Space Exploration Technologies launched another Dragon capsule this morning, heading for the International Space Station. The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket was perfect, but the Dragon capsule has experienced some anomalies. SpaceX mission controllers have had trouble getting some of the thrusters online.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk explained the problem in a message to his Twitter followers: “Issue with Dragon thruster pods. System inhibiting three of four from initializing. About to command inhibit override.”
SpaceX now reports that vital signs on a second thruster pod are “trending positive.” When SpaceX has at least two pods restored, it will begin manuevering the capsule toward the space station. The loss of some thrusters could result a later-than-planned arrival at the space station. In the worst case, if SpaceX can’t get the second thruster pod working, the mission could be a total loss.
Some people have said that Dragon flights are becoming “routine,” but spaceflight will never be routine until we have reusable vehicles.
Expendable rocket and capsule: “We have a problem with our thrusters and can’t dock with the space station. Looks like we’ll have to abort the mission, lose the vehicle, the payload, and the $100 million customer payment. Space-station crew won’t have clean underwear for another three months. Life is tough.”
Reusable spacecraft: “We have a problem with our thrusters and can’t dock with the space station. Looks like we’ll have to return to base, call in the mechanics, and fly the mission again tomorrow. Space-station crew won’t have fresh sushi for another night. Life is tough.”
Because they don’t throw away expensive hardware, reusable vehicles can also afford more testing and redundancy. So, anomalies are less likely to occur and better tolerated when they do occur. For the most common failures, reusable vehicles are not only “fail safe” but “fail operational.” Most airline passengers are unaware of how often airliners suffer equipment failures in flight. Airliners have enough redundancy that when a piece of hardware fails, the pilots simply shut it down and report the failure to mechanics when the plane lands. Spaceflight needs to evolve to the same point.
Again, we’re just saying.
Citizen space explorers and space entrepreneurs will appear at the prestigious South By Southwest (SxSW) film, music, and interactive-media festival, which takes place in Austin next month.
A panel on “Crowd-sourcing the Space Frontier” will include Anousheh Ansari, who visited the International Space Station in 2006 and was name sponsor for the Ansari X-Prize in 2001, and Citizens in Space project manager and citizen-astronaut candidate Edward Wright.
Also participating on the panel will be NASA Open Innovation Program manager Christopher Gentry and Darlene Damm, founder and co-president of DIY Rockets. The panel will run from 11:00 am to noon on Saturday, March 9.
Richard Garriott de Cayeux, who visited the International Space Station in 2008, will speak on “The New Golden Age of Spaceflight” at 11:00 Monday, March 11. Garriott de Cayeux is also vice-chairman of Space Adventures, which markets flights to the International Space Station.
Also on Saturday will be a keynote address by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, at 2:00 PM.
South by Southwest attracts over 32,000 people each year. Admission to these talks will require an Interactive, Gold, or Platinum Badge. Badges are still available at walkup rates of $1150, $1350, or $1595. (Sorry, we do not have any free or discount passes to hand out.)
Texas Governor Rick Perry devoted almost a full minute to commercial spaceflight during his State of the State Address.
Companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, and XCOR Aerospace are helping to make Texas the Space State.
Florida Today reports on a NASA press conference about SpaceX’s Merlin engine problem. NASA says the engine is good to go for the next ISS mission, with certain precautions, but engineers still have not located a specific cause for the failure.
“Investigators think that extra testing may have contributed to a pressure chamber breach,” [NASA ISS program manager] Mike Suffredini said….
Suffredini said engineers had reviewed a huge amount of data but not produced a “specific smoking gun,” which he said is not uncommon when investigating systems cannot be recovered.
The next engines in line to fly have been inspected thoroughly, and none has been tested beyond the levels needed to certify them for flight.
It sure is nice to bring your engines back home with you, rather than dumping them into the ocean, isn’t it?
That’s hardly news to anyone in the aviation industry. A&P mechanics hate it when a pilot who doesn’t bring part of the airplane back with him.
Still, common wisdom in the space business says expendable vehicles must be cheaper and easier to develop. After all, Von Braun did it that way!
We’re just saying.
