Retrospective: The coolest orbital image of 2011

29 05 2012

Space shuttle Atlantis leaves a glowing trail from the heat of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere on its way home. (Credit: NASA)

In case you missed it, nearly a year ago on July 21, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis was imaged as it began its fiery descent toward Earth.  As the final flight of the shuttle fleet, this was truly the last opportunity to grab this sort of image, and somehow the International Space Station Expedition 28 crew managed to snap the hero shot.

This visual – a heroic, blazing return to our world from the abyss beyond – is something sci-fi has been showing us for decades but that reality had yet to provide. 

A great moment, visually and historically.





Views of a last space shuttle launch

26 06 2011

USSR's first and last Space Shuttle (Buran) launch, 11/15/1988. (Credit: RSK)

As NASA nears the final launch and retirement of its mainstay Space Shuttle, I think it only fitting to review another final Space Shuttle launch – one made twenty-three years ago.

In 1988, the U.S.S.R. launched its own Space Shuttle, the Buran, for what would be the first and last time.  Replay camera videos of the automated launch and landing (yes, automated – in 1988!) can be found here and here, respectively.

Watching this footage now leads me to strange musings on the Russian space program that might have been and provides an eerie foreshadowing of what it will feel like to watch Atlantis’s final launch in only a couple of weeks.  Will NASA’s shuttle fleet suffer the same fate?  Will what was once an arguably successful and certainly iconic space transportation system soon be reduced to an array of archival YouTube videos?

The Buran, which means "snowstorm" in Russian, staged at the Baikonur Cosmodrome prior to launch. (Credit: RSK)

Buran, which is an obvious response to NASA’s Space Shuttle, arose due to the perceived military potential of the shuttle’s cargo bay.  In a piercingly accurate assessment recounted by Russian rocket engineer and historian Boris Chertok, U.S.S.R. defense analysts projected that NASA’s new spaceplane could be profitable only if it flew more than twice a month.  Because this was not the case, the U.S.S.R. concluded that NASA’s shuttle was, in fact, military-subsidized.  A response was necessary, and Buran was the result.

The first flight of the Buran was an astonishing success.  A specially-designed rocket, the largest liquid-fuel rocket ever constructed, lofted Buran to an insertion orbit.  Buran separated from the rocket without incident and fired its own rockets to boost its orbiting altitude.  It remained on orbit to circle the Earth twice before automatically firing its rockets for descent and an unpiloted glide landing.

The automated landing system nailed the touchdown to within 30 feet.  (The idea that this shuttle landed itself when I still thought a Nintendo represented state-of-the-art computing power is absolutely mind-boggling!)

The eerily familiar sight of Buran lifting off from the Cosmodrome's Launch Complex 37, site 110 left. (Credit: RSK)

However, economic difficulties and political instabilities saw that the triumphant 1988 inaugural launch would be Buran’s last.  The U.S.S.R. disintegrated in 1991, leaving the expensive Buran space program unfunded and in disarray.  The Buran visited airshows periodically and remained in storage until it was destoyed in 2002 when the Kazakhstan hangar containing it collapsed due to neglect.

-A tragically undignified ending to a remarkable craft.

Now, history is ripe with ironic twists.  As it would turn out, NASA’s Space Shuttle was not military in nature, (though certainly defense-sponsored research and even a satellite deployment or two was performed from time to time,) and so the military push to produce Buran was off the mark in the first place.  However, the automated spaceplane landing Buran successfully achieved would not be replicated until just last year, when an automated military spaceplane was launched by the U.S. Air Force (see: X-37).

It looks like the Russians were a couple of decades ahead of the defense curve on that one.

Today, just as NASA’s shuttle fleet is being decommissioned, there are talks of the Russians resurrecting the Buran.  Time will tell whether or not funding and political support materializes from Russia, but perhaps America’s new, small, automated military spaceplane will once again provide the impetus for Buran to rise from the ashes.  (Frankly, I’ll take military paranoia when it spurs the advancement of space exploration hardware.)

Buran completing an unpiloted landing after its first successful orbital flight. (Credit: RSK)

So, as the sun sets on NASA’s workhorse fleet, I am given to wonder where all last-lofted spaceplanes will sit in the annals of spaceflight history.

Was the idea of the reusable orbital cargo spaceplane a needlessly complicated hiccup in the evolution of space transportation systems, or was it a visionary leap in spacecraft design?

-Something to ponder while watching launches and landings on YouTube.





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.





