Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has successfully landed a Falcon 9 first stage back at its launch site, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The success comes after two unsuccessful attempts by SpaceX to land a Falcon 9 on a floating platform at sea. In retrospect, it is not surprising that today’s landing met with greater success. Anyone who has served in the Navy can tell you that everything is harder at sea. (Getting FAA and Air Force permission to land the stage back at Cape Canaveral, on the other hand, was no doubt harder than getting permission to land on a SpaceX platform at sea.)

The landing comes just one month after Blue Origin launched its reusable New Shepard into space and successfully returned to Earth. The New Shepard booster performed a similar vertical landing under rocket power. This has led to some comparisons between the two companies whose CEOs have spared verbally in the past.

Various “NewSpace” commentators have taken exception to such comparisons, pointing out that New Shepard and Falcon 9 are very different rockets, from a performance view, and aimed at different markets. Those commentators ignore the fact that Blue Origin was pursuing the same NASA Commercial Crew contract, before NASA “downselected” the field to just two companies (Boeing and SpaceX). Although New Shepard is a suborbital vehicle, Blue Origin is using it to test technologies that it plans to use in its future orbital vehicle. From that perspective, it could be argued that Blue Origin has demonstrated more than Boeing at this point, despite the billions in funding which NASA has awarded to Boeing. And Blue Origin is working toward a fully reusable vehicle, while Boeing is merely building a 60’s-style capsule to be launched atop an existing expendable rocket.

Taken together, the two test flights point to the start of a new era in spaceflight. The age of expendable rockets is coming to an end.

This fact has not been lost on the rest of the world. Russia, Europe, and even India, are busy making plans for their own fully or partially reusable rockets. In the US, SpaceX’s leading commercial competitor, the United Launch Alliance, is working to replace its existing Atlas and Delta rockets with the new, partially reusable Vulcan rocket.

The odd man out, at this point, is NASA. While everyone else is working to incorporate new reusable technologies to reduce the cost of access to space, NASA is spending tens of billions to develop a Saturn V clone — one giant leap (backward) for mankind.

Written by Astro1 on December 21st, 2015 , SpaceX

XCOR Lynx main engine test

XCOR’s director of engineering and acting chief technology officer Michael Valant has announced the achievement of an important milestone in the development of the reusable 5K18 main rocket engine for the Lynx spacecraft.

XCOR engineers have successfully “closed the loop” of the thermodynamic system under test conditions. The 5K18 engine uses a novel method to drive essential engine parts using waste heat from the rocket engine, eliminating the need for large, heavy compressed-gas tanks in the vehicle. This technology is an important part of the Lynx “instant reusability,” which will allow the vehicle to fly multiple times per day without costly servicing of components.

The engine has already had hundreds of successful test firings in its basic “open-cycle” form.

“There’s still some work to do to improve the cycle efficiency before this engine is ready for flight,” Valant said, “but this is a massive step forward for us in the development of this groundbreaking technology.”

Written by Astro1 on December 14th, 2015 , XCOR Aerospace

Blue Origin has pulled ahead in the suborbital space race with an unexpected, successful test flight of its New Shepard rocket.

It’s notable that Blue Origin continues to make progress despite being rejected by NASA’s Commercial Crew program. The mantra heard at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace conference says that the debate between government and commercial space is over — the only correct way to go into space is through “public-private partnerships.” This flight shows that the debate is, in fact, far from over and private enterprise should not be counted out.

The question now is how quickly Blue Origin can turn New Shepard around between flights. The key to low-cost operation is achieving a high flight rate. With luck, we will see many more flights of New Shepard beginning in the very near future.

Written by Astro1 on November 23rd, 2015 , Blue Origin

Boeing CST-100 mockup

Boeing will name its first commercial astronaut this summer, according to an article in Space News.