Stewart Money at Innerspace has some additional details from the NASA/Bigelow press conference. This part is particularly interesting:
Bigelow announced that the transport price to the station, would be $26.25 million aboard a SpaceX Dragon, or $36.75 million aboard a Boeing CST-100. The 40% price difference is almost certainly due to the much higher cost of the Boeing’s Atlas V launch vehicle, as compared to the SpaceX Falcon 9. The gap could become even more pronounced if Congress ultimately removes the large annual subsidy going to United Launch Alliance in the form of the Launch Capability Contract which is currently on the order of nearly $100 million per flight at current rates.
If this is true, we wonder how Boeing plans to make money. It’s hard to believe that many customers would voluntarily pay $10.5 more for what is essentially the same service.
This might explain why Boeing is reportedly investing very little of its own money in the CST-100. Given a price disadvantage like this, they might not have any customers beyond NASA.
On the other hand, it’s possible Boeing might consider switching the CST-100 to the Falcon 9. Boeing has previously said that CST-100 is booster agnostic. Last year, Boeing said the CST-100 would fly on either the Atlas V or ATK Liberty (the rocket formerly known as Ares I). Liberty is also likely to be a very expensive rocket, besides being vaporware at the moment.
SpaceX has released a new video with some dramatic views of its Grasshopper reusable first-stage test vehicle during the 12-story test flight on December 17.
SpaceX’s reusable first-stage test vehicle (Grasshopper) completed a 29-second, 12-story test hop on December 17, 2012 at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.
Grasshopper rose 131 feet, hovered and landed safely on the pad using closed-loop thrust-vector and throttle control. The test marks a significant increase over previous hops which took place earlier this fall. Grasshopper flew to 6 feet in September and 17.7 feet in November.
Grasshopper consists of a Falcon 9 rocket first stage, Merlin 1D engine, four steel landing legs with hydraulic dampers, and a steel support structure.
While US lawmakers and certain pundits panic over the alleged threat from the emerging Chinese space program (which is now replicating feats the US accomplished decades ago), European lawmakers are worried about a different competitor – an American one.
Space News quotes French Senator Bruno Sido, comparing SpaceX to ArianeSpace: “Visiting Les Mureaux is like entering an impressive laboratory. Visiting SpaceX, which occupies an old factory that once belonged to Boeing, is like entering IKEA. This company has already won many contracts, is well-supported by NASA and is building low-cost launcher that constitutes a real and serious threat.”
Citing the SpaceX competitive threat, French lawmakers are urging an early start on the next-generation Ariane 6 expendable launch vehicle.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is already testing an evolved, reusable Falcon first stage in his Grasshopper program. On November 1, the 10-story VTVL Grasshopper lifted 17.7 feet (5.4 meters, hovered, and touched down in an 8-second test hop at the SpaceX test facility in McGregor, Texas. Grasshopper consists of a Falcon 9 rocket first stage, Merlin 1D engine, four steel landing legs with hydraulic dampers, and a steel support structure.
SpaceX is operating inside of the Ariane decision cycle. Ariane 6 is intended to compete with Falcon 9, but by the time Ariane 6 becomes operational, SpaceX may have a fully reusable vehicle.
In fact, Ariane 6 appears to be a technological step backward. According to Aviation Week, the French space agency CNES favors a solid-rocket design for Ariane 6. The reasoning appears to be that a solid rocket could survive longer while losing market share. “Bonnal says even in the worst-case scenarios that assume a 20% decline in market price after 2020, when the rocket would enter service, the solid-rocket configurations could survive on eight launches per year, including three institutional ones for government customers.”
ArianeSpace seems to be securing its line of retreat, as it prepares to surrender the launch market to SpaceX.
SpaceX performed another brief flight test of its reusable first-stage demonstrator, dubbed Grasshopper. According to SpaceX, the flight was the first test using closed-loop thrust vectoring and throttle control. The flight was scheduled for October 29, according to the FAA license, but there has been no confirmation of the date.
SpaceX provided a video, which Clark Lindsey of NewSpace Watch has reposted on YouTube.
It’s strange that this video was released but is not yet available on SpaceX’s own YouTube channel or on the SpaceX website. It’s hard to predict where and when SpaceX videos will appear. Some SpaceX fans got upset recently when Ariel Waldman criticized the SpaceX website, but truthfully, their public communications does seem to be a bit hit and miss. SpaceX fans should realize that it’s okay to like someone and still offer, or accept, constructive criticism. There’s a difference between being a fan and being a fanboy.
SpaceX will continue to occupy its headquarters building in Hawthorne, California for at least the next 10 years, according to an article in the Daily Breeze. SpaceX reportedly made the commitment after a unanimous vote by the Hawthorne City Council to reduce the tax rates applied to the company.
SpaceX has signed an economic-development agreement with the city which includes a corporate-citizenship clause. The clause allows Hawthorne to use the SpaceX logo for its own branding. It also encourages SpaceX to get involved with schools and community events.
Katherine Nelson, SpaceX vice president of marketing and communications, said, “SpaceX is in a rapid growth mode. These incentives are just ensuring we’re in a position to continue to grow. We are always looking for the best opportunities for our business and for our growth, so we’re pleased we were able to come to an agreement with Hawthorne and we can keep our headquarters here.”
This doesn’t mean that all of SpaceX’s manufacturing facilities will necessarily be in Hawthorne. Sources close to SpaceX tell us the company is rapidly outgrowing its building there. Falcon Heavy, we are told, will likely require a new facility.
The SpaceX Dragon capsule has undocked from the International Space Station and returned to Earth. Reports from SpaceX indicate that the capsule has been retrieved by the recovery boat and is on its way back to port.
A SpaceX press release states:
In the last few days, United Launch Alliance, Armadillo, and SpaceX launched rockets, all three of which showed performance anomalies.
On Thursday, October 4, United Launch Alliance launched a US Air Force GPS satellite on a Delta IV rocket. The first stage functioned according to plan, but the second-stage RL-10 engine underperformed, producing less thrust than its nominal 24,750-pound thrust. The engine burned for a longer duration to compensate, and the payload achieved proper orbit.
On Saturday, October 6, Armadillo Aerospace launched its Stig-B rocket for the first time at Spaceport America in New Mexico. The mission goal was to demonstrate flight to 100 kilometers and successful recovery using the supersonic ballute (balloon-parachute) system. The target altitude was not achieved. After launch, software detected that the rocket had reached an abort limit and shut the engine down. The rocket was successfully recovered, analysis is underway, and another flight is expected within a few weeks.
On Sunday, October 7, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying another Dragon capsule to the Internstional Space Station. Unlike the last Dragon flight, which was considered a test, this was officially an operational mission. About 1 minute 19 seconds into flight, one of the Merlin 1C first-stage engines failed, as can be seen in the following slow-motion video:
Based solely on the video, some observers have concluded that the event was a sudden catastrophic disassembly (i.e., engine explosion). At the moment, SpaceX is saying that it was an engine shutdown but has no further details. Update: SpaceX is now saying that the debris seen in the video is an aerodynamic fairing which ruptured when the engine shut down and lost pressure.
The Falcon 9 is designed to lose a first-stage engine, even explosively, and continue a mission. In the event of an explosion, shields protect neighboring engines from shrapnel damage. The Saturn V had a similar engine-out capability but was not designed to withstand an explosive failure.
If this this event was an explosion, it shows that the shrapnel shields work. Blowing an engine on a multi-engine rocket is similar to blowing a piston in an a piston-engine aircraft: a serious anomaly, but not necessarily fatal if the system is designed for it. During World War II, P-47 Thunderbolts would return to base with a lot of pistons shot out. In the jet era, the A-10 Thunderbolt II has been known to return to base with one engine shot away. The Falcon 9 was able to continue its mission, burning its remaining engines a bit long (like the Delta a few days earlier), and put its Dragon payload into an almost-perfect orbit. Perhaps SpaceX should have called the Falcon 9 the “Thunderbolt III.”
That having been said, Falcon 9 could not continue a mission after the failure of a second stage engine. (There’s only one.) So, this is a situation SpaceX will want to investigate.
Some critics will now say SpaceX cut too many corners and should have done more testing and analysis. Flight testing is always a good thing, and SpaceX is doing it right now. NASA may have classified this as an operational mission, but that doesn’t mean there’s no testing and analysis going on. Remember that the Space Shuttle was declared operational after only four missions, but NASA continued testing and tweaking throughout the 30-year program.
SpaceX could have done some additional flight tests, with dummy payloads, before starting cargo runs to ISS. That would have delayed payloads to ISS, cost NASA more money (those Russian Progress flights aren’t cheap anymore), and not resulted in any more test data than the actual cargo flights produce.
In the early days of rocketry, it was common to do a lot more test flights before committing to carrying cargo for paying customers. The economics of large expendable rockets changed that. That’s true for Boeing and Lockheed as much as SpaceX. The number of test flights is greatly reduced; to compensate, a lot more money is spent on analysis and systems engineering prior to the first test flight. All that analysis does not come cheap, however, and even the best analysis cannot uncover all the unknowns that crop up in flight.
If flight testing were cheaper and easier, vehicle developers could reduce the amount of systems analysis that’s required before first flight. That would reduce development time as well as development cost.
Optimizing rockets for cheap flight test would require a new design approach. What would a highly testable rocket look like?
A highly testable rocket would be cheap enough to fly often. It would require minimal preparation time, so flight tests could be scheduled quickly, when required. It would be recoverable after an anomaly, so engineers could examine the hardware to determine what happened rather than relying solely on telemetry data. It would be incrementally testable, allowing for low-altitude, low-speed flight tests early on, when systems are immature.
In other words, it would be a reusable rocket.
Nevertheless, the myth persists, in the aerospace industry, that reusable rockets are more expensive to develop. To quote the legendary late rocket engineer Max Hunter, “The people who say expendables are cheaper to develop forget that in order to develop a rocket, you have to fly a rocket.”
During the 1960′s, General Dynamics did an apples-to-apples comparison of a reusable rocket (the X-15) and an expendable rocket (the Atlas A) of similar size and performance. They found that the X-15 was more complex, but also more testable, more reliable, and cheaper to develop. The US Air Force performed a parallel study, using slightly different methods, and reached the same conclusion.
More recently, we have examples such as White Knight and SpaceShip One, a two-stage system developed for about $15 million. The development program included 66 flights of White Knight and 17 flights of SpaceShip One. By comparison, in 2011, NASA’s sounding rocket program had a budget of $45 million and conducted just 13 launches.
Rocket development, like other aspects of spaceflight, is highly immature. Jet engines and liquid-propellent rockets have been around for similar lengths of time, but the number of rocket engines that have flown is minuscule compared to the number of jet engines. So, it isn’t surprising that in-flight anomalies still occur quite often. The development of rocket engines has been arrested by decisions made back in the 1960′s, which led to 50 years of reliance on expendable rockets with trivial flight rates. Fortunately, that era is rapidly drawing to a close.
The Grasshopper test vehicle made its first brief test hop today at SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas.
The suborbital Grasshopper is intended to prove techniques that could lead to a recoverable first stage for the Falcon launch vehicle, as shown in the following animation.
We’re not talking about the migration of humans from Earth into space, although we are optimistic that will begin in earnest in the next few years.
We’re talking about the migration of commercial space companies from one part of the United States to another.
In July, XCOR Aerospace announced the relocation of its main research and development operation to Midland, Texas. Next week, XCOR is expected to make another announcement. Although the official statement won’t come until August 23, word is already out on the street that XCOR will announce the development of an engine and vehicle production facility in Florida.
XCOR will retain some operations at Mojave Air and Space Port, in the high desert of California where the company was born. It will probably continue to base a Lynx suborbital spaceship there for the foreseeable future, to provide a launch site for West Coast missions. The company’s main focus, however, is clearly shifting to other states.
Some observers may question the sudden expansion of XCOR into not one, but two new states. The move makes sense, however. Locating R&D and production facilities in two separate states will minimize the possibility of R&D activities randomizing the assembly line.
It’s also worth noting that Masten Space Systems has a signed contract with Space Florida to begin flying its VTVL rocketship at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. At the moment, the agreement calls for nothing more than demonstration flights, but that could change in the future. Space Florida officials expect XCOR to create 152 new jobs in Florida. They are no doubt keeping a close eye on Masten. If they see similar potential for growth, it’s reasonable to expect that they will make a push for that company as well.
Meanwhile, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is looking to expand operations in Texas, both at its McGregor testing facility near Waco and a proposed new launch site in South Texas.
All of these moves have one common denominator: they are away from California. While other states are dangling incentives in front of emerging space companies, California has elected to incentivize trial lawyers instead. States such as Texas have passed bills to protect commercial spaceflight operators from potentially crippling lawsuits, but a bill introduced in the California legislature was watered down to the point of meaninglessness. It appears that California has decided to export aerospace jobs.
