NASA Up Close Tour: VAB and Space Shuttle Endeavour On Display

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – When guests visited the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in the past, they never knew if they would have the opportunity to see an actual space shuttle in some stage of being processed for a mission. The operators of the Visitor Complex have changed that – guests will now not only get the chance to see space shuttle Endeavour (as well as potentially Atlantis and Discovery in the future) – but to also tour the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building.

The opportunity to tour the VAB is currently being offered for a limited time and only to a limited number of Visitor Complex guests per day as part of KSC Up-Close, a new two-hour, guided special interest tour that began on Nov. 1. While touring inside the VAB itself is considered a treat, to actually be just a short distance away from one of the three remaining orbiters to conduct missions to and from orbit – is a rare thing indeed.

One, almost universal, reaction that guests displayed was craning their necks to see all the way to the ceiling of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

“We are very pleased to have the ability to offer to our guests the opportunity to see not just the inside of the Vehicle Assembly Building – but one of the orbiters as well,” said the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex’s Public Relations Manager Andrea Farmer. “While we don’t know the exact time frame – but this tour should be offered throughout 2012 and possibly into 2013.”

While undoubtedly one of the most memorable stops on the tour, the VAB tour stop is just one stop on this tour. Other stops include; NASA’s KSC Headquarters, the Operations & Checkout building (O&C), as well as the NASA Causeway providing a view of the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Guests who choose to go on the KSC Up-Close tour should call ahead as seats on this tour are limited and the tour might not be available every day. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

From here, guests can see launch pads 17, 37, 40, and 41, which are currently used for commercial and government launches.

After their stop at the VAB, guests will get to see the massive Crawler Transporters and “Crawlerway”. Guests will also get to see the Pegasus barge used to haul the shuttle’s large External Fuel Tanks (ETs) from Louisiana; the famous blue countdown clock and the Shuttle Landing Facility.

Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour all will be in and out of the Vehicle Assembly Building in the future, allowing guests the opportunity to see these spacecraft first hand. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

The last place that guests will visit is two hills where NASA remotely shoots launch photography and videography. On one side guests can see Launch Complexes 39A and B and on the other side is the Atlantic. This will provide guests to see the renovations that are currently being done to LC-39B in preparation for commercial launches or for the use for the Space Launch System (SLS).

Guests who had the opportunity to take the tour were amazed at what they were seeing, the sheer scale of the facilities and vehicles – as well as the history that they were walking through.

Three-time shuttle veteran Sam Gemar thinks that this new tour is important in allowing the public to gain a greater appreciation for U.S. human space flight efforts.

“Having flown to space myself, I cannot express strongly enough how much of a tremendous opportunity it is for the public to see the actual vehicles that have sent astronauts into space for the past three decades,” Gemar said. “Kennedy Space Center is where America goes to space and the KSC Up – Close tour allows us to share the history of the Vehicle Assembly Building with the world.”

Although the Visitor Complex cannot guarantee that whenever a guest arrives that they will be able to see a space shuttle inside the VAB (each of the orbiters are being processed for display in their new homes in Los Angeles, CA, Washington, D.C. and Florida. Eventually shuttle Atlantis, which will placed be display in a new facility at the Visitor Complex in 2013.

Boeing To Use Shuttle Hangar for CST-100 Space Taxi

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – NASA hosted an event on Monday, Oct. 31, at 10 a.m. EDT at Kennedy Space Center’s Orbiter Processing Facility-3 (OPF-3) to announce a new partnership between NASA, Space Florida and Boeing. Space Florida in turn will lease OPF-3 to Boeing. Under the terms of this arrangement, Boeing will use OPF-3 to manufacture and test Boeing’s “space taxi” the CST-100.

Boeing will use OPF-3 as the firm’s commercial crew program office. The OPF, essentially a hangar, will be converted to construct Boeing’s CST-100 space capsule, which is currently being developed to deliver astronauts to low-Earth-orbit (LEO).

