Here Be Dragons

Tweet from @ElectronJon:

Good point from @davidhitt on @SpaceX #Dragon: “A private company can now do a thing NASA cannot. The winds of change are blowing.”

When I made the tweet, it was just sort of an off-hand remark about the rendezvous. Having it called a good point made me stop and actually think about it.

And, it’s true. NASA no longer has any capability to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and a private company does. In fact, a private company has arguably done something that NASA has never been able to do, with Dragon’s unmanned rendezvous with ISS.

But this is not a bad thing.

Lots of private companies can do things NASA cannot, from building cars to saving you money on your insurance. And that’s OK.

Under former administrator Sean O’Keefe, NASA had this as its mission statement: “To understand and protect our home planet. To explore the Universe and search for life. To inspire the next generation of explorers …as only NASA can.”

That last bit of the mission statement served two purposes. One, it was a reminder of the goals and capabilities of the agency — to do the things that no one else can do. NASA’s bailiwick is not the mundane; it’s the extraordinary.

But it was also a reminder of NASA’s responsibility to the nation. NASA needs to focus on doing the things that only NASA can do. It would be irresponsible for NASA to waste taxpayer money duplicating the efforts of others instead of investing those funds in its own unique missions. If a task is not one “only NASA can” do, leave it to the others that can do it.

If NASA needs a car, it’s not going to build a car. It’s going to buy a car. Building cars is not an “as only NASA can” task. It’s a task better left to private industry so that NASA can focus on its unique capabilities and responsibilities.

A year ago, within the United States, delivering cargo to the International Space Station was an “as only NASA can” task.

As of last week, it no longer is.

And that’s rather amazing.

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.

Greetings From The Future!

Dear younger David:

Greetings from The Future! Well, the future for you, the present for me. Although, actually, I’m writing this post one day and post-dating it to publish another, so kind of the future for me, too. I know that means nothing to you, but we’ll get back to that.

So our dad just picked up a paperback copy of the Arthur C. Clarke novel 2010: Odyssey Two.which, not so coincidentally, happens to be the year that I’m writing this from.

If I recall, you haven’t yet seen either of the movies, but you’ve made a rather impressive start for an elementary school student at reading 2001: A Space Odyssey. Be proud, it’s a tough book.

It’s also, it turns out, utterly unreliable. From where you’re sitting, in the early 80s, and being an elementary school student, and an overly optimistic one at that, you don’t yet have any concept that there’s is no way we’re going to have lunar bases or interplanetary missions by 2001.

Sadly, here in 2010, it’s no better. The Leonov spacecraft remains as far out of reach today as the Discovery was in 2001. No missions to Jupiter, I’m afraid. Or Mars. Or even the moon. We’re even about to stop flying the space shuttle, something that will become more imaginable to you in two or three years, I’m afraid. The future of NASA is rather wide-open right now. Which is not necessarily a bad thing — there are a few certainties, but that means there’s a lot of possibilities.

There were some things Clarke got right. There were even some interesting things he got wrong. That joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. mission in 2010? The fall of the Soviet Union is closer in time to you than it is to me. Practically just around the corner, and the great futurist couldn’t see it. Politics are even more unpredictable than science, it appears.

None of that is to say that there haven’t been huge leaps forward in technology in the years between us. It’s just not in the way you would hope. There’s a guy out there named Steve Jobs. I would tell you to read about him, but, to be honest, I don’t remember now how you would do that. You won’t have the internet for years. You don’t even have Wired magazine. Looking back, it’s such a different world that it’s hard to imagine. Anyway, point being, computers are going to do things you can’t even imagine. And, get this, the most amazing part of life in 2010 is the telephone. Yeah, I know, just hear me out. OK, imagine your telephone. Now, imagine there was no cord on it. Now imagine it was smaller. Now imagine it could play games and take pictures and make you as close as human beings can come to omniscient.

But if you’re like me, and, pretty much by definition, you are, all the little ways life is better are only consolations against the future that didn’t happen — the leaps and bounds in personal technology are nice, but you were hoping for leaps and bounds through the solar system.

There’s hope. Last week, this company called SpaceX put a capsule in orbit and brought it back down. No people on it, but it’s a vehicle that could carry people. On the one hand, it doesn’t compare to Apollo, decades ago. Or even Mercury, yet. But it’s a private company doing it. It’s a huge step closer to people like us making it into space, and its a huge step closer to people making money in space. And when there’s money to be made in space, there’s going to be money spent getting into space. And when that happens, space is going to open up like never before. So maybe it’s not what you were hoping for. But it is cool, trust me. And, hey, you can trust me — after all, I’m kind of an expert, thanks to … but that would be telling.

And, in the meantime, there will be more Star Wars movies. But, then, you’ll have to wait a long time, and they really won’t be worth it. So never mind. But, hey, I’m about to go see the new Tron movie in a few days. That’s gotta be worth something, right?

Take care. Have fun. Hug your grandmother for me.


Floored Again

I wrote a post a while back about how Skylab’s distinctive triangle-grid floor pattern continues to resurface in spacecraft design as NASA works on new vehicles and concepts.

treadmill on triangular Skylab floor

Scientist-astronaut Bill Thornton demonstrates a treadmill designed for the Skylab 4 crew in a mock-up of the space station. Skylab's distinctive triangular grid floor can be seen. Photo Credit: NASA

Today, I was looking at pictures from the recovery of the SpaceX Dragon capsule that orbited Earth yesterday, and saw this:

dragon floor

Mystery "Secret Payload" aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, with spacecraft floor visible. Photo from

I have no idea how Dragon ended up with a triangular floor pattern, or what purpose it serves on the spacecraft. From the picture, it looks like it’s modified from the Skylab version, with a hard surface below the grid instead of just being open. But nonetheless, there it is — a little bit of Skylab was in orbit again yesterday. This makes me happy.

For the source of the picture, and to find out what was in the secret payload, visit And, of course, to learn more about the awesomeness of Skylab, read Homesteading Space,co-authored with astronauts Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin.