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Reusable Launch & Space Vehicle News
August 2003

White Knight with StarShipOne over a field of windmills
Mojave Desert News Photo via Mojave Airport Website
White Knight with SpaceShipOne

This section contains brief articles concerning developments in the field of reusable launch and space vehicles with links to news sources, NASA, company sites, etc.

See the Advanced Rocketery Section for entries on
advanced amateur & student rocketry, experimental rocketry,
& innovations by small rocket companies.

In addtion, the Space Log contains news about
amateur space activities, space businesses, etc.

RLV News Archive Directory

August 31, 2003

US Public wants a replacement for the shuttle : Poll tells NASA to keep sending ships into space - OrlandoSentinel.com - Aug.31.03 (via spacetoday.net). Too bad they will probably get the overpriced, underwhelming OSP program. As indicated by the attitude in this article NASA's spaceship crisis, pressures mirror shuttle era - Florida Today - Aug.31.03, the dominant view in the press and among politicians still holds that the X-33 and other projects failed because NASA "underestimated the costs and technological barriers" and not because the agency simply failed in planning and execution.

So there is a good chance that NASA will get its "$1.6 billion next year and $20 billion during the next five years to safely return the shuttles to flight and hurry development of the Orbital Space Plane." However, at best it will result in a somewhat safer vehicle that flies 4 or 5 times a year at a slightly lower cost, for ~$250M a mission instead of ~$500M .

Miscellaneous other shuttle related articles of interest:

SpaceX update for July has been posted. Highlights include:

  • The upper stage propulsions tests have neared the goals set for the system. The results indicate that SpaceX has achieved state of the art performance :

    "Delta II rocket upper stage has a specific impulse of 319s and a mass efficiency of 86%, compared to the expected Falcon specific impulse of 325s and mass efficiency of 91%. Our inert mass being one third better than Boeingís is very significant as that translates to a pound for pound improvement in actual payload to orbit"

    ..."biggest single advantage we have is our use of advanced aluminum-lithium for the propellant tanks rather than steel in the Boeing case. We also employ a blended system of both heated helium and gaseous oxygen to pressurize the tanks, significantly reducing our pressurant weight."

  • The parachute recovery system for the first stage is nearly complete.

  • The thrust vector control stand is now fully set up for testing of the main engine.

  • A neat animation shows the setup procedure and launch of the Falcom at Vandenberg.

  • The vertical stand at the Texas propulsion test facility is nearly complete. Full duration firings will begin in late October or early November.

  • An addendum to Elon Musk's testimony to Congress expresses his firm belief in the viability of a strong "Commercial Human Spaceflight Market".

In addition, the Updates section now includes a calendar where milestones and launch dates are posted.

August 29, 2003

Homer Hickam on the Shuttle... In an essay in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), Homer Hickam of Rocket Boys fame says that he has come "to conclude that the Space Shuttle is NASA's Vietnam. A generation of engineers and managers have exhausted themselves trying to make it work and they just can't. Why not? Because the Shuttle's engineering design, just as Vietnam's political design, is inherently flawed."

The ex-NASA engineer doesn't buy the theory of "NASA culture" as a culprit but he does perceive a "Shuttle cult. It is practiced like a religion by space policy makers who simply cannot imagine an American space agency without the Shuttle. Well, I can, and it's a space agency which can actually fly people and cargoes into orbit without everybody involved being terrified of imminent destruction every time there's lift-off."

He goes on to recommend flying the shuttles just ten more times to finish up the ISS and then stop flying it. His preferred replacement is the spaceplane on top of an expendable launcher approach so that crews can escape if the booster has problems.

Update: Spaceref has posted a longer version of this essay : Not Culture but Perhaps a Cult, Op Ed on NASA and the Shuttle by Homer Hickam - Spaceref - Aug.29.03

+ Comments by Rand Simberg on the WSJ essay.

More about the PEIS... Got some more feedback on the recent items on Aug.21st and Aug.26th) about the FAA-AST's effort to obtain public input into its study of the environmental impact of horizontal RLVs. Andrew Case posted a link to this page over at the ARocket forum and one participant responded with a couple of comments.

With regard to why the latest PEIS deals only with horizontal launch the answer is "in the docs on the AST site. It has nothing to do with Burt Rutan or anyone else. It's because they covered vertical launch in the PEIS in 2001."

He also hopes that those who "noted the weird language about suborbital meaning not in outer space will officially comment on it. It's not as bad as it looks, and fixing stuff like that is why they release a draft and ask for comments. So y'all comment. You can bet I will be." Contribute your input at the PEIS comment page.

August 28, 2003

American Astronautics update... AAC has updated its team summary (pdf) on the X PRIZE site. The summary gives details of the 7 passenger "Spirit of Liberty" which is the "first production unit of the AAC Starliner Model 7S rocketship, specifically designed for commercial operations serving the emerging commercial space tourism industry."

The system with a single vertical booster and a passenger capsule. AAC American Eagle 1 booster, the Spirit of Liberty will weigh about 22,000 pounds at liftoff with the booster producing some 35,000 pounds of thrust. The booster uses "a single pressure-fed engine with LOX/RP-1 propellants".

The flight is "powered for 81 seconds, with mainstage cut-off at an altitude of about 119,000 feet and a speed exceeding Mach 4." The capsule separates from the booster and coasts to 100km. The capsule deploys "aerobraking device [...] in a controlled fashion to reduce its velocity to the subsonic without subjecting the passengers to undue accelerations." Both components return to the launch site via parafoils.

