SpaceX Test Fire Aborted

A static test firing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was cut short as computer systems shut down the first-stage engines before the test was complete. The firing was only going to last two seconds, but the engines ran for 1.1 sec due to high engine chamber pressure, according to SpaceX. Space News reported that engineers are analyzing the data and that a second attempt is likely to occur tomorrow, Dec. 4. This abort occurred just four days before SpaceX is schedule to conduct the maiden launch of its Dragon space capsule on board the medium-class Falcon 9.

This video is from SpaceX’s webcast of the firing and unfortunately is a bit jumpy.

The first-stage firing was part of a dress rehearsal conducted in preparation for the planned Dec. 7 launch, the first of three increasingly complicated flight demonstrations of Falcon 9 and Dragon under the company’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA.

In a press release from SpaceX from Dec. 2, the company said the rehearsal would “exercise the countdown processes and end after the engines fire at full power for two seconds, with only the hold-down system restraining the rocket from flight.”

After the test, SpaceX said they would conduct a thorough review of all data as engineers make final preparations for the upcoming launch.

The rockets uses kerosene and liquid oxygen, and the nine Merlin engines generate one million pounds of thrust in vacuum.

The $278 million COTS agreement has SpaceX developing and demonstrating hardware capable of ferrying cargo to and from the International Space Station.

We’ll post more information about the abort as it becomes available.

Falcon 9 Ready for Second Flight – Dragon for First


Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is preparing to conduct the first demonstration launch for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, utilizing its Falcon 9 rocket. This first test flight appears to be holding solid for its targeted liftoff on Tuesday, Dec. 7. Launch will take place from the company’s launch site at Launch Complex 40 located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The launch window for this first demo flight extends from 9:03 a.m. to 12:22 p.m. EST. If it is required, launch opportunities are also open on Dec. 8 and Dec. 9 during the same general time frame. NASA TV will have coverage — you can watch it online at this link, or if you have it through your satellite or cable provider.

COTS 1, as this first flight has been dubbed, will be the first launch of the Dragon spacecraft, this will also mark the first commercial attempt to have their spacecraft reenter Earth’s atmosphere. The planned Dec. 7 flight is the first of three test launches currently envisioned in the Falcon 9 test flight series. This first flight is planned to check out important characteristics of both the Dragon spacecraft as well as the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Some of these include orbital operations, launch elements of the combined Dragon/Falcon 9 vehicle, descent, re-entry and splashdown (which will occur in the Pacific Ocean).

NASA established the COTS program to obtain commercial launch services to jump start the commercial space industry. Under the Obama administration’s plans for the space agency, NASA will utilize these private space firms to send cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). More to the point, it is hoped that these commercial space companies can reduce the hefty price tag associated with sending something into orbit.

There will be a press conference held before the launch, it is currently planned to be held on Monday, Dec. 6, at 1:30 p.m. The conference will be held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center press site, and will also be on NASA TV. Speakers during the press conference will include, Phil McAlister, acting director, Commercial Space Flight Development, Alan Lindenmoyer, manager, Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX and Mike McAleenan, Falcon 9 Launch Weather Officer 45th Weather Squadron.

If everything goes off without a hitch, a press conference will be held about an hour after splashdown takes place. If this mission is a success it will go along way to reinforcing the success of the first launch of the Falcon 9, held this past June. More importantly it will prove the viability of the Dragon spacecraft.

FAA to SpaceX: You May Now Re-enter the Atmosphere



What will go up — hopefully on December 7 — can now come back down. The US Federal Aviation Administration has granted the first-ever commercial license to SpaceX for a spaceship to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere from orbit. The commercial space company has an all-important test flight of the Dragon capsule launching on its Falcon 9 rocket, and it will be the first attempt by a non-governmental entity to recover a spacecraft reentering from low-Earth orbit.

It is also the first flight under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to develop commercial supply services to the International Space Station. NASA is hoping SpaceX will be able to make at least 12 flights to carry cargo to and from the station; and if all goes well in that capacity, the Dragon may one day bring astronauts up to space and back home again.

“Congratulations to the SpaceX team for receiving the Federal Aviation Administration’s first-ever commercial license to reenter a spacecraft from Earth orbit,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden in a statement. “With this license in hand, SpaceX can proceed with its launch of the Dragon capsule. The flight of Dragon will be an important step toward commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station. NASA wishes SpaceX every success with the launch.”

