It's safe to say that for the first time since the early 1960s, things are once again changing very quickly in spaceflight, and for the better. Although it's still very early in the process, I - and I'm sure others - have taken to calling it the Second Space Age, and it has all the features of a sustained evolutionary change rather than the glorious but prematurely-peaking achievements of the First. At the same time, however, the expansion of the field of endeavor has increased the number of disappointments even as it has given birth to a few blindingly brilliant stars and another few steady innovators. It has also produced new, unsuspected potential stars as earlier ones have risen or fallen to their current status.
I. Orbital Domain
1. The SpaceX Salient
Far ahead of the rest of the vanguard, as it has been for the past 5 years, is still SpaceX - and its achievements seem to be accelerating while the rest of the field settles into a steady rate of progress or else falls by the wayside. Their leadership has been and remains utterly unchallenged.
Since its founding 11 years ago, SpaceX has built an entirely new mid-lift orbital rocket family from scratch rather than deriving it from existing families; took over a massive former Boeing factory in Los Angeles to mass-produce their rockets; took over a huge rocket testing complex in Texas to test their rockets; refurbished two launch facilities at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base with state-of-the-art operations to launch them, and then...after initial failures, conducted five consecutive successful launches. Then they built a state-of-the-art space capsule capable of rendezvousing with the International Space Station to deliver cargo, returning to Earth intact with return cargo, and designed from the beginning to evolve into a safe and reusable crewed spacecraft.
All of which combined have cost less than it typically costs a Big Aerospace company to make an incremental new version on a rocket they already have, and at prices to their customers currently 50% to 75% lower than other companies charge, and falling. They have launched the Dragon spacecraft into orbit successfully three times and rendezvoused with ISS twice, all three times successfully recovering the spacecraft from an ocean splashdown. This substantially meets many of the same technical objectives as the Gemini program preceding Apollo, and far exceeds it in terms of automated software and safety protocols, while costing a tiny fraction of that program.
SpaceX currently has over 40 launches manifested over the next five years - a minimum of seven in this year alone - and are continually adding to the manifest as new contracts are signed and prices fall with new innovations and economies of scale. They've announced intentions to expand their launch facilities at both existing ranges and also build an entirely new launch complex on the Texas Gulf Coast such that it will be possible to conduct 12 launches per year, per launch site, and are also expanding their manufacturing of the Falcon 9 and its components to meet this flight rate. They have over 3,000 employees today, and continue to hire.
This year, they plan to launch the inaugural flights of two new rockets evolved from the original Falcon 9: The Falcon 9 v. 1.1, which has a fuel tank 15 meters longer than the 1.0, 54% higher thrust, and thousands of kilograms more payload capacity, making it the most efficient orbital rocket ever; and then the Falcon Heavy - three v. 1.1 first stages strapped together, that will enable launches to the Moon and Mars, and will be the third most powerful rocket ever launched (after Saturn V and Energia) and by far the most advanced. Falcon 9 v. 1.1 will have nine of these engines, and Falcon Heavy will have 27 of them:
Once again, these launches are both scheduled for this year - the 1.1 inaugural flight for June, just a couple of months away. Moreover, they're introducing the ability to the 1.1 first stage to relight after stage separation in order to splash down in the ocean softly, in order to recover it so that in the future the first stage might be reused. They're careful to say that successful recovery is not necessary on the first few attempts, and that this is a bold reach with uncertain prospects, but the fact they're committed to repeatedly attempting it is a radical policy. The ability to reuse the first stage would ultimately cut the cost of launch by tens of times over. Here is an image of a test of the relighting system for the nine engines that will fly on the inaugural 1.1 flight, in the new circular configuration (the 1.0 has a 3x3 square matrix) tweeted by Elon Musk:
Kinda reminds me of this... :-)
But the ultimate goal isn't to reuse from a splashdown - rather, it's to land the first stage back on the launchpad, which is why they've been test-launching a 10-story-tall science-fiction looking reusable rocket with landing legs called the Grasshopper rocket, which is a single-engine version of the Falcon 9 v. 1.0 first stage. Test flights of the Grasshopper began only seven months ago, and yet there have been five flights in that time, each one more than doubling the height of the previous, and there's no end in sight to the testing program. Here is every test flight of the Grasshopper so far:
September 21, 2012 (6 feet):
November 1, 2012 (17.7 feet):
December 17, 2012 (131 feet):
March 7, 2013 (262 feet):
April 17, 2013 (820 feet):
I can't emphasize this enough: All five of these launches are of the same rocket, not just the same type of rocket. They didn't build a new one for each test - as far as I know, it's the same engine, same fuel tank, same landing legs every single time. And because of that, they've been able to launch it almost every month, and probably at a tiny fraction of the cost of an expendable rocket development cycle.
