Felix Baumgartner has made his first test jump for the Red Bull Stratos team. On March 15, Baumgartner left the balloon-borne capsule at 71,581 feet. He free-fell for 3 minutes and 33 seconds before his parachute opened at 7,890 feet. During that time, he reached a maximum speed of 364.4 miles per hour.

Baumgartner is expected to reach higher velocities, exceeding the speed of sound, on future jumps from higher altitudes. Baumgartner is only the third human being to have jumped from this altitude, which requires a full pressure suit for life support. The goal for future missions is to reach a jump altitude of 120,000 feet, breaking the world record for high-altitude skydiving set by Colonel (then Captain) Joe Kittinger in 1960. The spacesuit technology being demonstrated on these jumps will be applicable to suborbital space vehicles.

Written by Astro1 on March 15th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration, Space Medicine and Safety

Scaled Composites recently completed the ninth full-scale firing of the RM2 rocket motor that will power SpaceShip Two. Scaled performed a 10-second burn followed by a 58-second burn, according to the test log.

The test continued evaluation of all systems and components including pressurization, valve/injector, fuel formulation and geometry, nozzle, structure, and performance. Scaled performed the first test-firing of a full-scale RM2 in April of 2009.

Virgin Galactic has stated that it intends to begin testing motors in powered flight on SpaceShip around the middle of this year.

Boeing’s Commercial Crew Space Transportation System, including the CST-100 capsule, Atlas V launcher, and ground system successfully completed its Preliminary Design Review on March 12. (Press release here.)

The PDR included representatives from Boeing, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and independent consultants. Boeing has scheduled additional tests to be performed in 2012, including a launch abort engine hot fire test series, which was successfully completed on March 9, parachute drop tests in April, a landing air bag test series in May, a forward heat shield jettison test in June, and an attitude control engine hot fire test in June, to gather additional data on key functional elements of the spacecraft design.

The Boeing Commercial Crew Space Transportation System is designed to provide crewed flights to the ISS and a future Bigelow Aerospace orbital space station. The following video shows how the system might support a Bigelow station.


Congress is up in arms over planned cuts to NASA’s unmanned Mars program. At the same time, Congress is insisting that NASA continue to fund the Webb Space Telescope, whose budget overruns made the Mars cuts necessary, and an expensive new rocket called the Space Launch System. There simply isn’t enough money to fund all the things Congress wants without a major increase in the size of the NASA budget. In this time of record deficits, that is unlikely to happen.

While cuts seem inevitable, perhaps the planetary-science community should view this crisis as an opportunity. The use of commercial off-the-shelf hardware, with some minor adaptations, could enable NASA to do some innovative Mars missions at relatively low cost.

SpaceX "Red Dragon"

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and NASA Ames Research Center have been working together on one such concept. Variously known as “Red Dragon” or “Icebreaker,” the proposed mission would land a SpaceX Dragon capsule in the Martian polar region. A robot would them drill through the Martian permafrost to retrieve samples which might include DNA and enzymes.

The estimated cost for this mission is $500 million – a bargain compared to recent missions like NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, which cost $2.5 billion. The estimated cost of the launcher and lander is only $150-190 million, which would leave plenty of room in the budget for science payload.

With the planned budget cuts, NASA is reexamining its future Mars missions. Current budget plans allocate a maximum of $700 million for a mission which NASA calls “Mars Next Generation.” NASA is still trying to figure out what Mars Next Generation might be. Current thinking says that Mars Next Generation will likely be limited to a Mars orbiter. A lander is not considered to be in the cards at the price, but Red Dragon could be a game changer.

According to SpaceX found Elon Musk, Red Dragon could deliver several tons of payload to the Martian surface. This large payload capacity is interesting from a scientific point of view, but it is even interesting from an exploration point of view. Red Dragon would be demonstrating capsule technology directly applicable to future human missions to the Red Planet.  That opens up some interesting possibilities, should Congress and NASA decide to fund the mission.

