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Reusable Launch & Space Vehicle News
December 2003

Scaled Composites photos
SpaceShipOne on glide test flight Nov.17th.

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

December 29, 2003

News briefs... Armadillo aims for tests of its full X PRIZE vehicle: Hydrotest, Big vehicle work, Engine work - Armadillo Aerospace - Dec.27.03...

... Taylor Dinerman looks at the implications of the SS1: Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne: stunt plane or new road to the stars? - The Space Review - Dec.29.03 ...

... Need a lot more than a launch every week or so to support a healthy rocket industry according to Jeff Foust: A year-end reality check - The Space Review - Dec.29.03

December 24, 2003

Happy Holidays to Everybody!! Postings will be infrequent over the next week or so. I'll be in Knoxville, Tennessee visiting relatives and friends.

The Rocket Company saga continues... I've posted two new chapters for your holiday reading.

Mars news... For quick listing of news sites for the latest on the Mars missions, see this list in the Living Space section. You may also want to use this framed viewer setup.

News briefs... The reports given at the October COMSTAC (Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee) meeting (agenda) are now on line (mostly ppt files)...

... ESA has big plans (or a big wish list) for future vehicle and spacecraft development and exploration: Aurora Charts Plan For Europe On Mars By 2033 - SpaceDaily - Dec.22.03 * ESA - Aurora Programme - More about Aurora (link via reader Michael Antoniewicz)....

... The shuttle's return to flight will be a big story in late 2004: Shuttles Will Return to Flight Upgraded With Added Technology - Space.com - Dec.24.03

December 23, 2003

SS1 brief... The test data report has been posted for last week's rocket powered supersonic flight. Repairs from the landing mishap will take "approximately three weeks to complete."

News briefs... Len Cormier's Tour2Space site is getting a makeover. He also shows a new and unusual X PRIZE vehicle concept. ...

... Aviation Week reports in the latest issue that the Request for Proposals (RFP) for the OSP project has been indefinitely postponed instead of just temporarily as earlier indicated. It will have to wait for the completion of the White House review of policy on human spaceflight....

... Taylor Dinerman says the OSP "may very nearly be dead." (Space) history accelerates by Taylor Dinerman - The Space Review - Dec.22.03 - "Not only is there no simple justification for the OSP, but now that it has been labeled as being nothing more than an 'American Soyuz,' its $13 to $18 billion dollar price tag is seen by people in Congress as a joke"...

... It wasn't all just NASA and the major aerospace conglomerates getting heard in Washington last week: Jeff Greason's speech at the AvWeek "Century of Flight" celebration at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, Washington D.C. - XCOR Aerospace - Dec.22.03

December 22, 2003

The incremental advantage... Rocket Man compares ELV testing to the step by step approach allowed by RLVs: Incremental Testing - Rocket Man Blog - Dec.21.03

SS1 brief... Business Week reports on the SS1 flight: Free Enterprise on the Final Frontier - Business Week - Dec.22.03 (via spacetoday.net)

More SS1 supersonic flight info is provided in the latest issue of Aviation Week. Some of the highlights include:

  • Data gathered during the rocket firing and afterwards showed "no showstoppers like flutter at high speeds".

  • Some slight roll oscillations between Mach 0.9 and 1.0 faded away with higher speeds. They might not try to fix this since "it could be a fun feature to let you know you're going through the speed of sound" according to Burt.

  • The light load for this mission resulted in what should be the "wildest ride" in the whole program. Only a third of the nitrous oxide and half of the solid fuel for a 100km altitude flight were loaded. Since the nitrous oxide pressure drops as it is used, the thrust will drop as well and so the acceleration in an operational flight will decrease as the fuel is used up. In this flight the light load at the start resulted in a maximum acceleration about 30% higher than for a flight with a complete fuel load.

  • Also, in this flight the nitrous oxide was shut off abruptly, resulting in a 1.5g eyes-out deceleration. In an operational flight the acceleration will die off much more gradually.

  • The pilot said that in the approach to the runway there were roll oscillations "that felt close to wing stall started when he tried to flare the glider" and this led to the hard landing.

  • Repairs from the landing accident will take 2 to 4 weeks.

  • The total cost for the project will be around $25M.

News briefs... John Carmack reports on the powered landing alternative to parachutes in his latest update: Drum pump, Powered landing, Engine work - Armadillo Aerospace - Dec.20.03 ...

... Decision time for NASA: In 2004, NASA must pick shuttle successor - Florida Today - Dec.20.03

December 20, 2003

More SpaceShipOne flight photos are now posted at the SpaceShipOne web site. They come from a video but I've not seen a link to an on line video file.

News brief... The da Vinci project is profiled in this National Geographic article: Rocket-Balloon Combo: First Private Spaceship? - National Geographic - Dec.16.03

December 19, 2003

SS1 & HARC connection... Tim Pickens of HARC assisted Scaled Composites with the design of the SpaceShipOne propulsion system: HARC Has a Hand in SpaceShipOne's Supersonic Success - Tim Pickens, HARC's X PRIZE Team Leader, hand picked by Burt Rutan for SpaceShipOne Project - HARC - Dec.19.03

Composite tanks & RLVs... NASA and Northrop report on progress with composite LH2 tank development: Northrop Grumman, NASA Successfully Test Composite Hydrogen Fuel Tank for Reusable Launch Vehicles: Tests Boosts Confidence in Using Composite Tanks for Reusable Launch Vehicles - Northrop - Dec.19.03. More links on composite LH2 and LOX tanks can be found in the RLV Technology section.

I've been communicating with John Garvey of Garvey Space who was a leader in the university/industry team that recently launched a rocket with an aerospike nozzle. He has been involved in many interesting rocketry projects over the years, including the DC-X and with composite tank development.

Composite LH2 tanks have been an easier challenge and one was even flown on the DC-XA. Building composite tanks for LOX has been much tougher but in June of 2000 Garvey Space worked in collaboration with Microcosm to launch one on a rocket, the first time anyone had done so. (This launch occured over a year before NASA and Lockheed Martin said they were the first to develop a LOX thank.) I asked John about the history of this project and he responded as follows [I added some links to his remarks]:

"The composite tank flown on Kimbo IV was actually provided by Microcosm. It was a sub-scale unit used for life-cycle testing which we knew about because we kept in touch with ex-McDonnell Douglas types Jim Berry and Steve Bartlett. When the tank successfully completed this testing, they loaned it to us for the flight test / demonstration. So - the proprietary technology belongs to Microcosm, and was funded (I am pretty sure) by AFRL....

