SpaceX Launch of Falcon 9 Rocket and Dragon Capsule a Milestone

Falcon 9 rocket

Falcon 9 rocket (Photo Credit: Chris Thomson)

On Wednesday, SpaceX positioned itself among an elite class. Only the United States, Russia, Japan, India, China, and the European Space Agency (representing multiple countries) had successfully recovered a spaceship after it orbited the Earth and reentered the atmosphere. Yesterday, Space Exploration Technologies Inc., referred to often as SpaceX, became the first private company to join that group.

At 10:43 AM EST, the company’s Falcon 9 Rocket launched into space while carrying the Dragon capsule. The capsule circled the Earth at speeds exceeding 17,000 mph. And after successfully orbiting the Earth twice, the capsule splashed down in the Pacific ocean, where it was retrieved shortly after 2 PM EST.

“What a great day for SpaceX. What a great day for NASA. And what a historic day for commercial space flight” said Alan Lindenmoyer, Manager of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

This was the first space flight associated with NASA’s COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program, which is designed to develop commercial transport and supply missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

During the subsequent press conference, CEO and Chief Technology Officer, Elon Musk said that “I think it’s just a testament to the incredible work of people at SpaceX. I mean, everyone just did their job so well.”

He added that “For a rocket to work and then a spacecraft to work, they’re both incredibly complex devices. There’s so much that can go wrong. And it all went right.”

SpaceX Obtains First Commercial Reentry License From FAA

Falcon 9

SpaceX: Falcon 9 vertical on pad

Space Explorations Technology Corp., otherwise know as SpaceX, received the first FAA approved commercial spaceship reentry license from the agency on Monday.

In a statement released by NASA, the agency’s Administrator, Charlie Bolden, said that “With this license in hand, SpaceX can proceed with its launch of the Dragon capsule. The flight of Dragon will be an important step toward commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station. NASA wishes SpaceX every success with the launch.”

SpaceX was required to obtain the reentry license before launching a Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule into orbit next month for a test flight. After reentering the atmosphere, the Dragon capsule will splash down in the pacific ocean, near southern California.

In light of the impending retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, NASA is looking at utilizing the transport capabilities of commercial enterprises. SpaceX is currently under contract, as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Program (COTS), to eventually help resupply the International Space Station (ISS).

After successfully completing all of the necessary flight and reentry testing, SpaceX will begin resupplying the ISS under a the NASA awarded Cargo Resupply Services contract (CSR), which has a minimum value of $1.6 billion. The company is expected to conduct at least 12 cargo flights to the ISS.

Kennedy Space Center Space Shuttle Launch 2nd to Last

Space Shuttle Discovery

NASA image: Space Shuttle Discovery transport to launch pad

The November 1st Space Shuttle Discovery launch is expected to be the second to last shuttle launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Slated for a launch time of 4:40 pm EDT, shuttle mission STS-133 will supply the International Space Station (ISS) with a MultiPurpose Logistics Module (MPLM), the Express Logistics Carrier 4 (ELC4), and spare components.

This is the last mission for Discovery before being retired. Workers at the space center and their family members watched the shuttle’s last rollout. Discovery was moved from the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy late last night and arrived at the launch pad early this morning. The 3.4 mile journey was made, on top of a crawler-transporter, at a speed of less than 1 mph.

Six astronauts will be aboard Discovery on its 39th, and final flight. Unless an extra Atlantis Space Shuttle flight is approved by congress, mission STS-134, scheduled for February 26, 2011, utilizing Space Shuttle Endeavour will be the last mission before the entire shuttle fleet is retired.

NASA will purchase seats aboard Russian space vehicles until commercial enterprises such as Boeing create space transportation that can safely send astronauts to the ISS. NASA has been given direction by President Obama to focus on engineering spacecrafts that can reach a near Earth object (neo) such as an asteroid and a distant destination, possibly Mars.

Boeing Receives $1.24 Billion Extension of Space Station Contract

International Space Station (ISS)

International Space Station (NASA image)

Boeing announced in a press release that NASA awarded the company a contract extension for sustaining engineering at the International Space Station (ISS). The extension begins October 1st and continues for five years, into 2015.

The sustaining engineering that Boeing will provide for the ISS will include software and hardware support for the U.S. segment of the space station and support for common software and hardware utilized by international partners.