The Boeing astronaut will be one of two persons to fly the CST-100 capsule on its first crewed test flight in 2017. The other crew member will be a NASA astronaut. Boeing also plans to unveil the CST-100 spacesuit, being developed by David Clark Company, at the same time.

Written by Astro1 on April 15th, 2015 , Boeing

United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket logo

At a press conference on Monday, United Launch Alliance CEO Tony Bruno unveiled long-awaited plans for the company’s next-generation launch system.

The new launcher, designed to replace the Boeing Delta and Lockheed-Martin Atlas rocket families, is currently named Vulcan. (Although, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace has protested ULA’s use of the name, a matter which may be resolved in court.)

ULA says the Vulcan rocket will cut launch costs in half through what the company calls “smart reusability.” Rather than attempting to recover the entire first stage, like their competitor SpaceX, ULA will recover and reuse only the main engines, which represent 90% of the stage’s cost. To protect the engines during reentry, ULA will use an inflatable aerodynamic heat shield, which the company is developing under a NASA technology demonstration program. After reentry, the engine pod will deploy a parafoil for further deceleration. When the engine pod has slowed sufficiently, a heavy-lift helicopter will snag the parafoil and carry the engines to a waiting barge. (Air grab is a technique that has been used before, to recover film capsules from spy satellites, but it has never been used to recover engines.)

As expected, the Vulcan first stage will use two methane-fueled BE-4 engines from Blue Origin. The stage will also accommodate up to six solid-fueled strap-on motors. The combination of engines and solid-fueled motors will give Vulcan about 20% greater payload capability than the Atlas V.

If ULA meets its planned schedule (which the company admits is challenging), Vulcan will begin flying in 2019 using the existing Centaur upper stage powered by Pratt & Whitney RL-10 engines. Later, the Centaur will be replaced by an Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES), which will allow Vulcan to achieve the same payload capability as the Delta IV Heavy. For ACES propulsion, ULA is evaluating new engine designs, from Blue Origin and XCOR Aerospace, in addition to the RL-10.

ULA is also taking a novel approach to second-stage reusability. Rather than returning the stage to Earth for refurbishing, ULA is designing the stage so it can be restarted and refueled on orbit. This is possible due to an advanced integrated fluids system, which captures boil-off gasses from the liquid-oxygen and -hydrogen tanks. A small internal-combustion engine (about the size of a lawn-mower engine, but with much higher performance) will burn those boil-off gasses. The integrated fluids system will provide vehicle power, depressurize the propellant tanks, and provide attitude-control thrust. This system will allow the stage to operate on-orbit for weeks or months, rather than hours, with unlimited engine restarts. It will be able to maneuver between various orbits in the Earth-Moon system and return to a space station in Low Earth Orbit for refueling and reuse.

The internal-combustion engine for the integrated fluids system will incorporate race-car technology developed by the Roush Fenway Racing team.

United Launch Alliance Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES)

From a geopolitical and national-security viewpoint, the first stage is most important. It will eliminate ULA’s dependence on Russian rocket engines, which now power the Atlas V. But for space exploration and development, the advanced upper stage may prove far more interesting. ULA is arguably playing catch-up with the first stage, working to achieve low cost and reusability which SpaceX is already demonstrating in the Falcon 9. Recovering the main engines may save 90% of the vehicle cost, but it will also limit flight rate since the engines will have to be integrated into a new vehicle. (Based on comments made during the press conference, ULA seems to feel that 20 launches per year would be a large market.)

With the new upper stage, however, come new capabilities. The flexibility of the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage will enable a new mode of operations, which ULA calls distributed lift. The ability to reuse the upper stage as a space tug means that payloads do not need to fit on a single rocket, but can be assembled on orbit. That, in turn, means more efficient payload packaging and innovative architectures. ULA believes that distributed lift will enable concepts such as commercial habitats, propellant and water depots, asteroid mining, and lunar bases.

