NASA Selects Seven Firms to Provide Suborbital Flight Services

NASA has selected seven companies to integrate and fly technology payloads on commercial suborbital reusable platforms that carry payloads near the boundary of space and back.

This arrangement marks the first time that NASA has contracted with commercial partners to provide flights into space on a suborbital spacecraft, and represents another important endorsement of the value of regular commercial space access for a wide range of science and educational applications.

As part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, each successful vendor will receive an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract. These two-year contracts, worth a combined total of $10 million, will allow NASA to draw from a pool of commercial space companies to deliver payload integration and flight services. The flights will carry a variety of payloads to help meet the agency’s research and technology needs.

“Through this catalog approach, NASA is moving toward the goal of making frequent, low-cost access to near-space available to a wide range of engineers, scientists and technologists,” said NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The government’s ability to open the suborbital research frontier to a broad community of innovators will enable maturation of the new technologies and capabilities needed for NASA’s future missions in space.”

The selected companies are:

– Armadillo Aerospace, Heath, Texas
– Near Space Corp., Tillamook, Ore.
– Masten Space Systems, Mojave, Calif.
– Up Aerospace Inc., Highlands Ranch, Colo.
– Virgin Galactic, Mojave, Calif.
– Whittinghill Aerospace LLC, Camarillo, Calif.
– XCOR, Mojave, Calif.

NASA Manned Spaceflight Schedule and Cost

Although the details of the design of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) have yet to be released, significant information about the schedule and cost is leaking out, in particular in the following two recent articles:

Orlando Sentinel, August 5, 2011:
New NASA moon rocket could cost $38 billion

NASA, July 27, 2011:
Preliminary NASA plan shows Evolved SLS vehicle is 21 years away

In brief, the projected schedule and cost is as follows:

First launch of SLS is December 2017, carrying an unmanned Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV, otherwise known as Orion) around the Moon and back. Cost: Between $17 and $22 billion.

Second launch of SLS is August 2021, carrying a manned Orion vehicle around the Moon and back. Cost: An additional $12 to $16 billion.

Projected flight rate beyond that is one mission per year, alternating between manned and cargo missions.

The consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton is expected to come out with an independent cost analysis later this month.

NASA Selects Companies to Study Storing Cryogenic Propellants in Space

NASA has selected four companies to develop concepts for storing and transferring cryogenic propellants in space. These capabilities are important for the agency’s future deep space human exploration missions.

The selected companies, pending successful contract negotiations, are:

– Analytical Mechanics Associates Inc. Hampton, Va.
– Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation, Boulder, Colo.
– The Boeing Company, Huntington Beach, Calif.
– Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colo.

The awards total approximately $2.4 million with a maximum individual contract award of $600,000. Each company will provide a final report to help define a mission concept to demonstrate the cryogenic fluid management technologies, capabilities and infrastructure required for sustainable, affordable human presence in space.

Storing cryogenic propellants such as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen in space for long periods of time with minimal boil-off is critical for deep space human exploration. The mission concept studies will identify technology gaps and look at innovative technical solutions to develop cryogenic propulsion systems and depots.

NASA will use the studies to plan and implement a future flight demonstration mission that will test and validate key capabilities and technologies. NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program is funding the studies. The Space Technology Office at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland is managing the contracts.

SpaceX Plans for Mars

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has made numerous public statements about SpaceX plans to send humans to Mars in the next 10 to 20 years (e.g. see Discovery News and PC Magazine). The most recent statement was at an August 1 meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) meeting in San Diego. A video of the Q & A session is below.

13-minute video of Q & A session at AIAA meeting with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, August 1, 1011:

Current Strategies for Air-Breathing Rockets

As market competition for space access heats up, there is a renewed interest in air-breathing technology. At the same time, remarkable launch cost reductions in more conventional boosters are imminent due to the efforts of SpaceX and other firms.

It is beneficial to everyone to explore alternate technological paths, since no one can predict which paths will pan out and produce an economical and reliable vehicle. Most or all of the concepts currently under consideration use winged vehicles to avoid vertical takeoffs and to reduce the required engine size for takeoff. Work on more advanced concepts is also underway.

Currently, two countries, Japan and India, are in the planning stage while the British company Reaction Engines will soon begin a major test of critical engine components of its Skylon vehicle concept.

For more information see NSS Board Member John Strickland’s article in The Space Review: Current strategies towards air-breathing space launch vehicles.

Australians Receive Funding for Plasma Thruster

Australia National University’s Plasma Research Laboratory has received a grant to help build its Helicon Double Layer Thruster (HDLT). If successful, the driver could be in space as early as 2013.