Boeing enters commercial spaceflight, guns blazing

18 09 2010

Boeing headquarters in Chicago. (Credit: Boeing)

In a move that must have struck simultaneous chords of fear and joy in the hearts of future commercial and tourist spaceflight providers, aerospace titan Boeing recently announced the intent to partner with Space Adventures to sell private seats on its newest orbital spacecraft, the CST-100.  (This passes up Virgin Galactic’s and Armadillo Aerospace’s suborbital spacecraft, which will not achieve true orbit before quickly returning.)  The craft, which will solicit NASA contracts to space in the wake of the shuttle’s retirement, is going head-to-head with SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft on what appears to be an increasingly-open commercial space market.

Rendering of Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft. (Credit: Ben McGee)

No word yet on pricing, but with seven seats per flight on what is promoted as a reusable spacecraft, expect these tickets to be the most affordable means to date to hitch a ride to the International Space Station.

Interestingly enough, Boeing has also recently partnered with Las Vegas aerospace lightning bolt Bigelow Aerospace, which is in the midst of building human-rated, expandable orbital modules for private space stations.  The business case for private space is getting tighter with every passing week, it seems.

Is a 21st-Century space renaissance nigh?

It certainly looks promising.





Columbia shuttle disaster board supports commercial spaceflight

6 09 2010

A short note today on welcome news.  While it isn’t necessarily new news at this point, it’s something that didn’t get a lot of play when it came out, and in my view it really should have.

CAIB members examine Columbia space shuttle debris in 2003. (Credit: Rick Stiles)

So, what is it?  It’s a sigh of relief for everyone rooting for the success of commercial spaceflight:  Former members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) released a statement in early July announcing their support for the commercialization of low-Earth-orbit space travel.

Yep – those responsible for ensuring that the safety lessons of the Columbia space shuttle disaster are incorporated into all future NASA space activities have endorsed contracting astronaut flights to commercial aerospace firms.

To quote a portion of the statement, which was in the form of a letter to senatorial science subcommittee chairwoman Senator Mikulski, the former board members write:

  • “The new strategy will task an array of companies, including both established industry stalwarts with decades of experience as well as newer service providers, to build simple spacecraft that are exclusively focused on the mission of sending crews to low Earth orbit. By using existing launch vehicles that are already accumulating extensive track records to launch these spacecraft, NASA will ensure that crews would not be risked on a vehicle that has not repeatedly demonstrated its safety and reliability.”

For everyone who feels that “private industry” will somehow sacrifice safety when compared to NASA initiatives, this is in my view a much-needed blast of cold water.  Using the launch vehicles that have been putting satellites in orbit for nearly half-a-century leverages much tried-and-true experience that normally flies under the radar.

So, just a reminder.  Commercial space will likely be safer than any new NASA launch vehicles.

The people who investigated our most recent space disaster say so.





Orbital Tugs shove their way into reality

15 06 2010

Russian Space Tug, "Parom." Credit: Vassili Petrovich

With the imminent retirement of the Space Shuttle and the rise of corporate launch spacecraft, private companies are starting to think seriously about the next logical steps – orbital infrastructure.  A few of them have even zeroed in on the next target in the business case by identifying a capability we don’t have: Orbital Tugs.

What do I mean by an “Orbital Tug”?  -It’s a utility spacecraft designed to go to orbit and stay there to help with orbital logistics.  This includes things like intercepting payloads lofted to low-Earth-orbit (LEO) and moving them to where they need to be, be it a higher orbit (saving on launch costs), the International Space Station, a rendesvous with another spacecraft or space station (Bigelow modules?), or even to someplace farther out like a Lagrange Point (gravitationally-stable points around and between the Earth and Moon.)  Add to this the potential of tugs to offer service contracts to companies and governments for the salvage, rescue, or refueling of existing orbiting satellites (communication, GPS, weather, reconnaissance, etc.,) and suddenly the prospect is a very profitable one.

Who needs a Shuttle when you can pay much less for a LEO rocket delivery and have a Space Tug do the rest?  Why build and launch a new satellite when you can pay a fraction and use a tug to extend the life of the one you already have in orbit?