Florida and Puerto Rico are competing with Texas for the site of the new SpaceX launch site, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Texas appears to have the inside track, however, according to a statement by CEO Elon Musk as reported by the Associated Press.
Why is Texas leading the race for the SpaceX facility?
José Pérez-Riera, Puerto Rico’s secretary for economic development and commerce, points out that the island commonwealth is closer to the equator than either Cape Canaveral or Brownsville. That would translate into slightly greater lift capacity for SpaceX rockets. SpaceX might also benefit from lower labor costs and the fact that Puerto Rico residents do not pay US income taxes.
On the other hand, a Puerto Rico launch site would come with some political uncertainty. Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status could change in the future if the island opts for either statehood or independence. Statehood would change the tax situation, but independence could be particularly worrisome. As an independent nation, Puerto Rico would be subject to US export controls, requiring ITAR permits for every rocket and payload.
Florida officials have argued that locating a second SpaceX pad in that state would save money by eliminating redundancy in the SpaceX supply chain. Redundancy, however, may be exactly what SpaceX is seeking. Locating all of its launch sites in one geographic area would leave SpaceX vulnerable to a localized natural disaster. The Florida Space Coast is infamously vulnerable to storm surge. In 2004, Hurricane Frances threatened to wipe out the entire Shuttle infrastructure.
Increasing its presence in Texas would also increase SpaceX’s base of political support. There’s also the matter of proximity to Johnson Space Center and the surrounding manned space community. That may be a small consideration at present, since NASA currently plans to make Kennedy Space Center the lead for commercial crew activities. That, too, is a political consideration that could change in the future, however. With Congressional elections every two years, it behooves SpaceX to keep its options open. A Texas launch site would also be a signal to the Florida delegation that they cannot take SpaceX for granted.
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has received the first order for its Falcon Heavy rocket.
A joint press release from Intelsat and SpaceX announced the contract for the launch of an Intelsat satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit. Intelsat chief technology officer Thierry Guillemin said, “Timely access to space is an essential element of our commercial supply chain. Our support of successful new entrants to the commercial launch industry reduces risk in our business model. Intelsat has exacting technical standards and requirements for proven flight heritage for our satellite launches. We will work closely with SpaceX as the Falcon Heavy completes rigorous flight tests prior to our future launch requirements.”
This contract represents another step forward for SpaceX. SpaceX chief executive officer Elon Musk said, “The Falcon Heavy has more than twice the power of the next largest rocket in the world. With this new vehicle, SpaceX launch systems now cover the entire spectrum of the launch needs for commercial, civil and national security customers.” Falcon Heavy also plays a key role in Musk’s long-range plans for sending humans to Mars.
Commercial customers like Intelsat may also help convince the critics of SpaceX’s viability. After last week’s successful docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule with the International Space Station, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) released a bizarre sour-grapes statement stating, “The reality remains that SpaceX has spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to launch a rocket nearly three years later than planned. The ‘private’ space race is off to a dilatory start at best, and the commercial space flight market has yet to materialize.”
We’re not sure what Shelby means by the “commercial space flight market.” If he means human spaceflight, he seems to have missed the steady stream of citizen space explorers who have visited ISS, beginning with Dennis Tito. If satellites count, he’s missed all of the previous commercial customers who’ve signed with SpaceX – ORBCOMM, MDA Corporation, SES, Thaicom, NSPO, Asiasat, Satélites Mexicanos, Space Systems Loral, CONAE, Iridium, Spacecom, and Bigelow Aerospace – as well as those served by United Launch Alliance, Orbital Sciences Corporation, and their foreign competitors. Shelby also failed to note that the Space Launch System, mandated by Shelby and other Congressmen over NASA’s objections, is spending not hundreds of millions but billions of taxpayer dollars and will be much later to the party than SpaceX, if it shows up at all.
The successful capture and berthing of the SpaceX Dragon capsule is cause for celebration. The clockwork precision of the flight, with no trace of glitch or gremlin, speaks well for the technical competence of Elon Musk and his crew atmSpace Exploration Technologies.
