Thursday, August 02, 2012

The new space race

In a few short years, and from a standing start, Elon Musk and SpaceX has achieved what might otherwise have been thought impossible. Late last year they launched a spacecraft and returned it to Earth safely. Then they launched a second which successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) and again returned it to Earth safely.

"The impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination, of which road they should take...", John F. Kennedy

Working relatively independently of NASA and the other government agencies, and building their technology stack from the ground up, SpaceX has in under a decade already demonstrated Apollo-era capability. However their Dragon capsule is no Apollo, it's a flexible space transport system built with modern technology, whose full capabilities have yet to be demonstrated.

DragonCaptured_01.pngThe SpaceX Dragon spacecraft on the end of the Canadarm2.

SpaceX is the first commercial company to send a spacecraft into orbit and recover it successfully, something that only three governments - the United States, Russia and China - have ever done, and with the retirement of the US Space Shuttle they have the capability that only two governments - Russia and China - now posses. The European ATV and Japanese HTV have no return capability and burn up in the Earth's atmosphere, and the US currently has no manned space capability.

Dragon Spacecraft in Ocean After Splashdown from SpaceX

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft floats in the Pacific after returning to Earth from the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: Mike Altenhofen/SpaceX

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, the Dragon is the only spacecraft in the world capable of returning significant cargo from the station as the Russian Soyuz has only minimal cargo capacity.

Space Stations

The first generation space stations; the Soviet Salyut and Almaz stations, along with the American Skylab station, were all monolithic designs. It wasn't really until Mir was flown with a modular design that we entered the modern era, it was the only second generation station to fly, with the US sitting on the sidelines resting on its Lunar laurels, and the Europeans seemingly uninterested in manned spaceflight.

The ISS and the docked Space Shuttle Endeavour, taken by Expedition 27 crew member Paolo Nespoli from the Soyuz TMA-20 following its undocking on May 23, 2011. It was the first-ever image of a space shuttle docked to the International Space Station. Endeavour at left. European ATV cargo carrier at right. Credit: NASA/Paolo Nespoli

Today's ISS is a bastard child of the follow-on station projects from the various countries involved in space race; the Soviet/Russian Mir-2, the American Freedom project which included the Japanese Kibō Laboratory, and the European Columbus space station. None of which came to fruition separately, mostly due to budgetary considerations but also due to politics.

The first component of the ISS was launched in 1998, and construction began the Russian Mir station was still in orbit. The last manned mission to Mir was a privately funded Soyuz mission by MirCorp, in April 2000, which carried out repair work with the hope of proving that the station could be made safe. There was no return to Mir however which was deorbited the following year following the permanent occupation of the ISS, which began in the November of 2000.

OPSEK and Gateway

Despite being declare "complete" there are two more modules destined for the ISS are due for launch over the next couple of years, both from Russia. The Nakua module will serve as Russia's primary research module on the ISS. It will replace the current Pirs module, When that happens Pirs could become the first permanent ISS module to be decommissioned, and would be destroyed during atmospheric re-entry. The Node Module is intended as the primary core of the Russian OPSEK station. Initially attached to the ISS, it will be detached along with Nakua and some of the other Russian modules before the ISS is decommissioned and deorbitted, and used for the basis of a new station.

Recent proposals by Boeing call for some of the "left over" parts of the ISS program that are still on the ground, notably the unlatched Node 4, to be used to build a Exploration Gateway Platform to be located at one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points to be used as a launch platform for deep space exploration, robotic relay station for moon rovers, telescope servicing and a deep space practice platform located outside the Earth's protective radiation belts. The new platform would be assembled at the ISS before being boosted towards the Lagrange point. If this came about it could drastically cut the cost of future manned Lunar, Mars or NEO missions, and would represent the first manned presence beyond low-Earth orbit since the Apollo program ended in the 1970's.

