Wednesday, November 10, 2004

America's Space Prize - Rules Announced.

The long awaited rules for America's Space Prize have been announced.

The Rules (and some discussion of them):

1. The spacecraft must reach a minimum altitude of 400 kilometers approximately 250 miles);

2. The spacecraft must reach a minimum velocity sufficient to
complete two (2) full orbits at altitude before returning to Earth;

Given that Bigelow is looking to spur development of a space taxi, these are reasonable minimum specifications.

3. The spacecraft must carry no less than a crew of five (5)

The key question here is how many of the 'crew' will actually be passengers when the craft transitions to revenue service. Prudence would seem to dictate two 'crew', and thus three 'passengers'. This, to me, seems too high of a crew/passenger ratio. Something else as yet unadressed is logistics management and the expected lifetime of the orbital modules.

4. The spacecraft must dock or demonstrate its ability to dock with
a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable space habitat, and be capable of
remaining on station at least six (6) months;

This rule implies to me that the station crew flies separately from the passengers, and remain on orbit between passenger visits. This rule can also be interpreted as meaning one or more vehicles will remain on orbit between visits to provide a rescue/escape capability. To my mind, these capabilities are better provided by proper station design and the ability to launch on short notice.

5. The spacecraft must perform two (2) consecutive, safe and
successful orbital missions within a period of sixty (60) calendar
days, subject to Government regulations;

Another reasonable specification. You want to fly the craft as often as possible in order to hold your total fleet size (and thus capital investment) down. (You also want a certain minimum fleet size in order to assure reliable and constant availability. See my article on standing armies for more musings on this topic.)

6. No more than twenty percent (20 percent) of the spacecraft may
be composed of expendable hardware;

A key question here is how the term 'spacecraft' is interpreted in the judging. This rule seems easy enough to meet if the term is considered to only encompass the orbital portion of the vehicle. If it is intended to encompass the launch vehicle as well, then the Prize will be much more difficult to win. In some places it has been suggested that this rule is intended to encourage SpaceX with the hoped for high and economical reuse of it's Falcon series. (The Falcon's have yet to fly however.)

7. The contestant must be domiciled in the United States of

8. The contestant must have its principal place of business in the
United States of America.

These two provisions have raised a great deal on angst in certain quarters. However, given the Bigelow is operating a US based company, and that the current (and for the forseeable future) legal environment frowns on the proliferation of ICBM technology, I cannot see any way he can reasonably avoid having these provisions, and meet his goal of purchasing services from the winner of the prize.

Make no mistake, vehicles of this nature are de facto ICBM's.

9. The Competitor must not accept of utilize government development
funding related to this contest of any kind, nor shall there be any
government ownership of the competitor. Using government test
facilities shall be permitted.

An interesting provision, one whose genesis and impact eludes me at the moment.

10. The spacecraft must complete its two (2) missions safely and
successfully, with all five (5) crew members aboard for the second
qualifying flight, before the competition's deadline of Jan. 10, 2010.

Many have commented that this seems too short given that it took eight years to claim the Ansari X-Prize. On the other hand, none of the serious contenders for that prize seem to have started significant work much more than two years ago, once the Prize was fully funded.
Frankly, I don't see any but dark horses in this race. Many organizations have been working on suborbital, but orbital flight (and reentry) is a very different kettle of fish. The key to reuseablity will be the TPS, and the 20% rule (rule 6) would seem to mitigate against a replaceable ablative shield. The otherwise low performance objectives mean that a fairly simple life support system will suffice, nor does guidance, control, or power seem to hold any hidden showstoppers. The availability of an inexpensive booster however could prove to be problem. (And again, how rule 6 is interpreted affects this greatly.)

In related news, XCOR is also shopping a prize around for operational hardware. (In this instance, a 'steam engine' to operate pumps in their engines.) Dan DeLong has some interesting comments on their Prize here.

[edit 11/11/2004 12:18 PST]
There is some interesting discussion of this issue here at Transterrestrial Musings.
[edit 11/11/2004 13:10 PST]
Correction: The Prize is in fact fully funded, link and quote in the comments section courtesy of a reader. Thanks Neil.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Future perfect, past imperfect.