Note: It's interesting to see the different strategies towards space tourism. XCOR is pursuing a pilot and a single passenger approach, which the company believes is the best way to build the business step by step. Others are going with the basic X PRIZE payload of three seats, typically two passengers and a pilot. AAC is going straight to a multi-passenger system and seeking economies of scale (not quite 747 scale but the principle is the same).

I like the way the market is bringing out a diversity of designs, a subset of which will eventually be judged most fit by the votes of customers' pocketbooks rather than by the vote of a committee in Washington.

da Vinci interview... The X PRIZE competitor the daVinci Project has posted a thirty minute streamed interview on the Canadian "Report on Business" show with project leader Brian Feeney. Highlights include:

  • Over 100,000 person hours of labor have been contributed to the project by over 200 volunteers.
  • They are close to raising the CA$5 million they need for the project.
  • Approval from Canadian authorities for the flights should come in September.
  • Feeney is 100% certain they will do the X PRIZE flights during 2004.

News briefs ... This article The next generation: The shuttle will have to fly again if the space station is ever to be completed. But Nasa needs to come up with a new space vehicle - and quickly. - Guardian - Aug.28.03 is the usual type that tells us that only NASA, and more funding, can overcome the technological hurdles that caused NASA's previous efforts to overcome technological hurdles to fail. ...

... More of the same in Report turns spotlight on shuttle successor - BBC - Aug.28.03 ...

... Upcoming meetings of interest : Seminar on the Future of Space Tourism - SpaceRef Calendar of Events * The Space Elevator 2nd Annual International Conference - SpaceRef Calendar of Events ...

... The Right Stuff: The post-Columbia space program by Rand Simberg - National Review Online - Aug.28.03

Media mostly in the dark ... An electrical storm here in Maryland on Tuesday evening left our apartment and about 100,000 other homes without power for over a day. So just when the CAIB report was released and articles soon appeared on every news media outlet in the world, I was stuck reading the Washington Post and listening to the radio.

However, I get the feeling I didn't really miss all that much. After the lights finally came back on tonight and I got reconnected, I found about two hundred links for Wednesday over at spacetoday.net. (SpaceRef also has a long Columbia related link list.) Almost all of the articles deal with how to reform NASA so that it doesn't screw up yet again or how to keep the shuttle flying for another decade or whether spaceflight is simply too dangerous for people. There were only a handful of articles and discussions dealing with overturning the whole way that NASA does vehicle development and operations.

The SFF, for example, makes the case for private development : No More Excuses: Cancel the Shuttle! - Space Frontier Foundation - Aug.27.03 and Rand Simberg comments on sections of the report dealing with Shuttle replacement efforts. And Ronald Baily advocates letting the private sector take the risks: Making Spaceflight Too Safe? - Reason Online - Aug.27.03

The only mainstream media outlet that I found that "really gets it" is the Economist, as proven by this article : Lost in space: The future of NASA - Economist.com - Aug.27.03 (Unfortunately, the page is currently only available to subscribers. Go to a library or newsstand and read it this weekend). It could have been written by a Space Access Society true believer.

[Update Aug.31.03: The Economist piece I discuss here is an article rather than an editorial so I've replaced those terms. An editorial in the same issue also promotes the same general ideas about grounding the shuttle and using private space transportation.]

The article begins by reviewing the report's condemnation of the now famous NASA cultural defects that led to the Columbia accident and how NASA failed to appreciate the fragility of the shuttle.

"As an experimental vehicle, the shuttle is a collection of accidents waiting to happen..."


"... the shuttle is a bad design, full of compromises, too risky, hopelessly optimistic and trying to be too many things to too many people."

The article criticises the committee for falling short in its recommendations for reforming NASA and stopping the shuttle program. Instead of simply stating that it is hopeless to ever make the shuttle a practical and safe system, the committee talks about too little funding:

Yet in one of its observations, the board is being naive. Dr Logsdon and his colleagues lament the shuttle's ' fixed budget'. But this misses the point. No organisation can defy economic gravity and operate without budgetary constraints. In any case, according to Dr [Roger] Pielke, throughout the shuttle programme's 31-year history, America's Congress has provided NASA with more funding for it than the agency has requested. If $500m per launch is not enough to ensure safety, what is? The Russians manage to launch people at a mere $60m a pop, and have fewer accidents to boot.

The Economist instead recommends that if "America is to continue to be involved in manned spaceflight, a radical rethink is clearly necessary." The article advocates "contracting out the more routine tasks of lifting stuff into ' near space' " and cites Rick Tumlinson: "NASA should learn to be a spaceflight customer, and stop trying to be a provider and a socialist monopoly at that."

In defense of the capabilities of private companies to develop low cost space transportation, the Economist offers the case of XCOR Aerospace:

The firm, according to its chief engineer, Dan DeLong, has designed and built four generations of reliable rocket engines for a vehicle that cost $500,000 to design and build. They are, he admits, very small, but the company's plan is to 'make it cheap first, then make it more capable'. According to Dr DeLong, one of NASA's problems is that its design philosophy is the wrong way round. First, it builds something huge and complex, such as the shuttle. Then it tries to make it cheaper.

The article notes the X PRIZE projects and the funding of various "alt.space" projects by rich IT entreprenours. The OSP, on the other hand, is almost certain to be another bureaucratic disaster :

Whichever of these approaches works, there seems little hope that NASA, left to itself, will get it right next time. Of the mooted interim replacement to the shuttle, Dr [Jeffrey] Bell says that the basic concept "is so stupid that every knowledgeable person involved in it must be perfectly aware that it will never fly".