Commercial operations

With the launch of first Cygus spacecraft scheduled for October of November, the number of commercial companies with access to low Earth orbit will grow to two, although SpaceX will remain the only company with return capability. There is no immediate expectation that the US government, and NASA, is on track to regain any sort of direct access and commercial operators will therefore remain the only access to space for the US for the foreseeable future.

Genesis_1.jpgThe Bigelow Genesis-I Space Station in orbit

The decommissioning of the ISS, now scheduled for 2020, would leave no US government presence in space. Of course by then Bigelow Aerospace, already with two pathfinder launches under their belt (Genesis I and Genesis II), plan to have a human-habitable commercial station online. Tentative launch dates for the first modules are around 2014 and 2015, and Bigelow has reserved a 2014 launch slot on SpaceX's Falcon 9, although they have not yet announced the payload.

Unlike the ISS and previous stations Bigelow's station technology is different, and potentially game changing. Based on the TransHub technology and patents, which Bigelow bought from NASA when they were directed to discontinue work on module by the US Congress, Bigelow's inflatable modules will provide large useful volumes for a much smaller launch weight than traditional hard-shell modules.
By the time Bigelow is ready to launch its first station SpaceX should have a fully man-rated Dragon capsule, and possibly a crewed launch to the ISS under their belt. Earlier this month Bigelow and SpaceX teamed up to do joint marketing to international customers of crew transport on SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon up to the Bigelow BA330 space facility.

Bigelow has agreements with seven sovereign nations to utilize on-orbit facilities of the commercial space station: United Kingdom, Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Sweden and the United Arab Emirate of Dubai.

Of course who knows what the Jeff Bezos and his skunk-works company Blue Origin are doing behind heir "cone of silence," beyond their initial test flight back in 2006 we heard very little out of the company until the beginning of September last year where they reported the loss of their second test vehicle during a developmental test at Mach 1.2 at an altitude of 45,000ft. I'm not sure most people were aware they were testing at those altitudes, at least not at the time.

Then there is Excalibur Almaz who are now planning to take customers to the Moon, with a ticket price of $100 million a seat.

History of the Soviet Almaz military program on which the Excalibur Almaz technology is based.

The company relies on the use of decommissioned Salyut-class spacecraft which Excalibur Almaz purchased from Russian. They currently own four reusable reentry vehicles and two station modules, similar to components of the Mir station and the currently flying Zarya module attached to the ISS.

Close to home

Somewhat overshadowed by SpaceX and Dragon, Virgin Galactic has announced that the FAA had given an experimental launch permit for its sub-orbital SpaceshipTwo and air carrier WhiteKnightTwo.

spaceshiptwo_001.jpgSpaceShipTwo flying with crew for the first time, during a dress rehearsal flight for its first free glide flight in 2010. Credit: Virgin Galactic/Scaled Composities

WIth this permit in hand Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic are able to press ahead with the testing program and carry out rocket powered test flights of the new craft.

The long duration future

The new commercial space companies have ambitious plans; SpaceX's Red Dragon which may launch as early as 2018 and use a modified Dragon capsule to carry heavy instrumentation for a soft landing on the Martian surface, and as a precursor to a manned mission.

Red Dragon Landing.jpgArtist's rendition of a Dragon spacecraft using its SuperDraco thrusters to land on Mars. Credit: SpaceX.

Almost complimentary to the push towards manned spaceflight from the commercial sector, is the arrival of Planetary Resources earlier in the year with a goal of developing a sustainable (and profitable) robotic asteroid mining industry.

The new space race

The US and Russian governments aren't doing planning any novel endeavours in space, and it seems the Chinese are determined to tread the path that the US and Russia has taken before them, their own station seems to be a mix-and-match copy of the historical Russian programme, although the capability of their Shenzhou spacecraft to leave the orbital module behind means that their station might grow incrementally and much more rapidly than the ISS.

The really interesting development work happening in the space industry right now seems to be going on in the private sector. The new space race has begun, it's between SpaceX, Blue Origin, Orbital Sciences and the other commercial companies. The goal isn't national pride, it's part personal pride and ambition, as most of these companies are founded by individuals, and part profit motive.