Friday, April 29, 2016

Let's Make a Deal

This editorial cartoon by Steve Hall appeared in the April 25, 2016 Florida Today.

Florida Today reports that the SpaceX bid for its first national security mission came in at forty percent below what the U.S. Air Force anticipated.

Reporter James Dean writes:

SpaceX has slashed the going rate for launches of Global Positioning Systems satellites, highlighting the challenge United Launch Alliance faces as it is forced to compete for some national security missions.

SpaceX’s winning bid of $82.7 million for a GPS III launch, announced Wednesday, was 40 percent below what the Air Force had estimated the mission might cost, a senior Air Force official said Thursday.

The deal emerged from the first contract opened to competition by the Air Force in more than a decade, a period during which only ULA was certified to perform such launches.

But apparently unable to approach SpaceX’s price, ULA chose not to bid for the GPS III mission last fall, scuttling the promised competition.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Space Invaders

Giovanni Schiaparelli's map of Mars, compiled over the period 1877-1886. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA.

Exploring Mars has been a passion for humanity ever since primates looked up and wondered what were the moving lights in the sky.

19th Century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli mapped continents and seas on Mars, based on what he saw through his telescope primitive by today's standards. He saw “channels” on Mars, which in Italian he named canali, but that was mistranslated into English as “canals.” The difference? A channel is natural. A canal is artificial.

Someone built the canal.

Inspired by the notion, wealthy American astronomer Percival Lowell chose to build an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. This was in 1894, when Mars would make its periodic closest approach to Earth, called opposition.

The overenthusiastic Lowell soon announced his discovery of canals and oases on Mars. He claimed he'd seen artificial channels diverting water so a dying civilization might survive.

An 1895 illustration of Percival Lowell's Mars canals. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: The Planetary Society.

Other astronomers couldn't verify his observations, but the notion found its way into popular culture.

H.G. Wells published in 1898 The War of the Worlds, about first London and then the world under siege from parched Martian invaders. Wells wrote this description of the planet:

Its air is much more attenuated than ours, its oceans have shrunk until they cover but a third of its surface, and as its slow seasons change huge snowcaps gather and melt about either pole and periodically inundate its temperate zones. That last stage of exhaustion, which to us is still incredibly remote, has become a present-day problem for the inhabitants of Mars.

Wells referred to the 1894 opposition in his opening paragraphs:

During the opposition of 1894 a great light was seen on the illuminated part of the disk, first at the Lick Observatory, then by Perrotin of Nice, and then by other observers. English readers heard of it first in the issue of Nature dated August 2. I am inclined to think that this blaze may have been the casting of the huge gun, in the vast pit sunk into their planet, from which their shots were fired at us. Peculiar markings, as yet unexplained, were seen near the site of that outbreak during the next two oppositions.

A young Edgar Rice Burroughs, living in Chicago, was influenced by Chicago Tribune reporting on Lowell's findings. Burroughs' Barsoom series of Mars novels beginning in 1912 was inspired by Lowell's work.

Ray Bradbury's 1950 tale The Martian Chronicles was also influenced by Lowell's romantic vision of a desert planet criss-crossed by canals. This time, the invaders were humans fleeing a troubled Earth, displacing native Martians.

1989 cover art by Michael Whelan titled “Descent” for a reprint of Ray Bradbury's 1950 “The Martian Chronicles.”

Three years later, George Pal's version of The War of The Worlds premiered on American silver screens. Earth once again was on the receiving end of the invasion, only this time the Martians land somewhere near Corona, about fifty miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Chesley Bonestell art in the film's opening sequence depicted a nearly frozen Martian city with canals receding to the horizon.

The trailer for the 1953 film “The War of the Worlds.” Video source: Paramount Movies YouTube channel.

At the end of the 20th Century, author Kim Stanley Robinson published his Mars trilogy. In the first novel, Red Mars published in 1993, one hundred people set forth in 2026 on a multinational colony ship for Mars. (The colony ship is comprised of modified and linked Space Shuttle external tanks!). No Martians. No canals. No life.

And that becomes the conundrum, because an overarching theme through the trilogy is the preservation of Mars wilderness. The planet's purity was defiled by first human robotic probes, then the arrival of the first humans, and now permanent colonists. Terraforming of Mars is debated to its extremes. Should the planet go “Green” or remain “Red”? Is there any point to preserving Mars' natural state now that humans have established a base? Or should a line be drawn?
The paperback book covers for Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy.

Robinson's philosophical deliberation came to mind when SpaceX and Elon Musk broke the Internet again with these April 27 tweets:

We all know that Mr. Musk's estimates are notoriously optimistic. He likes to challenge his employees with impossible targets.

This one is driven by orbital mechanics.

The prime launch windows for Mars missions are driven by opposition. The closer the planets, the less travel time and the less propellant required for the mission.