It will take years to turn this kind of test into an operational first stage that lands back on the launchpad, but that's a goal worth waiting for: It promises a near future (10-15 years) where a person could go into orbit for $500,000, not $60 million like the Russians are charging. And that's not even the final end of the cost reduction - the only absolute theoretical limit is the cost of the energy involved in reaching orbital velocity, which is a trivial fraction of the total cost. Even while that evolution is taking place, SpaceX will still drastically reduce the cost of attaining the orbit, with human flights projected at $10 million per person on its expendable Falcon 9 within the next three years - if they achieve a level of reusability in that time, the cost will be much lower, and getting even lower with time.
Another development slated for this year is the unveiling of Dragon 2, which Elon Musk has described as being radically different from the current version of Dragon, and looking like an "alien spacecraft." This is the version of Dragon that will be flown by a crew of 7 astronauts and/or private passengers per flight, will have a larger window than the current spacecraft, and will have four pairs of SuperDraco thrusters that will (1)allow for emergency escape from the Falcon 9 rocket both on the launch pad and in flight, (2)provide drastically enhanced maneuverability in orbit, and (3)allow for landing back at the launch site on Earth rather than ocean splashdown requiring elaborate recovery operations, and will be fully reusable. It also will allow for...ahem...landing on places other than Earth, such as the Moon and Mars. Once again, this will be unveiled this year.
Additionally, SpaceX continues to take aim at the Death Star of bloated, Old Space cost-plus contractor fortresses: The US Air Force's multibillion-dollar bulk buys of United Launch Alliance (Lockheed and Boeing) rockets. They've made initial inroads, winning a small fraction of future contracts, but there is huge room to grow - Falcon 9 prices are already a fraction of what ULA charges the Air Force, and it will only become politically harder to justify continuing to give ULA the bulk of purchases as F9 builds up an increasing record of success (knock on wood).
2. OSC is A-OK
The approach Orbital has taken with Antares is to modestly improve an old Soviet rocket engine from the 1960s, the NK-33, for the first stage and then pay Space Shuttle contractor ATK to make a solid-fuel upper stage. There are a few things wrong with that strategy: Namely, the part about basing it on an old Soviet rocket engine from the 1960s and paying Shuttle contractor ATK for a solid-fuel upper-stage - i.e., all of it. It doesn't seem like a recipe for major further progress, but rather innovation "around the edges."
Still, the flight succeeded, and Orbital has more credibility in seeking to reduce the cost of spaceflight than Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, EADS, Russia, or other major rocket makers, so it's an all-around Good Thing. So there are reasons to hope that Orbital will at some point chart a course toward a better, more promising rocket than the current version of Antares - perhaps ditching the solid upper stage in favor of a liquid-fueled one, and hopefully designing their own, new rocket engine with what they learned from the NK-33 rather than just iterating ancient technology. The decision to include ATK in the first place was most likely political, in order to capitalize on Congressional worries about losing the Shuttle contractor base, but hopefully the money made from NASA's contract for the current Antares will allow Orbital to move beyond the need for such crippling gimmicks.
It's not quite a warm-blooded endeavor from what I've seen, but it's considerably more evolved than the bloated dinosaur cultures at the giant military-industrial contractors - kind of a "middle child" on the evolutionary tree, halfway between the First and Second Space Ages. They've done some infrastructure development work themselves, building a new launch complex at the Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast. They have no hope whatsoever of competing with SpaceX - and apparently know better than to try - but they may have a chance to take a bite out of other companies if they make good use of their opportunities. However, at the moment the rocket has no customers other than NASA, so that's something they need to think about fixing.
Antares was built to launch the Cygnus spacecraft:
Cygnus is an unmanned, disposable cargo module for delivering supplies to the International Space Station. It delivers less payload than Dragon, can't come back to Earth, can't return any cargo to Earth, and wasn't designed to evolve into a crew capsule - it just delivers the goods and then suicide-dives into the atmosphere to burn up. So it's not inherently a platform for future progress, just a commercialization of the kind of relatively expensive disposable cargo systems already in use that are currently launched to ISS by public-sector programs in Russia, Europe, and Japan. However, it's at least theoretically possible they might evolve Cygnus to perform more generalized functions in the future.
Orbital has made initial strides into the robotic probe business, and built the Dawn spacecraft that successfully explored asteroid Vesta and is on its way to explore dwarf planet Ceres in 2015. Hopefully they can start to internalize some of the lessons they learn from being involved in commercial spaceflight and create synergies that further improve the capabilities, robustness, and economics of robotic exploration. It signaled its commitment to the field by offering to build Dawn for NASA at cost in order to gain experience with robotic probe technology.
