Tuesday, February 17, 2009

SpaceX Facility Tour.

Along with members of several space advocacy organizations, I took a tour of the Space X facility in Hawthorne, California. The facility is in an industrial part of town at 1 Rocket Road. Here's the sign, the building's face, and the receiving dock.





These are the only pictures available from the tour because the company refused to let us take our cameras into the building. The front part of the building is where the business offices are located. The back end of the building is where the rockets and the manned capsule are manufactured.

We entered the building from the side, by the security office, and found ourselves in the back corner of a very large open space with high windowed walls and a very high ceiling. Large cubicles filled the space with a row of offices at the back. The enclosed offices are for HR. Every other employee works in a cubicle, including the top executives, supposedly even Elon Musk, the wunderkind owner.

We walked along the back wall past the HR offices to the middle of the building, turned right, and passed through a door into the manufacturing part of the building.

The first thing that catches the eye is how spacious and clean the facility is. The building was formerly used for manufacturing Boeing airliners. So, it's big. The second thing that catches the eye is a white space capsule looking very much like an Apollo, in the center of the room. The third thing noticed is a persistent familiar hum. The fourth thing is the life-size Cylon warrior robot standing next to a pillar about 50 feet away. That's a Cylon hum filling the air! The Cylon is standing next to a microphone, as if it's giving a speech. That Cylon sets the tone for the tour. This is no ordinary manufacturing facility.

The Cylon is facing the cafeteria, which is well stocked with hot and cold beverages and snacks. Behind the Cylon is where all the work is done.

The first stop on our tour was the Falcon 1 booster assembly area. A partially assembled Falcon 1 rested on a track. The mockup space capsule is near the rocket. The capsule is SpaceX's Dragon, the craft the company proposes to use for shipping supplies and personnel to and from the International Space Station. Although we were not allowed to take photos, the mockup looked very much like this. (This photo of the Dragon is taken from Wikipedia here, is credited to PistolPete037, and is reproduced pursuant to Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 here.)

Across an aisle was the engine assembly area. Several engines were standing in various stages of assembly. Farther into the building we came across the actual Dragon capsule. It looked to be about 12 feet in diameter and perhaps 18 feet tall. The capsule's hull appeared to be complete. Again, it looked very much like an Apollo capsule. Apparently, this is not a coincidence. Our tour guide praised the design of the Apollo and used the word "perfect" more than once to describe it. Dragon's function is to carry astronauts and supplies into space, not exactly the same as Apollo's, but similar, and so its form follows Apollo's.

Although the shell of Dragon's hull appeared complete, the interior was incomplete. The interior was an empty space waiting for flooring and instrumentation to be installed. No accessories were attached to the exterior. Work appears to be progressing on Dragon but it is not complete. Nearby stood a base for the capsule. The base was partially covered with tan, thick, pieces of some kind of rubbery material. The material looked like irregularly shaped bricks. These bricks were the ablative heat shield for Dragon's re-entry.

After Dragon, our tour took us past enclosed rooms. One of the rooms is a command center used during launches. We passed these rooms to the back where raw materials, such as aluminum, were delivered, stored, and machined. This area is also where the Falcon 9, SpaceX's larger launch vehicle, is assembled. Across from this area an enclosed tent stood behind some screening and signs warning against photography. We weren't told what was in the tent. Three young men were working on something in the tent. A peek into the tent revealed some kind of fabricated panel that looked very much like a canopy for a jet. Who knows, perhaps it's something to do with Dragon? Behind the tent two inner stages for Falcon 9 stood on end, each about 30 feet tall.

Our tour next took us to the cafeteria where we were allowed to have some drinks and snacks under the watchful red eye of the Cylon. The coffee was brewed in a futuristic brewing machine, the Keurig. That machine is an engineer's dream. (Here.) Mine, too, actually.

After the cafeteria, we toured an enclosed area where testing of components is done. This area included machines to test for temperature, pressure, shaking, salt, humidity, and electromagnetic interference. In a bit of whimsy, the Electromagnetic Interference Chamber was named "Voodoo Lounge." After touring the testing area, and not touching anything, we were taken to a conference room to watch some videos, including Elon Musk's tour of SpaceX's launch facility at Cape Canaveral, the successful Falcon 1 launch, and animations of Dragon in action. All the videos are available for viewing at SpaceX's website on the multimedia page. (Here.)