That flight test was another good example of how we like to work with partners (generally small companies) in a win-win situation. Jim Wertz made the decision to do it and that was all it took for Berry and the others to work with us.

I/we decided to team with Microcosm because we realized early on that finishing development of our own tank(s) on our own funds was going to take a while longer. And - contrary to the NASA press release that you referenced - there were already numerous teams out there (besides Microcosm, there were my colleagues at Boeing/McDonnell Douglas, the Rockwell North American folks, as well as apparently Gary Hudson) that had already built and demonstrated such composite LOX tanks on the ground. All we wanted to do was put one in flight.

There is a long story as to why we got started in the first place. It goes back to DC-XA and the composite LH2 tank, on which I spent a lot of time helping to install the internal insulation (among other things, I learned that if technicians are willing to let an engineer do hands-on work, it probably is not going to be fun). I basically proposed what became the Kimbo IV to management, but they were focused on getting X-33, which would in turn would have funded development of much larger LOX tanks. Myself and several others started building the Kimbo I out at White Sands, using spare parts that came from junk yards over in Almogordo.

... After K-IV, we submitted an SBIR Phase I proposal to Marshall to develop and fly the already half-built Kimbo V in five months with an improved composite tank from Microcosm and another designed with inputs from the Boeing/McDonnell Douglas composite tank team. It was not selected, apparently because the Marshall folks concluded that the K-V was not the right scale of vehicle. So - we flew it anyway with our standard converted fire extinguisher tanks and achieved our first successful recovery.

Armadillo status... Besides his regular updates at Armadillo Aerospace, John Carmack has posted various comments about the status of the project (some of these links come via Kaido Kert):

SS1 briefs... From the ERPS Forum, read one eyewitness account of an interesting day at the Mojave Airport....

... First private rocket ship goes supersonic - New Scientist - Dec.18.03

News briefs... The Pad Abort Demonstration (PAD) progress announced: Engine, Parachute Tests Pave Way For Launch Escape System - NASA - Dec.18.03

December 18, 2003

News briefs... Space Transport displayed the "The Rubicon", the company's Suborbital Tourism Vehicle, yesterday in Port Angeles, Washington: Spacecraft Display - Space Transport - Dec.17.03 ...

... The Australian groups working on hypersonic projects, such as the University of Queensland's Hyshot project, are teaming together: Racing to supersonic speeds - Australian IT -Dec.17.03

Scaled Composites posts some photos of Burt, Paul Allen, and Brian Binnie. Also, they offer some bigger versions of the ignition image shown below....

... Even the Washington Posts' Kathy Sawyer notes this non-governmental project: Private Rocket Plane Breaks Sound Barrier - Washingtonpost.com - Dec.18.03. Haven't seen anything yet at the NY Times.

SS1 photos are posted on Alan Radecki's web site, including a sequence showing the landing mishap. Sure glad it didn't flip. In this shot it has a wounded bird look. (Burt's designs are so wonderfully animate.) Or just real tired after its splendid feat.

SS1 flight aftermath... The full implications of this event will take some time to develop. Here are some miscellaneous items:

  • Paul Allen, the billionaire Microsoft co-founder, did in fact turn out to be the SS1 investor as had been suspected: Paul G. Allen Confirmed as Long-Rumored Sponsor of SpaceShipOne - Business Wire - Dec.17.03

  • The press release, or info derived from it, has been posted at Space.com and other sites but I've not seen much new info yet. I would expect more to come out today. I hope more pictures and perhaps a video will be released soon.

  • I saw the announcement on some of the bottom screen scrollers at CNN and Fox News television channels but no live reports as of late last night.

December 17, 2003

SpaceShipOne Rocket Fired in Flight!

SpaceShipOne Breaks the Sound Barrier
Scaled Composites Press Release

Today, a significant milestone was achieved by Scaled Composites: The first manned supersonic flight by an aircraft developed by a small company's private, non-government effort.

In 1947, fifty-six years ago, history's first supersonic flight was flown by Chuck Yeager in the Bell X-1 rocket under a U.S. Government research program. Since then, many supersonic aircraft have been developed for research, military and, in the case of the recently retired Concorde, commercial applications. All these efforts were developed by large aerospace prime companies, using extensive government resources.

Our flight this morning by SpaceShipOne demonstrated that supersonic flight is now the domain of a small company doing privately-funded research, without government help. The flight also represents an important milestone in our efforts to demonstrate that truly low-cost space access is feasible.

Our White Knight turbojet launch aircraft, flown by Test Pilot Peter Siebold, carried research rocket plane SpaceShipOne to 48,000 feet altitude, near the desert town of California City. At 8:15 a.m. PDT, Cory Bird, the White Knight Flight Engineer, pulled a handle to release SpaceShipOne. SpaceShipOne Test Pilot, Brian Binnie then flew the ship to a stable, 0.55 mach gliding flight condition, started a pull-up, and fired its hybrid rocket motor. Nine seconds later, SpaceShipOne broke the sound barrier and continued its steep powered ascent. The climb was very aggressive, accelerating forward at more than 3-g while pulling upward at more than 2.5-g. At motor shutdown, 15 seconds after ignition, SpaceShipOne was climbing at a 60-degree angle and flying near 1.2 Mach (930 mph). Brian then continued the maneuver to a vertical climb, achieving zero speed at an altitude of 68,000 feet. He then configured the ship in its high-drag "feathered" shape to simulate the condition it will experience when it enters the atmosphere after a space flight. At apogee, SpaceShipOne was in near-weightless conditions, emulating the characteristics it will later encounter during the planned space flights in which it will be at zero-g for more than three minutes. After descending in feathered flight for about a minute, Brian reconfigured the ship to its conventional glider shape and flew a 12-minute glide to landing at Scaled's home airport of Mojave. The landing was not without incident as the left landing gear retracted at touchdown causing the ship to veer to the left and leave the runway with its left wing down. Damage from the landing incident was minor and will easily be repaired. There were no injuries.

