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.

Advertisements




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.





Yuri’s Semi-Centennial… and other milestones

12 04 2011

Monument of Yuri Gagarin on Cosmonauts Alley in Moscow. (Credit: Anatoly Terentiev)

Today marks the 50th anniversary of human exploration off-world.  Coincidentally, it also marks the 30th anniversary of the inaugural launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle.

Now is a time of transition in many respects; it’s a time of remembrance and of guarded (and sometimes not-so-guarded) excitement.  The Space Shuttle is retiring, the International Space Station is complete, the first commercial orbital transportation ventures have successfully flown and recovered spacecraft, and an armada of suborbital spacecraft are on deck to begin getting us off the rock.

So, with many celebrations occurring worldwide, I raise my glass in kind:

Here’s to those that have shown us the way and to what is yet to come.

May the wind be at our backs.





Humanity’s outpost in the sky

8 09 2010

ISS and Atlantis (docked) visible in front of the Sun as seen from Earth. 05/22/2010. (Credit: Thierry Legault)

A short note this morning on humanity in the cosmos.  In the above image, an outstanding French photographer managed to capture what otherwise would have whipped by in the blink of an eye.

Crop of the ISS and Atlantis (docked) in front of the Sun. (Credit: Thierry Legault)

For an instant on May 22nd, the International Space Station (ISS) and the docked Atlantis orbiter (space shuttle) moved between Earth and the Sun as they screamed past at colossal orbital speed (16,500 miles per hour).  Rapid photography, meticulous planning, and much skill managed to catch the fleeting moment.

(The ISS and shuttle are visible to the left of the Sun’s center, with the station’s long pairs of solar panels bracketing the shuttle on the left-hand side, its nose angled away.)

My point in posting this morning, aside from sharing the epic “gee-whiz” factor implicit in this photograph, is to try and bring home something about scale, the cosmos, and our place in it.

While looking at the awe-inspiring photo, try to realize that the point of view of the photo -the Earth’s surface- is nearly 250 miles away from the ISS, but the Sun’s backdrop is a full 93 million miles behind it.

Think about that for a moment.  Another way of looking at it is that the ISS is nearly 360 feet wide.  The sun behind it is 4,567,200,000 feet wide, (or 865,000 miles in width, more than 100 Earths across.)  How big is that?  How far away does that have to be?

-That’s like holding out a matchbox car at arm’s length in California and having it be dwarfed by something sitting in Russia.

The ISS, taken from Atlantis as it undocked on May 23, 2010. (Credit: NASA)

When looking at the photo and realizing this immense reality of scale, the ISS’s cosmic ranking starts to come into perspective.  Even considering that the ISS is likely the most ambitious international effort ever attempted, (and by logical extension, arguably humanity’s most collectively ambitious project to date,) it is still clearly just the beginning of humanity’s toe-hold on the rest of the cosmos.

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.  (Thanks, Douglas…)  Ahem..

But seriously, maybe by looking at images like the above transit image by Theirry Legault and forcing your brain to accept what it knows to be true – that the station and all of its habitable space (roughly comparable to a 3,000 square-foot house) is just a speck, our entire Earth could be swallowed whole by the Sun without it even noticing, and our Sun is just a mediocre star amongst billions of burning brothers in the cosmos – we’ll all come to realize that we should really start moving out into the rest of the universe… just for safety’s sake.

We’re obviously really significant to ourselves.  Yet, to 99.999% of the rest of the universe, we haven’t even gotten into little league.  Metaphorically, no one knows we exist yet, and minor league players out there like asteroids and comets, (not to mention major league events like nearby supernovas,) can still easily wipe us out.

So, if we want a shot at winning the world series someday, (interpret the cosmic meaning of this increasingly threadbare analogy as you will,) we’d better start playing ball.

 

Artificial gravity and large-scale settlement space station designed by Wernher Von Braun. (Credit: Courtesy NASA/MSFC Historical Archives)





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.





Congressman Posey throws Space Smackdown ahead of Obama Speech

9 04 2010

Late last month, Representative Bill Posey (R-Florida) wrote an intense letter to President Obama, who is currently preparing to outline the nation’s new Vision for Space Exploration this Thursday.  Unnervingly, no one really knows what the President is going to say, except that we know he’s cancelled NASA’s Moon-Mars Constellation Program and the Ares-class of lifting rockets, but he is going to divert more money to the private sector instead.  Beyond that is anyone’s guess.

To that end, first-term Congressman Posey took it upon himself to snail-mail Obama and basically accuse him of:

  1. Being a hypocrite,
  2. Turning his back on his campaign promises with regard to space exploration,
  3. Needlessly sacrificing the Shuttle, (a worthy space vehicle according to the Augustine Commission,)
  4. Relinquishing our space superiority (and national security by extension) to Russia and China,
  5. Kicking Florida’s already-thrashed employees while they’re down by canceling NASA’s Constellation Program,
  6. Leaving our own astronauts in the cold by failing to propose or develop a new space vehicle while retiring the Shuttle.

He then asks for an invite to the speech this Thursday to participate.  That’s moxie.

On the whole, I really respect Representative Posey’s position, and the letter is definitely worth reading for those interested in the future of our space program.  Considering the points the congressman makes, unless Obama can deliver a strong message and instill a firm, clear, and captivating goal for U.S. space exploration, (Mars, asteroids… something exciting,) or unless private spaceflight steps up to the plate, I believe you, Bill.

We just might lose our edge.








%d bloggers like this: