Gene Cernan was the last astronaut to walk on the moon. It is said that his last act in December of 1972 before climbing back into his lunar module was to carve his daughter’s initials into the lunar dust. Unless commercial space initiatives succeed, it is likely that the next person to see those initials will speak Chinese.
Human space flight efforts can be categorized into government and commercial space programs. On the government side (by which I mean the US Government), America has spent the last few years in the embarrassing position of having to pay the Russians almost $70 million each to fly our astronauts up to the International Space Station (ISS). With it’s structure long ago completed, 2014 news on the ISS was mostly limited to resupply, crew transfers and scientific experiments. In January it was announced that ISS operations would be funded until at least 2024. House and Senate members from both sides of the political spectrum have protected their constituencies by ensuring the continued financing of the SLS, a huge rocket under development for as yet unidentified missions.
NASA is also continuing development of the Orion spacecraft, completing ocean retrieval missions with the US Navy. NASA also completed the Vertical Assembly Center (VAC) at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans which will be used to build the core stage of the SLS. To give some basis for the development of both systems, the Obama Administration cobbled together an asteroid retrieval mission that may be of dubious scientific value but would be exciting and would provide valuable data and experience for commercial asteroid endeavors. Also, DARPA recently announced first phase contracts awarded to several companies for the development of the XS-1 experimental space plane. And there are some other interesting government sponsored human spaceflight projects including a commissioned design of a futuristic starship using the “faster-than-light” travel Alcubierre drive. There was also continued work on a fusion propulsion system., and an interesting announcement about a successful test of what is supposed to be an impossible means of propulsion that may turn out to be something revolutionary or may go the way of Cold Fusion. These are interesting and deserve funding and any other support we can give. But every government space program seem to have some inherent faults that make them incapable of reaching our goals.
All government space initiatives have two inherent problems. First, a program implemented by one administration is often not the priority of the next administration. Often, the Office of President of the United States gets filled by someone from the opposite party of the previous administration and they are all too quick to defund the previous administrations initiatives. This, by the way, is a serious defect that is not suffered by China or Russia and which could lead to America one day falling seriously behind the competition.
The second defect is more institutional. It is a sad fact that both NASA and the US Air Force are both so committed to safety and reliability that they establish levels of bureaucracy that ensure no project is done on time or on budget. Each example of progress requires so much testing, signing off from one agency to another or other paperwork that the next step is held in limbo for months or even years. They do not have investors clamoring for ROI so there is no rush for advancement. There is no competition so there is no drive for completion or incentive for constant improvement of their product.
Clearly, NASA is not capable of leading a sustained course of human spaceflight development. It requires an organization that does not totally change focus every four to eight years. It requires a mindset that embraces competition, profit margins, innovative product improvement and the acceptance of a risk level that would not happen in a government agency. With that said, let’s examine some commercial/non-government human spaceflight programs that are active in 2014.
SUB-ORBITAL AND ORBITAL
A very robust commercial launch industry is active in 2014.
SpaceX – SpaceX racked up some serious wins in 2014 both in space and in court. Among their several successful launches, SpaceX had their first controlled landings of the first stage of their rockets, a key milestone in their efforts to bring down the costs of launches dramatically by reusing the rockets. In July of 2014, the Air Force confirmed that all three of it’s recent Falcon 9 launches were successful, a strong step towards their ability to win Air Force certification that would allow it to compete with United Launch Alliance for launches of national security payloads. SpaceX successfully sued the Air Force in 2014 to enable them to compete for those missions. One of the biggest milestones for SpaceX in 2014 was repeated demonstrations of their ability to perform soft-landings of their first stage of the Falcon 9. This should cut many more millions off of launch costs and make the Falcon 9 a leader in commercial space.
Boeing – The CST-100 Space Taxi continues development. Boeing has done reentry and launch abort testing and a lot of PR in 2014.
Virgin Galactic – Richard Branson continues to insist commercial launches are “just around the corner” and has a wait list of 650 people that have already paid the deposit for the flight. In May of 2014, VG announced they had changed the fuel to enhance engine performance. In June, the company reached an agreement with NASA to fly 12 technology experiments on SpaceShipTwo ‘s first commercial research flight.
XCOR Aerospace – This company’s 30ft-long, two-seater Lynx space plane could beat VG’s initial commercial flight and do so at a fraction of the cost. In July 2014, DARPA selected XCOR (partnered with Masten Space Systems) as one of the teams that will be working on a new experimental space plane.
