Friday, December 31, 2010

Where SpaceX Lights the Candle

The SpaceX Launch Control Center is just outside the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station south gate on Highway 401 just north of Port Canaveral. It's in the Space Florida complex that began life in the 1960s as a graduate engineering program annex for the University of Florida. In the 1970s, it became the first home for the Florida Solar Energy Center.

The three occupants today are Space Florida, SpaceX and the Air Force Space & Missile Museum's History Center where I volunteer as a docent.

The SpaceX building rarely has substantive activity, except when they're approaching a launch date, so it's a very modest facility and indicative of how the company intends to show that commercial launches can be achieved more cheaply than now.

Below are photos I shot today of the SpaceX building and the approach from the highway.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

Representative-elect Sandy Adams wrote in today's Daytona Beach News Journal that the United States “should not be forced to rely on the Russians and Chinese to get our astronauts into space.”

Today's Daytona Beach News-Journal features a guest opinion column by Representative-elect Sandy Adams, whose 24th Congressional district includes Kennedy Space Center.

Adams, a Republican, defeated incumbent Democrat Suzanne Kosmas in the November Congressional election. During the campaign, statements by Adams suggested she was fairly clueless about the basic facts surrounding the government's space program.

That led Florida Today to endorse Adams' opponent:

Kosmas' opponent is four-term Republican state Rep. Sandy Adams of Orlando, whose lack of knowledge about NASA is appalling.

During an interview with FLORIDA TODAY's editorial board the day the House voted on the bill that set NASA's course for at least a generation, Adams hadn’t even read the measure and did not know any of its specifics.

She also had no idea of the key details in state legislation to spur space initiatives here, or of the many efforts underway to diversify the Brevard economy to create post-shuttle jobs.

Today's guest column in the Daytona paper suggests our worst fears about Ms. Adams may have been realized. Here's what she wrote about NASA:

I also believe that it is important to be an advocate for the needs of the district. That means that I will work to educate my colleagues about the importance of restoring human space flight as the mission of NASA — not as an afterthought or something that would be "nice" to do, but as the core mission of the agency. It's not just a national security issue for me, but also a jobs issue, as thousands of our friends and neighbors have helped to make the United States pre-eminent in space exploration and human space flight. We cannot and should not be forced to rely on the Russians and Chinese to get our astronauts into space.

Let's start with her claim that human space flight is "the core mission of the agency."

Apparently Ms. Adams has never read the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which is NASA's charter. Nothing in the Act requires NASA to fly humans into space, to explore other worlds, or to own its rockets.

NASA was founded to be an aeronautics research agency. The Act requires NASA to "contribute materially to one or more" of a long list of specific objectives. One of those was, "The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space." But a living organism is most certainly not limited to a human being. In fact, when the Act was passed in 1958, the "living organisms" being flown were monkeys and chimpanzees by the United States, and dogs by the Soviet Union. In any case, the Act only required NASA to "contribute materially," not to run the show.

The Reagan administration amended the Act in 1984 to add Section 102(c):

The Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (as established by title II of this Act) seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.

Adams wrote nothing in her article about this legislative imperative.

She also defines NASA as "a jobs issue." Nothing in the Act says NASA's purpose is to create jobs. That's been the problem with NASA for many years — too many politicians view NASA as an easy means for directing pork to their districts. NASA was never intended to be a modern Works Progress Administration, which if created today I suspect Ms. Adams would label as "socialist." As with any other government agency, NASA's mission is to provide a service, not to provide jobs for jobs' sake.

Ms. Adams wrote, "We cannot and should not be forced to rely on the Russians and Chinese to get our astronauts into space." The Chinese?! Who is forcing the United States to rely on China to access space?! That's either fundamental ignorance or shameless demagoguery.

As for Russia, that decision was made by the Bush administration in January 2004. It was on Page 1 of the January 30 Florida Today, two days after NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe appeared before the Senate Science Committee to detail the President's proposal. Florida's senator Bill Nelson expressed concern about the administration's reliance on Russia to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.

You phase out the Space Shuttle by 2010, and then if we don't fly this new vehicle until four, five, six years later, that means that our only human access to space is that we've got to rely on Russian rockets and European rockets, and I don't think that's good for the country.

Today's "gap" where the United States has to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the ISS was created long ago. Closing the gap began in 2005 with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Originally intended to expedite ISS access for cargo, the Obama administration now wants to use COTS for crew access as well, based on the conclusion by the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee in 2009 that Constellation wouldn't be ready to fly to ISS until 2017 — two years after the Bush administration's plan intended to decommission ISS in 2015, thereby negating the need for a craft to go there. By cancelling Constellation, the Obama administration can afford to extend ISS to at least 2018 and is in negotiation with our partners to extend it to 2028.

The COTS demonstration launch by SpaceX on December 8 of its Falcon 9 rocket that orbited the Dragon spacecraft shows that the commercial sector is quite close to developing a vehicle for transporting cargo and crew to the ISS. The first SpaceX supply run to ISS is scheduled for late 2011. SpaceX thinks they'll be ready to fly crew by 2013. Even if those targets slip by a year or two, they're certainly more imminent than anything NASA would have flown with Constellation.