The milestone of private supersonic flight was not an easy task. It involved the development of a new propulsion system, the first rocket motor developed for manned space flights in several decades. The new hybrid motor was developed in-house at Scaled with first firings in November 2002. The motor uses an ablative nozzle supplied by AAE and operating components supplied by SpaceDev. FunTech teamed with Scaled to develop a new Inertial Navigation flight director. The first flight of the White Knight launch aircraft was in August 2002 and SpaceShipOne began its glide tests in August 2003.

Scaled does not pre-announce the specific flight test plans for its manned space program, however completed accomplishments are updated as they happen at our website:
www.scaled.com/projects/tierone/index.htm. The website also provides downloadable photos and technical descriptions of the rocket motor system and motor test hardware.

Scaled Composites, LLC, is an aerospace research company located on the Mojave Airport:
1624 Flight Line, Mojave California 93501
Voice (661) 824-4541
Fax (661) 824-4174
Email: info@scaled.com

An incredible sight, exclaims Jim Benson: SpaceDev Powers SpaceShipOne to Break Sound Barrier Flight on Historic 100th Anniversary of Wright Bros. - SpaceDev - Dec.17.03

News briefs... The delay of the orbital version of the X-37 has been confirmed: X-37 Drop Test Set For November But Orbital Variant Put On Hold - Aviation Week - Dec.17.03 ...

... Via the ERPS forum I remembered this article at Space Future from 2002 that gave an interesting commentary from the head of the Japanese RVT project: RVT, The Little Spacecraft That Could - Space Future Journal - May.15.02 ...

... Rand's on a Wrighteous roll: Daring - Transterrestrial Musings - Dec.17.03 * Up and Back Down - National Review Online - Dec.17.03. ...

... RocketMan explains that one must be careful when comparing fuel loads for planes and rockets: For Lack Of An Oxidizer - Rocket Man Blog - Dec.17.03 ...

... Florida Today seems to notice finally that some rocketry advancements can occur outside of NASA: Seeking the Wright mix: Aviation blueprints map out flying cars, space trips - Florida Today - Dec.16.03

Canadian Arrow Space Center (astronaut.ca) website has been updated. They aim to attract customers to a 14 day training program at their facility near London Ontario and a ride on their Canadian Arrow vehicle once regular flights begin. The site includes a lot of nice graphics including images of various aspects of the vehicle.

You can now arrange for a bus tour of their facility.

Spacedev rocket development in The Latest... Poway Firm Powers 1st Private Manned Space Flight ... which may or may not occur tomorrow - sandiego.com - Dec.16.03 (via spacetoday.net)

Gryphon in action... Andrews Space releases an animation of their two stage RLV design : Andrews Space Releases Animation of the Gryphon Space Transportation Architecture - Andrews PR/PrimeZone - Dec.16.03 (via spacetoday.net)

The Wright way to air & space involves careful step-by-step testing and incremental development according to Airplane "Scientists" by Rand Simberg - TCS: Tech Central Station - Dec.17.03

December 16, 2003

I've heard a rumor that Mojave Airport has issued a statement that there will be some special test flight activity on Wednesday morning...

X PRIZE update... The X PRIZE has released the 2003 Team Updates (1.3MB pdf) that focuses on the progress and status of 13 of the competitors - those that have released information on significant hardware development.

A sample of items of interest:

  • Scaled Composites reports that "the next six to nine months will involve a number of rocket powered flights of SpaceShipOne, with each flight involving a longer and longer burn of the hybrid engine. The first flight may be limited to a short 15- second burn, with later flights demonstrating the full 60+ second burn time bringing SpaceShipOne from 50,000 feet eventually to an altitude of 328,000 feet (62 miles...space!)."

  • Armadillo Aerospace has developed "totally new propulsion system that uses a bi-modal, mono-propellant fuel consisting of 50% w/w hydrogen peroxide / water and methanol. The new fuel is more potent than the 90% peroxide, one tenth the cost and is readily available. Engine testing is ongoing and the full scale 12" engine is in fabrication"

    Then "after completion of the engine test program, Armadillo will be testing a full scale boilerplate X PRIZE vehicle with a captive hover test at their 100-acre test facility, followed by some low altitude hover tests to 3,000 ft. With these tests completed, it's their intent to do some additional low altitude launches within the "amateur" classification". They hope to do X PRIZE flights by end of 2004 if launch approval red tape can be overcome.

  • American Astronautics has nearly completed a "sub-scale technology test bed vehicle. This LOX/RP-1 technology demonstrator vehicle implements several key technologies and innovations incorporated in the American Eagle I booster design. The test bed vehicle is capable of carrying a 40 pound flight instrumentation payload on board to an altitude of 120 km. The test bed vehicle is fully recovered and reusable. At nearly 99% completion, the technology demonstrator's purpose is to proof the Spirit of Liberty concept and design prior to manned launch."

  • Advent Launch Services (Jim Akkerman) "experienced a significant set of challenges arising from an engine test: during a static firing of its test vehicle/engine combination, a LOX feed line was heated by the exhaust to the point of rupture, and a fire ensued. There was damage to the control wires, storage tanks and the shell of the vehicle. Team Advent has used this experience as an opportunity to redesign its shell to a new tube wall structure (like the Atlas), and is in the process of building a new test stand for its engine. Its developmental-stage all-aluminum “orbiter”—also its X PRIZE test vehicle—is ready for further testing; the launch/service version will be made of titanium."

  • The ARCA "test vehicle is a 1:1.25 scale version of the X PRIZE vehicle, named 'Demonstrator-2.' The vehicle was rolled out for public display on 27 September 2003. Demonstrator- 2 is a composite vehicle with an engine capable of either a single or hybrid fuel....Launch of Demonstrator-2, scheduled for 15 March 2004, will accelerate the test vehicle to 68 km, and it will "coast" to an apogee of 85km."

  • Canadian Arrow successfully tested its 57,000lb thrust engine and that will continue tests of "the engine to prepare it for actual flight onboard the first Canadian Arrow spacecraft that is scheduled for launch next year. When successful, the Arrow will make Canada the fourth nation to put humans into space."

  • The da Vinci Project says that "Early in 2004 da Vinci Project hopes to receive its license to launch from the Canadian Government and begin a sequence of test flights culminating in an series of flights to win the X PRIZE."