3. Lockheed and Boeing lumber toward irrelevance.
The bread-and-butter of the ULA military launch monopoly are the two EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) rockets, Delta IV and Atlas V. They are both powerful, elite systems that so far have a near-perfect operational record over a combined 58 flights over a decade of service. The only problem is that they are both massively, colossally expensive, and just keep getting more so over time. In fact, so expensive that even at their inception, when costs were thought to be far lower than they turned out to be, they couldn't sustain any non-government business whatsoever, and they can't even sell to foreign governments because every foreign rocket costs far less. All EELV flights are purchased by the US government.
The Delta IV Heavy does have the distinction of being the most beautiful rocket ever flown, like some kind of roaring Gothic cathedral in the sky...
...but that doesn't mean much when every launch is the cost of building a mid-sized skyscraper, and in that particular vehicle's case has a flight rate of only about once every two years. But even the medium-lift variants have priced themselves totally out of the market, and just keep getting more expensive. And it's totally unnecessary: ULA just has no incentive to keep costs under control - they're a virtual monopoly that does business with a government through cost-plus contracts, so they make a profit no matter what. Their rockets are magnificent dinosaurs, and are doomed to gradual extinction once the Falcon Heavy comes into service.
The Boeing half of the duo, meanwhile, has been building a "commercial" space capsule to compete for contracts to deliver astronauts to the ISS, but of course, being Boeing, they are terrified of investing any of their own money in the project and just sit around waiting for NASA to give it to them before taking each step. The brilliant, inspiring name of this capsule? CST-100. Unlike Dragon, which SpaceX has committed to develop regardless of what NASA does, Boeing's pursuit of CST-100 is completely contingent on getting NASA money. And on historical technical terms, it's supposedly pretty okay - which is why they're the other company competing with SpaceX for the other half of the crew transport contract. Although at times they complain that NASA isn't giving them money fast enough.
Drop-test of the landing airbags from 2012:
Of course, Boeing has no actual plans for CST-100 - they've made it abundantly clear they couldn't care less what it is they're paid to do, as long as they're paid, and won't waste their time doing anything that the stock market doesn't force them to do. So rather than the bold vision of SpaceX, it's basically "We have no objection to the concept of a commercial space capsule. When do we get paid? Seven astronauts, okay, we can do that. When do we get paid?" So there's no actual institutional motivation behind the program, it's just one of many potential revenue streams that management only supports as long as NASA holds their hand through the process. And this is why SpaceX is leaving them in the dust, and for a lot of other reasons.
But because of how massive a business they are, and how large their lobbying machine is, there's a lot of support in Congress for Boeing's bid, and even some brazenly corrupt elements who've been quietly agitating to just give them the contract exclusively and ignore SpaceX. That isn't likely to happen given the politics involved, but it shows the extent of the inertia involved, and the steepness of the hill SpaceX has had to climb to challenge these dinosaur companies. But it seems to get easier for them every year as the biggies continually fail to get on the ball, and slouch toward extinction as relevant launch companies.
4. China's space program boldly enters the 1970s
The title of this heading might sound like I'm belittling China's space program, but in fact I'm massively complimenting them given the fact that only two other countries have even gotten that far. Basically, they've entered the Salyut / Skylab era of manned space exploration with the habitation in 2012 of their 3-person Tiangong-1 space station module launched the year before, and sent their first female astronaut into space. It's actually a pretty cool space station.
Here are videos from last year of the docking of the Shenzhou spacecraft with the Tiangong-1 (which occurs more quickly, and perhaps hazardously, than we usually see at the ISS) and the taikonauts entering it:
This year China plans to launch Tiangong-2 to replace Tiangong-1 testbed, which will probably be more advanced, and then a third such station in 2015, with a few manned missions spending a few weeks on board each. Then around the early part of the next decade, they plan to launch and assemble a multi-module space station, although even in its complete form it would be a tiny fraction of the size of the ISS.
So there are two ways to frame the achievement: One is that China is now the only nation on Earth with its own independent manned space station, which is no doubt something they're justifiably proud of. On the other hand, the individual ISS modules owned by other countries are a lot bigger and more advanced in every way, and that would remain the case even if the Chinese multi-module station occurs as planned. Moreover, ISS is designed for perpetual, long-term habitation and is a massively functioning international laboratory on par with CERN for the significance of its research while it's unlikely the Tiangong program or its near-decade successors will be able to compete with that. Basically China's efforts kind of fall into a middle ground capability.
They have a functioning manned space transport infrastructure, but it's primitive compared to what Russia currently has and SpaceX's current (albeit unused) flight capability via Dragon - that will drastically uptick with Dragon 2 - and also has a very low flight rate of about one short-duration mission every two years. The program seems to be following the conservative development path of the Soviet program rather than its balls-to-the-wall American counterpart, so fears/hopes that China will be repeating or exceeding Apollo any time soon appear to be greatly exaggerated. I don't think China institutionally cares about beating us back to the Moon or to Mars - it will likely continue to be methodical and conservative, much like its general approach to economic development. Also, space doesn't have the cultural foundation that it does in the US, so there will never be the same sense of frustrated national "mission" that has driven so much of the current wave of progress here.