In the past Boeing has issued imagery that displayed its CST-100 launching from a variety of different launch vehicles which call Florida's Space Coast their home. Photo Credit: Boeing

This new partnership was developed following a Notice of Availability that the space agency issued at the beginning of this year. The notice was used to identify interest from industry for space processing and support facilities at Kennedy. With NASA’s fleet of orbiters being decommissioned, NASA was seeking ways to effectively use its existing facilities.

It is hoped that this, and similar partnerships will help create jobs in the region as well as to help the U.S. regain leadership in the global space economy.

Boeing's CST-100 is called a "space-taxi" and is being designed to carry both crew and cargo to both the International Space Station as well and other low-Earth-orbit destnations. Image Credit: Boeing

The CST-100 is currently proposed as a reusable spacecraft that is comprised of two parts – a crew module and service module. It is designed to house up to seven astronauts, but it can also be used to ferry both people and cargo to orbit.

With the space shuttle fleet retired, NASA is completely reliant on Russia for access to the International Space Station. Russia charges the space agency about $63 million a seat on its Soyuz spacecraft.

“Only Congress can determine when we will stop the investment of our nation’s tax dollars into the purchase of continued space transportation services from the Russians – and invest instead in the U.S. work force and commercial industry capabilities,” said Space Florida’s President Frank DiBello.

During the final launch of the shuttle era, Boeing had both a mock-up as well as this test article on display. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

NASA has worked to keep the public apprised about its efforts to open its doors to private space companies. The space agency held press conferences to announce both the Space Act Agreement (SAA) that NASA had entered into with Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and EADS Astrium concerning the Liberty launch vehicle, as well as the release of the design of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket (which was announced on the following day).

“Thanks so much John and John, I love what you have done with the place!” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver referring to OPF-3.

The CST-100 has been proposed as a means of transportation to other future destinations in low-Earth-orbit such as one of the inflatable space station's currently under development by Bigelow Aerospace. Image Credit: Boeing

Space Florida is the organization that works to maintain and cultivate the aerospace industry within the State of Florida. The purpose of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is to develop U.S. commercial crew space flight capabilities. It is hoped that they will one day allow the U.S. to achieve reliable, safe and cheap access not to just the space station – but other destinations in LEO as well.

“If we’re going to find a way to fund exploration beyond the vicinity of Earth, particularly in today’s fiscally-constrained environment – we’ve got to find a way to do the job of transporting crew to the International Space Station in a more affordable manner,” said Boeing’s John Elbon. “That’s one of the primary purposes of the commercial crew program – to provide affordable access to low-Earth-orbit so that we can use the International Space Station as the great laboratory that it is.”

Through an agreement with Space Florida, NASA will lease Orbiter Processing Facility-3 (OPF-3) to Boeing for its CST-100 space taxi. It is hoped that this and efforts like this one will eventually reduce the cost of sending crews to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

NASA Issues Report On Commercial Crew as SpaceX’s CEO Testifies About SpaceX’s Progress

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NASA has recently posted the latest update as to how the Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev2) program is doing in terms of meeting milestones laid out at the program’s inception. According to the third status report that was released by NASA, CCDev2’s partners continue to meet these objectives. The space agency has worked to provide regular updates about the program’s progress.

“There is a lot happening in NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programs and we want to make sure the public and our stakeholders are informed about the progress industry is making,” said Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development. “It’s exciting to see these spaceflight concepts move forward.”

One of the primary objectives of the Commercial Crew Development program is to cut down the length of time that NASA is forced to rely on Russia for access to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

Reports on the progress of commercial crew are issued on a bi-monthly basis. The reports are directed toward the primary stakeholder of this program, the U.S. taxpayer. NASA has invested both financial and technical assets in an effort to accelerate the development of commercial access to orbit.

This report came out at the same time as Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) CEO, Elon Musk, testified before the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee regarding NASA’s commercial crewed program.

Elon Musk testified before the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee regarding his company's efforts to provide commercial access to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX itself has been awarded $75 million under the CCDev program to develop a launch abort system, known as “DragonRider” that would enable the company’s Dragon spacecraft to transport astronauts. SpaceX was awarded $1.6 billion under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services or COTS contract with NASA. Under the COTS contract, SpaceX must fly three demonstration flights as well as nine cargo delivery flights to the orbiting outpost. SpaceX is currently working to combine the second and third demonstration flights into one mission, currently scheduled to fly at the end of this year.