(A SpaceX/NASA presentation on the concept can be downloaded here.)

Written by Astro1 on March 14th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General), Space Exploration (General), SpaceX Tags:

A team of researchers using Magnetic Resonance Imaging has found that most astronauts exhibit optical abnormalities after long-duration spaceflights.

An online article in the journal Radiology reports on a study of 27 astronauts who spent an average of 108 days on a Space Shuttle or International Space Station mission. Eight of the 27 astronauts also undertook a second mission lasting an average of 39 days. The study was headed by Dr. Larry Kramer, professor of diagnostic and interventional imaging at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. (Press release here.)

The MRI study found that 33% of astronauts with more than 30 days of cumulative microgravity exposure showed expansion of the cerebral-spinal fluid space around the optic nerve. 22% shows flattening of the rear of the eyeball. 15% showed bulging of the optic nerve and 11% showed changes in the pituitary gland and its connection to the brain.

These changes are similar to symptoms seen in cases of intracranial hypertension (increased blood pressure). The authors hypothesize that the changes may be due to microgravity-induced intracranial hypertension. (Microgravity is known to cause fluid shifts from the lower extremities toward the upper body and head.)

This is not the first time optical abnormalities have been noted. A paper published in the October 2011 issue of Ophthalmology reported similar results. Dr. Robert Gibson, one of the authors of the Ophthalmology paper, said “We think it is intracranial pressure related, but we’re not sure; it could also be due to an increase in pressure along the optic nerve itself or some kind of localized change to the back of the eyeball.”

NASA is concerned about vision changes which have been reported by astronauts returning from long-duration missions. A post-flight survey of 300 Shuttle and ISS astronauts showed that 60% of ISS astronauts reported a decline in far and near visual acuity. Only 29% of Shuttle astronauts (who experienced shorter missions) reported such a decline.

How serious these changes will be is still unknown. Such changes are unlikely to be a problem for suborbital spaceflights due to their very short duration, but could become a limiting factor for interplanetary flights and other long-duration missions unless countermeasures such as artificial gravity are employed.


Written by Astro1 on March 13th, 2012 , Space Medicine and Safety

Sierra Nevada Corporation is developing the Dream Chaser, an orbital lifting-body spacecraft to be launched by an Atlas V rocket. Sierra Nevada plans to use Dream Chaser to provide commercial crew and cargo services to the International Space Station and to transport citizen space explorers. In 2011, the company received $80 million in funding under NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Development (CCDEV) 2 program. With that funding, Sierra Nevada has constructed an atmospheric test vehicle which it plans to drop test in 2012.

Dream Chaser was derived from the HL-20 lifting body, which NASA studied in the 1980’s as a possible design for a Personnel Launch System (PLS) to supplement or replace the Space Shuttle. Sierra Nevada produced the following video, which shows how HL-20 evolved into Dream Chaser.


This corporate video only tells part of the story. NASA’s HL-20 design was itself derived from an earlier, Russian design. The MiG-105 Spiral was the Soviet equivalent of the USAF ‘s X-20 DynaSoar, a military spaceplane being developing during the Cold War. Like the X-20 DynaSoar, the Spiral never made it into space. The Soviet Union did build and fly an atmospheric test version, though. The following video shows some of the flight tests and gives a preview of what we may see Dream Chaser doing later this year.


Written by Astro1 on March 13th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration, Commercial Space (General), Sierra Nevada

The MoonKAM project, administered by Sally Ride Science, allows middle-school students to photograph the Moon using digital cameras aboard NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) lunar orbiters.

Each of the two GRAIL probes, dubbed Ebb and Flow, carries four MoonKAM cameras. Three cameras with wide-angle lenses look forward, backward, and down. One camera with a telephoto lens looks down. The MoonKAM project, which began March 12, allows fifth-to-eighth-grade students to select target areas and request MoonKAM images of those areas using a web browser interface.

Details on the MoonKAM project are available here. Interested schools can register here.