According to Universe Today, the next opposition will occur on July 27, 2018. The distance between the two planets will be 57.6 million kilometers (35.8 million miles). That's one of the closest oppositions in modern times; according to the article, the closest was in 2003, at a distance of 56 million kilometers.

The next opposition will be on October 13, 2020. That distance will be 62.1 million kilometers (38.6 million miles).

No wonder Elon is in a hurry.

NASA has released an amended copy of its unfunded Space Act Agreement with SpaceX. The original agreement was dated December 18, 2014. This copy was amended on April 26, 2016, the day before the SpaceX tweets. The agency will provide SpaceX with technical assistance and access to its deep space telemetry network. SpaceX agrees to share with NASA all its research. No money changes hands.

While NASA struggles to meet a November 2018 target date for launching its Space Launch System rocket Orion capsule on an uncrewed test flight around the Moon, SpaceX may have an uncrewed version of its Red Dragon on the way to Mars — at no cost to NASA.

Political implications abound.

How will the members of Congress who zealously protect SLS continue to rationalize the billions in pork wasted on the program, when SpaceX does it decades earlier for far cheaper?

Even if SpaceX misses the 2018 window, new Mars windows open in the fall of 2020, late 2022 and early 2025. SLS won't have its first crewed SLS flight until about 2022, and that will be a loop of the Orion capsule around the Moon. If SpaceX misses the 2018 window, it's very likely they'll make 2020. By then, commercial crew Dragons will be flying to the International Space Station, proving the ship's worthiness.

It's not too much of a stretch to foresee crews from NASA and other nations aboard a Red Dragon for the 2022 flight, perhaps for a rendezvous with a Bigelow Aerospace habitat. That could be a demonstration of how Robinson's colony ship might be assembled and utilized with today's technologies.

I'll be watching to see if Congressional porkers try to pass legislation forbidding the private sector from landing on Mars.

They might use Robinson's “Red Mars” as an argument.

Senior Editor Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society tweeted this comment on the Red Dragon announcement:

Ms. Lakdawalla doesn't oppose the mission, but Mars' “pristine” state might be an excuse for SLS porkers to try blocking the mission. The hypocrisy, of course, would be that they'd still be all in favor of a government vehicle doing the mission. But they could claim that the SLS goal of late 2030s for the first NASA landing would allow time for more robotic missions to collect and return “pristine” samples. All those SLS contractors, meanwhile, could cool their heels collecting taxpayer dollars, secure in the knowledge that Congress won't expect them to actually do anything for some time to come.

It's a ridiculous scenario, but the Senate Appropriations Committee just voted to cut funding for Mars landing technology programs to boost the SLS Fiscal Year 2017 budget by $800 million — even though NASA didn't request the money. The chair of the panel's space subcommittee is Richard Shelby (R-AL), a four-time Porker of the Month award winner whose state has the NASA center designing SLS.

Still think it's ridiculous?

Under the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, signatory nations are responsible for commercial space activities in their countries. Article VI states:

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty. When activities are carried on in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, by an international organization, responsibility for compliance with this Treaty shall be borne both by the international organization and by the States Parties to the Treaty participating in such organization.

As I read that, it could be interpreted as allowing another nation to fly crew on Red Dragon if the U.S. refuses to participate. But the U.S. could block the launch from its territory. So this could get ugly.

In any case, Lakdawalla raises a concern that was heard in the early 1960s after President John F. Kennedy proposed the human lunar spaceflight program on May 25, 1961. Project Ranger spacecraft had to be sterlized by baking them, which may have caused several technical failures with early missions.

For decades, it was thought that Surveyor 3 carried microbes that survived sterlization and then landed on the Moon. That was debunked in May 2011. Researchers examining Surveyor 3 parts returned by the Apollo 12 crew apparently contaminated the parts themselves.

All that sterilization didn't matter once the Apollo astronauts arrived. They left 96 bags of bodily wastes on the Moon at their landing sites, to reduce launch weight. So much for purity.

With Elon Musk in a rush to make the July 2018 launch window, another race against time will be to stay one step of Congress, which may try to find a way to ground Red Dragon.

The Martians in The War of the Worlds weren't concerned about Earth bugs. Contamination killed the space invaders. Should we return the favor?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Garver Unchained, Part IV

July 8, 2009 ... Nominated NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver have their consent hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Image source: NASA.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver published an opinion column in Space News today that finally pulls back the veil on the early days of the Obama administration when the botched Constellation program met its demise.

Garver's column, titled “Transition Fever,” at face value offers advice to the future teams working on the transition to the next presidential administration.

The meat of the article is the starkest revelation yet of how the Republican administration leading NASA in late 2008 and early 2009 all but refused to cooperate with the incoming team when it came to evaluating Constellation.

I've written many times over the years about Constellation's mismanagement and budget busting, such as this September 2015 column. In April 2008, GAO Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management Cristina Chaplain testified to Congress about Constellation's Orion capsule and its Ares I booster:

... [T]here are considerable unknowns as to whether NASA’s plans for these vehicles can be executed within schedule goals and what these efforts will ultimately cost. This is primarily because NASA is still in the process of defining many performance requirements. Such uncertainties could affect the mass, loads, and weight requirements for the vehicles. NASA is aiming to complete this process in 2008, but it will be challenged to do so given the level of knowledge that still needs to be attained.

Chaplain testified, “In fact, we do not know yet whether the architecture and design solutions selected by NASA will work as intended.”

July 31, 2008 ... An Orion parachute test fails in Arizona. Image source: NASA.

In today's column, Garver writes that when the Obama team met with the Bush-era NASA executive leadership running Constellation, they were stonewalled.

The Ares launch vehicle team came up from Huntsville and brought a slickly produced video to describe their program. The Orion team from Houston was only slightly more informative. I had sought the counsel of Sally Ride, who led Bill Clinton’s NASA transition in 1992, and she mentioned that the Aerospace Corp. was working on an analysis of the Ares program and she helped arrange for us to get a briefing from them. After a 20-minutes introductory briefing on the Aerospace Corp., our briefers concluded without sharing any details from their Ares study. Our detailed questions were met with nervousness and little eye contact. We later learned that NASA leadership had heard about our planned meeting and preemptively told them not to share the Ares results with us.

Later in the article, Garver continues:

NASA programs that are on track, on budget and providing great value are very likely to continue to be supported. But as I said to Mike Griffin in late 2008, you are asking us to buy a car without looking under the hood. That posture in 2008 led us to initiate the Augustine Committee, which confirmed Constellation was unsustainable.

Garver doesn't mention that, while the Augustine review was under way, the GAO issued yet another critical audit in August 2009. The report began:

NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case — including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time — needed to justify moving the Constellation program forward into the implementation phase.

The audit cited “a poorly phased funding plan that runs the risk of funding shortfalls in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. This approach has limited NASA’s ability to mitigate technical risks early in development and precludes the orderly ramp up of work force and developmental activities.”

The report cited several design challenges with Orion and Ares I.

To this day, some politicians on Capitol Hill and others associated with Constellation still express outrage that the Obama administration did the right thing by cancelling this boondoggle program.

Members of Congress representing NASA space centers and “OldSpace” contractors replaced Constellation with Space Launch System, which as predicted by many observers is quickly turning into another boondoggle. The 2010 legislation imposing SLS on NASA required the agency to use Space Shuttle and Constellation contractors, and those programs' technologies where possible, to protect the OldSpace workforce. That's why SLS critics call it the Senate Launch System.

Before Garver joined the Obama election campaign in July 2008, she worked originally for Hillary Clinton's presidential bid. Garver currently is unattached to any candidate; she serves as general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association. Several observers, including me, think it's reasonable to assume that a 2017 Clinton White House might recruit Garver for a space-related post.

All of we space policy pundits will be watching to see if the next administration is willing to call out SLS for what it is, as did Garver and others eight years ago.

Prior “Garver Unchained” articles:

Garver Unchained September 10, 2013

Garver Unchained, Part II January 3, 2014

Garver Unchained, Part III December 4, 2014

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Orbital ATK Looks at VAB

A 2012 ATK promotional video for Liberty. Video source: atk YouTube channel.

NASA issued a press release today announcing negotiations with Orbital ATK to use Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building and a mobile launch platform.

NASA has selected Orbital ATK Inc. of Dulles, Virginia, to begin negotiations on an agreement to use High Bay 2 in the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The prospective property use agreement, which also will include a mobile launcher platform, reflects Kennedy’s transformation to a multi-user spaceport supporting both government and commercial organizations.

“Over the past few years, the people of Kennedy have worked diligently to transform the center. We are now a true multi-user spaceport supporting a variety of different partners successfully,” said Bob Cabana, Kennedy director. “We look forward to working with Orbital ATK in the future to help expand the capabilities of this unique, historic asset.”

NASA will remain the primary user of the VAB for the Space Launch System and Orion programs. If an agreement is negotiated, NASA will act as the overall site operator for the facility.

The potential agreement is the result of a competitive Announcement for Proposals the agency released in June 2015.

The June 2015 press release clarifies the mobile launcher in question would be one of the three originals from the 1960s, not the new tower for Space Launch System.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida has released an announcement for proposals (AFP) for private companies interested in using its Vehicle Assembly Building, High Bay 2 (VAB HB2) for assembly, integration and testing of launch vehicles.

