Saturday, January 30, 2010

SpaceX status as it stands

As an offering of respite from the space community's froth over Obama's impending 2011 budget I've decided to present a post about the biggest face on the New Space world, SpaceX. As a result of some conversations I've had in the past few weeks regarding SpaceX I've gone back to much of my prior reading and commenting and tried to tease out a status report on SpaceX from the various Musk interviews, SpaceX press releases, and commentary from the journalsphere and blogosphere. And here's what I've arrived at:

Falcon 9:
Maiden flight is set for March 8 at the earliest. A four hour window is slotted for that day provided they are actually ready to launch. All components are currently at the cape facility for the first time. The rocket is set to be assembled by mid-February to begin pre-flight checkouts. Negotiations are already underway with the Air Force for the proper countdown procedures for the flight. This is necessary due to it being under Air Force jurisdiction. A few minor adjustments to the launch pad are also near completion.

COTS flight 1:
Musk's statements to This Week in Space suggest a flight-ready model of Dragon is set to fly later this summer. That's what the flight manifest suggests as well, which is a good sign.

Manned Dragon:
Future plans of entrepreneurial rocket companies always get a little more murky. Regarding manned Dragon, Musk has consistently maintained that Falcon9/Dragon are slotted to be manned programs and are designed to fit NASA's published requirements from day 1. NASA officials, particularly the ASAP safety commission, have come out with statements to the contrary. But Musk's statements shortly after the recent ASAP assessment rebut those claims pretty soundly. Essentially no checking had been performed on SpaceX's safety designs and as Musk has claimed for a few years now and I have stated also, Falcon 9/Dragon are far closer to completion than Ares I/Orion. That gives more to go on for a safety assessment, especially since Ares I is, as Musk points out, not even finished from a design perspective. Falcon 9, however, is on the pad. Furthermore Dragon is slotted to have three demo flights and a dozen or so cargo delivery flights to ISS before anyone ever launches on it, a claim also not made by the Ares I/Orion team who plan to put humans on board shortly after the first flight or two.

Speaking to the timeline for manned Dragon, the main contingency is the escape system. I was excited back in June '09 to hear him give a 2-3 year window to the Augustine panel. However I was somewhat concerned with the phrase "from when NASA says go" appended to it. Musk had, prior to that point, not mentioned a timeline and to have the one public mention tied to a government contingency gave me some worry that the 'we'll build it no matter what' attitude from Musk so far had given way to the same dependency strategy seen by government space contractors so far. The Week in Space interview repeated his 2-3 year timeline multiple times, notably sans NASA contingency. Again, there is a new concern here as it's the same timeline he gave over half a year ago. I'm really splitting hairs on the wording and I'm sure we're dealing with a 'cigar is a cigar' issue, but I think close attention to detail is in order here. Either way, we're talking a manned capsule by 2013 (year three is a built in engineering buffer per his Augustine appearance).

Falcon 9 Heavy:
Again, while the concept of F9 heavy is well known and described on and elsewhere, timelines are a bit scarce. The one tidbit comes from Rob Coppinger's fantastic recordings of the UK's Royal Aeronautical Society meeting in July of '08. Musk came out at that meeting putting a two year timeline on F9 Heavy after F9 mark 1 sees flight. Essentially we'd be talking 2012 as F9 is within a month or two of it's maiden flight. Granted a year and a half offers a lot of opportunity for a change in plans and market conditions as well as possible engineering troubles with F9, but that's encouraging. F9 Heavy could offer the kind of lift needed to go outside LEO. Current targets put it's capability to LEO as higher than any other rocket flying and behind only the Saturn series and the ill-fated N1 for rockets that have ever flown. While many estimates SpaceX has made have fallen short, lift capacity has been on target or exceeded thus far.

Dragon Lunar:
Again, the best source is the RAS meeting in '08. Little mention was really made of it at the time, but a target of $80 million for a manned cislunar flight was put out there by Musk. No timeline was set, but Musk discussed the abilities of PICA-X to survive lunar reentry. He has made no secrets of his intent to push his program beyond LEO and out to Mars. As to whether or not that was an off-the-top-of-his-head prediction or if it was based on a live program currently in development at SpaceX is unknown from what I can see. SpaceX is far more out there than other New Space organizations, but he still keeps some details close to the vest. Note, however, that while Coppinger over at Hyperbola makes mention of the $80 million target from that press conference, he missed a few minutes of recording including, it seems, the lunar Dragon discussion. So we're left to take Rob's word for it.

RAS recordings -

Musk's Augustine discussion -

Spaceflight Now's update on Falcon 9 progress -

This Week in Space interview with Musk -

Monday, September 14, 2009

New Space crazyness, or the day private space returned from the dead

So a few weeks back I saw this:
Bigelow plans to build Orion Lite

So I says to myself, "self, now we got some action again in private manned orbital space." I'll put it this way, when Robert Bigelow says he's going to build a spaceship, it may as well already be flying. And finally somebody decided to trim the fat from the one piece of Orion that make sense from start to finish. Don't get me wrong, I like Ares I and V, but their blueprints have a lot of red ink and so do their balance sheets. Orion just works. But it was designed to take us a few paces down the road from orbit to the moon. We don't need that kind of overhead for orbital work, and Lock Mart doesn't need their test capsules. So Bigelow being what Bigelow is, decided it was a nice ready made near in-house solution to their transportation woes. What's better, they're flying it on already tested and flying rockets. Needless to say, I was pretty excited.

Then I see:
Excalibur Almaz set to launch decomissioned Russian space capsules and space stations by 2013.
The famed Salyut station program has been mothballed then revived by another opportunistic person bent on sending us to the stars. Of course, as they were a top secret military intelligence program (complete with weapon systems) there's a few pieces that need some work from an acetylene torch, including functional weapon systems. But these babies come out of the box ready to fly, which gives EA plenty of lead time to back engineer them and make more. What's more is that unlike Bigelow, who has to cobble together two entirely separate NASA spruce geese, Almaz does the road and the destination all in one package. Anyone speak Russian?

Okay, now I'm starting to feel a little light-headed. We've gone from only one serious space company with real plans to fly an orbital design to three, two with serious reputations and a third with already proven hardware. So I figured the news reels would taper off and we wouldn't hear a peep until the Falcon 9 flies later this year.

But it would appear that now that Bigelow and Almaz have bought in the game, private space has gone all in:
Interorbital Systems plans to fly a manned orbital capsule by 2011.
Orbital Sciences plans Cygnus-based crewed capsule.

!!!!!!!! Am I awake? Am I dead? Did I miss something?

Okay, background here:
Orbital Sciences is the one and only private company to have built their own orbital rockets without direct government support prior to SpaceX. Orbital has been flying for decades and has a flight record that gives congress buyer's remorse over everything but the Saturn V. They also happen to be the only other firm with a current COTS agreement with NASA. But they were only cargo. Suffice it to say I was saddened to hear that Rocketplane Kistler's potentially manned but budgetarily doomed capsule was to be replaced by a less-than-inspiring cargo-only option by a coalition of Big Aerospace and Orbital. In fact I felt the only silver lining to me was that when NASA threw a few billion worth of contracted flights at SpaceX and Orbital, they chipped in the lion's share to SpaceX. Orbital, I'm sorry I ever doubted you. Can you ever forgive me?

As for Interorbital, these guys (and gals) were one of the multitude wildcard organizations. They have flying hardware in the form of sounding rockets (they go to orbital altitudes, but not on orbital trajectories. In other words, anything going up will be back in the lab by nightfall.). They have paying customers, mostly climate science studies and the like. And they had tantalizing bits and pieces of manned orbital plans including some really inspiring pieces about going to the moon. But in New Space who doesn't. Vaporware is the name of the game, and I don't even open blogs on my reading list unless there's a whiff of real hardware in the subject. I contacted IOS to try to get some details, but after one response suggesting I'd get some answers, the trail went cold (that's as much if not more to do with me as with IOS). Frankly, I wasn't even sure if IOS was even still in operation. Then just when I was about to move them from the Lost and Found to the Obituaries there comes this gem that puts them in line to be not just another manned orbital provider, but the second in line, probably even the first since Dragon has a 3-year development time before Manned Dragon is airborne. Granted, it's a two seater, which isn't as headline grabbing as Dragon's 6-7 capacity, and there's no word of when they move beyond a 12-hour test flight to heading to an actual destination. But man, I'm glad to see them back on the rolls. In my time maintaining the list of private spaceflight companies on wikipedia, I always thought IOS was our last and best chance for real competition to SpaceX in the field. And man, am I not disappointed. Oh yeah, and unlike the other players in the field, even SpaceX and Bigelow, IOS's astronauts have names.

None of these are suprises to me, names wise.  They've been phantoms that occasionally crop up on the space news wires from time to time to remind all us geeks that they are still there.  But this, this is unprecedented.

I was going to say I'm speechless, but I believe I've substantially disproven that at this point.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Company focus: Astrobotic

Another face on the front pages is the team from Astrobotic, which is essentially the space business arm of the Carnegie Mellon University robotics department. You may know them as the winners of the DARPA 2007 Urban Challenge under the Team Tartan banner. They were the ones whose robotic SUV passed a driver's test.... without a driver.

The Astrobotic branch takes the concepts of autonomous rovers on the road, or the rocket as the case may be, in an effort to take home yet another big cash prize to the tune of $20 million for the Google Lunar X Prize. The goal: return to tranquility base to retrace Armstrong's giant leap. It's not just a sightseeing vacation, though. Scientists back on terra firma want to know how the relics of our first excursion on another planetary body have endured the difficulties of life on the lunar surface. Aside from answering some serious questions about micrometeorites, radiation, and that pesky ionized lunar dust, it helps set the stage for better designs for our next manned trip to Luna, set to occur in 2020.