During Musk’s comments to the House, he highlighted his company’s efforts to make space travel more accessible.

“America’s endeavors in space are truly inspirational. I deeply believe that human spaceflight is one of the great achievements of humankind. Although NASA only sent a handful of people to the moon, it felt like we all went,” Musk said in a written statement. “We vicariously shared in the adventure and achievement. My goal, and the goal of SpaceX, is to help create the technology so that more can share in that great adventure.”

SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle is currently being readied for a liftoff date later this year. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

To date, SpaceX is the only company to have demonstrated the capacity of their launch vehicle as well as a spacecraft. The company launched the first of its Dragon spacecraft atop of its Falcon 9 rocket this past December. The Dragon completed two orbits successfully before splashing down safely off the coast of California.

NASA is relying on companies like SpaceX to develop commercial crew transportation capabilities that could one day send astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). It is hoped that CCDev2 will help reduce U.S. dependence on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for access to the ISS. Allowing commercial companies to take over the responsibility of sending crews to the ISS might also allow the space agency focus on sending astronauts beyond low-Earth-orbit for the first time in four decades.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft recently arrived at the firm's hangar located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40). Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Aerojet: Small Space Firm Has Big Space History

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When it comes to space flight pedigrees, few companies have one that can compare to Aerojet’s. The California-based company has a resume on space operations that is as lengthy as it is impressive. Universe Today sat down with Julie Van Kleeck – the firm’s vice-president of space and launch systems business unit.

Van Kleeck spoke extensively about the company’s rich history, its legacy of accomplishments – as well as what it has planned for space missions of the future.

Universe Today: Hi Julie, thanks for taking the time to chat with us today.

Van Kleeck: “My pleasure!”

Universe Today: How long has Aerojet been in business and what exactly is it that your company produces?

Van Kleeck: “We’ve been in the space business – since there was a space program – so since at least the 50s. We’ve dealt with both launch systems as well as space maneuvering systems, those components that enable spacecraft to move while in space.”

Aerojet propulsion systems have helped many of NASA's deep-space probes explore the solar system. Image Credit: NASA.gov

Universe Today: What about in terms of human space flight, when did Aerojet get involved with that?

Van Kleeck: “We first started working on the manned side of the house back during the Gemini Program, from there we progressed to Apollo, then shuttle and we hope to be involved with SLS (Space Launch System) as well.”

Universe Today: I understand that your company also has an extensive history when it comes to unmanned missions as well, care to tell us a bit about that?

Van Kleeck: “We have been on every discovery mission that has ever been launched, we have touched every part of space that you can touch.”

It is Aerojet's solid rocket motors that provide that extra-added “punch” to the versions of the Atlas V launch vehicle that utilize them. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Universe Today: Some aerospace companies only produce one product or service, why is Aerojet’s list of offerings so diversified?

Van Kleeck: “We’re quite different than our competitors in that we provide a very wide-range of products to our customers. We’ve provided the liquid engines that went on Titan and now we provide the solids that go on the Atlas V launch vehicle as well as the small chemical and electrical propulsion systems that are utilized on some satellites.”

An Aerojet AJ26 rocket engine is prepared for testing in this image. These engines, as well as a license to produce them, were purchased from Russia and were originally designated the NK-33. Picture Credit: Aerojet

Universe Today: Does this mean that Aerojet places more importance on one space flight system over others?

Van Kleeck: “We view each of the products that we produce as equally important. Having said that, the fact that Aerojet offers a diversity of products and understands each of them well – sets us apart from our competitors. Firms that only produce one type of product tend to work to sell just that one product, whereas Aerojet’s extensive catalog of services allows us to be more objective when offering those services to our customers.”

During a tour of the Vertical Integration Facility, Aerojet's Solid Rocket Motors or SRms -were on full display attached to the Atlas V rocket that is set to send the Mars Science Laboratory rover "Curiosity" to Mars. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Universe Today: When you look back, what is one of the most interesting projects that Aerojet has been involved with?