United Launch Alliance "distributed lift" concept

Written by Astro1 on April 15th, 2015 , Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, XCOR Aerospace

XCOR Aerospace CEO Jay Gibson

XCOR Aerospace has announced the appointment of John H. (Jay) Gibson II as its new president and chief executive officer. Gibson succeeds Jeff Greason, who will continue with the company as chief technology officer and chairman of the board. The transition will allow Greason to dedicate more of his time to XCOR’s technical programs.

Gibson previously served as senior vice president for global mission support at Beechcraft, assistant secretary for financial management for the US Air Force, and deputy undersecretary for management reform at the Defense Department.

“There could not be a more opportune moment for XCOR to welcome Jay onboard,” Greason said. “This year is vital to XCOR’s plans. With the commencement of the Lynx flight test program on the horizon, Jay’s arrival allows the team to focus on getting Lynx in the air, moving forward on plans for our orbital vehicle, and transitioning XCOR to a more efficient and effective company. Jay delivers the depth and breadth of leadership and experience necessary to elevate XCOR to the next level.”

“I am excited to join this exceptional team at a critical time on the XCOR journey to making space accessible to everyone,” Gibson said. “The potential of commercially reusable rockets and vehicles in the payload and passenger markets is incredible. This is a rare opportunity to participate in the continuing development of the space industry. “

 

Written by Astro1 on March 16th, 2015 , XCOR Aerospace

NASA has released a new desktop application for asteroid detection, developed by NASA and Planetary Resources Inc. based on an algorithm from NASA’s Asteroid Data Hunter Challenge.

Amateur astronomers can use the application to analyze images. The application will tell the user whether a matching asteroid record exists and offer a way to report new findings to the Minor Planet Center, which confirms and archives new discoveries.

The desktop application, which is free, currently runs on Macintosh and Windows computers. A Linux version is coming soon. The application can be downloaded at http://www.topcoder.com/asteroids/asteroiddatahunter.

The improved algorithm has the potential to increase the number of new asteroid discoveries by amateur astronomers. Analysis of main-belt asteroid images using the algorithm showed a 15 percent increase in positive identifications.

The application was announced during a panel discussion at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas on Sunday.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 16th, 2015 , Astronomy, Planetary Defense, Planetary Resources

Southwest Research Institute scientists Dan Durda spoke about suborbital spaceflight at the TEDxBoulder conference.

 

Written by Astro1 on March 2nd, 2015 , Commercial Space (General), Space Exploration (General)

XCOR Lynx spacecraft cockpit -- cutaway view

The Lynx Cub Payload Carrier will be on display this Friday (6 Feb 2015) during Innovation Day at Space Center Houston.

The Lynx Cub Carrier is a platform designed to carry multiple small experiments aboard the XCOR Lynx suborbital spacecraft. The Lynx Cub Carrier fits in a space behind the pilot’s seat (“Payload A” in the illustration above). It can accommodate up to 15 four-inch cubes or a combination of larger experiments up to 12 inches in length.

The Lynx Cub Payload Carrier was developed by the United States Rocket Academy with support from the State of Texas Aerospace Technology Research and Operations (ASTRO) Center (formerly the Space Engineering Research Center), the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Texas A&M University, and XCOR Aerospace. The first flight article, which will appear at Space Center Houston, was finished in 2014. It was previously displayed at events such as the National Space Symposium, International Space Development Conference, and the National Science Teachers Association conference.

The Lynx Cub Carrier will be on display in the Space Center Houston lobby from opening until 2:45 PM. Along with the Lynx Cub Payload Carrier, the display will feature related experiment hardware, a model of the XCOR Lynx spacecraft, and citizen astronaut candidates to answer questions. At 2:45 PM,  the Lynx Cub Carrier will move to Johnson Space Center’s Gilruth Conference Center for “Texas: the Space State,” a presentation by Citizens in Space at the Space Exploration Educators Conference. Other parts of the display will remain available in the lobby until 4:00 PM.