The Dragon spacecraft is made up of a pressurized capsule and unpressurized “trunk” used for Earth to LEO transport of pressurized cargo, unpressurized cargo, and/or crew members.

In June, SpaceX conducted the first successful fight test of Falcon 9 with a “dummy” Dragon spacecraft. There will be three test flights before launching any real cargo to the ISS. Cargo delivery will enable SpaceX to make up to $1.6 billion.

The FAA license is valid for 1 year, and is subject to renewal if all goes well.

For more information: SpaceX

Viewing Alert: Virgin Galactic Flight Featured on Nat Geo Channel

Here’s some exclusive video of the first glide flight of SpaceShipTwo earlier this week, shared by the National Geographic Channel, which has a new documentary series about Virgin Galactic premiering Monday, October 18, at 10 p.m. ET/PT. (Check your local listings at the Nat Geo Channel website). The series will cover maverick entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson and legendary aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan as they strive to be first to make space tourism an everyday reality. Also included in the premiere episode will be the backstory of the venture, including Rutan’s win of the Ansari X Prize with SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne.

National Geographic Channel also shared a few images from Sunday’s flight, below.


The underside of WhiteKnightTwo during flight. (Photo Credit: © Virgin Galactic/ Mark Greenberg)
Mojave, CA: SpaceShipTwo in the hangar with its nose exposed. (Photo Credit: © Antenna Films/ Tyrone Billingsley)

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Makes First Glide Flight


Does this image look futuristic? Well, the future is here, as this is an actual image from October 10, 2010 (today!) Virgin Galactic’s future passenger ship made its first manned glide flight on Sunday. SpaceShipTwo’s unpowered flighted lasted about 11 minutes after the spacecraft was released from its White Knight Two mother ship, Eve, at 13,700 meters (45,000 feet) over the Mojave Desert. Scaled Composites test pilot Pete Siebold flew her down to the Mojave Spaceport, with with Mike Alsbury as co-pilot. “The VSS Enterprise was a real joy to fly,” said Siebold after landing, “especially when one considers the fact that the vehicle has been designed not only to be a Mach 3.5 spaceship capable of going into space but also one of the worlds highest altitude gliders.”

UPDATE: Virgin has now released a video of the flight, see below.

SpaceShipTwo will carry six people in addition to two pilots, providing those on board with a view of space and several minutes of weightlessness once space flights begin. Eventual operational flights of SpaceShipTwo will occur from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Latest word is that the first passenger flights could begin in 2011.

All the flight and all systems appeared to operate trouble free. After a clean release, Siebold completed initial flight handling and stall characteristic evaluation of SpaceShipTwo. After completing a practice approach and landing, Siebold made a smooth landing.

VSS Enterprise glides through the Mojave skies. Credit: Virgin Galactic, Mark Greenberg

“This was one of the most exciting days in the whole history of Virgin,” said Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic. “For the first time since we seriously began the project in 2004, I watched the world’s first manned commercial spaceship landing on the runway at Mojave Air and Space Port and it was a great moment. Now, the sky is no longer the limit and we will begin the process of pushing beyond to the final frontier of space itself over the next year.”

“This is a critical milestone in Virgin Galactic’s test program and a great day for the commercial spaceflight industry,” added John Gedmark, Executive Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “At the end of the day, getting hardware off the ground is what it’s really all about. Today’s SpaceShipTwo test flight marks another key milestone towards opening the space frontier for private individuals, researchers, and explorers. Congratulations to the entire SpaceShipTwo team.”

SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo are being developed for Virgin Galactic by Scaled Composites, who built SpaceShipOne, the first privately-built vehicle to fly a person into space, which won the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE.

Future passengers will be flown about 100km (62 miles) above the Earth and experience several minutes of weightlessness before returning to Spaceport America. Tickets cost $200,000 and deposits start from $20,000. Find more info about passenger flights at Virgin Galactic’s website

Sources: Virgin Galactic, Commercial Spaceflight Federation

Could a Human Mars Mission Be Funded Commercially?


What will it take to actually get humans to Mars? The best answer is probably money. The right amount of cold, hard cash will certainly solve a lot of problems and eliminate hurdles in sending a human mission to the Red Planet. But cash-strapped federal space agencies aren’t currently in the position to be able to direct a mission to another world – at least in the near term – and seemingly, a trip to Mars is always 20-30 years off into the future. But how about a commercially funded effort?

