Monday, October 04, 2010

America's first space capsule since Apollo prepping for launch

Photo: Michael Rooks / SpaceX
The SpaceX Dragon capsule is being prepped for its maiden voyage at Cape Canaveral. I got a chance to climb inside a mockup (SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hates that term--call it an engineering qualification unit) at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorn, California last year. It's big. Big enough for 7 astronauts. Standing in the center, I couldn't touch the sides with my arms outstretched.

This first capsule, designated C1, for COTS-1, after the NASA program sponsoring it, will test out navigation systems in orbit and test reentry. Unlike any previous space capsule, the Dragon is designed for pin-point landings using powerful onboard thrusters. If all goes well, this one will splash down in the Pacific Ocean some time before the end of the year. Future capsules will touchdown on land.

Photo: SpaceX
This mission control center was a blank wall in a corner of the half-million square foot SpaceX facility when I last visited. These people are on a roll and they're hiring like crazy.

SpaceX builds everything in-house, including the mighty Falcon 9 rocket and its nine designed-from-scratch Merlin engines.

Photo: SpaceX

The Dragon has already been mated to its rocket and the complete stack stood up on its pad for a so-called wet dress rehearsal, where all systems are tested for the countdown up to the moment of ignition.

Last step before launch, a static fire test where the rocket stays clamped to the pad while the engines fire.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bigelow has competition

Hard to picture 7 crew here. Note sleeping alcove with porthole for scale.
I got a press release yesterday from a new venture to build what's being billed as the first commercial space station. What got my attention is who proposes to build the thing: RSC Energia, the Russian company responsible for the most reliable spaceships in the world, the Soyuz, as well as the dozen or so previous Russian space stations.

The other partner in the venture is an outfit called Orbital Technologies, based in Moscow (no apparent connection between the Wisconsin-based Orbital Technologies and the Virginia company Orbital Sciences).

A spokesperson elaborated to me that construction on Commercial Space Station, or CSS, is due to start in 2012 and it will launch in 2015 or 2016. Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace has already started building its Sundancer commercial space station, and plans to launch in 2014, a year ahead of CSS.

It's not clear whether financing is in place for the new venture. I suspect not, given the late start date, although the press release states that that customers have already been found.

"Orbital Technologies has several customers already 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."
And, says Orbital CEO Sergey Kostenko, “We also have proposals for the implementation of media projects. And, of course, some parties are interested in short duration stays on the station for enjoyment.”

CSS will be a traditional aluminum can design, just like all space stations that have come before. The advantage is that development should be pretty straightforward, the challenges well understood. The down side is that it will be small and cramped, just 19 cubic meters supposedly serving up to seven crew members.

Bigelow's planned first habitat, in contrast, will enclose a whopping 180 square meters for up to six astronauts, made possible by its never-before-tried inflatable technology, which allows it to launch in a package of much smaller volume.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Watch me on C-SPAN's Book TV

I taped this one-hour interview in Washington last month, and it aired for the first time last night. It will repeat on C-SPAN2 tonight at 9:30 Eastern Time and at various times during the week.

You can also watch it in C-SPAN's online video library. Listen as I describe how I could have used DARPA's autonomous vehicle technology when my baby began projectile vomiting without warning in the back seat of my car to the accompaniment of highly distracting cries of horror from my wife and older daughter.

Besides the long format, one of the cool things about this show is that it pairs authors with experts in the field as interviewers. I drew Joanne Carney, a director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science for this one, and I think she did a bang-up job.

Friday, June 04, 2010

SpaceX hits a home run

Falcon 9 second stage engine making the final push to orbit.
Congratulations to everyone at SpaceX for a flawless inaugural flight to orbit of the new Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX made a historically very difficult feat look easy: the company launched a payload into orbit on a brand new rocket design on the first try.

The rocket lifted off just before 3 PM ET today from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral after a first launch attempt ended with an abort just seconds after ignition, but before the rocket was released. After what must have been a tense hour and a half, engineers corrected the problem remotely, and again started the countdown with a mere 30 minutes or so remaining in the launch window. The payload, an engineering qualification model of the SpaceX Dragon capsule—one without the heat shield and parachutes of future cargo and astronaut carrying versions—is now in orbit.

