Monday, February 17, 2014

10 Cool Things About the U.S. Space Program

You don't see this in Houston ... SpaceX employees gather behind Mission Control to watch the November 28, 2013 Falcon 9 launch. That's a space-flown Dragon capsule hanging from the ceiling. Image source: SpaceX.

Still running into people who think the U.S. space program is over?

Here are ten really cool things you can tell them to show the U.S. space program is alive and well.

1. The U.S. space program isn't just NASA any more. When someone asks you what is the NASA budget this year, explain to them that the U.S. space program is not just NASA but also its commercial cargo and crew partners. Many other companies are developing space technology independent of NASA, and may soon fly into space without NASA involvement.

2. An entirely new space economy is emerging in the U.S. Often known as “NewSpace,” the new U.S. space economy doesn't rely solely on cost-plus government contracts for business. Under cost-plus, NASA contractors are guaranteed a profit, removing the incentive to deliver on schedule and on budget. The new incentive-based approach used in NASA's commercial cargo and crew programs forces companies to achieve milestones if they want an award. They're free to innovate and invest as much or little money as they want, so long as they demonstrate they can deliver a service safely and affordably.

The beauty of this approach is that it's encouraged entrepreneurs to invest in 21st Century technology that liberates space from the government. By the end of the decade, private customers will fly on private craft to private space stations. All that is happening here in the U.S.

3. SpaceX is The Most Interesting Company in the World. SpaceX founder Elon Musk is to innovation what the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man in the World is to machismo.

The Most Interesting Man in the World ... Elon Musk in about twenty years?! Video source: Dos Equis Beer.

He made his fortune by creating PayPal. His Tesla Motors Model S electric car is the talk of the auto world. His SolarCity is developing affordable solar panels for home use. In his spare time, he's mulled the idea of a hyperloop to provide high-speed mass transportation system.

But it's SpaceX that is changing the future of human spaceflight.

For the last half-century, only governments could launch people into space. Their launch vehicles and spacecraft were often built by private companies, but if you wanted to go into space you had to go through a government.

Musk's original vision was to bring down the cost of launching satellites. This was at a time that the U.S. government granted a legal monopoly to Boeing and Lockheed Martin; those companies formed United Launch Alliance to launch government payloads. The result was that commercial satellites went overseas to launch.

In December and January, the first two commercial satellites to launch from Cape Canaveral since 2009 were lifted into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Pad 40. The monopoly is broken.

The SpaceX Dragon, a robotic 21st Century spacecraft, delivers cargo to the International Space Station. Designed for eventual use by people, Musk hopes to have his first crewed launch within two years.

The Falcon Heavy, which when operational would be the most powerful launch vehicle on Planet Earth, could have its first test flight by the end of 2014 from Vandenberg AFB.

SpaceX is negotating a lease with NASA for Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A. Originally used for the Saturn V moon rocket, and later for the Space Shuttle, SpaceX would take 39A from vertical integration to horizontal. The pad could see both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches, for NASA customers and perhaps the private sector as well.

But that's not enough for Musk.

He wants to build a Mars Colonial Transport that would place humans on Mars in the next decade, part of a vision to permanently colonize the Red Planet.

Sorry, Dos Equis. Elon Musk is the Most Interesting Man in the World.

4. Bigelow Aerospace is building expandable space habitats. Don't call them “space hotels.” Bob Bigelow frowns on the term. Just because he owns Budget Suites of America doesn't mean he's building space hotels.

NASA began developing inflatable habitat technology in the 1990s. Called TransHab, Congress killed the program but NASA was able to find an entrepreneur willing to license the technology. Bigelow founded his Las Vegas company Bigelow Aerospace to evolve this technology into a more affordable means of permanent human habitation in low Earth orbit and beyond.

A Bigelow Aerospace model of their expandable habitats on the surface of the Moon. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace via

A demonstration version called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is scheduled to launch to the ISS on the eighth SpaceX delivery sometime in 2015.