The engineers who gave the tour answered questions after the videos. Here's the data dump of those answers.

- SpaceX relies on off the shelf parts to manufacture its rockets. This is done to reduce cost by avoiding the need to have custom made parts. The off the shelf parts meet aerospace and "mil" specifications.

- SpaceX employs about 400-500 people. Many are young. Our three tour guides were engineers. One was just out of college, the other two appeared to be in their late 20s or early 30s.

- Our guides were proud of their company's commitment to safety. They were also proud of their company's ability to produce quality products at low price.

- They said they are focused on getting Falcon 9 done. As one of them put it, they are "head down", working to get Falcon 9 launched.

- They love their work. And why shouldn't they? SpaceX gets 100 applications for every job listing. SpaceX employees must know they are working on something that is both practical and visionary, and really cool, to boot.

And here are my final impressions. SpaceX is for real. Their manufacturing facility looks state of the art. The working area is clean and organized. Real work is being done at the facility. The company has a business plan and is executing it. The employees we met love their work and are committed to succeeding. We took our tour on a Sunday in the middle of a long holiday weekend. While we were there, people were working in the manufacturing facility, and also in cubicles. Our tour guides willingly came in to promote their company and escort a group of enthusiasts around the facility. They had no reason to do so, but they did it on their own time.

The work they are doing at SpaceX is exciting and potentially revolutionary. But it also looks very ordinary. Their building looks like an ordinary manufacturing building. The office space has the look of any other technical work place. Cubicles, desktops, computer screens. The manufacturing area looks ordinary. The only things extraordinary about the place are the rockets lying on their side and the space capsule standing in the middle of the work space. This is what the future of space travel will look like. It will look ordinary. And just like today, when it's hard to remember what life was like before the personal computer and the cellphone, we will forget what ife was like before human space travel became commonplace.

-tdr

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Space Captains Of Industry In The World Of Today.

Elon Musk, the PayPal co-founder and the guy behind SpaceX, has sent out a new email newsletter updating the findings from the flight to orbit of his company's rocket, Falcon 1.
"A week spent reviewing data has confirmed that the flight went really well, including the coast and restart. The mood here at SpaceX is just ecstatic! This is the culmination of six years of hard work by a very talented team. It is also a great relief for me, who led the overall design of the rocket (not a role I expected to have when starting the company). I felt a little sheepish receiving the AIAA award for the most outstanding contribution to the field of space transportation two weeks before this flight.

"Orbit was achieved with the first burn terminating at 330.5 km altitude and 8.99 degree inclination. The goal for initial insertion was a 330 km altitude and a 9.0 degree inclination, so this was right on target! Accuracy far exceeded our expectations, particularly given that this was the first time Falcon 1 reached orbit.

"The primary purpose of the second burn was to test the restart capability and then burn as long as possible. The upper stage coasted for 43.5 minutes and then burned for 6.8 seconds, which is 4 seconds longer than needed to circularize. Most of the burn was actually done sideways to avoid creating a highly elliptical orbit, hence a change in inclination to 9.3 degrees. The final orbit, confirmed by US Space Command, was 621 km by 643 km.

"As an added bonus, we picked up several minutes of video and data from the upper stage when it passed over Kwajalein one orbit later, which showed the stage to be in good condition. You will see some eerie footage of the upper stage drifting in zero g at the end of the video clip below."
That video can be viewed here. It's way cool!

-tdr

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Space Captains Of Industry In The World Of Today.

Good news from Elon Musk. SpaceX, his space launch company, has finally succeeded in launching a rocket to orbit. Here is Musk's email announcement.
"Wow, this is a great day for SpaceX and the culmination of an enormous amount of work by a great team. The data shows we achieved a super precise orbit insertion — middle of the bullseye — and then went on to coast and restart the second stage, which was icing on the cake.

"I will have a more complete post launch statement tomorrow, as right now I'm in a bit of a daze and need to go celebrate :)

—Elon— "
Visit the SpaceX website for cool pictures and more information. (Here.) Press release is here.