In addition to VAB HB2, the center has three Mobile Launcher Platforms (MLPs) available for reuse in commercial space operations. This announcement supports Kennedy’s transformation to a multi-user spaceport that effectively utilizes assets identified in the center’s 20-year Master Plan.

James Dean of Florida Today broke the story earlier today. Orbital is interested in using the facility for a potential future military launch vehicle.

Pairing a solid-fueled booster with a liquid-fueled upper stage provided by Blue Origin, Orbital ATK’s proposed rocket aims to win Air Force certification to launch national security missions for which only ULA and SpaceX are now eligible to compete.

Orbital ATK says the large rocket would not displace the company’s smaller Antares rocket launched from Wallops Island, Virginia.

The Air Force earlier this year awarded Orbital ATK $47 million to study its new rocket concept as part of a broader program developing domestic alternatives to the Russian RD-180 engine flown by ULA’s Atlas V rocket, which launches most U.S. military missions.

SpaceX, ULA and Aerojet Rocketdyne also won contracts to study new propulsion systems.

Though not fully defined, Orbital ATK’s concept echoes the Liberty rocket that ATK — prior to its 2014 merger with Orbital Sciences — proposed for launches of International Space Station cargo and crews.

Liberty was a ham-handed attempt by ATK in 2012 to win a NASA commercial crew contract, even though it hadn't participated in earlier rounds of competition like other bidders. The artist's concepts showed Liberty using KSC's existing infrastructure, hoping the government agency would subsidize their use to give the legacy architecture a purpose. That strategy failed.

2012 conceptual images of the ATK Liberty. Original source: ATK via

The Liberty design proposed using a single-stage solid rocket booster similar to the cancelled Constellation Ares I. The independent Government Accountability Office issued a report in August 2009 concluding that Constellation lacked “a sound business case.” The report found “significant technical and design challenges” with Ares I, including vibration during launch and the risk of hitting the launch tower during liftoff. Unlike a liquid-fueled booster, a solid-fueled stage cannot be turned off once lit.

When ATK didn't get a commercial crew contract, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), whose district includes ATK, alleged that President Obama and NASA Administrator Bolden conspired to give one contract to SpaceX due to a supposed personal relationship with founder Elon Musk. Bishop provided no evidence, of course, just a smear.

Despite promises to press on, in January 2013 an ATK official stated the company would not proceed with Liberty unless it received $300 million in external funding from a government agency, either the United States or overseas.

ATK and Orbital Sciences announced in April 2014 that the two companies would merge, a marriage consummated in February 2015.

Solid-fueled boosters are not used by any commercial launch company, to my knowledge, anywhere on Planet Earth. To quote from the Aerospace Corporation web site:

Liquid- and solid-fuel rockets each have special capabilities, advantages, and applications. For military purposes the “rifle-readiness” of solid rocket motors gives them an advantage over liquid rockets. There is no need to lose the precious minutes required for fueling liquid propellants with a solid motor.

Liquid rockets are often preferred for space missions because of their more efficient use of propellants. Because of their high thrust and simplicity, however, solid-fuel rockets are also used with space launch vehicles. Some launch vehicles, such as the space shuttle, combine both liquid engines and solid motors.

The Space Shuttle design in the early 1970s went with solid-fueled boosters to reduce cost, not necessarily because they were preferable for human spaceflight.

NASA's current Space Launch System must use ATK solid rocket boosters on its first two flights because that design was mandated by Congress in 2010 when it created SLS. NASA was required by Congress to use existing Shuttle and Constellation technology and contractors, where possible. No other nation uses solids to launch people.

Liberty, in my opinion, was an attempt by an OldSpace company to get the government to pay for its commercial spaceflight operations. That attempt failed. This new effort sounds like another attempt to get the government to subsidize the company's operations, this time for a military launch vehicle.

More affordable and less dangerous options are available with other commercial companies.

So I won't be holding my breath waiting for Franken-Liberty to roll out of High Bay 2 any time soon.

OneWeb to Join Them All

Click the arrow to watch the WKMG-TV Channel 6 Orlando report of the media event.

After months of rumors, OneWeb and Space Florida finally announced on April 19 that the startup small satellite company will establish operations at Kennedy Space Center's Exploration Park.

OneWeb is a partnership of Virgin Galactic and Airbus, among other major corporate investors.

A June 2015 OneWeb Constellation promotional film. Video source: Airbus Defence and Space YouTube channel.

James Dean of Florida Today reports:

A state-of-the-art factory opening next year at Kennedy Space Center will put the Space Coast at the forefront of a new type of space business: mass production of satellites.

OneWeb Satellites on Tuesday confirmed plans to crank out as many as 15 small communications spacecraft a week from its assembly line, work expected to create 250 jobs in the 120,000 square foot facility to be built in KSC’s Exploration Park on Merritt Island.