The last thing Kennedy Space Center needs right now is to be represented in Congress by an uninformed demagogue. Hopefully Ms. Adams will do her homework and educate herself about the basic facts behind NASA's mission and the government's human space flight program.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

NASA vs. SpaceX

Michael Griffin was NASA Administrator from April 2005 until January 2009. His administration began the program to transfer supply of the International Space Station to the private sector.

Today's Orlando Sentinel has an article titled, “Can NASA Compete with SpaceX?”

I wasn't aware that NASA was in "competition" with SpaceX, especially since the SpaceX flights are funded in part by seed money from NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO).

The NASA funds represent a relatively small portion of the money invested by SpaceX to develop the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft. The reason NASA invested in SpaceX and other commercial options was to close the gap created in 2004 when President Bush cancelled the Space Shuttle program. It was recognized at the time that the Bush proposal, known as the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), created a minimum four-year gap starting in 2010 where the United States would have to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station.

NASA began the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program in 2005, recognizing that as VSE siphoned money from other NASA programs the space agency would have to rely on the more efficient private sector to drive down costs.

Michael Griffin, the NASA administrator at the time, said at the X-Prize Summit in October 2006:

All of you here will be familiar with our new Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstrations, being conducted under the framework of NASA Space Act Agreements. These landmark agreements are, truly, NASA's most significant investment to date in attempting to spur the development of the commercial space industry. But let me say this at the outset: NASA can do even better in partnering with the commercial and entrepreneurial space sector in carrying out our nation's Vision for Space Exploration. However, let me be equally blunt about the other side of the coin: "partnership" with NASA is not a synonym for "helping NASA spend its money". Just as with our international partnerships, I expect commercial and venture capital partners to have "skin in the game", contributing resources toward a common goal that is greater than that which could be easily afforded by NASA alone, while figuring out how to make a profit from it!

The SpaceX December 8 launch of their Falcon 9 which orbited their Dragon spacecraft was actually a COTS demonstration flight to show NASA the agency's investment had paid off.

I don't think SpaceX is in "competition" with NASA. SpaceX is in competition with the space-industrial complex.

President Eisenhower coined the phrase “military-industrial complex” in his January 1961 farewell address.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

The "space-industrial complex" is the same phenomenon, only applied to NASA instead of the Pentagon. I can't claim to be the first person to use the phrase — Matthew Yglesias did so in the January 3, 2007 edition of The Atlantic. Yglesias wrote:

I'm not one of these "open outer space to more private-sector activity and we'll have colonies on Titan in seven weeks" people but it does seem to me that there's probably a sufficient mix of legitimate commercial uses for space and rich eccentric space enthusiasts (and, of course, there's the intersection of the two: providing space-related commercial services to wealthy eccentrics) to keep human activity going out there without giant subsidies to the aerospace industry.

And that's what SpaceX threatens.

The Orlando Sentinel recently reported that NASA will be forced to spend $500 million on the cancelled Constellation program because of a provision slipped into the Fiscal Year 2010 federal budget by Republican Alabama senator Richard Shelby, whose state hosts Marshall Space Flight Center. ATK, which makes the Space Shuttle's solid rocket boosters (SRBs), has a major operation at Marshall and also near its headquarters in Utah. Constellation attempted to use a variant of the SRB design for the Ares I; a 2009 Air Force report concluded an SRB failure could kill astronauts, just as the SRB failure killed the Challenger crew in January 1986.

Is there a more obvious example of the “disastrous rise of misplaced power” in the government's space program than the unacceptable risk of astronaut deaths?

Sure, the day will come when crew die on a commercial flight. Hopefully that "bad day" is far in the future. But accidents still happen with automobiles and airplanes. No one argues that operation of cars and planes should be restricted to the government.

SpaceX is in competition with a powerful status quo, an unholy alliance of politicians, government bureaucrats, and contractors who rely on government contracts to stay in business. When the day comes that SpaceX is ready to fly crew in its Dragon spacecraft, will politicians like Shelby try to pass legislation forbidding the government from using private vehicles? Just how desperate are they to protect their pork?

My suspicion is that SpaceX will become part of the space-industrial complex, making generous campaign contributions to the Shelbys as part of the cost of doing business. It's a sad commentary on the current state of American space flight, but at least it will break up the government monopoly on access to space.

Monday, December 27, 2010


Alabama senator Richard Shelby was named Porker of the Month last June by Citizens Against Government Waste. Now the Orlando Sentinel cites him as the primary cause of a $500 million boondoggle in the NASA budget.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that “Thanks to congressional inaction, NASA must continue to fund its defunct Ares I rocket program until March — a requirement that will cost the agency nearly $500 million at a time when NASA is struggling with the expensive task of replacing the space shuttle.”

At the root of the problem is a 70-word sentence inserted into the 2010 budget — by lawmakers seeking to protect Ares I jobs in their home states — that bars NASA from shutting down the program until Congress passed a new budget a year later ...