UPDATE: Edited highlight video of launch and flight is here. Longer video is at Hobbyspace.com here.

-tdr

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Monday, November 12, 2007

More Lunar (Mis)Deeds

From Arkansas comes a story about another company claiming to own the Moon. (Here.) Not content to just own the Moon, Space Pioneers is in the business of selling parcels of lunar land at $28 per acre.

The company's claim to own the Moon is, of course, utter legal nonsense, regardless of what its ownership may believe. (Read the entertaining legal babble at the company website here. Their "claim is for all of mankind which includes the planets in the Milky Way Galaxy; with an amendment to specify the inclusion of the moons.")

In the real world, consumers are either being fooled by Space Pioneers out of $28 for a worthless piece of paper or they are willing buyers of a novelty gift. Maybe what the company is doing counts as fraud and maybe it doesn't. It doesn't matter in the United States because law enforcement officials don't seem to be interested in pursuing companies selling worthless deeds to land in outer space. China had the right idea when it gave Lunar Embassy the boot and shut down the company's nascent operations there in 2005, a decision upheld by a Chinese court in a victory for the rule of law just this year. (Here.) But the real harm from schemes like this one isn't to the pocketbooks of individual consumers it's what the publicity does to the vision or real private space development.

Humanity has a future in space. One day we will live up there and use the resources of space to better our lives there and down here on Earth, and to make money. When that day comes legal issues involving ownership of land or minerals will have to be resolved. I can assure you of one thing. When some legitimate company finally has the wherewithal to put a mining operation on the Moon and lays claim to the minerals it is extracting, some $28 per acre owner of a deed from Space Pioneers won't be able to stop them and won't see a dime in rents or profits no matter how many cease and desist letters the owner writes and how many lawsuits get filed.

The current legal regime governing space will change when the vision of humans making space our home becomes a reality. Schemes like those of Space Pioneers and Lunar Embassy make a mockery of that vision. The sooner these kind of operations are shut down the better.

-tdr

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Birds Of Paradise: Part 8.

Today's another Padres baseball game at Petco Park. This time against the Seattle Mariners, who have beaten the Friars two straight now. Despite the losing streak, the Padres remain in first place in the National League West. HA!

Keeping with the informal tradition in which I sometimes post a bird picture on game days, here's another photo.
The plummeting bird reminds me of a bird of a different composition. This one*. Who said this blog doesn't have posts about space anymore?

-tdr

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* The SpaceShipOne photo was taken from the Wikipedia article about the craft (here), which claims to have gotten it from this website (here), which has a lot of cool rocketry photos. Use of this photo is not an endorsement by anybody but me.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Outer Space Travel Agents.

More evidence that space tourism is going mainstream is found once again in Sunday's Travel section of the San Diego Union Tribune. Travel writer Alison DaRosa writes about travel agents who market spaceflight tickets. Of the four who work out of the San Diego area, one has sold a spaceflight berth. The customer is a Los Angeles real estate billionaire. (Here.)

-tdr

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"It's PR, baby! PR!"

The Zero Gravity Corp. gets a bit of free publicity in Sunday's San Diego Union-Tribune. The paper devotes half a page in its travel section to a profile of the company and a virtual sales pitch for weightless flying. (Here.) There's even a fabulous photo of a happy, blonde beauty floating in zero gravity. (Here's the link one more time.)

How does Zero-G do it? Here's a hint. In an 18-paragraph story, company CEO Peter Diamandis is either mentioned or quoted in 8. Stephen Hawking is mentioned once. That's it. The rest reads like it comes right out of a company brochure. Diamandis is a PR dynamo. And that's a good thing. NASA could do with a bit of his wizardry.
Saffie: I'm sorry, mum, but I've never seen what it is that you actually do.
Eddie: PRrr.
Saffie: Yes, but...
Eddie: PR. I PR things. People. Places. Concepts...
Patsy: ...Lulu.
Eddie: Lulu... I make the fabulous... I make the crap into credible. I make the dull into...
Patsy: ...Delicious.
From Absolutely Fabulous. (Here.)

-tdr

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Two Cents On Top Space Stories of 2006.

Space.com is polling readers for the top space story of 2006. The top 10 so far can be seen here. They are about what you'd expect with the hardy and totally lovable little Mars Rovers coming in first, followed by the decision to save Hubble, and NASA's return to flight.

In my view the top space story of 2006 is Bigelow Aerospace's successful launch and continued operation of its inflatable prototype for a private space station. This story signals the promise of private human space operations in orbit. (Here.)

Second would be NASA's awarding of the COTS contracts, which demonstrates the government's move towards reliance on private space companies for operations in lower Earth orbit. (Here.) Tied for second would be the Democratic Party's takeover of the House and Senate, which has immediately imperiled NASA's plans for human space operations. (Here.)

Third is publication of the United States new space policy document which makes official the view that space is a place within America's security and economic spheres of influence. This is a baby step in the direction of undermining the current unrealistic legal regime that governs human activities in space. (Here and here.)

The most ridiculous space story of 2006 is number 8 on the Space.com list. That story is the decision by astronomers to adopt the neighborhood bully definition of planets and fix the Solar System's planetary population at 8. The story gets my vote for most ridiculous story because it reveals how out of touch scientists are from the general public. (Here.)

What's your opinion?

-tdr

Republished once to fix links.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Spaceport In Virginia.

Apparently, it's not just the wide-open spaces of the West that will be home to the coming commercialized space age. Virginia has a spaceport. (Here.)

It's a small facility and appears to be a joint venture of two state governments, Virginia and Maryland, but if officials at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport have their way, it will be the launch site for future commercial flights to the ISS. In the more immediate future MARS, as it's called, plans to launch an Air Force flight on December 11, 2006. Three more flights are planned with assistance from NASA. Two government flights and one joint venture.

Another blogger wonders just how private this facility really is with all that government involvement. (Here.) Not very, it appears. But that's the reality of the space industry today. Government is still one of the biggest players.

-tdr

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Space Visionaries Rutan, Diamandis, And Allen Enter Aerospace Hall Of Fame.

The San Diego Air & Space Museum (SDASM) honored three visionary space pioneers at the inaugural presentation of the 21st Century of Flight Distinguished Achievement Award on Saturday, November 4th. Gerry Williams of The Mars Society San Diego (here) attended and provides these observations and photographs. (View photos here in folder labeled "Hall of Fame Ceremony.")

With the unveiling of the full-size Spirit of St. Louis replica back from its 2003 flight and restoration by SDASM Gillespie Field volunteers, the International Aerospace Hall of Fame Gala Celebration kicked into high gear. The event celebrated both the beginnings of commercial flight and looked forward to the future of commercial space flight. More than 400 people attended.

Three new honorees were inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame for the 20th Century: United Airlines' "Pat" Patterson; TWA's Jack Frye, and Russia's Sergei Ilyushin, whose stories were told on video using vintage footage and photos as their portraits were unveiled. Patterson's and Frye's families accepted the honors.

The inaugural presentation of the 21st Century of Flight Distinguished Achievement Award went to three visionaries of today: SpaceShipOne financier Paul Allen (who was unable to attend) took the first award, accepted by the museum on his behalf.

XPrize Foundation creator Dr. Peter Diamandis took the second award. He encouraged donations to the new Hall of Fame Engineering Scholarship program to help increase America’s engineer graduation rate. In addition to space exploration, he says the XPrize Foundation encourages innovation in other areas of worldwide importance, such as fuel efficient automobiles and human genetics. Ansari Prize financial backer Anousheh Ansari reinforced these sentiments in a "filmed on location in space" video aboard the International Space Station recently, praising the XPrize Foundation as the best way to preserve our planet while simultaneously exploring beyond it.

The final 21st Century of Flight Distinguished Achievement Award recipient and keynote speaker was Burt Rutan. SDASM board member Mark Larson noted that, "While some strive to think outside the box, Burt Rutan simply never acknowledged the existence of the box.”

Rutan spoke about taking risks as human beings, and how we now seem to be living in a country that is becoming ever more risk-adverse (averse -ed). He additionally commented, semi-directly to the two tables of student aerospace engineering students from SDSU and UCSD, on how few aerospace engineers are graduating in the United States these days compared to how many are graduating in the same field from China and India and other nations.

In Rutan's (and my) day, there was the thrilling challenge of taking existing missile technology and building it into something that could carry humans into outer space. Today, in comparison, our country is talking about heading back to the Moon, Mars and beyond, but without trying to learn a different way of doing it -- by using "Apollo on Steroids" to accomplish it. Rutan fears a “dumbing down” of the new generation.

Rutan talked with the tables of recent graduates before the event, and none of them could give a good solid answer as to why they became aerospace engineers (unlike the heady Apollo days when EVERYONE could tell you) -- if he’d’ve asked me, the answer would be simple: I want to go to Mars!

SpaceShipOne was not just about proving that a non-governmental group could build and launch spaceships. It was about creating technological breakthroughs necessary for public access to space. Most of the public can't afford going into space by way of governments (with Russia being the only government presently selling tickets), so SpaceShipOne was about taking the risks and doing things differently.

Rutan spoke in the SDASM's Pavilion of Flight, and he repeatedly looked overhead at the Museum's Ford Trimotor aircraft, one of the first passenger planes. His father told him at a young age that this aircraft was for rich people only, and that he would probably never get to fly in one.

SpaceShipTwo, a fleet of five now under construction, will take the lessons learned here and apply them to industrializing public space access with a fleet of eventually 100 vehicles, each carrying up to 11 passengers on their suborbital treks. Yes, rich people will be the first passengers, but with stiff competition and low operating costs Rutan says that eventually millions of us will be able to journey into the black sky.

The 2006 International Aerospace Hall of Fame Gala Celebration was an inspiring evening of achievements and dreams, both fulfilled and still on the drawing boards and in the imaginations of human beings everywhere. I'm glad I had the opportunity to attend.

-Gerry Williams

Republished once to correct typos.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Up, Up, And Away In Bigelow's Space Balloon.

In this week's issue of The Space Review Jeff Foust tries to make sense of Bigelow Aerospace's recent actions that follow on the successful launch of the company's inflatable space habitat. (Here.) Perhaps the most notable moves by the Las Vegas-based space company involve their relations with two rocket companies.

Elon Musk of SpaceX announced the following in his September 8, 2006 update: "In addition to servicing NASA needs, I expect that F9/Dragon will also be of service to Bigelow Aerospace, which recently had a very successful flight of their sub-scale commercial space station. Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX have an ongoing dialogue to ensure that F9/Dragon meets the human transportation needs of their planned space station as efficiently as possible." (Here.) Just the other day Bigelow and Lockheed Martin announced a study to determine the feasibility of using the Atlas V for Bigelow's planned space station. (Here.)

These moves seem to represent a significant change of plans for Bigelow Aerospace.

Just last month the Los Angeles Times profiled the company and described a business plan to build an orbital destination for other areospace companies to service: a kind of a Field of Dreams in space, if we build it, their rockets will come.

Bigelow has hedged its bets by funding a $50 million competition called America's Space Prize to encourage the development of an orbital launch system. But America's Space Prize has always seemed significantly underfunded. Compare its paltry $50 million prize to NASA's $500 million COTS award. Furthermore, its restriction against the use of government development funding has always seemed extremely limiting for an industry that is not exactly rolling in dough.

What Bigelow's recent moves seem to indicate is a recognition that simply building a destination and offering a prize isn't enough to develop low-cost transportation to Earth's orbit. Instead real money will have to be paid to credible space companies to avoid a future in which one day Bigelow might have a space station ready to fly to orbit and no way to get it there, or almost as bad, a station parked in orbit with no ships able to get there except those flown by governments.

-tdr

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Republished once for editing.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Government Money, Foreign Partners, And America's Space Prize.

Now that Bigelow Aerospace is operating a test inflatable habitat in Earth's orbit, The Los Angeles Times has published an in-depth story about Robert Bigelow's plans to provide places for humans to live and work in space. (Here.) Bigelow's business plan involves building destinations in space through his own company, Bigelow Aerospace, and relying on the other space captains of industry to develop cheap access to space.