That’s a blazing pace in an industry that typically takes months to put together large communications satellites that may cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Satellites today are really manufactured in artisan way: It’s labor intense, very hands on, and it takes a long time,” said Brian Holz, CEO of OneWeb Satellites. “We’re going to build one in an 8-hour shift.”

An artist's concept of the OneWeb manufacturing facility. Original image source: OneWeb.

OneWeb founder Greg Wyler told WKMG-TV that some of what they call “microsats” could be launched from Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne system using KSC's former Space Shuttle runway.

In October 2015, Virgin Galactic received a contract from NASA's Venture Class Launch Services program to demonstrate its ability to deploy a smallsat into orbit. According to the press release, that demonstration flight will occur at the Mojave Air & Space Port.

Click the arrow to watch the LauncherOne promotional film. Video source: Virgin Galactic YouTube channel.

OneWeb intends to create a space Internet with a global constellation of its microsats. The necessary orbits and trajectories will require launches from around the world. In the WKMG interview, Wyler mentioned the Russian launch site in Baiknour, Khazakhstan and the European Space Agency launch site near the equator in Kourou, French Guiana as other locations the company may use.

For Space Florida, OneWeb is the second major tenant to move into Exploration Park. In September 2015, Blue Origin announced its plans to establish operations at the site.

Before that, the state agency had failed for more than five years to find an anchor tenant for the site, after groundbreaking in June 2010.

Click the arrow to watch the Exploration Park media event. Video source: CCI321 YouTube channel.

SLS Looking Up

Looking up into the rafters of High Bay 3. Click the image to view at a larger resolution. Image source: NASA.

Just when the Space Launch System will launch is anyone's guess, but this image released April 20 by NASA shows the SLS platforms installed so far in the Vehicle Assembly Building's High Bay 3.

According to the NASA press release:

A view from below in High Bay 3 inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, shows three work platforms installed for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The lower platforms are the K-level work platforms. Above them are the J-level work platforms. A crane is lowering the second half of the J-level platforms for installation about 112 feet above the floor, or nearly 11 stories high.

The newly installed platform will complete the second of 10 levels of work platforms that will surround and provide access to the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft for Exploration Mission 1. The Ground Systems Development and Operations Program is overseeing upgrades and modifications to VAB High Bay 3, including installation of the new work platforms, to prepare for NASA’s journey to Mars.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Web Spinning

Both the Orlando Sentinel and Florida Today are reporting that Space Florida will announce April 19 a deal to bring startup Internet provider OneWeb to Kennedy Space Center's Exploration Park.

According to their web site, OneWeb plans to deploy 650 "microsat" satellites in a constellation around the Earth to “enable affordable access” for global communications.

Florida Today space reporter James Dean writes:

The negotiations anticipated Space Florida building and owning a factory between 100,000 and 120,000 square feet in Exploration Park, with the help of $17.5 million in matching funds from the Florida Department of Transportation. OneWeb would lease the facility — where the average salary would be $86,000 — hoping to move in as soon as next March.

Combined with the 330 jobs Blue Origin expects to base here to build its orbital rocket, OneWeb would make Exploration Park home to nearly 600 high-paying space manufacturing jobs.

That growth builds hope that more business could follow.

Paul Brinkmann of the Orlando Sentinel reports:

The announcement will be made at the Space Life Sciences Lab at Kennedy Space Center, for invited media only. Space Florida is about to award a major new contract to build a new 120,000-square-foot spacecraft-assembly building next door to the lab.

According to a June 2015 OneWeb press release, “OneWeb has attracted investment from Airbus Group, Bharti Enterprises, Hughes Network Systems, (Hughes), a subsidiary of EchoStar Corp., Intelsat, Qualcomm Incorporated, The Coca-Cola Company, Totalplay, a Grupo Salinas Company, owned by Ricardo B. Salinas, and Virgin Group.”

Saturday, April 16, 2016

BEAM Aboard

The Canadarm2 removes the BEAM from the SpaceX Dragon. Image source: NASA.

The first human-rated expandable habitat was attached this morning to the International Space Station.

ISS crew used the station's Canadian robot arm to remove the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) from the unpressurized trunk of the SpaceX Dragon. The arm attached BEAM to the Tranquility module of the station.

BEAM will be attached to ISS for two years to test the technology, which may be the prototype of next-generation space stations to be occupied in the 2020s.

UPDATE April 16, 2016 8:45 PM EDT — NASA posted on YouTube this video clip of the BEAM installation.

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

United Bigelow Alliance

Click the arrow to watch the April 11, 2016 media event.

Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance announced on April 11 an agreement “to develop and deploy habitable volumes in Low Earth orbit (LEO). The volumes will be based on the Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module with the initial launch to orbit in 2020 on ULA's Atlas V 552 configuration launch vehicle.”