Sierra Nevada Corporation – The Dreamchaser craft was initially based on a NASA initiative but subsequent years of refinement have made it a very interesting candidate for ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station. In August of 2014, they revealed the first completed composite airframe, made in conjunction with Lockheed. They also announced a joint agreement with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to collaborate missions and technologies.
Blue Origin – Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ secretive company has been developing rocket-powered Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and potentially orbital space. It is also actively pursuing the development of a reusable orbital vehicle. They have teamed up with Boeing as one of the teams working with DARPA on the experimental space plane project.
Bigelow Aerospace – This company’s main focus is the development of expandable space habitats. The company is currently working on the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which will be added to the ISS in 2015 as a test module. Bigelow has recently hired former NASA astronauts that will be the be the crew of a private space station that Bigelow plans to launch sometime after 2017. Rather than developing a launch capability, they plan on using the winner of NASA’s commercial crew program to launch and retrieve their crews. Their habitats could also be used on the Moon and Bigelow Aerospace made news in July 2014 when it requested the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA-AST) conduct a “payload review” which would give US government recognition of ownership by the company and other U.S. firms of resources they extract from the Moon.
Ad Astra Rocket Company – They continue the development of their VASIMR propulsion system.
Space Adventures – This space tourism company arranged all eight of the orbital space flights completed by private citizens and offers circumlunar and suborbital flights with the hope that one of the above companies will be able to supply the hardware to complete such trips.
Outside of the US, there is the very interesting Skylon UK space plane project. And the European Space Agency, convinced the SpaceX is about to make their Ariane rockets no longer commercially viable, is finally getting serious about building a next-generation rocket. India and Japan are both ramping up their space programs, with stated goals of manned space programs. In Russia, they recently conducted the maiden launch of the new Angara rocket, the first new Russian rocket since the Soviet era. Russia announced in July 2014 that they are starting to phase out the old Soyuz rocket in favor of the newer Soyuz-2 rocket.
The US’s formal plan for human moon exploration ended when President Obama ended the Constellation program.
Google’s Moon Prize: Google Lunar X Prize. It’s literally NASCAR on the moon, happening live, transmitting back here to Earth.” Technically, the $20 million grand prize would go to the first rover to roll more than 500 meters (three-tenths of a mile) on the moon and send back HDTV video. While not directly involving human space flight, the competition has the obvious intent of spurring development on the Moon. Such steps are needed to get the initial knowledge and experience needed to begin mining the moon.
Golden Spike: This company plans on using spacecraft developed by the companies listed above to provide Moon trips to paying customers. These customers could be nations wanting to explore or companies wanting to set up shop to begin using lunar resources.
China’s recent moon rover is just their latest step in their stated goal of putting a manned base on the moon.
While there is basically no movement in the government sector regarding a manned mission to Mars, NASA did have some advances regarding Mars in 2014. MOXIE, the Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment is a device developed by NASA to take carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and use it to produce oxygen for breathing and for rocket fuel purposes. And the continued development of the SLS could be associated with efforts to put humans on Mars if it actually ever gets used. In the meantime, NASA’s rovers continue to excite and to find items of interest that will no doubt one day be examined by humans.
The distance of Mars limits the current amount of commercial activity but there are a couple of commercial projects dedicated to getting humans to Mars. Inspiration Mars, founded by First-Space-Tourist Dennis Tito aims to have a flyby mission. And Mars One hopes to have a permanent colony on Mars by 2025.
This is one human spaceflight subject that does have some government involvement. President Obama implemented a program for a future rendezvous with an asteroid. It’s scientific usefulness has been hotly debated and, as mentioned above, no one knows if it’ll ever be more than just an ongoing excuse for continued funding of the SLS rocket system. Also government related, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey introduced the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act of 2014, a bill that would establish property rights for future private asteroid miners.
On the commercial space side of things, there are a few interesting organizations working towards manned asteroid missions. Planetary Resources has built an awesome team and an equally awesome list of investors to get towards their goal of eventually mining asteroids for profit. Also with an eye on profiting from the incredible resources locked in asteroids is Deep Space Industries, which plans to launch a fleet of small semi-automated probes to track and analyze target asteroids.
So what and where do all of these developments get us in the foreseeable future? One begins to see a convergence of technologies advancing to the point where they may combine to create a maturing space industry. A Bigelow module space station that acts as a base for companies using VASIMR engine-powered spacecraft that remove space debris or even crewed vehicles that provide in-orbit servicing on satellites could become a quick reality. After years of stagnation, it is an exciting time for human space flight.