Change is Coming to NASA Space Launch

by Space Frontier Foundation on March 19, 2010

Change is coming to the US space program. At last! Real, dramatic and tangible change in both its effect and the course it will create in this nation’s future in space.

It is long past time for us to try something different, as what we have been doing in our human space program since Apollo has been a failure of epic proportions. And yet, some defend the status quo and are actually angry about the coming changes proposed by the Obama Administration. I find this amazing given the space agency’s track record over the last few decades. But then, if nothing else, our past experience with the government building and operating space launches has shown that to many, simply flying some stuff around in circles and creating jobs that do nothing to advance us in any direction is more important than succeeding in getting anywhere – so long as everyone agrees in the myth that they are going somewhere.

It is heretical to say it in many quarters, but unlike its astronomy and robotic exploration programs, the current NASA operated human spaceflight program has failed by any rational measure in almost every respect to achieve Any of the milestones put forth by those who sold them to the American people so long ago. The most glaring example of this failure to deliver in the area of transportation is totally unknown to the taxpaying public and often overlooked by the defenders of the old ways: The space shuttle system, glorious and impressive symbol of the space agency for so long is a complete failure when measured against its promised performance. Sold in the 1970s as being able to fly once a week and bring costs down to tens of dollars a pound, they have averaged around 5 flights a year…on good years. In the meantime NASA has tried and failed time after time to develop new space transportation systems, including the much heralded and disastrous X-33, which after a billion dollars of taxpayer funding was canceled, never to have even rolled out of the hangar.

The background of repeated failures by the government to build and operate its own Earth to LEO launch systems is what we must keep in mind when we judge the new commercial Earth to LEO space transportation plans being put forth by the White House and NASA. Frankly, as a long time skeptic regarding anything the NASA press office puts out when it comes to human spaceflight, I am not only impressed by the plan to hand over this role to commercial space firms, but am willing to allow myself just a hint of hope that if it can be successfully implemented (freeing the agency to pursue real space exploration) We may at last break out of the circular self gratification of our current space program and go somewhere – and more importantly be able to go there again and again and even stay if we want to (the key word being “we” as in not just NASA employees, but eventually the rest of us too!).

And yes, to do this NASA will have to make changes. Rather than seeing itself as the emperor of all things space, it will have to change how it views the zone from the Earth’s surface to LEO. The agency simply cannot get it right when it comes to trying to build its own launch systems in any economic sense, and it is time it stopped trying. The agency will have to step aside in this area that it long ago pioneered. It will no longer be its own trucking service for small package delivery to space. It will have to relinquish its role as its own taxi service to LEO and leave the driving to someone else. Instead this job will be given to privately funded New Space firms across the nation that are working on a variety of rocketships that could catapult us into the space frontier and global space leadership at a fraction of the cost of any new NASA system.

For example, California’s SPACEX from its creation through its first successful orbital flights and all the industrial tooling and facilities to support them spent far less than the $445 million NASA did on its recent smoke and mirrors alleged test flight of an Ares 1-X mock up to only 50k feet higher altitude than that achieved by parachutist Joe Kittinger in 1960. To get all the way to being able to carry humans in its Dragon capsule on its Falcon 9 will cost only a fraction of the projected cost of the Ares and Orion system – and almost more importantly, when not in use by NASA it will be used by commercial companies to carry their own payloads and customers into space. Orbital Sciences using its Taurus vehicle is in a similar position and projects similar cost savings over the as yet paper lion of Ares Orion.

Even if one isn’t willing to bet on NewSpace firms some of our largest traditional firms are moving ahead with plans to adapt their tried and true systems to carry payloads and people into orbit to serve commercial customers and even the ISS. For example, the Atlas V has flown some 20 times and Delta IV more than 10 which is about 20 times and 10 times more than Ares and the Boeing/Bigelow Crew Capsule now in development will cost a fraction of that needed for Orion and be usable by both the government and commercial customers. From now on, in a very real sense, NASA’s exploration job will no longer start at the launch pad, but begin in space itself.

But none of this will happen if NASA tries to manage these new players in its old way. NASA must change not just what it does and where it does it, but how it does what it does, and how it works with others that are doing the jobs it needs done. Agency managers will have to learn new ways of contracting that are based not on how much work is done on a project, but how much that work produces. Like the rest of us, as a customer it can no longer rationalize spending huge amounts of money paying for a failed effort to deliver a package to a destination, but only for success. Yes, the agency will need to set standards for the transportation of its employees to and from space, but these should not and cannot be any more stringent than those they set for let’s say their astronauts who fly in F-16s. And it will have to actually relinquish control over some other areas of space operations that have become somewhat mundane in return for being able to focus on what many used to see as its main mission – exploration, science and technology development.

