Posts Tagged‘dragon’

Space Launch System Configurations

NASA Approves SLS, Probably Shouldn’t Have.

Ever since the retirement of the Space Shuttle the USA has been in what’s aptly describes as a “launch gap”. As of right now NASA is unable to launch its own astronauts into space and instead relies completely on the Russian Soyuz missions to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This isn’t a particularly cheap exercise, coming in at some $70 million per seat, making even the bloated shuttle program look competitive by comparison. NASA had always planned to develop another launch system, originally slated to be dubbed Ares and developed completely from scratch, however that was later scrapped in favour of the Space Launch System which would use many of the Shuttle’s components. This was in hope that the launch gap could be closed considerably, shortening the time NASA would be reliant on external partners.

Space Launch System Configurations

News comes today that NASA has approved the funding for the project which is set to total some $6.8 billion over the next 4 years. The current schedule has the first launch of the SLS pegged for some time in 2017 with the first crewed mission to follow on around 4 years later. Developing a whole new human rated launch capability in 7 years is pretty good by any standards however it also begs the question as to whether or not NASA should be in the business of designing and manufacturing launch capabilities like this. When Ares and SLS  were first designed the idea of a private company being able to provide this capability was still something of a fantasy however that’s no longer the case today.

Indeed SpaceX isn’t too far off deploying their own human rated craft that will be capable of delivering astronauts to the ISS, Moon and beyond. Their current schedule has the first crewed Dragon flight occurring no sooner than 2015 which, even with some delays here and there, would still have it happening several years before the SLS makes its manned debut. Looking at the recent Dragon V2 announcement it would seem like they’re well on their way to meeting those deadlines which will give the Dragon several years of in-flight usage before the SLS is even available. With NASA being far more open to commercial services than they used to be it does make you wonder what their real desire for the SLS is.

There’s an argument to be made that NASA has requirements that commercial providers aren’t willing to meet which, when it comes to human rated vessels, is mostly true. Man rating a launch system is expensive due to the numerous requirements you have to meet so most opt to just not do it. SpaceX is the notable exception to this as they’ve committed to developing the man rated Dragon even if NASA doesn’t commit to buying launches on it. Still the cash they’re dropping on the SLS could easily fund numerous Dragon launches, enough to cover NASA off for the better part of a decade if my finger in the air maths is anything to go by.

The only argument which I feel is somewhat valid is that NASA’s requirement for heavy lift outstrips pretty much any commercially available launch system available today. There’s really not much call for large single payloads unless you’re shipping humans into space (we’ve got an awfully long list of requirements compared to our robotic cousins) and so most of the big space contractors haven’t built one. SpaceX has plans to build rockets capable of doing this (the Falcon XX) although their timeframes are somewhat nebulos at this point in time. Still you could use a small portion of the cash set aside for the SLS in order to incentivise the private market to develop that capability as NASA has done quite successfully with its other commercial programs.

I’ve long been of the mind that NASA needs to get out of the launch system business so they can focus their time and resources on pushing the envelope of our capabilities in space. The SLS might fill a small niche that’s currently unserviced but it’s going to take its sweet time in getting there and will likely not be worth it when it finally arrives.

SpaceX Dragon CRS-2

SpaceX’s CRS-2 Arrives At ISS, Proves It’s Not an One Shot Deal.

It’s hard to believe that it was only 5 months ago that SpaceX launched its very first Dragon capsule that was part of the  Commercial Resupply Services contract they had with NASA. It was an unqualified success with everything from the launch to capture and finally to docking going as smoothly as you could possibly expect. Even more impressive was the fact that they accomplished this feat no more than 5 months after their previous ISS rendezvous attempt aptly demonstrating that they are very capable of meeting their aggressive timelines, something which many hardened arm chair space nuts like myself were initially sceptical of.

SpaceX Dragon CRS-2

Today brings news of another successful flight of the SpaceX Dragon capsule, dubbed CRS-2, which has just docked at the International Space Station. Just like previous missions it’s been loaded quite lightly carrying 677KGs of playload which is about 10% of its total combined (pressurized and unpressurised) capacity. The vast majority of this is taken up with science experiments with crew supplies and replacement parts making up the lesser half. This is also the first time that the unpressurised section of the Dragon capsule has been used which is where the spare station parts were contained. These will be unloaded during an EVA whilst the Dragon is docked at the ISS.

