Saturday, 20 August 2011

Close encounters


For some time NASA has been working hard to counter the notion that the end of the Space Shuttle era means the end of US human spaceflight. And there are commercial companies waiting in the wings.

At Kennedy Space Center just before the launch of Atlantis in July several companies were taking advantage of the large media presence to showcase their proposed spacecraft and rockets of the future.

In one air conditioned ‘tent’ Lockheed Martin displayed a test model of its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that may one day take Americans to destinations beyond the Space Station – like the asteroids and Mars.

Next door, Boeing showcased its CST-100 capsule concept, one of the ‘crew taxis' NASA eventually hopes to hire to get its astronauts to and from orbit by mid-decade.

And Elon Musk's SpaceX company threw open its doors on the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station where it has a rocket integration hanger and launch pad. From here it flies its Falcon rocket – the next test flight is planned for this autumn – and ‘Dragon Rider' capsule, another commercial answer to America's astronaut taxi dilemma.

Whilst these companies are all pursuing the more ‘traditional’ route into orbit others, like the US Air Force and the Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), are convinced the future is still in winged reusable spacecraft. SNC's mini-shuttle called Dream Chaser could be launched for the first time in 2015.

Many argue that these new spacecraft represent a more affordable, commercial and even more exciting approach to future human spaceflight.

Not surprisingly NASA administrator, Charlie Bolden, himself a former Shuttle astronaut, is convinced that human spaceflight has a bright future. "You'll hear me say that over and over and over again. The future is incredible and you're witnessing the first steps NASA is taking to create that future right now," he told the gathered media.

As a clear signal of its intention to crank up the momentum wherever possible NASA this week gave SpaceX approval to launch its next Falcon 9 on 30 November — followed nine days later by the Dragon capsule berthing at the International Space Station (ISS).


During the tour of its facilities in July, SpaceX was keen to show us that its has been hard at work preparing for this next flight — a mission designed to demonstrate that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the Space Station.


NASA has now agreed in principle to allow SpaceX to combine all of the tests and demonstration activities originally proposed as two separate missions into one time-saving flight.

After catching the ISS and coming alongside, the capsule will be grappled by the Station's Canadian-built robot arm and transferred to a docking port. It will likely stay at the ISS for a few weeks, delivering some non-essential cargo in its pressurised cabin before returning to Earth via a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

This next mission represents a huge milestone — not only for SpaceX but also for NASA and the US space programme. When the astronauts stationed on the ISS open the hatch and enter the Dragon spacecraft for the first time, it will mark the beginning of a new era in space travel.



SpaceX was keen to show us the workings of the launch pad where it has made significant upgrades over the summer to streamline the countdown. New liquid oxygen (LOX) pumps, for example, will reduce previous loading time from 90 minutes to under 30, inching the company closer to its long term goal of Falcon 9 going from hangar to liftoff in under an hour.

We also saw the first stage of the 15-story Falcon 9 — the rocket that is now due to blast off 30 November — lying on its side in the integration hanger at Cape Canaveral's Complex 40. It had arrived in April, followed by the launcher's second stage in July.

Company officials, however, were nervous when it came to photography, particularly where the rocket engines were concerned. We were forbidden to take close-ups that showed the engines in detail, though no objections were raised to the ‘space paparazi’ scrambling on their backs underneath the first stage to capture shots of the SpaceX logo!



Also proudly on show, this time in a tent in the grounds of the SpaceX launch control centre close to Port Canaveral, was the burnt and battered Dragon capsule that was successfully flown into orbit and parachuted back to Earth last December. Here you could closely inspect and almost touch something that had orbited Earth less than a year before.

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