Monday, December 13, 2010

SpaceX Launches Success With Falcon 9/Dragon Flight

ScienceDaily (Dec. 13, 2010)

SpaceX Corp. tested its Falcon 9 and a fully functioning Dragon capsule combination during a brief mission launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on December 8, 2010. The uncrewed capsule parachuted back to Earth about three hours after liftoff following maneuvers in orbit, a first for the privately owned company.

Flames erupted from the base of the Falcon 9 at 10:43 a.m. as it sat at Launch Complex-40. A few seconds later, the rocket and its Dragon capsule pushed above the surrounding lightning towers and headed into orbit.

The first stage separated on time and the second stage took over as planned. A camera on board the rocket showed the Dragon capsule separate from the second stage and trunk to orbit on its own.

After working through its maneuvers, the Dragon fired its braking rockets to begin re-entry. Like the Apollo spacecraft of the 1960s and 70s, the Dragon pierced Earth's atmosphere protected by an ablative heat shield. Parachutes deployed and the spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

"This has really been better than I expected," said Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX. "It's actually almost too good."

The test flight was the first under a NASA contract called COTS, short for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services. The contract was set up to encourage private companies to ship cargo to the International Space Station.

"This is really an amazing accomplishment for SpaceX," said Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo program manager. "From all indications, it looks like it was 100 percent successful."

It was the second test flight for the Falcon 9, a 180-foot-tall, medium-lift booster SpaceX developed in part to service the station. The first Falcon 9 successfully launched a Dragon capsule simulator into orbit on June 4.

"We're beyond the 'Is it possible?' We did it and now we move on," said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.

The successful mission could clear the way for a Dragon spacecraft to rendezvous with the station sometime next year, potentially delivering cargo on that flight.

Before the launch, NASA voiced a high level of support for the mission.

"Getting this far this fast has been a remarkable achievement," said Phil McAlister, NASA's acting director of Commercial Space Flight Development. "No matter how this spaceflight goes, we are committed to this program."

NASA wants rockets like the Falcon 9 and Orbital Sciences' Taurus II to carry important supplies, experiments and equipment to the space station after the space shuttle fleet is retired in 2011.

The rockets and capsules could one day carry astronauts to the station as well. But for this flight, the pressure was on SpaceX to demonstrate its nine-engine booster and accompanying capsule would work as advertised.

The next Falcon 9/Dragon launch is slated for 2011.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Robot's Space Debut 'Giant Leap For Tinmankind'

By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn, Ap Aerospace Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space is about to get its first humanoid from planet Earth. Robonaut 2 — affectionately known as R2 — is hitching a one-way ride to the International Space Station this week aboard the final flight of space shuttle Discovery.

It's the first humanoid robot ever bound for space, a $2.5 million mechanical and electrical marvel that NASA hopes one day will assist flesh-and-bone astronauts in orbit.

Imagine, its creators say, a future where Robonaut could take over space station cleaning duties; spend hours outside in the extreme heat and cold, patiently holding tools for spacewalking astronauts; and handle emergencies like toxic leaks or fires.

Why, Robonaut's descendants could even scout out asteroids, Mars and other worlds in the decades ahead, paving the way for humans.

The adventure begins Wednesday afternoon, with the planned final launch of Discovery and Robonaut's six human crewmates. Mission managers gave the green light Monday for the new launch date; shuttle gas leaks had to be repaired before the countdown could begin and forced a two-day delay.

"While it might be just a single step for this robot, it's really a giant leap forward for tinmankind," said Rob Ambrose, acting chief of Johnson Space Center's automation, robotics and simulation division in Houston.

For now, R2 — a collaboration between NASA and General Motors — exists only from the waist up. It measures 3 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 330 pounds. Each arm is 2 feet 8 inches long.

Legs are still in the works. But, oh, what an upper body: perfectly toned arms and hands with palms, a robotic rarity, along with broad shoulders and a washboard stomach. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hollywood's cyborg Terminator, would be proud.

Watch Robonaut lifting a 20-pound dumbbell, and "you can kind of feel the burn," Ambrose said, showing a video at a recent news conference.

Unlike people who tend to cheat, "this robot will really do what the physical trainers tell you to do, which is to do the bicep curls nice and slow," he said.

Made of aluminum and nickel-plated carbon fiber, the torso and arms are padded to protect Robonaut and the astronauts, all the way down to the five fingers on each hand. No metal, bony-looking fingers for this robot.

R2's eyes are where they should be: in its gold-colored head. Four visible light cameras are located behind the robot's visor, and an infrared camera is in its mouth for depth perception.

But its brain is in its tummy; engineers had nowhere else to put the computerized gray matter.

A backpack holds a power system for plugging R2 into the space station. On an asteroid or Mars, the backpack would contain batteries.

The joints are filled with springs for give, and more than 350 electrical sensors are scattered throughout, allowing R2 to sense even a feather with its fingertips.

NASA began working on its first dexterous robot — the landlubbing Robonaut 1 — in 1997. Lacking money, the project ceased in 2006. General Motors stepped in with the intention of improving car manufacturing and better protecting workers. Early this year, the much speedier R2 was unveiled.

NASA made room for the robot on one of its last few shuttle flights. It is Discovery's 39th mission and the next-to-last shuttle flight for NASA, although an additional trip may be added next year.

R2 is boxed up and stowed away for launch. Its identical twin — identical on the outside, anyway — is at Kennedy Space Center, posing for pictures and awaiting liftoff.

"I'm not even a little nervous; NERVES OF ALUMINUM!!!" R2 said last week in a Twitter update under AstroRobonaut. (OK, so a NASA public relations woman and Robonaut team member are serving as ghost tweeters.)

The robot will remain tucked away at the space station until late December — a nice Christmas present for the station's six inhabitants, Ambrose figures.

While the space station already has Canadian and Japanese robotic arms — resembling cranes — human operators are needed. Once given orders, R2 can carry out preprogrammed tasks by itself.

First will come a series of tests to see how Robonaut operates in weightlessness atop a fixed pedestal.

Legs will be needed before Robonaut can tackle indoor chores like wiping handrails or vacuuming air filters. NASA hopes to send up legs in late 2011, followed a year later by torso and computer enhancements enabling the robot to venture out on spacewalks.

The objective is to help astronauts, not replace them, NASA stresses. Humans have been living continuously on the space station for 10 years — the actual record-setting anniversary is Tuesday — and the wish is for 10 more.

The beauty of Robonaut, officials say, is it's strong yet safe and trustworthy enough to work right next to humans. Think good Autobots rather than evil Decepticons from "Transformers." It's also serenely mute, more WALL-E than R2-D2 of "Star Wars" fame.