Because of the high temperatures generated in plasma drives, the trick is confining the hot gas without it destroying the chamber. For this, the HDLT uses a magnetic field in the source tube, where a gas like Krypton or Xenon is heated by a radio antenna. In space, the researchers hope that less than one gram of propellant would power a five-hour burn.

Read full story.

A Fusion Thruster for Space Travel

IEEE Spectrum reports that a NASA engineer has come up with a new way to fling satellites through space on mere grams of fuel, tens of times as efficiently as today’s best space probe thrusters. Instead of using deuterium and tritium as the fuel stocks, the new motor extracts energy from boron fuel. Using boron, an “aneutronic” fuel, yields several advantages over conventional nuclear fusion. The idea is a long way from becoming a practical device, however.

Courtesy NASA Langley Research Center
Courtesy NASA Langley Research Center

Constructing Cislunar Infrastructure – ISDC 2011

ISDC conference report by Dave Fischer

If those who think Mars is sufficiently hard to get to and remain to settle are correct, or those who think that it would be a terrible mistake to go to Mars and return leaving only flags and footprints are correct, then we are, in fact, not going to Mars anytime soon.  So where are we going?  And why are we going?

The current Flexible Path suggests that the manned exploration of an asteroid is a reasonable goal.  It avoids the problems of deep gravity wells, and does create launch vehicles and spacecraft.  However, as critics point out, this merely repeats the standard process of throwing away everything except the manned return capsule.  What might be done to create a permanent space faring infrastructure?

Why we are going is settlement.  That is the conclusion from reading policy statements, both formal and informal, from the past 10 years.  Beginning with the Vision for Space Exploration statement in 2004, up through the 2010 statement by the Obama administration, these policy statements all point toward the unspoken word, “settlement”.  Permanent occupation of space that exploits the economic resources available is the goal.  Now, what are the initial strategic steps, and what are the tactics to implement them.

At the International Space Development Conference (ISDC 2011), two proposals were made that result in permanent cislunar infrastructure: one by Dr. Paul Spudis and one by Stephen D. Covey.

Dr. Spudis advocated the conservative approach.  During Friday’s luncheon, Dr. Spudis presented “Can We Afford to Return to the Moon” (see the paper in the NSS Lunar Library by Spudis and Lavoie Mission and Implementation of an Affordable Lunar Return – pdf)

Spudis and Lavoie argue that over a period of roughly 16 years, employing a series of 31 missions, that a robotically built water mining operation at the South Pole of the moon, later employing humans living at the base to repair and maintain the equipment, would yield the following:

1.  Commercially valuable water for use as Lox/H2 fuel on the Moon and within cislunar space, sufficient to sustain the operation, with excess available for sale.

2.  Reusable Landers and Rovers.

3.  Permanent human occupation of the Moon.

4.  Routine access to all space assets within Cislunar space, including communications, GPS, weather, remote sensing and strategic monitoring satellites.

In essence, we create a “transcontinental railroad” with permanent settlements at various points between the Earth and the Moon.  The critical element is that this can be accomplished with the $7 Billion annual budget likely to be given NASA for the foreseeable future.  The projected cost of a Flexible Path mission to an asteroid has been estimated at $80 Billion, while the Cislunar project would cost $77 Billion.

The second proposal is far more radical: “Asteroid Capture for Space Solar Power”.  Here, Stephen D. Covey argued for a purely commercial venture to capture the asteroid 99942 Apophis, mine it for metals, silicon and oxygen, build Solar Power Satellites (SPS) and sell the power to utility companies on Earth.  An initial capital base of $30 Billion would be required.  But by the end of the sixth or seventh year of operation the enterprise would be at break even, and eventually generate $20 Billion per year in revenue.

At the end of eight years, 15 Solar Power Satellites would be in operation generating $20 Billion per year in revenue.  And only 10% of the asteroid would have been processed.  A total of 150 SPSs could be manufactured before another asteroid was needed.

The end result of this initial eight-year plan would be:

1.  A fully shielded (3 meters of slag from the mining operation) habitat for 8,000 people.

2.  Space based factory capable of producing 8 SPSs per year.

3.  Space infrastructure created by commercial space companies to support the operations.

4.  3-4% of Earth’s electrical needs supplied by Space based Solar Power

At the end of production, with 150 Satellites in operation, more than a third of Earth’s electrical needs would be supplied by Space Based Solar Power.

And who is to suggest that we cannot do both of these ventures at the same time?

Statement on Launch Costs from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk

The following is quoted in full from the SpaceX website, dated May 4, 2011.  Note that SpaceX is participating in the NSS International Space Development Conference (ISDC 2011) later this month.


