SpaceX, OSC and a Window Into the Future

Image Credit: SpaceX

The timing of course, was ultimately a matter of co-incidence driven by weather and mechanical issues, but the back to back launches of the OSC Antares with a Cygnus re-supply ship, and the SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying the first Orbcomm OG-2 mission happen to highlight the stunning progress which has been wrought in great part due to NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and Commercial Resupply (CRS) programs.

Curiously, it is yet another high point for NewSpace, even as it is a validation of some elements of “Old Space” as well. With the Cygnus cargo ship SS Janice E. Voss, the third vessel of its class en route to the International Space Station for a Wednesday berthing, it is worth reflecting on the truly impressive job performed by Orbital Sciences in integrating multiple elements from multiple companies (and multiple decades) around the world into a low Earth orbit supply system which has seen four successful launches of new booster in barely more than 14 months, three of which carried cargo to ISS.

No, OSC is not SpaceX, but that is precisely the point. Through its exemplary performance in the COTS and CRS programs at what can only be called a miniscule investment of public funds compared to traditional “Old Space” development programs, OSC has demonstrated that it does not require a new, a NewSpace or as the media loves to call it an “upstart” company to achieve outstanding results in supporting human spaceflight.  One cautionary note worth keeping in mind; the ongoing merger with Alliant Techsystems (ATK) is a wildcard which could adversely affect the OSC culture, inexorably dragging it back down into the arsenal space mentality which provided us the Ares-1 and now the Space Launch System. Of course it might work the other way as well.

And then there is SpaceX, which celebrated Bastille Day in a manner for which France is no doubt uniformly unappreciative, undertaking yet another noble attempt to break down the 62 high mile wall in the prison of high launch costs. Based on the information available, yesterday’s attempt, although not successful, clearly indicates that barrier can be breached, and the cracks are spreading.  In two consecutive efforts, Elon Musk’s company has apparently demonstrated that it can re-ignite and control a descending Falcon 9-R first stage back through the atmosphere and up to the moment of hover above the ocean.  For a vehicle designed to land on a concrete pad, a feat we have all seen its pathfinder Grasshopper prototype perform on multiple occasions, that is a clear indication that the balance of the challenge lies in the still unproven art of managing a stage flyback to a dry land. Appropriately enough, this effort will presumably soon be underway over the very dry land of Spaceport America in New Mexico. (For the impatient and the prurient, one might hope subsequent operational launch attempts would include a water activated flotation buoy for the thrust structure, and a trawler with a long cable to haul it back up.)

Taken together, the back to back OSC and SpaceX flights are more than just a great news cycle for NewSpace. They also provide a tantalizing example of what the right partnership of NASA and a coalition of the willing could provide the taxpayer if the right leadership is ever exercised.  Although the Cygnus cargo vessel due to berth with ISS on Wednesday is to suffer the same ignominious fate as ATV, HTV and scores of Progress cargo vehicles, this does not always have to be the case. Next year OSC will launch the enhanced version of Cygnus, one which offers 27 cubic meters (950 cubic feet) of pressurized volume, more than twice that of the Dragon Spacecraft and almost three times the “habitable” volume of the Orion capsule. Its close cousin, the Permanent Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) is a now a permanent component of ISS.

For want of an affordable heavier lift booster (coming to Launchpad 39A in 2015) and preferably a high power solar electric transfer vehicle, and a mindset which abhors throwing anything away, the various components of the current space program, some old, some new, will soon be capable of providing logistics and a permanently expanding amount of pressurized space anywhere in the inner solar system. How soon it takes to seize the moment is still anybody’s guess. Viva La Revolution, and then..Le Bon Ton Roule!

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1 Comment on "SpaceX, OSC and a Window Into the Future"

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  1. Micheal says:

    I’d ventrue that this article has saved me more time than any other.

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