Discovery's astronaut-physician, Michael Barratt, would have loved to pawn off toilet cleaning while living at the space station last year. As appealing as Robonaut is, he cautions "it will be a long time" before the robot can do a job as quickly and efficiently as a space station human.

Robonaut's strength, Barratt said, will be emergencies.

"Going into a toxic atmosphere to throw a switch or close a valve," he explained.

And, in a final salute, going down with the ship.

R2 will be on board when the space station stops operating sometime after 2020 and NASA sends it hurtling toward a grave in the Pacific.






Thursday, October 28, 2010

NM Spaceport Sets Stage For Commercial Space Race

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN, Associated Press – Wed Oct 27, 7:05 pm ET

UPHAM, N.M. – British tycoon Richard Branson has dreamed of going to space since he was a teenager. He'll get his wish when Virgin Galactic begins taking tourists into suborbital space from a specially designed spaceport in the New Mexico desert.

Gov. Bill Richardson, a longtime space buff, remembers when astronaut Alan Shepard first reached space and man first walked on the moon. He wants to see space too, but he's not willing to be among the first passengers on Branson's out-of-this-world venture.

Branson and Richardson shook hands five years ago to build the world's first dedicated spaceport. With the runway 45 miles north of Las Cruces complete, and the terminal and hangar facility nearly done, they see their partnership as a major milestone for the world's burgeoning commercial space tourism industry.

It's only a matter of time now — and not much time — before the industry starts to take off, experts say.

"It's a dream come true. It's happened. New Mexico is going to be a leader in space tourism," Richardson proclaimed last week, standing on the nearly two-mile-long concrete runway at Spaceport America.

Others who were present included 130 journalists from around the world, a group of British school children, a few dozen people who have already paid hefty deposits to be among Virgin Galactic's first customers, and former NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon in 1969.

Branson and Richardson predict this place in southern New Mexico will be a hot spot in the next nine to 18 months. But it won't be the only one.

The commercial space industry is rapidly developing with companies like SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., seeking to supply the International Space Station for NASA. SpaceX, run by PayPal founder Elon Musk, has successfully placed a dummy payload into orbit and has contracts to lift satellites next.

Other firms, including Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif., and Armadillo Aerospace of Rockwall, Texas, are testing systems that would carry unmanned payloads to space. Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos is also in the race with Blue Origin, a Washington state company that plans to compete as a space taxi.

Boeing Co. has lined up Virginia-based Space Adventures to sell seats on the seven-person spaceship it wants to build to fly to the International Space Station starting in 2015. Space Adventures currently sells seats on trips to the space station aboard the Russian-built Soyuz spaceship.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said the recent flurry of development in the commercial space industry dovetails perfectly with the agency's intention of working more closely with the private sector. Just last month, Congress approved legislation affirming President Barack Obama's intent to use commercial carriers to lift humans into near-Earth space.

After 50 years of NASA space exploration, Garver said, "we need to be confident that credible, innovative, enterprising and bold individuals and entities are ready, willing and able to receive the torch."

The spaceport, she said, will provide a jump start for the commercial space industry by providing a place to launch and land, and by piquing more private interest and competition in space travel.

"No question that over the next five to 10 years there will be more people going to space, whether it's from here in New Mexico with Virgin Galactic, with other entities or from other parts of the country," Garver said.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Private Spaceship Makes First Solo Glide Flight

– Sun Oct 10, 11:51 pm ET

MOJAVE, Calif. – Virgin Galactic's space tourism rocket SpaceShipTwo achieved its first solo glide flight Sunday, marking another step in the company's eventual plans to fly paying passengers.

SpaceShipTwo was carried aloft by its mothership to an altitude of 45,000 feet and released over the Mojave Desert. After the separation, SpaceShipTwo, manned by two pilots, flew freely for 11 minutes before landing at an airport runway followed by the mothership.

The entire test flight lasted about 25 minutes.

"It flew beautifully," said Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides.

The six-passenger SpaceShipTwo is undergoing rigorous testing before it can carry tourists to space. In the latest test, SpaceShipTwo did not fire its rocket engine to climb to space.

Until now, SpaceShipTwo has flown attached to the wing of its special jet-powered mothership dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Sunday was the first time the spaceship flew on its own.

"It's a very big deal," Virgin president Sir Richard Branson told The Associated Press. "There are a number of big deals on the way to getting commercial space travel becoming a reality. This was a very big step. We now know that the spaceship glides. We know it can be dropped safely from the mothership and we know it can land safely. That's three big ticks."

SpaceShipTwo will make a series of additional glide flights before rocketing to space.

"The next big step will be the rocket tests actually on the spacecraft itself," Branson said. "We've obviously have done thousands of rocket tests on the ground, the next big test is in the air. We'll be doing gentle rocket tests in the air, ultimately culminating into taking the spaceship into space."

SpaceShipTwo, built by famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan, is based on a prototype that won a $10 million prize in 2004 for being the first manned private rocket to reach space.

Tickets to ride aboard SpaceShipTwo cost $200,000. Some 370 customers have plunked down deposits totaling $50 million, according to Virgin Galactic.

Commercial flights will fly out of New Mexico where a spaceport is under construction. Officials from Virgin Galactic and other dignitaries will gather at the spaceport Oct. 22 for an event commemorating the finished runway. The event will also feature a flyover by SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo.



Virgin Galactic:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Russia to Launch Commercial Space Station By 2016

Associated Press [5:05am (EST) September 29, 2010]

MOSCOW – A private Russian space firm and a state-controlled spacecraft manufacturer are planning to build and operate the world's first commercial space station and expect it to launched by 2016.

Sergey Kostenko, chief executive of the Moscow-based Orbital Technologies, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the station will cater to space tourists and researchers.

Kostenko said the station will initially be equipped to host seven people but will be capable of significant expansion.

The Russian state space agency, which stands to benefit from the proposed station by leasing launching pads for service modules, says it could be used as a safety back-up for the International Space Station in emergencies.

Friday, September 24, 2010

[U.S.] Air Force to Launch Satellite to Keep Close Eye On Space Junk

Denise Chow, Staff Writer – 4:06pm (Friday, September 24, 2010)

A new U.S. Air Force satellite built to track space junk and other spacecraft orbiting Earth is set to launch tomorrow (Sept. 25) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The Space-Based Space Surveillance satellite, called SBSS, is part of an evolving goal to dramatically improve awareness of space debris and other objects around our planet, Air Force officials said.