Joy Bryant, Boeing Vice President and Program Manager for ISS, said that “Boeing’s knowledge of the International Space Station allows us to safely fly and operate the station to 2015, setting the stage to enable ISS operations until 2020, and potentially extend operations through 2028. We are partnering with NASA to ensure the health of the station’s many subsystems in order to pave the way for ground-breaking science and research aboard the laboratories on station in the years ahead.”

Boeing will perform the work at several locations including Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL., Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Al., and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.

The services that Boeing will also provide include:

  • management of ISS subsystems
  • analytical integration and flight support
  • on-orbit engineering support
  • monitoring and trending system performance
  • anomaly resolution, specialty engineering, and oversight of ongoing maintenance

During the course of the contract extension Boeing will purchase spare components and modify currents systems.

Boeing Space Taxi for Astronauts and Space Tourists

Crew Space Transportation (CST-100)

Artist rendering of Boeing's proposed Crew Space Transportation (CST-100) spacecraft. (Boeing image)

On Wednesday, Boeing announced that it will become a competitor in the fledgling space tourism market.

The company is vying for a government contract that will allow it to ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). To do so, Boeing is building the Crew Space Transportation capsule (CST-100), which will contain more seats than needed by NASA. The space agency expects to send astronauts to the ISS in groups of four. The CST-100 will contain seven seats leaving the three remaining seats to be occupied possibly by commercial entities, education-based organizations, governments with no current access to space or private citizens with the desire to be space tourists. Boeing has teamed up with the company Space Adventures, which will coordinate the sale of the available seats.

In an interview with Discovery News, Eric Anderson, the Chairman of Space Adventures stated that “The marketplace has not been constrained by the number of people who wanted to go [to space]. It’s been constrained by access to orbit.

Of course fare on board the capsule is not for those on a tight budget. Unlike the relatively inexpensive $200,000 price tag of a suborbital flight on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, orbital flights on the CST-100 are expected to be priced at something near $40 million dollars. This puts Boeing’s price structure inline with space flights on board a Russian Soyuz rocket. Both Boeing and Space Adventures believe that flights on board the capsule could begin as early as the end of 2015.

Space Tourism Will Find a Market

Florida From Space

Image Credit: NASA

When new products and services draw the attention of the general public, they also draw the attention of venture capitalists and investors. Although buzz about the space tourism industry is steadily growing as industry leaders move closer to routine space flights, many financial experts and investors question the viability of the service. With cheap suborbital space flights costing something in the neighborhood of $100,000 and flights orbiting around the Moon (provided by Space Adventures) going for a staggering $100 million, the question is will the demand be enough to grow the fledgling industry?

The answer for a certainty is yes. Anyone who thinks otherwise may not appreciate mankind’s desire to explore. Columbus, Magellan, Robert Edwin Peary, Marco Polo and countless others, for whatever their individual reasons were, felt compelled to venture out into the unknown. Whether for riches, fame, or curiosity, all of the above mentioned explorers packed their bags and left.

Anyone with a basic knowledge of history can see that mankind has been day dreaming about leaving
Earth for more than a century. The fascination for space goes back for many centuries before the 20th century (think Galileo), but the realization that space travel could be a very reachable endeavor, really settled into the minds of scientists and the public alike within the last 150+ years.

Why were so many drawn to Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon written in 1865, or movies like The Forbidden Planet (1956), 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968), and Armageddon (1998)? What about television shows like the original Star Trek (1966) and each of its sequels, Battlestar Galactica (1978) and its sequel (2004)? The market that they serve is the same market that is filled with wishful space explorers.

Recall President Kennedy’s Moon speech on September 12, 1962? “We choose to go to the moon… (applause) we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

No doubt, many millions of people wish that they could go out there, where no man has gone before. But, only a fortunate few, at least in the beginning of the space tourism industry, have the means and the way. More than 300 wealthy, future, civilian astronauts, have paid in full or placed a deposit with Virgin Galactic for a seat aboard SpaceShipTwo.

This is nothing new. There was a time when only the affluent could afford cars, VCRs, DVD players, camcorders, computers, cable television, cell phones, and yes, even airplane flights. In time (my guess is within 20 years), at a minimum, low Earth orbit (LEO) flights will be an affordable getaway for the middle class. The innate desire to explore the cosmos has been housed in the heart of earthling man for a long time. Only now, has the opportunity to do so presented itself to the world.

