[Note: I asked Pat for permission to do a post about this announcement this afternoon, I figured it was good to have an occasional reminder that we are actually in the 21st century, and not all news is depressing news. -- Jon Goff]
Today NASA announced that it would be awarding contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to complete development of vehicles for carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. These contracts (up to $4.2B in the case of Boeing, and up to $2.6B in the case of SpaceX) cover not only the remainder of development and certification tasks needed by both providers to enable the first manned demo flights of their respective to ISS in late 2017, but also covers up to 6 crew transfer flights to ISS after that. These awards were "firm fixed-price" FAR contracts, which means that the companies get paid the fixed amount they bid, broken up over a series of technical milestones--if they don't complete a given milestone, they don't get paid, and if things cost more than expected, the companies themselves eat the difference.
For those wondering why Boeing got more than SpaceX, it is simply that they proposed a higher price for completing the same milestones. NASA wanted to have two providers, to make sure that they don't get stuck in a situation where they cannot access their $100B space station in case one vendor has issues with their vehicle or the launcher that boosts it to orbit. There was a third developer, Sierra Nevada Corporation, who was not selected for contract award, presumably because NASA felt that their vehicle was either more risky, or more expensive than those proposed by SpaceX or Boeing.
Forty-five years ago this night, Neil Armstrong became the first man to step onto the moon. It was an exhilarating event in the U.S. and in much of the world. I did not see it on TV. Instead, I was camping with two of my friends. On this night, forty-five years ago, we were lying in our sleeping bags on a thick bed of pine needles on the crest of a pine covered hill overlooking a local reservoir. The land was posted, but we were adept at stealth camping. We had a perfect view of the full moon on that clear, warm night. Normally, we never had a radio or even a watch when we camped. But this time we made an exception. I carried a small transistor radio to listen to Walter Cronkite narrate the landing. Looking back on it, we made the right decision. It was glorious to be surrounded by nature looking at the moon with our own eyes while listening to history being made.
Given the state of the world today and the craven cowardice of so many of our politicians and pundits, I find solace in what we once were. It's either that or rum.
"American Orbital Sciences Corporation's (OSC) Cygnus freighter docked three days after blasting off from Virginia. It brought just over 1.2 tonnes of supplies to the ISS's six astronauts, including food, clothing, spare parts, scientific experiments, and long-awaited gifts from their families. It is the second OSC freighter trip. Last September's visit was a demonstration flight. This mission, on the other hand, constitutes the first cargo delivery under a $1.9bn, eight-flight commercial resupply contract that Orbital has with the US space agency (Nasa)." BBC
Good news. One can only hope that commercial opportunities independent of government subsidies will soon begin to appear. pl
""I really see the International Space Station as the first step in exploration," said David Weaver, NASA's associate administrator for the Office of Communications, during a teleconference. "We're getting a significant amount of research on the space station. It lets us look back at the Big Bang. It gives us clues on dark matter. The space station is really hitting its stride. We're doing a lot of science there. It's a pretty productive time." Extending the life of the space station, which took 13 years to construct and recently marked 15 years in orbit, is a much better scenario for scientists around the world than abandoning the orbiting lab and letting it fall out of orbit and crash into the ocean. The space station, which is about the length of a football field and carries several robotic arms, has a talking robot and a humanoid robot. It also has been the site of about 1,500 scientific experiments and is expected to receive dozens more when the next commercial cargo mission launches." Gaudin
Well, thank God! I can't imagine who thought it was a good idea to let this magnificant accomplishment just fall into the sea. pl
"Moon Express recently unveiled the MX-1 spacecraft design at the Autodesk University in Las Vegas. The Mountain View, California-based company is in the commercial space race, competing for the $40-million-Google Lunar X prize. The coffee-table sized spacecraft will be powered by solar panels and hydrogen peroxide and can move about the lunar surface. Water on the lunar surface could be a "potential source of rocket fuel on the lunar surface," the company said." Nature World
I would think that it is clear that without commercial profits or at least a "break even" point with big salaries and bonuses the long term prospects for the whole space thing are dim.
I say that with great sorrow because "space" like Bigfoot is high on my personal agenda. There are lots of ore laden rocks out there and Heinlein long ago and he devised a great way to transport ;the loot" back to earth. His sociological musing about things like "line" marriages were also entertaining. pl
"Energy resources that can be harvested in space for the benefit of Earth include helium-3 that occurs in abundance on both the Moon and asteroids and is ideal for new small fusion plants, as well as solar energy that can be collected and transmitted in concentrated form to Earth.