CRS-2′s flight up wasn’t without some significant drama that threatened to send it plummeting back to earth. Whilst the initial launch was fine and second stage separation was completed (an area in which SpaceX has had troubles in the past) 3 of the 4 rocket pods contained on the Dragon craft reported insufficient pressurization in their oxidizer system. This in turn triggered another safety system which stopped the solar panels from deploying, a safety mechanism designed to protect the craft in an unsuccessful booster stage separation scenario. In this state the Dragon would not be able to berth with the ISS and would likely end up plummeting back to earth in a most ungraceful fashion.

The Dragon’s internal systems were then overridden and the rocket pods were allowed to continue pressurizing. Shortly afterwards 2 rocket pods were deemed active and the solar panels were deployed. Not long after that all 4 rocket pods were reporting proper pressurization and were brought back online. Whilst not a catastrophic failure it did push back the schedule by a day meaning CRS-2 didn’t dock until early this morning.

With this most recent launch SpaceX has shown just how reliable they can be as they’ve hit a launch every 5 months for almost a year. It might not sound like much but comparing that to any other launch system demonstrates just how far SpaceX has come in the comparatively short time they’ve been a company. With this all in mind it’s looking pretty good that they’ll be able to make their 2015 deadline of putting people into orbit which, considering that the replacement from NASA is a long way off, is extremely impressive.

 

SpaceX Dragon Capsule Launch Prep

SpaceX CRS-1 Docks At The International Space Station.

Cast your mind back 5 months, where were you then? I can remember where I was quite clearly: I was in a hotel room in a city called Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. With nothing much else to do in town apart from drink coffee and swelter in the unrelenting heat I had made myself comfortable on the bed with my laptop and tenuous Internet connection so that I could witness history in the making. It was there that I saw SpaceX’s Dragon capsule being captured by the crew aboard the International Space Station and brought to dock with the ISS, becoming the first ever private craft to do so.

SpaceX, not wanting to falter with their goal of being able to rapidly turn around craft, has today achieved the same feat again and the very first of their official missions, dubbed CRS-1 (Commercial Resupply Service), has just docked at the ISS. Just like its predecessor the payload its taking up isn’t anything to get excited about being mostly crew supplies, materials for new and current experiments as well as hardware for ongoing maintenance of the station itself. Just like its predecessor it will also be bringing back some payload back with it once its completed its 2 week mission attached to the ISS, something which is still a unique capability of the Dragon capsule.

Whilst the mission might be fairly rudimentary its launch has been anything but. Those of us who tuned into the launch live stream on Monday were treated to a pretty spectacular show due to the launch happening at night. There was also a curious incident where one of the engines appeared to suffer some kind of failure with many news outlets reporting that one of the engines on the Falcon 9 had exploded during the first stage. The failure didn’t appear to affect the launch however with the comms chatter saying everything was nominal and with the Dragon arriving successfully you can’t really fault them.

In fact the “explosion” was actually part of a system designed to relieve pressure in the engine bay when an engine out occurred. The system was triggered as the control systems aboard the Falcon 9 detected a loss of pressure in engine 1 and shut down the engine which lead to those panels being ejected in a rather spectacular fashion. To put this all in perspective the Falcon 9 can make it into orbit with 2 of its engines failing in this fashion and for many of the previous missions it has actually throttled down 2 of its engines because the additional thrust isn’t required. Thus whilst this was unexpected it was not a situation that they hadn’t accounted for and it was actually a great demonstration of the Falcon 9′s engine out capability, something which is currently unique to it (other launchers, which are no longer flying, have had this functionality).

A separate payload that wasn’t part of the CRS-1 mission is the prototype satellite for Orbcomm which was released once the Falcon 9 entered its second stage of flight. Whilst the payload was successfully released it was unfortunately dropped into the wrong orbit, much lower than the one required. Officials have stated that this was due to the engine out causing the other 8 engines to compensate, making them burn for longer than what was originally calculated for. Whilst they might be able to salvage it using the onboard propellant (which will reduce the useful life of the craft significantly) it’s still something of a faux pas on SpaceX’s part. I’m sure that for the next lot of flights it won’t be an issue as SpaceX has a phenomenal track record for fixing this problems as soon as they become apparent.

