The past couple decades have seen the rise of a burgeoning private space industry, one that’s become dominated by companies founded by entrepreneurs who made their original fortunes in industries that couldn’t have been more different. What they’ve accomplished in that timeframe has been staggering making the long standing giants of this industry look archaic by comparison. However their track records for delivering in fields that these new companies can’t yet service is what has kept them going but the time is fast approaching when even their golden tickets will be up for auction. At least one company doesn’t appear to be resting on its laurels however with United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, announcing their cut price launch system called Vulcan.
As the banner’s imagery alludes to ULA’s Vulcan is an all-American vehicle, ditching the reliance on Russian built engines that have been the mainstay of their rockets for quite a while now. That’s caused some consternation as of late as the USA tries to wean itself off its reliance for Russia to provide access to space as well as the well publicized failures of a few choice engines. It’s hardly a surprising move given that many other US based companies are looking to bring their manufacturing back on-shore, both for quality control reasons as well as for publicity purposes. Regardless of where its made though what will really define this rocket is how it performs and how much it will cost.
ULA has said that the Vulcan will follow in the footsteps of the Delta-IV, offering multiple configurations from medium-lift all the way up to heavy-lift. The way this will be achieved will be through the use of different sized payload fairings as well as additional strap on solid rocket boosters, allowing the rocket to be configured to match the payload its delivering into orbit. ULA is being rather coy about the range of payloads that Vulcan will be able to service however if it’s anything like the system it will ultimately be replacing it will be a direct competitor to the future Falcon Heavy. At this point I’d usually make a quip about the SpaceX equivalent being vastly cheaper however ULA is aiming for a street price of $100 million per launch which isn’t too far off SpaceX’s projected price for their craft.
This rather extraordinary drop in price (down from some $350 million for a comparable launch on the Delta-IV) comes on the back of making the Vulcan reusable, eliminating a lot of the costs of rebuilding a rocket from scratch for every launch. However unlike the fully reusable system that SpaceX and others are pursuing (which, unfortunately, suffered another failure today) ULA is instead taking a piecemeal approach to reusability with the first part being a mid-air recovery of the engine section using a helicopter. Considering that the engines are among the most expensive components on rockets recovering them only makes sense and, potentially, has a higher chance of succeeding than other approaches currently do.
It’s good to see that the private space industry has been able to put some pressure on the long standing giants, forcing them to innovate or be pushed out of space completely. Whilst Vulcan might still be quite a few years away from seeing its first launch it shows that ULA recognise the position they’re in and are willing to compete their way out of it. Hopefully we’ll see some more details on the actual specifications of this craft sometime soon as depending on the different configurations (and their potential costs) this could even prompt SpaceX to rethink their approach. The result of an innovation war between those two giants can only mean great things for the space industry as a whole and, by extension, us as potential space faring beings.
As of right now there’s only one way to get humans into space: on board a Russian Soyuz craft. It’s an incredibly reliable spacecraft, and probably one of the longest serving spacecraft ever, however it’s ability to only send up 3 astronauts at a time does limit it’s capabilities. Couple that with the fact that the going rate for a seat on one of them is about $70 million you can imagine why there’s an imperative on NASA to find another way to get themselves up there. Whilst there’s been a lot of internal work to develop the next generation of crew transportation NASA has realised that the private space industry will very soon have that capability. To that effect they created the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCTCap) award, a $6.8 billion dollar contract to provide crew transportation services.
Today they announced the winners: SpaceX and Boeing.
The contract split gives $2.6 billion to SpaceX and $4.2 billion to Boeing. Considering NASA’s long relationship with Boeing it’s not surprising that they got a larger chunk of the pie (and the fact that they’ve already sunk about half a billion into the program already) however I’m sure SpaceX won’t be unhappy with that much business coming their way. Both companies are already well underway with their respective crew transports, Boeing with the CST-100 and SpaceX with the Dragon, which is likely why they were chosen in the first place. This program won’t replace the work that’s currently being done by NASA with the Orion capsule (under contract with Lockheed Martin) and will instead function as a supplement to that capability.
Being awarded work under CCTCap isn’t all roses however as NASA is looking to have at least one of the capsules up and running by 2017. That largely lines up with the timelines that SpaceX has for their Dragon capsule, with the first flights scheduled for late next year with crewed missions to follow shortly after. As to how that fits with the current CST-100 schedule is less clear as whilst there’s been some mockup tests done a couple years ago I haven’t seen much progress on it since. Boeing isn’t the same kind of company that SpaceX is though so there’s every possibility that the CST-100 is just as far along its development pipeline as the Dragon is. Still the CCTCap only calls for one of them to be ready by that time and if I was a betting man my money would be on SpaceX.