Written by Astro1 on March 12th, 2012 , Education, Lunar Science Tags:

The astronaut who holds the American record for EVA (ten spacewalks, totaling 67 hours) and the longest single space mission (215 days) has left NASA.

Capt. Michael Lopez-Alegria (USN-ret.) commanded Expedition 14 to the International Space Station in 2006. Prior to Expedition 14, Lopez-Alegria flew on three Shuttle flights (STS-73 in 1995, STS-92 in 2000, and STS-113 in 2002). Peggy Whitson, chief of the Astronaut Office at Johnson Space Center, said “Mike has been a huge asset to the astronaut office during the course of his career. “His contributions in spacewalking, shuttle, space station and Soyuz operations are notable and very distinguished.”

Captain Lopez-Alegria will now take up a new post as president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. Capt. Lopez-Alegria has some previous experience with commercial spaceflight. Citizen explorer Anousheh Ansari launched with Expedition 14.

This transition is another sign that the commercial spaceflight industry is maturing. In the future, we will no doubt see many more astronauts transitioning from NASA to the private sector, some as executives like Captain Lopez-Alegria, some as mission specialists or pilots like Colonel Rick Searfoss. The size of the NASA astronaut corps is likely to shrink as the private sector takes over routine flights to orbit but new astronauts will be added for future flights to destinations beyond low Earth orbit.

Los Alamos National Laboratory has used a massively parallel supercomputer to simulate the effects of a nuclear weapon on an Earth-crossing asteroid.


Written by Astro1 on March 12th, 2012 , Planetary Defense Tags:

Citizen space explorer Richard Garriott’s documentary movie is now available for pre-order or rental on iTunes.

You can rent Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott’s Road to the Stars in standard- or high-definition format for $6.99 or pre-order it for $14.99. The SXSW Film Festival Audience Award winner is also available on Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, Blockbuster on Demand, and other services.

The son of Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott, computer-game pioneer Richard Garriott travelled to the International Space Station on Soyuz TMA-13 in 2008. During his flight, Garriott communicated with ham radio operators on Earth, grew protein crystals, and participated in the Windows on Earth project. He is also an investor in Space Adventures, which markets flights to the International Space Station and plans to market suborbital flights on Armadillo Aerospace’s Hyperion spacecraft.


Written by Astro1 on March 11th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration

2012 promises to be a pivotal year for human spaceflight. Virgin Galactic has announced that it plans to begin powered test flights of SpaceShip Two around the middle of the year. XCOR Aerospace plans to roll out its Lynx suborbital spaceship about the same time and begin low-speed test flights by the end of the year. Sierra Nevada plans to conduct unpowered drop tests of its Dreamchaser lifting body in 2012 as well. And, of course, there’s SpaceX, which plans to test fly its Dragon capsule to the International Space Station this year. Armadillo Aerospace and Blue Origin are continuing development of their human-capable reusable spacecraft as well.

The era of widespread citizen spaceflight is drawing near. The next few years will see a revolution in low-cost access to space, comparable to the revolution which occurred in the computer industry with the introduction of the microcomputer. The number of private citizens who travel into space in the near future will dwarf the 500 people (mostly government astronauts and cosmonauts) who have flown up to now. For this reason, it is important that the public (especially potential space travelers) understand the risks and safety aspects of these new spacecraft.

Unfortunately, some organizations that should be helping to educate the public haven’t done their homework. One “new space” advocacy group recently made the following statements about suborbital spacecraft on its website:

One of the most common questions we ge is “Will the flights be safe?” The answer is ABSOLUTELY. We will not fly in any vehicle that hasn’t been approve by the FAA and been test flown for thousands of hours. The first vehicles will be those designed for general use in the space touism industry and will not be anymore hazardous than commercial air travel today.

Unfortunately, the errors here go far beyond the obvious typos.