Despite these issues it’s still a great achievement for SpaceX to go from first dock to the ISS to being an official re-supplier all within the space of 5 months. Whilst they won’t make the deadlines that they originally had planned for this year (CRS-2 has slipped to be no earlier than January 2013) they’re still moving at a blistering pace compared to nearly all other players in the space industry. For now they’ll be slipping into the routine of launching cargo missions but it won’t be long before they start sending people up alongside the cargo and that’s an incredibly exciting prospect.

SpaceX’s Dragon Docks, Makes History.

It was late Friday night. My companions and I had just finished up work as we stumbled out into the hot, humid air that surrounded us here in Brunei. After a nearly 12 hour day we had our sights fixed on grabbibng some dinner and then an early night as we would have to come in the next day to finish the job. As we chatted over our meals a curious image appeared on the television, one that I recognized very clearly as SpaceX’s Dragon capsule that was launched no more than a couple days earlier. At the time it appeared that they were performing some last manuevers before the docking would occur. I couldn’t take my eyes away from it staring intently at the capsule that was driftly serenely across the beautiful backdrop of our earth.

The time came for us to make our departure and we headed back to the hotel. I hit up Facebook to see what was going on when I saw a message from a long time friend: “I hope you’re not missing this http://on.msnbc.com/JxfRMS“.

I assured him I wasn’t.

I was fixated on the craft watching it intently from 2 different streams so that I’d never be out of the loop. I monitored Twitter like a hawk, soaking in the excitement that my fellow space nuts shared. I almost shed a tear when Houston gave SpaceX the go to make the final docking approach as, for some unknown reason, that was when it all became real: the very first private space craft was about to dock with the International Space Station. At 13:56 UTC on May 25th, 2012 the SpaceX Dragon became the first private space craft to be captured by the International Space Station and not 6 minutes later it was birthed on the earth side docking port of the American Harmony module.

It’s an incredible achievement for SpaceX and proves just how capable they are. This is only the second launch of both the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule which demonstrates just how well engineered they are. Most of the credit here can go to the modularity of the Falcon series systems meaning that most of the launch stack has already seen a fair bit of flight testing thanks to the previous Falcon 1 launches. The design is paying off in spades for them now as with this kind of track record it won’t be long before we see them shipping humans up atop their Falcon rockets, and that’s extremely exciting.

The payload of the COTS Demo Flight 2 Dragon capsule is nothing remarkable being mostly food, water and spare computing parts and small experiments designed by students. What’s really special about the Dragon though is its ability to bring cargo back to earth (commonly referred to as downrange capability) something that no other craft currently offers. The ATV, HTV and Progress crafts all burn up upon re-entry meaning that the only way to get experiements back from the ISS now will be aboard the Dragon capsule. Considering that we now lack the enormous payload bay of the Space Shuttle this might be cause for some concern but I think SpaceX has that problem already solved.

Looking over the scheduled flights it would appear that SpaceX is looking to make good on their promise to make the launches frequent in order to take advantage of the economies of scale that will come along with that. If the current schedule is anything to go by there will be another 2 Dragon missions before the year is out and the pace appears to be rapidly increasing from there. So much so that 2015 could see 5 launches of the Dragon system rivalling the frequency at which the Soyuz/Progress capsules currently arrive at the ISS. It’s clear that SpaceX has a lot of faith in their launch system and that confidence means they can attempt such aggressive scheduling.

I have to congratulate SpaceX once again on their phenomenal achievement. For a company that’s only just a decade old to have achieved something that no one else has done before is simply incredible and I’m sure that SpaceX will continue to push the envelope of what is possible for decades to come. I’m more excited than ever now to see the next Dragon launch as each step brings us a little closer to the ultimate goal: restoring the capability that was lost with the Space Shuttle. I’ve made a promise to myself to be there to see it launch and I simply can’t wait to see when it will be.

SpaceX: 10 Years Old and So Much To Show For It.

Ah SpaceX, the one company that I simply can’t get tired of talking about. I think it’s because they’re just so different from the traditional way of launching things into space. Where the current players lavish billions of dollars and thousands of people at single projects SpaceX works on a skeleton crew and a shoe string budget. Where launch issues would cause others to delay by a day or more SpaceX can turn everything around in under an hour. They really are the embodiment of the start up thrust into the world of launching things into space and the entire industry is better off for having them around.

