Between Two Launches


Four years ago today, I was standing on the Kennedy Space Center Causeway to watch the launch of the Ares I-X rocket.

It was an exciting day; at the time, it was the beginning of the future, laying the groundwork for later flights of the Ares I vehicle. It was the first test launch of a new design for a crewed launch vehicle in almost 30 years, and I got to be there for it.

I remember there being some discussion of what would happen, some concerns from armchair rocket scientists that the test would go horribly wrong. From my uninvolved observer’s perspective in NASA education, I was willing to bet that if they weren’t very sure it was going to fly they wouldn’t be launching it, but I figured, either way, it would be quite a show.

And it was. She was beautiful. Ares I-X was incredibly beautiful on the pad, towering over the shuttle launch complex. And she was incredibly beautiful in flight, looking like she was defying the laws of physics in a way I’d never seen a rocket do before. Simply amazing.

Later, there would be discussion about the second stage recontact after separation, but in real time, it was incredible, and I still think it was completely worthy of its recognition as Time magazine’s Invention of the Year. What the Ares I-X team accomplished in the time they had and with the resources they had is amazing.

It’s been an interesting four years since then. Ares was cancelled; SLS was begun and in two years has completed its preliminary design review. Personally, my two-and-a-half-year “sabbatical” from NASA fell within that time. A lot of changes, for the agency and myself.

Looking back on that day, I’m struck by how blessed I am by my part of those changes. Like I said, watching I-X, I was basically nothing but a fan. We had a poster on the wall by my office, a gorgeous movie poster design about the mission. I saw that poster again recently in a co-worker’s office, and realized that back then, I’d never paid attention to the names in the credits. Those names meant nothing to me then. Today, they’re my co-workers, members of the team I’m a part of. I’m incredibly, incredibly blessed to be part of the team this time for SLS, instead of just an observer.

I talked to my boss a while back about that day four year ago, about how beautiful the rocket looked on the pad. Kimberly agreed, telling about standing at the base of the vehicle and looking up at her, towering well over 300 feet high into the sky. And, yeah, Kimberly’s rocket-on-the-pad story totally trumps my view from across the river. But it gave me something to look forward to, something to work toward. I want to see SLS on the pad.

And I cannot wait, I cannot wait, to see her fly. If this is going to be my first time being part of the team, I’m incredibly lucky that it’s for what will be the most spectacular launch anyone’s ever seen.

Not a bad motivation to get up and go to work every morning.

Buy Your Own Space Program


The new Liberty launch vehicle will use existing infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center, such as the Mobile Launcher shown here. (PRNewsFoto/ATK)

“These are the days of miracle and wonder.” — Paul Simon

It will be interesting to see which moment history records as the beginning of the era of commercial space.

Will it be Mike Melville making the first spaceflight on a commercial vehicle on Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne?

Dennis Tito becoming the first person to pay his own way to the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz?

Ironically, there’s even a case to be made that the real turning point was Yang Liwei’s flight as the first Chinese taikonaut.

But, regardless, the net result is this. We live in a world in which the United Arab Emirates’ closest equivalent to a space agency is working with Bigelow Aerospace to establish a space program.  Essentially, the day is imminent when a nation could buy its own space program.

I listed Yang’s flight because to a limited extent, that was how he got into space. China bought access to the Russian space program, used and learned about their cosmonaut training facilities and derived their Shenzhou spacecraft from the technology in the Russian Soyuz. To be sure, China only bought the seeds of the space program. They got the concepts from Russia, but had to implement them themselves. And perhaps the most difficult piece of the puzzle, the launch vehicle, was homegrown.

The irony is that in the seven years since the first launch, China has put only six taikonauts in space. There was an official Chinese media report in 2005 that the second manned flight cost around $110 million, and that the project had cost $2.3 billion to date. Relatively cheap for the development of a manned program, to be sure.

But, during that same period, eight people bought their own way into space on the Russian Soyuz; at a cost of less than $400 million. China could have had a more robust space program at a much lower cost by investing a fraction of what it spent developing its own program outbidding space tourists for Soyuz seats. It would have meant less for national pride, but they could have outright bought a better space program.

The day is coming when a nation could have the best of both worlds, and buy its own national space program off the shelf. The ease of a turn-key purchase, with the national pride of not depending on another nation.

Bigelow, for those that don’t know, is in the space station business. They have flown hardware and demonstrated their technology. For enough money, a fraction of what space stations have historically cost, they could outright sell Dubai its own space station.

For the moment, the catch is that they would have no way up there. Potentially, Soyuz might provide a solution. The current production and flight schedule would not cover vehicles commercial use beyond the occasional seat to the International Space Station, but, theoretically, for enough money, Energia could build Soyuz for another customer. Of course, you then have a hybrid program — flying to the space station you control on vehicles that are still Russian-controlled.

Within a few years, however, that could change. Private corporations could be ready to build and sell launch vehicles that a nation could use to man its own space station. A fully operational modern space program, with zero development time or cost. A country could just write two or three checks, and have the equivalent of China’s space program, off-the-shelf and ready to go.

There are still several barriers to this. There are all sorts of international trade regulations that would come into play in selling rockets to other nations. One wouldn’t want to sell a Falcon 9 to a nation that’s going to decide not to launch astronauts into space in it but instead to stick a warhead on top of it and send it somewhere more terrestrial. And, of course, before the vehicles can be sold, they have to exist.

Another somewhat serious contender joined SpaceX’s Falcon rocket on the scene this week. I’d heard there was talk about this a year or so ago, but hadn’t heard anything since, and thought it might have fallen through, but ATK, responsible for the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, has announced that it is working with European company Astrium, manufacturer of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle, to develop the Liberty rocket, essentially a commercial version of the Ares I replacing the NASA-developed liquid-fuel upper stage with an Astrium-developed Ariane-developed upper stage. Currently, the partnership is seeking support from NASA in developing the vehicle as part of the agency’s commercial crew capability program. I’ve not seen whether they would have any interest, as SpaceX is doing, in pursuing the vehicle on their own if NASA were not interested.

Either way, there’s a very real chance than in the next decade or two, there will be a lot more flags on crewed spacecraft in Earth orbit.

Painted right below corporate logos.