Monday, November 14, 2011

Space Tourism, Space Solar Power, and ITAR Development

Some good space news has surfaced in the last fews days.

First, the International Astronautical Associated released a report on Space Solar Power. The first news report talks about ten years and millions of jobs. Also, see the full report.

Second, a breathtaking video of the Earth from Space was created from pictures take by ISS (international Space Station) astronauts. Do not miss this!

Finally, in a little inside but very important news, A bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives that seeks ITAR reform relative to "commercial satellites and related components" (HR3288). The bill is called the "Safeguarding United States Satellite Leadership and Security Act of 2011", and is being co-sponsored by a bi-partisan group of Congressmen. This is important because current law severely restricts the ability of American companies to export satellites and satellite components, even to close allies.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Big, Big Step Towards Space Settlement Soon?

The key to space settlement is inexpensive, reliable launch from Earth to orbit. The least expensive, and IMHO most exciting, vehicle today is the SpaceX Falcon. The Falcon 9 has flown a couple of times and is priced at about $5,000/kg, which is well below other launch vehicles. The Falcon Heavy is in development and promises to lower costs even more, to as little as $1,500/kg. The Falcon 9 and Heavy are expendable launchers, meaning the vehicle does not survive the launch and a new vehicle must be built for the next payload. If it were possible to use these vehicles over and over, without too much refurbishment between launches, costs could be dramatically lowered.

I just listened to a talk by Elon Musk, the head of SpaceX. He says that analysis and simulation suggest that they can fly the Falcon 9 first stage back to the launch pad and, with a heat shield and aerodynamic exterior, get the upper stage back as well. He also says that it will be difficult and they may fail, but they intend to try. He estimates the reduction in cost at about 100x. That means SpaceX thinks they can get costs down to around $60/kg.

They could easily be wrong, but if they are even in the ballpark this is revolutionary -- and the 1,500 employees at SpaceX are going to try.


Is there something you can do to help? If you are a US voter, yes. Contact your congressional representatives and ask them to insist that the air force buy launch services with a free and open competition.

Background: The air force launches many satellites into orbit. They are proposing a sole source, non-competitive contract with a consortium of Lockheed and Boeing to buy all of their launches through 2018. If this contract goes through, SpaceX, or any other company, would not be allowed to bid. This is in spite of the fact that SpaceX is cheaper and the Falcon vehicles are built entirely in the U.S. whereas one of the vehicles in the sole source contract, the Atlas V, has a Russian-built main engine! In other words, the air force is insisting on buying Russian engines rather than American products!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

It's Time to Take the Training Wheels Off and Fly

I learned to ride a bike with training wheels. They kept me from falling over. They also slowed me down. After a month or two, I took the training wheels off and really started to ride. For decades, American companies have flown people into space under the strict government supervision, training wheels that got us started and, most of the time, kept us safe.

It's time to take the training wheels off and fly. This means NASA's top human space flight priority should be the Commercial Crew Program. This program is helping American companies develop privately owned space taxis to take people from Earth into Low Earth Orbit, especially the International Space Station (ISS). The primary alternative is the Space Launch System (SLS), a program to pay private companies to develop a much larger 100% government owned vehicle with strict government oversight -- training wheels. It should be noted that right now, American astronauts travel to the ISS on Russian vehicles.

With today's massive federal debt and deficit, choices must be made. In the case of human space flight, I believe that the Commercial Crew Program should be fully funded first because:

1. Commercial Crew is far, far cheaper than the SLS. Total cost is around $6 billion for the largest Commercial Crew proposal vs. the $35 billion estimated for the SLS. Furthermore, Commercial Crew uses fixed price contracts and the SLS will be traditional cost-plus accounting, an approach that rewards cost over runs. The lower cost is fundamental, Commercial Crew takes advantage of market forces.

2. Commercial Crew vehicles are expected to fly humans many years sooner than the SLS. Thus, less money will be paid to the Russians.

3. The SLS is too large for efficient transportation of people to the ISS. This also increases cost.

4. Commercial Crew is intended to develop multiple space taxis by multiple companies. No longer will America depend on a single launch vehicle for human access to space. In the shuttle era, each accident was followed by years of cancelled flights. Multiple vendors will reduce this risk substantially.

5. Commercial Crew is intended develop space taxis that can sell rides to others. For example, Bigelow Aerospace has put two small space stations in orbit and once a space taxi is available is prepared to fly a full sized space station to host astronauts. The Commercial Crew vehicles are perfect for space tourism, a market that is currently a Russian monopoly. Space tourism has the potential to vastly increase the number of people in space.

