Future SwRI astronauts stomp on the accelerator

26 08 2011

SwRI's suborbital science mission patch. (Credit: SwRI)

A quick note today on the further development of the worlds’ first commercial scientist-astronauts!  The Southwest Research Institute‘s (SwRI) suborbital research program, after its stunning announcement last spring of the purchase of several research seats on upcoming suborbital spaceflights, is showing no signs of slowing.

Recently, after their three commercial scientist-astronauts-in-training, (specifically termed payload specialists,) completed basic astronaut training, they announced the release of their project mission patch (at left).

I’m not sure if anyone else feels the same way, but I’ll be brave enough to admit that something as technically irrelevant as a patch can make an endeavor feel suddenly very real.

According to their recent statements, the team is moving out of the phase of training and the construction of their spaceflight experiments to fine-tuning their payloads and integrating them with future spacecraft.  With SwRI and Dr. Alan Stern leading the way, the advent of commercial civilian scientist-astronauts is upon us, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  I hope to follow right behind.

Ad astra, SwRI!

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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.





NASTAR: Day 3 – The Full Monty

11 05 2011

View of the NASTAR Center's Phoenix centrifuge simulator interior from the observation lounge.

[[Again, apologies for the delay on getting this one out!]]

It’s hard to believe the last day has already come and gone.  This program was worth everything it took to get here, from the fundraising and the family support (thanks, guys!) to the late-night flights and the headaches, (juggling finals for grad school comes to mind…)  Trust me, it delivered.

Entrance to the Phoenix centrifuge simulator, retrofitted as the STS-400.

So, though it was basically impossible to get any sleep last night, the morning came early enough.  After a quick continental breakfast, I checked out of the hotel and blasted on over to the NASTAR Center for our early morning briefing prior to our “full monty” flights. 

These centrifuge “flights” were to be very different from the training experiences we had yesterday, which delivered to us only forces in specific directions, (i.e., pressing us either straight down or straight back into our chairs.)  Today’s simulations, on the other hand, were forged directly from the cockpit sensors of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne flights and would include a mix of forces – the mix of forces.  -The actual forces you feel when launching out of the atmosphere. 

View of the STS-400 simulator cockpit display as seen projected in the observation lounge.

That’s something that was difficult for me to wrap my head around.  This is what an exo-atmospheric launch really feels like, and it includes the extreme forces felt at both launch and re-entry. 

(What goes up must come down, after all… unless you reach escape velocity, that is.)

The morning coursework was brief, and the anticipation was palpable as we made our way to the observation lounge to cheer on our training-mates for these full-scale centrifuge simulations.  In large part, since we first stepped through the complex doors, the entire NASTAR program had  been aiming for this moment.  One-by-one, we were then led into the centrifuge bay as the others looked on. 

I imagine the experience here provides a mild sense of what it must feel like to take that final walk down the gangway, scaffold, or corridor to your waiting spacecraft.  Even though I knew that this was a simulation, the simple fact that the forces are real was incentive enough to get the body’s adrenal system ramping up to full speed.

View of NASTAR's Phoenix from the observation lounge.

Upon climbing into the simulator, I received a brief safety and communications briefing, the seat was ergonomically adjusted, and I strapped into my five-point harness.  Before I had much time to let it all settle, I was latched inside and the interior lights blinked off. 

A subtle hum as the centrifuge began to idle gave the simulator a very real sense that it was a “living” spacecraft, and the only illumination in the cabin was now emanating from my forward display.  Along with an array of indicators and dials, the viewscreen in front of me projected a photorealistic vista of the desert southwest from an altitude of 50,000 feet. 

Looming above me, the undercarriage of a WhiteKnightTwo-type mothership swayed ever-so-slightly as we circled, waiting for clearance to drop.  A pleasant sounding voice, (which I was later told was provided by a woman named Susan,) then counted down from five, and with a quick jolt, we (my spacecraft and I) detatched from the mothership and began plummeting through the sky.

Moments before liftoff... (or air-drop, as the case may be.)

After only a couple of additional seconds to find the pit of my stomach and prepare for the imminent event, the voice again counted down to rocket ignition.  -And let me tell you, when that motor snapped on, it was a kick in the pants like nothing you’ve ever felt.

With a splitting crack and a roar, I was stomped back into my seat with every ounce of what I’d come to expect from a spacecraft rocket launch.  As the craft pitched upward and accelerated away from Earth, I found myself instinctively engaging the gravity countermeasure techniques that I learned in the previous’ days training – a purely reactive move to keep my wits about me.  Then, in a surprisingly short period of time, the blue out front faded to black and the engine cut out.

Accompanying a soothing sort of silence, the g-forces eased off completely, and the glowing limb of the Earth slid into view amongst a sea of beaming (not twinkling!) stars. 

Congratulations.  You’re officially off the rock.

Even though I knew it was a simulation, there’s something about going through the complete process that’s honestly fairly emotional.  This is as close to doing the real thing as you can get.

So, for the scientist, there ‘s a trick with a suborbital flight as opposed to an orbital flight, which is that you only get a few minutes of weightlessness in space before you have to strap back in for re-entry.  -Many don’t realize that these suborbital spacecraft aren’t going fast enough to make full orbit and are instead only designed for short “hops” out of the atmosphere.  Doing so is much more cost-effective and technically simpler than going into full orbit, but any science you intend to perform, therefore, must be performed immediately and flawlessly.  -You only get one shot.