Those are the basic parameters of the Lunar XPrize. What sets Astrobotic apart from it's competitors, aside from it's demonstrated robotic credentials, is in the landing. Unlike past missions to the moon's surface, Astrobotic's Red Rover will arrive on site with a pinpoint landing thanks to a partnership with Raytheon. This ups the team's chances of completing not just the main mission of soft landing a rover (which has only been done so far by governments) and roving for 500 meters, but of landing close enough to Tranquility Base to do the scientific sightseeing necessary to net it the bonus prizes and return the heavy scientific data we're looking for. They're hoping, though with a little less certainty, to grab all of the basic and bonus prizes including an overnight stay on the surface. That's a bigger challenge than it sounds as it takes 14.5 Earth days for the sun to make its way back onto the horizon and there's no atmosphere to trap heat during that period.

As is the hope of the prize sponsors and most folks in the space community, Astrobotic aims to put out further missions. Specifically they are aiming for the polar regions that have been pegged for possible sites for a human base. In recent news, they've prodded NASA to select private companies (presumably themselves) to do the robotic grunt work for preperatory missions to the moon. This was in response to a recent study done by NASA to demonstrate the best methods for robotic site prep for the future human missions. Of the options avalable, it appears the little bots would be going WALL-E and piling up the vast amounts of rock and soil into burms to shield the future home base from the dust kicked up by landers. It's nice to see NASA is following through with the nuts and bolts engineering tasks at this point. Let's hope that continues.

Look for Astrobotic's first mission to kick off in May 2010.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

In the news: Reaction Engines Skylon

For round one, I'm looking at a recent piece of news that lends legitimacy to a program I view as fascinating, but a big risk technologically. The latest news from the UK is that the British National Space Center in conjunction with the ESA, will be pumping 1,000,000 euros into Reaction Engines' Skylon space plane and it's SABRE engine technology. This shows some serious long term thought on the part of the BNSC and the ESA on a risky, but potentially revolutionary technology. So let's take a quick look at the Skylon and it's remarkable engine.

The skylon is meant to be a solution to the single stage to orbit challenge. A spaceplane in the truest sense of the term, it is meant to take you from Earth's surface to orbit without any kind of booster separate from the main vehicle. They aim to do this by using a fairly simple liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (LOX) reaction leaving behind water and a lot of thrust. The same principle is used to get the shuttle from booster separation to orbit. The reason the shuttle can't do single stage to orbit, however, is the large amount of both hydrogen and LOX needed to reach orbital velocities. The holy grail of single stage to orbit craft is to find some way to take up less fuel.

The SABRE engine, if the concept is to work, solves this problem by making the LOX as it goes along. As with anything in the rocket science world, this is not as simple as it sounds. It's not like a person can go out and buy a LOX kit at their local science supply store. First of all, you need to compress it. That takes energy. It turns out the most efficient way to compress standard issue Earth atmosphere into liquid oxygen is by making an open ended compressor of sorts. In other words, go really fast so that the air is crunched into a very small space.

The problem there is that the kind of compression we're talking about generates some serious heat. It's how jets fly, essentially. Compress the air inside the engine, which raises the temperature, throw in some jet fuel, and voila, you're airborne. To handle the kind of heat we're talking about, jets use some heavy duty materials. The problem with heavy duty, is essentially the 'heavy' part. What good is making your own LOX if you lose all that ground in the materials you need to make the engine. It's the ultimate yo-yo diet.

So the guys at Reaction decided to make a serious heat sink called a precooler. Again, it's nothing new, conceptually. Computer geeks have some pretty wild heat sinks tht keep their over-powered computers from turning into a heap of molten plastic. This one is somewhat similar to the water-cooled method where you run cool water through a series of hoses near the processor to cool it down. Except instead of water, the SABRE pipes compressed hydrogen and helium through the system. If you remember the liquid Nitrogen back in science class where they shattered flowers and such, that's like a pot of boiling water compared to this stuff. The end result is a system that cools the incoming air down from a hellish 1800 degress Fahrenheit to a bitterly cold -220 degrees in less than a second.

Again this is far more complicated than it sounds. There are a number of issues that had to be solved before Reaction even knew it was possible to do what they set out to do, like getting the water out of the system before the engine turns into the worlds biggest popcicle. But reaction has now proven it's possible to make it happen. But they say that if they get the funding to start production on the final product, it will be 10 to 15 years before it flies. So while I am very excited and hopeful for Skylon, it's a long way off. Kudos to the BNSC and ESA for having the foresight to realize that, without some funding, in 10 to 15 years we'd be kicking ourselves for not at least trying.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Launch of the Starship Private Enterprise

I've decided to add my voice to the list of space blogs out there. This blog is intended to cover space issues with a focus on private space enterprise. There have already been blogs that have covered this topic, and as a freshman blogger I don't expect I will overshadow them or even match them out of the gates, but I think I have some perspective to offer. Also, when possible, I will provide information from the companies and individuals themselves.

My current plans are to have a few regular features in addition to the usual current event focus. Features on major events in private space history, features on individual companies, and features on specific technologies.

Terence Clark

PS I'm not a Trekkie. In fact I'm not even much of a fan, but the name worked well. Turns out a lot of major news organizations back during the XPrize days came up with this one as well. I came up with it independently, I swear.