"Every day, threats to our nation's valuable satellites and space platforms are growing," said Col. J.R. Jordan, vice commander of the Space Superiority Systems Wing at the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, in a statement. "SBSS will revolutionize our ability to find and monitor objects that could harm the space assets we depend on for security, communications, weather forecasting and many other essential services." [Worst Space Debris Moments Ever]

The 2,277-pound (1,031 kilograms) SBSS satellite system will be launched into orbit on a Minotaur 4 rocket, designed by Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. Liftoff is set for 9:41 p.m. PDT (12:41 a.m. Sept. 26 EDT, or 0441 GMT).

The satellite was originally scheduled to launch in Oct. 2009 but was delayed due to technical concerns with its rocket launch vehicle.

Space Junk Sentinel

There are about 500,000 known pieces of space junk orbiting around our planet. Of those, about 21,000 objects are larger than 4 inches (10.1 cm) in diameter, and are being tracked by the Department of Defense as part of the Space Surveillance Network. These are items such as spent rocket stages and broken satellites.

Space junk – even tiny pieces of it – can be dangerous because they orbit the Earth at high speeds and pose risks for impacts and collisions.

The SBSS satellite will provide data for the Air Force's Space Surveillance Network, which already keeps an eye on orbital debris. Aerospace juggernaut Boeing is responsible for the overall SBSS program management.

The Colorado-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. developed, designed, manufactured, integrated and tested the satellite, using the Boeing-built onboard mission data processor.

The overall cost of the SBSS program is about $858 million, Air Force officials said.

Sensors In Space

The SBSS spacecraft will be equipped with a visible sensor mounted on an agile, two-axis gimbal. This device will give ground controllers the flexibility to quickly move the camera between targets without needing to reposition the satellite itself or expend additional fuel.

"With its gimbaled camera, reprogrammable onboard processor and open-ground-system architecture, SBSS can respond quickly to today's changing mission requirements and adapt to meet tomorrow's threats as well," said Craig Cooning, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems. "Boeing looks forward to putting these advanced capabilities into action for the Air Force."

The SBSS satellite will collect data to be used in conjunction with observations from ground-based radars and telescopes, but with one clear advantage. As the Air Force's only space-based tracker, SBSS will not be limited by weather, atmosphere or time of day.

"The SBSS team is ready to go on Sept. 25," said Todd Citron, director of the Boeing Advanced Space and Intelligence Systems. "We've thoroughly rehearsed all plans and procedures, the Satellite Operations Center has been configured for flight operations, and the SBSS satellite and Minotaur launch vehicle are completing final preparations. We're looking forward to putting this spacecraft into orbit so that it can perform its vital mission."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

NASA Sends Shuttle Discovery to Pad For Last Time

By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn, Ap Aerospace Writer – Mon Sep 20, 7:57 pm ET

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space shuttle Discovery is headed to the launch pad for the last time.

NASA moved Discovery out of its hangar Monday night. The 3 1/2-mile trip to the pad was bittersweet for the space agency, which has only two shuttle missions remaining.

Discovery is set to lift off Nov. 1 for the International Space Station. Endeavour will follow in February to wrap up 30 years of shuttle flight.

Scores of shuttle workers and their families gathered to watch Discovery take its last ride to the pad atop a giant transporter.

Several hundred contract employees will lose their jobs Oct. 1 in a continuing wave of layoffs. NASA's future is uncertain because of disagreement in Washington over the next rocketships.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Seats On Boeing Spaceships Could Go Up For Sale

By JOSHUA FREED, AP Business Writer Joshua Freed, AP Business Writer – Wed Sep 15, 5:44 pm ET

MINNEAPOLIS – Boeing and a space tourism company announced a deal on Wednesday to sell tickets on rocket rides to the International Space Station. Now Boeing just has to build a spaceship.

Space Adventures Ltd. has already been selling seats aboard the Russian-built Soyuz spaceship. Its last passenger was Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, who paid $35 million for a 10-day trip.

Now, Boeing says Space Adventures will sell seats on its planned CST-100, which would carry seven people. NASA has been encouraging aerospace companies like Boeing to develop spaceships that can carry government-sponsored astronauts as well as paying tourists to the space station. The idea is to spread around the cost of NASA missions while also boosting privately funded space efforts.

Big questions remain. Congressional funding isn't assured. And Boeing and Space Adventures will have competition from a California company called SpaceX, which is also seeking NASA work for space station missions.

So far, seven customers have ridden on eight flights through Spacecraft Adventures.

The trips will be for millionaires, at least for now. Boeing and Space Adventures executives didn't have pricing details, but said on a conference call that prices would be "competitive" with the cost for a flight on the Soyuz craft.

The more people fly to space, the sooner the cost will come down, said Eric Anderson, co-founder and chairman of Space Adventures. He said people ask him when it will cost, say, $40,000, or $4,000, instead of close to $40 million.

"I don't know," he said, "but I know that it'll never be $40,000, or $4,000, if it doesn't start off at $40 million. ... We'll get there. Until launch technology radically changes, the price is still going to be quite expensive."

Boeing's CST-100 is a reusable capsule with a round bottom and pointed top that, from the outside, bears some resemblance to the Apollo capsules launched beginning in the 1960s. Boeing is doing design and testing work now, and hopes to have the craft ready in 2015.

Boeing plans to build two at first, which would be used for testing and then refurbished for missions. Each spaceship would need about six months in between flights to have its heat shield restored and its systems tested, said John Elbon, vice president and program manager for Boeing Commercial Crew Transportation Systems.

"Together we can open space to more people, and expand a new market, and I find that terribly exciting," said Brewster Shaw, a former astronaut and vice president and general manager of Boeing's Space Exploration division.

Anderson, of Space Adventures, said he's aiming to reduce the months of training that precede flights on the Soyuz craft, which includes Russian language training that won't be needed on the U.S.-led flights. He said shorter training will encourage more people to sign up, while still being sufficient to get them ready for the flight.

He objected to the notion that the people who accompany government-sponsored astronauts are "tourists."

"It's not the case that a bunch of people show up to the station in their flowered T-shirts with sunglasses on," he said. "I think this is much more about private citizens who are opening the frontier alongside government space explorers, and are doing so in a very serious fashion with lots of serious work behind it."

Still, the Cirque du Soleil founder wore a red clown nose on his trip.

Boeing Co. shares fell 3 cents to close at $62.73.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Spaceport Seeks Tour Contractor

Tue Jul 13, 9:38 am ET

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority is seeking proposals for a contractor to provide regular sightseeing tours of the spaceport facilities and construction site.

Officials hope to start regular weekend tours as early as Sept. 1.

The so-called "Hard Hat Tours" will be conducted every Friday, Saturday and Sunday with clearly defined operational schedules.