Elon Musk has stated that the only real competitor he sees for SpaceX is China, and this fact has informed the company's decision to generally keep their innovations as trade secrets rather than patenting them, since China typically treats patents as nothing more than convenient blueprints to copy. Quote Musk, being characteristically understated, "Since our primary competition is national governments, the enforcement of patents is questionable." Hopefully other major rocket companies learn from that example - and the cautionary tale of other industries that have been eviscerated by China's wholesale theft of intellectual property.
This places the Chinese robotic program in the company of the US, Europe, and Japan, each of whose robotic programs have also explored asteroids.
5. NASA rediscovers its roots...hopefully.
Even though NASA is turning over the logistics of transport to and from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to commercial companies, this is only half of the transformation taking place: The other half is a refocusing of the Agency's manned spaceflight capabilities toward Deep Space (i.e., beyond the Earth's protective magnetosphere, which introduces much greater technical challenges) via the Orion spacecraft designed to operated as a long-duration mission vehicle in the much harsher radiation environment beyond Earth orbit (BEO). BEO is a term that often includes missions that are technically in Earth orbit, albeit very distant orbit - e.g., the Moon, or Earth-Moon Lagrange points. Currently planned configuration of Orion with its Command, Service, and Propulsion modules:
It's designed to carry 2-6 astronauts, depending on the logistics of the mission, and to operate safely for extended periods of time in the higher radiation environment of BEO. Provided it's completed to spec and Congress allocates the money for the missions it was designed to enable, it would be the first manned spacecraft to exceed the Apollo CSM in capability, allowing for longer-duration missions than Apollo, to more distant destinations. And there would be considerably more radiation protection, if I understand correctly. Image of Orion test article:
The service and propulsion modules are based on the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) - an unmanned cargo delivery spacecraft used to send supplies to ISS. It has flown many times, and built up quite a technical heritage, so the fact that Europe will be supplying the service and propulsion module is confidence-inspiring. One would assume it probably also means that wherever Orion goes, European astronauts will be included in the crews. Here's an ATV in flight to get a sense of what it looks like, although the Orion modules will be somewhat different:
Here is the current schedule for Orion flights, which have the designation as Exploration Missions (whereas ISS trips are called "Expeditions"):
Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1): In early 2014 - just next year - an unmanned Orion will be launched on a Delta IV Heavy into a high elliptical orbit, with the high point (apogee) being 3,600 miles above the Earth's surface: 15 times higher than ISS. It will then reenter the atmosphere at high speed to test the reentry system.That's about as detailed and ambitious as they're willing to get at this point, and I don't blame them. The reason is also the reason for the three-year gap between EFT-1 and EM-1: Although Delta IV Heavy can launch Orion into Low Earth Orbit, they're building an entirely new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, for lunar and Mars missions. Detractors of the rocket call it the Senate Launch System and deride it as superfluous pork that isn't necessary to achieve the missions, and I tend to agree with them: It's an enormously complex and expensive undertaking to develop a new rocket, let alone one that big and powerful.
Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1): In 2017, four years from now, an unmanned Orion will be sent on a flight around the Moon.
Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2): In 2019-2021 timeframe, send a crew to lunar orbit. May also involve capturing a small asteroid and bringing it to lunar orbit.
Based on what I've heard, the same missions could be done much sooner and with lower development and operational costs with two launches of existing rockets rather than one of a rocket that doesn't yet exist, but Congress went ahead and created their own rocket program - hence the derisive label - in order to justify feeding more money to the traditional contractor base. Since Orion will be ready to fly a lot sooner than SLS, and the latter is likely to encounter all sorts of delays and cost-overruns, it seems like a deliberate waste of time and money that's unlikely to be resolved in a timely fashion. In other words, they've tied a promising spaceship that could be ready in just a few years to a launcher that's utterly stupid and probably won't be ready until the next decade. In fact, it's so stupid that current projections don't see it being ready for Mars missions until early in the decade after that, the 2030s.
As a result, Orion's relationship to developments at SpaceX is shaping up to be complicated, because SpaceX has plans to evolve the Dragon 2 into a BEO spacecraft capable of being launched to the Moon or Mars on the Falcon Heavy - a rocket they'll be launching for the first time this year. While SpaceX's progress is enabling the Orion/SLS program, it may also supersede it, because at the rate SpaceX is moving forward they may end up ahead of NASA before the decade is out. But this isn't a bad thing: It just means we have backups - if SpaceX slows down, NASA is at least moving forward, however slowly. And if NASA is moving too slowly, then at least SpaceX is moving forward.
