Just under a year ago I wrote about the diminutive cousin of the soon to be retired space shuttle the X-37B. It’s been an unusually popular post on my blog, seeming to grab everyone’s attention every time someone makes a mention of the X-37B. Today was no exception and of course I had to why this secretive craft was causing such a ruckus again. The last couple times it was nothing more than it changing its orbit so I wasn’t expecting anything amazing. Turns out that 2 days ago the X-37B launched on its second mission into space atop an ATLAS-V rocket, its ultimate purpose still remaining a classified secret.
The launch was meant to take place on Friday but was delayed due to low clouds. Although I’ve mentioned in the past that launches can be delayed due to weather I’ve never properly explained why that is the case. You see back in the days of the American moonshot launches happened on schedule regardless of weather conditions. This led to Apollo 12 launching during a heavy rainstorm and although the craft was insulated against strikes (much like aircraft of the day were) it still triggered 2 lightning strikes that traveled the length of the craft and along the exhaust plume. The strike caused all 3 of the fuel cells to be disconnected and the only thing that kept the launch going was John Aaron‘s obscure call of “Try SCE to AUX” which only Alan Bean recognized. To avoid such problems in the future NASA now scrubs launches if there’s a significant chance of lightning strikes.
There’s not a whole lot to say about this mission since it’s all so hush-hush, but as far as the defense force is telling us it is testing equipment for future satellites. Undoubtedly all of those pieces of equipment have military purposes in mind leading many to speculate that the X-37B is the USA’s attempt at weaponizing space, which they have flatly denied. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were however as the Russians famously launched several space stations armed with varying levels of conventional weaponry. I’m more a fan of the X-37B being an orbital satellite capture device though as its payload bay is large enough to store one and bring it back to earth, as this infographic shows:
Credit: Karl Tate, space.com
The most interesting thing about this launch of the X-37B is the short turn around time it had from its last mission to its launch a couple days ago. After spending 224 days in space and returning in December last year its taken just under 3 months to get it flight ready and launched again. The shuttle by comparison takes much longer currently, usually upwards of 6 months (although the record stands at 8 weeks and the design was for a mere 2 weeks). This shows how smaller purpose built craft, even at the experimental stage, are far superior than jack-of-all-trades type crafts like the space shuttle is. Of course the shuttle was mired by strange military requirements that required it to do one orbit and return to earth, something which the X-37B doesn’t have to contend with.
Like its previous mission I’m sure the X-37B will provide amateur satellite trackers hours of fun over the course of the next 7 months or so. It will be interesting to see if it moves around in orbit as much as it did last time or if it delivers some payload into orbit (it certainly has the capability). The speculation is probably a lot more fun than the actual payload itself which is likely to be reconnaissance equipment since that’s really all the military does in space. Still if the military can see how well purpose built craft like the X-37B work then NASA can’t be far behind and hopefully their next generation of craft will reflect that.
I must admit I don’t give the Russians enough credit for the work they do in space. If a Shuttle launches you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll write a post up about it and guaranteed I’ll be letting everyone else know about it if they don’t read my blog. Still at least 5 times a year Russia launches up a Soyuz craft carrying 3 *nauts and in between those they launch another 4 or so Progress craft to resupply the International Space Station. So whilst their craft might not be as iconic and grandiose as the Shuttle they are in essence the innovators of cheap, reliable access to space and have been for many decades.
Really though Russia’s prowess in terms of pioneering space technologies goes much further than that. Today 39 years ago they launched an extremely ambitious project called Salyut-1, the first ever space station. For the most part you would call it an observatory as the majority of the work during the Salyut’s maiden flight was Earth facing observation plus a few deep space spectrographs. Like with all firsts in space there were many problems with the first flight being unable to dock due to their docking couple failing and the second crew, who were tragically lost upon re-entry but have since ensured that none will be lost in that way again, were forced out of the station due to numerous problems including an electrical fire (probably the worst thing that can happen in high pressure oxygen rich environments).
The Salyuts were fairly spacious for their time having just under 100m³ of area for the visiting cosmonauts (compare that to the ISS’s living volume of 373m³). Couple that with 20 portholes that littered the space craft and life up there wouldn’t have been too bad. Especially for those cosmonauts who were used to the cramped confines of the Soyuz which, up until recently, didn’t even have a window for the orbital module (not that it needed it anyway). Taking a tour of the inside reveals that most areas had enough room to be quite comfortable, they even had a treadmill.
True to their core philosophies of truly repeatable mission profiles Salyut 1 wasn’t the last of its kind. The Salyut mission profiles flew another 8 missions and were responsible for many of the components that made up the Mir Space Station that followed. The last of the Salyut series even managed to stay up in orbit for over 4 years and was visited repeatedly by a total of 10 crews. If you compare that to the American offering of the same time who managed to keep a station in orbit for 6 years but only ever managed to visit it 3 times you can see why that even today the core of our biggest space station ever is in fact a Russian module called Zvezda. It’s no wonder the Chinese turned to Russia for their space program.
The Salyut craft also had a slightly darker side with 3 of the missions (2, 3 and 5) designated as Almaz military Orbital Piloted Stations. These are the only (known) craft to ever fly weapons in space and whilst they didn’t carry anything really destructive, a Nudelman-Rikhter NR-23, it was still successfully fired at a test satellite on orbit. Other than that however they were just your typical military operation with the exception that they were piloted by humans on orbit rather than on the ground.
Despite this however the Salyut missions were another step forward in humanity’s endeavours in space and we owe a great deal to Russia for them. Without their courage and sacrifice there’s no telling how much longer it would have taken us to big something as impressive as the ISS or the technology to keep humans alive in orbit for a period that was measured in months instead of weeks. I believe I speak for many of us space nuts in saying that on today of all days we salute you Russia.
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.