Spaceport director Rick Homans says the tours will offer visitors an opportunity to watch as Spaceport America takes shape. Construction is continuing at the spaceport site, 40 miles north of Las Cruces.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Millionaire Space Tourist Wants to Go Back

Clara Moskowitz Senior Writer
– Wed Jun 9, 10:15 am ET

The third private citizen to fly in space, American millionaire Gregory Olsen, says he's excited about the future of space travel — especially if it means he might have another chance to fly.

Olsen visited the International Space Station in October 2005 as a paying passenger aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. His ticket, which cost about $20 million at the time, was brokered with the Russian Federal Space Agency through the Virginia-based firm Space Adventures.

A scientist and entrepreneur, Olsen founded the Princeton, New Jersey-based optics firm Sensors Unlimited. The sale of that company in 2000 largely financed his later space trip. Olsen recounts his long road to space in a new memoir, "By Any Means Necessary," published by his new company, GHO Ventures.

"I'd go in a heartbeat," Olsen said of a second space visit. Of particular interest would be an orbital trip around the moon on a Soyuz spacecraft. No space tourist has yet traveled beyond low-Earth orbit, but Space Adventures is working on offering such an excursion.

"I just have to sell another company to afford the trip", Olsen said. And private space travel to orbit may be getting more expensive.

Pricier Space Seats

With private seats for orbital trips to the space station in short supply and increased production demands, the price for flights similar to Olsen's voyage are now going for a steeper price.

The seventh space tourist to fly, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, paid a reported $35 million for his 12-day trip to space in October 2009. "It looks like I got a bargain," Olsen told

For now, orbital spaceflights have been the bulk of space tourism offerings, though a number of private companies are hoping to offer suborbital joy rides in the next few years at a cost of up to $200,000 or so.

If Olsen does manage to make it back to orbit, Olsen won't be the first repeat customer for Space Adventures. The fifth-ever space tourist, American billionaire Charles Simonyi, revisited the space station on a second mission in March 2009, two years after his first flight. Both trips were booked through Space Adventures. Simonyi paid $35 million for his second space tourist trek. His first trip in 2007 cost about $25 million.

Private Space Travel's Bright Future

Olsen said he is eager to see how the future of U.S. human spaceflight plays out. President Barack Obama has proposed a new direction for NASA in which commercial companies take the lead in ferrying astronauts to low-Earth orbit, while the space agency focuses on going to an asteroid and to Mars.

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), a California-based company among the first tapped to provide commercial space cargo delivery services for NASA, successfully launched the first of its new private rockets called Falcon 9 into orbit on Friday. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets are built to launch the company's capsule-shaped Dragon vehicles into space on unmanned cargo missions, though the company hopes to modify them to carry people as well.

"I'm really glad they're pushing for the commercialization," Olsen said.

He could easily envision a commercial taxi service going to the International Space Station, and said he would like to see the industry take things even further.

"I'm a moon fan," he said. "This mission that Space Adventures is planning that's all possible. The moon could eventually go to the private sector too."

The spaceflyer said he reminisces about his space journey almost every day. "It'll be five years in October and not a day goes by when I don't think about it."

The experience was truly life-changing, he added. "When you fly over the Earth, there's no sign of life," Olsen said. "There's nothing to indicate that there's anything going on there occasional jet trails, but other than that it just looks serene, perfect. When I was up there I just said, 'Wow, I'm the luckiest guy in the world to be able to see this.' "

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Japanese Solar Sail Headed For Venus and Beyond

Jeremy Hsu Senior Writer – Sun May 16, 1:00 pm ET

An ambitious solar sail mission designed by Japan is poised for launch tomorrow could become the first successful mission powered solely by sunlight, but that's not all. The spacecraft is also aimed at Venus and beyond, and could pave the way for a future hybrid space engine.

The solar sail will hitch a ride aboard an H-2A rocket slated for launch on Monday (Tuesday local time) from Japan's Tanegashima Space Center. That rocket carries the main mission of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Venus Climate Orbiter called Akatsuki — which means "Dawn" in Japanese.

But only Akatsuki has a planned meet-up with Venus, even though the sail — called Ikaros (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) — will also launch along the same trajectory toward the mysterious planet.

"This will be the world's first solar powered sail craft employing both photon propulsion and thin film solar power generation during its interplanetary cruise," said a JAXA mission website.

Venus would mark just a six-month pit stop for the solar sail during a three-year trek toward the far side of the sun.

"To me it's a very bold activity to be conducting a technology test like this on an interplanetary mission," said Louis Friedman, an executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif. "I think it shows a lot of foresight on their part."

Past solar sail demonstrations have fallen short of achieving actual solar-propelled spaceflight, but that certainly has not stopped JAXA from planning an ambitious technological debut. Even Ikaros itself represents just a stepping stone to a "hybrid" space engine that incorporates solar sail technology, mission planners have said.

Space Hybrid Vehicle

The kite-shaped Ikaros relies upon the pressure of sunlight for propulsion, but it also carries thin film solar cells built within its sail. Such cells could generate electricity from the same sunlight pushing the solar sail along.

That won't do much good by itself for a solar sail without an engine. But JAXA hopes that the power-gathering demonstration could eventually lead to spacecraft with ion-propulsion engines that draw electricity from solar cells and also take advantage of solar sail propulsion — a hybrid propulsion system.

"They want to ultimately have a solar electric [ion propulsion] and solar sail vehicle that would be used for outer planetary missions," Friedman told

Yet the history of solar sail tests presents a sobering reminder of the troubles that can arise. The California-based Planetary Society attempted to fly its Cosmos-1 solar sail in 2005, but lost their prototype because of a Russian rocket malfunction. NASA's NanoSail-D was also lost in the third failed flight of SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket in 2008.

A British shoebox-sized mission slated for launch next year might also test solar sail propulsion, but would mainly test the sails as brakes for taking defunct satellites down.

Japan did deploy a solar sail from a sounding rocket in 2004, but did not actually attempt to demonstrate controlled flight. If that represented the dry run, then Ikaros comes as the real deal.

True Solar Sailing

Ikaros is designed to unfurl its sail during its first stage by taking advantage of its spinning momentum, and then actively deploying the rest of the way during a second stage.

"The membrane is deployed, and kept flat, by its spinning motion," the JASA mission website stated. "Four masses are attached to the four tips of the membrane in order to facilitate deployment."

The Planetary Society still has ambitions to someday launch a solar sail mission into deep space, but its first planned solar sail test would involve a much smaller spacecraft than Ikaros, which stretches almost 66 feet (20 meters) at the diagonal of its square sail.

A refitted NASA solar sail might weigh a little less than 10 pounds (4.5 kg) compared to the 700-pound (315 kg) Ikaros.

