Private Industry Taking Over Space Exploration

Posted: Dec 14, 2014 12:01 AM

While President Obama was busy plotting his next chess move against the American dream last Friday, a momentous achievement was unfolding high above Washington, D.C. The test flight of America’s first spacecraft designed to carry humans beyond the Moon traveled the long route from Orlando to San Diego, eastbound.

A triple-barreled United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy, the largest rocket in the American inventory, hurled the unmanned Orion capsule on trajectory for a two-orbit tour of the Earth. About 4 ½ hours after leaving Cape Canaveral, Orion slowed from a fiery 20,000 MPH to a gentle 20 MPH parachute landing in the Pacific.

While the Space Shuttle fleet served us well with 135 launches, two of those missions did not return successfully, resulting in the loss of 14 crew members. In the Space Shuttle configuration, the orbiter was positioned adjacent to the external fuel tank and solid rocket motors during the explosively turbulent launch phase. This made the space plane vulnerable to failures with the external tank, exploding while attached to the Challenger in 1986 and fatally damaging the Columbia with falling debris in 2003.

NASA recently issued three separate contracts to provide manned space flight vehicles and all are capsule configurations that sit on top of the launch vehicle. For low orbit missions, California based newcomer SpaceX will provide its Dragon spacecraft on top of its own Falcon 9 launch vehicle for trips to and from the International Space Station. The other supplier of low orbit crew capsules is Boeing, who will build its CST-100 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Boeing’s spaceship is designed to match up with several launch vehicles. And for trips to the Moon and even Mars, the Colorado team at Lockheed Martin will supply the Orion spacecraft. A new launch vehicle is being developed by Colorado based United Launch Alliance that will have the capacity to push Orion all the way to the red planet.

While Dragon, CST-100 and Orion will all return to Earth by parachuting into the ocean like the good old days of the Gemini and Apollo missions, each of them introduces magnificent innovations. Boeing’s capsule includes airbags for optional touchdowns on dry land. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 (the rocket part) can return to Earth under the power of its engines and land upright. And because American space launches are always directed over the ocean, SpaceX has outfitted a 100’ by 300’ floating platform for the Falcon 9 to land on out in the Atlantic. The first attempt of the lower stage landing on the floating platform is planned for this Tuesday, December 16. For photos and cool-factor video, see HERE.

Two trends are apparent in NASA’s leaving the space plane scheme and returning to the wisdom of earlier designs. First, the people carriers are not engineered to also carry heavy payloads, like satellites. And second, the positioning of the capsules on top of the launch vehicles will eliminate the conditions that doomed the two shuttles.

An additional safety feature known as the Launch Abort System has been engineered into all three capsules. In the event of a mishap during launch, the abort system will fire, getting the crew up and well away from the launch vehicle even if it is still on the pad. Both the Dragon and the CST-100 feature a small liquid engine beneath the capsule for this purpose. But the abort system for larger Orion spacecraft is more bedazzling. While mated to its launch vehicle, the Orion crew capsule will be housed within a faring that tapers into a pointed tower that holds a series of small solid rocket motors. While the SpaceX and Boeing models would push away from disaster, the Lockheed Martin spacecraft would be rapidly pulled away. For a video of the Orion Launch Abort test firing, see HERE.

Like the capsule configuration, the Launch Abort System concept was invented in 1958 by Dr. Maxime Faget as part of the first generation of American manned flight spacecraft. The first generation abort system was used to save the unmanned Mercury-Atlas 3 capsule in 1961 (see video HERE). The Russians have also adopted the launch abort system concept for their Soyuz spacecraft. Four cosmonauts were successfully jettisoned from a launch pad in 1983, saving them from the rocket exploding beneath them (see video HERE).

The flawless Orion test flight last week was every bit as significant as the inaugural Space Shuttle flight in 1981, heralded by Ronald Reagan who was just four months into his presidency at the time. But it would be four days after the Orion mission before President Obama made public mention of it. The next Orion flight is not scheduled until two years after Barack Obama leaves office. So much for that JFK inspiration for space travel.

I guess it’s just as well. Because while the final frontier may not hold the interest of a socialist president, the pursuit of manned space flight seems to be moving forward without the monopoly of government.

In 2004, British mega-entrepreneur Richard Branson followed his 20-year experience as founder of commercial airline Virgin Atlantic to launch Virgin Galactic, the self-described “world’s first spaceline.” The British company operates exclusively out of the Mojave Desert in developing its vehicles for space tourism. The company has collected deposits of at least $200,000 each from several hundred customers who have reserved their ride to space and back. Sadly, Virgin Galactic recently suffered a disastrous setback during a flight of its “SpaceShipTwo,” losing the vehicle and its pilot.

Other players are in the game, like Sierra Nevada Corporation’s space plane, the serious Dream Chaser. And founder Jeff Bezos intends to fulfill his space tourism aspirations by building a crew capsule with his innovative aerospace company Blue Origin. More ingenuity is also coming out of the booming drone industry which does not concern itself with hosting live passengers. Perhaps the loftiest goal comes from Nevada based Bigelow Aerospace who is working to assemble their rentable space station in orbit over the next 22 months.

As high-altitude, high-speed travel becomes more feasible through private research and development efforts, a ground support infrastructure is beginning to take shape. About a dozen “spaceports” have been designated to accommodate vertical launches and their passengers returning in high-speed, high-altitude aircraft. The first actual spaceport is now open for business, Spaceport America in New Mexico. See the Federal Aviation Administration’s site list HERE for a spaceport opening near you.

As private industry begins to find more ways to profit from space travel, governments are devolving from monopolies to customers. NASA’s recent announcement of contract awards to Boeing and SpaceX reads, “With the new contracts, NASA’s goal is to certify crew transportation systems in 2017 that will return the ability to launch astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station using privately built spacecraft.”

As one who advocates for a small government, I am happy to see private industry taking the lead. But I hope that astrophysical discovery continues somehow. There is no monetary profit in understanding how the Universe came into being. And there does not seem to be an economic return on investment for traveling to Mars. But somehow, I think we must.