Unfortunately, no matter how good (normal) all of this sounds to normal people who live in a free enterprise society, in the visionless and ironic land of old school government aerospace the pork must keep flowing and tradition will  fight innovation. The forces of darkness are already moving to crush the revolution right now, as those who do not understand the enormity of the promise in this change in Congress ally with those who do and want it stopped regardless, all well armed by those who have fed off the system for so long they forgot NASA’s job is exploring space and not the national wallet for their own ends.

And so the battle is joined. And in yet another dose of irony, many of us who for so long have been seen as the foes of the agency as we have fought for common sense will now be standing shoulder to shoulder with its new leaders. About time I say, as I have never enjoyed having to take on my childhood icon time after time as it has meandered far from the dream of exploring and opening space. And although I know this may be a brief moment in time, I take my hat (space helmet?) off to those who are working on the inside to make this happen, and pledge my keyboard to their defence in the coming months. I only hope they are willing to stand their ground as well, as the stakes are greater than simply who gets what contract for how much. What is at stake is the future of this nation in space and just how soon and how well that future is realized.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

NewSpace News #114 – December 2014

by Curtis Iwata on December 13, 2014

Planet Labs has rebounded quickly after the loss of 26 satellites in the Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket mishap in October. In the 9 days that followed, they have built, tested, secured launch slots, and delivered 2 satellites to Houston to be integrated on SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Mission (CRS-5) to the ISS, which is scheduled for mid-December. Planet Labs has also partnered with Geoplex, who are specialists in mapping and geographic information systems (GIS), to provide up-to-date mapping services for markets in Australia and New Zealand.
- Updates by Planet Labs

On November 24th, Made In Space has printed itself into history as the first 3D printer to operate in space. The machine has been installed on the International Space Station (ISS) and has printed its own faceplate. This first printer will be used to conduct experiments by manufacturing test coupons and parts, which will be compared to those made on Earth, and the results will be incorporated into the next printer which is scheduled for launch next year. This is an important step forward for 3D printing in space – paving the way for future missions to more effectively live off the land and bringing long-term space settlement that much closer to reality.
- Press Release by Made In Space

As is becoming standard, SpaceX has had another productive month. SpaceX’s CEO and CTO Elon Musk has recently tweeted pictures of the company’s new “autonomous spaceport drone ship” and novel hypersonic grid fins on Falcon 9′s first stage, which will be used for attitude control of the stage upon reentry. In an unrelated tweet, he also teased that SpaceX is hard at work developing large networks of advanced microsatellites, which is likely intended to provide global internet access at low cost.
- Tweets by Elon Musk

Following the tragedy of SpaceShipTwo last Halloween, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has concluded its on-site assessment of the crash and will be independently analyzing all of the video footage and flight data. Currently, the most likely cause seems to be the premature activation of SpaceShipTwo’s feathering system during transonic flight, where the craft transitions from subsonic (below the speed of sound) to supersonic speeds. Sir Richard Branson has pledged to continue onward to realize the dreams of spaceflight that everyone, including the test pilots, have dedicated their time and effort. The second SpaceShipTwo is currently two-thirds constructed, and test flights will resume in 2015 once the spacecraft is complete.
- Press Release by Virgin and NTSB, Article by Bloomberg

[Note: The plume is clear due to liquid hydrogen propellant!!!]
XCOR Aerospace has made a significant step forward in the development of their XR-5H25 pump-fed liquid-hydrogen-liquid-oxygen (LH2-LOX) engine. A successful hot fire test this month marks a milestone in an ongoing program with United Launch Alliance (ULA) and two firsts in the history of rocketry. This was the first time LH2-LOX was fed to a rocket engine using a piston pump. This was also the first American-made engine of its size to fire using a pump-fed LH2-LOX mixture.
- Press Release by XCOR

Two of the co-founders of Paragon Space Development Corporation, President Jane Poynter and CEO Taber MacCallum, have left the company to lead Paragon’s spinoff company, World View Enterprises. The announcement was made days after the success of World View’s successful demonstration of StratEx, where Google executive Alan Eustace broke the record for longest sky dive. Grant Anderson, who was the Chief Operating Officer, has assumed the responsibilities of Poynter and MacCallum.
- Article by Arizona Daily Star