Last week saw SpaceX celebrate their 10th birthday. Now this isn’t news to many of us but it does put into perspective the kind of work these guys have been doing and how long they’ve been doing it for. In 10 years they’ve managed to design, build and successfully launch 2 different rocket systems, one of which has been launched multiple times. They’ve secured contracts with NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and, should they be able to do that, they’ll push the envelope even further by being the first private space company to deliver astronauts to there as well.

The last week has also seen a swath of announcements from the now decade old space company. After several delays from NASA there’s finally a solid date for the first dock of one of their Dragon capsules, set for April 30th. The original (rather optimistic date) was in November last year but this time around it seems like all systems are go for this launch date. The launch window is small, only 4 days by my count, but with SpaceX’s track record of rapid fixes on launch days this window should be more than enough for them to get the Dragon capsule off the ground and on the way to the ISS.

SpaceX has also begun showing off the interior of the manned version of the Dragon capsule that can seat up to 7 astronauts at a time. For a capsule craft that’s pretty impressive as the Space Shuttle was only capable of carrying 1 more (albeit with a payload over 4 times that of an unmanned Dragon cargo craft) and the Russian Soyuz craft can only fit 3 in, and it’s still quite a squeeze in there. The Dragon by comparison looks to have quite a bit of room to it, indeed it’s quite comparable to the Apollo command module. It’s not specifically designed for a Lunar mission however, but there is another place that the manned Dragon capsule is well suited for.

That place is Mars.

The last, and probably most exciting, piece of news to come out of SpaceX this week is that the CEO Elon Musk has gone on record saying that he’d be able to do a round trip to Mars for around $500,000. The actual specifics of how they’ll achieve this are remaining a secret for now but Musk alluded to the fact that he has a plan for being able to refuel the craft on Mars, saving a major cost of having to truck all the fuel over there along with the payload. Whether he plans to do this with multiple launches (like launching another dragon ahead of them with the required fuel), some kind of fuel production plant on Mars or something else entirely though remains to be seen. The idea of doing a return trip to the red planet for that much though is really quite exciting and definitely something I’d consider ponying up the cash for.

SpaceX just seems to keep going from strength to strength as time goes on and this year will be no exception. The last 10 years have seen them grow from the start up that no one knew about to the new face of the private space industry. This year is looking to be a milestone year for them and I simply can’t wait to see what else they’ve got in store.

SpaceX Set To Make History Before The Year Is Out.

Whenever I find myself getting frustrated with the sorry state of government funded space programs overseas I don’t have to look much further than SpaceX to feel inspired once again. From their humble beginnings back in 2002 they have shown they are capable of designing, building and launching rockets on a fraction of the budget that is currently required. Their ambition also seems to have no bounds with their CEO, Elon Musk, eyeing off a trip to Mars with the intent of retiring there. SpaceX is also the USA’s only launch system provider who’s got a roadmap for delivering humans to the International Space Station, a real necessity now that the shuttle fleet has retired.

You can then imagine how exciting it is to hear that SpaceX has received in principle approval from NASA to combine the next 2 Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS) demonstration flights into one. That might not sound like much on the surface but it means that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule could be docking with the ISS this year:

Over the last several months, SpaceX has been hard at work preparing for our next flight — a mission designed to demonstrate that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has given us a Nov. 30, 2011 launch date, which should be followed nine days later by Dragon berthing at the ISS.

NASA has agreed in principle to allow SpaceX to combine all of the tests and demonstration activities that we originally proposed as two separate missions (COTS Demo 2 and COTS Demo 3) into a single mission. Furthermore, SpaceX plans to carry additional payloads aboard the Falcon 9’s second stage which will deploy after Dragon separates and is well on its way to the ISS. NASA will grant formal approval for the combined COTS missions pending resolution of any potential risks associated with these secondary payloads. Our team continues to work closely with NASA to resolve all questions and concerns.

That’s right, if everything stays on schedule (which, I’ll admit, isn’t very likely) then we’ll see a Dragon capsule docking with the ISS and the first time in history that a private company has docked with a space station. The mission will test all of the fligh avionics, communication systems and docking procedures that SpaceX have designed for the Dragon capsule. Whilst the Dragon going up there doesn’t appear to have a cargo manifest it will be bringing cargo back down from the ISS, which will be a good test to see if their current design has any flaws in it that can be rectified for future missions.