Now, I hadn’t brought along any official sort of experiment to perform during the simulation, but not wanting to waste the opportunity, I squeezed in a tongue-in-cheek learning experience.  In what I intended to be a rough approximation of an experiment requiring fine motor skills and some creative thought, I carried my phone along in my flightsuit and attempted to bang out a quick tweet from apogee (the highest point before the spacecraft began its descent.)  This wasn’t as easy as it seemed.  I made it – (you can find it on my Twitter feed @bwmcgee as the last tweet on May 11th) – but I unexpectedly lost precious time and wouldn’t have made it if I’d been planning to cut it close. 

Why the unintended close call?  After all was said-and-done, and after all of the g-tolerance training and the pressure breathing techniques, it was adrenaline that I found to be my biggest problem.  This was an intense experience.  Frankly, I was excited.  And even though I felt completely under control, my fingers were trembling; it cost precious seconds to correct inadvertant typos. 

My recommendation is that relaxation techniques should be included in future training.  I definitely plan to give adrenaline-mitigation some extra thought in the future.

All-too-soon, the pleasant voice came back on to announce that re-entry was beginning.  Re-entry is actually one of the most forceful parts of the flight, which is fairly counterintuitive and isn’t very well communicated to the public (in my opinion).  Distilled succintly, consider that when someone slams on the brakes, a person is (familiarly) crushed forward against a car’s seatbelt.  Now, imagine a person to be sitting backwards in the seat when the driver suddenly brakes – he or she will be forced backwards against their backs (the very premise of rearward-facing child car-seats).  Now, imagine that the car is actually a spacecraft moving at thousands of miles an hour, and the act of “braking” is the process of the spacecraft slamming into the Earth’s (essentially) stopped atmosphere.  Your back in this case is pressed into the spacecraft with shocking force.

In all, while surprisingly intense, the heaviest g-forces don’t last for more than a few seconds, and the experience is quite manageable.

As quickly as it all began, my spacecraft returned to aerodynamic flight for  (presumably) a smooth glide landing.  A gentle shove upward from the spacecraft let me know that its wings were once again generating lift, and the pleasant voice welcomed me home (“astronaut”).  Then the lights blinked back on. 

Time to get out.  Alas.

NASTAR suborbital scientist-astrounaut program graduates, milling about the centrifuge after being "pinned" with their wings.

After everyone was finished with their full simulations, and after cheers-and-high-fives-aplenty were exchanged, we engaged in a debriefing where we shared our thoughts and suggestions with the staff.  This appeared to me to have been a very productive meeting, the fruit from which I imagine we’ll see in the coming months and years. 

The debriefing was followed by an awards ceremony in the centrifuge bay next to the Phoenix, where we were each presented our NASTAR wings.  I’m pleased to report that everyone in Suborbital Scientist Class #4 passed exceptionally. 

It was particularly exciting for me, looking at my training-mates who each appeared to stand a little taller, (even if only due to our spinal columns having been spread out under high-g,) to note that many if not each of my classmates will likely have flown into space (becoming true astronauts)  in the next few years. 

We each were standing amongst the pioneers of a new chapter in spaceflight, and I consider myself quite fortunate to have been able to take part. 

Honestly, the rest of the day quickly became a blur of rental cars and freeways and airports… and I haven’t yet really had the opportunity to process it all.  I found the whole experience, human and technical, to be wildly educational.  No doubt there will be more revelations to come.

…but first, I have to finish my term papers.  It’s finals week at North Dakota, and there’s no rest for the wicked.

Thank you, loyal (and new) readers, for joining me as I took one small step *ahem* closer to getting off the rock!  With any luck, this is only a taste of things to come. 

Ad astra, friends.






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





Liftoff – VSS Enterprise

22 03 2010

VSS Enterprise carried by VMS Eve. Credit: Mark Greenberg

Today is another red-letter day for the commercial spaceflight industry as the VSS Enterprise, Virgin Galactic‘s orbital space tourist flagship, makes its debut atmospheric test flight.  Constructed by US-based aerospace firm Scaled CompositesEnterprise is the first of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo-class of suborbital spacecraft, an upscaled version of the SpaceShipOne spacecraft that won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004.  Like the earlier craft, Enterprise is designed to be carried up to altitude by the Virgin Mothership (VMS) Eve.  Enterprise then separates from the mothership, and a hybrid rocket motor activates to propel it (and all aboard) to the edge of space.

Carried by VMS Eve today, the craft was put through its initial aerodynamic flight paces in preparation for powered flights and test suborbital flights later this year.

For a cool $200,000 per seat, anyone can book a flight on the six-passenger VSS Enterprise (or, later, the second SpaceShipTwo-class ship under construction, VSS-Voyager,) and experience weightless, see the curvature of Earth and the true blackness of space, and earn their official astronaut wings by crossing the 62-mile elevation boundary from the atmosphere to outer space. 

This is a powerful image to me, because it directly conjures images of the first flight of another flagship Enterprise: the OV-101 Enterprise

1977 flight test of OV-101 Enterprise. Credit: NASA

Before launching the then-brand-new Space Shuttle to orbit, flight tests were performed in 1977 on a piloted atmospheric test version of the shuttle, which was also named Enterprise after the flagship of Star Trek fame.  Though OV-101 Enterprise never flew to space, it was nonetheless the first of its kind and performed essential flight testing prior to the launch of OV-102 Columbia in 1981.

Well, history certainly seems to move in cycles, and thirty years later, thanks to the hard work of Scaled Composites and the buisness savvy of Virgin Galactic, the next generation Enterprise has taken flight.  With it fly the hopes of private space tourism, and eventually, private space exploration.

Ad Astra, Enterprise.








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