The Economist is an influential magazine. I certainly hope in this case that its views influence the debate about the future of US human spaceflight.

News briefs ... More exposure for Armadillo : Strap In, Shut Up, and Blast Off: Famous software developer setting sights on the stars and $10 million X Prize - TechTV - Aug.27.03 (includes video) ...

... OSP article at Space plane idea gets new push - MyInKy - Aug.27.03

August 26, 2003

Suborbital definitions ... I received some interesting feedback about a recent item on the FAA-AST's page concerning public input to the study of the environmental impact of horizontal RLVs. (I see that now the page has been split into several subpages and pdf files.)

I wondered why it looked only at the horizontal sub-category of RLVs and one reader noted that the emphasis on horizontal RLVs was probably due to the perceived lead by Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne project.

Two other readers pointed out this highly debatable entry in the Q&A :

* What is the difference between launches on orbital and suborbital trajectories?

Vehicles that are launched on orbital trajectories reach outer space or Earth orbit and reenter through the atmosphere during their return to Earth. Vehicles that are launched on suborbital trajectories do not leave the Earth's atmosphere or enter outer space. Suborbital trajectory refers to the intentional flight path of a launch vehicle, reentry vehicle, or any portion thereof whose vacuum instantaneous impact point, which is the location where an airborne mass would impact in the absence of atmospheric (e.g., wind), aerodynamic, or continuing propulsive effects, does not leave the surface of the Earth. Launches along suborbital trajectories consist of a launch and landing; however, reentry does not occur because the vehicle does not reach outer space or Earth orbit. [Emphasis added]

The readers point out that this means no "no 'astronaut wings' for any suborbital passenger or pilot" and "Looks like they have never heard of Mercury flights of Shepard and Grissom".

It might seem more logical that suborbital spaceflight be defined as any flight that goes above a recognized space boundary limit, such as 100km, and does not go all the way around the earth. If it goes around once or more, it is an orbital spaceflight.

However, despite the common belief that the US "official" border to space is 50 miles (80.5km), this entry in the rocketry section explains that the US does not in fact recognize any such boundary. For various treaty and political reasons, this probably won't change for a long time, if ever. So the AST must define suborbital in a strained, contorted way that's going to cause lots of arguments.

One reader is disappointed in the AST in general and believes that the FAA's AVR section, which deals with aviation regulation, would better serve the suborbital industry (this is Burt Rutan's apparent belief, as well.)

The AST doesn't "realize [what] they are doing is inhibiting the possibility of any future transport or 'business jet' boost-glider becoming a reality. It is utterly impractical to fly such things under AST rules....[the AVR can] issue experimental certificates for suborbital vehicles....AST simply does not recognize the need for the equivalent type of permit, i.e., experimental rocketplanes.

As far as the complaint that AVR will require a certification regime for suborbital passenger flights that could take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to win, this reader goes on to state:

...the FAA/AVR has steps they can take, too. For example, giving a
" restricted" rather than full certification. This was used for the Guppy aircraft that carried Saturn stages. They direct that you can't fly anywhere, but rather
over certain routes and from certain airports. That would work for the suborbital tourist market. None of what AVR does is a 'major federal action' as AST claims for all their approvals, thus the EIS goes away as one benefit.

...it is false to argue that certification costs hundreds of millions. It can for Part 121 transports, yet new light aircraft (Cirrus for one, Lancair Columbia for another) have been certified for much, much less...i.e., millions. Certification is also as 'tailorable' a process as anything AST has said must be done. And at least it has the intermediate step of 'experimental' certification, whereas AST has NOTHING and can't be bothered to provide for such.

I don't pretend to understand all the legal and political aspects concerning the regulation of suborbital RLV flights but I can predict there's going to be quite a fight about them.

The Sunshine State wants the X PRIZE Cup... The Florida Space Authority, which promotes commercial space activities in the state, wants to host the X PRIZE Cup competitions : Florida in running to host rocket contest: First team in space wins $10 million - Florida Today - Aug.26.03. These annual events, which will come after the X PRIZE has been won and could begin as early as 2006, will see suborbital rocket vehicles competing "in categories such as maximum altitude, fastest flight time, total number of passengers carried in two weeks and maximum number of passengers carried in one flight."

Where's the Asian X PRIZE entry?... This article reports on the X PRIZE and briefly reviews Asian interest in space development: Where there is space, there's hope - and $10m - Asia Times - Aug.27.03 (via spacetoday.net). It's interesting that despite the wealth and high tech capabilities of East Asia, there is no X PRIZE entry from that area.

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 25, 2003

NY Times discovers the X PRIZE ... The paper's Science Times section finally looks at the X PRIZE and talks with several participants (note that one figure caption imports StarChaser into the Candian Arrow project) - Eyes on a Prize, Entrepreneurs Seek to Launch a New Industry - NY Times - Aug.25.03. They also visit Armadillo Aerospace - Inside the Clubhouse, a Rocket Is Being Built - NY Times - Aug.25.03.

German Phoenix to rise, then drop ... The German Phoenix RLV demonstrator spaceplane project plans a drop test from a helicopter of the 7 meter long PHOENIX in early summer 2004. This news release Phoenix - DLR - Aug.20.03 (in German) includes some images of a wind tunnel test model. There is also some info here : Raumtransporter der Zukunft (Space transport for the Future) - ESA - Mar.11.03 (in German) (Links via a slashdot posting.)

Try the Google translator if you don't read German. (Note that it results in some odd phrasing such as reusable becoming "Again usable" and the drop test is described as "thrown off a helicopter.")

