The Future of Human Spaceflight is Coming — Just Sit Tight

Here is a US spaceflight update (lengthy, I warn you) with important news about the future of US spaceflight.

Two years ago this month, shuttle Endeavour was on the pad being readied for its final flight to the International Space Station. At the time, NASA and the US Senate were locked in battle over the future path for NASA and funding for commercial and governmental human space flight.

It’s been a long two years, witnessing deep cuts in funding for the commercialization of US spaceflight, including unfortunate and unnecessary layoffs at Kennedy Space Center. And the Senate and NASA management continue to be on less than cordial terms.

The remarkably positive news in all of this is that commercializing/privatizing sophisticated and capable launch systems to reach low earth orbit (LEO) is moving ahead at a fast clip. In the past two years, SpaceX, the company into which Elon Musk has poured millions as well as his heart and soul, has demonstrated convincingly that a private venture is capable of designing, constructing, integrating, testing, launching and managing on-orbit a LEO spacecraft. The company has developed its own design — not derivative of military- or NASA-funded launchers and spacecraft. It has brought forward its own engine design which is rapidly evolving and improving, not to mention the fairly remarkable clustering of engines in groups of 9, hence the name of its workhorse rocket: Falcon 9. (SpaceX’s heavy-launch rocket, to be tested in a year or so, bands together 36 engines to loft the rocket and capsule into earth orbit or beyond. It will be interesting to watch this beast climb to orbit. The last time anyone tried clustering engines like this to get a rocket into or out of orbit, it was the Soviet’s. That launch vehicle has 40 engines and was intend to carry cosmonauts to the moon. The Soviets were never able to solve the destructive harmonics set off by 40 rockets firing in unison.) And SpaceX is moving full-speed ahead with the development of its Dragon capsule which will double as a freighter and passenger vehicle.

Those of you who are space-buffs may cry foul about claims that SpaceX has achieved truly privatized spaceflight. For real, the vast majority of its contracts are related to government missions. As is true for space-faring companies like Lockheed and Boeing. So, we’re not quite there but we are closing in fast. What is new here is the price-point per pound-to-orbit. SpaceX has guaranteed a certain number of launches with certain up and down-mass capabilities for a fixed price. This is not the old “cost-plus” pricing model. SpaceX’s design has attracted truly private launch contracts.

Ho-hum you say? SpaceX is just the beginning. In mid-April, Orbital Sciences will conduct a full-scale test launch of its LEO launch vehicle Antares — recycling the same engines that the Soviets built for their failed moon rocket! Yes, some forward-thinking engineer bundled up dozens of the unused engines and when the Russians (post-Soviet) needed hard cash, put them up for sale. The Russians are extraordinarily good at engineering and mass producing rockets. Re-using these 40 year old engines is brilliant.

In 2014, NASA will loft the Orion space capsule on a test flight to determine how well the design handles launch and re-entry. Orion harkens back to the Apollo astronaut capsule but is much, much larger in mass, and will be able to carry perhaps as many as 7 astronauts into LEO. Now, Orion was mandated by Congress — by those Republicans and Democrats who see a role for government in human spaceflight and who want to preserve high-tech jobs in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and elsewhere. Orion, if development and testing doesn’t stall because of budget cuts, will fly to ISS before the end of the decade and should carry a crew out of orbit around the moon and back. Exciting and frustrating. The launch system that can really push Orion beyond earth orbit and into interplanetary trajectories is underfunded and very slow in development. There’s real risk due to budget constraints that Orion and its space launch system may not be fully realized.

Meanwhile, Sierra Nevada has built scaled-up test models of its mini-Space Shuttle vehicle for hauling people to low earth orbit and bringing them back in style, navigating through the atmosphere and landing horizontally on a runway, rather than capsules descending in a more “ballistic” uncontrolled flight into the ocean or to a soft parachute landing on the ground. Boeing, not a new comer to spaceflight, is moving ahead with its CST-100 capsule for flight to LEO. It looks a lot like Orion but unlike Orion it’s not intended to leave earth orbit. We’ll be hearing and seeing more about the CST-100 soon.

In the category, I’ll believe it when I see it, aforementioned SpaceX is fast at work on a variant of the Falcon 9 that goes aloft, sends its capsule into orbit and then returns the spent booster(s) in a controlled descent, the booster remaining vertical, right back to the launch site. Remarkably, SpaceX has been testing the design at-scale and step by step is achieving controlled descents from greater and greater (so far, not too great) heights.

So, what is the take away. In a world with many problems, does any of this matter. Are the resources misused? I think not. I think what we are witnessing right now is the greatest pulse of innovation in spaceflight technology since the days of Mercury-Gemini-and Apollo. NASA is part of it though in a limited way. There is Orion and its Space Launch System (sometimes referred to as the Senate Launch System due to the role that legislators had in defining the system at a concept-level), but NASA simply is not as intensively involved in innovating, designing, integrating, testing, launching and managing space launch systems as it once was. It is partnering though with the European Space Agency to design and hopefully launch vehicles for carrying astronauts into interplanetary space. NASA has signed an agreement to install on the ISS a privately-funded inflatable module really soon. It’s a test of technology that could readily lead privatized space stations.

Given all of this, I do believe I will live to see men and women living on the surface of Mars, and considerable numbers of (wealthy) private citizens travelling on vacation to earth orbiting hotels with artificial gravity.

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