The language that keeps Constellation going was inserted into the 2010 budget last year by U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who sought to protect the program and Ares jobs at Marshall Space Flight Center in his home state.

2010 was a year of great political debate over the future of the government's space program. The Obama administration challenged the space-industrial complex, proposing to switch development of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) access vehicles from the government to the private sector.

Members of Congress howled — or perhaps, the more appropriate word is oinked — because they realized Obama was cutting off the pork they've long funnelled back to their home districts.

In the Senate, representatives from space center districts and/or major NASA contractors can be found on the Science and Space Subcommittee, although the real action is on the Appropriations Committee. The former legislates policy, but the latter directs money, and it's on the latter where you'll find some of the most shameless porkers.

In addition to Shelby, you'll also find Utah senator Bob Bennett, home to ATK. According to the Orlando Sentinel article, about $165 million of the $500 million “will go to Alliant Techsystems, or ATK, which has a $2 billion contract to build the solid-rocket first stage for the Ares I, the rocket that was supposed to fill the shuttle's role of transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.” According to Bennett's Senate web site, “As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Bennett works to balance fiscal discipline in government while representing the needs of Utah in the distribution of federal funds.” That sentence drips with irony.

The Sentinel article continues:

The new NASA plan — developed after months of debate between Congress and the White House — favors an Ares I-type design by requiring use of "shuttle-derived" components, including solid-rocket motors. But some NASA engineers — and, reportedly, Shelby, reflecting the preferences of engineers at Marshall — favor a liquid-fueled rocket.

Such a rocket, they say, would be cheaper, more powerful and safer. A 2009 Air Force report warned that astronauts "will not survive" an explosion of the Ares I rocket during launch because flaming chunks of solid fuel would melt the parachutes of the escape system.

Perhaps the singular achievement by SpaceX with its December 8 launch and orbit of the Dragon spacecraft is to show what American engineering can still accomplish when freed of Congressional shenanigans.

Imagine what SpaceX, Orbital, Boeing or one of the other Commercial Crew Development applicants could do with that $500 million which will do nothing except keep on life-support a brain-dead government jobs program.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

And the Nominees Are ...

Not the manager of NASA's Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office (C3PO).

Today's Florida Today has an article about the applicants for the second round of NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.

Companies this week submitted proposals seeking a share of the roughly $200 million NASA plans to spend during the next year to develop their vehicles.

NASA's eventual choice of two or three commercial providers of crew taxi services to the International Space Station likely will be taken from that group.

The NASA office responsible for the program is called the Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office. They refer to themselves as C3PO.

According to this page on the NASA site:

NASA has intentionally limited its participation in the commercial partners' programs to enable maximum use of innovative, cost-effective commercial practices. NASA’s primary role is to monitor the progress of its CPs through an assessment of the SAA milestones and to make payment for successfully completed milestones. NASA provides expert technical assistance as requested or where considered necessary via the NASA COTS Advisory Team (CAT), discipline experts drawn from across the Agency. CATs selectively support CP reviews and consult on technical issues as requested. More extensive NASA support requires reimbursement for services or facility use via Reimbursable Space Act Agreements. Commercial Partners also receive ISS integration and certification support for their visiting vehicles.

NASA resource limitations require restrictions on the level of support that can be provided to Commercial Partners with unfunded SAAs. Unfunded CPs are not permitted to conduct demonstration flights to the ISS. However, they can provide alternative orbital test beds which simulate the ISS and its interfaces. Unfunded CPs have access to ISS interface data and NASA technical support as resources permit.

Given their successful December 8 flight of the Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX would seem to be the leader in this competition.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Blind Men and SpaceX

The Jainism religion is the origin of the parable about the blind men and the elephant.

A group of blind men approach an elephant. Each man touches only one part of the elephant, and therefore has a different opinion of what is an elephant.

It is only when a sighted person — in one version, a fellow villager; in another, their king — passes by that each realizes his experience was incomplete. The elephant was all their experiences in total, perhaps more. Each man had a partial truth, but not the whole truth.

The reaction to last week's successful launch, orbit and recovery of their Dragon spacecraft has SpaceX in the role of the elephant, with the space-industrial complex in the roles of the blind men.

For the nascent commercial space industry, it showed that a private company can develop new technologies for access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with a minimum of government funding. It was the first time in history that a private company launched its own privately designed and built spacecraft atop its own privately designed and built rocket.

History may come to view that launch as comparable to the first flight of the Wright Flyer in 1903, or Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927. The latter was motivated by the Orteig Prize, an offer made in 1919 by New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig to award $25,000 to the first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris.

NASA created its own version of the Orteig Prize in January 2006 with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. It financed the demonstration of orbital transportation services by commercial providers. According to Wikipedia, SpaceX has received $278 million so far in government subsidies. Orbital Sciences and Boeing are among the other participants.