The current docking procedure for the Dragon capsule is surprisingly similar to that of JAXA’s HTV. For the COTS Demonstration 2 flight at least the Dragon capsule will fly very close to the ISS where it will then be captured by CANADARM2 which will guide it into a docking port. It’s interesting because from the past few missions I had assumed that the Dragon was capable of automated docking, especially with (what seemed to be) rather advanced DragonEye sensor being tested on previous shuttle flights. Still automated docking is quite a challenge and the captured route is a lot safer, both for SpaceX and the astronauts aboard the ISS.

The announcement also comes hand in hand with some improvements that SpaceX has made to their launch stack. They’ve installed new liquid oxygen pumps that now allow them to fully fill the Falcon 9 in under 30 minutes, a third of the time it use to require. This means that SpaceX could roll out, fuel and launch a Falcon 9 in under an hour something that hasn’t been possible with liquid fueled rockets in the past. They’re also ramping up their production facilities with an eye to have up to 16 launches per year, a phenomenal amount by any measure.

SpaceX continues to show that the private sector is quite capable of providing services that were for the longest time considered to be too expensive for anyone but the super power governments of the world. The announcement that a Dragon capsule could be visiting the ISS this year shows how much confidence NASA has in their capabilities and I’m sure that SpaceX will not fail to disappoint. We’re on the verge of a revolution in the space travel game and SpaceX are the pioneers who will lead us there.

SpaceX’s Vision for Mars.

There are only a few private space companies that I have any semblance of faith in these days, most notably Armadillo Aerospace (founded by programming genius John Carmack, creator of DOOM) and my current space idol SpaceX. The former’s achievements have been quite impressive with their technology progressing steadily over the past decade. SpaceX has shown everyone that the realm of space is not just for the super-governments of the world, successfully launching multiple rockets and landing numerous contracts for their services. If there’s anyone that can commoditize access to space it will be SpaceX.

Whilst their current plans of reducing the cost of access to space is clear their direction past that has always been something of a mystery. Last year they announced some plans for a number of rockets that had some mightily impressive specifications, rivalling that of rockets of decades past. SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk has gone on record saying that he wants to retire on Mars (and his wife is on board too) but those dreams had always been met with scepticism as we haven’t been past low earth orbit for the better part of 4 decades. Reports are starting to come in though that shows Musk is quite serious about his future retirement plans:

“We’ll probably put a first man in  in about three years,” Elon Musk told the Wall Street Journal Saturday. “We’re going all the way to Mars, I think… best case 10 years, worst case 15 to 20 years.”

“Our goal is to facilitate the transfer of people and cargo to other planets, and then it will be up to people if they want to go,” said Musk, who also runs the Tesla company which develops electric cars.

Putting that in perspective that could mean we’d have people on Mars by 2021 or at latest 2031. Comparing that to George Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration which had us returning to the moon in 2020 you’d be forgiven for being sceptical of it since if a government couldn’t do it with a lead time of 15+ years and a comparatively large budget what chance would SpaceX have? However SpaceX has shown that they are quite capable of creating aggressive schedules, meeting them and doing it all on a fraction of the budget that has traditionally been used to accomplish such feats. Indeed the recent announcement of the Falcon Heavy saw many people speculating about missions like a Mars sample return mission that has not been feasible due to the launch weight required but was well within the capabilities of SpaceX’s new rocket.

SpaceX has also been making strides with its Dragon capsule, putting the finish touches on it to make it 100% compatible with NASA’s human rating standards. The planned additions to the craft would see the launch abort system, traditionally a large spike on top of the craft that’s discarded once the launch is successful, put on the side of the craft. This would give the Dragon capsule an unprecedented amount of accuracy when it came to landing the craft, enabling it to soft land at a precise location rather than requiring a splash down in the ocean. Consequently a Dragon capsule could very well be used to land on the surface of other planets, including SpaceX’s goal of Mars.

You’d think by now nothing that SpaceX could do would surprise me, but it seems at every turn they manage to pull off another feat that puts their wild claims firmly in reality. Whilst we may still be a decade away from seeing any real progress on this front it still feels a million times closer than it ever did when the same goal was held by a government agency. Even if they don’t meet their aggressive 2021 target there will be a whole host of progress made between now and then, enough so we’ll have a clear picture of when we’ll be exploring our diminutive red cousin.

 

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Creates Orbital Dragon and History Once Again.