  • "HARC will continue progressing toward full scale launches while keeping safety first. Hardware design and testing will continue into 2004 with a launch of the Liberator Escape Tower and Capsule in the 1st half of 2004. HARC is planning for a summer launch of the 'Little Joe' version of the Liberator to an altitude of approximately 40 kilometers. The first full scale launch is planned for late summer and will be followed by another launch in the fall. The two X PRIZE competition flights will take place in late 2004, and there are already astronaut candidates pitching in to help move the Team toward that goal."

  • Pablo De Leon's group reports that in "2004 we will concentrate in launch test of at least two half scale vehicles and in launch operations."

  • Starchaser reports that its "Thunderstar and its new engines now in production, Starchaser plans to fly in 2004. The team has also announced that it will make its propulsion system available for sale to other X PRIZE contestants on a commercial basis."

An X PRIZE press release notes the Wright Brothers flight anniversary and believes that the X PRIZE teams are "carrying on the tradition of passionate aviation experimentation to clear a path to space for the rest of us." - X PRIZE Inspiring the Next 100 Years of Flight: Three New Teams Join $10M Competition -- Total Now 27 Teams from Seven Nations - X PRIZE - Dec.15.03

Suborbital to orbital follow-up... Some miscellaneous items about the suborbital article:

The SpaceShow special program this Wednesday, December 17th will celebrate the anniversary of the Wright Brothers first powered flight with an interview with Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation. The program airs live from 7-8:15PM Pacific Time via web streaming on live365.com.

December 15, 2003

Suborbital to orbital? My article - Suborbital spaceflight: a road to orbit or a dead end? - The Space Review - Dec.15.03 - came out this morning.

For the article I solicited input from Pat Bahn (TGV-Rockets), Len Cormier (Tour2Space), Dan DeLong (XCOR), Henry Spencer, and Mark Oakley (RocketMan Blog). To reduce the length of the article, I paraphrased some parts of their statements. The full texts of their responses are available here.

In the article I forgot to include references for the statements from Alan Bond and John Pike. You can find them in Galaxy quest - The Independent - Aug.5.03 and The Right Stuff - Wired - June.03 (page 4), respectively.

Armadillo news ... John Carmack has posted his latest update: Engine development, preparing for flight - Armadillo Aerospace - Dec.13.03.

In commemoration of 100 Years of Powered Flight, Armadillo offers a wonderful video in which Widget plays Zelig to the great events in early aviation. It also shows those Armadillo young men with their magnificent flying machines.

News brief... The Economist thinks that we might fly on Hypersoar someday - : High times - The Economist - Dec.15.03.

Aviation Week posting... The November 24th issue of Aviation Week included a brief entry in the Washington Outlook section that reported, "A fully reusable two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle is currently beyond reach, says Pentagon space czar Peter B. Teets."

Teets statement really annoyed me so I sent the following message to the AW&ST letters section and it was actually included in this week's issue along with an image of the Kistler K-1:

It is a relief to hear that "Pentagon space czar" Peter Teets has declared that fully reusable two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO) vehicles are currently beyond reach. (AWST Nov.24,2003.) He can now finally enlighten us as to the fatal flaws in the Kistler Aerospace K-1 vehicle.

This fully reusable TSTO vehicle was 75% complete about three years ago when its funding fell short as Kistler's target market of Iridium, Globalstar, and Teledesic replacement satellites vanished. It has been a big mystery as to why the AF or NASA did not step in and fund the completion of this vehicle, which would require less money than the cost of a single shuttle flight. The company claims that it could fly 5700kgs every two weeks to low earth orbit for about $17M per mission or $3000 per kg, substantially below current prices. I'm sure George Mueller, head of Kistler and a former top engineer of the Apollo program, would like to be informed by Mr. Teets as to why the K-1 is not currently feasible.

I don't claim the K-1 is the greatest conceivable RLV design. I'm not qualified to judge. I just believe that when someone in public office makes a grand proclaimation like this, he or she should back it up with publicly available analysis and documentation, especially when a contrary example in the private sector lies right in front of that person.

X-37 delayed... The latest Aviation Week also reports that the X-37 orbital vehicle will be delayed and "de-emphasized" in favor of the OSP: NASA Delays X-37 Orbital Vehicle - Aviation Week - Dec.14.03. The X-37 program now will focus on drop tests and advanced technology development such as "lithium ion batteries, carbon-carbon and carbon silicon carbide hot structures". The program also suffered significant cost growth due to problems with the wing structures on the Approach and Landing Test Vehicle (ALTV) that required a re-design.

(Note that in my interview with Gary Hudson last June he predicted: "Of course, it is only a matter of time before MSFC kills X-37 altogether.")

As a side remark, the article also says that the OSP is "beginning to look less like a reusable plane than a throwaway capsule and has serious long-term funding issues of its own." First time that I've heard that the capsule might not be reusable.

Space.com also reports on the delay: NASA Puts X-37 Space Flight on Hold - Space News - Dec.15.03

December 14, 2003

Space Access Society update... Henry Vanderbilt issued Space Access Update #101 yesterday (not yet posted at the SAS site) that focused on The Future of NASA Manned Space: Constrained Choices:

There has been a lot of breathless speculation on what the current Administration review of national space policy might lead to, much of it centered on what if anything the President might choose to talk about on the upcoming 100th birthday of powered flight, December 17th 2003. We have no inside scoops, but we do have a few thoughts on the matter.

Our standard disclaimer on this: NASA is not a monolith; it's a whole collection of organizations of wildly varying size, missions, and competence. Some parts of NASA are both competent and efficient, many are at least marginally functional, and some are massively dysfunctional bureaucratic quagmires. There are lots of good people in NASA, some fortunate enough to be able to quietly go about producing value for the country, some mired up to their eyeballs in the aforementioned quagmires. Unless we specify otherwise, from here on we'll use "NASA" as shorthand for by far the largest single part of the agency, the Shuttle/Station manned spaceflight establishment.

First, however, consider that December 17th is the centennial of the *airplane*, that the first "A" in NASA stands for "aeronautics", and that the agency's problems are not confined to its space operations. It occurs to us that come the 17th, the President might have something to say on aeronautics. Just a guess, of course.