At first glance, a paper published recently in the somewhat dubious Journal of Cosmology appears to have some merits on using an independent corporation to administer and supervise a marketing campaign – similar to what sports teams do to sell merchandise, gain sponsors, garner broadcasting rights and arrange licensing initiatives. The paper’s author, a psychologist named Dr. Rhawn Joseph, says that going to Mars and establishing a colony would likely cost $150 billion dollars over 10 years, and he lays out a plan for making money for a sustained Mars mission through the sale of merchandise, naming rights and even creating a reality TV show and selling property rights on Mars.

Could such a scheme work?

Not according to former NASA engineer Jim McLane, who has a fairly unique scheme of his own to get humans to Mars: a one-way, one person mission.

For years, McLane has been a proponent of getting humans to Mars as quickly as possible, and his plans for a one-way mission are outlined in a very popular article Universe Today published in 2008. So, what does he think of a commercially funded effort?

Artists impression of a future human mission to Mars. Credit: NASA

“I am a vocal proponent of an early settlement on Mars,” McLane replied to a query from UT, “ So I should have welcomed Dr. Joseph’s proposal to establish a colony in 10 years with private funds and clever marketing. Regrettably, after reading the details of his scheme I believe the good Doctor should stick to peddling his patented herbal sexual dysfunction treatment and refrain from speculating about technologically intensive endeavors like a trip to Mars.”

For starters, McLane wonders about the costs that Joseph proposes. “It’s questionable,” he said. “One cannot propose a cost without first devising a technical approach and he has not done that. He justifies the large investment by alleging that there will be significant financial returns, for example the investors might be able to claim the mineral wealth of the entire planet. However owning such an asset is of dubious value since there is no way to send anything valuable back to Earth.”

Unlike ancient Spanish treasure fleets loaded with silver that sailed every year from the New World, McLane said, nothing on planet Mars will ever be worth the expense of shipping it home. Plus, selling real estate on Mars might not even be a viable option. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits governments from making extraterrestrial property rights claims, and even though some especially ambitious entrepreneurs have tried selling real estate on the Moon and Mars, ownership of extraterrestrial real estate is not recognized by any authority. According to current space law, any “deed” or claim on another extraterrestrial body has no legal standing.

McLane was also not impressed with Joseph’s statement about the wastefulness of spending on the US military as a justification for spending money on a Mars mission. “It is not as if one program could be substituted for the other,” said McLane. “But, substitution is not what Dr. Joseph proposes. He feels inclined to speculate on the wastefulness of current wars even though this is an essay on Space.”

Some of the ideas Joseph outlined for marketing does have some validity, McLane said. “Long ago NASA should have realized that the image they cultivate of nerdy, ethically and sexually diverse astronauts does not inspire the tax payer nearly as much as the early astronauts who we expected to be risk taking, hell raising test pilots,” he said.

In respect to finances, McLane said he agrees with Joseph that there is a place for private capital, but not in regards to the venture capital proposal.

“Private money could jump start a manned Mars mission,” McLane said, “but persuading billionaires to invest based on some speculative financial return is doomed to fail. I believe rich folks might be willing to help pay to put a human on Mars, but the motivations would be philanthropy and patriotism, not financial gain. Several wealthy citizens might contribute seed money (say a quarter billion dollars or so) to finance a detailed study of the design options for a one way human mission – a concept that thus far NASA refuses to consider. Such a study would reveal the technical practicality of the one-way mission and the relative cheapness of the approach. The study would probably show that a human presence on Mars would cost little more than a human moon base assuming the same 10 year time span for accomplishing both programs.”

Dr. Joseph concludes his paper by asserting that several foreign countries “are already planning on making it to Mars in the next two decades.” McLane said this seems highly improbable since the funds spent today by these nations on manned spaceflight are a tiny fraction of what the US currently spends.

Artist concept of a future human Mars mission. Credit: NASA

While Joseph – and seemingly the current President and NASA leaders favor an international effort to get to Mars, McLane believes this is short-sighted for two reasons.

One, there would be enormous technological returns from a human Mars landing that would greatly stimulate business and the economy. “Why should the US share these large returns with foreign countries,” McLane asked? And second, an all American effort could potentially take advantage of classified US military technology.

McLane did say previously, however, that the world would be excited and unified by a mission to Mars. “The enthusiasm would be the greatest effect of a program that places a man on Mars, over and above anything else, whether it makes jobs, or stimulates the economy, or creates technology spinoffs. We’re all humans and the idea of sending one of our kind on a trip like that would be a wonderful adventure for the entire world. The whole world would get behind it.”