Van Kleeck: “I think as I look back over the past decade, New Horizons comes to mind, it was the first Atlas to launch with five solids on it. I look at that mission in particular as a major accomplish for not just us – but the country as well.”

In this image an AJ26 liquid rocket engine is tested. These engines are utilized as part of Orbital Science's Taurus II program. Photo Credit: Aerojet

Universe Today: What does the future hold for Aerojet?

Van Kleeck: ”We’re working on the Orion crew capsule right now with both liquid propulsion for it as well as solid propulsion for the abort test motor. We’re very much looking forward to seeing Orion fly in the coming years. We are currently putting into place the basic infrastructure to support human space exploration. We are working with both commercial crewed as well as Robert Bigelow to provide propulsion systems that work with their individual system – because no one system fits everyone. We are pleased to be offer systems for a wide variety of space exploration efforts.”

Universe Today: Julie, thanks for taking the time to chat with us today!

Van Kleeck: “No problem at all – it was my pleasure!”

Aerojet’s products will be on full display Nov. 25 as, if everything goes as planned the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity is set to launch on that day. Four of the company’s solid rocket motors or SRMs will help power the Curiosity rover on its way to the red planet.

For a taste of what Aerojet’s SRMs provide – please view the NASA video below.

Virgin Galactic Taps Test Flight Veteran As Pilot

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From a pool of 500 potential applicants, Virgin Galactic has found their man. The NewSpace firm chose from some of the greatest pilots the world has to offer to work to be a pilot for their company. U.S. Air Force test pilot Keith Colmer rose to the top of the list and was selected by Virgin Galactic to join the team that is working to allow private citizens a flight into space.

Virgin Galactic announced Colmer’s addition to the company’s space flight team on Oct. 26. He will join Virgin Galactic’s Pilot David Mackay as they work to get the company’s carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo and its spacecraft SpaceShipTwo into service. They will be joined by more pilots as the company works to begin operations in 2013.

Colmer brings 12 years of operational, developmental and experimental aircraft test flight experience plus more than 10 years of combined military experience in USAF spacecraft operations and flying. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

“Keith brings the kind of tremendous multi-dimensional talent and skill set that we are looking for in our astronaut pilots,” said Virgin Galactic’s President and CEO George Whitesides. “But equally important to us are his impeccable character and his outstanding record of high caliber performance in highly demanding environments. He sets the bar very high for others to come.”

“This team in Mojave is second to none,” said Mackay about Scaled Composite’s test pilots. “Keith and I are indeed fortunate to have their expertise and body of work to build on as we enter the final phases of the test program and prepare to open space to all.”

Colmer is a veteran pilot, with 12 years worth of experience in testing experimental aircraft. He has over 5,000 hours logged in more than 90 different types of aircraft.

Virgin Galactic is preparing to launch private citizens into space, potentially as early as 2013. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

Former NASA Space Shuttle Manager Mike Moses recently left NASA to work as Virgin Galactic’s Vice President of Operations. Virgin Galactic is working to begin powered test flights, and after that the company will try to begin commercial operations.

“I am extremely honored to have been the first astronaut pilot selected through competition to join the team,” said Colmer. “Virgin Galactic is truly revolutionizing the way we go to space and I am looking forward to being a part of that.”

Colmer has served as a combat pilot, flying an F-16 in two tours in Iraq with the Colorado Air National Guard. According to information provided in a Virgin Galactic press release he is the first Air National Guard pilot to ever be selected to attend the USAF Test Pilot School, at Edwards Air Force Base.

With the dedication of its spaceport located near Las Cruces, New Mexico; additions to its team such as former NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager Mike Moses and others, Virgin Galactic is working to have the needed infrastructure in place to begin flight operations within the next two years. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic/Jeffrey Vock

Colmer has a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He holds a Masters degree in Aerospace Engineering and a Masters degree in Telecommunications from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a graduate of the USAF Undergraduate Space Training program, the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program and USAF Test Pilot School, Class 02A.