Bigelow also spearheads a joint program with NASA to explore the feasibility of a commercial program beyond Earth orbit, possibly to the Moon.

Speaking of our celestial neighbor ...

5. Golden Spike is developing a commercial lunar program. Founded by former NASA executives, the Golden Spike Company hopes to use largely existing or maturing technologies to operate a crewed commercial lunar service by the end of the decade.

An example of a Golden Spike lunar expedition using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy as the launch booster. Image source: The Golden Spike Company. Click the image to view at a larger scale.

The above notional image on the Golden Spike web site suggests the use of two Falcon Heavy rockets — one to launch a lunar lander, the other to launch a crew vehicle.

Golden Spike has hired Northrup Grumman to develop the lunar lander, and recently hired Draper Laboratory to identify potential landing sites.

6. Microgravity research benefits humanity. Last July, I wrote a blog article documenting five medical discoveries from microgravity research that are on the market or in clinical trials. It's clear that microgravity research will have medical benefits for humanity.

The February 2014 issue of the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology published two studies documenting how microgravity affects cells. One article documented how thyroid cancer cells became less aggressive when in microgravity. The key is to understand why, and see if that process can be duplicated here on Earth.

Microgravity can also improve foods without genetic mutation. Zero Gravity Solutions, Inc. believes it can manufacture substances in microgravity that can be used to enhance the growth of plant life on Earth.

Click the arrow to watch a Zero Gravity Solutions promotional video.

Last year, ZGSI released its first product, called BAM-FX. According to their press release:

Initial data utilizing our technology as applied to agricultural use on Earth has demonstrated, through independent certified laboratory analysis, the ability to systemically deliver targeted minerals and micronutrients throughout a plant from seed or root to maturity. This was accomplished without the use of genetic modification or traditional fertilizers. The ability to create highly nutritious, immune system enhanced crops that are not Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) is a potentially significant, disruptive agricultural technology.

7. CASIS can send your experiment to the space station. The Center for Advancement of Science in Space is a Space Coast-based non-profit that finds commercial and other research customers to conduct experiments on the ISS. The first CASIS payloads arrived at the ISS in January on the Orbital Sciences Cygnus.

CASIS manages the U.S. National Laboratory aboard the ISS on behalf of NASA. The agency can provide seed money, expertise, launch access, administratrive support and educational outreach.

8. NanoRacks can deploy your experiment at the ISS. NanoRacks is a Houston-based company offering an affordable means of conducting microgravity experiments inside or outside the ISS. Their customers include high schools and universities, pharmaceutical companies, and nations that are not part of the ISS partnership.

NanoRacks CubeSats are deployed from the International Space Station. Image source: NASA.

In October, NanoRacks announced the company had delivered over one hundred payloads to space.

9. Stratolaunch is building a horizontal-launch craft. Stratolaunch bought two 747 fuselages to strip them as the skeletons for the world's largest aircraft. Mounted below a common wing would be an Orbital Sciences booster that would deliver a payload into orbit.

Click the arrow to watch a Stratolaunch promotional video.

The vehicle is currently under construction at the Mojave Airport in Southern California. No deal has been struck, but informally Kennedy Space Center's former Shuttle Landing Facility has been cited as a possible runway for launch and landing. A demonstration flight is planned for 2017 at the SLF, but again there's no formal agreement.

10. You soon won't have to be a government employee to go into space. You've probably heard of Virgin Galactic, which for years has been promising adventure tourism flights to suborbital space. The company has flown to an altitude of 71,000 feet — about 13½ miles — but that's still far short of the international standard, which is 100 kilometers (about 62 miles).

Less well known is XCOR, which is developing a smaller suborbital space vehicle called the Lynx.

An XCOR animation of a suborbital flight aboard the Lynx.

XCOR hopes to evolve the Lynx to one day deliver small satellite payloads into orbit.

Virgin Galactic currently quotes a price of $250,000 for a two-hour flight, while XCOR would charge $95,000 for a 30-minute flight.

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