“We are exploring options for the location of the initial B330 including discussions with NASA on the possibility of attaching it to the International Space Station (ISS),” said Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace. “In that configuration, the B330 will enlarge the station’s volume by 30% and function as a multipurpose testbed in support of NASA’s exploration goals as well as provide significant commercial opportunities. The working name for this module is XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.”

“When looking for a vehicle to launch our large, unique spacecraft, ULA provides a heritage of solid mission success, schedule certainty and a cost effective solution,” continued Mr. Bigelow.

Transportation to the B330 will be provided by NASA’s commercial crew providers, whether the station is free flying or attached to the ISS. The traffic to just one module will more than double the number of crew flights per year.

During a public event April 8 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Bigelow said he had “tacit approval” from NASA to proceed with finding government and commercial users for the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) that launched that afternoon from Cape Canaveral in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon.

The Bigelow/ULA partnership seems to shut out SpaceX from all but deliveries to Bigelow facilities.

During the April 22 media event in Colorado Springs, Bigelow said that relationships are important to him, so he'd prefer to maintain one relationship with a launch company than look around.

He cited the size of the Atlas V 552 fairing as the only one large enough to handle a compressed B330.

The Bigelow B330 web page does not provide the length of a compressed B330, although multiple web sites state the dimensions are 13.7 meters in length by 6.7 meters wide.

According to the ULA Atlas V web page, the company offers fairings anywhere from 12.0 meters to 26.5 meters.

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy web page states its fairing is 13.1 meters high by 5.2 meters wide.

One could speculate if SpaceX would develop a larger fairing for Bigelow, or if other factors led to the ULA launch partnership. The first test flight of the Falcon Heavy, according to recent statements by SpaceX executives, could come by the end of this year, although the date continues to slip. It may be that Mr. Bigelow preferred to go with a company that has technology flying now, rather than wait for an untested vehicle.

An artist's concept of a Bigelow B330 orbital station complex. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace.

For United Launch Alliance, this is one giant leap for a company founded in 2005 essentially to provide Boeing and Lockheed Martin a government launch monopoly. The arrival of SpaceX, Blue Origin and other NewSpace companies broke that monopoly. To survive, ULA is trying to change its culture — developing a new rocket called Vulcan, partnering with Blue Origin to develop a new engine, and now the Bigelow partnership.

Attaching B330s to the ISS may be difficult not because of technicalities, but because of politics.

NASA most likely would have to obtain approval from the station's partner agencies — Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency. The agencies currently are in the process of approving ISS operations from the current 2020 deadline to 2024. Mr. Bigelow stated during the media event he hopes his habitats can extend the station's life beyond 2024, suggesting that the ISS become a permanent hub. One might think of how cities and towns grew up around forts.

ULA is a risk-averse company, a trait they often proclaim when comparing their services to SpaceX. If they're all in with Bigelow, then they must see viability in Mr. Bigelow's vision and his products.

Click here to read an April 11, 2016 Smithsonian magazine article about Bigelow Aerospace.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Maximum Capacity

A NASA animation showing the six ships currently docked at the International Space Station.

For only the second time, six ships are docked at the International Space Station, clear evidence the facility is fully operational.

And for the first time, two of the ships are American commercial vessels.

The traffic demand will increase in 2017, when the United States begins commercial crew flights by SpaceX and Boeing. Those flights will increase station crew capacity from six to seven.

Left to right, the SpaceX Dragon-8, Orbital ATK Cygnus-6 and Russian Soyuz 45. Image source: NASA.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Shore to Ship

Click the arrow to watch the landing. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

It took five tries on both American coasts, but SpaceX finally landed a Falcon 9 first stage on its Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), whimsically named Of Course I Still Love You.

It was the metaphorical exclamation point on an historic day that saw the launch of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which is the prototype for what could be the next-generation space stations used in low Earth orbit and beyond.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in the post-launch media event that the ASDS may return to Port Canaveral, although it may go elsewhere first. SpaceX in the past has berthed its ASDS at the seaport in Jacksonville.

President Obama took note of the achievement with this tweet.

For me, the President's message was topped by this tweet.

Click the arrow to watch the launch webcast. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch the post-launch media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Onboard camera view of landing in high winds

Posted by SpaceX on Friday, April 8, 2016

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The SpaceX-8 Pre-Game Show

Click the arrow to watch the “What's On Board” review of science and technology launching on the mission. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch the SpaceX-8 pre-launch briefing. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Kennedy Space Center hosted this afternoon two pre-launch briefings for tomorrow afternoon's scheduled launch of the SpaceX-8 mission.

Much of the media focus should be on the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), launching in the Dragon's trunk. It will be the first deployment of an expandable space station prototype, and the first purchased by NASA from a commercial company.

