June 4, 2012
Making it easier, cheaper, and quicker to get things into orbit is the hot ticket right now. In our latest issue we cover the ongoing efforts by the Operationally Responsive Space office, working out of Kirtland Air Base in New Mexico, to make quick-launch spacecraft. DARPA’s also in that game: last week they awarded Boeing a $4.5 million contract to study airborne satellite launch systems. DARPA’s website explains:
The goal of [the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access] ALASA is to develop a significantly less expensive approach for routinely launching small satellites, with a goal of at least threefold reduction in costs compared to current military and US commercial launch costs. Currently, small satellite payloads cost more than $30,000 per pound to launch, and must share a launcher with other satellites. ALASA seeks to launch satellites on the order of 100 pounds for less than $1M total, including range support costs, to orbits that are selected specifically for each 100 pound payload.
They also note other disadvantages of fixed launch sites, like weather delays and limitations on the types of orbits available. Of course, the idea for aircraft-based launches goes back to NASA’s X-planes in the 1950s. Today, Orbital Sciences Corp. sends satellites into space with its Pegasus rocket that launches from a Lockheed-1101 Tri-Star (NASA’s NuSTAR spacecraft is scheduled for a June 13 airborne launch). And Stratolaunch Systems, the collaboration of Scaled Composites, SpaceX, and Dynetics, is in the works to take payloads up “affordably and responsibly” (and if successful, “mark the dawn of a new era of space transportation,” if they do say so themselves).
With ALASA, which has been in the works since November 2011, DARPA is looking for something a bit lighter-duty for smaller satellites — the Pegasus/Tri-Star can carry up to 1,000 pounds, while the Stratolaunch will likely be rated for payloads upwards of 100,000 pounds. And somehow, they want this launch system designed so that it requires “no recurring maintenance or support, and no specific integration to prepare for launch.” A pick-it-up-and-go system, indeed. We’ll be interested to see what Boeing comes up with by the end of their 18-month contract.
June 1, 2012
Now that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has returned triumphantly to Earth, the idea that young, relatively inexperienced companies can play in the space big leagues—with far less NASA oversight than usual—gains credibility. The coming year will be a busy one for New Space, with several companies rolling out vehicles or beginning test flights after years of behind-the-scenes development. Here’s the current state of play:
Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser, designed to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, had a good week. The lifting body mini-shuttle completed its first captive carry test on Tuesday (see video below), and the following day passed a key NASA design review. Sierra Nevada plans to begin approach-and-landing tests late this summer at Edwards Air Force Base in California, using an air-crane helicopter to drop the vehicle for free flights at progressively higher altitudes and speeds. The first two drop tests will be unpiloted, but the third will have a crew of two onboard, just as NASA’s Enterprise proto-space shuttle did in 1977. Bet on former NASA chief astronaut Steve Lindsey, who heads Dream Chaser’s test flight program, to make the first flight. Sierra Nevada’s Mark Sirangelo says the Dream Chaser remains on track to reach orbit (on top of an Atlas V rocket) “within two to three years,” depending on NASA funds and timing.
Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus, the other commercial vehicle beside Dragon that NASA is counting on for near-term cargo deliveries to the space station, is running behind its competitor, but is expected to debut this fall. The first launch of the Antares (formerly called Taurus II) carrier rocket on which Cygnus will ride is planned for August from Wallops Island, Virginia. If that works, Cygnus would launch to the space station on the second Antares in October or November for a demo flight similar to the one that SpaceX just completed.
Virgin Galactic also reported news this week: Scaled Composites, builder of the SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, was granted a license from the FAA to conduct powered flight tests, which will begin, the company says in typically vague fashion, “toward the end of the year.” SpaceShipTwo has flown 16 unpowered free flights to date, and its engine has been test-fired 10 times—“safely and successfully,” according to Virgin Galactic.
Boeing has been busy testing the parachute landing system for its CST-100 crew capsule over a dry lake in Nevada. The vehicle’s software, meanwhile, passed a NASA design review last week. The Apollo-style capsule is one of the competitors vying to ferry NASA astronauts to the space station later this decade. Boeing has leased one of the space shuttle’s old hangars at Cape Canaveral to build the CST-100, which will be launched on top of an Atlas V rocket. Test flights begin in 2015 or 2016.
Another entrant in the suborbital tourism (and research) market is XCOR, with its two-seat Lynx spaceplane. XCOR says it is making good progress on the engines for the Lynx Mark 1 vehicle, which will reach altitudes up to 38 miles (the Mark 2 version will reach up to 62 miles). The company hopes to begin flight testing by the end of this year, and to begin commercial flights in late 2013 or early 2014.
NASA may have canceled its Ares/Constellation program, but the essential elements have been repackaged by Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and Astrium as a commercial launch service called Liberty, using a rocket based on the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and a capsule similar to the Orion vehicle Lockheed is building for NASA. According to ATK, “Liberty’s test flights are expected to begin in 2014, with a crewed mission anticipated in late 2015.”
Blue Origin, the space startup founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, is the most secretive of the new launch companies, but it, too, weighed in this week with an announcement of sorts: the company’s unorthodox vertical takeoff/ horizontal landing “Space Vehicle” (catchy name!) passed an early-stage NASA requirements review in mid-May. Since the vehicle is still in the design phase, there’s no word as to when we might see test flights.
May 3, 2012
Have a spare $4,000 and can’t figure out what to spend it on? How about a plastic Snoopy astronaut doll, signed by Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford? If that wasn’t exactly what you were looking for, there were hundreds of other items to be had at Bonhams’ fourth annual space history auction, held April 26: A painting by astronaut Alan Bean of Apollo 16 astronaut John Young leaping into history ($68,500); a rare Soviet space suit used during the 1969 docking of Soyuz 4 and 5 ($46,250); early Russian space posters (To Space—the Soviet way!—$1,500); a copy of Octave Chanute’s 1899 book Progress in Flying Machines, signed by the author himself ($1,187). See a few highlights from the auction, below.