Virgin Galactic recently dedicated its Space Port in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The company is part of the London-based Virgin Group which is owned by Sir Richard Branson. The company formed after Scaled Composites one the $10 million Ansari X-PRIZE back in 2004. The flights of WhiteKnightOne and SpaceShipOne paved the way for the development of the vehicles that Virgin Galactic is planning on utilizing to begin suborbital space flight operations. Tickets for flights on the commercial space plane are set to cost approximately $200,000.

Astronaut Scholarship Foundation Raising Funds, Awareness With Autograph Show

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – It all started – with seven. The original seven Mercury astronauts that is. They wanted to give back to the nation that had allowed them to reach the heights that they had achieved, while at the same time inspiring the nation’s young to follow in their footsteps. What arose was the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF).

There are more than 80 astronauts that are working with the ASF to ensure that the United States maintains its role as leader in terms of science and technology. The ASF accomplishes this by providing scholarships to students studying engineering, science and math.

Apollo 14 Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell poses with a guest during a previous ASF astronaut autograph show. Just over his shoulder is former shuttle astronaut Fred Gregory. Photo Credit: ASF

In 1984, the then six surviving Mercury astronauts established the 501 (c) 3 organization along with the widow of the seventh (Betty Grissom, widow of astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom. Astronauts Malcolm Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper Jr., John H. Glenn Jr., Walter M. Schirra, Alan B. Shepard Jr., and Donald K. (Deke) Slayton were also joined by the Mercury Program’s flight surgeon William Douglas M.D. as well as a local business man, Henry Landwirth.

What started with scholarships of only $1,000 has grown to $10,000 each. Twenty-six of these scholarships are handed out every year for a grand total of $260,000. All total? The ASF has handed out $3 million in scholarships to worthy students. The ASF’s current Chairman of its Board of Directors is Apollo 16 Command Module Pilot Charlie Duke; his vice-chair is shuttle veteran Dan Brandenstein.

Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott poses with a young guest at the ASF's astronaut autograph show. Photo Credit: ASF

The ASF raises funds by a number of means. Astronaut guest appearance, fund-raisers, donations from different entities both public and private and autograph shows. The next of these is scheduled to take place at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex located in Florida from Nov. 4-6. The annual show contains a wide range of events and tours to allow guests the opportunity to learn about the location’s history while picking up a signed item from an astronaut.

Former shuttle astronaut Robert Springer flew twice on the space shuttle and is a current member of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. Photo Credit: NASA.gov

Universe Today recently sat down with two-time shuttle veteran Robert C. Springer about his thoughts regarding ASF. Here is what he had to say:

Universe Today: Hi Bob thanks for chatting with us today.

Springer: “My pleasure, thanks for having me!”

Universe Today: How long have you been affiliated with the ASF and how do you view its activities?

Springer: “I have been associated with the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation for the past ten years. The foundation has had phenomenal success, increasing the number of scholarships to the current level of 26 scholarships, each in the amount of $10,000 awarded annually to young men and women who are pursuing degrees in engineering and scientific fields that are related to space exploration.”

Universe Today: What do you find most rewarding or interesting regarding the ASF’s efforts?

Springer: “One of the most interesting aspects of the fund raising effort, is the diversity of individuals who have contributed to the foundation. It has been both a national and international group of individuals who truly believe that we need to continue to invest in our future by providing funding assistance to talented and motivated students to enable them to continue their studies in selected fields.”

Universe Today: So your experience with these folks is rewarding?

Springer: “They are great, but it’s really wonderful to meet the recipients of these scholarships – each year we have the opportunity to hear from some of the individuals who have been awarded the scholarships, and it is remarkable to hear their stories and to understand the kinds of contributions they are making today and have the potential to make in the future.”

Universe Today: I bet that must be really gratifying. It seems we have to wrap, but I wanted to thank you for telling us a bit about your experiences.

Springer: “It was great talking with you!”

For more information regarding the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s annual autograph show visit: astronautscholarship.org or call: 321-455-7016.

The ASF astronaut autograph show is normally held during the first week in November and serves to raise funds for scholarships. Photo Credit: ASF

Here There Be Dragons: SpaceX’s Spacecraft Arrives at Launch Complex 40

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) welcomed a new guest to Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) on Sunday – the next Dragon spacecraft that is set to launch later this year. Members of the media were invited to a photo opportunity to chronicle the Dragon spacecraft’s arrival which had been delayed a day due to issues with travel permits.

