Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Flying the Future

These days, it seems like I can't wait to wake up in the mornings and read all the latest commercial space news. The last week has seen announcements about Bigelow's plant expansion, SpaceX has released a couple of interesting tidbits I'd like to talk about,  and one of my least favorite rocket designs (Ares I) may be coming back from the dead in a new guise but up to the same old tricks.

I talked about the Bigelow stuff a few days ago, but that was closely followed by several interesting pieces of news out of SpaceX. The first was a release from the EPA approving (at least from the environmental end) SpaceX plans to take over SLC4E at Vandenberg and convert if to flying Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy at a combined launch rate of up to 10 launches a year. I'm not sure I buy that capability, but they are proposing an integration facility large enough to handle the Heavy version (about 3x the floor space of the facility at the Cape, which is good: the Cape's building I think will become an issue if/when they try to start F9H ops there). SpaceX took about 2 years from handover of LC40 at the Cape to operational status, taking over the complex in 2007, starting work on conversion in April 2008, and erecting Falcon 9 on the pad there for the first time in January 2009.

In addition to plans for a new launch complex, SpaceX also announced that they've signed a deal with the Google Lunar X-prize team Astrobotic Technology. Astrobotic now has reserved a launch of Falcon 9 NET (No Earlier Than) December 2013 for their first flight of their lunar lander. Falcon's not the best launch vehicle for lunar operations: with the current second stage, it maxes out at about 2 metric tons pushed through lunar orbit injection, which happens to exactly fit the Astrobotic proposal. However, Falcon 9 gets that performance at a price point that's hard to argue with.

I'm probably running the risk of being dubbed a Kool-aid drinker, but I really do like what SpaceX is doing. Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy (if they ever finish it) seem like great rockets, and the company's facilities seem  capable of handling them at a good rate. Elon was recently quoted as saying they're currently building a Falcon 9 every three months or so (about 4 a year), and that by 2012 they hope to have that down to six weeks (for about 8/year). So far, they seem to have a manifest that means they have the clients to fly Falcon 9 as often as they can build them, between COTS/CRS flights for NASA, Orbcomm satellite launches, and various other manifested flights. Their model isn't perfect: they certain;ly still need some work on stage recovery if they hope to get that down, and if they want to reach a construction rate capable of supporting their hoped launch rate, they may need a second facility or something, but it's quite far for a company founded only eight years ago to now be poised to be one of the dominant players in the US commercial launch market, and perhaps even the international one.

However, at leas this morning, my excitement over SpaceX is tempered by some unpleasant news in my AIAA morning newsletter. I've never been a fan of the Ares I: I'm not a fan of big solid boosters, but I do acknowledge that they provide critical T/W during the first few minutes of the profiles of the vehicles that use them. However, this is only true when fired in parallel with a liquid stage (or stages) that then do the actual work of getting to orbit. The Ares proposal of using a single one of these giant solids as a first stage....well, it worries me. I don't think it's easy, I don't think it'd be cheap, and the crew escape position is very tricky because of the high thrust of the solid-only first stage. So, now that ATK's finally having to face the fact that Ares I is dead with NASA at this point (though they may still get 5-segment boosters on a SDHLV), they've apparently teamed up with Astrium (who do the Ariane V core stage) to produce a new "Liberty" luncher vehicle for the second round of the NASA commercial crew program. The NYtimes, WSJ, and others are carrying the story, though I'm personally waiting for the article from Chris Bergin at Nasaspaceflight.com, since though it's not yet available as I write this post he's promising to take a look at the technical details of it instead of just spouting numbers from ATK's press release.

I'm not sure I can put into words why I don't like this plan other than that I feel that the Ares I program was an unneccesary program to develop a crew-launch capability that could have far more easily, quickly, and cheaply been achieved on a man-rated Atlas V, Delta IV, or something like that (possibly already could have been flying by now for probably less than half the cost of what work has been done on Ares I), and the 5-segment solid first stage....honestly, it scares me. However, with the Liberty, ATK will now be playing in the same arena as SpaceX's Falcon 9 and F9H, the ULA Atlas and Delta, and international vehicles like Ariane V and Proton in a realm where cost and performance are everything, and I think the true capabilities of this rocket will rapidly become apparent, and that the reaction in the marketplace will be appropriate to that. Personally, I'm not expecting great things. Not to mention the important fact that CCDEV2 is a spacecraft program, not an LV program...we'll see.

On a more positive note, the UD Aerodesign plane is beginning to come together. The fuselage is in the process of being molded after the completion of the core mold at about 11:40 PM last night (I'm sorry, sleep? What is "sleep"?) and the wings should be cut tonight. We're now looking at a tentative first flight on the 19th if we can keep the schedule, with a fall back date the next week if the schedule slips. Even if we have to slip to the 26th, that's still enough to allow us to have some flight test data in the paper, and that would make this one of the first times in Aerodesign's recent past that flight was achieved within the paper deadline. I'd like to show of some images (I'm a bit like a proud parent that way), but I think I'll hold off until the paper deadline, or until we fly, then show it all at once so I don't feel like I'm giving too much away.

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