It's been hard to take NASA's plans seriously for several decades because Congress has always been full of cancel-monkeys when it comes to good space projects (and defend-to-the-death pork monkeys when it comes to useless projects), so the last thirty years are a killing field of dead programs that should have been and useless zombie programs that shouldn't - and it's only gotten worse with time, as the collective IQ of Congress has declined and their political character reddened. But hopefully this time Congress won't poison America's space program like they've done every single time since Apollo. Still, I'm not getting my hopes up, just watching how things play out.
On the robotic side of things, NASA doesn't have a lot of new plans worth talking about, although existing missions are going strong: MESSENGER's still chugging along in orbit around Mercury, LRO is still orbiting the Moon, Curiosity is on Mars (as well as the Opportunity rover and two orbiters still in operation), Dawn is moving along to Ceres after completing its mission at Vesta, Juno's on its way to Jupiter, Cassini's still churning out divine images of Saturn and its moons, New Horizons is on its way to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, and - as you may have heard - the Voyager probes are still sending back readings from the outer edges of the solar system, as they begin to detect interstellar space.
Still, there is at least one hopeful signal: NASA is restarting plutonium production itself after nearly running out when the Department of Energy stopped producing it, which signals a long-term commitment to outer solar system robotic exploration. You can't explore the outer system without nuclear power sources - the Sun is just too weak for even the maximum theoretical efficiencies of solar panels to be practical. It might be possible to beam energy to distant probes using high-powered lasers, but for the moment that remains an undeveloped technology.
In lieu of such a development, we would have to abandon the most beautiful, exotic, and far-future-significant places in the solar system unless we could provide fuel for nuclear-powered probes. However, restarting the capability to launch such missions doesn't mean Congress will be interested in funding any of them: There are none currently planned, even though we have two largely unexplored planetary systems (Uranus and Neptune) with lots of unexplored moons just waiting to be revealed in detail like the Cassini orbiter did for the Saturn system. Hopefully there will be additional Flagship-class missions like Cassini to the outer solar system: Otherwise there doesn't seem to be much of a point to plutonium production.
6. Europe sees the writing on the wall, and it is SpaceX graffiti
Late last year, French lawmakers visited the SpaceX factory in California, and came away highly impressed and worried for the future of Europe's rocket business - particularly its Ariane 5 launcher. Ariane 5 is nowhere near being price-competitive with Falcon 9 even in its current version, let alone the upcoming new ones, nor is the planned incremental upgrade - the Ariane 5 ME - up to snuff either. As a result, the directors of the Ariane program are still mulling - one would even say, dithering - about whether to skip the ME and go directly to a more radical increment, the Ariane 6, which would be smaller and less powerful but allow for economies for scale through a greater number of launches. Most of the decision-makers seem keen to wait and see rather than act. Ariane 5 is a pretty good-looking rocket itself, BTW, although too much like the Space Shuttle for my tastes due to the solid rocket boosters (IMHO, solid rockets are just plain stupid):
A comparison of Ariane 5 ME and 6:
The Ariane 5 is what they use to launch the ATV shown above, but I don't know what NASA's launch plans are for the ATV-derived Orion service module - i.e., whether they intend to launch it themselves on SLS or an EELV, or if Europe would be launching it. If the latter, then Europe's choice in this matter would have nontrivial bearing on the progress of the Orion program.
7. Planetary Resources: A Leviathan on the Horizon
No one would have considered asteroid mining a credible subject until three multi-billionaires behind some of the most successful companies in the world (you may have heard of Google) decided to back a venture focused on exactly that last year: Planetary Resources (PR). And what sets it apart from the constant noise of quixotic ventures that come and go is its long-term focus: It has a plan to move forward incrementally, finding business along the way through tangential application of the technologies that will be developed to pursue the long-term objective. Long before they ever start mining asteroids, they will, I think, already be a hugely profitable company through commercialization of the technologies they're developing just to make asteroid mining possible.
For instance, before they can mine asteroids, they first have to find them and figure out which ones are worth mining, then send probes to characterize them in detail. This can't be done economically with today's state of Deep Space probe technology, all of which is custom-built for every mission, and even on the lower level runs in the hundred-million-dollar range per spacecraft - not including the cost of launch. PR has immediately set about changing this by developing a small, cheap, mass-produceable orbital telescope called the Arkyd-100 about the size of a trumpet case:
Arkyd-100 is still under development, but they plan to launch prototypes next year. If I understand their plans correctly, this is intended to be the basis for an entire family of standardized remote sensing probes that can be deployed to Earth orbit in swarms at affordable cost, and be used both for Earth observation and for looking outward to more distant objects (like asteroids). Hubble it ain't, but it's a start - and one that will create revenue streams for a vast market that is today totally unserved: Commercial space probes. You may not even need to buy a probe, just buy user time on one that's already been launched. Governments, universities, corporations, hobbyists, kids, what have you, might be able to direct their own space probe to look at various classes of objects that the telescope is able to look at, be it down at the Earth or out into the solar system.