The Obama administration wants to continue investing in commercial LEO access as a means of closing the "gap" created in January 2004 when President Bush cancelled the Shuttle program. It was acknowledged at the time that the United States would have to rely on Russia for at least four years to reach the International Space Station, until a replacement was ready.

An August 2009 GAO report concluded that the replacement, which we now know as Constellation, lacked a "sound business case," was behind schedule and over budget. That was soon followed by the Augustine Committee report which found that Constellation's Ares I wouldn't be ready until at least 2017, and that Constellation would be funded by decommissioning the ISS in 2015 — meaning Ares I had nowhere to go, ergo the lack of a "sound business case."

The Obama Administration's Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget proposal cancelled Constellation, believing that priming the commercial pump would close the gap more quickly.

The December 8 flight of Dragon aboard a Falcon 9 was a major step towards vindicating the administration's strategy. Two more test flights are scheduled — one a flyby of the ISS by Dragon, then an ISS docking test — although SpaceX wants to combine the two to save time and money. This would seem attractive to NASA, because it would expedite the process for authorizing SpaceX to fly cargo deliveries to the ISS. SpaceX already has a NASA contract for twelve ISS resupply flights starting in late 2011, but they also have many other customers than just NASA.

Despite their December 8 success, there are still plenty people who seem not to want SpaceX to succeed.

Based on comments posted to newspaper articles and blogs, some people see SpaceX as a clear and present danger threatening government space flight. Whether it's jobs, a dreamy-eyed view of NASA as a primordial Starfleet, or an honest disagreement about national space priorities, they don't want to see anyone else but NASA allowed to launch Americans into space.

I suspect there are differing views within the NASA space centers. Some workers at Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers see commercial space as a threat to their jobs. But NASA is not a modern-day Works Progress Administration, a jobs program for the sake of creating jobs.

Some fear that the focus on LEO takes humanity's eye off a return to the Moon and human exploration of the solar system. One has nothing to do with the other. No nation has shown an active interest in going to the Moon since the United States left in 1972. Quite simply, there's no compelling reason to return now, at least a reason that would justify the cost. I'm all for building Starfleet, but the political will isn't there, in the United States or in other spacefaring nations, which means the government funding isn't there.

And then, of course, there are the politicians whose districts represent NASA space centers and/or NASA major contractors. These people view NASA as a means towards re-election. Politicians who have called for less government and privatization of public services suddenly turn hypocrite when it comes to commercial space.

Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican who represents Alabama where the Marshall Space Flight Center is located, said last April:

"Once these highly skilled workers leave, they will likely never come back..." Shelby said last week of the Constellation workforce. "Under the administration's plan, NASA as we know it will never be the same."

Shelby called Obama's plan "a faith-based initiative" and "a welfare program for the commercial space industry ... where the taxpayer subsidizes billionaires to build rockets that NASA hopes will one day allow millionaires, and our own astronauts, to travel in space."

Citizens Against Government Waste subsequently awarded Shelby their Porker of the Month for June 2010. CAGW President Tom Schatz said, "It is outrageous for Sen. Shelby to object to the private sector's work on space exploration and characterize it as 'corporate welfare,' when his own actions are nothing but pure pork-barrel spending to contractors from his state."

Texas representative Ralph Hall next month will assume the chair of the House Science and Technology Committee.

Republican representative Ralph Hall, whose district is northeast of Dallas, will become chair next month of the House Science and Technology Committee that oversees NASA. The Dallas Morning News in a recent article described him as "a type of throwback legislator — a guardian of home-state interests and federal programs, including NASA."

Earlier this year, Hall and other Texans opposed President Barack Obama's effort to end the human space flight program, which was sharply curtailed by a law signed by Obama in October.

Hall remains protective of the International Space Station, which is controlled from Houston, and skeptical of the private companies that will ferry astronauts and cargo there in future years.

"I do have [concerns] because it's so important and it's so dangerous and it's so subject to failure," Hall said. "I want to be assured that they're not going to run out of money."

Apparently Mr. Hall doesn't realize that, if his committee pulls the plug on commercial access, NASA will have to pay Russia $50+ million per astronaut for Soyuz taxi service to the ISS. It would be interesting to know if he raised any objection to COTS when the Bush administration began the program nearly five years ago.

As for the "danger," space flight by nature is dangerous. The Shuttle program has cost the lives of fourteen astronauts. The STS-133 Discovery launch is delayed until at least February while NASA tries to figure out the cause of cracks in the external tank's insulating foam. I'm unaware of any concerns expressed by Mr. Hall about the tank's foam still being a hazard after more than 130 flights and the failure that cost the lives of the seven astronauts aboard STS-107 Columbia in 2003.

Mr. Shelby invoked the often-used rhetorical argument about losing skilled space workers. This may seem like a heretical rebuttal, but has anyone dared to say, "So what?"

A century ago, the horseless carriage emerged to replace the horse and buggy. At first, only the rich could afford one, but as with all new technology the price came down as more people bought them.

Imagine transplanting that era's dramatic evolution of personal transport into today's Congressional political climate. It might be argued that stagecoach builders and buggy whip makers need federal protection and subsidies as their skills cannot be lost.

