Boeing, Bigelow conduct CST-100 drop test over Nevada desert

30 04 2012

The CST-100 successfully touches down on the playa amid a puff of dust. (Credit: BLM)

Aerospace giant Boeing and commercial space-station manufacturer Bigelow Aerospace, in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management Ely District’s Caliente Field Office, conducted a relatively quiet spacecraft parachute drop test of Boeing’s Apollo-styled Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft this past April 3rd.  The event, attended by local media and several bystanders, occurred over a remote playa in Delamar Valley, located 50 miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Aside from the fact that the test was a success and another commercial orbital spacecraft is that much closer to operation, (see SpaceX’s upcoming launch of their commercial spacecraft, Dragon,) most noteworty in my view is the fact that the event experienced a near-complete lack of media coverage.  To me, this hints at the exciting, implicit truth that an increasingly hum-drum attitude toward commercial space events, (oh, another private spacecraft test,) seems to indicate that the commercial spacecraft market is becoming firmly established. 

-It isn’t necessarily “news” anymore.  It’s (finally!) just reality.  Welcome to the 21st Century.

Personnel inspect the CST-100 following the parachute drop test. (Credit: BLM)

Using an Erickson Sky Crane helicopter, the Boeing-Bigelow joint test was carried out by lofting a test capsule to an altitude of 7,000 feet and releasing it, putting the parachute deployment systems through their paces under true field conditions.

Boeing Commercial Programs Vice-President and Program Manager John Mulholland called the parachute drop test of the CST-100 a “…tremendous milestone that brings Boeing one step closer to completing development of a system that will provide safe, reliable and affordable crewed access to space.”

Additional tests scheduled in 2012 include a second parachute drop test, a series of landing air bag tests, a jettison test of the forward heat shield, and a hot fire test of the maneuvering and attitude control engine.

The ultimate success of the CST-100 is strategically-important to Bigelow Aerospace, which has continually delayed the launch of their first human-rated space modules until comemrcial spacecraft like the CST-100 have been proven spaceworthy.  (Also, a preferred partnership with Boeing means the CST-100 is first in line to transport paying customers to future Bigelow space stations.)

For the complete set of photos of the successful test, click here for the BLM Nevada Flickr image collection.





America’s other other space program

4 11 2010

Test-scale Dark Sky Station 2. Credit: JP Aerospace

A quick note this morning on one of my personal favorite space ventures, JP Aerospace.  As a truly DIY space endeavor, the firm has been making a name for itself for more than a decade with their concentrated, unconventional, volunteer-based business model and regular deployments of high-altitude-balloon-lofted platforms complete with telemetry, imaging equipment, and in some cases, secondary rockets (as “rockoons”).

What few realize, (even those who are aware of JP Aerospace,) is just how bewilderingly active they are.

Image from JP Aerospace "Away 35" mission. Credit: JP Aerospace

To start, there’s JP Aerospace’s high-altitude image program.  For a modest sponsorship fee, images are splashed on their balloon-lofted structure exteriors and imaged, providing slick stock material of a sponsoring business’s logo against the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth.  (Toshiba even funded one of their “away” missions entirely to collect one-of-a-kind footage of an orbital floating chair for a commercial.)

While this admittedly flashy aspect of JP Aerospace is what typically gets the most press, the image sponsorship program merely helps to fund the rest of their activities, which are devoted to the development of a truly unique spaceflight architecture: Airship to Orbit (ATO).  As a three-phase process, the ATO spaceflight architecture includes an Ascender airship (transfer to 140,000 feet), a Dark Sky Station (transfer station at 140,000 feet), and an Orbital Ascender airship/spacecraft (transfer from 140,000 feet to orbit), for a smooth transition to space requiring no conventional rocketry at all (!).

Ascender 175 airship floating in a JP Aerospace hangar. Credit: JP Aerospace

-And don’t let the volunteer/grassroots feel fool you – these guys are serious professionals with a passion to rival that of any other NewSpace venture I’ve seen, and they’re in it for keeps.  With more than 45 incremental data-gathering and structural test flights behind them, aerodynamic and microgravity drop tests, high-altitude structural and construction tests, a flight and cargo-capable airship (Tandem-class), a full-scale Dark Sky Station crew cabin mock-up, magnetohydrodynamic generators being tested as I type, one book out on the process, and with another one on the way, JP Aerospace isn’t messing around.

Check them out if you get the chance.  For more information on JP Aerospace’s latest activities, check out their website, their blog, or their YouTube channel.  (-And pick up a JP Aerospace shirt or cap if you’re so inclined.  Proceeds help keep them flying!)

Systems diagram of the proposed Orbital Ascender spacecraft. Credit: JP Aerospace





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








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