XCOR Receives Lynx Cockpit, Begins Integrating First Operational Vehicle

Cockpit, with Lox tank in background Credit : XCOR

Cockpit, with Lox tank in background
Credit : XCOR

Although Virgin Galactic has a tendency to draw the headlines, no doubt in part due to its very high profile founder, XCOR Aerospace is pressing equally hard to get its Lynx space plane into commercial service. The company announced a major step forward today with the delivery of the pressurized cockpit for its Lynx Mark I.

XCOR Press Release:

XCOR Aerospace Receives Lynx Mark I Cockpit
Vehicle Integration Commences

April 09 2014, Mojave, CA – XCOR Aerospace announced today that the XCOR® Lynx® Mark I cockpit has been delivered. AdamWorks engineers, along with XCOR engineers, performed several successful pressure tests before it was packed and shipped to XCOR .

The cockpit is the principle major subassembly XCOR needs to begin assembly of the Lynx suborbital spaceplane.

“The successful pressure testing of the Lynx cockpit and its delivery is a major milestone for us,” said XCOR Founder and CEO Jeff Greason. “This will enable us to accelerate toward integration, ground testing and first flight over the rest of this year.”

Andrew Nelson, Chief Operating Officer of XCOR added, “Our clients and partners are very happy to see this significant sign of progress. I could not be more happy with our designers, engineers and team who have worked so hard on this major accomplishment. We are that much closer to suborbital operations.”

XCOR Aerospace: XCOR Aerospace is based in Mojave, California. It is currently creating a Research and Development Center in Midland, Texas, and will be establishing an operational and manufacturing site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. XCOR builds safe, reliable and reusable rocket-powered vehicles, propulsion systems, advanced non-flammable composites and rocket piston pumps. XCOR works with aerospace prime contractors and government customers on major propulsion systems, while also building Lynx. Lynx is a piloted, two-seat, fully reusable liquid rocket-powered vehicle that takes off and lands horizontally. The Lynx family of vehicles serves three primary missions depending on their specific type including: research and scientific missions, private spaceflight and micro satellite launch (only on the Lynx Mark III). Lynx production models (designated Lynx Mark II) are designed to be robust, multi-mission (research/scientific or private spaceflight) commercial vehicles capable of flying to 100+ km in altitude, up to four times per day. Lynx vehicles are available to customers in the free world on a wet lease basis to start their own manned space flight program. Learn more at www.xcor.com.

Swiss Space Systems Announces World Tour Dates

Credit : Swiss Space Systems

Credit : Swiss Space Systems

Swiss Space Systems unveiled its worldwide Zero G flight schedule for 2015 in a March newsletter today. Lifting off from 24 different airfields and every continent except Antarctica, the company’s specially modified Airbus A-300 will span the globe, offering parabolic flights with passengers grouped into three different zones.

Beginning at under 2,000 Euros, the “Party Zone,” located at the rear of the aircraft will host up to 40 passengers per flight making it “the world’s most affordable ZeroG experience.”

The plane’s middle section, described as the “Premium Zone” will host up 24 passengers in a 10 meter long section, each of whom will get to keep their S3 flight suit and receive a Breitling S3 ZeroG timepiece.   Cost, which also includes “special activities such as playing with liquids and balloons” is 5,000 Euros.

Finally, there is the VIP room, located at the front of the plane and hosting up to 12 passengers at a time. This section is priced differently, “at a minimum cost of 50’000 Euros for the whole zone, with several options that can be discussed to offer a tailor-made experience.” Let your imagination go where it will, but the flight suit and the watch will also go home with the participants.  

Service kicks off January 10 in Japan and concludes November 29 in Puerto Rico. North American stops begin in Canada on August 29, going on to Colorado, California and winding up with nearly the entire month of October spent in Florida.