The Dragon that arrived on Sunday is destined to fly to the International Space Station (ISS). It will be the first time that a private firm docks with the space station. The COTS Demo 2 Dragon was shipped from SpaceX’s facilities in Hawthorne, California to Cape Canaveral in Florida.

SpaceX's next Dragon spacecraft, the one set to fly to the International Space Station, was delivered to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 40 on Sunday. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 rocket, with its Dragon spacecraft payload, is currently scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s SLC-40 on Dec. 19. If all goes as it is currently planned the Dragon will maneuver along side of the orbiting laboratory where the space station’s robot Canadarm 2 will grapple the unmanned spacecraft it and dock it with the station.

“When it comes to the launch day, NASA will determine that, we’re pushing to launch on Dec. 19, but the final “go” date is set by NASA and the range,” said SpaceX’s Vice-President for Communications Bobby Block. “We are currently working to conduct a wet dress rehearsal on November 21st.”

The Dragon spacecraft that is bound for the ISS will ride this Falcon 9 rocket to orbit. The launch date is tentatively set for Dec. 19. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

SpaceX recently passed a Preliminary Draft Review (PDR) of the Dragon’s Launch Abort System (LAS). This system, which pulls astronauts and their spacecraft to safety in case of some problem with the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, is unlike other systems of its type. Normal abort systems are essentially small rockets affixed to the top of the spacecraft (which is normally on top of the rocket). Not so with SpaceX’s design, dubbed DragonRider – it will be built into the walls of the spacecraft.

The reason for the difference in the abort system’s design is twofold. First, it will drive the costs down (Dragon is being developed as a reusable spacecraft) -whereas traditional abort systems are not capable of being reused. Secondly the system could one day be used as a potential means of landing spacecraft on other terrestrial worlds, such as the planet Mars.

SpaceX has been working with NASA to get the Dragon spacecraft ready for its historic mission. This will mark the first time that many of the systems have been used on an actual mission. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

This will mark the second demonstration flight that SpaceX will have flown to accomplish the objectives laid out in the Commercial Orbital Transportations Services or COTS contract. The $1.6 billion contract is an effort to ensure that needed cargo is delivered to the station safely and in a timely fashion.

SpaceX so far has launched two of its Falcon 9 rockets – both in 2010. The first flight occurred on June 4, 2010 with the second being launched on Dec. 8, 2010. It was on this second flight that SpaceX became the first private entity to launch a spacecraft into orbit and then safely recover it after it had successfully orbited the Earth twice. Before this only nations were capable of achieving this feat.

“This is very exciting, our last launch was about a year ago, so to have a fully-operational Dragon up-and-ready to make a historic docking to the International Space Station it’s terrifically exciting.” Block said.

SpaceX is working toward expanding the role of not only the Falcon 9 rocket - but the Dragon spacecraft as well. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Book Review: The Apollo Guidance Computer

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Springer/Praxis has produced a small library’s worth of books about the Apollo Program. A recent offering from the publisher focuses in on the Apollo Guidance Computer. This topic, for the uninitiated, can be more than a little intimidating and if it is handled wrong veer off the path of a book about space flight and toward a pure “tech” book. This is not a problem that Springer/Praxis’ offering The Apollo Guidance Computer has, the book is well rounded, in-depth and easy-to-read.

Written by Frank O’Brien, The Apollo Guidance Computer is a thorough review of the computer system used during the Apollo missions. The Apollo Guidance Computer rings in at a whopping 430 pages – most readers will likely only pick out certain parts of the book to read. The book is, in a number of ways, many separate books in one – with details of the guidance computer, its development, the requirements to send astronauts to and from the Moon as well as the challenges that the engineers face in developing this revolutionary piece of equipment – all detailed within.

The book starts out by turning the clock back about 50 years to allow the reader to see what technology was like half a century ago. During this time period computers generally filled an entire room. This (obviously) was not possible in the case of Apollo’s guidance computer – and The Apollo Guidance Computer works to detail that story.