In the “What's On Board” event, founder Robert Bigelow stated that two nations and two corporations have already expressed interest in using BEAM for ISS research once NASA permits.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

One to BEAM Up

Click the arrow to watch a NASA animation of the BEAM deployment. Video source: NASA Johnson YouTube channel.

Sixteen years after Congress killed NASA's TransHab program, and fifteen years after Bob Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA, we are about to see deployed the prototype of what may become humanity's forts in space.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is now in the unpressurized trunk of the SpaceX Dragon. The mission, called SpaceX-8, is scheduled to deliver its payload to the International Space Station as early as April 8.

TransHab technology goes back to a NASA program in the late 1990s that would have been a potential crew quarters aboard the ISS, then about to begin construction. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, forbade NASA in 2000 from doing any more work on TransHab. To quote from the conference report of the NASA Authorization Act of 2000:

Prohibits the obligation of any funds authorized by this Act for the definition, design, procurement, or development of an inflatable space structure to replace any International Space Station components scheduled for launch in the Assembly Sequence adopted by NASA in June 1999. Provides that nothing shall preclude NASA from leasing or otherwise using a commercially provided inflatable habitation module if such module would: (1) cost the same or less than the remaining cost of completing and attaching the baseline habitation module; (2) impose no delays to the Assembly Sequence; and (3) result in no increased safety risk.

A cutaway concept of a TransHab module. Original source: NASA.

This was when Bob Bigelow came to the rescue. According to TransHab developer William Schneider:

Robert Bigelow read about the TransHab in the May 1999 issue of “Air & Space” magazine, I believe, and saw that it was cancelled. He contacted NASA and eventually me and asked if I would consult with him, and his newly formed Bigelow Aerospace company, in the development of this inflatable module.

In 2006 and 2007, Bigelow Aerospace deployed two expandable modules, the Genesis I and Genesis II, which were proofs-of-concept. When expanded, they had a length of 4.4 meters, a diameter of 2.5 meters, and a habitable volume of 11.5 cubic meters.

The BEAM, when expanded, will have a length of 4.0 meters, a diameter of 3.2 meters, and a volume of 16 cubic meters.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, a big proponent of the “NewSpace” movement, toured the Bigelow Aerospace facility in February 2011. Two years later, in January 2013, NASA signed a $17.8 million deal to acquire a BEAM prototype to test at the ISS. Garver represented the agency at the event. Later that year, in August, she announced her departure from NASA, but the Bigelow deal was in place.

January 16, 2013 ... KLAS-TV Channel 8 in Las Vegas reports on the BEAM deal. Video source: SpheroPhoto YouTube channel.

In the three years since that transaction, Bigelow has signed more deals with NASA.

In April 2013, NASA and Bigelow Aerospace signed an agreement that let Bigelow explore the possibility of commercial ventures beyond Earth orbit. A little more than a month later, during a joint teleconference, Bigelow delivered the first draft to NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier.

The May 23, 2013 NASA/Bigelow teleconference. (Audio only.)

In July 2015, Bigelow Aerospace announced a deal “to develop ambitious human spaceflight missions that leverage its innovative B330 space habitat.” The B330 will be the first operational version of the company's expandable technology.

Via its NextSTEP contract, Bigelow Aerospace will demonstrate to NASA how B330 habitats can be used to support safe, affordable, and robust human spaceflight missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. As the name indicates, the B330 will provide 330 cubic meters of internal volume and each habitat can support a crew of up to six. Bigelow expandable habitats provide much greater volume than metallic structures, as well as enhanced protection against radiation and physical debris. Moreover, Bigelow habitats are lighter and take up substantially less rocket fairing space, and are far more affordable than traditional, rigid modules. These advantages make the B330 the ideal habitat to implement NASA’s beyond low Earth orbit (“LEO”) plans and will support the utilization of transportation systems such as the SLS and Orion. Additionally, the B330s, which will initially be deployed and tested in LEO, will be used as private sector space stations that will conduct a wide variety of commercial activities.

The Bigelow technology, in my opinion, provides humanity with a potential practical technology for human expansion across the solar system.

I think of how settlers expanded across the American West in the 19th Century. (Overlooking for the moment the slaughter of native American tribes ...) Because large population centers did not exist, travellers typically went from fort to fort. Several cities grew up around those forts, such as Fort Lauderdale in Florida, Fort Stockton in California, Fort Worth in Texas and Fort Wayne in Indiana.

The forts typically were built at locations that were logical transportation hubs. The original Fort Launderdale was built on the New River to protect white settlers from Seminole attacks. (Okay, I guess we can't overlook the native American tribes ...) Fort Wayne began as a trading post for pioneers at the confluence of three rivers; early French settlers established a fort in the area in 1697.