Commercial development of space depends on both prongs: places to go in space and cheap methods for getting there. If Bigelow's plans succeed there will be destinatins in space that aren't government owned and operated. He's off to a good start.

Bigelow is not just sitting back and waiting for cheap access to space. He is trying to push launch costs down by sponsoring a competition called America's Space Prize. The winner of America's Space Prize must launch a ship to Earth orbit, dock with the inflatable space station Bigelow hopes to have positioned by then, and return within 60 days. Bigelow Aerospace will give the winner $50 million.

There are two rules of America's Space Prize that seem somewhat odd given the development history of inflatable habitat technology and how the Bigelow Aerospace's first test habitat was launched. (Here.) The prize rules state that no contestant may use government development money and all contestants must be American companies operating in the United States. Yet, Bigelow's inflatable habitat technology was developed by NASA and was given to Bigelow under a licensing agreement with the government agency. Bigelow's Genesis I, the inflatable habitat in orbit now, was launched earlier this year on a Russian rocket.

-tdr

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Historic Times In Human Space Travel.

NASA's choice of SpaceX as a COTS finalist is a good sign. (Here.) SpaceX is a serious venture run by a serious man, Elon Musk, with a history of achievement. He's also a man with grand ambitions. (Here.)

At the same time that NASA is pushing COTS forward, another deep pocket, Virgin Galactic, is moving forward with their plans to fly paying passengers into space. Burt Rutan is building a fleet of spaceships in Mojave, California, and Robert Bigelow's spacestation is moving closer to reality.

These are good times for spacers.

-tdr

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Space Captains Of Industry: Impressions Of ISDC 2006.

Elon Musk spoke at the ISDC on Thursday. He is an historic figure and brilliant. He talked about leaving college and choosing his life path with an eye on affecting the future history of mankind. He said there were three things he was interested in that had history-changing potential: the internet, changing the energy cycle from hydrocarbons to solar-electric, and humanity becoming interplanetary.

What's interesting is that he made a fortune in the internet, and he's going to make another one in space. He's still young. Will conversion to solar-electric be far behind?

Despite his obvious grand ambitions, he comes across as a humble man interested in making a difference not in making a name for himself. That humility adds to the impression of him being the real thing.

Burt Rutan is another historic figure who made an appearance at the ISDC. He's a smart man who clearly has thought very much about the direction private human space travel is going. He is completely devoted to his work and passionate about human space travel. He also appears to be thoughtful about human character and the power of belief to drive and retard progress. His assertion that visionaries who believe what they can't prove and set out to prove it drives human progress was probably the most insightful theme of the conference.

Yet Rutan is a practical dreamer, who is putting his money, time, and energy into something he knows he can make work: suborbital human spaceflights that are affordable and safe enough to fly ordinary people repeatedly. It makes for an interesting contrast. He's also a man who is not afraid to speak his mind and perhaps a bit too quick to criticize others, for instance, the Rocket Racing League folk, his fellow former X-Prize competitors, and his former X-Prize associate, Jim Benson of SpaceDev, all of whom he criticized by suggestion in his speech.

The Virgin Galactic people were a different breed of animal. Visionary yet corporate. They were a breeze of 21st Century change blowing through the convention. They consciously try to make money in an environmentally sensitive fashion and they are sensitive to the bottom line. The Virgin Galactic President, Wil Whitehorn, spoke of something he called "Gaia Capitalism," which he described as using the power of capitalism to help solve the world's environmental problems.

They are concerned with making money in space and being successful. They want to become a commercial space line offering suborbital flights and eventually orbital flights and beyond. Apparently the name Virgin Galactic is as much descriptive as it is cool.

For them to make money in space they need to sell tickets to many paying customers. The customers may be adventurers but their idea of adventure includes coming back to share the experience not making the adventure the last experience of their lives.

There was little emphasis from the Virgin Galactic people about the danger of space travel or the need to take risks to open the space frontier. Instead, they went out of their way to emphasize safety and to state that they will only fly when it is safe to take passengers not based on a schedule dictated by the calendar.

Actually being responsible for other people's lives does a lot to focus the mind on the need to be safe.

