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.

“ISO My Husband, Somewhere in Orbit”


NASA astronaut Mark Kelly and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona), who were married in 2007. (Credit: Giffords Flickr photostream)

It’s hard not to personalize tragedy. For the friends and family of those killed in Saturday’s shooting in Arizona, those losses are the focus. For many others, it was the shooting of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives that resonates. For me, even though the focus was on the same person, Saturday was the shooting of Mark Kelly’s wife.

Mark was one of the first astronauts I met when I came to work for NASA, and certainly one of the more immediately memorable. I don’t know whether the story of how he and his twin brother Scott would take turns growing and shaving off mustaches to confuse people is true, but it fits. Before the problems with the external tank delayed the next shuttle mission, the plan was that Mark would command a shuttle mission that would dock with the station while it was commanded by Scott. You don’t reach the point where you and your twin brother are both commanding literal spaceships at the same time without being incredibly competent, but the twins also have great senses of humor and affable personalities. I never met his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, but I hurt for him and the Kelly family. Saturday was a tragedy for the NASA family, and its personal to us all.

I’m posting this, though, not to share my thoughts, but rather this link that Heather sent me, ISO My Husband, Somewhere in Orbit, from two and a half years ago, that puts a personal face on Saturday’s events:

After a busy weekend, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords flew into BWI yesterday, took the train to Union Station, then ran into a bar searching for a TV.

“I pleaded with the bartender, who had it tuned to some sports station, with a straight face: ‘My husband is the commander of space shuttle Discovery. They’re in the process of rendezvousing with the international pace station. May I please turn the channel?’ ” Giffords told us. “He looked a little confused and handed me the remote.”

The Arizona Democrat, who turns 38 on Sunday, became a NASA spouse when she married 44-year-old astronaut Mark Kelly in November. The two have maintained a long-distance marriage ever since: she in Tucson and D.C.; he in Houston — and for the next 11 days, 218 miles out in space. She’ll watch him on the news every day, and wear her Christmas gift: a meteorite he had made into a pendant for her.

This is Kelly’s third trip into space. He’s shepherding a $1 billion space lab, a pump to repair a broken toilet, a Buzz Lightyear doll and two items from his bride: a flag from the National Day of the Cowboy Organization (“I just thought we needed cowboy representation up there”) and her wedding band, inscribed: You’re the closest to heaven that I’ve ever been.“And he would know,” she said.

Here And There Online


My co-author Owen Garriott has donated a signed copy of our book, Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story, for the 2010 annual Astronaut Scholarship Foundation auction. Bidding begins a week from tomorrow, but you must be registered to participate. If you don’t want a signed copy of Homesteading, you can also do some Christmas shopping for me on the site.

I wrote a guest post for Heather’s official NASA blog, Taking Up Space. I’ve been writing for NASA for more than eight years, and I’ve been blogging for almost that entire time, but for some reason doing the two together for the first time makes me happy.

Along those lines, Face2Face director Eugene Banks this week posted my weekly post-show e-mail to the troupe on the Face2Face Facebook page again this week, which also made me happier than it should. For some reason, going on Facebook this morning and linking to my stuff that had been posted on Heather’s blog and my stuff that had been posted on the F2F page made me feel kinda like a writer, which is always a nice feeling.

I finally got tweeted to today by Lori McKenna, which, again, makes me happier than it should. I’ve heard a lot of new songs since her last album, Unglamorous, came out over three years ago, and I’ve been afraid that I would have already heard all of Lorraine by the time it comes out in January. She confirmed that the album will include a song that I’d not heard of before. This, again, makes me happy.

Talking Up Space


I’ve been a bit quieter than usual here lately, and part of the reason is that for the last couple of weeks, a decent number of my spare brain cycles have been going to support an exciting project we’ve been involved in at work.

I’ve written before about the fact that my coworker Heather got approval to write an official NASA blog about her work as an education writer. The blog recently reached the end of its first pilot phase, and is currently undertaking a rather cool project — a live downlink with the International Space Station.

After the space shuttle Discovery launches on its final flight next month, Heather will talk to a member of the crew while the shuttle is docked with the space station for about 20 minutes. Live downlinks are a rare opportunity, so it’s more than a little neat that she’s getting to do this.

Since this is a project for the blog, we’re bringing an education focus to the event, and we’re doing that by working to involve students in the interview. To accompany the blog, we’ve established Twitter and Facebook accounts that we’re using to get student opinions. Due to government restrictions we didn’t have time to get waivers for, we’re doing that primarily in the form of letting students vote on which areas they’re most interested in hearing asked about. Even so, it’s a very rare opportunity for the student public in general to be involved in an event like this.

It’s a really neat project, and Heather’s doing some great stuff with it (and I’m having a lot of helping).  I encourage you to go check it out and follow and like and vote and subscribe and retweet and share, etc.