News briefs... Jeff Foust examines an official study of commercial space currently underway and asks why they are ignoring the vibrant startup sector: Can the OECD figure out commercial space? - The Space Review - Aug.25.03 ...

... The latest Armadillo update tells of progress with the full size X PRIZE vehicle and also about restoring a used space suit....

... Interesting report on a launch of the Pegasus : Launching Satellites Into Space From an Aircraft Has Special Challenges - Aviation Week - Aug.24.03

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 24, 2003

Interview with Elon Musk - Founder and CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk answers questions from HobbySpace about the history and status of the company and the Falcon orbital launcher project.

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 23, 2003

News brief... More about the EADS MIG passenger module project : EADS, MiG to Offer Tourists Joy: Flights on Russian Fighter Jets - e-tournews - July.22.03

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 22, 2003

News briefs... CNN Money looks at the prospects for space related tourism ranging from parabolic flights to Mars trips: Space on Sale: The final travel frontier: Mars is closer than it's been in 60,000 years, but don't plan a visit any time soon. - CNN Money - Aug. 22.03 *...

... Profile of John Carmack in Doom and rocket science: id Software's John Carmack tackles - and conquers - both - CNN Money - Aug. 22, 2003 *...

... Brief article on Starchaser activities and plans: $10M prize in his sight [Steve Bennett of Starchaser] - Tameside Advertiser - Aug.22.03 *...

[* These three items were contributed by a HS reader.]

...The DART project will test OSP rendezvous systems: U.S. space rendezvous system passes design review - Spaceflight Now - Aug.21.03 ...

... More about suborbital regulations : XCOR chief slams FAA jurisdictional fight - AV Press - Aug.21.03 (short term link)

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 21, 2003

SS1 drop test analysis... The latest issue of Aviation Week includes an article giving details of the recent drop test of the SpaceShipOne. Here are some highlights from the article:

  • Chief test pilot Michael W. Melvill flew the SS1 rocket ship; test pilot Brian Binnie flew the White Knight ; White Knight project engineer Cory Bird was flight-test engineer.
  • The SS1 oxidizer tank was empty and had no rocket motor case. A dummy rocket nozzle included 140lb of ballast. When the SS1 carries oxidizer and a fully fueled rocket engine it will weigh about twice the drop test weight; estimated by an outside expert at around 3600 lb. The total takeoff weight of the WK/SS1 combo at around 19k lb is roughly 25% more than during this test .
  • After release from the WK, "Melvill pushed the stick to ensure rapid clearance and was rewarded with a brief negative 0.2g that caused a few test cards to float."
  • During the flight Melvill explored the envelope a bit. It glided level at around 100kt. He slowed to near stall speed at 77kt before "the stick began to rumble". He accelerated to 150kt. and did some sideslips and moved the rudders outward as speed brakes. The SS1 upper limit is set at 260kt.
  • The lift-to-drag ration was a bit higher than expect and is around five.
  • Touchdown speed was 74kt. There was some slight damage to the fuselage when the left main landing gear door flew quickly backwards from the airstream pressure and hit the fuselage with its tip.
  • The flight lasted 19 minutes and the average sink rate was 2,300 feet per min.
  • The author said the SS1 looked ready for another flight when he inspected it a few days later. The feather mechanism may be tested during the next flight. Future flights will go to 182kt, do "more aggressive stalls", and include oxidizer in the tank. (Oxidizer was loaded and dumped during the July 29th captive carry flight.)

In addition, the article says that both hybrid rocket competitors have carried out full duration firings (92secs) and one of the companies will be selected soon.

Scaled itself makes the case-throat-nozzle structure, which consists of an "inner layer of silica phenolic insulator and an outer graphite epoxy structural case." Burn-throughs of the insulator occurred in five firings but did not reach the sensor layer of fiber-optic cable between the insulator and case. They want to do a test in which they fire the engine until a burn-through reaches the sensor layer and it triggers a shutdown.

The initial powered tests of the SS1 will fire the engine for 15-30secs. The vehicle will reach Mach 1.7 for a 30sec firing. Subsequent flights will gradually increase the firing times until they reach the 92secs needed to reach the 100km goal.

Horizontal RLV impact... The FAA Space Transportation Office has opened the FAA PEIS Web Site to provide info on the " Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for licensing the launch of horizontally launched vehicles and the reentry of reentry vehicles." (I guess the FAA certifies the flight of flight vehicles and the landing of landing vehicles...)

The process covers both orbital and suborbital vehicles:

"The proposed action is to license the launch and landing of horizontally launched vehicles and the reentry of reentry vehicles. Reentry vehicles are defined as vehicles designed to return from Earth orbit or outer space to Earth; or reusable launch vehicles designed to return substantially intact from Earth orbit or outer space to Earth. A launch is defined as to place or try to place a launch vehicle or reentry vehicle and any payload from Earth (A) in a suborbital trajectory; (B) in Earth orbit in outer space; or (C) otherwise in outer space, including activities involved in the preparation of a launch vehicle or payload for launch."

Not clear to me, though, why it is limited to horizontal takeoff vehicles.

Note that doing nothing is an option:

"Alternatives to the proposed action may include activities such as not licensing horizontal launches, not licensing vertical reentries, not licensing horizontal reentries, not licensing powered reentries, and not licensing unpowered reentries. FAA exercises licensing authority in accordance with the Commercial Space Launch Act and Commercial Space Transportation Licensing Regulations, 14 CFR Ch.III, which authorize FAA to license the launch of a launch vehicle when conducted within the U.S. and those operated by U.S. citizens abroad. The scope of the PEIS would include launches on both orbital and suborbital trajectories."