As far as NASA manned space goes, keep in mind two things: One, money is tight. The country's coming out of a recession, there's a war on, and the deficit is getting politically sensitive. Whatever new directions national space policy might be aimed, overall civil space spending is very unlikely to increase radically. That would take a national consensus that simply doesn't exist.

Two, NASA is a mess. Read the CAIB Report and weep. Neither the Congress nor the White House trust NASA anymore - neither to succeed on-time/on-budget (if at all) with any large new project, nor to reform itself unsupervised. As far as ambitious new missions are concerned, these various parties are (or ought to be) acutely aware that the existing NASA structure is capable of soaking up huge amounts of additional money for a very long time before any new output at all appears. The few federal legislators talking about funding big new NASA projects tend to have major NASA centers back home. The chances of their colleagues going along with any such major new NASA spending anytime soon are, we estimate, near zero.

Given all this, why not retrench - wind down the existing NASA manned space projects as quickly as possible, then start over from scratch in a few years?

...continue to full text

X PRIZE press... This article - Entrepreneurs shoot for the stars -- and $10 million: Private firms in a space race are very close to claiming the X Prize. - Ottawa Citizen - Dec.14.03 (via spacetoday.net) - gives a nice status report on the competition. I found this quote from John Carmack particularly interesting:

Mr. Carmack said his team will likely get its vehicle "hovering in the air" by the end of December. "But full space flights would still be, at a bare minimum, six months away."

Lunar launch options... Jonathan Goff periodically updates his design study for a private lunar mission called The Prometheus Downport Project: A Commercial Lunar Colonization Project. With the introduction of the SpaceX Falcon V launcher project, he has now examined how that vehicle, which promises to reduce LEO costs to $1300 per lb ($2860/kg), can fit into the project : Option 5: SpaceX Falcon V Launched EOR/LSS (EOR- Earth Orbit Rendezvous, LSS - Lunar Surface Staging.)

Tether assist ... Keith Cowing at NASA Watch recently noticed an unusual "presolicitation notice" by NASA: NASA Presolicitation Notice: Analysis of the Launch of a large (15-16 metric tonne) Payload into an equatorial Low Earth Orbit (LEO) - SpaceRef - Dec.12.03, which was then removed after a couple of days. He followed up on the posting and found that it was part of a study of a tether assist system from Tethers Unlimited that would "to throw a payload to a higher orbit - or elsewhere in the solar system." The NASA team was investigating whether Sea Launch could put such a system into orbit.

[Update Dec.15: Keith has now posted this page: Insight into NASA Space Tether Experiment - SpaceRef - Dec.14.03]

You might also check out this paper at the TUI site - Hypersonic Airplane Space Tether Orbital Launch (HASTOL) System by Bogar, Bangham, Forward, Lewis - Tethers Unlimited - AIAA Conference 1999 - which presents an outline of a concept for a tether to grab a payload from a vehicle on a suborbital trajectory and boost the payload to orbit.

December 13, 2003

RLV design tradeoffs... Chapter 7 of The Rocket Company gives a nice review of the the major issues involved in designing an orbital RLV.

X PRIZE news... Several news items have been posted on the X PRIZE home page. Most of the topics have been mentioned here previously but these provide some extra details.

The da Vinci Special Media Update will be held on Dec. 16th in Toronto: The da Vinci Space Project Special Media Update - da Vinci Project - Dec.12.03. The Canadian da Vinci X Prize project will host the two day event at which

"Brian Feeney, Project founder and pilot of the Wild Fire MK VI spacecraft, will be on hand all day to brief journalist and conduct interviews. Meet the team that will make history in 2004.

During the 'Media Update Event' project team leaders will present journalists with the summary of current state-of-the art and immediate future plans.

The projects real time flight simulator and mission guidance software will be operational on 24 inch flat Sun Microsystem monitors. Try your hand at controlling the Wild Fire Mk VI spacecraft on a manual flight to space and reentry.

View never before seen pictures of the actual Wild Fire MK VI spacecraft now under construction."

A parallel Technical Conference will

"...cover various research topics devoted to suborbital space flight, various aspects of the da Vinci Project space mission. These aspects include external aerodynamics, flight dynamics, thermal analysis, space capsule design, landing attenuation systems, balloon launch, tracking and recovery operations, and space education."

The technical presentations will be open to the public, no registration fees required.

December 12, 2003

XCOR rocket teacart... Here is a image (photo credit Ken Estes) of the 2000th firing of an XCOR engine by an unknown sci-fi fan. Note the small, narrow flame to the left of center from the nitrous oxide/ethane engine. Who says rocket engines can't be trusted?

Mojave spaceport hearing... Mojavians support spaceport appliation at environmental assessment public hearing: Community backs bid to create spaceport - Antelope Valley Press - Dec.12.03. (via a HS reader.).

"Mojave Airport has two tenants who are seeking launch vehicle licenses, XCOR Aerospace and Scaled Composites. Both companies have been informed by the FAA that their applications are 'substantially complete,' Witt said, putting them well on the road to licenses."

Maryland and Virginia may get one too: States agreed to build Wallops spaceport - Ocean City (MD) Today - Dec.12.03 (via spacetoday.net)

Aerospike engines offer a rich lode for rocketry research. See the comments from John Garvey in Advanced Rocketry News.

Falcon progress... The latest SpaceX update just came out. (It will appear on the website in a few days. You can sign up for the mailing list there.) Jonathan Goff sent me this summary of highlights:

  • Lots of progress on their mobile launcher/erector
  • The plumbing for the engine was completed (and tooling to
    make manufacturing easier was made)
  • The Merlin engine has some upgrades that are going to be
    tested soon, with the goal of reaching 96.5%+ efficiency.
  • Work is also being done on the turbopump seals and bearings,
    as well as some work on their GOX/RP igniter for their
    upper stage.
  • Some testing was just done on their telemetry system and
    some of the electronics.
  • Additional minor structural changes are being made.
  • Elon emphasized that their emphasis with Falcon is reliability,
    not price, and that all of his engineers each have a veto right
    on the flight if they feel it isn't ready.
  • Lastly the AF satellite launch date has slipped to (tentatively)
    March 27th.


December 11, 2003

Suborbital reconaissance .. Japan recently lost two spysats when their H-2A rocket failed during launch: Japanese launch fails - Spaceflight Now - Nov.29.03. Monitoring of North Korea was to be their primary job. It's a shame that the Japanese did not have the high altitude version of the RVT reusable suborbital vehicle ready for takeoff. It could offer similar and possibly superior reconnaissance services.