Three views of the Parom Space Tug. Credit: Anatoly Zak

Several companies are in the queue to get a tug into space first.  Perhaps foremost amongst them is Russia’s S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation, Energia – the company responsible for the safest and most successful spacecraft of all time, Soyuz.  They’ve had a space tug on the books since late 2001, called Parom, which is intended to replace their Progress cargo module, (an unmanned version of Soyuz that currently delivers shipments of supplies to the International Space Station.)  The design of Parom is simple, based around a pressurized (i.e. habitable) cargo cylinder bracketed by two universal docking ports, one on each side.  With its own engines rated to move objects up to 30 tons and fuel transfer lines so that it may refuel itself from a resupply shipment or, in turn, refuel another spacecraft, station, or satellite, Parom is an ambitious craft completely based on existing technology.

Second on my list of potential Space Tugs is a nuclear-powered satellite servicing tug from a private American firm called IoStar – though recent scandals and infighting make me worry that bankruptcy is in the company’s future.  At the very least, a recent ruling against IoStar in favor of a former employee with allegedly “proprietary” information leads me to suspect an uphill battle – but I’m rooting for them.

SMART-OLEV. Credit: Orbital Satellite Services

Orbital Satellite Services is another private venture, based in Sweden, to keep your eyes on.  Their SMART-OLEV or Orbital Life Extension Vehicle, while not pressurized or as burly as the Parom, may be able to make that weight savings its best advantage and take the fast track to orbit as the first functional space tug.  SMART-OLEV is designed to target and dock with telecommunication satellites and extend their lifespans for up to 12 additional years by providing supplemental propulsion, navigation, and guidance.

Developing an orbital logistics infrastructure is the essential next step to the corporate development and utilization of space.  Godspeed, tug-builders.  Let’s get off this rock.





Military rescues ’90s NASA mini-shuttle

23 04 2010

X-37B in the Atlas V payload fairing prior to liftoff. Credit: USAF

The U.S. Air Force’s evening launch of a new unmanned reusable spacecraft yesterday has been getting a lot of ominous press coverage.  However, far from hearing military drums or worrying about the weaponization of space, a full-fledged fanfare is going off in my mind with even a tugged heartstring or two.  Why?

Context.  This vehicle didn’t come out of nowhere.

Ghosts of NASA’s Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) as well as the Venturestar and other cancelled projects from the 1990s were lofted to orbit today by the Air Force (-or, as an Air National Guard friend of mine once told me, the soon-to-be “Air and Space Force”-) in the form of the highly secretive X-37B.

The craft, which is entirely automated, launched from Vandenburg Air Force Base just before 8:00pm last evening atop a Boeing Atlas-V rocket.  To someone like me, and I suspect an entire generation of space enthusiasts who grew up on the promise of the CRV and Lockheed-Martin’s Venturestar shuttle replacement in the ’90s, seeing one of these guys actually fly satisfies a promise now nearly 20 years old.

I graduated high school and entered college on the heels of the research flights of the X-33, X-34, X-37, and X-38, which weren’t military at all.  They were all NASA, and they were supposed to have led to a revolution in space travel.  Fully-reusable spacecraft.  New crew transports and escape vehicles.  Technology that would bring launch costs down an order of magnitude.  -Sleek-looking ships that had a rightful place at the vanguard of the 21st Century.

X-38 Crew Return Vehicle drop test, July 1999. Credit: Carla Thomas

Prototypes were built and tested.  Photos were coming out of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center that could make even the most hardened space cynic crack a smile.  It looked like the future we’d been envisioning since the 1960s was finally arriving.  The air around the future of spaceflight was electric… But they never flew.  One after one, projects were either cancelled mid-stride or followup missions were never funded.

Politics and budget cuts got in the way.

Rendering of X-33/Venturestar, a fully reusable shuttle replacement, 1996. Credit: NASA

Then came President H.W. Bush’s Constellation Program, which returned to a more conventional, Apollo-style spaceflight architecture:  A capsule atop a rocket booster that would splash down via parachute upon return.

It was, frankly, a disappointment, but we all did our best to be good sports, and we got behind it.  But we never stopped looking over our shoulders, (hence why I still have these old Dryden pictures handy.)

So, am I alarmed by the recent launch of the X-38B?  Not at all.  The Air Force has been launching things into space since the beginning – satellites, astronauts, you name it – and the fact that they’ve picked up a ball NASA was forced to drop is one of the most encouraging things I’ve seen happen in quite some time.  Should the X-38 prove successful, it’s an exceedingly short distance to hand off hardware, lessons-learned, and the infrastructure to build the technology to NASA.  -Then, NASA hasn’t had to pay out to develop it at all.

Way to go, Air Force.  My hat’s off to you for keeping the dream alive.

Rendering of the original X-37 in flight, 1999. Credit: NASA








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