Human expansion into the solar system won't require the displacement of any indigenous people, thank goodness, but it's logical that a modern system of “forts” will be necessary for humans to travel the vast distances between worlds and natural resources such as asteroids.

A Bigelow Aerospace model depicting a hypothetical Mars outpost based on its habitat technology. Image source:

Mr. Bigelow has outlined a vision that begins with B330s in low Earth orbit functioning as commercial space stations, which will also help mature the technology.

The habitats could be deployed in lunar orbit as a way station for voyagers to land on the Moon and then dock upon return. Habitats buried in the lunar regolith could be used as a permanent settlement. The same scheme could be used for Mars exploration.

Early forts were often built along rivers, because rivers were the path of transportation for water-fairing vessels. The “rivers” in space are the paths between Lagrangian points. As defined by the European Space Agency, these are locations “where the gravitational forces and the orbital motion of the spacecraft, Sun and planet interact to create a stable location from which to make observations.” These points are named after the 18th century Italian astronomer and mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange (born Giuseppe Luigi Lagrancia).

An illustration of the NASA ARTEMIS spacecrafts that orbited at Earth-Moon Lagrangian points. Image source: NASA.

Lagrangian points would be a logical location for mining companies to park captured asteroids for harvesting. One could imagine a miner sitting in an expandable habitat using virtual reality goggles to operate robotic harvesters upon a nearby captured asteroid.

But all of this is theoretical until the technology is proven.

That proof begins with SpaceX-8.

The BEAM is integrated into the trunk of the SpaceX-8 Dragon. Image source: NASA.

NASA's BEAM project manager Rajib Dasgupta discusses the technology on the March 29, 2016 edition of Space Station Live. Video source: NASA Johnson YouTube channel.

A one-minute summary of BEAM released April 6, 2016. Video source: NASA Johnson YouTube channel.

KLAS-TV Channel 8 in Las Vegas reported April 6, 2016 on BEAM. Video source: 8 News NOW Las Vegas YouTube channel.

Friday, April 1, 2016


Huntsville and Madison County officials announce plans to study how to land Dream Chaser at their airport. Image source: Huntsville Times.

The Huntsville Times reports that Sierra Nevada Corp. officials told their city officials the cargo version of the Dream Chaser will land, for now, only in Huntsville.

Huntsville is “the only community” where Colorado space company Sierra Nevada is planning to land its Dream Chaser spaceship anytime soon, company officials said Thursday ...

“There was a leap of faith on the Huntsville side that we would be a company that could get this vehicle built and start servicing the space station...,” Sierra Nevada Vice President John Roth said Thursday. “Yes, we have been approached by other airports for ventures. We're not moving forward at this time with any of those. Right now, Huntsville is the only community we're moving forward with a (landing) license on.”

There's no doubt Dream Chaser will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 41.

The spaceplane design gives SNC's customers the flexibility to land at any runway of sufficient length.

Although Kennedy Space Center's former Shuttle runway would seem a logical landing site, the Space Station Processing Facility is geared primarily to prepare experiments for launch, not post-flight analysis.

NASA's Payload Operations Integration Center is located at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. According to this 2014 NASA fact sheet:

The Payload Operations Integration Center is the heartbeat for International Space Station research operations. As NASA’s primary space station science command post, the payload operations team coordinates all U.S. scientific and commercial experiments on the station, synchronizes payload activities of international partners, and directs communications between researchers around the world and their onboard experiments.

Click the arrow to watch this November 2013 NASA video on the Payload Operations Integration Center. Video source: NASA's Marshall Center YouTube channel.

If Dream Chaser lands in Huntsville, it will need to be transported back to Kennedy Space Center for inspection and refurbishment before another flight. Sierra Nevada signed a deal in 2014 to use KSC's Operations & Checkout building for Dream Chaser, but that was when SNC was still bidding for a commercial crew contract. That competition was lost to SpaceX and Boeing. With a commercial cargo contract won in January 2016, presumably that version of Dream Chaser will also go in the O&C.

UPDATE April 6, 2016 — A representative from Sierra Nevada Corporation contacted me via email to correct the statement in the above article that commercial cargo deliveries would be in Huntsville.

On March 31, 2016 Sierra Nevada Corporation participated in a press briefing hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County regarding the feasibility of landing SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft at Huntsville International Airport. Following that briefing it was reported that Huntsville is the only community that SNC is considering to land its SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft. Huntsville International Airport was the first commercial airport to initiate a landing site study and licensing effort for Dream Chaser and SNC is currently working with the Huntsville community regarding potential future commercial missions. However, all NASA Commercial Resupply Services 2 contracted missions will land at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center.

The representative clarified that the CRS-2 contract gives NASA the option to specify the landing site. For now, all landings are planned for KSC.