Other exhibitors at Innovation Day will include the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the Texas Space Grant Consortium, Microsoft, Nanoracks, and the NASA Commercial Crew Program.

Written by Astro1 on February 4th, 2015 , Citizens in Space, Events, XCOR Aerospace

SpaceX has released a new animation of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is targeted for first flight later this year. Falcon Heavy will place payloads of up to 117,000 pounds into Low Earth Orbit, more than any American rocket since the Saturn V. More significantly, it will incorporate reusable boosters to reduce launch costs.

Written by Astro1 on January 27th, 2015 , SpaceX

Public television station KQED in San Francisco produced this documentary on the emerging commercial space industry.

Written by Astro1 on December 30th, 2014 , Commercial Space (General)

SpaceX employees

According to The Waco Tribune, SpaceX will be adding 300 new jobs due to a $46-million expansion at its McGregor, Texas test facility.

That’s in addition to 500 jobs at the SpaceX launch site near Brownsville, Texas — a total of 800 new jobs.

To put that into perspective, NASA’s Johnson Space Center employs about 3,000 civil servants and 10,000 contractors. (Or perhaps 12,000  contractors– the Houston Chronicle and various NASA websites give conflicting figures.) But that number is down from 17,500 workers in 2007 and will remain relatively flat, based on projected NASA budgets. The SpaceX workforce, on the other hand, has the potential to grow rapidly as the company expands into commercial markets.

Written by Astro1 on December 30th, 2014 , SpaceX

Airbus Defense and Space (the aerospace conglomerate formerly known as Astrium) is considering incorporating partial reusability into future Ariane rockets.

The move is believed to be a reaction to competition from SpaceX.

Airbus would not recover the entire first stage, like SpaceX, but only the lower portion with engines, pumps, and electronics. Tanks would still be expended. Airbus says the recovered portion represents 80% of the cost of the stage. Building new tanks for each mission will limit the flight rate, however.

Written by Astro1 on October 16th, 2014 , Commercial Space (General)

Earth and Moon from cockpit of XCOR Lynx spacecraft

This artist’s conception shows the Moon as it might appear from the cockpit of the XCOR Lynx spacecraft.

This is a sight that can only be seen from space: The Moon against a black sky, with the Earth in daylight. Fewer than .00001% of the world’s population have had the opportunity to see this sight. That number will increase dramatically in the next few years, when suborbital spaceflight becomes commercially available.

At first glance, the Moon appears oddly dark. We usually think of the Moon as being quite bright, almost a pure white. That’s because we’re used to viewing it at night when our eyes are dark adapted. In reality, the surface of the Moon is fairly dark, as shown by observations and photos taken by the Apollo astronauts and the samples they brought back. Seen from space, with the sunlit Earth as a reference, the Moon shows its true color.

For a more complete explanation of the Moon’s appearance from space, read this article.

Written by Astro1 on October 9th, 2014 , Lunar Science, XCOR Aerospace

Stratolaunch aircraft and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser lifting body

NASA said “no” to Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser lifting body, but Sierra Nevada Corporation is not giving up the fight to build a vehicle that can carry American astronauts into orbit and return to land on an airport runway.

Sierra Nevada has announced a new partnership with Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems, which is currently developing the world’s largest aircraft to serve as the first stage for orbital launch systems. As part of this joint venture, Sierra Nevada is designing a scaled-down (75%) version of Dream Chaser that can carry three people and be launched from the Stratolaunch aircraft. The vehicle will also be capably of flying unscrewed space missions (similar to the US Air Force’s X-37 spaceplane), as well as “light cargo transportation or suborbital point-to-point transportation.”