I love Shuttle — my office desk is covered with Shuttle kitsch — but it's a very costly and inefficient system that's outlived its usefulness. Skills unique to Shuttle support are no longer needed.

Russia launches cargo and crew today the way they did in the 1960s — one rocket with the crew in a top-mounted vehicle, and another rocket with cargo. No foam to fall off and strike a side-mounted crew vehicle. It works, and Russia has lost no lives on Soyuz since 1971, the earliest days of that program.

The SpaceX design is a return to simplicity, and that's why their system is so cost-effective. A typical Falcon 9 launch won't require as many jobs as Shuttle. But it's not supposed to be a jobs program.

Little remains today of ICBM Row, where in the 1960s a series of launch complexes supported robust military and civilian space programs.

The famous ICBM Row now exists only in name, with the service towers and blockhouses abandoned and dismantled long ago. SpaceX, Orbital, Boeing and other commercial ventures may breathe new life into Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

When Dragon landed in the Pacific Ocean, one observer commented, "When was the last time we used the word 'splashdown'?"

Should SpaceX or another commercial enterprise launch humans into space from CCAFS, it will be the station's first human launch since Apollo 7 launched from LC-34 in October 1968. Subsequent Apollo missions, and the Shuttle flights, were all from LC-39 up the road on Kennedy Space Center property.

We may be about to enter a Back to the Future decade, heralding a second Golden Age for space flight based on the modernization of 1960s rocketry. Many remain skeptical, and skepticism is always welcome when it comes to space flight, but rather than wasting time and tax dollars on trying to save the stagecoach, we need to invest in the horseless carriage.

Let's not blind ourselves to this opportunity.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

KSCVC Bids for Orbiter

Artist's conception of a possible future orbiter exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Florida Today reports that the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex has submitted a proposal to display when of the three remaining Space Shuttle orbiters once the fleet retires, currently scheduled for sometime in 2011.

Discovery is already committed to the National Air and Space Museum, which currently has Enterprise. That prototype will go elsewhere, with Atlantis and Endeavour going to the bidders who best fit the terms as specified by Congressional legislation.

More on the competition at, which suggests the NASM might not receive Discovery after all.

Ignoring for the moment that winning bidders must come up with $28 million to ready and transport the orbiter, my personal choices are:

* Send Enterprise to Edwards Air Force Base where it flew its test flights.

* One of the three orbiters to the NASM.

* One to KSCVC.

* One to Houston for display at the Johnson Space Center.

But money and politics will most certainly influence the process, so don't be surprised if an orbiter winds up in some place with no historical relationship to the Shuttle program.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Boeing Joins the Party

An artist's conception of the Boeing CST-100 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The Boeing web site also has concepts of the CST-100 atop a Delta IV and atop an Atlas V.

Joining SpaceX and Orbital in the commercial space race, Boeing issued a press release on Monday announcing their "plans to advance the design of its Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft and Commercial Crew Transportation System and continue to demonstrate key technologies."

Boeing is proposing an approach that will significantly mature the CST-100 design through demonstrations of critical subsystems. The CST-100 spacecraft is designed to support NASA's primary objective of affordable access to Low Earth Orbit. It will carry up to seven crew and passengers, is reusable up to 10 times, and is compatible with a variety of expendable launch vehicles. The spacecraft — which is comprised of a Crew Module and a Service Module — draws on Apollo-proven aerodynamic characteristics in a design that uses commercial, off-the-shelf, cost-effective technologies.

The reference to an "Apollo-proven" design suggests the vehicle might compete with the government's Orion capsule, for which Lockheed Martin holds the contract. Florida Today reported on November 25 that Lockheed plans an Orion test flight in 2013 from Cape Canaveral.

The Senate draft FY 2011 appropriations bill includes $1.2 billion for "the multipurpose crew vehicle" but doesn't specifically state it's Orion.

The bill also includes $300 million for commercial cargo, $250 million for commercial crew and $1.8 billion for a government-built heavy-lift vehicle with a minimum lift capability of 130 tons. (Just what it would be lifting isn't specified ...) In comparison, the Shuttle can carry a payload of up to about 27 tons. The Saturn V could lift 130 tons to Low Earth Orbit, or 50 tons to lunar orbit.

The press release mentions both the International Space Station and the private Bigelow Orbital Space Complex as potential destinations.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Orbital Provides NASA with Another Option

Orbital's proposed commercial crew space vehicle.

Those obsessively opposed to commercial space access now have another target for their hatred than just SpaceX.

Orbital Sciences Corporation issued a press release today announcing "it has submitted a proposal to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in response to the Commercial Crew Development-2 contract solicitation."

The company also provided several top-level details of its proposal for providing safe and affordable transportation services to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and for commercial activities in Earth orbit. Orbital’s concept includes the following details:

• A “blended lifting body” vehicle that will launch atop an expendable launch vehicle and return to Earth with a conventional runway landing. This design derives from studies performed by Orbital for NASA under the Orbital Space Plane program between 2000 and 2003.
• The vehicle would seat four astronauts, providing a cost-effective solution for NASA’s astronaut transportation needs, as well as enabling future commercial applications.
• The proposal baselines using a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, but is flexible enough to accommodate other launch vehicle options.

