National Space Society Applauds SpaceX Launch of IDA to the ISS and successful RTLS of the Falcon 9 First Stage

With a successful launch on July 18 at 12:45 AM EST, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, SpaceX achieved several dramatic milestones on the Commercial Resupply Services 9 mission (CRS-9). In addition to supplies and experiments in the pressurized part of the Dragon, an unpressurized “trunk” houses the 1,028 lb (467 kilogram) International Docking Adaptor (IDA), manufactured by Boeing. The IDA, once attached to the International Space Station (ISS) will be the connecting point for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crewed Dragon 2 spacecraft as they bring American astronauts to the ISS on American-built and operated vehicles for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle program.

Experiments being lofted to the ISS by CRS-9 include a Biomolecule Sequencer that will attempt for the first time DNA sequencing in micro-gravity and a new type of heat exchanger being developed by NASA. CASIS/ISS National Laboratory projects include OsteoOmics, which will use magnetic levitation to increase our understanding of the bone loss that results from osteoporosis, and HeartCells, a study of the effects of microgravity on the human heart, which could improve treatments for heart disease on Earth.

“The CRS-9 delivery of IDA is on the critical path to our future in space,” said Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President. “SpaceX continues to break new ground in lowering the cost of going into space, and the return to launch site landing of the first stage is key to eventually lowering the cost of spaceflight. With the successful installation of IDA on the ISS, America will be ready for the next epoch of human spaceflight based on commercial vehicles.”

International Docking Adaptor
International Docking Adaptor (IDA) ready for installation in the Dragon trunk [courtesy NASA]
On June 19, 2016 Blue Origin re-used its sub-orbital New Shepard booster on a flight to the Karman line (the edge of space) for the fourth time and returned the rocket to its launch site for further re-use while demonstrating the reliability of the capsule parachute system in the case of a failed parachute. “Competition like that seen between Blue Origin and SpaceX is the key to rapid progress in space,” said Bruce Pittman, NSS Senior Vice President. “Today’s launch of IDA to the ISS and the successful RTLS [return to launch site] landing is a direct result of the competitive, commercial nature of CRS and Commercial Crew, and NSS advocates extending these types of programs into cis-lunar space.”

Lowering the cost of access to space is fundamental to NSS’s vision of our future there (see www.nss.org/settlement/roadmap) and today’s events have brought that future materially closer.

Videos of the SpaceX Reusable Rocket Program

Below are two 5-minute videos about the reusable rocket development program of SpaceX. The first video shows the live coverage of the first successful landing on an autonomous spaceport drone ship, with the tremendous excitement of the SpaceX team very audible in the background. The second video is a cool compilation of SpaceX reusable rocket testing over the previous four years.

The Billionaire’s Race to Colonize Space: Blue Origin and SpaceX

Elon Musk has made it clear that his mission with SpaceX is to colonize Mars and to help humanity become a multi-planet species.

Jeff Bezos states that Blue Origin is “working hard to bring closer the day when millions of people can live and work in space.”

See the interesting article on this subject by Trevor Nace on The Next Web Insider.

Space Invaders: The Mojave Entrepreneurs

From Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President:

A lot of things are happening related to space that don’t get covered by the mainstream media. This 13-minute video produced by the Economist magazine travels to Mojave Spaceport in California where young engineers at space startups are building the future.  Companies featured include XCOR, Virgin Galactic, and Masten Aerospace. The video includes interesting footage I’ve never seen before. Ad Astra!

National Space Society Congratulates Blue Origin on First Reflight of New Shepard Rocket

On January 22, 2016, two months after Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket first successfully flew to the edge of space and returned to its launch site intact, Blue Origin again made history by re-flying the same vehicle. On this second launch the New Shepard passed the Karman line that defines the boundary of space, reaching an altitude of 333,582 ft before a spot-on landing in West Texas. This marks the first time that a re-usable vertical take-off/vertical landing vehicle has reached space and returned to its launch site and then done the same thing again using the same vehicle. Both the New Shepard cargo/crew capsule and booster were re-used on this uncrewed test flight.

Jeff Bezos reported that “The team replaced the crew capsule parachutes, replaced the pyro igniters, conducted functional and avionics checkouts, and made several software improvements, including one noteworthy one.” This major change allowed the New Shepard to land a bit off-target while providing better resistance to possible cross-winds. Bezos added, “Though wings and parachutes have their adherents and their advantages, I’m a huge fan of rocket-powered vertical landing. Why? Because—to achieve our vision of millions of people living and working in space—we will need to build very large rocket boosters. And the vertical landing architecture scales extraordinarily well.”

Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President said, “NSS members look forward to future crewed flights of the New Shepard and an exciting future of operational sub-orbital tourism.”