Winklevoss plus Bitcoins equals Zero G

And the Twins Credit: Virgin Galactic

And the Twins
Credit: Virgin Galactic

It has been a wild week in world of digital currency known as bitcoins, beginning with a high profile theft, and culminating with NewsWeeks’s claim that it has identified its enigmatic creator.

Somewhere in the middle comes a new piece of evidence that bitcoins may have a future as interplanetary currency. Virgin Galactic has received another celebrity booking, (in this case a double), but this one comes with a well written blog post by Tyler Winklevoss, explaining why he and his brother Cameron, who together famously accused Mark Zuckerberg of stealing the concept behind Facebook,  used bitcoins to pay for their sub-orbital spaceflight.

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NASA, Space Florida Begin Partnership for Shuttle Landing Strip

 

Shuttle Landing Facility Credit : BayNews9

Shuttle Landing Facility
Credit : BayNews9

 The week ended on a high note for the Kennedy Space Center with the announcement today that NASA and Space Florida are hammering out a partnership agreement which would see the State of Florida development agency assume responsibility for the Shuttle Landing Facility.The agreement which is still being worked out could see Space Florida ease the entry of a number of new ventures to the historic 15,000 foot long, 300 foot wide landing strip.  Among the possible users are XCOR Aerospace which has already expressed an interest in operating its Lynx suborbital space place from the site, as well as Virgin Galactic’s White Knight Two, carrying either its suborbital tourist space plane V.S.S. Enterprise, or Launcher One small satellite booster.  At the top of the size chart is Stratolaunch, which is already targeting a 2017 test launch out of KSC. 

Though none of the air-launched entries offers the exhilaration of Shuttle launch, the potential for a steady influx of tourists, researchers and commercial customers, combined with a flight tempo far in advance of anything seen at the Cape in years gone by could mean a mixed use future is suddenly looking quite a bit brighter for the Space Coast.

The Business of Flying with Celebrities

Credit : Virgin Galactic

Credit : Virgin Galactic

It has been an interesting couple of weeks for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and what appears to be the growing trend among high profile celebrities to sign up for flights aboard the V.S.S. Enterprise.   Two weeks ago  a Russian businessman  reportedly paid the equivalent of $1.5 million at a benefit auction for the right to share a flight with Leonardo DiCaprio.  While for many, hopefully most, the experience of  several moments of weightlessness would provide enough stimulus as it is, the idea of flying with a celebrity makes a certain amount of sense. It should prove to be a remarkably equalizing moment when everyone is out of their element, literally. 

Perhaps it will start a trend.  In some ways, it could  be the equivalent of fundraisers using  pro/am celebrity golf.  No matter how famous, influential or otherwise generally important an individual may be, there is a certain delicious moment of clarity when they step up to the tee and give it their best effort. Whether they just arrived  by helicopter to play their one hole, or are surrounded by a phalanx of body guards the rest of the day,  they are for a moment, just another person hoping they don’t whiff. 

And  so we come to the question.  If someone was willing to donate $1.3 million to fly with DiCaprio, how much could be raised by auctioning off the right not to have to fly with Joffrey Baratheon,  check that… Justin Bieber?

Credit : Tumblr

Credit : Tumblr

As NewSpace Prepares to Take Off, Will Congress Let NASA Get On Board?

Nasa-logo

 

Earlier this week, yet another Congressional committee held hearings on the direction of NASA and  future of human spaceflight.   Even for policy wonks, this gets old.  Maybe though, that is about to change.   

It has been a long eight years since SpaceShip 1 won the Ansari X-Prize and began to focus the world’s attention on the potential inherent in the NewSpace movement. Now, with the powered flight testing program for SpaceShip 2 already underway, and looking to enter the suborbital realm by the end of the year, and XCOR’s Lynx Mark I right on its heels, it seems apparent that NewSpace is about to get a lot more visible. According to the Hollywood Reporter, (via NewSpaceWatch.com) Cinipix Parters is preparing to produce a film, “Newcomers” which will not only include footage shot aboard an XCOR Lynx, but showcase the Lynx itself in the film.