The Planetary Society would aim first for launch to low-Earth orbit, before eventually launching a second mission that lasted perhaps weeks. Only the third mission would try for interplanetary traveler status, Freidman said.

For now, Friedman and the Planetary Society will share technological information and results from the JAXA mission, and keep an eye on their own hopes for the future.

"We wish we were first, of course, but it doesn't matter," Friedman said. "It's about advancing solar sail technology."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Moon Vets Say Obama's NASA Cuts Would Ground U.S.

By Todd Halvorson, Florida Today

Apollo 11 mission commander Neil Armstrong at a "Legends of Aerospace" event in New York City last March.

CAPE CANAVERAL — President Obama's plans for NASA could be "devastating" to the U.S. space program and "destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature," three legendary astronauts said in a letter Tuesday.

Neil Armstrong, who rarely makes public comments, was the first human to set foot on the moon. Jim Lovell commanded the famous Apollo 13 flight, an aborted moon mission. And Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan remains the last human to have walked on the lunar surface.

In statements e-mailed to the Associated Press and NBC, Armstrong and other astronauts took exception with Obama's plan to cancel NASA's return-to-the-moon program, dubbed Project Constellation.

Armstrong, in an e-mail to the AP, said he had "substantial reservations." More than two dozen Apollo-era veterans, including Lovell and Cernan, signed another letter Monday calling the plan a "misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future."

The statements came days before Obama is to visit Kennedy Space Center on Thursday to explain his vision for NASA.

Not all former astronauts have come out against the plan. Armstrong's crewmate Buzz Aldrin, the second man to stand on the moon, has endorsed Obama's plan, which includes investing $6 billion to develop commercial space-taxi services for astronauts traveling to and from the International Space Station. Aldrin said the proposal will "allow us to again be pushing the boundaries to achieve new and challenging things beyond Earth."

The plan would also extend the space station operations through 2020. It would cancel Project Constellation and the Ares rockets, which NASA has been developing for six years at a cost of more than $9 billion. Obama would retain the Constellation project's Orion capsule. The capsule, which was to go to the moon, will instead be sent unoccupied to the International Space Station to stand by as an emergency vehicle to return astronauts home.

Administration officials told the AP that NASA will speed up development of a rocket that would have the power to blast crew and cargo far from Earth, although no destination has been chosen. The rocket would be ready to launch several years earlier than under the moon plan. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to not detract from the presidential announcement.

The former astronauts said, "It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus-billion investment in Constellation. … Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downward slide to mediocrity."

Contributing: Associated Press

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Russia raises price tag for giving US astronauts rides to space after shuttles get scuttled

Tue Apr 6, 6:51 PM

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The price for American astronauts to hitch a ride on a Russian spaceship is going sky high.

NASA on Tuesday signed a contract to pay $55.8 million per astronaut for six Americans to fly into space on Russian Soyuz capsules in 2013 and 2014. NASA needs to get rides on Russian rockets to the International Space Station because it plans to retire the space shuttle fleet later this year.

NASA now pays half as much, about $26.3 million per astronaut, when it uses Russian ships. NASA spokesman John Yembrick said the cost is going up because Russia has to build more capsules for the extra flights. NASA had already agreed to pay as much as $51 million a seat for flights in 2011 and 2012, before the latest increase.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Branson Spacecraft Completes Test Flight

(CNN) -- British billionaire Richard Branson's dream of space travel that thousands of people can afford took a leap toward reality with the maiden flight of the world's first commercial spacecraft over California's Mojave Desert.

Branson's company Virgin Galactic announced Monday that the VSS Enterprise had successfully completed what it called a captive carry flight attached to a carrier plane.

The spacecraft's developer called it a "momentous day."

"The captive carry flight signifies the start of what we believe will be extremely exciting and successful spaceship flight test program," said Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites, which built the spacecraft.

The VSS Enterprise remained attached to its carrier aircraft for the duration of the 2-hour, 54-minute flight, reaching an altitude of 45,000 feet, according to a statement from Virgin.

Eventually, the 60-foot long rocket plane will be taken 60,000 feet above the Earth by its carrier and fire rockets to propel itself into space.

The test-flight program is expected to continue through 2011, going first to a free glide and then to a powered flight before commercial flights begin.

"Seeing the finished spaceship in December was a major day for us but watching VSS Enterprise fly for the first time really brings home what beautiful, ground-breaking vehicles Burt and his team have developed for us," Branson said.

"Today was another major step along that road and a testament to U.S. engineering and innovation," he said.

Virgin Galactic has envisioned one flight a week, with six tourists aboard. Each will pay $200,000 for the ride and train for at least three days before going. About 80,000 people have placed their names on the waiting list for seats.

"What we want to be able to do is bring space travel down to a price range where hundreds of thousands of people would be able to experience space, and they never dreamed that [they] could," Branson said last year.

He has said he hopes the technology will lead to a new form of Earth travel, jetting people across oceans and continents faster through suborbital routes.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

US Lawmakers Urge Obama to Save NASA Moon Program

Thu Mar 11, 6:26 pm ET

WASHINGTON (AFP) – A group of US lawmakers Thursday urged the US administration to save NASA's Constellation project aimed at returning Americans to the moon in the next generation of space travel.

"Space exploration has been the guiding star of American innovation," the lawmakers -- 10 Republicans and five Democrats -- said in a letter to the NASA administrator Charles Bolden.

"It is imperative that the United States remain the world's leading spacefaring nation," they added.

They urged Bolden to assemble a team of NASA experts to review how exploration spacecraft and launch vehicle development can be kept within the existing budget to ensure "uninterrupted, independent US human space flight access to the International Space Station and beyond."

The team should report back within 30 days on its findings, the lawmakers urged.

Seeking to cut the massive US budget deficit, President Barack Obama's administration has proposed scrapping the costly and over budget Constellation rocket program designed to return Americans to the moon by 2020.

Instead, NASA would concentrate on research and development that could, over a longer time-frame, eventually see astronauts travel outside low Earth orbit and even aim for Mars.

The US space agency would also be encouraged to develop operations with commercial partners to fly astronauts to the ISS.

But the 15 lawmakers, most of them from Texas and Florida where much of the US space industry is based, were heavily critical of the plan.

"I am concerned that the Russians and the Chinese will get ahead of us... that English won't be the dominant language in space," Republican Representative Michael McCaul from Texas told a House hearing.

The United States is due to retire its aging shuttle fleet this year, and from then on will depend on Russian Soyuz flights to transport its astronauts to the ISS until the Ares 1 rocket and its Orion capsule are operational in 2015.

"By the time commercial low-Earth orbit vehicles are cleared for flight, US astronauts may have nowhere to go," the lawmakers said in the letter.