CNN is reporting that William Shatner, among others, have already signed up to ride aboard Branson's VSS Enterprise (Spaceship Two). Sir Richard also announced that nearly $2 billion has already been pledged for tickets on the craft, scheduled to be ready to fly in 2008. (The question is as always, how many of those pledges will turn into real people when the time comes.)

MSNBC is carrying an interesting article by James Oberg on the loss of the Genesis probe and some of the recent problems associated with NASA. (A Slashdot discussion of this story can be found here.)

Monday, October 11, 2004

From the sea to the sky... And now beyond.

Famed spacecraft designer and pioneer Max Faget has died.

While others have covered his contributions to space flight, I'd like to cover other elements of his career, ones no less important. Max Faget is member of a generation rapidly slipping these surly bonds... He served in WWII as an officer in the Submarine Service, which brought the forces of Japan to their knees. He, and thousands more like him, not only contributed incalculably to winning the war, but forged the traditions that shape the Service even today.

Lord God, our power evermore,
Whose arm doth reach the ocean floor,
Dive with our men beneath the sea;
Traverse the depths protectively.
O hear us when we pray, and keep
Them safe from peril in the deep.

From the Navy Hymn.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Upwards and onwards.

After yesterday, the alt-space movement branches out onto a variety of paths and possibilities. There's a lot here today because there are many different things going on. The regular season is over, but the post-season is in full swing, and there are a lot of wildcards still in the running. The completion of the Ansari X-Prize race was but a single step on a long ladder, the end of the beginning if you will.

What's next?

For Paul Allen and Scaled composites, yesterday's flight appears to have been but a single step in a much longer business plan. This is a Good Thing. Our future in space depends on business, not stunts or amusement park rides.

  • Scaled Composites

    In addition to design work on SpaceShip Two (VSS Enterprise), Scaled has a contract to use White Knight as the carrier vehicle for drop tests of the X-37. (NASA Watch also has a brief article on this.)

    My recommendation? Don't get too exited about this one folks. Contrary to popular belief, the government does business with small firms all the time.

  • Virgin Galactic

    MSNBC has an article with a picture of Richard Branson holding a model of the proposed VSS Enterprise. (Is the proposed name a surprise to anyone?) Overall the new craft appears to be a slightly stretched and enlarged version of SpaceShip One.

    De Doc surmises that Sir Richard may have his eye on intercontinental package and passenger delivery. Many have surmised that intercontinental vehicles may be the next logical step between the sub orbital X-Prize and a full orbital craft, I agree with that philosophy.

The first to market isn't always the winner, let alone a survivor of the inevitable shakeout. They do however influence investors and Wall Street's view of the market. We don't need a dot-bomb or a trophy here, but a viable and visible business.

Let's not scoff at big business and dinosaurs. Building a commercial space venture takes real money and business acumen. It's not an accident that the names most associated with commercial space development today, Branson, Musk, Carmack, and Bezos, all have bank accounts with lots of zero's behind the numbers. When Disney builds a suborbital ride, or a transport in brown livery departs these green hills, then the race is over.

More prizes, more goals.

There is more than one race on the schedule, and more than one prize to be won.

  • The X-Prize Cup (an annual race) will be hosted by New Mexico, possibly at the historic White Sands Missile Range.

    Myself, I look forward to the day when such races (and prizes) are the province of the well-to-do or the garage tinkerers, and no longer have a bearing on the workaday world of space travel.

  • Bigelow Aerospace

    This is the Big One folks. Bigelow has announced a $50 million dollar prize for a capsule that can carry 5-7 passengers to Bigelow's proposed space hotel by the end of the decade. Unlike the X-Prize, the America's Prize isn't for prototypes that may or may not be able to be upgraded to be viable in commercial service, but is a direct request for a demonstrated operational technology.

    I've seen it suggested that the Falcon V is a logical candidate for the booster, but the prize rules do not require a US booster. (And the Falcon I has yet to fly.)

And then there were many.

Let's not forget however that there are other companies in the wings with future plans as well.

  • Armadillo Aerospace has long since announced they intend to continue development of their craft. John Carmack discusses their current status here.

  • Da Vinci has vowed they will overcome their difficulties and is pressing on with plans for an October 2004 launch.