This is a step forward for commercial space and very good news for the future of ISS, NASA’s future space exploration plans, and, of course, the SpaceX company. It is even good news for SpaceX competitors, such Boeing and Sierra Nevada, whose own case is boosted by the proof that commercial companies can deliver.
Today’s accomplishment will go a long way toward convincing Congress of the value of commercial space – and yet, convincing Congress (and some elements at NASA) should not have been this hard. ISS has been serviced before by quasi-commercial (though largely state-owned) Russian and European enterprises. The fact that there was so much resistance to allowing American companies to compete with Energia and Arianespace is a sad commentary on our current Congress and its lack of faith in American private enterprise. Seeing is believing, the saying goes, but St. Paul said that faith is evidence of things unseen. Today’s political leaders seem to have faith in nothing but themselves, but it will be hard for anyone to oppose commercial ISS missions after this.
So, why only two cheers, then? Because, as heretical as it might sound to say this, SpaceX is not the most important act in commercial space. SpaceX will ensure NASA’s access to the International Space Station, enable Bigelow Aerospace to proceed with its own space station plans, and perhaps even take humans to Mars, but it will be the suborbital companies like Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace that open up space for the rest of us.
In 1974, the influential and widely circulated Business Week ran a story on Seymour Cray and his supercomputer, which it called “the machine that will change the world.” That same month, Popular Electronics, a small hobbyist publication which almost no one read, ran a cover story on the Altair 8800. Not “the machine that will change the world,” but “the computer you can build.” The Altair was not a powerful computer, and almost nobody took it seriously, except the people who wanted one – and there were a lot of them. Of course, we know which machine ultimately changed the world.
Reusable suborbital spacecraft will also change the world. They will enable large numbers of people to build and fly experiments, and to fly in space themselves. Dramatic reductions in launch costs, not increases in capability, are what will truly open the space frontier, and those cost reductions are easier to achieve on the low end. We don’t expect a lot of people to agree with these statements. Many people won’t understand them at all, just as most people didn’t understand the importance of microcomputers when they first appeared in the 1970′s.
Even many people who call themselves “NewSpace” advocates don’t get it. A good example is the Space Frontier Foundation, which took control of the Suborbital Flight Experiment Workshop we developed and is now converting it into a seminar on how to build payloads to fly on traditional science platforms like ISS and weather balloons. Much like the (hypothetical) guy who showed up at Steve Jobs’s garage with a COBOL program on a stack of punch cards, they think they get it but they don’t.
That having been said, it was very important for everyone in commercial space, including the suborbital companies, for SpaceX to succeed. There were too many people out there, including legislators and investors, who who waiting to point fingers and say, “If Elon Musk couldn’t do it, nobody can.”
That statement is, of course, nonsense, especially when the value of “it” varies greatly from one company to another. This irrational attitude was fomented by some of the more rabid SpaceX fanboys whose mantra was, “If Elon Musk can’t do it…” — although not by the professionals at SpaceX, who know better. That overenthusiastic cheerleading had the unfortunate effect of tying the fate of the entire commercial space industry to the success of SpaceX on this one mission, which never should have happened. Fortunately, the Dragon capsule performed flawlessly, but still, the stakes were higher than they should have been. We didn’t need SpaceX to succeed today, but we couldn’t afford for them to fail. For that reason, we give SpaceX two solid cheers.
There is considerable concern in the halls of Congress about the Chinese space program. Many legislators, such as Rep. Frank Wolfe (R-VA) fear that China may be catching up and about to surpass the United States.
The reasons for that concern (which verges on panic in some quarters) are a bit beyond our ken. The Chinese space program is just now approaching (at a rather slow rate) milestones the US and Soviet Union achieved more than 30 years ago. Its Shenzhou capsule is not an original development but based on imported Soyuz technology. It is, more over, a program with no useful military applications. Using Shenzhou, China might be abel to build a small space station or possibly even pull off a Moon landing, at very great expense, but those are things the United States did long ago.
From a national-security viewpoint, China’s other space program should be of greater concern. The Shelong, or Divine Dragon, spaceplane project was leaked to the press in 2007. Very little is known about the project, apart from one photograph that shows a test article (possibly subscale) being carried beneath the fuselage of a Chinese bomber.