Will space tourism be successful? I wouldn’t bet against it. In fact, when given the opportunity, I’ll invest in it.

Kepler Telescope Finds a Cash of Exoplanets

Planets Orbiting 55 Cancri

Planets Orbiting 55 Cancri - Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On June 15th, The Kepler team at NASA announced that the space based telescope found a veritable cash of potential exoplanets. The team released information on more than 300 of the objects, many of which could turnout to be false-positives. The expectation is that some of these would be planets will actually be, for example, twin stars orbiting each other in close proximity.

The Kepler telescope was designed to search for Earth-like planets in other solar systems. Kepler’s findings total more than 700 possible exoplanets, but NASA will not make public information about the remaining 400 objects until February of next year. The Kepler team will be researching those objects through the summer in hopes that at least one turns out to be an alien Earth.

Approximately 156,000 stars were surveyed for evidence of orbiting planetary bodies in the constellations of Lyra and Cygnus.

Virgin Galactic Selects Its First CEO

Spaceship Two. Photo Credit: Mark Greenberg

George Whitesides has been selected as the first CEO of Virgin Galactic. Whitesides returns to the private sector after holding the position of Chief of Staff at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Prior to becoming Chief of Staff, he served on the NASA transition team for the Obama administration.

In reference to his new position, Whitesides remarked, “I am honored to be given the opportunity to lead this historic business which will open the experience of space travel to people around the world. There is much to achieve at Virgin Galactic over the coming years as the company moves from the extensive test flying program and FAA licensing process into commercial operation of frequent spaceflights from our new home at Spaceport America in New Mexico. There is a great team at Virgin Galactic and I’m greatly looking forward to growing the business and establishing operations at the Spaceport.”

Whitesides will move Virgin Galactic from the space flight testing phase to actual revenue generating low earth orbit (LEO) space tourism. Currently 335 would be space tourists have paid in full or made deposits for a seat onboard Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Enterprise. The company has generated $65 million in reservations. Commercial space flights are expected to begin in 2012.

Virgin Galactic Completes Second Test Flight

SpaceShipTwo completed its second captive test flight yesterday. The space craft was powered and pressurized from WhiteKnightTwo, the twin fuselage plan that carries SpaceShipTwo to launch altitude. The test flight was used to evaluate pressurization, avionics performance, electrical systems, approaches and post-flight cold soaked systems testing. The flight lasted 4.7 hours during which time SpaceShipTwo reached an altitude of 51,000 feet.

The first captive carry test flight took place on March 22, 2010

NASA Blasting-off Toward Hiatus

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Image Credit: NASA

Yesterday, Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted-off, heading toward the International Space Station (ISS) for what is scheduled to be the shuttle’s last flight into space. With two more shuttle launches remaining, one each by Discovery and Endeavor, I really am wondering what’s next?

Of course the Obama administration has outlined NASA’s budget and direction for the next few years, which includes preparation for eventual manned exploration of Mars, and private companies such Virgin Galactic are on the brink of making commercial space travel a reality. But, Amercian space exploration will essentially be on hiatus. For an indefinite number of years, American astronauts will hitch rides into space with Russian cosmenauts and then do the same with commercial space companies. But the images of American spaceship launches into low earth orbit will become a memory; a distant one at that.

I understand that priorities and times change for people and governments alike. But, my perspective is one stemming from memories of televisions being rolled into classrooms in the 80s, when I was in elementary school, so that children could stare in amazement as people actually rocketed into space. Before the complete proliferation of GPS units, cell phones, mp3 players, personal computers and the internet in modern day society, space shuttles were the very definition of advanced technology.

I expect that for many in my generation and the generations of my parents and grandparents, It will seem odd not see the United States at the forefront of space exploration. Regardless to the advancements that may be made by NASA in the near future, videos and photographs of rockets launched by other governments and comercial entities will have much more impact than written articles about NASA’s continued progress.

I wonder if the United States will land a manned space vehicle on a near earth object, as proposed by President Obama, or make great and notable strides toward a manned mission to Mars before the next (second) country reaches the Moon. I wonder how I will feel if the next country reaches the Moon while the United States is still…well, still trying to make great strides in space exploration. I really do wonder.