Hydrocarbons, helium, hydrogen, and volatiles in the solar system are important for human exploration and habitation because they will provide essential high-energy, high-density fuels and feedstock for off-world manufactured goods and materials for construction.
Metals, platinum-group elements, rare earth elements, and other volatiles, like H, H2O, and carbon compounds, are abundant on asteroids, many of which are relatively accessible from Earth. We could even use the asteroids that come too close as a way to remove them as dangers since we’re going to have to deal with them anyway." Forbes
"The newly released study has found that water was most likely formed on the surface of the Moon by the constant stream of charged particles ejected from the Sun. The finding “represents an unanticipated, abundant reservoir” of water on the moon, according to researchers from three U.S. universities, who formally reported their results Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience." Bell Jar
I remember this. Robert Heinlein wrote about this 60 or 70 years ago in "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress." In his novel, Luna has been colonised and Terra is the colonial overlord exploiting the mining products of the Loonies. The big rocks mined are filled with lithium and other rare earths. They are shot back to planet earth with a mass driver (someone will explain). The rocks land in the Pacific Ocean somewhere where they are retrieved, for...?
The inevitable revolt takes place on the moon and freedom rings forth through the maze of tunnels that these people live in. The best part of the book was the obsessive, inevitable meditation by Heinlein on the various forms of marriage among the Loonies. As a teenager this certainly seemed the most interesting part to me. The most exotic of these forms was the "line marriage." Look it up.
So now it is known that there is a lot of water of the moon. The sky is the limit. pl
"-- NASA physicist Harold White says that by tweaking the drive used, the amount of energy may be able to be compressed from something the size of 300 Earths into something that weighs only 1,600 pounds.
How soon could NASA come up with a feasible drive like this? Let's put it this way -- White shared his findings at NASA's 100 Year Starship Symposium last week in Houston, which has a stated goal of building a faster than light spacecraft within the next 100 years.
" 11 alive
If anyone doubts the need for continued human space flight, this incident should be a good example of why humans are essential. Without these people, the space station would have been limited in capacity. pl
"Rockets are dangerous, complicated and relatively unreliable. No-one has yet built a launcher that is guaranteed to work every time. A misaligned switch, loose bolt or programming error can lead to disaster or, with a human crew, a potential tragedy. Rockets are also incredibly expensive - even the cheapest launch will set you back some $12 million, meaning the cost of any cargo costs a staggering $16,700 per kilogram. Although the funky new space planes being developed, such as Britain’s Skylon or Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo, will slash the costs of getting into space, they are still based on rocket technology – using sheer brute force to escape the clutches of gravity. But there is a radical alternative. Science fiction fans have long been familiar with space elevators. Popularised by Arthur C Clarke, the concept of an elevator from the Earth to orbit has been around for more than a century. In the space operas of Iain M Banks or Alastair Reynolds, space elevators are pretty much taken for granted – they’re what advanced civilisations use to leave their planets. " BBC
I have written on this before but it is "back" in the news. I hope this happens. pl
The landing will place the Mars rover closer to its final destination for science operations, but it will also place it precariously close to the foot of a mountain slope, which raises the possibility of a mission failure. A successful landing depends on a newly designed rocket-powered sky crane, which is expected to gently lower the car-sized rover onto the surface of Mars.
“We’ve done everything we can to ensure the greatest probability of success,” NASA manager Dave Lavery told reporters during a conference call. “The reality is, this is a very risky business. Historically, only about 40 percent of the missions to Mars have been successful,” he said." capitolcolumn
Is this really a good idea? Budgets for planetary exploration are severely constrained. Why take additional risks on the landing in order to avoid driving longer to the objective? pl
"The first mission under this LSA will be a commercial Falcon 9 mission in early 2013. For this mission Spaceflight will use its Spaceflight Secondary Payload System (SSPS) to support a multitude of small payloads including CubeSats, NanoSats and MicroSats.