“Blue Origin’s successful re-use of the New Shepard booster after reaching the edge of space represents a major step toward a fully re-usable sub-orbital vehicle,” said Bruce Pittman, NSS Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. “We endorse Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos’ vision of ‘millions of people living and working in space’—this is the heart and soul of the NSS Roadmap to Space Settlement (get a free PDF of this document at www.nss.org/settlement/roadmap). Today that vision made a significant step closer to realization.”

National Space Society Applauds Selection of Dream Chaser, Dragon 2, and Cygnus for ISS Cargo Services

NSS congratulates Orbital ATK (Cygnus), Sierra Nevada (Dream Chaser), and SpaceX (Dragon 2) for being selected to provide cargo services to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Resupply Service 2 (CRS-2) contract. Orbital ATK and SpaceX, the CRS-1 cargo providers, are joined for the first time by the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser winged orbital vehicle. The CRS contract covers the delivery of supplies to the ISS, disposal of ISS waste, and the return of scientific samples from the ISS. The new contract provides a minimum of six missions to each of the three winners during the period 2019-2024. A NASA spokesperson said, “NASA’s service contracts to resupply the space station have changed the way the agency does business in low-Earth orbit. With these contracts, NASA continues to advance commercial spaceflight and the American jobs it creates.”

Dream Chaser cargo vehicle
Dream Chaser cargo vehicle docked at ISS. Image credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

“This announcement represents a major forward advance for NASA and the CRS program,” said Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President. “Both Orbital ATK and SpaceX added significant new capabilities over the first contract. In the new contract, the up-sized Cygnus with new solar panels will be used, and the Dragon 2 offers options for both berthing and docking, along with a rapid return to Earth capacity via propulsive landing. However, the selection of Sierra Nevada and the Dream Chaser means that for the first time since the retirement of the Space Shuttle reusable winged vehicles will be returning from space and landing at Kennedy Space Center.”

The Dream Chaser can deliver up to 5,500 kg of pressurized and unpressurized supplies to the ISS. A runway landing supports low-g force return of fragile samples and equipment, and folding wings allow for the usage of a variety of launch vehicles, although the initial target is the Atlas V. In an area of improvement over the Space Shuttle, the Dream Chaser uses all non-toxic propellants. Finally, the system includes a “trailer” that can be used to dispose of ISS waste.

“NSS congratulates NASA on adding a third CRS provider,” said Mark Hopkins, Chair of the NSS Executive Committee. “The CRS-2 program now has triple redundancy in both orbital components and launch vehicles. NSS members look forward to the Dream Chaser’s first return from space.”

National Space Society Cheers On SpaceX’s Return to Flight and Successful First Stage Return to Launch Site

With a successful launch on December 21 at 8:29 PM EST, 2015 SpaceX achieved several dramatic milestones while returning to flight following the loss of a Falcon 9 last June. Eleven ORBCOMM OG2 satellites were delivered to orbit to complete ORBCOM’s global data network. A new version of the Falcon 9 was launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The updated Falcon, which is internally referred to as “Falcon 9 V1.1 Full Thrust” features super-cooled liquid oxygen propellant, an additional 1.2 meters of height, and the use of full-thrust Merlin engines. These changes have been made to enhance the ability of the Falcon 9 first stage to return to its launch site following the launch of a geosynchronous satellite. Finally, and most importantly, for the first time ever the complete first stage of an orbital rocket was successfully flown back to the launch site and landed intact.

“This is a game-changing event,” said Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President. “Never before has the entire first stage of an orbital rocket been returned to its launch site for potential re-use. SpaceX has challenges ahead to demonstrate that re-used first stages can significantly lower launch costs, but this could be the beginning of the true age of practical space commerce. NSS thanks the Air Force, Sierra Nevada, ORBCOMM, and the FAA for their essential support of this outstanding SpaceX mission. It was a true team effort.”

Falcon return
Falcon 9 first stage after landing. Credit: SpaceX

Recently Blue Origin flew a sub-orbital booster to the Karman line (the edge of space) and returned the rocket to its launch site for potential re-use. SpaceX has bettered this valuable achievement by returning a first stage from much higher altitudes and faster speeds. “Competition is the key to rapid progress in space,” said Bruce Pittman, NSS Senior Vice President. “NSS has strongly supported competition in both the NASA Commercial Re-supply Services program and the Commercial Crew program. Today’s success is a direct result of the competitive, commercial nature of these efforts.”

“NSS congratulates SpaceX on this incredible achievement,” said Mark Hopkins, NSS Executive Committee Chairman. “It took enormous courage and confidence to continue forward with rapid technical innovation following a loss of mission incident. The effect of this event, both long and short term, promises to be world-altering. We can now see the NSS vision for our future in space (nss.org/settlement/roadmap) coming ever closer to becoming reality.”