Arkyd-200, the next class of probes, will be designed for BEO work out to 20-30 times the distance between the Earth and Moon, which means its main use would be for lunar and near-Earth asteroid exploration. However, they might theoretically be transported within a larger, more capable spacecraft to more distant locations (like Venus, Mars, Main Belt asteroids) and then released as a swarm. I would guess the main limitation would be the efficiencies and tolerances of their solar panels. This is where PR will start to learn how to do proximity exploration of planetary bodies other than Earth, which only national governments have ever done. Arkyd-300 would expand these capabilities to surface sampling, although that would only be of small bodies with trivial gravity. Still, it opens up the possibility of large-scale commercial orbital exploration of most places in the inner solar system.
Ten, fifteen, twenty years from now, NASA might contract out robotic exploration of the inner solar system to PR or a company like it and focus its own robotic efforts on the more distant regions requiring nuclear power and multi-decade survivability. But even that's not the biggest deal over the long-term: The biggest is if/when the long-term goals of PR come to fruition and they begin to mine asteroids, providing an in-space market particularly for water - a commodity that is excruciatingly expensive to bring up from Earth even if launch costs were much cheaper - and other commodities for in-space habitation and manufacturing.
Also, the importation of Platinum Group metals to Earth in massive quantities could easily create the largest, most sustained long-term economic expansion in human history, because these metals aren't merely important due to their rarity: They have tremendous practical high-tech uses, particularly in electronics and solar power, both of which have cascading beneficial consequences the more advanced they become and feedback into the efficiency of the asteroid mining technologies that would produce them.
The timeline PR is looking at for these long-term goals is several decades, so they're in it for the long-haul, and have the reliable investment resources to do so on a sustained basis. With the backing they have, and the credibility and intelligence of their growth plans, I hold them in the highest confidence.
8. Inspiration Mars: Believe It
I blogged a few times about Dennis Tito's Inspiration Mars initiative, most recently here. To recap, Dennis Tito - who is worth 9 figures - has committed to funding the first two years of development for a manned mission to flyby Mars that would launch in January 2018, and is in talks to come up with the rest of the funding. His organization has done deep technical feasibility work with NASA, and found that it can be done.
The plan calls for a very basic spacecraft with two crew - one man, one woman who are a long-term committed couple - to spend 501 days in a cramped environment on a free-return trajectory that swings around Mars, doing constant repair work to keep their own life support systems functioning. It would push the boundaries of current life support and atmospheric reentry technology, but is designed largely to prove that it can be done. The flight would make use of a special orbital alignment that would not recur again until 2032, so it's a precious opportunity.
They are still in the preliminary stages of exploring the range of technical options for their flight architecture, but they are clearly as serious as it gets, and others are just as serious in that they've been inundated with applications to be on the mission from people they say are easily among the most qualified in the world. However, their official application process has not yet begun because they still haven't designed the selection criteria let alone training program, so they're asking people to hold off.
At a recent event where they spoke about progress in their development, a viewer asked the guy in charge of the medical science aspects what the plan is if one of the crew dies during the mission, and he was candid and specific: Because they don't intend to have airlocks - all the systems are supposed to be fixable from within the spacecraft - there wouldn't be an opportunity for "burial at sea," so the preliminary plan would be to vacuum-seal the body in a body bag so that it wouldn't rot or contaminate the environment. Since it is as basic a mission as can be designed, there won't be a possibility of aborting the mission once underway to Mars, so in the horrific event of a crew death, the other person will have to spend the rest of the mission alongside their loved one's vacuum-sealed, desiccated corpse in a bag. Given the horrors routinely experienced around the world for no reason, I doubt anyone would hesitate to accept the risk of such a thing for such a profound mission if they intended to be a part of it in the first place.
Now, it really all hinges on the money. They have everything else: The talent, the credibility, the interest, the opportunity, and very likely the technology, but none of that matters if they can't pay for it. Since this is not intended as a money-making enterprise but a philanthropic one, they're not seeking investors, but donors - although they will be selling things like media rights to raise money. This approach carries both advantages and disadvantages, and there's no way to know right now how close or how far they are to getting full funding - that much, according to Tito, will only be apparent about two years from now, and they'll know then whether they're in a position to succeed. I'll be optimistic and say they have a 20% chance of getting the money, which doesn't sound like much, but this is the closest humanity has ever been to going to Mars, and that probability may increase as we learn more from the organization about their plans and dispositions.