This is exactly the kind of home run needed to help quell opposition to President Obama's proposed new human space flight plan, which calls for chartering flights on private rockets such as the Falcon 9 for sending crew and supplies to the International Space Station after the shuttle retires.

It's good day for SpaceX, the U.S space program, and all of us who hope for a future in which space travel is truly commonplace.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

SpaceX to launch tomorrow or Saturday

F9 static fire test. Credit: SpaceX / Chris Thompson.
Looks like all systems are go for Falcon 9's first launch attempt tomorrow. The launch window opens at 11 a.m. ET, with a live webcast to begin at 10:40. The window stays open for 4 hours. If the launch is scrubbed, SpaceX engineers will make another attempt Saturday, same time.

There's a lot more riding on this rocket than the dummy payload. Fairly or not, President Obama's plan to turn routine flights to the International Space Station over to private rockets could live or die based on Falcon 9's performance.

See my additional commentary posted today on the Popular Mechanics website:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

If We Can Put a Man on the Moon...

Anyone who thinks that the Obama administration's plan to replace the Space Shuttle with private space taxis is inherently riskier than the status quo needs to read William Eggers and John O'Leary's book, If We can Put a Man on the Moon...: Getting Big Things Done in Government. Especially the chapter on complacency, which says:

"The Complacency Trap occurs when the way things are blocks our vision of what could be. In many cases, this means that risk will go unappreciated until after a disaster has occurred."

The book discusses how NASA's internal culture grew so complacent with the risks of the Space Shuttle and its design (solid fuel rockets with leaky O rings, and flying insulation striking delicate heat shield tiles) that even after numerous close calls, managers refused to take action to prevent disaster from occurring–twice.

I would add that even after two catastrophic failures, managers still saw fit to replace the shuttle with a capsule riding an extended version of the same crappy solid fuel rocket, whose additional segments and seals would pose even more threat to vehicle and crew.

Obama's plan gets NASA out of the Complacency Trap by giving new players a chance to get the job done right. SpaceX, the company that's number one on the runway, started with a clean slate design based on tried and true principles. The Falcon 9 uses good old fashioned lox-kerosene engines that have already successfully launched two satellites into orbit.

Change is inevitable. Private enterprise will open the final frontier. The only question is whether legislators and old-line NASA managers will get out of the Complacency Trap and get on board, or get run over by the bus.

Friday, May 07, 2010

SpaceX launch waiting on flight termination system

Obama with SpaceX managers Neil G. Hicks, Florence Li, Brian Mosdell, Leslie Woods Jr., and CEO Elon Musk. Credit: Getty Images
The Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 9 is almost ready for launch. The team at Cape Canaveral is waiting on final testing of the flight termination system. The FTS is required by the Air Force so that the rocket can be destroyed mid-flight if it veers off course. Standard equipment for all rockets that launch out of the Cape, even manned ones.

Best guess for Falcon 9's inaugural launch has it taking off no earlier than May 23, though the FTS tests aren't following a fixed schedule, according to the email I've just received from SpaceX. And countdowns can be aborted any time before reaching zero. With this, its highest-profile flight yet, SpaceX managers want to be extra sure to get it right. The much smaller Falcon 1 made it orbit on its fourth try.

I spoke to a manager at NASA HQ recently who feels the success of President Obama's new direction for NASA depends on two things happening this year: Congressional support, and the success of the Falcon 9.

The new direction has the agency relying on charter flights by private companies such as SpaceX for the future of its human space flight program. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk downplays the importance of SpaceX in this effort, for instance in this interview with MSNBC's Alan Boyle. The fact is, however, SpaceX is number one on the runway. The stakes have never been higher for the rocket startup.

Naysayers point to Falcon 9's supposedly untested status (never mind the successful flights of Falcon 1, which uses the same engine design, and many ground tests) as the fatal flaw in the new NASA plan. Successful Falcon 9 flights will go a long way toward putting those arguments to rest.