As mentioned here several times, the third version of the RVT flew some low altitude tests in October. This vehicle included a composite LH2 tank and several other improvements over the previous vehicles. The plan is to build a high altitude version next. (I don't know if it is funded or not.)

Such a vehicle could pop up from a base in southern Japan (map) and at 100 to 200 km altitude could see well into North Korea and China. To get a better look, it could even fly from a Japanese ship (since it's VTOL it doesn't even need an aircraft carrier) near the Korean coast. The high altitude RVT is fairly low cost to build and operate and would provide up to two flights per day. Unlike satellites, they can take a peek at any time so it would be more difficult to hide activities and objects from their view.

Such a reconnaissance capability is a great asset for any country and eventually this will become better appreciated. (I should note that Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets has long pushed the application of suborbitals for reconnaissance and remote sensing.)

SpaceShipOne motor ground test... SpaceDev says they carried out a SS1 motor test at "about one-half the total capacity of the motor. The purpose of the test was to qualify the exact configuration of the motor to be used for SpaceShipOne's first powered test flight." SpaceDev Tests Rocket Motor for Powered Spaceshipone Flight - Spacedev PR - Dec.11.03 (via spacetoday.net)

December 10, 2003

News briefs... Rocket Man points out that the OSP does not represent much progress: Back To The Future - Rocket Man Blog - Dec.10.03...

... Check out the report and photos about the recent launch (see earlier item) of a student built rocket with an aerospike nozzle: Successful Second Liquid-propellant Aerospike Engine Flight Onboard P-4 - CSULB - Dec.10.03...

... Starchaser posts a brief news item about their Churchill Mk3 engines. (I didn't realize that they still need to be build these engines for their Thunderstar X PRIZE vehicle.) ...

... Space Transport, which plans to enter the X PRIZE competition, says they will try to launch their 3-stage sounding rocket this week. They hope to reach 100km.

Sci-fi fan fires rocket record... XCOR recently passed a significant milestone with the 2000th firing of its engines (See previous item). Randall Clague of XCOR sent me this surprising item yesterday about who actually ran that firing:

An interesting bit about our 2000th engine firing: looking over our logs, we noticed that we did 18 runs at Loscon, the 30th LA area science fiction convention. We sold 79 raffle tickets for Toys for Tots, and 15 winners ran the teacart engine up on stage after the masquerade contest. We don't know who it was, but the person that ran the 2000th XCOR engine firing wasn't an XCOR employee; he or she was a member of the public, and a science fiction fan.

You can find further information about the tea cart engine, which runs on nitrous oxide oxidizer and ethane fuel, on the XCOR engines page.


December 9, 2003

Alt.space gets attention in this space.com article: Alternate Universe: Human Spaceflight Without NASA? - Space.com - Dec.9.03. See comments at Transterrestrial Musings.

SpaceShipOne glide test flight on December 4th included cold flowing of nitrous oxide through the propulsion system according to the latest posting on the WK/SS1 Data page. This apparently looked like an engine firing from the ground. See this photo and others posted from the flight.

In addition, the "feather was extended after a 4G pull-up to the vertical at 24,500 feet and rudder used to induce sideslip and yaw rates while 'going-over-the-top'. The vehicle recovered to a stable attitude and descent after only a single oscillation."

There are rumors of a flight scheduled for December 17th, the Wright Brother's flight anniversary day, but we'll just have to wait and see if that's when they do the first test firing of the rocket engine.


December 8, 2003

Second aerospike launch a success... See item in Advanced Rocketry News.

News briefs... Jeff Foust reports on the SpaceX Falcon debut: The Falcon and the showman - The Space Review - Dec.8.03 and posts some photos. ...

... New vehicles like the Falcon need improved launch range facilities: The necessity of launch range upgrades - The Space Review - Dec.8.03

RLV roadblocks ... Rocket Man (Mark Oakley) lays out succinctly the major obstacles that have thus far prevented development of fully reusable launch vehicles: Where are the RLV’s? - Rocket Man Blog - Dec.7.03. (Mark mentions my article about suborbital and orbital vehicle development. I submitted it too late for this week's issue of Space Review and it was bumped to next Monday.)

Smallsat market may be growing: Military Applications Could Push Smallsats Over Launch-Cost Hurdle - Aviation Week - Dec.7.03. I think we will also see more scientific smallsats receiving funding from NASA and NOAA as launch costs come down further with the help of SpaceX Falcon and other innovative launchers.

If the smallsat market really does take off finally (this has been predicted for a long time), it will have a big impact on launcher development. As Mark says in his article, launch demand needs to grow before orbital RLV builders can attract investors. We might see a convergence of positive trends. Partially reusable launchers like the Falcon can get the smallsat market accelerating while in parallel we see fully reusable suborbitals developing the space tourism market and also the technology and infrastructure for fully reusable orbital launchers. A combination of strong smallsat and space tourist markets would then encourage investment in orbital RLVs.

News briefs ... Latest update from John Carmack: Vehicle work, Rocket Anchor, GPS, Engines - Armdillo Aerospace - Dec.7.03 ...

... John also reports on progress with peroxide supplies: Unstabilized peroxide - ERPS Forum - Dec.7.03 ...

... Starchaser posts some brief updates: Launch Escape System (LES) - starchaser.co.uk - Dec.03 and Thunderstar/Starchaser 5 - starchaser.co.uk - Dec.03

December 6, 2003

XCOR engines keep going and going... XCOR announces they have logged their 2,000th rocket engine firing." XCOR logs 2000th rocket engine firing - XCOR - Dec.4.03. They keep a running tab of the firings and accumulated firing times at Engine Projects. They note that in "all these 2,000 runs, XCOR has yet to experience an engine explosion or hard start."

This reminds me of an article last summer about the X PRIZE and other suborbital projects in which Alan Bond (HOTOL, Skylon) made several uninformed statements against such efforts including:

...In other words, by sacrificing safety, Bond says. Take just this single example of what needs to be done. Building just one crucial component of a rocket engine - the combustion chamber - would require about 400 test firings. "We are, after all, talking about the release of energy equivalent to a small power station, and the name of the game is test, test, test and test again. That costs money."