  • SpaceX is reported to be on pace for a November launch of the first Falcon I vehicle. In addition, Bigelow hopes to use the Falcon V for tests of his inflatable modules.

  • And them there is the ever mysterious Blue Origin...

Formal word hasn't emerged from the other X-Prize teams, but I have little doubt that more than a few intend to push ahead. There is potentially a big market out there, and competition is a Good Thing. We no more need a single company, or a small group of companies, to dominate this emerging industry than we need a few governmental organizations to dominate.

As 'Crash' Davis said; "the moment is over", time to look forward and put shoulders back to the grindstone. While keeping our eyes on the stars...

Monday, October 04, 2004

Another era passes.

CNN is reporting that 'Gordo' Cooper, pilot of Faith 7 (MA-9), has died at his home in California.

The finish line is reached... And the race begins.

The Ansari X-prize site is announcing that SpaceShip One has won the Prize. (No links as the announcement is in Flash presentation (I.E. likely to vanish) on the intro and main page. I'll be watching the site too see when they post a press release.)

Congratulations to Burt, Mike, Brian, et al.

[Update: 1042]
The release such as it is, can be found here.

[Update: 1309] - Some thoughts on the flight.
Overall the flight looked smooth, some slight rolling a few seconds after ignition but these were quickly smoothed out by pilot. The peak of the trajectory was at 367,442 feet, handily passing the Prize altitude, and the previous altitude record held by the X-15.

Game, set...

Today is the day. Within the hour Spaceship one will make it's third attempt to fly to space, and this one is for the money.

For my part, this is how I prefer to witness history; In my own chair with a nice cup of coffee and a remote control. (It is however an ungodly hour for those of us on the left coast who prefer to keep vampire hours.)

[Edit: 0749]
SS1 dropped, and ignition! Some slight roll.
Shutdown good burn, passing through 100Km and still climbing.
Peak altitude, coming down.

Touchdown! Now we await the official word.

Friday, October 01, 2004

One down, one to go.

According to the Ansari X-prize site, Wednesdays flight reached (indeed exceeded) the target altitude and thus meets the requirements for a Prize flight. The next flight is now scheduled for Monday, Oct 4th. (Given Burt's penchant for interesting dates, I was betting on Oct 11th, the date Columbus landed in the New World. On the other hand, that left him vulnerable to a problem and the window closing without a second sucessful flight.)

[Update 15:33]
Andrew points out to me that the 4th is the anniversary of Sputnik 1. Mea Culpa.

(A rumor from a usually reliable source has reached my ears that Paul Allen and Burt Rutan may ride the next flight as passengers.)

Rand Simberg has an interesting discussion on the roll control problems experienced on the two high altitude flights to date. Not mentioned there is a theory Craig Fink posted on the internet, that since the rudders are asymmetrical, they may contribute to the onset of the roll. Burt Rutan has stated that the roll problems are a known problem and that the design of SpaceShip Two will correct the problem.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Not with a bang, but a yawn?

A quick thought before dashing out the door to help a friend move...

For SpaceShip One's first flight, the space community migrated en masse to Mojave. For today's flight, nobody seems to have gone, preferring instead the virtual experience of webcasts and CNN. In the first hours after that flight, the* newsgroups, the and the blogosphere comment pages were filled with exuberant postings.

After today's flight, the atmosphere seems much more subdued. Is this because of the (pilot induced we know now) roll problems? Is it because the recent announcement of Virgin Galactic creates a feeling that the deal is done?

In the past various writers on space issues have made much of the fact that media coverage of space flights, and the apparent public interest, dropped after Apollo 11. (The 'live' TV broadcast from Odyssey during Apollo 13 is often cited as the poster child of this effect.) Yet here we have seemingly the same effect with commercial space flight... Among the various folks that have in the past professed the most interest.

First Prize flight - early impressions

Early results indicate that the 100 kilometer was reach, and passed, by SpaceShip One. However, the roll control problems experiences on the earlier altitude flight appear to have returned with a vengance.

[Update 08:37]
The craft is safe and on the ground.

[Update 08:52]
Watching CNN's coverage, it appears that the roll problems were at the end of the burn, rather than beginning as on the previous flight. They were however far more severe. I await the debrief and the results of the Prize commitee with bated breath.