Both company’s solutions are of the reusable capsule variety which might seem a step backwards but it’s actually the smarter way to do space travel, especially if cost is a primary factor. The Space Shuttle, whilst iconic in its shape and unmatched in its capabilities, was a compromise between far too many objectives that were at odds with each other. If you’re goal is just getting people up and down then capsules are the way to go. It will be interesting to see if the economies of scale kick in with these craft as the Dragon is designed to be launched many times per year and the CST-100 can be reused up to 10 times before it needs a full teardown.
Needless to say this is an incredibly exciting announcement. I’ve long been of the mind that NASA should leave things like this to the private companies who can deliver the same service at a much better price without compromising on saftey. That then leaves them free to do the big picture stuff that will inspire the next generation, the kinds of things that we all remember the NASA name for. The CCTCap is the first step towards them rekindling that spirit and, as an avid space geek, that makes me so wonderfully happy.
Came across this video the other day, it’s the start up sequence for a Boeing 737 jet:
I knew the process for getting a jet off the ground wasn’t exactly easy but seeing the whole thing play out gave me a whole new perspective on it. What particularly got me was how much of it still relied on the pilot switching things around even though it was one of the newer models with a glass cockpit. I’m sure there’s a good reason for that (regulatory I’m guessing) but you’d think that eventually a lot of those manual processes would become part of the flight software.
That’s probably just the software developer in me however, wanting to automate anything and everything.
I had struggled to get to sleep last night as my room was either blazingly hot or freezing cold thanks to the air conditioner that seems to operate on a whim all of its own. Still walking up this morning I didn’t feel too tired and went about looking for something to do. I had thought I would go to a beach since there were several within an hours drive from where I was, the question was which one of them to choose? I found a couple good sites on 5 of the local beaches and I eventually settled on Cocoa beach since it had a good amount of shops close by and seemed to be the biggest out of the lot.
Before I could leave though I had to attend to the matter of what to wear. Specifically the fact that I had worn pretty much everything I had brought over with me and they really needed a wash. Thankfully the hotel had a coin (well no cash value token) operated laundry on the second floor. I’d never used one of these before and it was novel, at least for the first 15 minutes until I realised my paranoid self couldn’t leave the clothes alone in case someone nabbed them. About an hour later I was out of there with half of my clothes clean and dry with the other being clean but still wet since they couldn’t be tumble dried. I strung them up in the laundry and then went about getting out of the hotel.
I hadn’t bothered doing my hair or anything since I knew I was going to ruin it not 30 minutes later when I arrived at the beach, so the first thing I did was take the top down on the Corvette. It was nice have the wind in my hair all the way down there although I quickly realised I had neither a beach towel nor any sunscreen to speak off. A quick detour into the local Walmart solved that problem and I continued on my way. No sooner had I got back onto the highway than did I see the sign for the next exit. It read “Kennedy Space Centre” and instantly my heart began to soar. I knew I was going to be going close to the KSC but I didn’t really know how close until I was crossing over the bridge. Just as I was getting over the apex I saw a structure I recognised, the Vehicle Assembly Building a giant hangar designed to house the shuttles while they’re being prepped for launch. I was like an excited kid, bobbing up and down in my seat at the mere site of it. I promised myself I wouldn’t go there until launch day, or failing that the last day before I left Florida.
With a giant grin on my face I continued on to Cocoa beach. It was getting on in the afternoon and I hadn’t had any lunch yet so I thought I’d get some food before heading down to the beach. No sooner had I pulled into a random car park to get my bearings than I heard the unmistakable sound of several large jet engines flying low overhead. Looking skyward I saw it was a Boeing C-17 being followed by two Blackhawk (I think, they didn’t look armed) helicopters, performing an in flight refuelling manoeuvre. A smile crept onto my face as I realised that I had lucked out and found the Cocoa Beach Airshow, the one I had been searching for but had be unable to find. What ensued was several hours of lying in the sun watching various aircraft perform all sorts of feats overhead. I even got to see the legendary Thunderbirds and their compliment of F-16s. Alas I had unknowingly left my camera back at the hotel, but I did grab a few iPhone pictures as momentos.
Once the show was over I went for a quick dip in the water. It was warm and inviting, the perfect way to finish off an afternoon of staring into the sky. After jumping out and towelling off a bit I realised there were no public change rooms in sight, nor any public showers. I made my way back to the car and then did the most awkward clothes change I’ve ever done, with half of myself sticking outside of the car and the other squished up against the centre console. I got there eventually however and was off on my way back home, content in the fact that I had lucked out considerably by choosing Cocoa Beach as my destination for that day.
There’s still been no word from my travel agent as to whether or not I can change the flights without incurring some kind of penalty. If I don’t have a response by tomorrow morning I’m going to take matters into my own hands and call the flight directly. I still haven’t found a hotel yet but I’m not terribly worried, we’re not in peak times over here yet and when I was staying at the airport I would bet on the fact that at least half of those rooms were empty. We’ll see though but if worst comes to worst I’ll just rent another car and sleep in that 😉
Hey, I might actually have a use for that stupid cellphone I bought. Awesome.