An XCOR-ian pointed out to me at the time that they will do far more than 400 tests on an XERUS engine or any other engine they build.

News briefs... The recent DARPA contract awards included several small companies among which was AirLaunch LLC. I just found out that this is a new company formed Gary Hudson and Bevin McKinney. They haven't released any details yet of their proposal but may do so by the summer....

... This is not the same as the AirLaunch System from Boeing. ...

... FAA Space Transportation Conference - 2004: Celebrating 20 Years!.

December 5, 2003

SpaceShipOne fired its engine in flight yesterday according to Alan Radecki's Mojave Airport blog: "SpaceShipOne flew again this morning [Dec.4.03], this time firing its rocket engine for the first time (in horizonal flight)." No news or photos on the SS1 website yet.

Update: I've now heard it was not actually an engine firing but a test of some sort. I hope we will hear details sooner rather than later.

Japanese RLV song ... This article - Research on Reusable Vehicles - Dr. Yoshifumi Inatani - JAXA - Nov.03 - about the RVT and the recent flight tests is literally music to my ears. It hits all the right notes. (I previously linked to the original version in Japanese and today a kind person from JAXA sent me the link to this English version.) Prof. Inatani makes so many statements I like that I would end up copying the whole thing if I quoted them all. But here is a sampling:

  • "The experiments were very preliminary efforts to build the kind of system that is required for reusable rocket vehicles....The purpose of the experiments was to accumulate design and operational lessons related to such things as takeoff and landing, and for safe and easy repeated flights."

  • "Our way of doing things, where every decision and action are made in a flexible and timely manner, seems to have left a fresh impression on observers from the other institutes within the newly integrated agency."

  • "To enhance the reliability and safety of reusable vehicles, it is not enough just to lower the probability of malfunctions, which is the traditional way of measuring the success of rockets. It is essential to come up with a system that can continue to function even when a failure occurs. This does not mean just preparing a redundant system; it involves the entire system architecture of the reusable vehicle. For example, we need measures to detect the sign of trouble before a failure occurs, to maintain body balance after one of the engines stops, and to secure controllability aerodynamically and so on."

  • "To be economically viable, passenger aircraft need to shorten their turnaround time as much as possible, since planes can never be profitable while they are on the ground. Rocket engineers today, who launch rockets only a few times a year, never have this kind of mindset."

  • "We look forward to the day when the public will share our ideas on the benefits and goals of reusable rockets, and when we start to think about real measures to get to the stage where the word "rocket" means "reusable rocket" without the need to add that adjective." (my emphasis)

Perhaps with recent high profile launch failures and the embarassment of seeing China launch a man into space while Japan cannot, this small innovative program will get some recognition and support and not get crushed by more bureaucratically powerful factions in the Japanese space establishment. I bet this group could build their 100km altitude version quickly and at a relatively low cost.

More Falcon followup... Correction from XCOR to Elon's statement that the Falcon V "will be the first American rocket with true engine out safety in three decades." Aleta Jackson notes that "EZ-Rocket has had that from the start."...

... Wired reports on the event and the significance of the SpaceX vehicles: Fast, Cheap Ride to Earth Orbit - Wired - Dec.5.03 - "...Musk hopes to put a human in orbit within five years -- and says he won't be the first passenger ...." ...

... Another article: Rocket Rolls Out in Downtown D.C. - Discovery - Dec.5.03 (via spacetoday.net) ...

... The Falcon V corresponds roughly to the Delta 2 in payload capacity and also to the Ukranian Dnepr rockets (derived from surplus R-36M2 or SS-18 ballistic missiles) such as the one that launched the TransOrbital test spacecraft last year.

Falcon I Rocket from SpaceX Unveiled
in Washington D.C.
New Falcon V Project Announced

Dragoon preparations
Falcon I parked across from Air & Space Museum
Dragoon preparations
Elon Musk speaking
by the Falcon
Dragoon preparations
FAA AST Patricia Grace Smith welcomes the Falcon to DC
Dragoon preparations
Smith & Musk
Dragoon preparations
Elon Musk answers questions
beside the Merlin engine
Dragoon preparations
Merlin Engine

The SpaceX Falcon I orbital launcher was formally introduced to the country tonight. The newly completed rocket was trucked from California and parked across the street from the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. A reception in the museum was followed by a presentation outside by the rocket.

We missed a talk by Elon at the reception but heard his remarks outside by the vehicle. Also, Patricia Grace Smith, the FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (the group AST that awards launch licenses) gave an enthusiastic welcome to Elon and the Falcon.

Besides the arrival of a new launch vehicle totally funded by private capital, the other big news of the night was the announcement of the start of development of the Falcon V launch vehicle. (The previously discussed Falcon Heavy with strap-on boosters to the Falcon I will not be developed.) They will post a white paper about the vehicle on the SpaceX website later but from a short hand out here are the essentials:

The Falcon V first stage booster will use five engines and "will be the first American rocket with true engine out safety in three decades. Depending upon the phase of flight, Falcon V will be capable of losing any three of the five engines and still complete its mission. Engine related problems are the overwhelming cause of launch vehicle failures."

"Not since the Apollo program's Saturn V, developed over three decades ago, will there be this level of reliability available in the United States. Extremely rare among rockets, Saturn V had a flawless flight record, despite having an engine fail on two separate missions. Without engine out safety, the Apollo Moon program would have had two flight failures, possibly with tragic consequences."

"The Falcon V also significantly increases the capability of the Falcon family, with a capacity of over 4 tons to low orbit an a 10 foot (3.05 meter) diameter payload fairing. The vehicle is also capable of launching missions to geostationary orbit and the inner solar system, as well as carrying supplies to the International Space Station with the addition of a lightweight automated transfer vehicle"

"With firm contract pricing set at $12 million per flight (2003 dollars), the $1300 cost per pound to orbit will represent a new world record in the cost of access to space"

Orbit Payload Falcon V
200km circular, 28.5 deg 9250lbs (4205kg)
700km circular, sun-synchronous 6600lbs (3000kg)
GTO, 8 deg 2750lbs (1250kg)
Escape velocity 1850lbs (841kg)

The Falcon V, which like the Falcon I will be mostly reusable, is scheduled for completion in 2005. Considering how fast the Falcon I has been developed, this looks like a date to be taken seriously. Even though the first Falcon launch will apparently slip a month or so, the time from start of development to first launch still looks to be less than two years. That's exceptional by modern standards

The even bigger news of the evening was that Elon says that he reads RLV News regularly!! I spoke with him very briefly and he was quite friendly and eager to talk, though he had many others waiting for his attention. He described the Falcon V with great enthusiasm and when I asked, whether it would be "man-rated", he smiled and emphasized that it's mostly just a matter of reliability, though g ratings matter as well.