6 months ago I wrote about SpaceX’s historic flight of their Falcon 9 rocket and how much it meant to us space romantics. Their tentative schedule had me all aflutter with the possibility of seeing not one, but two more flights of their flagship rocket within this year. It was looking entirely possible too as just on a month later they were already building the next rocket and there was even a hint that I might get to see it take off on my trip through America. Whilst I may not have gotten to see the launch for myself SpaceX is not one to disappoint with them launching their second Falcon 9 rocket earlier this morning carrying a fully fledged version of their crew and cargo capsule, the Dragon.

YouTube Preview Image

The launch itself didn’t go by without a hitch though with some bad telemetry data causing the initial launch to be scrubbed and rescheduled for about an hour later. However once they were past that minor hurdle they were able to continue with launch preparations and launch without incident. This is testament to their ability to rapidly troubleshoot and resolve problems that would likely cost anyone else at least a day to recover from. Elon Musk is definitely onto something when he thought about running a launcher company as a startup, rather than a traditional organisation.

The mission profile was a relatively simple one although it represents a giant leap forward in capability for SpaceX. The previous launch of the Falcon 9 carried with it a Dragon Spacecraft Qualification Unit, basically just a shell of a full Dragon capsule designed to be little more than a weight on top of the Falcon 9 rocket. That capsule lacked the ability to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 it was attached to and was also designed to burn up on re-entry. The payload for this mission however was a fully functional Dragon capsule with the full suite of avionics, support systems and the ability to return to earth from orbit. It was also carrying a small fleet of government owned CubeSats that were launched shortly after they achieved orbit. Approximately 3 hours after the Falcon 9′s launch the Dragon capsule returned safely to earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

I, along with every other space nut out there, are incredibly excited about what this means for the future of space. Not only has SpaceX managed to successfully launch a brand new rocket twice in 6 months they’ve done so with an almost flawless record. The pace at which they’re progressing is really quite astonishing considering how small they are compared to those who’ve achieved the same goals previously. The team that Elon Musk has assembled really deserves all the credit that they get and I now I wait with baited breath at their next launch as that will be the first private spacecraft ever to visit the International Space Station.

It’s really quite exciting to see progress like this in an area that was once considered only accessible by the world’s superpower governments. Whilst we’re still a long, long way from such technology becoming an everyday part of our lives like commercial air travel has the progress that SpaceX has made shows that the current cost to orbit can and will come down over time. This also gives NASA the opportunity to stop focusing on the more rudimentary aspects of flight that SpaceX is now capable of handling, leaving them to return to what they were once known best for: pushing the envelope of what the human race is capable of in space. So whilst we won’t be seeing another Falcon 9 launch this year as I had hoped all those months ago this perfect flight of the first fully functional Dragon capsule signals that the future of space travel for us humans is not just bright, it’s positively blinding.

Ride The Falcon, Mr Dragon.

It’s really quite amazing the things that happen when you’re gone for only a few short weeks. One of the first things I had heard when I got back was that Barack Obama had received the Nobel peace prize, which for me was somewhat unexpected but completely understandable. Although what really amazed me is that the private space sector has been chugging along quite happily and amongst the flood of articles I have to get through this one stood out in particular:

SpaceX has announced the payload for the first Falcon 9 launch later this year will be a stripped-down version of the company’s own Dragon capsule, a vehicle being developed to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.


Artist’s concept of the Falcon 9 rocket launching a Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX

In an update on the company’s Web site, SpaceX said the demonstration launch would provide “valuable aerodynamic and performance data” for future Dragon test flights under the umbrella of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and Commercial Resupply Services programs.

The payload is called the Dragon spacecraft qualification unit, a vehicle originally built only for ground testing to verify the spacecraft’s myriad of systems are ready for flight.

It’s an absolutely fantastic idea from SpaceX and shows how serious they are about providing a true low cost solution to deliver people and cargo to the International Space Station and beyond. On the surface it might not seem like a lot, I mean really they’re just changing the payload and what really matters is the rest of the rocket right? Well yes and no, the test flight of the rocket is certainly the most important aspect, but testing the Dragon capsule is by far more valuable than what they were going to do.

Traditionally they’d launch a dummy payload since the Falcon-9 is primarily focused on commercial payloads. Most of these take the form of satellites and as such they’ll strap a great hunk of metal to the top of it (they called the first one they used RatSat). Doing this allows them to test all systems required to get commercial payloads into orbit whilst not having to find someone willing to risk their project on an experimental rocket, as you can’t usually insure a payload unless the rocket has had at least one successful launch. So what are they missing out on by swapping out the dummy for Dragon?