If you're interested, here's a recent hour-long event some of the top people involved in Inspiration Mars had where they talked about their plans and progress:
9. Bigelow Aerospace: The Waiting Game
Bigelow Aerospace made quite a splash in 2006 and 2007 with the twin launches of two unmanned prototype inflatable space modules, both of which succeeded and are still in communication with Bigelow ground control. Images of a Genesis inflatable prototype module in space, exterior and interior:
Since then, they haven't launched anything, preferring to focus on ground-based development of larger modules for launch years from now. And the reason is simple: Before private customers can inhabit their inflatable space stations, there have to be affordable private launch options that could deliver customers to the stations, so they've basically had to sit there with these space stations sitting on the floor of their factory waiting for SpaceX and/or Boeing to deliver on the crewed Dragon and/or CST-100, with both companies typically citing 2015 as the year they'll be ready. It got so bad at one point that Bigelow had to lay off a bunch of people, although some proportion of them got hired back later. Launch is indeed the bottleneck in the whole space development process, and one of the many reasons that SpaceX is by far the most important organization in the entire industry.
However, one bright note: Last year NASA has signed a developmental contract with Bigelow to develop a small inflatable test module to be attached to the ISS, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). The plan is for the module to fly up in the unpressurized cargo section of a Dragon in 2015. Here's a full-scale mockup of BEAM on Earth:
II. Suborbital Domain
In an ironic turnaround, the suborbital domain of spaceflight is far grimmer today than the orbital domain, with the companies involved in it seemingly going nowhere, losing focus, or losing faith in their own ability to do anything. Even extremely well-funded ventures with a lot of name recognition seem stuck in doldrums. It's an unrelenting wasteland of unmet potential and aimlessness.
1. Virgin Galactic: No Confidence
Before SpaceX was anybody, Virgin Galactic was the great hope of manned spaceflight: The company born in triumph from SpaceShipOne (SS1) winning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004 by flying two private, manned suborbital space missions in a row. You may remember these flights, since they're some of the most awesome ever recorded on video:
After that victory, SS1 went into the Smithsonian, and Sir Richard Branson came calling to the makers of SS1 to form Virgin Galactic: A company to build a bigger, better version that would fly paying passengers into the black. Half a decade later, they finally built a bigger, better version, creatively named SpaceShipTwo (SS2):
But there was a problem: It didn't have a rocket engine - it was just a sleek-looking glide aircraft. You see, in 2007 the maker of SS1 and SS2, which had very little experience with rockets apart from the limited involvement they'd had with the ones that powered SS1 was doing some tests of the bigger system they wanted to use for SS2, and the test stand blew up and killed three of their people. They still don't really know why, other than finding out that nitrous oxide - the oxidizer used in their rocket engines - behaves very strangely and unpredictably under certain conditions. After trying for a couple of years to figure it out themselves - which was outside their wheelhouse as an aircraft company - they finally outsourced the rocket motor work to an actual rocket company.
Unfortunately, that didn't speed things up at all: The original decision to go with such an unorthodox rocket system - a hybrid of both liquid and solid fuels, with nitrous oxide as the oxidizer - had been locked into place, and there was nowhere to go but to find ways to make it work, so more and more effort was poured into it with little to show for it but a very rare, brief ground-based engine test every once in a while with little or no word about it. Meanwhile Virgin Galactic hones the aerodynamics of SS2 and its carrier aircraft by doing glide flights and landings, but soon there just wasn't anything left to do in that department, so they had this beautiful-looking "spaceship" just sitting there in the hangar because they were too afraid of their own concept that they'd been working on for most of a decade to actually fly it as designed.
So the rocket stayed outside and did occasional test fires, and the ship stayed in the hangar and did occasional glides to keep the pilots occupied, and Sir Richard would periodically go on a Bullshit tour and tell people they were right on the verge of going into space...in 2009, 2010, then 2011, then 2012...on and on it dragged while he sold people tickets on a spaceship with no engine. It got to a point where there was 6-8 months between actual activity, and some ticket holders started demanding their money back. Finally they installed the motor, and supposedly today there's supposed to be a brief in-air lighting of the engine: The first ever in a decade of effort. And frankly, no matter how cool it looks, I still won't have any confidence in Virgin Galactic.
Based on what I've seen, I don't believe that the test will be followed up in a timely fashion. I think, as they've been doing, they will take any excruciatingly long time between tests, advance them by excruciatingly tiny increments of ambitiousness, and if anything goes wrong or is even anomalous, they will bring the testing program to a screeching halt again. Virgin Galactic is an unmitigated disaster and it hasn't even "failed" in any specific way: It just hasn't gone anywhere, and doesn't want to take risks, and seemingly has no confidence in its own work. It built a rocket that it doesn't even want to risk test pilots to fly on a regular basis, but keeps telling people to put down deposits on commercial flights.