As far as O’Brien is concerned, he sees the book as something that techies, looking to learn how this computer system was developed, and space buffs who are seeking to learn the various intricacies of traveling to the Moon – can both enjoy.

While fairly primitive by today's standards, the Apollo guidance computer was revolutionary for its time. Photo Credit: NASA/Dryden

“It’s a bit different from other books that are found in spaceflight libraries, in that it is appealing to two very different groups,” said O’Brien during a recent interview. “Sometimes I joke that those interested in computers read it from the beginning till the end – whereas space enthusiasts –read it from the end to the beginning.”

For his part O’Brien acknowledges that not all parts of the book will interest all people. He is fine with that as long as readers enjoy the elements of the book that relate to them. He does hope that all readers pick up on how designers managed to pack away so much capability into a very limited structure. There was no disk, tape, or secondary storage – of any kind.

The book works to provide a link to demonstrate how the Apollo guidance computer allowed for one of the greatest accomplishments in human history. It details how difficult the actual lunar landing was and how the computer system was instrumental in accomplishing this feat.

Whereas many of Springer/Praxis’ offerings detail flight aspects of the Apollo era, this text takes a look at one of the essential elements that made those missions possible. While other books provide understanding of the Apollo Program in the broadest of strokes – this book allows readers to see the moon shot’s finest details. It also provides context into the era in which this machine was developed. Only in the 60s could an entry code be entitled BURNBABY (as in “Burn Baby Burn!”).

Frank O'Brien, the author of "The Apollo Guidance Computer" spoke to Universe Today about his thoughts on the book. Photo Courtesy of Frank O'Brien

SpaceX Completes Crucial Milestone Toward Launching Astronauts

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Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is now one more step closer to sending astronauts to orbit. The commercial space firm announced today that it has completed a successful review of the company’s launch abort system (LAS). SpaceX’s LAS, dubbed “DragonRider” is designed differently than abort systems that have been used in the past.

The first review of the system’s design and its subsequent approval by NASA represents a step toward the realization of the space agency’s current objective of having commercial companies provide access to the International Space Station (ISS) while it focuses on sending astronauts beyond low-Earth-orbit (LEO) for the first time in four decades.

The DragonRider launch abort system would allow astronauts to be safely pulled away from the Falcon 9 launch vehicle in the advent of an emergency. Image Credit: SpaceX

“Each milestone we complete brings the United States one step closer to once again having domestic human spaceflight capability,” said former astronaut Garrett Reisman, who is one of the two program leads who are working on SpaceX’s DragonRider program.

With the space shuttle program over and its fleet of orbiters headed to museums, the United States is paying Russia an estimated $63 million per seat on its Soyuz spacecraft. SpaceX has estimated that, by comparison, flights on a man-rated version of its Dragon spacecraft would cost approximately $20 million. Despite the dramatically lower cost, SpaceX has emphatically stated that safety is one of the key drivers of its spacecraft.

NASA, who currently lacks the capacity to launch astronauts on its own, has to pay fellow space station program partner $63 million a seat on its Soyuz spacecraft. SpaceX has estimated by comparison that flights on a man-rated Dragon would cost around $20 million. Photo Credit: NASA.gov

“Dragon’s integrated launch abort system provides astronauts with the ability to safely escape from the beginning of the launch until the rocket reaches orbit,” said David Giger, the other lead on the DragonRider program. “This level of protection is unprecedented in manned spaceflight history.”

SpaceX had already met three of NASA’s milestones under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) contract that the company has signed into with the U.S. space agency. With the Preliminary Design Review or PDR completed of the abort system SpaceX can now rack up another milestone that it has met.

SpaceX is currently working to see that the next flight of its Dragon spacecraft tentatively scheduled for late this year will incorporate mission objectives of both the second and third COTS demonstration flights and be allowed to dock with the International Space Station. Image Credit: SpaceX

Unlike conventional abort systems, which are essentially small, powerful rockets that are attached to the top of the spacecraft, Dragon’s LAS is actually built into the walls of the Dragon. This is not an effort just to make the spacecraft’s abort system unique – rather it is meant as a cost-cutting measure. The Dragon is intended to be reusable, as such its abort system needed to be capable of being reused on later flights as well. Traditional LAS simply do not allow for that. With every successful launch by conventional means – the LAS is lost.