This was partly tongue in cheek on my part since I'm sure that Elon would agree with Rand Simberg and others who say that man-rating is an obsolete term. All vehicles should be built to the highest degree to not fail, regardless of whether the payload includes people or not. However, I think it's clear that Elon wants eventually to move to crewed flight and the Falcon V will be a big step in that direction.

[Update: Rand says he qualifies the above as "All reusable vehicles should be built to the highest degree to not fail..." That's reasonable, although I think that the people who spent years, and sometimes decades, building spacecraft that were destroyed in an ELV disaster probably wish man-rating covered prevention of payload workers jumping off cliffs.]

More info & (better) pictures at SpaceX Falcon Launch Vehicle Unveiled in Washington D.C. - Keith Cowing/Spaceref - Dec.04.03 and SpaceX unveils Falcon, announces larger vehicle - Spacetoday.net - Dec.4.03


December 4, 2003

The Israeli X PRIZE team IL Aerospace Technologies has recruited Professor Claude Oiknine, one of Israel's top scientists and a pioneer of the "Shavit" orbital launch vehicle to join its team: Israeli X PRIZE Team Recruits Serious Brainpower and Secures New Sponsorship - ILAT/X PRIZE - Nov.27.03

News briefs... We'll be going tonight to the unveiling at the Smithsonian of the Falcon rocket from SpaceX ... Foundation Congratulates SpaceX on New Rocket Rollout, Hails Project as Providing Advent of "Alternative" Space Firms - Space Frontier Foundation - Dec.4.03 ...

... Another spaceport option: Virginia and Maryland Combine Forces to Operate Commercial Space Flight Facility at Wallops Island - Governor Warner - Dec.3.03 (via spacetoday.net)...

... Schafer Corporation, which was recently awarded one of the DARPA Falcon program contracts, has this brief page on Military Space Plane project, which seems more related to the X-37/X-40 project.


December 3, 2003

News briefs... Rand Simberg comments on the fatal flaws of ELVs - The Failed Paradigm That Won't Die - Transterrestrial Musings - Nov.30.03 - and and the need for a new approach ("quality requires a quantity all its own"): A Quality All Its Own - Transterrestrial Musings - Dec.3.03 ...

... Latest California Space Authority newsletter: CSA: SpotBeam California - December 2, 2003 ...

... Andrews Space PR on its recent contracts: Andrews Space Wins Two Awards from the DARPA and the Air Force - Andews Space - Dec.2.03 (pdf) (via spacetoday.net)

Yet another X PRIZE team has appeared on the scene. Space Transport, founded by two ex-Aerojet employees, will enter its STV (Suborbital Tourism Vehicle) into the contest. Forks Firm Plans Rocket Launch - KIROTV.com - Dec.2.03

The STV uses a cluster of seven solid rocket motors – each "12 inches in diameter and approximately 8 feet long."

"Six of the engines are in a ring configuration around the seventh central engine. The outer engines are fired in pairs and the central engine is fired alone. Engines are fired in stages with the central engine firing last, such that there are four stages. The vehicle is almost completely reusable – the engines are cleaned and repacked for the next flight."

The team launched its TSR (Three-Stage-Rocket) on November 6th to 72 km. They expect to reach 100km in subsequent launches. They plan to sell rides on the rockets for 1kg payloads.

(This item came via Tony Rusi.)


December 2, 2003

New Starchaser vehicle design... The Starchaser organization has unveiled a new design for its X PRIZE vehicle. The Thunderstar capsule will ride atop a Starchaser 5 booster. The earlier Thunderbird system consisted of a capsule and "a first stage core stage with four strap on boosters and second stage sustainer".

Due to a conservative design approach and success with their engines, they found the Thunderbird to be "overpowered" and "capable of propelling six people into space" rather than the three needed to win the prize. So they decided earlier this year to focus on the simpler Thunderstar/Starchaser 5 system for the X PRIZE.

No dates or timetables given on development or flight tests.

Space planes of the past... Astronautix.com has recently posted new info about several military space plane projects of the 1950s and 1960s:

Still searching for space planes... Taylor Dinerman looks at how the missile defense progams led the US military to search for lower cost access access to space and to build the DC-X. However, the military then failed to build on the progress made by this project: Missile defense, RLVs, and the future of American spacepower - The Space Review - Dec.1.03

Inflatable reentry systems were the topic of an article by James Oberg in the October/November 2003 issue of Air & Space Magazine. He first reviewed the FIRST Re-Entry Glider project that actually carried out a partially sucessful suborbital test in 1964. He then mentions the MOOSE (Man Out Of Space Easiest originally and then Manned Orbital Operations Safety Equipment) concept from GE for a one person emergency re-entry module.

The rest of the article discusses the joint Russian/German IRDT (Inflatable Reentry Descent Technology) program, which has launched three prototypes systems with mixed results. The first test in February 2000 made it from orbit and through the atmosphere OK but then a second system for cushioning the impact failed to deploy. The other two flights had problems detaching the modules from the boosters and never deployed. Another test is scheduled for next spring. See the RRSS - Return & Rescue - Space Systems GmbH site for a description of the program.

Such reentry systems might offer an approach for first generation orbital RLVs to use for low cost TPS.

News briefs... Garvey Space and Cal State Long Beach to launch another rocket with an aerospike nozzle this weekend: Students Prepare for the Second Liquid-propellant Aerospike Engine Flight Onboard P-4 - CSULB - Dec.1.03 ...

... Brian Walker (aka RocketGuy) provides updates on his projects and himself....

... All about the Air Force hypersonic and rapid response launcher projects: In Search of Spaceplanes: The Air Force has an urgent need for hypersonic, long-range, transatmospheric vehicles. - Air Force Magazine - Dec.03 (via spacetoday.net)


Continue to November 2003

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