And I don't blame them their hesitation, because they've created an untenable business model on top of what is probably an unreliable and overly customized technology with minimal general applicability to the industry. They've tried to sell safety for an endeavor that is inherently unsafe, and as a result the first rich man that buys the farm is going to capsize their business, and they know it. In order words, they've repeated the same strategic mistakes as the Space Shuttle in a private enterprise, and it's mind-boggling: Being terrified of failure, they guarantee it. Being obsessed with safety, they refuse to take the risks that would let them improve it, and end up sabotaging it. Despite the massive financial resources of Richard Branson and the talents of the team behind the system, I have no confidence that Virgin Galactic will succeed either as a business or as a driver of broader technological development in the industry.
And that's unfortunate, because they're the anchor tenant of a promising new facility...
2. Spaceport America
Because Virgin Galactic was such a bigshot in the early years, the State of New Mexico took it seriously enough to invest $200 million in taxpayer money in building an entirely new commercial spaceport for its benefit, Spaceport America. It's a brilliantly forward-looking facility designed with Virgin Galactic in mind as an anchor tenant, bringing tourists in to New Mexico from all over the world to fly into space on their vehicles. And it's beautiful, and weird, as a spaceport should be:
But it was built around a company that doesn't seem likely to ever be worthy of it, or to sustain the kind of business they were hoping it would generate. And that sucks because people having faith in space-based enterprise should be rewarded, not made to feel like naive suckers who'd been sold a monorail. And it is an amazing thing they're building in New Mexico - I just hope other companies take up the slack.
3. Rocket Business or Rocket Technology Business?
There are a couple of small but highly credible, accomplished rocket companies - Masten Space Systems and XCOR Aerospace that have recently come to crossroads in their development paths, and have made choices whose outcomes can't be known in advance. Basically, the choice was this: Should they be rocket companies that make and sell complete operational rockets, like a smaller version of SpaceX, or should they be rocket technology companies that only use complete rockets as test beds for components that they sell? Personally, I think the former is a lot more useful to mankind even if the latter has a stronger business case, so I'm a little disappointed to see both these companies angling toward the latter.
Just look at how awesome the results are when companies like this put together whole rockets and fly them:
I'm sure it's an easier business to sell fuel pumps and avionics components then try to make a go of selling actual, operational rockets, but that's where everything comes together and fundamental progress can be made. So I've been a little bummed watching Masten and a few others leaning toward being component suppliers rather than companies aiming to make space travel happen.
XCOR, meanwhile, has also gone in yet a third direction with its pursuit of the Lynx suborbital vehicle: A small, one-passenger, one-pilot suborbital spacecraft that would do what Virgin Galactic does, but cheaper and more seat-of-the-pants. Ironically, it's falling victim to delays for the opposite reason that Virgin Galactic has: XCOR has a superb, highly advanced rocket engine and no aircraft to put it in, and because they're not an aircraft company they're not confident in their ability to build one.
Doesn't it seem like these two companies have a mutual solution in each other? Just put a bigger version of XCOR's engine in SpaceShipTwo, or build a smaller version of SpaceShipTwo around XCOR's engine. Voila - space travel! I mean, yes, it's more complicated than that, but clearly not as complicated as what they're already trying to do. Watch this engine in action and tell me it doesn't belong in an operational spacecraft:
Meanwhile XCOR is repeating some of the sleazoid mistakes of Sir Richard Branson by hiring a travel agency to sell tickets on the Lynx even though it doesn't even exist yet, and it just makes me think they're tempting fate, because there seems to be a pattern in the history of this industry where companies that begin to lose confidence in themselves start to become careless in what they promise. I myself haven't lost confidence in XCOR - their approach is far superior to Virgin Galactic's - but I don't want to see them fall into the same spiral of hype and disappointment.
III. Not-Gonna-Happen Domain
You may have heard of a venture called Golden Spike dedicated to commercializing lunar space travel. You might think it's credible because it has people with technological credibility attached to it - don't. They may have expertise in engineering physical hardware, but they have no clue what they're doing in terms of a business. Most recently they tried to raise millions of dollars through crowdfunding just for a nebulous campaign to "raise awareness" about their intentions, and naturally the response was pathetic. They would need billions of dollars to reach their goals, and they have no plan whatsoever to get there - no intermediate business plan, no evolutionary process, and no financial backing. It's not gonna happen. They're a bunch of former NASA bureaucrats who think they can just announce a goal and money will magically appear. Nope.
Another venture on the same mold is Mars One, which has no real funding or plan to achieve it, and has been offering corporate sponsorships of their paper studies just to fund initial research. Their goal - to colonize Mars - is roughly a $50 billion proposition. Their actual budget is hundreds of thousands of times lower than that. They will write some papers, present some nice diagrams at conferences, and that's it. Don't waste time on Mars One. Watch Inspiration Mars.