Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Chasing the vision

Delegates at the 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Naples, Italy attending the third Plenary session on Tuesday, 2 October heard of exciting developments in commercial space transportation.


Though still in its infancy, the Plenary heard that many problems were now being addressed in the fields of technology, engineering, physiology, regulations and business to bring the fledgling sector to full fruition.

Some studies agree that in a few decades, the number of people spending days, weeks, months or even years in low Earth orbit (LEO) could reach hundreds or thousands.

One member of the panel avidly chasing the vision was Alan Bond, Founding Director of Reaction Engines, who told delegates there was a difference between what is happening in space transportation terms at present and the revolutionary new kind of space system being developed in the UK by his company.

"Space transportation has got to move a lot further than where things stand at the present time," he said. "I would like to see over the next 10 to 20 years us moving to where operators ‘operate' and manufacturers ‘manufacture'. This is where the business has to go."

Describing the United States as a country that has always been very entrepreneurial, Bond said he thought Europe lagged behind in that vision because "we were locked into thinking mostly in terms of government backed programmes".

To illustrate the point he said that 90 percent of funding for current Skylon engine development came from the private sector.

At present the major focus on his Skylon single-stage-to-orbit craft is in proving the ground-breaking technology of the air-breathing rocket engines. He said testing over the past year had gone very well and, though slightly behind schedule, was nearing completion.

"It all means that single-stage-to-orbit vehicles are going to be possible," he stated. "We are now within months of saying we can provide that to the world. The question is what is the world going to do about that?"

Bond said that Reaction Engines was "open to talk" about how the technology can be pushed forward. "As far as we can see we have every reason to believe this is feasible and my view is that Skylon will change the future."

Asked by a delegate about the timing for a demonstration flight, Bond said the current schedule envisaged Skylon could become operational ten years from now in 2022. He estimated development costs at $14 billion.

He explained that an important part of the company's business model was not ‘traffic to orbit' but to sell the vehicle in volume to different operators around the world.

"Many nations want their own access to space and it is important to understand this model. We are probably looking at $5 million per launch to get 15 tonnes of payload into orbit," he added.

George Nield, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), told delegates that now was the time of a very important transition in relation to commercial space developments.

He said there were currently eight FAA licensed sites in the United States but there was interest from six new Sates which wanted to create their own space ports, an indicator of strong potential growth in the future.

William Gerstenmaier, Associate Director, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, at NASA, said it was important to the United States that commercial launch services were successful.

"The SpaceX commercial demonstration flight was a tremendous success and it is important that governments do their best to enable that sort of activity," he said. "We need to continue to look for smart ways to do this and to pass on our expertise to the commercial space sector."

He said the approach of using a cargo demonstration phase for SpaceX was a good model as it substantially reduced risks - losing cargo might be disappointing but not catastrophic as it would be in human terms.

Gerstenmaier also revealed that NASA was now taking a more relaxed approach when agreeing spacecraft specifications with commercial space companies.

"We are telling designers that they don't necessarily have to build to the same default standards as NASA has done just because that is the way it happened in the past," he said.

Silvio Sandrone, Head of Business & New Programmes Development, Astrium Space Transportation, France, remarked that you could now tell the new NASA approach was working because "you have got old dogs like us doing new tricks".

He also said that as a major aircraft and space manufacturer, his company was looking at how to transfer some of the aircraft manufacturing skills to space manufacturing.

"It is also important to leverage a wider supply base," he said. "We need to move away from qualification driven development to certification driven development."

Georges Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, said that the FAA had recognised that for the sub-orbital industry to get off the ground, we had to go through a different regulatory process than commercial air flight.

It meant allowing passengers to take a "bigger risk" – provided that they were better informed about the risks involved.

He said countries other than the United States were now starting to engage in addressing regulations and suggested it would be a very positive move if the world was able to set up a common regulatory framework.

"We don't have a basis to fly if we don't have a vehicle that is safe," he reiterated. "Spaceflight is always going to be riskier than commercial airliners."

Simonetta di Pippo, Head of European Space Policy Observatory, Italian Space Agency (ASI), moderator of the Plenary, highlighted problems caused by increasing numbers of space flights and Air Traffic Control, saying that in the future a more integrated system would need to be developed.

The Plenary event provided a snapshot of the current political, economic and technical landscape in commercial space exploitation and the statements from panel members hinted at the question of how well humankind is preparing to embark on futuristic scenarios based on massive space commercialisation.



The above is one of a series of daily reports from the International Astronautical Congress 2012 held in Naples, Italy, written by Clive Simpson for the Paris-based International Astronautical Association (IAF) and first appearing on the IAF website