While many near-term science fiction movies have been absolutely awful (Mission to Mars, Red Planet comes to mind), that really isn’t the point. For many years, the Space Shuttle or close derivatives have been featured in major motion pictures such as Armageddon, Space Cowboys or in more modest productions such as the beginning of 2003’s version of Riverworld, among various offerings on Sci-Fi (Sy-fy.) It was simply the easiest way to portray space.  Now however, just about everyone knows the Shuttle is retired, probably a significantly higher number of people than can name the Vice-President or Speaker of the House. So what’s Hollywood to do?

Move on to the new systems which are gradually seeping into popular culture. This is already happening in a significant way in the Siemens commercial featuring SpaceX which airs heavily, especially during Fox News’ most viewed evening broadcasts, which is something of an irony. The same audience which is given a very slanted and essentially disingenuous portrayal of Tesla, is at the same time receiving a glowing portrayal of SpaceX several times a night. But that is precisely point. NewSpace is beginning to find its way into popular culture through an increasing number of avenues, and the trend will only become more pronounced when other companies join SpaceX in flying hardware. It may have some interesting implications for public policy.

It seems likely that in the very near future, what the public perceives as what is possible to accomplish in space is due for a major upgrade, one which will be driven from multiple angles by some of the best marketing talent on the planet. For example, based on comments made at the ongoing Space Tech Expo, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is planning an “exponential” increase in cross promotions once Space Ship 2 begins operations. Although the difference between orbital and suborbital space is very clear to people who are generally interested in human spaceflight, the distinction may not be all the clear to the rest of the world, and it will lose even more meaning if and when the first orbital test flight projected by SpaceX or Boeing as part of the Commercial Crew program takes place.

Even if the proposed budget for Commercial Crew is slashed by its opponents in Congress yet again, such action will only delay the inevitable introduction of the first commercial, passenger carrying space transportation system, and it could even have the opposite effect. Either way, as public awareness of private spaceflight increases though the engine of marketing,  even Congress may reach the understanding that  a threshold has been passed, and that for NASA to maintain its current relevance, policy must be adjusted accordingly. One possible outcome,  mission planners wisely decide to  follow Wayne Hale’s conclusion,  (presented to yet another committee) that commercial space is the key to affordable logistics for deep space exploration.  If that doesn’t happen,  the terms NASA and science fiction may take on a whole new meaning.

Sarah Brightman May Not Be Flying to ISS

Maybe NotCredit : Space Adventures

Maybe Not
Credit : Space Adventures

Source: RIA Novosti

Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos said Saturday that  British soprano Sarah Brightman may be bumped from a flight slot to ISS in 2015.  According the report,  NASA and Roscosmos may jointly decide to extend the duration of what would have been her flight from eight days to a month, effectively erasing her opportunity.

Given that the purported cost of the trip, at more than $51 million, would be close to  double the rate which Bigelow Aerospace recently announced for its Alpha station if SpaceX is the provider ($25.25 mln), having her Soyuz seat double-booked might be something of a  relief, provided of course that Bigelow follows through on its plans for the station and Brightman is willing to wait at least a few more years. Even though NASA has given Bigelow Aerospace a big boost in the form of an agreement to launch its BEAM module to ISS in 2015, the combination of sequestration and underfunding of the Commercial Crew program are also delaying the advent of transportation services.

As for the International Space Station program, which never quite seems to break into the general public consciousness as the truly remarkable project it is, it seems reasonable to wonder whether or not the station partners ought not be finding ways to make missions such as Brightman’s  happen, rather than arranging schedules so they do not.

Getting to Space : Looking Ahead in 2013

The One Sure Flight for 2013 Credit: Star Trek

The One Sure Flight for 2013
Credit: Star Trek

As spaceship Earth embarks on another trip around the Sun,  it’s an appropriate occasion to take a look ahead at the New Year and consider what developments might take place which could change the fundamental cost basis of reaching orbit.