The page provides a FAQ and definitions of the legal terms. During the public comment period, you can submit your two cents via an on line form.

Rocket regulators needed... The AST has several openings for aerospace engineers to support its expendable and reusable launch vehicle regulatory responsibilities.

August 20, 2003

SS1 in flight
SpaceShipOne on its first unpowered flight. (Scaled Composites image)

More SS1 photos from the drop test on August 7th are now posted at the Scaled Composites photos page.

News brief... The reader who submitted this article - Is The Air Force The Enemy Of Space? - SpaceDaily - Aug.20.03 - says it has "elements of truth in it, but placing most of the blame for NASA's space vehicle dilemma on the Air Force is a bit of a stretch!" I agree.

August 19, 2003

SpaceEquity RLV articles... The latest issue of SpaceEquity looks at RLV development:

News briefs... At the recent Mars Society conference, Elon Musk gave a presentation about SpaceX and also briefly discussed Blue Origin (says their vehicle is similar to the DC-X) and other projects. Thomas James gives an extensive review of the talk at Musk on SpaceX Falcon by T. L. James - Louisiana Mars Society - Aug.18.03 ...

... John Carmack compares the rocketship and computer games industries in A Conversation with John Carmack - GameSpy.com - Aug.03 (via a RLV News regular)...

... According to a note from Bruce Cranford, his International Spacecraft and Launch Vehicle Names Glossary now offers over 6500 satellites and spacecraft launched through 2002 in an alphabetized listing for fast lookup.

August 18, 2003

News briefs... Armadillo astronaut suits up - Armadillo Aerospace Update - Aug.18.03 ...

... Meanwhile, Brian Feeney of the da Vinci X PRIZE project says in an ARocket posting that they will go with a Gemini type suit that uses netting over a pressure garment, which they say provides good mobility. (item via Andrew Case.)

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 17, 2003

Boeing OSP capsule ... Links to this page of Boeing Photo Releases, which include artists' renderings of an OSP capsule design under study, were posted at a sci.space newsgroup today.

News brief... How do you say "viewgraph prototype" in Russian: Russia designing hyper-sonic space shuttle - The Hindu - Aug.16.03 (via spacetoday.net)

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 15, 2003

X PRIZE changing paradigms... Rand Simberg discusses in this article Eyes on the X-Prize - TCS - Aug.15.03 how the development of manned suborbital RLVs by small private organizations could soon produce a world wide impact as many nations come to realize that they also can build such vehicles.

Traditionally governments have aped each other's space and rocketry programs. The US, for example, used modified missiles to launch payloads (rather than pursuing an X-15 rocketplane approach) just as Russia had done with Sputnik and Russia later built the Buran, which was a near duplicate of the Shuttle. Europe, Japan, China and other countries took it for granted that the only way to get to space was with a modified missile or a gigantically expensive shuttle type program. Maybe suborbital RLVs will finally bring a new approach into their view.

Why would any country develop a suborbital RLV? One killer app is neighbor-watching. Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets has long proposed such vehicles for reconnaisance purposes. A vehicle launched to 100km above Tawain, for example, can see deep into China and far along the coast. It could be launched at any time of the day or night, whereas LEO satellites only cross at certain predictable times. (And Tawain doesn't have a spy satellite anyway.) Similarly, India and Pakistan could monitor each other with regular popups. As with spysats in the cold war, such surveillance helps to preserve peace since troop buildups and sneak attacks become much harder to carry out.

If a small private group in Romania can make a serious effort at a suborbital RLV, then certainly governments of many countries could do the same.

Fly the White Knight via the PRE-Flight Simulator. Download freeware PRE-Flight 2.00 from Simtel and SS1 Model from PreflightSim.com. After installing the simulator, open the SS1 zip file into the Model subdirectory. Run the simulator and click on the Model menu and then choose Load and select the ss1.3dm file. The SS1 can be dropped and its engine fired.

This simulator is apparently aimed towards RC hobbyists who can configure their system to operate the simulator with RC transmitters to test the flying of their models. However, it wll also work with a joystick or keyboard.

Detonating engines... The latest Pop Sci issue includes an article about pulse-detonation propulsion - After Combustion: Detonation! - Popular Science - Aug.03. Companies like GE and Pratt & Whitney have become very serious about the concept and have made significant hardware progress in the past few years. Most of the piece concerns how PDEs (Pulse Detonation Engines) could provide big increases in efficiencies for jet turbines but they could also provide for a first stage booster for a launch system.

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 14, 2003

Engineers wanted for private rocket projects... A SpaceX ad in the latest Aviation Week announced the company's search for king of the hill engineering talent. If you are interested, send your resume and a "brief description of why you believe you rank among the top 1% of aerospace, mechanical, electrical or manufacturing engineers" to the company per instructions at SpaceX.com.

TGV Rockets also began hiring recently for their Oklahoma facility. The firm is signing contracts for flights on its MICHELLE- B vehicle starting in the first quarter of 2006.

And Jeff Bezo's mysterious Blue Origin project is looking for a few good engineers with a passion for space.

[Other rocket companies looking for people are welcome to post the info here.]

NSS pushes suborbital... In the latest Ad Astra magazine from the National Space Society, Brian Chase writes that the NSS will take an active role to help suborbital RLV companies overcome regulatory hurdles. He goes on to laud the prospects for these companies and their contribution to the development of space tourism and eventually orbital transportation. (I'd like to think my article contributed to this new emphasis by the NSS but it obviously comes from the real hardware progress made at companies like XCOR and Scaled Composites.)

