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)

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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.





Falcon Dreams

11 12 2010

I’m a bit behind the curve here these last couple of weeks, as meetings (plans are afoot,) preparing for and delivering/taking final exams, and reviewing and submitting a couple of nonfiction and technical papers has kept me running on empty and burning the midnight oil.

However, I’m emerging from the fog of war and wanted to assure readers that I’m still around and have some intriguing posts on deck.  -And to start, I just wanted to cast my official thoughts on SpaceX‘s recent successful Falcon 9 rocket launch and Dragon spacecraft recovery into the mix:

I would like to offer a hearty congratulations! to the SpaceX and the Falcon 9/Dragon team for not only injecting a fresh pulse of raw enthusiasm into NewSpace endeavors, but for also anchoring the first stepping stones toward commercial orbital spaceflight reality.

Further, in doing so, SpaceX has carried aloft ashes of the spacecraft dreams of the 1990s.  Like many space enthusiasts in the ’90s, I followed with great zeal the likes of Kistler Aerospace and Lockheed-Martin’s Venturestar, only to have these dreams dashed by politics, market volatility, and funding woes.

SpaceX, these dormant hopes have been rekindled through your perseverance and dedication, and for that you have my personal gratitude. -And I know I’m not the only one.

Three cheers for SpaceX, and best wishes for the remaining demonstration Falcon 9/Dragon flights!

SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon liftoff on 12/08/10. (Credit: NASA/Alan Ault)





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





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.





Space spirals, UFOs, and modern rockets

28 08 2010

Space spiral over Norway, December 09, 2009. Credit: Jan Petter Jørgensen via Vaeret

Many of us remember the splash made when a mysterious (and somewhat terrifyingly bizarre) spiral was seen in the sky over Norway late last year.  Admittedly, at first glance, it looks like a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

However, take a closer look.  It appears to be dusk.  The wild, spiral display is still in sunlight, even though the ground is not.  This indicates that the spiral is something not just up in the sky but rather in orbit (extremely high altitude).

Then, once you’re able to peel your eyes from the spiral, you’ll notice that a spiraling blue contrail is visible behind the centerpoint of the design, and this seems to indicate a rocket of some kind.  Once you’re there, you’ve got it figured.  The trick is that the above display is in 3D, not a flat plane as it first appears.  The blue contrail is coming at the photographer from extreme distance, as is the spiral, it would seem.

Keep playing the thought experiment forward.  A spinning rocket?  What would a spinning rocket venting a material of some kind into space look like from the Earth?

And there you have it.  It came out days later that the display was caused by a Russian nuclear missile test.

Fast-forward half-a-year, and we have the momentous launch of the first Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX:

Falcon 9 liftoff, June 04, 2010. (Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX)

Then, not 24 hours after the launch, another spiral!

Space spiral as seen over Australia. June 5, 2010. (Credit: Baden West)

Like Norway, UFO reports were filed all over Australia.  Unsurprisingly, it was confirmed as the Falcon 9.

So, it seems that, as a globe, we really need to get with the times.  We launch space rockets, and we’ve been doing it for the better part of a century.  Strange displays in the sky, while admittedly doomsday-looking (ever seen a solar eclipse?), will only become more commonplace with time.

What’s the take-home here?  In the future, count on a lot less “U” next to the dazzling “FO,” and take it to heart before calling 911 to tell the dispatcher about it.  =)








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