Come to a space conference in Boulder!

By Phil Plait | February 2, 2010 11:37 am

On February 18 – 20, in my home town of Boulder, Colorado, the Lunar and Planetary Institute is holding a very interesting conference called The Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference 2010 (NSRC2010). It’s to promote the awareness of the coming revolution in access to space provided by private companies.


This revolution is not only coming, it’s practically here. I know some folks who plan quite seriously to be launched into space next year. If you’re interested in this field, then this is the conference you want to attend:

NSRC2010 will provide a forum to learn about the research and EPO [Education and Public Outreach] capabilities of these new systems, their experiments, and EPO integration processes. NSRC2010 will also provide input on vehicle design requirements for science and education.

That sounds like a fascinating meeting to me. I’m hoping to attend myself, but I’m unsure if I’ll be in town then; I’ll know more soon and let y’all know here. I really want to go; a lot of solid people are running this, including my friends Alan Stern and Dan Durda, as well as many other space scientists. Sponsors include Virgin Galactic, the United Launch Alliance, and SpaceX! So we’re talking serious contenders here.

I hope to see some BABloggees there. The future of space travel may very well be in our hands, and this meeting will help put it there.


Comments (15)

  1. I wonder if I can convince the company I work for to go into the space launch business? I’d love to go! And if you can’t make it, that will sure make it easier to obey that restraining order. 😉

  2. Spectroscope

    The future of space travel may very well be in our hands

    What future? :roll:

    The Space shuttle? Retiring with no replacement in sight. :-(

    Return to the Moon & dreams of going even further? Cancelled by Obama. Again with no replacement in sight just waffle from the Democrats that we all know will never amount to anything. :-(

    Private commercial space companies taking over? If *that* were going to happen it would’ve done so already. No profit in it. :-(

    What are we left with? Just begging the Russians for seats on their old-fashioned but reliable(~ish) & still working Soyuz craft just so we can get to that great white elephant in the sky; the ISS – & then nothing, *nothing* concrete on the horizon in terms of the American manned space program beyond that. :-(

    No, Barack Hussein Obama has ended our dreams of manned space exploration and so what can come from this Boulder conference? More vain talks & empty promises?

    I know some folks who plan quite seriously to be launched into space next year.

    I’ll believe that when I see it Phil – not before. :roll: :-(

    I wish I had your optimism BA. I really do. But I don’t.

    Right now I feel very depressed & angry especially about our future. :-(

  3. Tom (H. Type)

    I tend to agree with “Spectroscope”. There is order of magnitude difference between burning everything you got to get to a 100 km ballistic trajectory to touch space for a few minutes than actually achieving orbit. Yes, certainly important milestones, but really, Commercial space flight, it ain’t.
    Sorry for being so negative; I just don’t see a development path to economic and reliable commercial space travel.
    Sorry BA, I don’t share your optimism either.

  4. Anderstp

    I am not Upset.

    NASA has always been a poor manager especially with no goal and no time limit. And beaucrates make poor marketers. they had a viable mini shuttle in the X-38 which “came that close”* to being launched, but…

    That being said did you ever notice who ran the space station and who ran the shuttle in “2001 Space Odyssey”? Yeesss… Hilton and Pan Am. commercial.

    The X-38 still exists; the technology is there; WE can do it. The sky’s the limit. That shuttle may have Virgin on the side… and the Station…Wangfujing?

    The risks are many, and the chances slim… But …Oh the songs they will sing of us in the Hall of Heroes! – Kor, Dahar Master.

    enjoy Anderstp

    *Maxwell Smart, Agent

  5. Tom –

    While I basically agree with you and ‘scope, there is some benefit in developing a suborbital-only capability. In the last chapter of “Spaceship Handbook” I talk about RLV’s (reusable launch vehicles). Two of them, the Kelly Aerospace “Astroliner” and the Pioneer “Pathfinder” were shuttle-like airplanes that could get to ~120 Km. At that altitude, they are above all significant atmosphere and have enough time to open the cargo bay doors and push out a payload pallet that contains an orbital kick motor. The advantage is that you don’t have to expend the energy to put the whole airplane into orbit (and consequently burn it off on the way back).

    Both of these proposals used airplane assists to get to that altitude. The Kelly used a tow plane to get to 14,000 m and Mach .8 before lighting its rocket motors, and the Pioneer had an embedded jet engine (that burned the same RP-1 propellant as the rocket motor) so it could take off like a regular airplane, but with the oxidizer tanks empty. At altitude it would do an mid-air refueling (really an “oxidizing”) by taking the LOX from a tanker aircraft.

  6. Tom (H. Type)

    Now that makes sense. I can see having just a pallet go to orbit would be cheaper (and safer). So, what would be the cargo cost per pound, of such a system? I know you may not have that answer but relative to shuttle would such a commercial system be 10% or 50% cheaper? And when can something Kelly Aerospace “Astroliner” and the Pioneer “Pathfinder” be available?
    Refueling LOX mid-air is quiet the undertaking, but I get your point, there is a path and we can get there…given sufficient economic incentive.

    I feel better

  7. DaveS

    Anderstp@4: That being said did you ever notice who ran the space station and who ran the shuttle in “2001 Space Odyssey”? Yeesss… Hilton and Pan Am. commercial.

    Well, since it’s now 2010, and Pan Am has been out of business since 1991, Hilton isn’t even faintly in the space business, I don’t think we can rely on the prognostications of Mr. Clarke on this one. But if you insist upon supporting a position with science fiction, I’d point out that the Starship Enterprise is strictly a government build.