Suborbital vehicles will not be “test flown for thousands of hours.” Suborbital flights will be fairly short. Flight durations may vary from 15 minutes or less (for VTOL rockets) to about an hour for air-launched vehicles like SpaceShip Two. Assuming that 30 minutes is typical and “thousands of hours” means just 2000 hours, this claim would translate into 4000 test flights. That is a huge number , by any standard. By comparison, the Boeing 787 had flown about 1700 test flights as of August, 2011. The 787 was a $32 billion program, according to Boeing. Virgin Galactic expect to spend about $500 million developing SpaceShip Two, and other companies hope to spend considerably less.

The new reusable suborbital spacecraft will be tested more throughly than any previous launch system before entering commercial service. In all probability, that means many dozens of test flights. If the flight test program uncovers problems that need to be fixed, it could run to 100 or more. Developers won’t know the exact number until they begin the flight-test program and see the results. It certainly won’t be thousands – no developer could afford that.

Nor does any vehicle developer, operator, or regulator expect that suborbital spacecraft will be as safe as commercial air travel is today. Today’s commercial airliners benefit from over 100 years of learning, experimentation, and continuous improvement. It would be unrealistic to expect the first reusable commercial spacecraft, which have not benefitted from that level of experience, to achieve the same level of safety right out of the box.

The authors of those statements do not understand how space vehicles (including suborbital vehicles) are regulated by the FAA. The FAA does not certify (“approve”) space vehicles for passenger safety, as it does for commercial aircraft. Airplanes get FAA type certificates; space vehicles get launch licenses. This not merely a difference in nomenclature. The FAA issues type certificates based on empirical data, not only from the specific aircraft under test but also from decades of experience with similar aircraft types.

That large base of empirical knowledge from similar types does not yet exist for reusable space vehicles. Only a few examples have been built and flown. Prior to SpaceShip One, there was only the X-15 and the partially reusable Space Shuttle. By contrast, hundreds of aircraft types were built and flown before the FAA was able to issue the first aircraft type certificates. Commercial space vehicles will have to go through a similar process of evolution to achieve similar results. There are no shortcuts.

Spacecraft developers, the FAA, and the United States Congress have recognized that type certification is not a realistic goal for the commercial space industry at the present time. As a result, Congress has created a launch-licensing regime rather than a certification regime. Unlike type certification, which is designed to protect aircraft passengers and payloads, launch licenses are designed to protect third parties. The FAA will regulate suborbital spacecraft to ensure that their operation does not pose a significant risk to the uninvolved public.

Spaceflight participants are another matter. Human spaceflight is, in the words of the United States Congress, an “intrinsically dangerous activity.” Neither the spacecraft developers, operators, nor the FAA have the body of data necessary to fully assess all of the possible risks. For this reason, the FAA does not attempt to mandate (or have the authority to mandate) a specific level of safety for participants. Instead, the FAA requires that spaceflight participants accept the risks through “informed consent.”

The FAA’s informed-consent regulations require vehicle operators to fully disclose all known and potential health and safety risks to spaceflight participants prior to flight. The spaceflight participant must understand and willingly accept those risks. (This means that spaceflight participants must be competent adults. Minors are not deemed legally capable of giving informed consent. Nor is a parent or guardian allowed to give informed consent for a minor.)

This form of regulation is similar to that found in the equine industry. Horseback riding is one of the most dangerous recreational activities. While there are no accurate figures, public-health authorities estimate that about 200 Americans are killed by horses each year. The government does not attempt to regulate the design or breeding of horses to ensure rider safety, however. Instead, an equine operator is required to inform riders of the risks inherent in equine activities, and the rider accepts those risks when he or she chooses to participate in equine activities.

Of course, the risks involved in spaceflight are more complex than the risks involved in getting thrown off a horse. Informed consent for spaceflight will involved a substantial degree of education, not just reading a sign on the side of a barn. Accurate information and qualified instruction will be essential.

