investors and advertisers hesitant to invest in a “zero-g sport.”

Regardless, perhaps with SpaceShipTwo about ready to fly and XCor’s Lynx right behind, the market may be more fertile for the advent of microgravity sports?





Russia announces new Nuclear Rockets for manned Mars trip

16 04 2011

1960s Aerojet General rendering of a nuclear rocket in flight configuration.

For the first time in possibly four decades, two electrifying space technology phrases have managed to show up in the same sentence in earnest.  Quietly nestled in the murky details of a somewhat thrilling AP news story about a potential new Russian spacecraft to be produced in the next few years are the words: “manned mission to Mars,” and, “new nuclear engines.”

This is fantastic, as “nuclear engines” can only mean a resurrection of the triumphant nuclear thermal rocket technology pioneered and successfully tested during the Cold War.

Why is this significant?  First, U.S. and Russian testing of nuclear rockets during the Cold War proved not only that the relatively simple technology worked, but that it was amazingly efficient.  So efficient, in fact, that the rockets tested under the NERVA Program are still twice as powerful as our best rockets today, (half-a-century later!).  Secondly, these rockets are of the weight and power necessary to significantly trim down travel times and make interplanetary manned missions feasible.

So, if the nuclear rocket technology is superior, why don’t we have this technology today?  Well, politics and paranoia led to the death of the nuclear rocket back in 1972, when:

  1. a new project called the Space Shuttle drew funding away from the NERVA Program and set our course in space exploration for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) instead of back to the Moon and Mars, and
  2. in the Cold War nuclear holocaust climate, the word “nuclear” became (understandably) a source of irrational fear.

Only a few experts remain alive who worked in the thick of original nuclear thermal rocket research and testing, and with NewSpace set to take over LEO cargo and crew transportation services, it is time to set our sights back on the more ambitious goals of lunar settlements and expanded human exploration of the solar system.  Nuclear thermal rockets will be the technology to take us there.  The Russians apparently realize that, and perhaps an international kick in the pants is what the U.S. research and industrial community needs to realize that it’s time to pick this research back up.

A nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia nearly ended the world.  It seems a fitting contrast that in the 21st Century, a nuclear space race between the U.S. and Russia could help humanity settle new ones.





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.





Exploring Test Cell C with ArcGIS Online

22 03 2011

ESRI logo. (Credit: ESRI)

The future is now.  GIS forerunner company ESRI has recently published much of their geospatial analysis capability online… for free.  Implementing the philosophy that knowledge is power and that all peoples and nations should be empowered to make smart and responsible decisions, ESRI is seeking to change the world by making powerful GIS tools available to anyone with web access.

-And they’ve included not only the tools, but the data as well.  Called “base layers,” this data is literally something you can add to a map with a click – like roads, topography, vegetation, weather… you name it.

For only the mildest example of what they’re doing, check out a map of the Nuclear Rocket Development Station’s Test Cell C.

Explore, play around with it, create your own map web apps… get creative.  With this kind of power at your fingertips, from checking out whether or not your house is on a floodplain to investigating political demographics in your area, there is literally no limit to what you can do with this.

Amazing.





Tales from a nuclear rocket station

21 02 2011

One of the great pleasures of my research into the ’60s development of nuclear rockets for space exploration are moments like the following, which I pieced together from archival records and oral history…  (If I find enough of these to write, I might collect them into a book sometime.  Feedback welcome.)

Moonrise over the Nevada desert.

Richard Nutley, a supply manager for the joint NASA-Atomic Energy Commission Nuclear Rocket Development Station (NRDS), stood with an infuriated NASA accountant next to the partially-constructed Engine Test Stand One.  The year is 1961.

The test stand was a maze of pipes connecting two giant, white, spherical hydrogen reservoirs to a towering concrete-and-steel gantry.  It appeared much like a lone launch pad in the middle of the sage-covered desert valley where the nation’s most advanced propulsion system was being developed and tested.  A network of rail lines crisscrossed the flats, connecting the test stand to several other structures where nuclear rocket reactors were assembled and prepared.

Together, the NRDS represented the nation’s attempts to build a rocket powerful enough to take bases to the Moon and astronauts to Mars, and they were meeting with great success.

Richard grinned, trying not to laugh as the accountant, who’d arrived from NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. that morning, dusted off his suit and attempted to empty gravel from his Italian leather shoes.  A mighty dust devil had swept across the construction site without warning, catching the accountant completely unprepared.  Already in a sour mood from the unexpected hour-and-a-half drive from Las Vegas to the Nevada Test Site earlier that morning, the whirlwind was the last straw.

Richard shook his head.  Anyone who’d bothered to look into the NRDS knew better than to wear nice clothes to the site.

Walking back toward the car parked at the fence-line to the test stand and stifling back laughter, Richard looked up to see that the moon had risen over Vegas, and it loomed on the horizon.  “That’s where we’re going with this thing,” he said.

“Where?” the accountant replied, annoyed.  “What are you talking about?”

“The moon,” Richard said flatly.

The NASA accountant looked at Richard and said, “You would never see the moon in the daylight back East.”

Richard drove the NASA accountant back to Vegas and never saw him again.








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