It’s possible Divine Dragon might be nothing more than an experimental test vehicle, like the USAF X-37. It’s also possible that Divine Dragon might be much more.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had military manned space programs that ran in parallel with the civilian programs. The primary focus of the US program was the X-20 DynaSoar. The Soviet equivalent was the MiG-105 Spiral, whose aerodynamic configuration inspired NASA’s HL-20 and Sierra Nevada’s Dreamchaser. The MiG-105 example is especially relevant.
One of the most important missions envisioned for the MiG-105 was anti-surface warfare. For that mission, MiG-105 spaceplanes would operate in hunter/killer pairs. One spaceplane would travel slightly ahead of the other, in the same orbit, using a powerful radar to locate US carriers. The hunter would transmit the targeting information to the second spaceplane, which would then kill the target with a large missile.
Had the MiG-105 been fully developed and successfully deployed, it would have changed the balance of power at sea. The global strike capability provided by such a spaceplane would make aircraft carriers obsolete, just as carriers made battleships obsolete in the 1930′s. Fortunately of the US, the Soviet design relied on a first-stage concept with a very advanced high-speed air-breathing engine. Such an engine was science fiction at the time and would be extremely challenging even today. Nor was it necessary – a more conventional rocket-powered first stage could have been chosen, and the MiG-105 spaceplane itself was a very sound concept even if its booster was overly ambitious. The United States dodged a bullet because the Soviet Union made a poor design choice.
The United States cannot count on dodging every bullet, however. It is quite possible that China has something similar to MiG-105 in mind – having the capability to sink US carriers, at will, anywhere in the world would be of obvious interest to the Chinese military – and we can’t necessarily count on China making the same bad design choices as the Soviet Union.
We find it puzzling that China hawks like Rep. Wolfe are making such a big deal about Shenzhou while ignoring Divine Dragon. Of course, they have access to classified intelligence which we do not. Perhaps the CIA is telling them that Divine Dragon is not a threat or has been discontinued. Given the number of CIA intelligence failures in the past, however, that is not something we would want to bet the nation’s future on. Prudence would seem to call for a stronger response, including revitalizing the US Military Space Plane project, which has been moribund for years due to lack of funding. (Note: we are talking about the operational Military Space Plane, not the experimental X-37.)
We’re also puzzled why Rep. Wolfe has used Shenzhou as a justification for taking money away from NASA’s commercial space development programs and giving it to Orion and the proposed Space Launch System. If Shenzhou is a threat to US interests and security, as Wolfe believes, companies like SpaceX would seem to be the best hope for countering it. Chinese space leaders have expressed open concern about SpaceX’s launch prices, which they do not believe they can meet. They are not alone. Executives of the European launch Arianespace has expressed similar concerns privately. Some believe that Arianespace could be out of business within four years.
Military leaders know that the best strategy is not to throw strength against strength, but strength against weakness. The commercial private sector is a strength America has which Communist China cannot match. It would be a puzzling choice if Congressional leaders like Rep. Wolfe chose to ignore that asymmetrical advantage.
Current Administration space policy calls for NASA to look beyond the “been there, done that” of the Moon.
From a policy perspective, that is arguably a wise decision. By returning to the Moon, NASA might easily end up stuck in an “ISS 2 on the Moon” situation.
There’s also a technological argument against returning to the Moon, however. Returning to the Moon would require developing a lunar lander, a new piece of a single-purpose hardware that would make lunar landings more expensive than missions to, say, an asteroid. But is that assumption necessarily true?
Under the Bush Vision of Space Exploration, NASA was planning to spend around $10 billion to development the Altair lunar lander. That’s certainly a significant amount of money – several times what SpaceX expects to spend to develop both the Falcon rocket and the Dragon capsule – but NASA was proposing (not unexpectedly) to build the mother of all lunar landers, rather than a minimal cost system. Since we now know that’s unrealistic, what sort of lander options might be affordable, either for NASA or private industry?
Surprisingly, there are a number of possibilities which, if not quite off-the-shelf, are fairly close.
Due to a last-minute software review, the Falcon 9 / Dragon launch has been pushed back to May 19 at 4:55 am. May 22 is also a possibility. Either date should provide time to buy tickets, if you still want to see the launch. Bear in mind that additional delays are possible, however.
SpaceX took another step toward the International Space Station today with a successful static test of its Falcon 9 engines.