"NASA will no longer have a clear vision on its direction and ultimately the US will no longer be a spacefaring nation."

Obama is to host a space conference on April 15 in Florida to chart his vision for the future of human spaceflight, the White House revealed at the weekend.

Obama has proposed dropping the massively over-budget Constellation program launched by his predecessor, George W. Bush, because it was too costly, used outdated technology and would not be ready to ferry humans to the moon before 2028.

"The president's ambitious new strategy pushes the frontiers of innovation to set NASA on a more dynamic, flexible, and sustainable trajectory that can propel us on a new journey of innovation and discovery," the White House said in a statement Sunday.

"After years of underinvestment in new technology and unrealistic budgeting, the president's plan will unveil an ambitious plan for NASA that sets the agency on a reinvigorated path of space exploration," the statement added.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Just One Hitch In Choosing China's First Women Astronauts

By Tariq Malik Managing Editor
posted: 10 March 2010
06:12 pm ET

China has selected two military air transport pilots as its first female astronauts, the country's state media reported Wednesday. The only hitch? The women had to be hitched – as in married – to make the cut.

Zhang Jianqi, the former deputy commander of China's human spaceflight program, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency that aside from being married to their respective spouses, the two female astronauts met the exact same criteria as the country's male spaceflyers.

"In the selection, we had almost the same requirements on women candidates as those for men, but the only difference was that they must be married, as we believe married women would be more physically and psychologically mature," Xinhua quoted Zhang as saying during a break at an annual parliamentary session.

Zhang also said that female astronauts may also have more "endurance and circumspection" than their male counterparts, Xinhua reported.

The women are both pilots with the People's Liberation Army Air Force. They were selected alongside five men as China's second class of astronauts as the country pushes forward with its manned spaceflight program. The addition of seven new recruits boosts China's total astronaut corps to 21 spaceflyers.

The China National Space Administration selected its first 14 astronauts, also called taikonauts, in the mid-1990s.

China is the third country after Russia and the United States to build spacecraft capable of launching humans into orbit.

The country's spaceship of choice is the Shenzhou (Chinese for "Divine Vessel"), a three-module vehicle derived from Russia's workhorse Soyuz craft. But unlike the Soyuz, the Shenzhou has an orbital module equipped with solar arrays, allowing it to stay in orbit long after its crew returns to Earth.

China launched its first manned spaceflight – the one-man Shenzhou 5 flight – in 2003. A two-man Shenzhou 6 mission followed in 2005, leading to a three-man Shenzhou 7 spaceflight in September 2008, which included China's first spacewalk by astronaut Zhai Zhigang.

In 2011, China plans to launch Tiangong 1 – the first module of a new space station – from the Jiuquan space center in the Gobi desert.

The country is also planning to launch its second moon orbiter, called Chang'e 2, in October to search for potential landing sites for future robotic lunar probes. A third moon mission, Chang'e 3, is slated to launch in 2013, Xinhua quoted Ye Peiujian – who designed the first moon probe (Chang'e 1) and is commanding the second mission – as saying.

Chinese space officials have also said a new heavy-lift rocket, called Long March 5, is also in development and due to make a launch debut in 2014. The new rocket should be capable of hauling up to 55,000 pounds of payload into low Earth orbit, they added.

Other Relative Link:
China's First Two Women Astronauts Selected
(People's Daily Online, English Version)

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Say Hello to NASA's New Tech Guru

Jeremy Hsu, Contributor – Fri Feb 19, 2:00 pm ET

NASA hopes to jumpstart its new direction in space exploration by refocusing on transformational technologies, and the agency has a new tech guru to help lead the way.

As part of the shakeup, NASA administrator Charles Bolden named Robert Braun as the U.S. space agency's new chief technologist. Braun is currently an aerospace engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but returns to NASA after spending 16 years working on robotic space exploration at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia. spoke with Braun near the end of his first week doing what he calls his dream job. The chief technologist talked about how NASA can tap new innovations and game-changing technologies to realize any number of possible futures for exploring the moon, the asteroids, Mars and beyond: So what's your job as NASA's new chief technologist?

Braun: As chief technologist, I report directly to the NASA administrator. I'm his principal advisor and advocate concerning matters of technology across the agency.

I consider what types of technology the agency should pursue, what are the proper investment strategies, what are the appropriate mechanisms for engaging the larger aerospace community, what kind of partnerships should we establish with other government agencies, and how to best invest NASA's technological capital on the significant needs facing society today. I'll be directly managing a new space technology program that invests in early-stage and game-changing technologies for future application in NASA missions or other national needs.

S: How has NASA's shift in space exploration changed its emphasis on different areas of technology?

B: Previously NASA was marching toward a single human exploration future, if you will, where it was leveraging Apollo and Shuttle technologies to return to moon.

When I think about the future now, I see a lot of possibilities. I see humans going to moon, to the asteroids, and eventually to Mars. I see robotic explorers traveling throughout the solar system and eventually into interstellar space. I see the possibility of identifying life on other planets and exploring worlds around other stars.

I see an Earth observation system that can accurately forecast the emergence of major storms and natural disasters. I see NASA supporting an emerging commercial spaceflight industry and being a significant contributor to solving our nation's technological needs. In my opinion, through a focus on innovation and technology, NASA's new strategy is much more likely to accomplish these possible futures. To me, that's extremely exciting. As a university professor, I imagine young people all around the country may feel the same way.

There are several major tenets to this strategy. One is to fully utilize the International Space Station [ISS]. This human spaceflight laboratory is now a major piece of our human space exploration strategy. We're going to fully utilize the ISS to learn what it takes to send humans beyond low Earth orbit. To me, that's one benefit of the new approach. In addition, we will focus on the development of game-changing technology and early-stage innovation. NASA is going to cast a wide net for the best ideas from industry, academia, NASA centers, or partnerships with other agencies. These innovations will enable the development of new approaches to our current mission set and allow us to pursue entirely new missions for the country.

S: What transformational technologies are needed to realize NASA's goals for robotic or human space exploration?

B: I'm going to be in a position where I'm responsible for the selection of some of these things, and so I can't tip my hand. But in general, we clearly need better materials. We clearly need more lightweight structures.

We perhaps need more inflatable habitats or technologies which could be used to get around the limitations of existing launch vehicle volumes. We need advanced propulsion for heavy lift, but also for in-space transportation. In-situ resource utilization — we need to learn how to live off the land, so to speak, at the moon and Mars.

S: What destinations or goals would you like to see for NASA's robotic missions in the near future?

B: First of all, I started out with NASA because I was interested in human Mars exploration. My first job at NASA Langley was to figure out how to send humans to Mars and land them safely. I worked with the first President Bush on his space exploration initiative. I honestly thought we were going to Mars, when I was right out of college as a young engineer.