McLane has written a recent article in The Space Review that Mars is the key to NASA’s future.

Dragon Ascendant: SpaceX Prepares for Second Falcon 9 Launch


Earlier this year, SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) successfully launched the first of its Falcon 9 rockets. The firm has continued to move forward, prepping for the next demonstration flight. This mission will include the first flight of an operational Dragon spacecraft (the first payload was a spacecraft qualification unit), and will be the first demonstration launch under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS)program. THe launch is currently scheduled to take place in the Nov. 8-9 timeframe.

Under the contract SpaceX is required to fly 3 demonstration flights and 12 operational missions to the International Space Station (ISS), to resupply the orbiting outpost.

The Dragon spacecraft shown here has significant payload capabilities and has both unmanned and manned versions planned. Photo Credit: SpaceX/Michael Rooks

Falcon 9’s second flight will liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and will closely match the first flight. However, on this mission the Dragon spacecraft will separate from the second stage of the rocket and test a number of crucial flight requirements. Some of these include, maneuvering, communications, navigation and reentry. The Dragon is designed to make touchdown on terra-firma but its initial landings will occur on water. These landings will be provided via its Draco thrusters – which may enable the craft to land within a few hundred yards of the desired target.

For its first demo flight, the Dragon will test out its systems as it conducts a number of orbits around the Earth. Afterward it will fire its thrusters and reenter the Earth’s atmosphere. The splashdown is planned to take place in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California. The entire mission is not expected to last more than four hours.

In this image the Dragon spacecraft is mounted on a test stand in the hangar at Cape Canaveral. Photo Credit: SpaceX/Brian Attiyeh

While the Dragon spacecraft does not have the space shuttle’s payload capabilities – it is designed to return payloads weighing up to 6,600 lbs. The shuttle is the only other craft that has such a large cargo return capability. The Russian Progress M1 spacecraft has a similar payload capacity but it is not currently designed to return to Earth (the Progress burns up in the atmosphere). This would be a huge leap forward for returning payloads (and hopefully, eventually people) from the ISS.

Under NASA’s new direction, it is hoped that by investing in commercial crew transports that competition will be created and thus lower the cost for access to space.

SpaceX recently conducted a successful wet dress rehearsal (WDR) that included rolling the rocket out to the launch pad, located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 40. It was then loaded with fuel and went through a complete launch sequence – right up until launch. It was then de-fueled and “safed.” The procedures of the wet test included specific procedures required for the inclusion of an operational Dragon spacecraft.

The Falcon 9 demo-2 on the launch pad during the full wet dress rehearsal, which includes everything prior to engine ignition. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Before the WDR, SpaceX completed the first integration of its Falcon 9 and an operational Dragon spacecraft. The Dragon will be integrated onto the Falcon 9 rocket horizontally within the hangar. This helps to eliminate the cost of constructing and maintaining a vertical mobile service tower. It also makes processing of the payload less complicated. After integration is complete the Falcon 9 with the Dragon spacecraft will be moved to SpaceX’s mobile transporter/erector and be moved out of the hangar to the launch pad and then it will be erected vertically. The next step will be to conduct a static firing which is scheduled to take place in the coming weeks.

The Dragon is designed to be similar to the Russian Soyuz/Progress spacecraft in that they can be used to launch both materials and astronauts into orbit. The spacecraft includes eighteen Draco engines, hypergolic fuel systems, avionics, power systems, software, guidance, navigation, the largest PICA-based heat shield yet to fly, and a dual-redundant deployment system for the spacecraft’s three recovery parachutes.

NASA astronauts Cady Coleman and Scott Kelly go over spacecraft cargo operations with some of SpaceX's engineers. Photo Credit: SpaceX

NASA astronauts have been trained in how to use the Dragon’s systems. Under both the COTS and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) programs over a dozen astronauts from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have been taught how to use the spacecraft’s controls. There has been a mutual exchange of information, as the astronauts learned about the spacecraft’s operating systems, SpaceX employees have been given insights about what it takes to live and work in space. This knowledge will eventually make its way into procedures and flight hardware.

Two Russian Companies Plan to Build First Commercial Space Station


Will there soon be another human destination in low Earth orbit, or is this a redundant pipe dream? Two Russian-based companies hope to build the first-ever commercial space station, named, fittingly, Commercial Space Station (CSS). Orbital Technologies and Rocket and Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energria) said in a press release that they will work together to build, launch, and operate the station, which they foresee as will being utilized by private citizens, professional crews as well as corporate researchers interested in conducting scientific programs.