SpaceX is also working to see that this system not only can save astronaut lives in the advent of an emergency – but that it can actually allow the spacecraft to conduct pinpoint landings one day. Not just on Earth – but possibly other terrestrial bodies – including Mars.

SpaceX is hopeful that if all goes well with its DragonRider system that it could one deay be developed to land future versions of the company's spacecraft on other terrestrial bodies - including the planet Mars. Image Credit: SpaceX

To date, SpaceX has launched two of its Falcon 9 launch vehicles. The first occurred on June 4 of 2010 and the second, and the first under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract took place six months later on Dec. 8. This second mission was the first to include a Dragon spacecraft, which was recovered in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California after successfully completing two orbits.

“We have accomplished these four milestones on time and budget, while this is incredibly important, it is business as usual for SpaceX,” said SpaceX’s Vice-President for Communications Bobby Block during an interview. “These are being completed under a Space Act Agreement that demonstrates the innovative and efficient nature of what can be accomplished when the commercial sector and NASA work together.”

SpaceX's Vice-President for Communications, Bobby Block, said that the fact that SpaceX has accomplished these milestones on time and budget should show what can happen when NASA and the private industry work together. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Stage Set For SpaceX to Compete for Military Contracts

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The United States Air Force has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding or MOU with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA to bring more players into the launch vehicle arena. On Oct. 14, NASA, the NRO and the U.S. Air Force announced plans to certify commercial rockets so that they could compete for future contracts involving Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELVs. This means that Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) could compete for upcoming military contracts.

“This strategy will provide us with the ability to compete in the largest launch market in the world,” said Kirstin Brost Grantham, a spokeswoman with SpaceX. “There are those who are opposed to competition for space launches, they would prefer to see the status quo protected. But SpaceX has shown it is no longer possible to ignore the benefits competition can bring.”

In terms of sheer numbers of launch vehicles purchased – the U.S. Air Force is the largest customer in the world – with the U.S. taxpayer picking up the tab. Therefore it was considered to be in the Air Force’s best interest to find means to reduce this cost. The U.S. Air Force’s requirements are currently handled by United Launch Alliance (ULA) in what is essentially a monopoly (or duopoly considering that ULA is a collective organization – comprised of both Boeing and Lockheed Martin).

The two launch vehicles that ULA provides are the Delta IV and Atlas V family of rockets. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

“SpaceX welcomes the opportunity to compete for Air Force launches. We are reviewing the MOU, and we expect to have a far better sense of our task after the detailed requirements are released in the coming weeks,” said Adam Harris, SpaceX vice president of government affairs.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has decided to go ahead with a five-year, 40-booster “block-buy” plan with ULA – despite the fact that the U.S. General Accounting Office’s (GAO) has requested that the DoD rethink that strategy. The GAO stated on Oct. 17, that they are concerned that the DoD is buying too many rockets and at too high of a price.

Under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Plan, the DoD is set to spend some $15 billion between 2013 and 2017 to acquire some 40 boosters from ULA to send satellites into orbit. For its part, the DoD conceded that it might need to reassess the manner in which it obtained launch vehicles.

As it stand now, United Launch Alliance has a virtual monopoly on providing launch vehicles for the Department of Defense. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

The new strategy which is set to allow new participants in to bid on DoD and NRO contracts is an attempt to allow the free-market system drive down the cost of rockets. Recently, the price of these rockets has actually increased. The cause for this price increase has been somewhat attributed to the vacuum created by the end of the space shuttle program.

Firms like SpaceX, which seek to compete for military contracts, will have to meet requirements that are laid out in “new entrant certification guides.”
“Fair and open competition for commercial launch providers is an essential element of protecting taxpayer dollars,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO. “Our American-made Falcon vehicles can deliver assured, responsive access to space that will meet warfighter needs while reducing costs for our military customers.”

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) CEO Elon Musk applauded the recent announcement that could see his company competing for military contracts. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com