Suborbital Space:  After seemingly  endless delays, 2013 is poised to be the breakout year for the reusable suborbital launch industry.  (but then again, so was  2012) While paying customer flights are at least another year away, both XCOR  and Virgin Galactic should be in the position to qualify their respective vehicles over the next 12 months. Meaningful progress in rapid turnaround and re-flight of suborbital systems such as the Lynx Mark I  and SS2/VSS Enterprise should lead to the later introduction of small expendable upper stages, as well as make a dent in the major conceptual barrier that isolated, fully expendable launches are still an acceptable solution for the future.

Blue Origin:  It is always difficult to tell what, if anything is occurring with Blue Origin, but given the enormous potential for a second credible effort at reusable orbital transportation to change the entire trajectory of the launch industry, now would be a good time to pull back the veil.

SpaceX:  Elon Musk’s company clearly stole the show last year with the first ever private flight to the International Space Station.  If anything, 2013 offers the promise of even more significant developments beginning with the introduction of the Falcon 9 V1.1.  If  the company can follow suit with a highly anticipated GSO launch later in the year, then the company’s presence in the international commercial launch market will be solidified, and  other players notably Arianespace, will start to sweat in earnest.

As the centerpiece of the Falcon Heavy, a successful  2013 launch campaign for the Falcon  9 V1.1 also improves the odds that the end of this new year will see the game changing rocket sitting on the pad and aimed at making 2014 the year that everything changes.

Finally, will the Grasshopper re-usable test vehicle continue to shrink the gap between  short test flights and a Mach  6 return from boost.  If there is any one development most likely to shake the lethargy of established launch providers in the coming year, or in 2014, this is it.

Orbital Sciences:  Probably nobody has as much on the line in 2013 as OSC.  With SpaceX already having passed its initial challenge in completing the COTS program and making the first CRS contracted delivery to ISS,  OSC suffers the additional challenge of undertaking its own test program for the Antares launch vehicle and the Cygnus supply ship in the light of SpaceX’s recent accomplishments.  While no-one would characterize OSC as a “Newspace” company , it still occupies a unique position in the launch industry,  between the newer companies such as SpaceX and established heavies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.  A successful  introduction of the Antares, its first liquid fueled launch vehicle, could provide the confidence necessary to take a bolder approach to its recently established partnership with Stratolaunch, and place additional pressure on ULA to innovate or abdicate.

United Launch Alliance:  ULA promised lower launch costs if only it could receive security in the form of a block buy.  Now it has one,  so the time to deliver is at hand. If ever there was a situation where the technological capability outkicked the coverage,  this is it. And yet there has been virtually nothing on the developmental front to suggest that ULA  acknowledges the changing landscape of the launch industry. While the three year effort to secure a block buy has apparently proved successful, it is the aerospace equivalent of playing a prevent defense, which all too often only succeeds in preventing victory.    Supported by its ongoing special relationship with the Air Force, as well as a solid future with NASA,  ULA isn’t going anywhere for the moment, but if promised cost reductions do not appear, it may be increasingly marginalized as a commercial vendor.  Is 2013 the year a long term plan to change the two rocket paradigm finally emerges?

We often find our greatest accomplishments in the contest between  two outstanding adversaries; Just as Affirmed needed Alydar, the Yankees need the Red Sox,  Michigan needs Ohio State and Alabama needs Auburn (though sadly, not this year) SpaceX may finds its greatest accomplishments come when a suitable rival for lowering the cost of space transportation emerges on the scene, particularly one which accepts the concept of a level playing field as one of the rules of the game.  ULA has the experience and the expertise, but do they have the will?

NASA:   Will the newly re-elected Obama Administration develop a coherent space policy which garners support both inside and outside the agency, or will the meandering continue?