If Commercial Crew is fully funded and Congress wants to fund the SLS or other human launch alternative, I support that. But, only when the best alternative, Commercial Crew, is fully funded.

For fifty years American companies have built and operated human launch vehicles under strict government ownership and supervision. It's time to take off the training wheels and let private enterprise fly.

NOTE: While the SLS is a much larger vehicle than those proposed for Commercial Crew, at least one private company is prepared to build similarly large vehicles at much lower cost. Specifically, SpaceX believes the can build a vehicle with a greater payload than the SLS for approximately $2.5 billion in five years (link).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Space Launch System

The much anticipated plans for the Space Launch System (SLS) were unveiled today. It will cost (at least) $18 billion to get to the first unmanned test launch in 2017 of a 70 ton payload version and, according to Space News, the launch rate will be one every two years. If the system lasts for 20 years, that means a total of 10 launches. If the system cost nothing after the first test launch, the SLS would cost $1.8 billion per launch -- more than the space shuttle.

Now suppose we spent that money on private launch services. Right now SpaceX is advertising $125 million per launch for the Falcon Heavy, which will lift 53 tons. That means we could buy 144 Falcon Heavy launches with the money needed for a single test launch of the SLS.

Furthermore, in a letter to the Space News editor on February 7 SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said: "we .. develop a heavy-lift launch vehicle with a 150 metric ton to orbit capability ... We can do so for no more than $2.5 billion, within five years, on a firm, fixed price basis with payment made only on achieving hardware milestones." The SLS is eventually supposed to lift 130 tons, so for 1/7th of the money and a year's less time SpaceX thinks they could do the job.

But perhaps SpaceX can't! What is the record? SpaceX has developed two vehicles in the last few years, Falcon I and Falcon 9, both of which have flown successfully. In the last 20 years NASA has tried to develop four vehicles, the aerospace plane, X33, Ares I and Ares V. None have made it into space.

Of course, the SLS is intended to be human rated, however, the Falcon series is designed to be human rated too.

The short story? From the point of view of space development, the SLS is fiscally insane and there is no reason to believe it is technically superior.

Friday, April 8, 2011

China's Space Program

This was written in response to an article in Space News.

In the March 26 issue, Dean Cheng complains that the Obama administration regards China's expanded space activities as a potential threat while advocating cooperation with the Chinese space program. Mr. Cheng sees this as inconsistent and confused. Perhaps Mr. Cheng has not considering the fact that the Soviet Union's thousands of nuclear tipped ICBMs and stated goals represented an imminent mortal threat to America, but a series of U.S.-Soviet/Russian cooperative space programs has played an important role in reducing that threat significantly. President Obama's Chinese space strategy is not confused, as Mr. Cheng asserts, it is intelligent. It recognizes that short of the mutual suicide of nuclear war we cannot destroy the Chinese space program, or even slow it down much. We can forge cooperative links with this program, as we have with the Russian program, to our mutual benefit while simultaneously reducing the threat to America.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

SpaceX, Heavy Lift, Fixed Price!

In a letter the Space News editor on February 7 SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said: "we .. develop a heavy-lift launch vehicle with a 150 metric ton to orbit capability ... We can do so for no more than $2.5 billion, within five years, on a firm, fixed price basis with payment made only on achieving hardware milestones."

Contrast this with the 2012 budget proposal for NASA's new, traditional, cost-plus contract heavy lift booster: $1.8 billion for ONE YEAR of a five year development plan! Don't for get that these cost-plus contracts almost always go over budget.

Bottom line: Congress should change the heavy lift development program to a fixed price program similar to the very successful COTS program which helped develop the SpaceX Falcon 9 (on which the heavy lift vehicle would be based) and an Orbital Science vehicle. It would b a lot cheaper.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bigalow's National Customers Revealed!

"The company [Bigalow Aerospace] plans to lease space aboard the stations to foreign nations, research organizations and businesses (Aerospace DAILY, May 6, 2010). Seven clients in The Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, Australia, United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirate of Dubai have signed memorandums of understanding." From Bigelow Floats Plan For Florida Space Coast Aviation Week, Feb 4, 2011. This is the first time I've seen a list of potential Bigalow customers. Very interesting!

If you are not familiar with Bigalow Aerospace, they are building inflatable space stations. They have two sub-sized, pressurized stations in orbit right now. Their target market is national space programs for countries that can't afford to build everything themselves -- they can lease a Bigalow station. I think this is a pretty good way to get started on orbital hotels.

Bigalow's plans will not work without some kind of private, commercial human launch capacity, the kind that President Obama is trying to create. See Obama's Brilliant Space Policy for details.