Their concept is a re-do of the Orbital Space Plane project NASA had earlier in the decade, and is a kin of the X-37 project that begin with NASA in 1999 and transferred over to the Defense Department in 2004.

Friday, December 10, 2010

SpaceX Plays Politics

(Originally noted on Florida SpaceReport.), the web site for the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, published Thursday a review of political donations and lobbying by SpaceX and its executives.

The article notes:

Space Exploration Technology's lobbying expenditures, while growing rapidly, still remain just a fraction of those made by well-established (and well-heeled) aerospace firms such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, United Technologies and BAE Systems, among others.

The corporation's political donations are contributed through their political action committee, SpaceX PAC.

Between January 2009 and Nov. 22, the date of SpaceX PAC's most recent federal report, the group has raised more than $60,000.

And more than 20 federal-level political candidates have received campaign contributions from SpaceX PAC this election cycle through the second quarter of 2010.

Democrats dominate the list of the PAC's beneficiaries, with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Chet Edwards (D-Texas) receiving the most cash through the middle of this year. The SpaceX PAC also this cycle made four-figure contributions to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Nevada State Democratic Party.

The trend towards Democrats in this election cycle simply may be due to that party controlling both Congressional houses and therefore committee chairmanships. Mikulski, for example, is the chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA funding. Edwards is a senior member of both the House Budget and the Appropriations Committees. SpaceX corporate headquarters in Hawthorne is just outside Harman's district.

But as the article noted, SpaceX has greased both squeaky wheels. The company employs two lobbyists who are former Republican congressmen, Tom Loeffler and Bob Walker. Mr. Walker along with former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich co-authored in February a Washington Times opinion article endorsing President Obama's FY 2011 NASA budget that invests in commercial access to low Earth orbit to close the gap after Shuttle retires to lessen U.S. reliance on the Russian Soyuz to reach the International Space Station.

The Center for Responsive Politics also posted this Excel worksheet listing SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's federal campaign contributions. According to the article:

Musk tends to favor Democrats, although not by much: 55 percent of his partisan contributions have targeted Democratic, while 45 percent has flowed to Republicans since 2003.

The analysis shows that in the 2004 presidential election Musk gave the maximum $2,000 each to both the Bush and Kerry campaigns. In 2008, he gave $2,300 each to Obama and Hillary Clinton, but did not donate to John McCain or any other Republican presidential candidate.

I was a political consultant part-time for many years when I lived in California. Regardless of their leadership's partisan political leanings, it was my experience that corporations set aside partisanship and invest their campaign contributions in candidates who best serve their business interests. When it's unclear who might win, both sides receive largess.

It's one of the many problems with today's political climate in the United States, exacerbated by a January 2010 Supreme Court ruling that blocked Congressional regulation of corporate campaign spending.

For corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX or any other aerospace firm that relies on government contracts, that means they have to "play ball." With established contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin lobbying to kill commercial space to protect their own exclusive government contracts, SpaceX had no choice but to spend money on lobbyists to advance their interests. And should the day come when SpaceX is one of the "big boys," I've no doubt they'll play the same game too.

That's the world we live in. Sigh.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

News Reports on the SpaceX COTS-1 Launch

This photo is on the front page of the December 9 Florida Today. The 72-point headline reads, 'MIND BLOWING'.

This entry will be edited over the next few days to add links to articles as I find them.

Florida Today "Dragon Spacecraft Debut Proves to be 'Mind Blowing'"

Florida Today "Space X Success Thrills, Enthuses"

Orlando Sentinel "SpaceX Brings Dragon Capsule Back to Earth" "A Space-Age First: A Commercial Craft Returns from Low-Earth Orbit"

Time "Astronauts Inc.: The Private Sector Muscles Out NASA"

Associated Press "Company Launches Spacecraft Into Orbit and, in Historic First, Returns It Safely to Earth"

Los Angeles Times "Successful Test Flight is Giant Step for SpaceX"

The New York Times "Private Spacecraft Returns Safely From Orbit"

Washington Post "SpaceX Rocket Launch Heralded As Successful Test of Commercial Spaceflight"

CBS News "SpaceX Hails 'Mind-Blowingly Awesome' Test Flight"

Yahoo! News "'Too Good to be True': SpaceX Mission Appears Nearly Flawless" "Private Space Capsule Launch 'Mind-Blowingly Awesome'"

Aviation Week "Dragon Capsule Returns from Space"

Aviation Week "SpaceX Sees ISS Meet-up in 2011" "SpaceX Success Questions Whether Two More Demos Are Needed" "Photo Gallery: To orbit and back: SpaceX makes history with Dragon"

Florida Today "Our View: Musk's Game-Changer"

Houston Chronicle "Space Breakthrough: Houston, the Dragon Has Landed"

Huntsville Times "Editorial: A Space Agency in Transition"

AOL News "Opinion: SpaceX Succeeds; Will Congress Notice?"