This well-known image of Buzz Aldrin, taken on July 20, 1969 by Neil Armstrong, went for $5,250. The 16 x 20 inch photograph was signed and dated by Aldrin, the Apollo 11 lunar module pilot and second human to set foot on the moon.
When Charles Lindbergh landed his Spirit of St. Louis at Le Bourget, completing the world’s first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, the aircraft’s fuselage fabric was badly torn by souvenir-hunters. “I could feel the Spirit of St. Louis tremble with the pressure of the crowd,” Lindbergh would later write. “I heard the crack of wood behind me when someone leaned too heavily against a fairing strip. Then a second strip snapped, and a third, and there was the sound of tearing fabric…. It was essential to get a guard stationed around my plane before more damage was done.” This 4 x 5 inch piece of fabric, below—which went for $2,000—is believed to be from that historic day.
This 1964, 250-page Project Gemini manual—signed by Buzz Aldrin, Gordon Cooper, Gene Cernan, Richard Gordon, Wally Schirra, Dave Scott, and Tom Stafford—was issued to both astronauts and support personnel. The manual, which includes fold-out schematics and diagrams, went for $9,375.
Looking for something a little larger? How about a nearly 8-foot-tall prototype lunar flagpole? Bonhams’ catalog notes, “About 3 months before Apollo 11, [director] Robert Giruth asked [the Manned Spacecraft Center's] Technical Services Division to design a flagpole that could support the U.S. flag in an environment with no atmosphere. It had to be lightweight, compact, and easily assembled by astronauts wearing pressurized space suits.
The team came up with a flagpole very similar to the present example. The Apollo 11 flagpole was attached to the left-hand side of [the lunar module] Eagle’s ladder, and was protected from the heat of Eagle’s descent engines by a special heatproof shield. [Buzz] Aldrin has commented [in Apollo Expeditions to the Moon], ‘It took both of us to set it up and it was nearly a disaster…. As hard as we tried, the telescope wouldn’t fully extend. Thus the flag which should have been flat, had its own unique permanent wave. Then to our dismay the staff of the pole wouldn’t go far enough into the lunar surface to support itself in an upright position. After much struggling we finally coaxed it to remain upright, but in a most precarious position. I dreaded the possibility of the American flag collapsing into the lunar dust in front of the television camera.’”
In 1966, the Soviets achieved the first soft landing on the Moon with their unmanned spacecraft Luna 9, which was also the first spacecraft to transmit images from the lunar surface. After the spacecraft landed, four petals that covered the top half of the vessel opened outward, helping to stabilize the craft on the Moon’s surface. One surplus petal, identical to the four on Luna 9, sold at auction for $4,000.
One of the most beautiful items at the auction was this lunar planning chart, signed by a member of each Apollo lunar landing crew. The chart, which indicates every Apollo lunar landing site, also includes written notes by the astronauts about their various flights. “A dream of mankind becomes true!” writes Buzz Aldrin. The 45 x 42 inch chart sold at auction for $62,500.
May 5, 2011
Who can forget billionaire ex-spaceman Jeff Tracy and his five sons (Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon, and John), each named after a Mercury astronaut? Remember how they—through their organization (International Rescue)—um…rescued people…internationally? Ok, so they were puppets. Deal with it, people!
The Royal Air Force Museum (London) invites fans of the 1960s television show Thunderbirds to revisit their inner child (as well as the museum) on May 14 and “play with giant sized versions of classic children’s games whilst listening to music of the 60s and 70s.” The museum will also have on display original models, and will air episodes from Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet in the museum’s cinema. Sylvia Anderson, the voice of Lady Penelope and the co-creator of the show, will discuss her career, the actors she worked with, and the inspiration behind the puppets. (Anderson and her husband are the creative team also responsible for Space: 1999, starring the wooden Barbara Bain and the over-the-top Martin Landau.)
Our marionette heroes use a variety of air- and spacecraft to carry out their missions. Thunderbird 2 (usually piloted by son Virgil Tracy, he of the intimidating eyebrows, above), is a large green VTOL aircraft used in most of the team’s earth-based rescue missions. The big bird can fly anywhere in the world without refueling, and cruises along at 2,000 mph, but can achieve 5,000 mph when needed. Amazingly, it is not the team’s fastest mode of transport. That honor goes to Thunderbird 1 (typically piloted by Scott Tracy), a hypersonic rocket that can travel 15,000 mph, or Mach 22.6. You’d think that a rocket capable of that speed would have extremely complex controls, but no. Thunderbird 1 is controlled by a mere two control levers. Life is so easy when you’re a puppet!
March 21, 2011
When we last left the Garvey Space Craft/Cal State Long Beach rocketeers at the Friends of Amateur Rocketry test site in Mojave, California, they had static-tested their P-18 engine, designed to launch nanosatellites to low Earth orbit, for the 150 seconds required to launch an orbital first stage. On March 5, author Stephen Joiner reports, “The engine flew for the first time. It was just a 3-second burn — a tap on the accelerator pedal — but it cranked out a lot of altitude.” (Not enough to bust its Class 2 altitude restriction, though.) “When they tested it in November, the sonic shock almost knocked us down.”
Says John Garvey: “The next launch is scheduled for April. We tentatively have at least one payload provider signed up who will help co-sponsor the flight. We are going to try to fly the P-18 on a regular basis while the vehicle and funds hold out. There are lots of opportunities for improvement.”
In a photo of the just-landed vehicle, a “Buzz Lightyear payload flown on behalf of a first-grade class in Long Beach” hangs on for dear life to steel-plate ballast.
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