One possible customer for suborbital point-to-point transportation might be the US military. At the beginning of the 21st Century, the United States Marine Corps studied a concept called Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion (SUSTAIN), which would use suborbital vehicles for rapid delivery of special forces to hot spots around the world. In 2002, a USMC “universal need statement” said, in part, “The Marine Corps needs a capability to transport small mission-tailored units through space from any point on the globe to a contingency at any other point on the globe within minutes…. The War on Terrorism highlights the need for flexible, rapid response options to contingencies around the world at their earliest stages.

Sierra Nevada is also continuing to market the full-size Dream Chaser. At the 65th International Astronautical Congress in Toronto on 30 September, the company announced the Dream Chaser Global Project, offering international customers a turn-key spaceflight capability including vehicle, astronaut training, and mission support.

NASA’s Commercial Crew program rejected Dream Chaser in favor of two capsules, Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon V2, in a decision announced on 16 September.

Boeing won out over Sierra Nevada even though its bid was $900 million higher and proposal-scoring rules weighted cost as the primary criterion: equal to the other two criteria (mission suitability and past performance) combined.

Some observers have suggested that NASA may have made the decision based on “cost realism,” effectively rewarding Boeing for submitting the highest-cost proposal. Rumors say that Boeing, unlike SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, has invested very little of its own money in previous phases of the Commercial Crew program, relying almost entirely on NASA funding. Boeing has also made less progress to date, producing mostly paper, while SpaceX and Sierra Nevada have been building actual hardware.

Sierra Nevada has filed a formal protest, which will be evaluated by the Government Accounting Office. As a result, NASA Commercial Crew contracts are on hold until the GAO completes its investigation, which may not occur until January. Sierra Nevada is not betting the farm on a positive outcome of that protest, however.

Sierra Nevada’s loss does not really come as a surprise, however. NASA telegraphed its view of Dream Chaser in the last phase of Commercial Crew contract awards, in August 2012, when Sierra Nevada was reduced to half funding. Arguably, the decision was made two years ago and NASA was simply going through the motions this time around.

The “capsule mentality” has dominated NASA’s thinking since the days of Project Mercury. NASA’s Commercial Crew program has rejected space planes not once, but twice. Orbital Sciences Corporation proposed a similar vehicle, Prometheus, which didn’t survive the cut in 2012 even though it was based on work OSC previously did for NASA under the Orbital Space Plane program. (NASA ultimately rejected the wing design for Orbital Space Plane in favor of an Apollo-like capsule, which later became the Crew Exploration Vehicle, now known as Orion.)

Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser / Orbital Sciences Prometheus

Written by Astro1 on October 8th, 2014 , Sierra Nevada, Stratolaunch

The European Space Agency is preparing for the first suborbital test flight of its Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) reentry demonstrator, which may pave the way for future development of a European orbital spaceplane. Ironically, the test comes at a time when NASA has once again turned its back on spaceplane technology in favor of sixties-style space capsules.

IXV is a lifting-body vehicle, about five meters (15 feet) long and weighing almost two tons, which will test technologies for autonomous controlled reentry. IXV is scheduled for launch on a Vega rocket from the European spaceport in French Guiana in mid-November.

IXV will explore the coupling of inertial measurement units with GPS data and the combination of flaps and thrusters for control in hypersonic flight. It will also test the performance of thermal-protection materials and designs, including thermal expansion, seals, and gaps.

ESA hopes that data gathered by IXV will provide a better understanding of aerothermodynamic reentry phenomena governed by complex real-gas laws that are difficult to predict, reducing design margins required in future vehicles.

During the test flight, IXV will reach a maximum altitude of 450 kilometers (280 miles). On reentry, it will reach a speed of 7.5 km/s (over 16,000 mph) at 120 km (75 mi). At the completion of the mission, the vehicle will descend by parachute and be recovered in the Pacific Ocean after traveling more than halfway around the world.

The next step after IXV could be the Programme for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe (PRIDE) mission. PRIDE would perform a complete end-to-end orbital mission and return to land on a runway.

