Weekly Space Hangout – Jan. 15, 2016: Dr. Steve B. Howell from Kepler

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: Dr. Steve B. Howell, Project Scientist on Kepler to discuss the great new results coming form the K2 mission – the repurposed Kepler mission.

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Paul Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)

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Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 16, 2015: Dr. Carolyn Porco and Cassini Update; Sexual Harassment in Astronomy and Academia

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: Dr. Carolyn Porco is the leader of the Cassini Imaging Science team and the Director of the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Guests:
Pamela Gay (cosmoquest.org / @cosmoquestx / @starstryder)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Rhys Taylor (G+: Rhys Taylor)
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Weekly Space Hangout – April 24, 2015: Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One
Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein)
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
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Weekly Space Hangout – Jan 9, 2015: Andy Weir of “The Martian”

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: Andy Weir , author of “The Martian”
Andy was first hired as a programmer for a national laboratory at age fifteen and has been working as a software engineer ever since. He is also a lifelong space nerd and a devoted hobbyist of subjects like relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. “The Martian” is his first novel.

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @cosmic_chatter)
Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)
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Dream Chaser Spacecraft Maker Loses NASA Crew Contract Protest

Update, 4 p.m. EST: Sierra Nevada’s statement, which was posted after the story was first published, is now mentioned below.

Sierra Nevada’s protest concerning NASA’s commercial crew program was turned down today (Jan. 5), according to a statement from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The company is developing a spacecraft called the Dream Chaser, which was in competition for NASA funding along with Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon to bring crews to the International Space Station. A few months ago, NASA awarded further development money to Boeing and SpaceX, prompting a protest from Sierra Nevada.

At the time, Sierra Nevada both protested the decision and requested a stop-work order on all commercial crew work. The stop-work order was lifted fairly quickly, but the protest remained under review. From today, this was the crux of the GAO statement, which you can read in full here:

In making its selection decision, NASA concluded that the proposals submitted by Boeing and SpaceX represented the best value to the government.  Specifically, NASA recognized Boeing’s higher price, but also considered Boeing’s proposal to be the strongest of all three proposals in terms of technical approach, management approach, and past performance, and to offer the crew transportation system with most utility and highest value to the government.  NASA also recognized several favorable features in the Sierra Nevada and SpaceX proposals, but ultimately concluded that SpaceX’s lower price made it a better value than the proposal submitted by Sierra Nevada.

In making its selection decision, NASA concluded that the proposals submitted by Boeing and SpaceX represented the best value to the government.  Specifically, NASA recognized Boeing’s higher price, but also considered Boeing’s proposal to be the strongest of all three proposals in terms of technical approach, management approach, and past performance, and to offer the crew transportation system with most utility and highest value to the government.  NASA also recognized several favorable features in the Sierra Nevada and SpaceX proposals, but ultimately concluded that SpaceX’s lower price made it a better value than the proposal submitted by Sierra Nevada.

Other key points:

  • The prices for each proposal were as follows: Sierra Nevada was $2.55 billion, Boeing’s was $3.01 billion and SpaceX’s $1.75 billion.
  • NASA, the GAO said, had “no undue emphasis” on any proposal’s schedule or the chances of a particular system making it to orbit by 2017. Also, the agency did say in its request for proposals that the 2017 certification goal would be a part of the process — a different point than what Sierra Nevada argued, who said the agency had added that stipulation while the process was underway.
  • NASA’s review of SpaceX’s price and “financial resources” was adequate, along with its evaluation of the competing proposals in terms of mission suitability and past performance. This was in contrast to Sierra Nevada’s argument.

This is part of what Sierra Nevada had to say about the decision. The company also said it plans to maintain ties with NASA. The full statement is here.

While the outcome was not what SNC expected, we maintain our belief that the Dream Chaser spacecraft is technically very capable, reliable and was qualified to win based on NASA’s high ratings of the space system. We appreciate the time and effort contributed to this process by the GAO and NASA to fully evaluate such a critical decision for the United States …

SNC also plans to further the development and testing of the Dream Chaser and is making significant progress in its vehicle design and test program. In addition, SNC is continuing to expand its existing, while developing new, partnerships domestically and abroad in order to expand the multi-mission flexibility of the system, reduce overall long-term costs of the vehicle and ensure long-term affordability and sustainability for the Dream Chaser.

A public record of the decision is expected in a few weeks. Right now, due to the proprietary nature of the information, only NASA personnel and a few “outside counsel” are able to view it, the GAO added.

Protest Delays NASA Commercial Crew Spacecraft Work: Report

NASA told two companies to halt work on the next phase of its commercial crew program — the spacecraft expected to replace Russian ones ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station — because of a protest related to the contract award, according to media reports.

Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) filed a complaint on Sept. 26, shortly after its Dream Chaser shuttle-like design was not selected for further funding under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of the program. Competitors SpaceX and Boeing each received billions of dollars for further development for their Dragon and CST-100 spacecraft, which are expected to start flying around 2017.

