September 4, 2013

Recent activities in commercial spaceflight

Raphael Jaffe
staff writer

Commercial space flight firms have been active in the past weeks.
Lease of NASAís pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Fla., is now a two firm competition; Orbital Sciences has a firm launch date for bringing cargo up to the International Space Station; SpaceX continues its plans for a Texas launch site; Virgin Galactic announced more signups for SpaceShipTwo flights to the edge of space; and Armadillo Aerospace has gone into hibernation.

Kennedy Space Center Pad 39A

SpaceX and Blue Origin have made competing to lease the former Apollo and shuttle launch Pad 39A it no longer needs and can’t afford to maintain. NASA is looking for commercial operators to take over the historic seaside pad that debuted with the first Saturn V blastoff in 1967 and was last used in 2011 for the final shuttle launch.

NASA was close to an agreement in June on a 15-year lease of the pad to SpaceX, which would use it in the next few years for launches of astronauts to the International Space Station and for a planned heavy-lift Falcon rocket but Blue Origin intervened Blue Origin has not yet flown a vehicle above a few hundred feet, and has instead proposed taking over the pad and equipping it to serve multiple launch providers, including SpaceX.

Blue Origin is backed by Jeff Bezos, Amazon billionaire.

“We believe the fullest commercial use of that facility is as a multi-user pad, and we think we’ve got the long-term financial commitment and the technical ability to make it successful,” said Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin.

The agency hopes to lease the mothballed pad by Oct. 1, when it plans to stop funding upkeep of a facility for which it has “no foreseeable” need. NASA would not comment on proposals under evaluation, which had to detail plans for shared or exclusive use for at least five years. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., filed an amendment to a proposed NASA spending plan that would prevent the agency from awarding the pad to any user exclusively, but later withdrew it.

Several U.S. launch companies did not submit proposals to use Launch Complex Pad 39A, including ATK, Orbital Sciences Corp. and United Launch Alliance, the joint venture owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. ULA builds Atlas V and Delta IV rockets in Alabama and is competing with SpaceX to launch NASA crews and potentially national security satellites. It has written Blue Origin a letter supporting its concept for Launch Complex 39.

“United Launch Alliance is always interested in working with our partners in the aerospace industry to explore cost-effective solutions utilizing infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center, including LC-39,” said ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye.

Orbital Sciences

Orbital is working on a NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation System contract, and its demonstration mission to bring cargo is now scheduled for Sept 17.

It will fire its Antares rocket to bring the Cygnus cargo carrier to the International Space Station. It will carry about 1,300 pounds of ìnon-essentialî cargo. It will also carry several CubeSats. This will be the third flight for Antares. The launch is from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport launch pad 0A located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Orbital’s Antares team is targeting a launch time of 11:16 a.m., which is at the opening of an available 15-minute launch window.

Also, Orbital has been selected by NASA to host a scientific payload that will improve spacecraft fire safety for future space exploration vehicles. Known as the Spacecraft Fire Experiment (Saffire), the payload will be hosted aboard Orbitalís Cygnus advanced maneuvering spacecraft and is planned for flight by mid-2015.

While the primary mission of Cygnus is to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, Saffire will demonstrate the ability of Cygnus to provide important secondary mission capabilities, including as a platform to conduct a wide variety of experiments and demonstrations beneficial to the scientific and engineering community,î said Mr. Frank DeMauro, Orbitalís Cygnus Program Manager.

After completing its cargo delivery mission, Cygnus has the capability of remaining in space for months at a time and provide substantial power, data and propulsion support to hosted payloads, DeMauro added. This affords researchers ample time to conduct experiments in a real-world space environment at an affordable cost, a very attractive feature for scientists looking to conduct short- to medium-duration research and for space industry communities developing flight heritage data for materials and systems.

The self-contained Saffire payload, built by NASAís Glenn Research Center, will test the flammability of large samples of various types of materials in low-gravity environments. It will be integrated into Cygnusí Pressurized Cargo Module and remain in place throughout the duration of the cargo delivery mission.

Although only one mission is now contracted, NASA is preparing three flight systems, each dedicated to a separate Saffire Cygnus mission. Saffire I will test one fabric sample, while Saffire II will test 10 fabric samples and Saffire III will test a hybrid of the Saffire I and II samples.

The Cygnus design has been modified to provide a standard interface capability for future internally and externally hosted payloads, similar to the system we have used for hosted payloads on our commercial communications satellites. This will provide low-cost, short-lead time and regular spaceflight opportunities for a variety of future government and commercial hosted payloads,î said DeMauro.

Orbital-Stratolaunch ATK contract

Orbital is developing an Air Launch Vehicle under contract with Stratolaunch Systems, which is building a revolutionary air-launched space transportation system.