When human Mars exploration fell apart, I worked with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on sending out a variety of landers to the surface of Mars. The technological challenges of that alone were significant. I learned how hard it is to land even small rovers on Mars. NASA's been getting better at that, leading up to the Mars Science Laboratory that will land around 2012.

I'd like to see us continue on the scientific pathway we're on. It started out as follow the water, then became follow the carbon, and there's no doubt the Mars program is on the path to one day address the question of life. I think that's really exciting. Was there life on Mars, could there be life in Mars? Those questions have major implications for our society and our world. The ramifications are pretty significant regardless of whether the answer is yes or no.

In parallel to that, I think we need to start working on human precursor missions. If we want to someday send humans to Mars — and I do want to send humans to Mars — we need to know how to land the really huge payloads needed for human exploration. If you think of the Mars Science Laboratory as a small car, humans need a two-story house. That's a big leap.

S: Are there any overshadowed technologies that people don't typically think of as important for space exploration?

B: As you're probably aware, there's been a revolution in IT [information technology], robotics, nanotechnology, and in bio-inspired design. The reason I'm excited about those three or four topics is that there's a huge research world centered on those topics outside NASA. In academia or industry, people want to invent the next Internet, or the next big Internet application. What we need to do is tap into those innovations that are occurring outside NASA and bring some of those innovations inside NASA.

S: Do you think NASA has not looked to outside innovation so much in the past?

B: I left NASA in 2003, so I've been outside the agency for the past seven years. As an outside observer, it appeared to me that NASA was all about "let's go to the moon with existing systems, let's build what we can now to get there." Given the budget and schedule constraints they were working within, this was likely the only viable approach.

However, this also meant that NASA had to forego any substantial technology investments. While I do believe this nation needs to go back to the moon, I think America's plan should be bigger than that. In order to get to a range of other destinations and accomplish other missions, a significant technology development effort is required.

America should be about innovation. America should be about pushing the boundaries scientifically and technologically. If we are going to send humans back to the moon and one day on to Mars, I'd like to think of us taking a technological approach that's economically viable.

The NASA administrator announced the other day that seven companies are going to compete for commercial access to space. In what other nation in the world could that happen?

S: Do you hope NASA can create more spin-off technologies that private companies can license?

B: That is definitely a big part of the greater goal, to spin in and spin out technologies. I'm interested in spinning off NASA technologies to use in applications that help solve national needs. I think it's true that the space program has always been a very good investment for America, for a number of reasons.

One, I think it's inspiring. It's a great model, an inspirational model, and it draws in a lot of young talent to related technological fields. There's a lot of commercialization potential and partnership potential that started in government and transitioned to industry. Over time, through the new space technology program, a number of new businesses could be created — in theory, whole new industries.

S: What new technology investments do you think will have huge benefits for Earth as well as space exploration?

B: The area where NASA could perhaps lead — an area which could affect society greatly — is robotics. NASA is doing amazing things in both robotics and human exploration assisted by all kinds of autonomous systems. There's a large number of applications right here on the ground that will benefit from NASA research in that area.

S: What personal gadgets do you like?

B: I like all gadgets. When a new gadget comes out, I'm not usually the first one to get it. Being a university professor, I have engineering students around all the time who love technology. I basically watch them. This is an example of them teaching me. So when the students came out with all the social networking stuff, I learned about that from students. When the iPhone came out and was all the rage on campus, I learned about that from students.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Astronauts Hold Winter Olympics In Space

Tariq Malik, Managing Editor – Fri Feb 19, 2:00 pm ET

They don't have snow or ice, but an international team of astronauts held their own weightless Winter Olympics this week. Their venue: a $100 billion space station.

The 11 astronauts aboard the linked shuttle Endeavour and International Space Station (ISS) tried their hand at several space Winter Olympics events this week during breaks from adding a new room and observation deck to the outpost.

Their events? Space skiing, the zero-G luge and a graceful weightless figure skating. The crew beamed some space sports video of their antics to Mission Control.

Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, a space station resident, even donned a pair of short space skis for his slalom and jump events.

"I did send out my ski jump on ISS," Noguchi told reporters in Japan late Thursday.

Endeavour shuttle pilot Terry Virts took a shot at the luge, floating down a space station module feet first. His crewmate Kathryn "Kay" Hire twirled endlessly in what the spaceflyers called the ultimate "figure skating triple-lindys."

Virts said he and his crewmates have enjoyed looking down at Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, where the 2010 Winter Olympic Games are in full swing.

"We've been having some really nice night passes over the Olympics," Virts radioed Mission Control early Friday.

They also squeezed in some zero gravity diving — basically somersaulting while floating in place — though admittedly they should probably save that for the Summer Olympics, the astronauts said.

And like the Olympics, the shuttle and station astronauts even have a special emblem. But instead of five interlocked rings, they have mission patches emblazoned on their space clothes and equipment.

Playing sports in space is nothing new.

Astronaut Alan Shepard — one of the first seven NASA astronauts — played golf on the moon in 1971 during the Apollo 14 mission. His first swing was a bust, but he hit home on the second try — his ball going for "miles and miles," he radioed Mission Control at the time.

Thirty-five years later, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin whacked a golf ball off the International Space Station as part of a publicity stunt. A golf jacket is still on the space station today.

But there are some sports that have cropped up that defy any Olympic category.

Space station astronauts have come up with their own zero gravity sports. One involves tossing hefty bags of water around like medicine balls, then jumping on them while they move to see how far they could ride in weightlessness.

They have also held relay races from one end of the space station to another and challenged one another to float as far as they could without touching anything. The space station has about the same living space as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Still, Earth's Winter Olympics stoke the international spirit of the space station and shuttle astronauts. Currently, there are six astronauts on Endeavour — all from NASA and American. But one, mission specialist Nicholas Patrick, was born in England.

The space station is home to five spaceflyers: two Russians, two Americans and Noguchi.

Noguchi, who represents the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, told reporters in Japan that he has been keeping up with the Winter Olympics as much as possible, particularly because Japan has won a few medals.

His favorite so far: ski jumping and figure skating. Noguchi has been using the station's Internet connection to keep current on the Olympic standings.

"I know that there are wonderful athletes there, so we're hoping for great medals," Noguchi said in a message of support to the Olympic athletes. "I look forward to that. Good luck to you all."

Noguchi and his crewmates will say a final farewell to the Endeavour shuttle crew later today. The shuttle is due to undock from the space station tonight at 7:54 p.m. EST (0054 Saturday GMT).

Mission Control congratulated the crew late Thursday on a “mission of 'Olympic' proportions.”