That’s why statements like these, by well-meaning but poorly-informed enthusiasts, are troublesome. In the past, regulators paid little attention to advocacy groups that functioned as cheerleaders for concepts which were perceived (correctly) to be far beyond the horizon. As citizen spaceflight starts to become a reality, that is changing. We aren’t talking about viewgraph starships and science-fictional concepts anymore. We’re talking about real people, who will soon begin training to fly on real vehicles. It will be harder for spaceflight operators to provide the education necessary for informed consent if there is a general atmosphere of misinformation about vehicle safety created by careless, uninformed statements.

There’s also a danger that such statements could create a legal or regulatory backlash against vehicle operators when an accident occurs. As suborbital vehicles begin flying into space hundreds, then thousands, of times a year, some accidents are inevitable. Accidents frequently bring lawsuits. If that occurs, trial lawyers are certain to notice statements such as these made by overeager and uninformed cheerleaders in the space advocacy community. They could be introduced as evidence in an attempt to show that spaceflight participants were misled about the risks and level of safety. Politicians could also latch onto the statements and call for more tighter regulations, which could throttle the embryonic spaceflight industry.

The time for cheerleaders has past. Space-advocacy groups have an obligation to ensure the technical accuracy of statements they make, especially in public. Careless, technically inaccurate statements such as these have the potential to do far more harm than good.

The Zero Robotics Autonomous Space Capture Challenge is open to the public. Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA, the competition is run by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory, TopCoder, and Aurora Flight Systems.

The programming tournament opens the SPHERES research platform to the general public for the first time. SPHERES (Synchronized Position-Hold Engage Reorient Experimental Satellites ) is a system of three free-floating robots that have been tested aboard NASA’s KC-135 microgravity aircraft and now aboard the International Space Station. SPHERES was developed by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory.

The goal of the tournament is to develop algorithms related to the recently announced DARPA Phoenix demonstration, which seeks to develop techniques to harvest and reuse components from retired and nonfunctional satellites. The objective of this specific challenge is to write a program to control a tender satellite that can dock with a tumbling space object. The algorithms that perform best in the simulated competition will be tested on real SPHERES satellites aboard the International Space Station.

The tournament begins on March 28, 2012. Final submissions are due on April 30.

SPHERES demonstration aboard the International Space Station


DARPA Phoenix demonstration project video


Written by Astro1 on March 9th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General)

Solar Storm Threat Analysis is an interesting paper on the damage potential of solar storms.

Written by Astro1 on March 9th, 2012 , Books and Resources, Planetary Defense, Space Medicine and Safety

NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer, which is critical to space-weather forecasting, is nearing its end of life. Satellite operators fear the end could come at any time, according to Irene Klotz of Discovery News.

ACE provides advanced warning of high-energy particles from solar storms and changes in the solar wind. This information is critical for space-weather predictions that help ensure the safety of ISS astronauts, high-latitude airline flights, and future suborbital space travelers as well as unmanned satellites and the terrestrial power grid. Pipelines are also vulnerable, especially those at high latitudes like the Alaska Pipeline.

There is currently no backup for the satellite. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Air Force are hoping to launch a replacement, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), before ACE fails. At the moment, however, the launch its not yet scheduled and the DSCOVR satellite is in storage at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center.

This report is especially timely. The news came just as Earth was being hit by the biggest solar storm in years.

X-Class Solar Foare

Written by Astro1 on March 9th, 2012 , Planetary Defense, Space Medicine and Safety

The International Space Apps Challenge is a two-day “codeathon” to be held in the US, Great Britain, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Kenya, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. Astronauts onboard the International Space Station will also participate as will researchers at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Supporting organizations include NASA, the UK Space Agency, the Internet Archives, the Yahoo Developers Network, Random Hacks of Kindness, the Open Knowledge Foundation, Joint Polar Satellite System Project, US Embassy in Jakarta, Australian National University, and the University of Tokyo.

The event takes place on April 21-22. In the US, the Challenge is led by Geeks Without Borders and will take place at TechShop San Francisco.

Participants at the event may work on a number of individual challenges centering around software, open hardware, citizen science, and data visualization. One challenge is to create plug-in hardware, such as a spectrometer or photometer, for a smartphone, which could be used in citizen-science projects. A solution might include an open-source framework to connect a variety of sensors, which might measure atmospheric conditions, radiation, electromagnetic interference, or other conditions.

Another challenge, submitted by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, is to create an educational app that allows users to measure the size of the Earth using Eratosthenes’ method. Discovered by the famous Greek astronomer 2500 years ago, Eratosthenes’ method demonstrates the use of common geometric principles for practical purposes.

NASA is also challenging participants to create apps to interface with data from the NASA Planetary Data System, Kepler satellite, and Earth Observations website.

A complete list of all challenges is available here.

Written by Astro1 on March 9th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Innovation

UPDATE: See more recent post Cameron Reaches Challenger Deep.

Filmaker and citizen explorer James Cameron has constructed the world’s deepest diving submersible. Piloting the single-seat Deepsea Challenger, he hopes to reach the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on Earth. Cameron is not alone in his venture, however. He is working with the National Geographic Society, Rolex, the Alfred Sloan Foundation, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Hawaii, and the University of Guam.

Cameron has already tested the Deepsea Challenger at depths of up to 26,000 feet, as reported in this CNN video.

The Challenger Deep, 6.8 miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, has only been explored once before. That was in 1960 by the bathyscaphe Trieste carrying Swiss explorer Jacques Picard and US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh. The Trieste could only spend 20 minutes on the ocean bottom, however. Cameron expects to spend six hours on the bottom, filming the entire journey with 3D high-definition cameras.

At least three teams are now trying to reach the Challenger Deep once again. Competing teams are led by Sir Richard Branson, who has launched the Virgin Oceanic project, and Patrick Lahey of Triton Submarines, LLC.

The competitors may hope to win a proposed Deep Human Submersible X-Prize. The prize is still under development, according to the X-Prize website. If Cameron is successful in his current attempt, it seems doubtful that the prize will be in place in time for him to win it.

The Deepsea Challenger is a great model for a citizen-science/exploration project conceived and run by a nonprofessional scientist with significant input from and participation by professional scientific organizations. It should be noted that the cost and technical complexity of a deep-diving submersible are comparable to a suborbital vehicle. Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, a wealthy enthusiast like Cameron will buy an XCOR Lynx or Armadillo Hyperion and begin his own space-science research program.

Virgin Oceanic video


Written by Astro1 on March 8th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration, Citizen Science (General), Oceanography

The China Academy of Launch Vehicle technology wants to develop a new superheavy lifter, according to China Daily. The proposal has not yet been approved by the Federal government, however.

Rand Simberg of Transterrestrial Musings believes the new rocket is a waste of money. He does, however, agree with this statement:

China is also researching how to use the boosters and the first two stages of a launch vehicle repeatedly, which could help reduce the launch cost, he said.

Perhaps, but merely researching reusability (rather than implementing it) will not reduce costs. NASA researched ways of reusing Saturn rocket stages during the Apollo program. The methods usually considered were impractical, however, involving enormous parachutes and ocean recovery or mid-air snatch-grab. Other proposals, which might have led to true reusable vehicles, had significant Saturn heritage and component reuse but were effectively new vehicle development programs. Evolving an expendable launch vehicle into a reusable system has been proposed many times in the past but has never turned out to be as straightforward as it seemed at first glance.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 6th, 2012 , Space Exploration (General)

When scientists someone mentions “planetary defense,” most people think about asteroid impacts. Asteroids are not the only space hazard that poses a risk to life and civilization here on Earth, however.

Space weather, caused by the unstable behavior of the sun, affects life on Earth in many ways. It creates the colorful auroras that are enjoyed in higher latitudes, but it can also interfere with communications. Space weather can create increased radiation risks for space travelers and even air travelers. Most people don’t realize that airlines routinely monitor space weather forecasts and sometimes need to reroute flights that normally go over the polar regions, due to increased solar activity.