Whenever someone proposes to do something that has never been done before, there will always be skeptics.

So when I started SpaceX, it was not surprising when people said we wouldn’t succeed. But now that we’ve successfully proven Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Dragon, there’s been a steady stream of misinformation and doubt expressed about SpaceX’s actual launch costs and prices.

As noted last month by a Chinese government official, SpaceX currently has the best launch prices in the world and they don’t believe they can beat them. This is a clear case of American innovation trumping lower overseas labor rates.

I recognize that our prices shatter the historical cost models of government-led developments, but these prices are not arbitrary, premised on capturing a dominant share of the market, or “teaser” rates meant to lure in an eager market only to be increased later. These prices are based on known costs and a demonstrated track record, and they exemplify the potential of America’s commercial space industry.

Here are the facts:

The price of a standard flight on a Falcon 9 rocket is $54 million. We are the only launch company that publicly posts this information on our website ( We have signed many legally binding contracts with both government and commercial customers for this price (or less). Because SpaceX is so vertically integrated, we know and can control the overwhelming majority of our costs. This is why I am so confident that our performance will increase and our prices will decline over time, as is the case with every other technology.

The average price of a full-up NASA Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station is $133 million including inflation, or roughly $115m in today’s dollars, and we have a firm, fixed price contract with NASA for 12 missions. This price includes the costs of the Falcon 9 launch, the Dragon spacecraft, all operations, maintenance and overhead, and all of the work required to integrate with the Space Station. If there are cost overruns, SpaceX will cover the difference. (This concept may be foreign to some traditional government space contractors that seem to believe that cost overruns should be the responsibility of the taxpayer.)

The total company expenditures since being founded in 2002 through the 2010 fiscal year were less than $800 million, which includes all the development costs for the Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Dragon. Included in this $800 million are the costs of building launch sites at Vandenberg, Cape Canaveral and Kwajalein, as well as the corporate manufacturing facility that can support up to 12 Falcon 9 and Dragon missions per year. This total also includes the cost of five flights of Falcon 1, two flights of Falcon 9, and one up and back flight of Dragon.

The Falcon 9 launch vehicle was developed from a blank sheet to first launch in four and half years for just over $300 million. The Falcon 9 is an EELV class vehicle that generates roughly one million pounds of thrust (four times the maximum thrust of a Boeing 747) and carries more payload to orbit than a Delta IV Medium.

The Dragon spacecraft was developed from a blank sheet to the first demonstration flight in just over four years for about $300 million. Last year, SpaceX became the first private company, in partnership with NASA, to successfully orbit and recover a spacecraft. The spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket that carried it were designed, manufactured and launched by American workers for an American company. The Falcon 9/Dragon system, with the addition of a launch escape system, seats and upgraded life support, can carry seven astronauts to orbit, more than double the capacity of the Russian Soyuz, but at less than a third of the price per seat.

SpaceX has been profitable every year since 2007, despite dramatic employee growth and major infrastructure and operations investments. We have over 40 flights on manifest representing over $3 billion in revenues.

These are the objective facts, confirmed by external auditors. Moreover, SpaceX intends to make far more dramatic reductions in price in the long term when full launch vehicle reusability is achieved. We will not be satisfied with our progress until we have achieved this long sought goal of the space industry.

For the first time in more than three decades, America last year began taking back international market-share in commercial satellite launch. This remarkable turn-around was sparked by a small investment NASA made in SpaceX in 2006 as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. A unique public-private partnership, COTS has proven that under the right conditions, a properly incentivized contractor — even an all-American one — can develop extremely complex systems on rapid timelines and a fixed-price basis, significantly beating historical industry-standard costs.

China has the fastest growing economy in the world. But the American free enterprise system, which allows anyone with a better mouse-trap to compete, is what will ensure that the United States remains the world’s greatest superpower of innovation.


CCDev2 – SpaceX

Cady Coleman and Scott Kelley in the Dragon
Image Credit: SpaceX

This is the final entry concerning the second round of funding in the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.

NASA awarded $75 million to spaceX to develop a revolutionary launch escape system that will enable the company’s Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts.

“This award will accelerate our efforts to develop the next-generation rockets and spacecraft for human transportation,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer. “With NASA’s support, SpaceX will be ready to fly its first manned mission in 2014.”

Dragon is designed to carry seven astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) along with cargo. It will launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX. The cargo version of Dragon is expected to make a second trip into space in 2011.

SpaceX and NASA are negotiating whether this second flight will be allowed to approach the ISS, or a third flight will be required to prove the system.