The Space Review "2010: The Year Commercial Human Spaceflight Made Contact"

The Space Review "Commercial Space and the Media"

Editorial cartoon in the December 9 Houston Chronicle.

The Little Rocket That Could

The SpaceX Falcon 9 launches today from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Photo source: Florida Today

SpaceX today launched their COTS-1 demonstration flight, proving for the first time in history that a commercial company could launch a craft into orbit and return safely to a soft landing.

According to a SpaceX press release:

This marks the first time a commercial company has successfully recovered a spacecraft reentering from low-Earth orbit. It is a feat performed by only six nations or government agencies: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency.

It is also the first flight under NASA’s COTS program to develop commercial supply services to the International Space Station. After the Space Shuttle retires, SpaceX will fly at least 12 missions to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Resupply Services contract for NASA. The Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft were designed to one day carry astronauts; both the COTS and CRS missions will yield valuable flight experience toward this goal.

I was out on the Cape with a bus tour. The bus had just stopped at the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse. I videotaped the launch from that location.

Click here to watch the Lighthouse launch video. You need Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection to watch.

After the bus tour, I went by our space museum's history center. The SpaceX launch control center is next door. The SpaceX employees were outside celebrating with bottles of champagne, but still following Dragon's progress as it orbited overhead.

News reports are pouring in and will be posted at time permits. Click here for the Orlando Sentinel report.

Videos of the COTS-1 launch:

The NASA video.

The SpaceX video.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

SpaceX Will Try to Launch on December 8

Florida Today reports that SpaceX will next attempt its Falcon 9 COTS-1 launch on Wednesday December 8. The launch window extends from 9:03 AM to 12:22 PM.

I'll be out on the Cape with a bus tour that starts at 9 AM. I'll bring along a camcorder, so if circumstances permit I'll videotape the launch up close and personal. No promises.

UPDATE December 8, 2010 6:50 AM ESTA front-page story in today's Florida Today about the launch. A CNN story reports SpaceX and Orbital as developing commercial crew vehicles but doesn't mention other possibilities with a capsule atop a Delta or Atlas.

Obama Warns of "Sputnik Moment"

President Obama in North Carolina yesterday. Photo source: Winston-Salem Journal.

From The December 7 Winston-Salem Journal:

President Obama called yesterday for a new "Sputnik moment" that will re-establish the United States as the global leader in education, innovation and infrastructure ...

The heart of the speech focused on how America can reshape itself to meet the needs of a new economy, much as it did in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the Earth-orbiting satellite known as Sputnik.

The Soviets' innovation was a surprise, and ultimately served as a wakeup call that galvanized the nation. The result was a pioneering space program that put the first man on the moon.

"So 50 years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back. This is our moment,” said Obama, standing in front of blue backdrop before a gymnasium crammed with students and faculty from Forsyth Tech. "If the recession has taught us anything, it's that we cannot go back to an economy that's driven by way too much spending, too much borrowing, running up credit cards, taking out a lot of home equity loans . . . We've got to rebuild on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth."

I wrote in earlier posts about my volunteering as a docent at the Air Force Space & Museum at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. I've been doing a lot of reading about the "Sputnik" era, and found that as with many myths about our history, it isn't quite what we're led to believe today.

It all began in 1952 when the International Council of Scientific Unions proposed a comprehensive series of global geophysical activities to span the period of July 1957 through December 1958, which coincided with the high point of an eleven-year cycle of sunspot activity. It would be known as the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Many nations agreed to participate. The United States and the Soviet Union said in 1955 they would launch satellites, an unprecdented event.

A "satellite" is simply an object placed in orbit by human endeavor. The key word is "orbit." That's something no one had done in the early 1950s.

Neither the U.S. or U.S.S.R. had a civilian rocket program. All rockets were military. Although the IGY was peaceful, there was no getting around the use of the military to deliver a satellite into orbit. That was why the ability to do so was considered a military threat, although the satellite itself was entirely harmless.

While the United States proceeded with a program called Project Vanguard, the Soviets apparently kept their progress secret. Russian ham radio magazines discussed how to monitor transmissions from a satellite, but didn't mention a specific object. Sputnik was designed to emit a signal that could be monitored by amateur radio enthusiasts around the world. Their intent was to prove that the Soviet Union had indeed launched a satellite — but it didn't do much more than that.

The Soviet government, according to multiple articles, was rather shocked by the overreaction in the West. According to the NASA history web site:

A month later, on November 3, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik II, a half-ton satellite that carried a female dog, Laika, into orbit. Although Sputnik I shocked and irritated Americans, it did not particularly frighten them. Assured by the President and the media, they believed a U.S. satellite would have been first if Eisenhower had permitted the use of classified military rockets. Annoyed that the Soviets were "first into space," they were still confident that U.S. technology was far ahead of that of the USSR.