The Stratolaunch aircraft is being designed and built by Scaled Composites at the Mojave Air & Space Port. It will have a 365 feet wing span, and be the largest ever aircraft. The Air Launch Vehicle will be carried to about 35,000 feet from which ALV will place large payloads in orbit.

ATK has received a contract from Orbital to provide first and second stage propulsion for the ALV which Orbital is designing and building. The contract from Orbital includes the design, development and flight hardware for initial Stratolaunch missions. Dollar amount of the contract was not disclosed, but ATK says it is certainly substantial.

“ATK is pleased to receive this award for the development and production of first and second stage propulsion for the Stratolaunch ALV,” said Blake Larson, president of ATK Aerospace Group. “Our innovative propulsion concept combines both proven and state-of-the-art technologies that will provide a high-performing, cost-effective solution for the ALV.

“It further enhances and expands other commercial elements of our propulsion business,î Larson said. ATK is seeking to take on more commercial projects to diversity its portfolio at a time when the U.S. military budget is set to flatten or decline.

SpaceX private launch site

SpaceX is planning to build an exclusive launch site that would allow the company to accommodate its launch manifest and meet tight launch windows. They are expected to invest approximately $100 million in development and construction of the facility. The leading candidate location for the new facility is a parcel of land adjacent to Boca Chica Beach near Brownsville, Texas. The legislature has committed $15 million and other legislation to lure SpaceX.

The launch facility is intended to support launches of the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles as well as “a variety of reusable suborbital launch vehicles. The site being considered is near Boca Chica Beach, off State Highway 4, about a quarter-mile from Boca Chica Beach and about 3 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. It is about 5 miles south of Port Isabel and South Padre Island. The launch track is over the Gulf of Mexico.

The preliminary FAA report issued in April found no significant environmental impact from the launch site. There were public hearings in May; submission of public comment on the environmental impact statement concluded on June 24. The FAA will make its ultimate ruling on a permit after the final report is issued.

Virgin Galactic raises ticket price

Thus far, Virgin Galactic has signed up 625 individuals for its planned SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceflights; lining up revenue of at least $125 million, in what CEO George Whitesides finds is a strong sign of the potential of commercial space ventures and the excitement over such flights. It has quietly raised the price for such a flight to $250,000 from the $200,000 that it has charged since beginning to sell reservations in 2006.

Virgin’s commercial human spaceflights could begin next year, he added.

That will be a fundamental shift, Whitesides stressed. It’s sort of like we’ve been working on this for so long in the space community that it always seems like itís in the future. But weíre really almost there, where people will be able to buy a ticket and go down to Spaceport America, get their week of training, and have your ëRight Stuffí moment.î All customers are paying and there are no comps.

Virgin and the rest of the nascent commercial space industry would like human-rated spacecraft to be kept off the strict U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations as part of the Obama administration’s reform of export controls. In a move long sought by industry, the administration in May, with Congress’s recent approval, acted to shift commercial satellites from the State Departmentís U.S. Munitions List to the Commerce Departmentís less restrictive Commerce Control List for export licenses. At the same time, officials proposed adding crewed space vehicles to the USML under ITAR control.

Whitesides has said previously that Virgin Galactic is considering expanding its operations to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, home of its strategic partner Aabar Investments, and maybe a planned high-latitude spaceport at Kiruna, Sweden. ìThose are two interesting places,î he said before the Paris air show. ìAbu Dhabi is our priority, given the substantial commitment made in our company

Whitesides has called for ìappropriate regulationî of the commercial space industry, and praised FAA oversight to date, as reaching the right balance. And he proffered a personal call for elected leaders and officials to increase consideration of the effect that federal assistance can have in boosting U.S. competitiveness, citing SpaceX as an example. NASAís support of SpaceX not only helped meet its own mission requirements, but has spawned a U.S. company on the path toward international competition.

A successful first test of the SS2 happened April 29. The 16 second burn brought SS2 to Mach 1.22, and an apogee of 53,000 feet. Onlookers at Mojave Air & Space Port are somewhat mystified by the long interval since that test.

Armadillo Aerospace in hibernation

After investing about $8 million since 2000, founder John Carmack is winding down his company. Along the way Armadillo has scored some successes, but the last few years have seen some setbacks. Carmack is famed as a video game designer [Doom and Quake], which provided the money to back Armadillo.

Armadillo designs feature the use of modern computer technologies and electronics to simplify rocket control. Liquid propellants are used. Armadillo competed in the X-Prize Northrop Grumman Lunar Landing Challenge in 2008 and 2009. They were awarded the Level 1 top prize of $350,000.

Armadillo attempted the Level 2 prize Sept. 12, 2009. Armadillo successfully flew both legs with their Mod vehicle, each flight lasting over 180 seconds, landing safely. However their landing accuracy was not sufficient to win the first prize, instead they won the $500,000 second prize. Mojave Air & Space Portís Masten Space Systems won the $1,000,000 Level 2 first prize.

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