Arianespace: Having decided in November 2012 to kick the can down the road in determining  a future course of response to SpaceX, one wonders if a third alternative to two tepid proposals, Ariane V ME or Ariane VI might emerge.

Russian Space:  With reform efforts undertaken in 2012 showing little progress to date, the upcoming year could be a make or break for the world’s oldest launch infrastructure.

Skylon:  Reaction Engines made news in 2012 with the announcement of successful test of a flight weight pre-cooler for its SABRE engine.  Beginning this year, the company is embarking on a multiyear effort to produce a full working engine and a test rig. Although there is not likely to be a major development in the coming months, continuing progress on this truly revolutionary system may begin to sink in with other players, and add to the sense that events are in motion, and that resting is not merely rusting, it is giving up.

China: Proceeding methodically in its evolution of the Long March family of rockets, all indications are that 2014 will be the earliest likely year of change with the introduction of the Lox/ Kerosene powered Long March 5.

Wildcard: While the high costs and long development times make the space launch industry particularly unsuited for sudden dramatic surprises, there is always the chance other developments within the broader space sector could change the way we view our space launch capability.  In that light, it is always possible that should the coming year offer revelations about previously undetected Earth crossing asteroids,  or a real discovery from the Curiosity rover on Mars,  or perhaps even from the confirmation of Earthlike planet in a nearby star system,  that reducing the costs and getting out into space sooner rather than later, takes on new emphasis. That’s what is compelling about the beginning of a new year, as a certain Vulcan might say “there are always possibilities.”

Killer Asteroids, Martian Pizza and the Future of Big Ticket Exploration

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn (R) recently released an annual  “Waste Book” detailing specific examples of perceived waste in the federal spending. As might be expected, NASA was not immune,  being tagged for spending  just under a million dollars on a Cornell University study which involves sending volunteers to a Mars simulation event in Hawaii to test the response and preference to different instant foods.

The specific criticism in the report centers around several issues.   First, there is currently no planned human mission to Mars, and second, one doesn’t appear likely “due to budget constraint that have reduced the appetite for costly space missions”  Leaving the obvious pun aside, the final point is that  NASA already has an extensive menu with over 100 “food options.”

Later in the report, NASA came in for criticism again, both for attempting to develop “Starlight” a massive mutliplayer on-line game, a Mars landing simulation, and an on-line radio station. In another section, NASA comes under criticism again for maintaining the “lessons learned” database, even though according to the report it is rarely used, and then yet again for a new offsite visitor center for NASA Stennis.  DOD space also came under fire (more bad puns) for hosting the 100-year starship symposium.

In terms of analysis,  at least the NASA games called into question  offer more potential for excitement  than another questionable taxpayer game highlighted later on, this one designed to let players walk in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau at Walden pond (presumably it does not take a year to play )

Regardless of your political viewpoint,  there is no getting around the fact the United States, over many years and multiple administrations, has dug itself into such a financial hole, and built such a crushing debt load, that almost any money spent on space can easily be construed as wasteful spending when juxtaposed against a $16 trillion dollar debt.

Although Coburn’s report focuses on small ticket items, which are easy to pick on, it is difficult to see how big-ticket items such as the Space Launch System can possibly survive long term in a budget environment which is only going to become more constrained.  If it somehow does, the reasons are likely to be equally depressing;  because supporters built a coalition of powerfully connected entrenched interests  which succeeded in passing out enough money that its absence would be noted. Unfortunately, the  resulting infrastructure, like the Shuttle from which it is derived, will be too expensive to have any meaningful long-term impact on advancing the state of space exploration, commerce and ultimately settlement.

There is of course a better way, highlighted by the COTS and CRS programs, in which public goals (lowering the costs of resupplying ISS) are advanced in tandem with private goals (SpaceX’s founder Elon Musks’s desire to achieve cost breakthroughs in space transportation) to the benefit of multiple other players, such as the B612 foundation which will use a Falcon 9 to launch its infrared telescope to hunt for potentially disasterous earth crossing asteroids. Currently however, NASA is silent on any future plans to extend the example of COTS beyond LEO.

