This morning during the press conference for the Soyuz docking Bill Gerstenmaier NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations confirmed that SpaceX had provided them with the final Dragon Spacecraft software which will be used for orbital operations. NASA are now reviewing the software and Bill estimated that they should be able to set an actual launch date for the next demo mission in about a month.
The reason the test has been delayed several times is because NASA, the Russian Space Agency, SpaceX and the other partners need to be 100% sure that Dragon will not pose any problems to the Space Station when it approaches. As with any project these things can take time and it is better to delay the test and be sure everything is working as needed than rush it and end up causing bigger problems.
NASA made sure that they wouldn’t need to rush the Commercial Resupply Services (CSR) by taking up over a years worth of supplies on the last shuttle launch.
Yesterday I mentioned the SpaceX Falcon Heavy as my preferred launch vehicle for the Mars Rover mission. I have been watching with increased interested the development of the commercial launch business as companies like SpaceX, Orbital and others progress towards supplying the Space Station and offering launch capabilities to the broader industry.
At the moment SpaceX have made the most progress with a new rocket but they have only had a few launches so how can we say that?
If you look at what they have achieved since they started in 2002 then it is hard not to be impressed. They started off with the Falcon 1 which has lunched 5 times so far and while the first three mission ended in failure the last two where successful and put SpaceX on the map with the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to reach orbit.
Since then the main focus has been on the creation of the Falcon 9 vehicle and the Dragon Space Capsule, again SpaceX has delivered so far, of the two Falcon 9 launches attempted so far both have been successful. On the second SpaceX achieved another first by launching their Dragon space capsule and successfully returning to earth becoming the first commercial company to do it.
Early next year SpaceX will once again launch Dragon this time on a mission to the Space Station, this is the second test missions as part of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS) program. Once they have demonstrated the ability to successfully launch Dragon to the space station and dock they will then begin contracted deliveries to the Space Station.
Recently SpaceX have made two other announcements regarding the future of the Falcon Rockets. First they announced the creation of the Falcon Heavy which will have the largest payload capacity of any rocket currently in use today. Second they announced plans to start testing return to launch site abilities for the first and second stages of the rocket which if they can achieve it successfully will drastically reduce the cost of launching to space.
All in all I believe SpaceX has a great future and their success will only benefit the America Space industry and start to lower the costs of getting into space for everyone.
Tomorrow we continue with Orbital and take a look at their offering in the Commercial Space Arena.
As I said yesterday we could learn a lot from Russia and how they handled the Progress accident in August, however it would be remiss of me not to talk about the Phobos-Grunt mission that is currently stuck in low earth orbit (LEO) and not communicating.
There can be no doubt that space missions are dangerous business, the fact that you strap spacecraft and people to the bottom of a large cylinder and then mix dangerous chemicals together to produce thrust to launch them from 0 to 17,000+ mph in 8 minutes is going to be risky for some time.
For those who don’t know Russia launched the Phobos-Grunt mission last week which was supposed to travel to Mars’ moon Phobos and return with samples taken from the surface. However after launch they were not able to communicate with the spacecraft and it never left LEO. All attempts to contact the craft since have failed and now it could potentially crash back to ever in early December. Most of the toxic fuel on board should burn up on re-entry but that is not ALL therefore there is still potential for it to cause damage.
Later this month NASA will be launching the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) from Cape Canaveral and hopefully everything goes well. However the mission is not cheap at well over two billion US dollars to build there is a lot that could go wrong.
So why do I care?
I think the future for space missions is to build cheaper machines but more of them, if we launched six smaller rovers to Mars that could work together to achieve the ultimate goal then even if we lost one or two we could still complete the mission even if it took longer.
How would you get them all there?
SpaceX (www.spacex.com) have published their rocket prices, my proposal for the first mission would be to fit within the weight structure of the Falcon Heavy launchers and send the craft two at a time during a 6 week launch window. Once they arrive at Mars they would land in close proximity to each other. The landers would then serve as the communication relay back to earth, giving redundancy to the system. While this does cost more it again reduces the risk to the mission by not putting everything on a single Launcher or Lander.
How would they work together?
One of the rovers would serve as the Master rover issuing commands to all the others to complete the tasks required. Should the Master fail at any point another will take over the responsibility.
As most of you will know I am very passionate about space, some may not know that I am known to sit and watch the Space Station TV feed from Nasa for hours on end while working from home.
Last night Russia successfully launched Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoly Ivanishin and Dan Burbank, the next crew to ISS to begin an intensive week long handover before the current crew of Mike Fossum, Satoshi Furukawa and Sergei Volkov leave.
While the US is currently reliant on Russia to launch crew to the station we have to admire how well they handled the August launch failure of a Progress vehicle and how quickly they were able to get back to flight. There are plenty of lesson we can learn from them, and building on the tremendous progress that has been made creating the Space Station in the first place.