-tdr

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

He Wants To Go To The Moon Before He Dies

Burt Rutan spoke during lunch at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles today. He said his goals are to travel to the Moon himself and for his grandchildren to be able to travel to the more interesting moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Apparently for him, humanity is not getting off the planet fast enough.

He started his talk with the statement that it's neither safe enough or affordable enough to send humans to orbit on a commercial basis. In itself, this is not a controversial statement, but he argued in his talk that cheap and affordable travel beyond suborbit will depend on the invention of breakthroughs we can't even imagine now.

For that reason, he said, NASA's plan to develop the Crew Exploration Vehicle and return to the Moon the same way America went there 40 years ago, "makes no sense." NASA's plans will not result in the kind of breakthroughs humanity needs to make space travel beyond suborbit cheap and affordable enough for ordinary people. As he explained, if Apollo-type programs could make space travel accessible to everybody, it would have happened in the 40 years since. But it hasn't.

Rutan's main point was about the power of believing in things that aren't proven to drive human progress. For example, he believes suborbital flight can be made safe and affordable and he is setting out to prove it. He also believes that space flight beyond suborbit can be safe and affordable but he says he can't prove it. Proving it is waiting for somebody else who believes it and who thinks he or she knows how. In his view, large companies --- he cited Boeing as an example --- don't believe that spaceflight can be safe and affordable and so they won't be on the cutting edge of making it happen. They'll come in later when somebody else proves it.

As for commercial spaceflight now, Rutan argued a serious flaw in FAA's new regulations is they are based on the premise that suborbital space flight is dangerous. In his view, the FAA's regulations should aim at making suborbital flight safe. The new regulations have the wrong focus for that. Rather than focusing on protecting the uninvolved public, the regulations should focus on protecting paying passengers. To him, the uninvolved public runs a very low risk of being injured by commercial suborbital flight while paying passengers and crew run the highest risk.

Rutan recognized the FAA's dilemma in trying to regulate a technology for safety that is so new we don't yet know how to make it safe. Perhaps in jest, he suggested that rather than regulating the technology, the FAA identify the people involved in making suborbital vehicles and require them to launch their own children before they sell tickets to the public.

Rutan saw signs for optimism regarding future investment in commercial spaceflight. He said that the $1 billion committed to spaceports, when there are no spaceships flying yet, suggests there is money available for investment. He predicted that in about 12 to 15 years, private space investment will equal about half of what NASA spends but will be 10 to 20 times more efficient. When that happens, he said, "everything will change."

-tdr

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

US Government To Join SpaceX In Investigation Of Falcon Failure Before Next Launch Attempt.

SpaceX's Elon Musk commendably is posting information early, often, and with as much detail as possible about the crash of the Falcon 1 launcher. His March 25, 2006, update message on the company's website states that SpaceX and the US government will do a joint investigation and report on the cause of the accident. (Here.)

Musk suggests the next flight won't occur until after the investigation is complete, he hopes within six months.
"Our plan at this point is to analyze data and debris to be certain that the above preliminary analysis is correct and then isolate and address all possible causes for the fuel leak. In addition, we will do another ground up systems review of the entire vehicle to flush out any other potential issues.

I cannot predict exactly when the next flight will take place, as that depends on the findings of this investigation and ensuring that our next customer is comfortable that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure reliability. However, I would hope that the next launch occurs in less than six months." (Emphasis added.)
The company's plan sounds reasonable and a bit familiar. When shuttle failed there was a government investigation and the shuttle did not fly again until the investigation completed its findings. Here's hoping SpaceX doesn't get too much grief for being too cautious.

-tdr

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Falcon Failure Probably Due To Fuel Leak.

Investigation now suggests that a fuel leak doomed the Falcon launch not the insulating blanket. (Here.)

-tdr

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Curses! Failed Again!

Unfortunately SpaceX's attempt to launch its Falcon 1 failed today. The reason is not yet determined but a likely culprit appears to be a insulating blanket that was supposed to tear off the rocket during liftoff but apparently didn't. The blanket was a makeshift fix used to prevent the excessive loss of LOX encountered in SpaceX's two aborted launches last year.
"To keep the liquid oxygen from warming up and naturally boiling away while the rocket sat on its tropical launch pad before launch, a "thermal coat" had been wrapped around the first stage. Problems running out of liquid oxygen on the remote island have bedeviled SpaceX over the past few months.