ESA sees numerous applications for autonomous atmospheric reentry vehicles, including servicing orbital facilities such as the International Space Station, refueling and disposal of unmanned satellites, microgravity experimentation, high-altitude atmospheric research and Earth observation, and sample return from Mars or the asteroids.

European Space Agency PRIDE mission

ESA is also collaborating with Sierra Nevada to develop hardware and mission concepts for the Dream Chaser orbital spaceplane.

Sierra Nevada is marketing Dream Chaser as a space utility vehicle that could serve as a platform for technology demonstrations, construction and repair missions, and crewed or un-crewed scientific missions.

ESA is currently working with Sierra Nevada to identify applications of European hardware, software, and know-how, as well as studying a possible industrial consortium to use Dream Chaser for European missions. Following this evaluation and planning phase, which will continue throughout 2014, ESA and Sierra Nevada hope to sign a long-term agreement leading to flight operations.

Written by Astro1 on October 8th, 2014 , Commercial Space (General)

XCOR Lynx spacecraft under construction

XCOR Aerospace is reporting progress on its path toward commercial space flight. Some of that progress is shown in new photos, which XCOR has publicly released for the first time.

XCOR recently completed integration of the Lynx spacecraft fuselage and cockpit, as shown above. XCOR is currently in the process of bonding the fuselage, cockpit, and wing strakes together. The company is also integrating subassemblies, such as the landing gear, and engine components (shown below).

At the same time, XCOR continues to test the Lynx propulsion system, using a non-flight fuselage for cold flow and hot firing.

“Teams are working in parallel to finish Lynx,” XCOR President Andrew Nelson said. “We are hiring shop staff and engineers to prepare for the final stretch leading up to test flights. I’m proud of what the team has accomplished this year. The excitement in the hangar is palpable.”

“The team at XCOR has been working a long time to reach this goal,” said XCOR CEO Jeff Greason. “We always knew there would be a day when we could see a spacecraft forming in our hangar. Today is that day.”

XCOR technician Ray Fitting prepares LOX pump for fitting on Lynx truss

Written by Astro1 on October 7th, 2014 , XCOR Aerospace

Space Adventures circumlunar mission

Space Adventures will launch its first circumlunar mission in 2018, according to the Russian news service Interfax. Political factors could disrupt the trip, however.

The mission would use a modified Soyuz capsule, which would rendezvous and dock with a Russian upper stage. The upper stage would then be used to propel the Soyuz onto a circumlunar trajectory, in a manner similar to what was once planned for Lunar Gemini flights.

Before heading to the Moon, the Soyuz crew (Russian cosmonaut pilot and two Space Adventures customers) would spend about 10 days at the International Space Station. This would allow the crew to adapt to the weightless environment, so any problems with space sickness would be past before the circumlunar leg begins.

Space Adventures has been marketing the lunar flight for several years now. Filling the first seat was apparently no problem, but selling the second seat caused some delay. In June 2014, Space Adventures announced that it had sold the second seat and the project was ready to begin. (Seats reportedly sell for $150 million.)

Reaction from Russia has been mixed, however. The Russian space company Energia expressed some enthusiasm for the project. A few weeks later, the Russian Space Agency (RSA or Roscosmos) repudiated the plan.

It’s possible that Space Adventures and Energia could carry out the mission without participation from the Russian Space Agency, but the Russian government has recently been asserting increased control over the Russian space industry. The government currently owns 38% of Energia stock but is seeking majority control. In August, Energia president Vitaly Lopota was suspended from his post. Lapota has been under criminal investigation for abuse of office, a charge that is widely seen as politically motivated.

The Russian government has announced ambitious space plans which include lunar missions, but Russia has the habit of announcing grandiose plans which are never funded. Even if lunar missions do occur, it remains to be seen if Russia has any interest in cooperating with US commercial space companies.

Written by Astro1 on October 6th, 2014 , Space Adventures

cowboy, horse, and spaceship

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Officer of Commercial Space Transportation has granted final approval for Midland International Airport’s launch-site license.