Sputnik II, however, shocked everyone. It weighed more than 1000 pounds and carried a dog. Neither of the big rockets under development, the Atlas or the Titan, could orbit 1000-pound payload. Highly classified reconnaissance satellites, with reentry capsules to recover their film, were under development, but the United States had not started to develop a spacecraft with a life support system. Most aerospace engineers regarded Laika's flight as a precursor to manned flight. Clearly, the USSR had demonstrated that it was ahead of the United States in manned space flight and in the size of satellites that it could place in orbit.

What would be the equivalent of a "Sputnik moment" in today's world?

Hard to say. The nations of the world are too interrelated today, and with spy satellites in orbit it's hard to hide any significant technological achievement.

To justify the all-but-dead Constellation Moon program, some have claimed China is sending humans to the Moon. No such program exists; they've talked about it, they have a study, but that's about it. All indications are that China is more interested in a space station in the early 2020s, although they might send robotic craft to the Moon to retrieve samples.

But that's something we did more than forty years ago.

If Chinese taikonauts walk on the Moon sometime around 2025, it will be more than fifty years after the United States did it. If the Chinese bring back Moon rocks, they can be displayed in museums next to those brought back by the Apollo astronauts a half-century ago.

So will a human Chinese Moon mission be the next "Sputnik moment"? It seems unlikely to me.

Monday, December 6, 2010

SpaceX Launch Delayed Until ...

A crack in an upper stage nozzle has postponed the SpaceX COTS-1 launch.

... Thursday. But it could be Wednesday. Or maybe later.

Florida Today reports that the December 7 test flight of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with Dragon capsule has been postponed.

SpaceX is hasn't ruled out the possibility of a Wednesday Falcon 9 launch pending evaluation of repair options for a cracked upper stage engine nozzle.

A NASA news release said the crack measured three inches long. It said SpaceX was considering several options including repairing the crack or shipping a replacement part from California.

The company earlier today estimated the launch would occur no earlier than Thursday, with a slip to Friday or Saturday if the nozzle needed to be replaced. After further analysis, the "no earlier than" date was then advanced to Wednesday.

The SpaceX web site has a press kit for the flight, dubbed "COTS Flight 1." Click here to download. You need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the file.

UPDATE December 7, 2010 9:30 AM ESTFlorida Today has this update on the COTS-1 launch.

SpaceX engineers said the cracks were in a thin, low-stress area that would not cause a flight to fail but must be studied further to ensure there isn't a more serious problem.

The nozzle could be trimmed to remove the cracked area, which helps provide a level of efficiency not required for the upcoming mission.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

SpaceX Dragon a "Game-Changer"

The SpaceX Dragon capsule with solar panels deployed. Photo source:

Florida Today columnist John Kelly writes in today's issue that this week's scheduled launch of the SpaceX Dragon capsule atop its Falcon 9 rocket could be a "game-changer" for U.S. access to low Earth orbit (LEO).

If the Dragon capsule, and its Falcon 9 rocket, ace three planned test flights, the space agency and the startup space venture could forever change how NASA -- and perhaps other government agencies -- pursue big space development projects.

To be sure, there's a long way to go to prove Falcon 9 and Dragon as a viable space transportation system for supplies or people. But the system is getting off the ground far faster and for much less taxpayer investment than any comparable space development project by NASA or the Pentagon.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Testing 1, 2, 3 ...

Click the above arrow to watch video of the SpaceX Falcon 9 test-fire. Adobe Flash Player required.

It's final exam time for the fall semester, and it seems to be final exam time in the space business too.

After a couple of aborts, SpaceX successfully completed a test fire this morning of its Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 40. The first attempt yesterday was aborted due to a high-pressure reading in one of the Merlin engines. A second attempt at 9:30 AM today aborted due to a low-pressure reading in the same engine. But attempt #3 at 10:50 AM was successful.

Up the Cape Road at Launch Complex 39-A, it's still an incomplete grade for STS-133 with Discovery. NASA has been unable to determine the cause of small cracks in the foam on the external tank. Mindful that a chunk of foam broke off shortly after the STS-107 liftoff which eventually led to the destruction of Columbia upon re-entry, NASA wants to completely understand this phenomenon before proceeding with a launch.

The earliest Discovery can launch is February 3, pushing back STS-134 with Endeavour to April.

Launched last April 22, the Air Force's X-37B landed at Vandenberg AFB on December 3 from its lengthy test flight. The unmanned military spaceplane's mission is classified.

The X-37B is a descendant of the X-20 Dyna-Soar project which ran from October 1957 until December 1963. It never flew, but the Dyna-Soar was envisioned to be an orbital military spaceplane. It's the ancestor of the Space Shuttle orbiter design as well.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

SpaceX Test Launch Scheduled for December 7

The SpaceX Falcon 9 awaits its next test flight at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 40.

Florida Today reports that SpaceX is scheduled for its next test flight on December 7. The launch window is 9:03 AM to 12:22 PM.

The launch could be delayed to December 8 or 9 but the launch window would be the same.