That is why in the long run, those technology paths built around serving individual human initiative and desire, whether expressed singly as space tourists, or in groups,  as part of private organizations or crowd sourced ventures may offer a better option than alternatives which depend instead on serving political interests and gaming the outcome of the next election.

Jumping from the “Edge” of Space

The imagery accompanying Felix Baumgartner’s record setting jump on Sunday was both compelling in the moment, and evocative of moments gone by.

The piercing clear blue sky, and the thin,  ethereal nature of the balloon itself soon gave way to the infrared imagery of a single man plummeting through the atmosphere at a speed greater than that which most of us routinely travel through air, surrounded by the relative, if decreasing comforts of a modern jet airliner.

Fortunately, with no  Romulan ship threatening to inject red matter into Earth’s crust, after managing the free fall, the most Baumgartner had to worry about was sticking the landing on New Mexico scrubland, not a platform suspended over an alien planet. Still, Hollywood and reality merged a little closer together yesterday, and who knows, maybe they have  Red Bull in the 23rd century as well.

If anything however, the imagery, no doubt intentionally, suggested the earliest days of manned spaceflight, complete  with a single person capsule, a small mission control team, even if Capcom Joe Kittinger and Felix Baumgartner didn’t seem to have the smoothest of exchanges.

So, was this is mostly a stunt, here for a moment and then gone, like Evel Knievel attempting to “jump” the Snake River Canyon, or was it something more relevant?

Very likely it was the latter.  The jump was only barely from the “edge” of space, depending on your definition, and certainly not from orbit, even though the Discovery Channel’s revolving planet backdrop to the broadcast sometimes seemed to suggest otherwise. Also it actually fell shy of Kittinger’s free-fall time record. Nevertheless it seems likely that to some, the key elements of the experience, the capsule, the undeniably compelling view , and the sense of being in near space, will offer a plausible alternative to $50 million dollar orbital flights, just as sub-orbital flights with Xcor or Virgin Galactic will to others.   That is the concept behind zero2infinity ,  and no doubt there will soon be others.  And even though the link between balloon flights and orbital spaceflight  would seem to be tenuous at best, JP Aerospace has made measurable progress in advancing at least part of their concept of a high altitude “dark sky station”  from which giant, ultralight airships slowly accelerate to orbital velocity over a period of days.

Finally,  the imagery surrounding the Red Bull promotion also suggests a possible alternative path for orbital tourism as well. Rather than paying tens of millions to train in Russia and be crammed into a Soyuz capsule with two relative strangers,  might not some enterprising citizen explorers prefer instead essentially a recreation of the original Mercury flights,  in modern,  lightweight  (reusable) capsules?

The desire to see the homewold from space,  and to experience other aspects of spaceflight seems so strong that it will very likely find many different outlets. There is a clear analog for this. Mankind has traversed the seas since the dawn of civilization, and to some extent the advent of seaborne trade helped give rise the earliest form of what is now called “western” civilization. However, it was not until 1895 that a retired sea-captain named Joshua Slocumb took a small sloop, the Spray, on the world’s first solo circumnavigation and wrote a book about it. The book, Sailing Alone Around the World, changed nautical history, and within a few years,  the idea that individuals could manage ocean crossings took popular hold.  Where one went, hundreds  soon followed.  Now, it is a routine occurence, in vessels both large and small, and of astonishing variety.

Sunday’s jump, like Slocumb’s journey, was yet another example of the enduring value proposition not of national will,  but of the simple, unfettered individual human desire to “boldly go.” It was viewed live by roughly 8 million people, at least some of whom would no doubt like to follow.

Now, if someone, somewhere could just learn how to recover and re-use a first stage.