News briefs... Space Frontier Foundation urges the lowering of regulatory barriers to suborbital RLV operations: Congress Should Cut the Red Tape Grounding Reusable Rockets - Space Frontier Foundation - Aug.11.03 ...

... From the recent OSP event on Capitol hill, these sets of slides gives some background: The Orbital Space Plane: How Did We Get Here & Where Are We Going? - Dr. Sam Durrance - Florida SRI - July.03 and Orbital Space Plane Orbital Space Plane How Did We Get Here and Why? Philip McAlister - Futron - July 21, 2003 ...

... Once upon a time there was great optimism we were on the verge of a revolutionary advance in access to space: 26 years since the first flight of NASA's "Enterprise" by Keith Cowing - SpaceRef - Aug.13.03

August 13, 2003

News brief... Launching the X-37 and OSP may be even more expensive than expected because of Boeing misdeeds: Boeing's sanctions may hurt progress of X-37 at Marshall: Company can't vie for contracts until Air Force gives OK - Huntsville Times - Aug.12.03

August 12, 2003

SpaceX fires 2nd stage engine... SpaceX achieves a significant milestone with the firing of its second stage "Kestral" engine: SpaceX Launch Vehicle on Track for First Launch; SpaceX Successfully Fires Falcon Rocket Upper Stage Engine - SpaceX PR/Spaceref - Aug.11.03 This link came via a regular HS contributor who also noted that the "Falcon will have a payload of "over 1400 lbs," which is much higher than either the preliminary 1000lb estimate or the 1250lb estimate reported in SpaceX's April update." See a video of a Kestral firing in the SpaceX gallery section.

Action on the regulatory front ... SpaceNews also reports on the controversy over whether suborbital RLVs should fall under the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) or under the aviation certification section of the FAA. Some in Congress are following the recommendations of the Suborbital Institute and other lobbying groups to force the FAA to put the RLVs in the AST domain: "Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif), congressional sources said, intends to introduce [the House version of a bill renewing the Commerical Space Act that] would establish a legal definition of sub-orbital rockets and give the Office of Commercial Space Transportation clear authority for licensing such craft." (Noted by a regular HS contributor.)

NASA visits Kistler ... According to an article in this week's SpaceNews (and a shorter item at Space.com), a "dozen NASA officials" visited Kistler's headquarters in Kirkland, Washington on July 16th to hear the company's proposal for flying the K-1 as a cargo delivery system to the ISS. The company did not ask for direct funding but instead asked that NASA give a firm commitment to exercise its options to purchase the flight data for 12 missions under the SLI contract made with Kistler in 2001. With such a committment, the company believes it can raise the money to finish the K-1, which is 75% complete, and begin flying 12 to 18 months from the time it receives the money.

Kistler would not comment (as usual) on the meeting and a NASA rep basically said that it was just a fact finding trip and no contract decisions were made.

I would expect that the OSP teams would go into major combat mode if NASA actually tried to pursue this approach. A low cost, fully reusable vehicle available in a little over a year would clearly undercut support in Congress for spending several billion dollars and several years on a partially reusable OSP (even if the K-1 is unmanned.)

News briefs... Romanian ARCA X PRIZE team reports on recent progress with pressure tests of a composite fuel tank for their half scale demonstrator vehicle. (Update via Kaido Kert) ...

... New Scientist reports on the SS1 flight: Private spacecraft performs crucial test flight - New Scientist - Aug.11.03 (link via a regular HS contributor)...

... The latest SpaceNews also reports that the US Marines want a manned space plane by 2025 that could deploy a small group of leathernecks anywhere in the world within 2 hours.

August 11, 2003

Earlier SS1 flight... Either I missed it or it's been added since the other day, the White Knight/SS1 flight data page has an entry describing a captive carry flight on July 29th. All the systems were tested in preparation for the drop test on August 7th.

Also, the page indicates that eAc did a test of its hybrid motor in July in addition to the SpaceDev test, which they announced last week.

The Search for small launch prices for small sats... This year's Utah State/AIAA Small Satellite Conference focuses on finding "affordable and timely access to space" for the many student and research satellites under development. SpaceX, XCOR, DARPA, and other players in the development of low cost launchers will give talks this week. Small Industry Looks for Solutions to a Big Problem Entrepreneurs Offer a Glimmer of Hope - Space News - Aug.8.03.

Show & tell fundraisers... The Starchaser X PRIZE project recently announced that it will host another of its Open Day events on August 24-25. If they are having another one so soon, similar events earlier in the year must have been successes. I notice that they are now charging an entrance fee, which I don't believe they did before. This seems to me to be a great idea for raising money for other rocket projects as well. Once enough hardware has been developed, particularly a full scale rocket vehicle (even if only a prototype), such an event should be able to draw a good sized crowd. Combine the hardware with some hands-on displays, such as PCs running space simulations, and include lecture and multimedia presentations, it would be a fun and educational event that benefits everyone.

August 10, 2003

News briefs... Leonard David on the SS1 test: XM announces plans for new satellite, launch - spacetoday.net - Aug.9.03 ...

... The kerosene fueled RS-84 engine project continues to move along: Marshall developing a reusable light rocket: Engine [RS-84] could save NASA millions, make travel safer - Huntsville Times - Aug.8.03

August 9, 2003

Jon Goff's Summer Rocket Trip: Aerospace student Jonathan Goff visited XCOR Aerospace, SpaceX, and the Experimental Rocket Propulsion Society (ERPS) this July and has written an extensive and very interesting report on his experiences: Notes from my California Rocket Trip by Jonathan A. Goff - Aug.7.03.