Since the explosion of the Antares rocket in October, Orbital Sciences Corporation has been working to establish a plan to fulfill its contract with NASA to provide resupply missions to the ISS and to reestablish its launch capability. Orbital has announced that it will be accelerating the development of an upgraded Antares and will most likely replace the problematic Russian engines. The launchpad also suffered damage, and repairs will be undertaken quickly in order to resume launch operations from Wallops Island in 2016.
- Blog Post by Project Loon

Reynolds, Smith, & Hills (RS&H), in partnership with Sierra Nevada Corp (SNC), has presented research on the feasibility and value of landing Dream Chaser at standard public-use airports with minimal interruption or unusual impact on daily operations. Presented at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, the spacecraft’s current capabilities were summarized, as well as plans for the future. SNC has detailed their efforts to meet all current and future environmental and safety requirements as they continue to develop Dream Chaser’s landing capabilities.
- Press release by SNC

Just as Orbital Outfitters (OO) and XCOR Aerospace are getting settled in at Midland, TX, the governor’s office has informed them that they will soon have neighbors. “Spaceport Business Park” as it is being called is coming to Midland. Starting with XCOR and OO, the state of Texas hopes to help Midland become “one of the premier sites in the world” for the aerospace industry. Presumably, in preparation to compete with the growing list of spaceports (e.g. Spaceport America, NM; Mojave Air & Spaceport, CA; Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, VA…), the governor’s office is providing a $2M grant to develop the area, and both XCOR and OO strongly support the idea of bringing more “space” to the area.
- Article by Midland Reporter Telegram

UrtheCast, the company developing the “first UltraHD video platform of Earth from space,” has reported 3rd quarter earnings this month. The company has yet to report profits, but it is inching closer to the breakeven point. Their comprehensive year-to-date loss is $11.9M, which is $2.5M less than the same time last year, which was $14.4M. That said, the company has received the final signature and an “Authorization to Proceed” or ATP from a confidential customer, valued at $65M. This will provide the company with valuable capital for development and hopefully boost UrtheCast across that revenue threshold.
- Blog Updates by Urthecast

OmniEarth (Omni) has partnered with Ball Aerospace (Ball) on the construction of 18 midsize imaging satellites. Straddling the line between smallsats and fullsize communications platforms, Omni’s satellites will be “about the size of a dishwasher.” Omni plans to fill the gap between companies like Planet Labs that will provide lower quality images but with high revisit time and DigitalGlobe that provides sub-meter, high resolution images. Ball will be developing high-quality imaging instruments based on the technology used in one of NASA’s much larger imaging satellites, Landsat 8. The instrument will be scaled down to fit Omni’s smaller platform, and the satellites will be launched in an overlapping constellation, allowing users to track earthly events at a daily scale.
- Article by Forbes

Swiss Space Systems (S3) has completed a drop-test flight campaign in Canada. They tested their flight systems including their avionics systems, drone systems, and various instruments and sensors. These will be integrated into a scaled down mock-up of their SOAR suborbital shuttle, which will be tested next Spring.
- Press Release by S3

Deep Space Industries (DSI) has announced a partnership with Solid Prototype who will provide 3D printing services. DSI has also welcomed mining entrepreneur Julian Malnic to its board, and Meagan Crawfordhas joined DSI as their Public Relations and Communications Manager.
- Press Releases by DSI

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and its partner Boeing has awarded three projects a combined total of $600,000 through the MassChallenge Startup Incubator. The experimenters plan to use the unique microgravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS) to further the research of their technologies. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC), and CASIS has announced the “Galactic Grant Competition” that targets Massachusetts-based companies to submit life-sciences experiments on the ISS, and the state intends to spend $1 billion over the next 10 years to encourage the local life sciences ecosystem. Finally, CASIS has awarded a total of $800,000 spread across three projects that are focused on material science using the ISS.
- Press Releases by CASIS

Boeing has awarded Raytheon a contract to build hyperspectral imaging instruments for the two satellites that Boeing is manufacturing for HySpecIQ, a commercial Earth-imaging venture company. The information captured by this technology can provide further insights of the ground and atmosphere, such as “mineral content of soil, characterize atmospheric pollutants and distinguish physical properties of materials otherwise undetectable to the naked eye.”
- Press Release by Raytheon