Midland International Airport is the first airport with commercial service to be licensed as a spaceport. From this point on, it will be known as Midland International Air & Space Port.

The license approval clears the way for XCOR Aerospace to begin its move to Midland from its current location in Mojave, California. Midland International Airport has already begun renovating a hangar facility for XCOR Aerospace, which will be ready for initial occupancy by April 2015.

Midland Development Corporation chairman Robert Rendall said, “We see the private space sector becoming a vital part of our future economy. The spaceport is co-located with our commercial airport which will allow Midland to attract additional aerospace companies to the community.”

Director of airports Marv Esterly said, “The proximity of the airport to the spaceport allows us to take advantage of existing infrastructure, lowers cost to operators, and offers us a competitive advantage over operations at remote locations.” The spaceport business model is to start small and expand as needed while leveraging existing facilities to keep costs low. Over the next few years, Midland will work to adapt the current spaceport concept to accommodate other types of launch vehicles and the needs of aerospace companies as they arise.

Written by Astro1 on September 17th, 2014 , Spaceports, XCOR Aerospace

BE-4

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin have announced an agreement to jointly develop the BE-4, a new American rocket engine to replace the Russian RD-180 currently used on ULA’s Atlas rocket.

The agreement calls for a four-year development process with full-scale testing in 2016 and first flight in 2019. The BE-4 will be available for use by both companies on their next-generation launch systems.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on September 17th, 2014 , Blue Origin

US Air Force Academy FalconSAT-7 space telescope CubeSat tested aboard microgravity aircraft "G Force One"

The market for microgravity aircraft flights appears to be in flux, with one company grounded, at least temporarily, while another prepares to enter the field.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on September 17th, 2014 , Space Adventures, Swiss Space Systems

Launch America

After months of public speculation, NASA has finally revealed its selected ISS crew contractors.

Not surprisingly, the big winner in the competition is Boeing. The aerospace giant will receive a contract worth up to $4.2 billion. The total value includes vehicle development, certification, and operational flights to the International Space Station.

SpaceX will receive up to $2.6 billion to meet the same goals. It may seem strange that SpaceX is receiving less money for the same amount of work, but the contract payments are based on each company’s own bid.

NASA hopes that both companies will be able to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017. Meeting that date will depend on adequate funding from Congress, however. In the past, Congress has urged NASA to downselect to a single contractor, and there may be additional pressure on NASA in future budgets.

Before operational flights begin, each company will conduct at least one demonstration flight to ISS with a NASA astronaut onboard. The contracts are said to include six operational flights to the International Space Station (presumably split evenly between the two companies). The actual number of flights flown (and the actual value of the contracts) will depend on the needs of ISS, however.

The apparent loser in the competition is Sierra Nevada, which will receive no funding to continue development of its Dream Chaser lifting body. That development is unsurprising. Sierra Nevada was reduced to half funding in the previous round of CCDev contracts, signaling NASA’s direction.

In the long run, however, Sierra Nevada might turn out to be the winner. Sierra Nevada has been much more aggressive than Boeing or SpaceX in lining up customers outside of NASA. It has signed memoranda with the European Space Agency, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and the Japanese space agency (JAXA) which could lead to joint development and operations. By contrast, SpaceX reportedly turned down an offer from Dennis Tito to supply a capsule for the Inspiration Mars mission, for fear of alienating NASA, forcing Tito to turn to NASA’s Orion instead. Sierra Nevada is now free to pursue foreign and commercial customers with fear of contract reprisals.

NASA has invited the losing company to continue participating in the Commercial Crew program, without funding, and share its data with NASA. Whether Sierra Nevada takes NASA up on this offer or not remains to be seen. In any case, Sierra Nevada will not be obliged to comply with all of NASA’s certification rules, processes, and procedures, however. SpaceX project manager Garrett Reisman has spoken of “one thousand separate requirements” which NASA has imposed on contractors. Without this red tape, Sierra Nevada will be free to move more quickly, assuming it can find funding. In the end, it may be that Sierra Nevada wins for losing.