“I am pleased to announce our intention to provide the global marketplace a commercially available orbital outpost,” said the CEO of Orbital Technologies, Sergey Kostenko. “Once launched and operational, the CSS will provide a unique destination for commercial, state and private spaceflight exploration missions. The CSS will be a valuable addition to the global base of orbital assets. We look forward to working with corporate entities, state governments and private individuals from around the world.”

The two companies provided no schedule for launches of the modules, or information about their funding or resources, except to advertise they are looking for partnerships.

A US-based company, Bigelow Aerospace, has also been planning to construct a commercial space station using expandable habitats. They launched prototypes in 2006 and 2007, and in 2011 plan to launch a larger 180,572 square ft. module, which they tout as “fully operational.”

“What competition do we see on the horizon?” said Robert Bigelow, founder and president on the Bigelow Aerospace website. “Nobody.”

This Russian space station, if it actually goes forward, would change that.

Reportedly, the CSS will be able to house up to seven people with “modules and technologies of the highest quality and reliability will be used in the construction of the station,” to “lead the private sector in the commercializing human spaceflight platforms in low Earth orbit.”

The CSS will be serviced by the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, as well other transportation systems available from other countries, enabled by a “unified docking system that will allow any commercial crew and cargo capability developed in the Unites States, Europe and China.”

Proposed interior of a CSS module. Credit: Orbital Technologies

Having second space station in orbit will allow the crew of the International Space Station to leave the ISS “if a required maintenance procedure or a real emergency were to occur, without the return of the ISS crew to Earth,” said Alexey Krasnov, Head of Manned Spaceflight Department, Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation, allowing the ISS crew to have a safe haven in the event of an emergency.

But the main goal of the CSS is to be a hub for commercial activity, scientific research and development in low Earth orbit. Orbital Technologies said they already have several customers under contract from different segments of industry and the scientific community, representing such areas as medical research and protein crystallization, materials processing, and the geographic imaging and remote sensing industry.

“We also have proposals for the implementation of media projects,” said Kostenko. “And, of course, some parties are interested in short duration stays on the station for enjoyment.”

And for the future, the developers see the CSS as a “true gateway to the rest of the solar system,” said Kostenko. “A short stop-over at our station will be the perfect beginning of a manned circumlunar flight. Deep space manned exploration missions planned in the next decade are also welcome to use the CSS as a waypoint and a supply station.”

Source: Orbital Technologies

Boeing to Offer Commercial Flights to Space

The aerospace company Boeing is developing a crew transportation vehicle and today announced an agreement with the space marketing company Space Adventures to offer commercial passenger seats on the Boeing Crew Space Transportation-100 (CST-100) spacecraft, which is being built to with the capability to fly to the International Space Station as well as other future low Earth orbit private space stations. The spacecraft will be able to carry seven people, and is being designed to fly on multiple launch vehicles. It is expected to be operational by 2015.
Continue reading “Boeing to Offer Commercial Flights to Space”

NASA Funds Experimental “Near Space” Vehicles


Commercial space companies Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems have been awarded a total of $475,000 to perform test flights of their experimental vehicles near the edge of space. The award is part of NASA’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Program (CRuSR), which seeks to develop commercial reusable transportation to near space for frequent, low-cost trips to near-space for small payloads.

“These two awards are just the beginning of an innovative teaming relationship with industry to provide affordable access to the edge of space while evaluating the microgravity environment for future science and technology experiments,” said NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun. “CRuSR represents the sort of government-commercial partnership that will facilitate near-space access at affordable costs.”

The CRuSR awards will fund two flights this fall and one this winter of Armadillo’s Super-Mod vehicle from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The first two flights will be to an altitude of approximately nine miles and the third to approximately 25 miles.

The Masten Space Systems’ Xaero vehicle (a re-aligned version of their Xoie vehicle for better aerodynamics, according to Colin Ake from Masten) will make four flights this winter from the Mojave Spaceport in California. Two flights will reach an altitude of approximately three miles and two others will be to approximately 18 miles, with an engine shutdown during flight.

Near-space is the region of Earth’s atmosphere between 20,000 and 107,000 meters (65,000 and 350,000 feet).

NASA’s proposed budget for FY 2011 has funds for the CRuSR program that will both go to universities and other research institutions to build science and education payloads, as well as being used to purchase flights on commercial suborbital vehicles. However, the total amount available for the program is yet to be determined by Congress.

Source: NASA