Google has been working on providing Internet using balloons in their Project Loon. They have been working on automating the balloon manufacturing process and increasing its lifespan. Many of their balloons can now last beyond 100 days in the stratosphere. Improvements are being made to their operations, enabling them to autofill and deploy up to 20 balloons a day, and using simulation, they are improving their deployment accuracies, which is important for consistent global coverage.
- Blog Post by Project Loon

Quick One-Liners

Axelspace Successfully Launches Hodoyoshi-1 Microsat [Press Release]
Carnegie Mellon & Astrobotic Unveils Lunar Rover Andy [Press Release]
Masten Suits Up XaeroB With Fairings And Panels [Twitter]
Google Leases Moffett Field From NASA For 60 Years [USA Today]
Skybox Releases Nighttime 1080p Video Of Las Vegas [Blog Post]

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Space Frontier Foundation Endorses “High Frontier” Video Game Kickstarter

November 21, 2014

Space Frontier Foundation Endorses “High Frontier” Video Game Kickstarter  All Supporters of Space Settlement are Encouraged to Show Support Greetings, I would like to introduce and ask for your support for an aspiring Kickstarter project depicting a game of human space settlement, inspired by and named after “The High Frontier” by Gerard O’Neill.  The project is […]

Read the full article →

NewSpace News #113 – November 2014

November 12, 2014

Dear Loyal NSN Readers, The past week has been one difficult to swallow. Our hearts especially go out to the families and friends of the Scaled Composites test pilots. As fans and participants of the NewSpace and commercial spacemovement who really want to see this happen, it has been heart wrenching, and we can only imagine how trying […]

Read the full article →

Space Frontier Foundation Mourns This Week’s Events Involving SpaceShipTwo and Orb-3

October 31, 2014

Space Frontier Foundation Mourns This Week’s Events Involving SpaceShipTwo and Orb-3 The NewSpace Community Urges the Country to Continue to Push Forward   (Silicon Valley, CA) The Space Frontier Foundation’s thoughts and prayers go out to our brothers and sisters on the SpaceShipTwo and Orb-3 teams, following the recent events. The NewSpace Industry is a tight-knit […]

Read the full article →

NASA’s ‘Emerging Space Report’ is a Victory for NewSpace!

October 26, 2014

NASA’s ‘Emerging Space Report’ is a Victory for NewSpace! Space Frontier Foundation Applauds NASA for Pro-Commercial & Pro-Settlement Language Washington, DC – NASA’s Emerging Space Office (ESO) recently released a report titled “The Evolving Landscape of 21st Century American Spaceflight” which demonstrates that NASA’s goals and ambitions are aligning themselves with the ideals of the […]

Read the full article →

Space Frontier Foundation Launches Teachers in Space, Inc.

October 23, 2014

Space Frontier Foundation Launches Teachers in Space, Inc. A New Generation of STEM Students Will Be Inspired By Space-Enthused Teaching Community New York, NY- Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) announced today the completed spin-off its successful Teachers in Space (TIS) project, launching a new nonprofit educational organization incorporated in the State of New York. Due to […]

Read the full article →

NewSpace News #112 – October 2014

October 19, 2014

  Boeing And SpaceX Survive To Last Round The highly anticipated winners for NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts have been announced. SFF congratulates the Boeing Company and SpaceX for winning their fixed-priced contracts with maximum potential values of $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively. This contract includes a crewed test flight to the […]

Read the full article →

Leadership Training for Commercial Space Executives

October 9, 2014

Leadership Training for Commercial Space Executives A Unique Opportunity to Support the Space Frontier Foundation While Furthering Your Career and Education Silicon Valley, CA - The Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) is pleased to announce its partnership with the upcoming Commercial Space Executive Leadership Training Course, scheduled to begin on October 20th 2014. This innovate online course will […]

Read the full article →

Capitol Hill Policy Update for September 15th through September 28th, 2014

October 8, 2014

NASA Awards $6.8 Billion to Boeing and SpaceX As part of their Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program, NASA has awarded Boeing and SpaceX $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively, to finish developing vehicles to taxi astronauts to and from the International SpaceStation. Boeing plans on using the funds to complete development of the CST-100 while SpaceX will […]

Read the full article →

Space Frontier Foundation Endorses Next Giant Leap Conference

October 7, 2014

Space Frontier Foundation Endorses Next Giant Leap Conference South Kohala, HI  - The Space Frontier Foundation encourages its members and constituents to attend the multinational “Next Giant Leap” Conference in South Kohala Hawaii, November 9 -13th.  Sponsored by the state of Hawaii, this conference is designed to explore options for developing sustainable pathways to space, with an […]

Read the full article →