A Spaceflight Now report, quoting NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz, said the agency told both selectees that they must “stop performance of the CCtCap contract” pending the result of the challenge, which is before the Government Accountability Office. The office’s deadline for a response is Jan. 5, the report said.

In a statement, SNC said this is the first fight it undertook in relation to a government contract in more than five decades of operations. “Inconsistencies” in the process, SNC added, prompted it to go forward with the protest:

Importantly, the official NASA solicitation for the CCtCap contract prioritized price as the primary evaluation criteria for the proposals, setting it equal to the combined value of the other two primary evaluation criteria: mission suitability and past performance. SNC’s Dream Chaser proposal was the second lowest priced proposal in the CCtCap competition. SNC’s proposal also achieved mission suitability scores comparable to the other two proposals. In fact, out of a possible 1,000 total points, the highest ranked and lowest ranked offerors were separated by a minor amount of total points and other factors were equally comparable.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden declined to comment on the situation last week in response to questions from reporters at the International Astronautical Congress in Toronto, Canada, citing the legal situation.

Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 3, 2014: Islands, Earwigs and Other Mysteries!

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @cosmic_chatter)
David Dickinson (Astroguyz.com / @astroguyz)
Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein)

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How Private Space Companies Make Money Exploring The Final Frontier

TORONTO, CANADA – There’s a big difference in thinking between governments and the private companies that participate in space. While entities such as NASA can work on understanding basic human health or exploring the universe for the sake of a greater understanding, companies have a limitation: they need to eventually make a profit.

This was brought up in a human spaceflight discussion at the International Astronautical Congress today (Oct. 1), which included participants from agencies and companies alike. Below are some concepts for how private companies in the space world today are making their money.

“We have in space a movement towards more privatization … and also for more use of space activities in general and human space activity in the future by individual private persons,” said Johann Dietrich Worner, chairman of the executive board of DLR (Germany’s space agency), in the panel.

“You can imagine that even for the upcoming 10 to 20 to 30 years, the public funding is the basic funding for [space] activities while in other areas, we are already seeing that private money is doing its work if you look to communication and if you look to other activities, like for instance, research in space.”

But commercial spaceflight is already taking place, as some of these examples show.

Commercial crew

Would you ‘Enter the Dragon’? First look inside SpaceX Dragon V2 next generation astronaut spacecraft unveiled by CEO Elon Musk on May 29, 2014. Credit: Robert Fisher/AmericaSpace
Would you ‘Enter the Dragon’?
First look inside SpaceX Dragon V2 next generation astronaut spacecraft unveiled by CEO Elon Musk on May 29, 2014. Credit: Robert Fisher/AmericaSpace

The two successful companies in NASA’s latest round of commercial contracts — SpaceX (Dragon) and Boeing (CST-100) — are each receiving government money to develop their private space taxis. The companies are responsible for meeting certain milestones to receive funds. There is quite the element of risk involved because the commercial contracts are only given out in stages; you could be partway through developing the spacecraft and then discover you will not be awarded one for the next round. This is what happened to Sierra Nevada Corp., whose Dream Chaser concept did not receive more money in the announcement last month. The company has filed a legal challenge in response.

Private space travel

Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employee's of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt's wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its "mothership", WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.
Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan, surrounded by employees of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company, and Scaled Composites, and watch as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt’s wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its “mothership,” WhiteKnight2, over the Mojave CA area on April 29, 2013, at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.

Virgin Galactic and its founder, Richard Branson, are perhaps the most visible of the companies that are looking to bring private citizens into space — as long as they can pay $250,000 for a ride. The first flight of Virgin into space is expected in the next year. Customers must pay a deposit upfront upon registering and then the balance before they head into suborbit. In the case of Virgin, Branson has a portfolio of companies that can take on the financial risk during the startup phase, but eventually the company will look to turn a profit through the customer payments.

Asteroid mining

Artist concept of the ARKYD spacecraft by an asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources.
Artist concept of the ARKYD spacecraft by an asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources.

The business case for Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, the two self-proclaimed asteroid mining companies, hasn’t fully been released yet. We assume that the companies would look to make a profit through selling whatever resources they manage to dig up on asteroids, but bear in mind it would cost quite a bit of money to get a spacecraft there and back. Meanwhile, Planetary Resources is diversifying its income somewhat by initiatives such as the Arkyd-100 telescope, which will look for asteroids from Earth orbit. They raised money for the project through crowdsourcing.

Space station research

The International Space Station in March 2009 as seen from the departing STS-119 space shuttle Discovery crew. Credit: NASA/ESA
The International Space Station in March 2009 as seen from the departing STS-119 space shuttle Discovery crew. Credit: NASA/ESA

NanoRacks is a company that has research slots available on the International Space Station that it sells to entities looking to do research in microgravity. The company has places inside the station and can also deploy small satellites through a Japanese system. While the company’s website makes it clear that they are focused on ISS utilization, officials also express an interest in doing research in geocentric orbit, the moon or even Mars.