Primarily it’s the fairing separation system, which are the covers over the payload whilst its in the atmosphere. Once they’re in space and there’s little air resistance they separate from the rocket to reduce weight. The dragon capsule on the other hand doesn’t need fairings since its design is close to that of a tear drop, so it’s already aerodynamic and doesn’t need protection whilst its in the atmosphere. Flying a skeleton Dragon capsule up makes a lot of sense as they get double the testing for a single launch, that is should it make it to orbit.

SpaceX are constantly showing that they have what it takes to become a serious low cost competitor in the rocket business. Every step they take we see more innovation from them, from being able to flight certify hardware in under 24 hours to running with a total staff of 800 they really are on the cutting edge and every announcement from them gets me excited. With their Falcon-9 test flight scheduled for sometime between the end of November and early next year we’re on the cusp of seeing the first fully private rocket make its way to the International Space Station.

Orbital Competitor Swaggers In.

It’s not everyday that you get a company coming forward and firmly stating that they are going to provide orbital capabilities to anyone who has the money. Space Adventures is the only company thus far that has put a paying private space tourists into orbital space, and they are technically just a travel agent. Just recently though we’ve had another company lay its goals on the table, and boy are they shooting high:

The previously top secret reusable reentry vehicle for the Soviet “Almaz” manned military space station will form the backbone of a major new U.S./Russian commercial venture to carry paying research crews on one week missions into Earth orbit by 2013.

The reusable reentry vehicle (RRV) venture is being announced today at MAKS, the annual Moscow Air Show at Ramenskoye air base.

The project is led by Excalibur Almaz Limited (EA), an international space exploration company that has teamed with the Almaz RRV spacecraft manufacturer and other Russian and U.S. companies. EA is led by Art Dula founder and CEO of the venture.

I’d heard about the vehicle they’re planning to use before, mostly because it is to date the only known space vehicle that was weaponized. The Outer Space Treaty restricts the use of most weapons in space however conventional weapons, such as the aircraft gun on the Almaz station Salyut 3, are still allowed. For the most part this would restrict anything in earth orbit to blowing up other stuff in orbit which is not the most useful thing you can do. In essence you would be creating a debris field  that you would then have to work around and it’s much easier (and cheaper) to take out a satellite with ground based lasers or missiles. Other than that the capsule is interesting because of its design.

Russia as a space nation is known for producing reliable vehicles that can only ever be used once. Whilst on the surface this may seem wasteful it does help to keep costs down as reusable architecture, like the Shuttle, requires a lot more work to ensure the structures are reusable. Almaz is different as on the surface it looks like a typical Apollo capsule whilst being reusable, something which a budding space company would require in order to keep costs down. Excalibur Almaz has already bought two complete hulls and the interesting part is that Russia is quite capable of making more of them. This is in stark contrast to other capsules of its time period like Apollo or even Skylab, as all the tooling and manufacturing lines are gone.

There is just one slight detail that’s bothering me about the whole proposal; they are lacking a launch system. Whilst there are many companies that would be quite capable of launching this thing into orbit it appears that the sourcing of a launch vehicle will be left up to an exercise for the purchaser. Whilst I don’t doubt the capabilities of the companies like SpaceX to deliver such a craft into orbit the announcement of a new “orbital” space company is a bit of a stretch when realistically they’re just giving you the tin can that will keep you safe. Additionally the man rating of rockets is well, rocket science and choosing a launch vehicle instead of letting the buyer source one himself would make the whole operation a lot safer.

The aggressive time schedule of 2013 is something that I will be watching closely. By that time I would expect that the SpaceX Dragon would have conducted several flight tests and would be their main competitor. However SpaceX haven’t announced any plans to use the Dragon for space tourism purposes and the design of the capsule reflects that (lack of windows and large interior volumes). This doesn’t rule them out though as Bigelow Aerospace will eagerly take the opportunity to use the Dragon to ferry its customers up to their space hotels, something which the craft is completely capable of doing. Actually it looks like the future is going to be filled with many companies fighting it out in the private orbital space tourism industry.

Maybe, just maybe in our lifetimes the everyman will get his chance to go to space.