National Space Society Congratulates Orbital ATK and ULA on Cygnus Launch to ISS Using Atlas V

On December 6, 2015, at 4:44 pm EST, a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket launched an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract. This is the fourth operational flight of the Cygnus to the ISS, and the first using an Atlas booster. This is also the first flight of the enhanced Cygnus freighter, now featuring a greater payload capacity, new solar arrays, and new fuel tanks. This Cygnus capsule has been named the SS Deke Slayton II after Mercury 7 astronaut Deke Slayton,the first Chief of NASA’s astronaut office, who flew on Apollo-Soyuz.

Cygnus2“NSS applauds ULA and Orbital’s success in launching the Cygnus freighter on a different booster than originally targeted to maintain service to the ISS,” said Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President. “This has never been done before, and represents a significant step toward reliable support of the ISS.” Cygnus is planned to berth with the ISS in three days carrying 7,000 lbs of equipment and supplies. The enhanced Cygnus can carry up to 2,630 lbs more than the older version. Experiments being carried to the ISS on Cygnus include the Packed Bed Reactor Experiment (PBRE), the Space Automatic Bioproduct Lab (SABL), and BASS-M (Burning and Suppression of Solids-Milliken). In addition to delivering the Cygnus to the ISS, 18 small satellites, including 12 Planet Labs Flock-2e Earth observation satellites, will be deployed on this mission.

“Orbital ATK and ULA have done a great job working together to allow the enhanced Cygnus to be launched on the Atlas V booster. This flexibility is vital to reliable operations in space,” said Bruce Pittman, NSS Senior Vice President and Senior Operating Officer. “We wish Orbital ATK the best as they move forward toward a return-to-flight using an upgraded Antares rocket next year.”

Space: The Invisible Frontier

Commentary by Dale Skran
NSS Board of Directors

Over the last few years amazing progress has been made in space technology, but with a curious silence in the mainstream press. On November 23rd, Blue Origin flew their reusable New Shepard vehicle to the Karman line (100km), the official definition of the “edge of space” and back to the launch site for a soft landing on four legs. Previously, the DCX and SpaceX Grasshopper had flown vertically to various altitudes far lower than the Karman line, and landed for reuse. The venerable yet reusable X-15 rocket plane, launched by a B-52, crossed the Karman line on a couple of occasions, but did not land vertically. Viewed from this perspective, Blue Origin’s feat does not seem that remarkable.

And in some sense, like all engineering milestones, it is not that remarkable. It is one link in a long chain of tests. It needs to be followed by close investigation of wear and tear, multiple re-flights, and finally certification for use by sub-orbital tourists. This process will take several years. In parallel, Blue Origin is developing a much larger rocket, for which the New Shepard will be the 2nd stage. A methane/lox engine called the BE-4 is being constructed by Blue Origin both for usage in the first stage of their own “Big Rocket” and the United Launch Alliance Vulcan. The completion of this engine will take more years, and the testing of a reusable first stage based on the BE-4 still more years.

So what is different about Blue Origin’s achievement this time? First, although Blue has received a small amount of NASA funding as part of the COTS program, the great bulk of money was provided by Jeff Bezos himself. There is certainly no NASA line item, that, if cut, would cause Blue Origin to change direction or cancel New Shepard. Second, unlike NASA, Blue plans to start selling research slots on New Shepard right away – probably as early as next year. These commercial research flights will allow for extensive testing and certification of the BE-3 (the liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine used in New Shepard) and the technology surrounding reusability. Finally, when space tourists start flying on New Shepard, and it increasingly seems like this could happen as soon as 2017, it will be a world-changing event. No humans flew on the DCX or grasshopper. Only government test pilots could fly the X-15. Regular tourist flights, even flights with 4 or 5 minutes of zero gravity, will introduce a new generation to space, and whet appetites for future orbital flights. Perhaps more significantly, the BE-3 will become the first truly re-usable (as opposed to refurbishable, as were the Shuttle engines) liquid hydrogen/oxygen engine, no small feat in itself.

Hence, although only a link in chain, the November 23rd landing of the New Shepard booster after reaching the Karman line must be viewed as historic event. I could not help but notice that the Wall Street Journal, which normally covers business news very well, did not devote any space in the first section to the safe return of New Shepard. I thought there might be a front-page story in the “Business & Tech” section, but instead there was a small pointer in upper left hand corner to the story, which appeared on the “back front page” of the business section. Now this is not the worst possible coverage, but it seems quite disappointing for such an important event.

My local paper, the Asbury Park Press, simply had no coverage whatsoever. The APP has given up on covering national news, and instead relies on an insert from USA Today for this purpose, which also had no coverage whatsoever. Readers of the Wall Street Journal are a distinct minority on the national level. This admittedly narrow example suggests that one reason Americans think that space program has been “canceled” is that reporters and editors have decided that nothing happening in space is of great interest unless someone dies. At the rate space coverage is declining, by the time Elon Musk retires on Mars, it won’t be covered at all, since, after all, who really cares where some rich guy is going to live then he retires!