One item of particular note: XCOR's $750K contract with DARPA for a piston fuel pump was recently finalized and signed. After experiencing a very challenging startup period, it's great to see them get a good sized contract like this.

August 8, 2003

Info & photos for the SS1 drop test are now posted on the SpaceShipOne web pages. The description of the test tells of a very smooth separation and flight. Performance matched well with the simulator for the subsonic range up to 150 knots. The photos show the SS1 before the drop (with a Starship chase plane!) and during flight and landing. In my highly technical judgement, it's all so COOOOL!!

News brief... Keith Cowing noticed that a White House representative is well aware of the X PRIZE: Presentation by Richard M. Russell, OSTP, at AIAA/ICAS International Air & Space Symposium and Exposition - SpaceRef - Aug.8.03

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 7, 2003

Successful SS1 drop test... Messages flying around the net report that the SpaceShipOne, piloted by Mike Melvill, was dropped today from the White Knight at 45k feet (~15km) and landed safely at Mojave. Videos and pictures should appear eventually on the Scaled site. Congratulations to the SS1 team!

News briefs... Signs of life at X PRIZE team Lone Star Space with a new web site....

... Garvey Space/Cal State Long Beach aerospike powered rocket launch scheduled for August 20-21: Students Prepare for the First Flight Powered by an Aerospike Engine Using Liquid Propellants - CSULB - Aug.6.04 ...

... Rand Simberg comments on the article in The Independent, mentioned below, about the X PRIZE and suborbital rocket projects: In Search of Intelligent Reporting - Transterrestrial Musings - Aug.6.03 and on Jeff Foust's article about the OSP design controversy: Wings or Not--Who Cares? - Transterrestrial Musings - Aug.6.03

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 5, 2003

SpaceDev tests SS1 rocket... SpaceDev announces a successful full duration test of its hybrid rocket motor that is a candidate to power the SpaceShipOne: SpaceDev Performs Successful Rocket Motor Test - SpaceDev PR/Yahoo - Aug.6.03 (via spacetoday.net).

Plane or capsule... Jeff Foust looks at the arguments over whether the OSP should be a plane or a capsule: Two directions for OSP - The Space Review - Aug.4.03

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 4, 2003

Private space ... This article give a bit of info about Blue Orgin and other other private space projects : Galaxy quest: Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has launched his own space programme and wants to send tourists into orbit. He is not alone - entrepreneurs across the United States are reaching for the sky. What is it with rich men and rockets? - The Independent - Aug.5.03 (via NASAWatch.com). [Alternative link Galaxy quest - The Millennium/The Independent - Aug.5.03]

Oddly, this British article says nothing about the British X PRIZE teams Starchaser and Bristol Spaceplane.

Alan Bond rants against suborbital projects (in other words "Give me money for my SKYLON instead.") He notes that engines should be tested many times to prove their reliability. But that is exactly what suborbital flights will do. They will test not only engines but other hardware such as lightweight structures and also operational techniques over many flights and allow the companies to develop them incrementally and prove their robustness. If nothing else, a suborbital vehicle can become the first stage of a two stage RLV.

American Astronautics update... I recently mentioned the single passenger Freedom Flyer vehicle that American Astronautics Corporation (AAC) said would fly in the fall as a prototype for their X PRIZE project. However, Bill Sprague, the chief of AAC, tells me that the Freedom Flyer is now on the back burner while they focus on their 7 passenger vehicle, the first unit of which they will fly as their X PRIZE vehicle:

The Freedom Flyer is a precursor to a 3-passenger version that was to be our X Prize entry. However, the X Prize board issued a ruling to us stating that a propulsion system based on the TR-201 engine would be disqualified unless we could demonstrate additional sourcing and general commercial availability for the engine. The original manufacturer, TRW, is not willing to invest the resources necessary to quote restarting production unless we are seriously considering an actual buy, which we are not.

Therefore, we are now concentrating our efforts on our 7 passenger vehicle, based on our American Eagle booster which utilizes an AAC designed and built engine. This vehicle was specifically designed for actual commercial operations in the public space tourism industry. We will be utilizing this vehicle for the X Prize competition, the first production unit now named the Spirit of Liberty. So where does that leave the Freedom Flyer and all those TR-201 engines we have? Well, we are continuing work on the Flyer, but as a much lesser priority, and there will not be a 3 passenger version. Additionally, we have allowed the flight date to slip to allocate the majority of our resources towards the Spirit of Liberty and the X Prize competition.

RLV developers on the Space Show... Jason Andrews, CEO of Andrews Space will be a guest on The Space Show tonight. Andrews Space has a number of vehicle related projects. The interview will at 7-8 PM PDT live on KKNW 1150 AM Seattle and via the web at the streaming site www.live365.com.

On Sunday, August 10, Pat Kelley, President of Vela Technology, will be on the show live at 4-5:15 PM PDT at www.live365.com/stations/dlivingston?site=dlivingston. Mr. Kelley has been involved in various vehicle and space tourism projects for several years.

August 4, 2003

News brief... Burt talks about the reality of private suborbital flight: Eye on the prize: Aviation pioneer angling to send civilians into space tells EAA it's no pipe dream - Milwaukee Journal - Aug.3.03 (via spacetoday.net).

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 3, 2003

X PRIZE press... The Baltimore Sun looks at the X PRIZE in this article: Prize lifts would-be spacefarers - Baltimore Sun - Aug.3.03 (via spacetoday.net). It includes a report on what Jim Akkerman and his Advent X PRIZE entry are up to.