'A glaring deficiency that we had in the November and December attempts was the fact that we were basically boiling LOX at an unacceptably high rate. It is hard to get LOX on the island. So what we did was put a blanket scheme together to cover the first stage LOX tank,' Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development, told reporters during Friday's countdown.

'It is held to the rocket by Velcro and and we've got lanyards that hold it down to the ground. So basically the lanyards will pull a zipper as the vehicle lifts up, a Velcro zipper, and that LOX tank insulation will stay on the ground as the vehicle flies through it.'"
(Here.)

Foam on the shuttle and an insulating blanket on the Falcon. What is it with thermal protection of fuel tanks that causes such problems with launchers?

We wish SpaceX success in the future and hope it will be able to launch its next mission from Vandenberg on schedule in three to six months.

-tdr

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Who's Going To The Moon? Diamandis Says Count Him In.

When President George W. Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration and gave NASA the goal of returning to the moon to stay, he invited other countries to participate.
"The vision I outline today is a journey, not a race, and I call on other nations to join us on this journey, in a spirit of cooperation and friendship."
(Here.) Other countries who have talked about going to the Moon include Russia, China, and India.

The governments of Earth might not be racing each other to the moon but there is somebody who is racing them. Last night at San Diego's Aerospace Museum, Dr. Peter Diamandis told a rapt audience of about 60 that his personal goal is to "finance his own mission and walk on the Moon in 10 years."

If anybody can do it Diamandis can.

Diamandis didn't come to San Diego to announce a plan to fly to the Moon. He revealed that personal dream during the Q and A that followed his talk. He was invited by the museum to speak about what he's done to help create a revolution in spaceflight. (Here.)

The personal spaceflight revolution started for Diamandis in 1992 when he gave up on NASA because he "figured out that the government wasn't going to make it possible for me to go to space." It was then that he started looking for a way to do it himself.

Probably Diamandis's most significant contribution to the cause of personal spaceflight was the X Prize. Since Burt Rutan's team won the prize by sending their own piloted spaceship into suborbital space, things are looking up for private space travelers. Rutan is building commercial spaceships for Virgin Galactic to take paying passengers into space. Other companies building their own ships include Rocketplane and PlanetSpace. (Here.)

Besides being responsible for midwifing the birth of the new suborbital space tourism industry, Diamandis, through his X-Prize Foundation, is trying to push innovation in space technology. The annual X-Prize Cup in New Mexico will be offering millions of dollars in prizes. Among the competitions will be a Lunar Lander Challenger, which will have rocketeers simulating a takeoff and landing from the surface of the moon. By 2010 Diamandis intends for the X-Prize Cup to have rocketeers flying into space and vieing for prizes for maximum altitude, fastest turnaround between flights, point to point flights, and number of passengers.

Another of his space ventures is the Rocket Racing League, which he described as grand prix style racing but with rocketplanes. Ten rockets, built by XCOR Aerospace, another private space company, will race each other by flying in their own virtual tracks a mile in the sky.

The rocket racers will carry enough LOX/kerosene fuel for a 4 minute burn followed by 10 minutes of glide. Each 60 to 90 minute race will include 4 to 6 pit stops. XCOR recently demonstrated that racing pit stops are feasible by refueling a rocket tank with 250 pounds of LOX fuel in 50 seconds.

Presently the Rocket Racing League is culling through the applications of hundreds of teams to find the 10 teams who will compete.

While the President's vision for space exploration invites cooperation Diamandis's vision seems to rely on competition. The X-Prize was a competition. The X-Prize Cup and the Rocket Racing League are both based on competition. The United States made it to the moon because it was competing with the Soviet Union. The Russians weren't up to the competition and the US stopped its lunar missions. Diamandis seems to be on to something. People will do extraordinary things to be the winner.

-tdr

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

SpaceX Delays Launch Once Again.

See the update here.

-tdr

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