Written by Astro1 on September 16th, 2014 , Boeing, SpaceX

Northrop Grumman Experimental Spaceplane concept

Northrop Grumman has revealed its conceptual design for DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1), which is being developed in partnership with Virgin Galactic.

Northrop Grumman also revealed that Scaled Composites (a Northrop Grumman subsidiary) will play a key role in the 13-month, $3.9 million phase-one effort.

Scaled Composites of Mojave will lead spaceplane fabrication and assembly, while Virgin Galactic heads the transition to commercial spaceplane operations. (One of DARPA’s goals is to transfer spaceplane technology to a military or commercial operator).

The reusable spaceplane is intended to achieve aircraft-like operations, providing a breakthrough in launch costs. With an expendable upper stage, it will place up to 3,000 pounds into low Earth orbit, enabling new generations of innovative, lower-cost payloads.

A key program goal is to fly ten times in ten days, with minimal infrastructure and ground crew. DARPA believes that reusable aircraft-like operations could reduce military and commercial launch costs by a factor of ten.

Northrop Grumman says the design will be built around operability and affordability. Aircraft-like features include clean-pad launch using a transporter/erector/launcher, minimal infrastructure and ground crew; highly autonomous flight operations; and horizontal landing and recovery on standard runways.

Written by Astro1 on August 19th, 2014 , Military Space, Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic

cowboy, horse, and spaceship

The wait is almost over for XCOR and Midland, Texas. This week, renovation work officially began on the building which will become the new XCOR headquarters at Midland International Airport. The work opens the way for the beginning of commercial human spaceflight in Texas.

Work on the XCOR headquarters building began with a ceremonial wall-breaking on Friday. The building is expected to be ready for initial occupancy by April, although some renovation work will continue until next summer.

Midland International Airport expects to receive a spaceport license from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation by September 15. Recently, it appeared that the license might be in jeopardy due to environmental concerns surrounding the lesser prairie chicken, which was recently added to the Threatened Species list. Those concerns have been resolved by an agreement between Midland Airport and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which will monitor the local prairie-chicken population during the first few flights of the Lynx spacecraft.

XCOR hopes to begin test flights of the Lynx spacecraft this winter. If everything remains on schedule, Lynx Mark I flight tests will likely begin at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, then finish up in Texas.

The renovation work officially began with a wall-breaking ceremony on Friday. A number of XCOR and Midland officials participated in the ceremony, including Andrew Nelson, chief operating officer of XCOR Aerospace; Midland Mayor Jerry Morales; Robert Rendall, chairman of the Midland Development Corporation; Pam Welch, executive director of the Midland Development Corporation; and John Love III, chairman of the Midland Spaceport Development Board. Also present was Chuck Sturgeon of the N.C. Sturgeon construction firm, which is performing the renovation work.

The renovated building will provide enough hangar space to house a wide-bodied jetliner, which will someday serve as the first stage for XCOR’s three-stage orbital launch system, the Lynx Mark V. The need for a large hangar to house the Lynx Mark V was one factor which motivated XCOR’s decision to move to Midland.

Future Lynx spacecraft will be developed in Texas, but XCOR plans to build an assembly facility for production vehicles in Florida. XCOR wants to separate production work from research and development for efficiency reasons.

Once XCOR completes its move to Texas, Midland will be the site for future Lynx test flights. According to this week’s press release, XCOR also plans to conduct commercial Lynx flights from Midland (a fact not previously revealed). XCOR plans to conduct commercial flights from other locations as well, including Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Mojave Air and Space Port in California. XCOR also markets Lynx vehicles to commercial customers on a wet-lease basis.

Written by Astro1 on August 16th, 2014 , XCOR Aerospace