Large solar storms could have much more serious effects. They could damage or destroy communications, weather, and GPS navigation satellites, as well as the terrestrial power grid. In 1989, a solar storm took down the Quebec power grid leaving 6 million customers temporarily without power. A larger storm could create more widespread, catastrophic damage which could take years to repair. A single storm could damage or destroy electrical power plants throughout an entire hemisphere. The economic impact of such an event is estimated at one trillion dollars per year. Fortunately, we have not seen a really large storm since 1859.

IEEE Spectrum looks at the potential effects of a solar superstorm and some measures that might be taken to protect the planet. There are some relatively simple modifications that can be made to protect power plants, but we also need better space weather forecasting and monitoring.

Written by Astro1 on March 4th, 2012 , Planetary Defense, Space Medicine and Safety

Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcomittee for Commerce, Justice, and Science, is calling for an end to competition among private companies seeking to develop low-cost reliable access to the International Space Station for NASA crew. Instead, Wolf wants space-transportation developers to “kind of come together under the leadership of NASA.”

According to a report in Space News, Wolf asked Presidential science advisor John Holdren if he would consider “combining [commercial space companies] into a star team in order to eliminate the cost.”

In the real world, creating a monopoly does not reduce cost. Unfortunately, politicians like Wolf do not seem to live in the real world. It appears that they will continue damaging NASA (unintentionally, to be sure) for the foreseeable future. NASA has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent itself by working with the emerging commercial space companies but Washington seems determined to prevent it.

Written by Astro1 on March 4th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General), Space Exploration (General)

Update: XCOR Aerospace distributed a 52-page Lynx Payload User’s Guide on disc at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference. The guide is expected to be available for download on the XCOR website shortly. 

Citizen scientists who are thinking about flying payloads on suborbital spacecraft are advised to consult the relevant payload user’s guides. For many suborbital companies, these guides are still a work in progress. Some information is now available, though.

Citizen scientists who want to fly payloads on SpaceShip Two can download the Virgin Galactic’s 14-page Payload User’s Guide. Masten Space Systems has a 12-page Payload User’s Guide for its Xero vehicle, available for download here.

Blue Origin provides payload information on its website. XCOR Aerospace has not yet published a Payload User’s Guide but information on basic payload capabilities is available here.

The recent skydiving death of Sean Carey may have some interesting parallels for spaceflight and space exploration.  As Abby Sewell said in the Los Angeles Times:

The deaths reflect a divergent nationwide trend: equipment upgrades and safety rules have reduced overall skydiving fatalities among novices — but the smaller, more aerodynamically designed parachutes have allowed more experienced divers to take more risks.

Increasingly, industry veterans said, fatal accidents involve experts attempting advanced maneuvers with high-performance equipment.

We are likely to see a similar trend in human spaceflight over the next few decades. As suborbital and orbital spaceflight become more routine, safety will improve as operators benefit from experience (the learning-curve effect). At the same time, however, low-cost access to space and in-space infrastructure such as propellant depots will enable explorers to undertake riskier missions into deep space with increasing frequency. The result will be an increasing number of fatalities among NASA and commercial explorers on advanced missions to the Moon, the asteroids, Mars, and beyond, while near-space missions become safer and more routine. That should not be a cause for alarm, however. It is part of the normal process of opening a new frontier.

Written by Astro1 on March 3rd, 2012 , Space Medicine and Safety

SETI Live is a new project that allows citizens scientists to participate in the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. The latest Zooniverse project, SETI Live was created by the SETI Institute in cooperation with the Adler Planetarium, the Science Channel, and the TED Conference.

The SETI Institute previously operated (and still operates) the SETI@home project, which has over 3 million subscribers. SETI@home is passive citizen science, however. Subscribers merely install the SETI@home software and donate computer cycles to the SETI project. The new project makes volunteers active participants who are actively analyzing data.

Written by Astro1 on March 3rd, 2012 , Astrobiology