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 2, 2003

Cool photos... The above photo at the top of the page showing the White Knight carrying the SpaceShipOne (No, this is not Burt Rutan leading a clone army against Washington regulators!   ;->   ) comes from the Mojave Airport gallery. Find more photos there involving Rutan and the recent aborted attempt to move the Roton ATV to a museum.

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

August 1, 2003

Aerospike rocket... See the pictures in the Advanced Rocketry News section of the Garvey Space/Cal State Long Beach aerospike engine installed on the Prospector 2 rocket in preparation for a launch in the next month.

Alternate Access extension... Space News reports in this week's issue that the Alternate Access to Space program will be extended until November. The program was forced on NASA in 2000 by Congress in hopes that the agency would take advantage of new ideas for low cost space transportation to provide cargo supplies to the ISS. Though four teams won funding and developed detailed proposals, the agency ignored the program and recently sought formally to end it.

This extension looks to be nothing but a bone thrown to members of Congress and space activists who have urged the agency to continue the program. The extension will not include any extra funding for the participants and most of the people in NASA's AAS office have already been transferred elsewhere according to ProSpace President Marc Schlather. (ProSpace has campaigned to save the program.) So there apparently won't be anyone around to read the reports when the teams turn them in.

Until there is a direct and open confrontation with NASA by Congress over the agency's ingrained insistence that that it will only fund construction of vehicle designs that it develops in house, alternatives will always be ignored. Just as everyone at NASA knew that foam couldn't significantly damage the thermal protection system, everyone at NASA knows that there cannot be cheaper vehicles designed by outsiders, especially small startup companies. Perhaps when the suborbital RLVs and SpaceX's Falcon start flying, they will give proponents of alternatives enough evidence to prove that NASA's view is a bias and not a fact.

K-not-quite-the-1... Rand Simberg's comments on the Kistler Aerospace bankruptcy - Another one bites the dust? - Transterrestrial Musings - July.30.03 - reminded me that many in the alt.space community never had great enthusiasm for the company. Since I often hold the K-1 up as an example of a privately developed system that NASA should take advantage of, I thought I would review the Kistler project.

As Rand mentions, the company started out with a radical approach that consisted of a "4-poster-bed" style first stage launch platform on which would sit a small unmanned second stage that would fire up and go to orbit. After releasing a payload, the second stage would return to earth, landing vertically onto a net:

Original Kistler concept with launch platform and K-0 second stage.
Prototype K-0 shown on far right.

I don't know the exact story but apparently outside consultants were brought in and they convinced Mr. Kistler to drop this approach and to replace his original team with one consisting of several well known former NASA engineers, including George Mueller, former head of the Apollo project. The new team developed a more conventional design, though still an unmanned two stage system.

Probably this transformation was carried out as much for reasons of fund raising as it was to enhance the engineering. A management full of former NASA bigwigs would obviously make a good impression on potential investors.

The project in fact did manage to raise several hundred million dollars, broke ground on a launch site in Woomera, Australia, bought up all the NK-33 engines in Russia, and got about 75% of the vehicle components built using outside contractors such as Northrop and Aerojet. (See this cutaway view (pdf) showing the status of different components.) Then the Iridium/Globalstar/ICO failures occurred and investors stopped providing funding because the target market in delivering replacment satellites for these constellations had vanished.

Kistler K-1
Kistler K-1

Since then the company would occasionally announce that it had found new funding and would soon restart development of the vehicle but then nothing would happen. They did win an SLI grant of $135 million for developing the K-1 for Space Station cargo delivery but most of this money would only appear after the company got the vehicle built and flying on its own.

After the cancellation of the X-33, X-34 projects, you would often hear statements from NASA and various honchos in mainstream aerospace claiming that fully reusable launch vehicles were decades and tens of billions of dollars away. I've been surprised that activists haven't countered these remarks by pointing to the K-1, which is just a year or two and a couple of hundred million dollars away from flying.

I believe the lack of support for Kistler is due to several reasons:

  • There's resentment that Kistler absorbed most of the capital available for private space projects in the late 1990s and still didn't get anything flying. Other orbital projects such as Pioneer Rocketplane, Kelly Space, and Rotary, which needed $200 to $300 million dollars, found little money left for their projects.
  • The K-1 is unmanned and so could not serve a space tourist market that looks to be the one market that can drive high launch rates and really bring down costs. As I recall from articles I've read over the years, the company has no interest in making the vehicle "manrated".
  • The company has kept a very low profile. An MSNBC reporter told me, for example, that the company would not give him an interview. Instead of loudly promoting the K-1 as a cargo carrier for the Space Station in the aftermath of Columbia when everyone was discussing options, Kistler has remained quiet and uninvolved.
  • In general, the company has not interacted with the activist community. For example, in the five Space Access Society meetings that I have attended, the company never gave a presentation.
  • In retrospect, it looks as if running the company with ex-NASA staff was a strategic mistake. They brought with them the same disdain that NASA has for outsiders, i.e. space activists and other startup RLV companies. Plus they can't bring themselves to criticize NASA and raise hell about the agency's refusal to use vehicles designed outside of its own centers.

I've never considered the K-1 as the ultimate in RLV design but it does prove that RLVs are within reach. Unfortunately, unless something dramatic happens during the Chapter 11 restructuring and new funding is finally found to complete the vehicle, it will just be sold for scrap and an opportunity will be lost.

NASA/Columbia/Shuttle Program...

Continue to July 2003

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