"You are officially the only folks who are able to get more hang time then Shaun White," Mission Control said in a message.

White, the American snowboarder, took the gold Wednesday night in the men's halfpipe at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

Endeavour and its crew are wrapping up a 14-day mission that delivered the new Tranquility room and Cupola observation deck to the $100 billion space station. The astronauts locked themselves inside the shuttle early Friday morning to prepare for tonight's undocking, after saying farewell to the station crew.

"Quiet dinner," Noguchi wrote on his Twitter page (Astro_Soichi) after saying farewell. "I already miss the shuttle guys."
Other Links of Interest:

Friday, February 12, 2010

Who to Watch In Private Space Taxi Field

By The Associated Press The Associated Press – Sun Jan 31, 8:32 am ET

Here are some leading companies that are or could be developing a private space taxi system to take astronauts to the International Space Station. More firms may join in.

• THE COMPANY: Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif.

THE BASICS: Run by PayPal founder Elon Musk, this company has already built and tested a private rocket, Falcon, and has a capsule, Dragon. It already has a demonstration contract for private cargo with NASA. It is considered a leader in the field and has connections with Google.


• THE COMPANIES: Boeing Co. of Chicago and Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas.

THE BASICS: An interesting pairing. Boeing is one of the oldest companies in aerospace with corporate history going back to Mercury missions. Bigelow is a pioneer in the private space business that is developing a commercial space station/hotel. Boeing has its own much-launched rocket family, the Delta, and also is partners with Lockheed Martin Corp. in a firm that launches Delta and Atlas rockets.


• THE COMPANY: Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev.

THE BASICS: A high-tech government contractor that recently bought one of the early private space firms, SpaceDev Inc.


• THE COMPANY: Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.

THE BASICS: One of the first private space companies. It has its own in-use rocket family, Taurus, which launches from Wallops Island, Va. It also has a demonstration contract for private cargo with NASA.


• THE COMPANY: Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., or as part of United Launch Alliance of Denver.

THE BASICS: Lockheed Martin had been building the capsule for NASA's moon mission that is being canceled. It is an aerospace giant with a long history in manned space and has its own family of decades-old rockets, the Atlas. It could compete on its own or as part of the United Launch Alliance, which is a joint venture with Boeing that launches unmanned commercial rockets.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Businessman to Fly African Flags On Space Trip

by Staff Writers
Nairobi (AFP) Feb 9, 2010

A Dubai-based businessman who has signed up to be a spacetourist said Tuesday he planned to fly the flags of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda on his out-of-world journey in honour of his childhood in Africa.

Real estate magnate Ashish Thakkar was in Nairobi to receive a Kenyan flag from Prime Minister Raila Odinga ahead of a space voyage expected next year.

"I feel honoured that I will be the first to take Kenya's flag into space," said Thakkar, 28.

"I believe Kenya can use this historic trip to market itself internationally. I want to boost Kenya's image abroad," he said.

Thakkar, co-founder of the international Kensington Group real estate agency, is among 40 people who have paid 200,000 dollars for a trip on Richard Branson'scommercial rocket plane SpaceShipTwo.

He was born in Britain but spent 15 years of his childhood in Africa before his family returned to Britain. He has been in Dubai for the past eight years.

Thakkar has already received the Tanzanian flag from President Jakaya Kikwete and is due to also meet Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who will hand him the country's flag.

Friday, February 5, 2010

NASA's 7 New Space Pioneers Are Companies

By SETH BORENSTEIN, AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein, Ap Science Writer – Tue Feb 2, 5:09 pm ET

WASHINGTON – A half century ago the Mercury Seven embodied America's space future. Now it's the merchant seven — space companies for hire.

Mimicking a scene 51 years ago when the Mercury astronauts were revealed, NASA's boss beamed Tuesday as he introduced the "faces of a new frontier:" representatives of the seven companies that NASA is funding to develop future private spacecraft.

And more money is coming. In President Barack Obama's proposed budget, he not only killed his predecessor's $100 billion moon program, he proposed spending $6 billion over five years to develop private space taxis. NASA would then pay them to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

Some of the players include companies run by Internet pioneers Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Elon Musk of PayPal. Bezos runs Blue Origin, a Kent, Wash., company that until Tuesday had only talked about going into suborbital space; now it will compete to go into orbit as a space taxi. Musk runs SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif. and already has built a rocket called Falcon and a capsule called Dragon.

Others include Boeing Co. of Houston; Paragon Space Development Co. of Tucson, Ariz.; Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev.; United Launch Alliance of Denver, and Orbital Science Corp. of Dulles, Va.

NASA on Tuesday detailed $50 million worth of seed grants for development of a space taxi to Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Paragon, United Launch and Blue Origin.

A year ago, the space agency gave $3.5 billion in contracts to Orbital Science and SpaceX for 20 commercial cargo resupply flights to the space station. Both are likely to develop crew taxis too, with Musk of SpaceX saying he could fly astronauts within three years of a final contract. And he said he could do it for $20 million a head, less than half the price NASA pays Russia for astronauts flying on that country's Soyuz capsule.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden and officials from the companies said just because space will become for-profit, safety will not be forgotten, as some congressional critics worry.

"It's all about crew safety," United Launch Alliance President Mike Gass said. Gass's company got a $6.7 million NASA grant so the firm's Atlas and Delta rockets could be better monitored to provide safety for any astronauts sitting on capsules on top of them. Bezos' Blue Origin received $3.7 million from NASA to work on a new type of launch escape system for a crew on top of a rocket.

"I know personally the great challenges involved in sending humans into orbit and have lost friends in trying to do so," said Bolden, a former shuttle commander. "I pledge to you that I will make it my job everyday to ensure that everything is done efficiently and safely."

There won't be just one winner, officials said. NASA hopes there will be multiple spaceships carrying crews, pushing costs down and safety up. There may be even more than just these seven, Bolden said.

With the dramatic changes ordered by the Obama administration, NASA is going back to its pre-Apollo 1959-60 roots, when it was a research-and-development powerhouse more than an engineering factory, said Harry Lambright, a professor of public policy at Syracuse University.

"It turns NASA inside out; it takes it back to the old days, pre-Apollo days," Lambright said. He called it a gamble that might not work.

What's happening is part spin, part needed reinvention, said American University space policy and historian Howard McCurdy.

"Clearly what they're trying to do is it make it look positive. Instead of making it a story of cancellations, it's a story of new beginnings," McCurdy said. "It probably is in some ways as dramatic as the appointment of the first new astronauts."

Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut and now a SpaceX vice president, was one of those introduced and said he couldn't help but notice the parallel to the Mercury astronauts — right down to the number seven.


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