The SSPS uses a custom ring, manufactured by Moog CSA Engineering, and a series of shelves and adapters to accommodate secondary payloads on their ride to space. The ring is similar to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) ring. The SSPS also features a standalone avionics and power system dedicated to monitoring the secondary payloads, initiating their deployment and relaying video and telemetry of their separation to a ground station." Spaceref.com
This a fascinating new development in the process of developing the infrastructure needed for a permanent place in space for mankind. pl
Over the days that followed, the station's crew unloaded a half-ton of food, equipment, experiments and other supplies — then loaded it back up with about 1,600 pounds (660 kilograms) of non-essential Earth-bound shipments. Today, astronauts reversed the process they went through last week. The robotic arm pulled the Dragon out from its port and positioned it for release at 5:49 a.m. ET. SpaceX's craft then executed a series of engine burns to take itself out of the station's neighborhood and descend from orbit.
The final engine burn slowed the Dragon's orbital velocity by 100 meters per second (224 mph) — enough to drop it into a fiery descent through the atmosphere. The craft's bottom is coated with a layer of protective material called PICA-X, which SpaceX's engineers say is resilient enough to weather a return to Earth from Mars. At its peak, the heat shield had to endure temperatures in excess of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,650 degrees Celsius)." MSNBC
Given his previous remark about firing people who want to do things on the moon, I presume that President Romney would kill this. Yes or no? pl
At 3:44am this past Tuesday, a rocket blasted off from Cape Caneveral, Florida on a historic mission to demonstrate the ability of a commercially developed and operated transportation system to safely deliver cargo to the International Space Station. This flight is only the third flight of the Falcon 9 rocket, developed by Elon Musk’s startup Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), and the second flight of their Dragon capsule, so the tension in the atmosphere at SpaceX was understandable. The first launch attempt, last Saturday morning, was scrubbed due to a leaky check valve in the central engine’s turbopump, which was fortunately caught by the Falcon 9’s flight computer, enabling a safe abort of the engines with only half a second to spare before the planned liftoff. SpaceX was able to diagnose and repair the problem over the weekend, and was ready to go again at the next launch window, on Tuesday morning. Fortunately, the Falcon 9 delivered a flawless performance, lifting the Dragon capsule safely to orbit a little over nine minutes after liftoff. I had literally been keeping my fingers and toes crossed for the whole flight while watching things from home (my past experience in rocket testing has made me somewhat superstitious). I choked up at the reaction of the SpaceX team when the Dragon’s solar panels finally deployed. If you need some inspiration, and haven’t seen the flight footage, I’d strongly suggest watching the unedited SpaceX broadcast (launch starts at ~44:40 mark).
While those initial thrilling moments were an excellent start to a historic mission which is the culmination of nearly six years of hard work at SpaceX and NASA, the most historic portion of this mission is about to begin tomorrow morning. Over the past two days since the launch, the Dragon capsule has been slowly catching up with the space station, while performing several tests to demonstrate to NASA the capsule’s ability to safely operate near the station. Earlier this morning, the Dragon performed a maneuver that allowed it to pass only 2.5km below the station, where the picture at the beginning of this post was taken by an astronaut on board the ISS (Don Pettit, the one who will be operating the robot arm for tomorrow’s “berthing” operation). This final test verified the ability of ISS crewmembers to send commands to the Dragon, and to test the inter-vehicle communication system. With the completion of today’s tests, SpaceX has actually fulfilled all the requirements they had originally planned for their second Dragon flight. However, over the past year, SpaceX has worked with NASA to gain permission to combine the second Dragon flight with the third and final Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration flight, where the Dragon capsule will ultimately berth with the station (using its robotic arm, controlled by astronauts on-board), cargo will be unloaded from inside the Dragon capsule, and a small amount of non-critical cargo will be loaded back into Dragon for the return flight. It is this final set of operations, which will start in the early morning hours tomorrow (around 7:30am on the east coast) and end with the hatch to the ISS being opened early Saturday morning, which will be the truly historic part of this mission—marking the beginning of service of the world’s first commercial space cargo delivery vehicle, completing SpaceX’s part in the COTS development program, and marking SpaceX’s transition into operational service as part of the Commercial Resupply Services program which it won flight contracts from at the end of 2008.
"An Obama administration plan to cut the cost of spaceflight services faces a key test on Saturday when a privately owned rocket lifts off for a practice run to the International Space Station." Reuters
Man's future in space ultimately depends on the commercialization of the costs and profits of flight. There are some things that government must lead in and the governments are doing that in deep space exploration development and continuing subsidization of attempts to make space, a business for those who have the vision to see the possibilities.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon equipment will be tested severely tomorrow. Much depends on the outcome. pl