    I too agree with Spectroscope. The only way SpaceX and ilk are going to be able to come to the orbital table with a reliable platform is if someone makes a sudden discovery that makes space clearly profitable. Today it’s just not a good business model, so a business that undertakes it, lacking government funds to keep it afloat, will inevitably fail.

    Maybe SpaceX will do it, but when they fail, or are shown to have succeeded only because they’re supported by the government, you won’t see anyone else diving in, and so, to otherwise paraphrase Clarke, “the stars are not for us”.

    If we’re wrong, and private companies do find a way to make space profitable, well, I work in Boulder for a Japanese company who outsources just about everything but my job to India and PROC. It’s a global economy. If a spacecraft is made from 90% Chinese parts, and the company that assembles it is owned primarily by Chinese interests (as might happen is SpaceX goes public in a couple years, as they project), can we really say the US has a space program?

  8. Messier Tidy Upper

    Barack Hussein Obama

    I am still astounded that someone with a name like that could manage to be elected to the Presidency by the American people. He’s got Saddam’s surname as his middle name & his own surname is one letter off Osama – & yet you still voted him into office recognising that that name doesn’t mean a thing. Or *most* of us recognising that anyhow.

    Clearly the United States of America is a lot more tolerant and a lot less islamophobic & xenophobic than many would think.

    That said, I’m also disappointed and not at all sure that Obama is doing a good job now or changing the nations course enough. He has talked a great game and failed to live up to it and is in grave danger of being a one-term failure that ultimately sets us all back a long way. This is such a pity since I had such high hopes for him & really wanted this administration to work out. :-(

    I too disagree with his space policy here in abandoning the Lunar return mission & I think the BA will find he is heavily in the minority in his favouring of Obama’s new space policy. I really hope the BA is right in his optimism here but I very much doubt he is.

  9. 6. Tom (H. Type) Says: “So, what would be the cargo cost per pound, of such a system? And when can something Kelly Aerospace “Astroliner” and the Pioneer “Pathfinder” be available?”

    You’re right that I don’t have those numbers off the top of my head, but the good news is that both companies are still around and in the business. Kelly (which I got the name slightly wrong, it’s “Kelly Space & Technology”) is not actively developing the Astroliner, but it’s not dead, either. A quick web search turned up:

    The company page –

    A YouTube animation on how the process works –

    And even a NASA page on the tow tests done to evaluate the concept –

    I have a little bit of a personal connection with that last one in that a friend of mine was the PI on the project. No airplane had ever been towed that fast, so they had to make sure it would be stable and that it could launch from high sub-Mach speeds into supersonic flight. They dug up a flyable F-106 to stand in for the Astroliner, and towed it behind a C-141 in place of the 747. It worked better than anyone expected, and the F-106 pilot (who was less than half the age of the airplane) said it was the greatest, kick-ass plane he’d ever flown!

    Not quite so much on the Pathfinder, but here’s a summary of the original program –

    And there’s even a short Wikipedia page on it –

    This program grew out of a covert Air Force project called “Black Horse” which was designed to be a way to replace satellites quickly in the event they were rendered inoperative by hostile actions. The officer in charge of the technology was Mitchell Clapp and since the Air Force cancelled the program just as he was getting out of the service, he founded Pioneer to continue development. I think the only hardware they actually build was a proof-of-concept cryogenic fueling boom to transfer the LOX.

    The company’s gone through a couple of changes and mergers, but is still around. I guess it’s not a surprise that they were an X-Prize entrant.

    – Jack

  10. Tom (H. Type)

    Ok, where does that leave us?
    The technical problems are large and complex but certainly solvable. The proof-of-concepts and current achievements are proof that we can tackle the technical hurdles, at least in the foreseeable future (10-15 years).
    The funding to continue solving these technical challenges is another story altogether.
    Even with governmental acquisition reforms enacted, It is clear and I agree with Anderstp; “NASA has always been a poor manager especially with no goal and no time limit. And bureaucracies make poor marketers.”
    So it is clear that government funding is, at best, inefficient and subject to the political whim of the moment.
    Private/Commercial enterprises have demonstrated with equal clarity that the are in it for the “profit now, short term businesses model”. So that “Out Sourcing” and eventual sale or transfer to foreign entities will not meet our government’s needs for a reliable launch capability (defense) nor our national desire to be a space leader.
    So now are we lead to; a restrictive and heavenly government regulated commercial business? Now who’s in for that?

  11. Anderstp

    DaveS wrote “Well, since it’s now 2010, and Pan Am has been out of business since 1991, Hilton isn’t even faintly in the space business, … But if you insist upon supporting a position with science fiction, I’d point out that the Starship Enterprise is strictly a government build.” 2 Feb 2010.

    Dave: Enterprise was built by the Gov’ment… on the origins of WarpDrive developed by Zefram Cochrane “for the money” see Star Trek: First Contact.

    It is better for the Government to say “this is what I want and this is when I want it”… The DC-3 was in airline service in 1935 while the Air Corps still flew Biplane Bombers until 1937… In order to get a contract with the Royal Navy, Parsons the inventer of the marine turbine drove his yacht through Queen Victoria’s grand review at thirty knots, out performing the police launches sent to catch him, embarassing the RN with a technology he had been trying to show them for years.

    Rutan’s Spaceship One introduced a viable thin wing technology to reentry problems. and the Hybred rocket, was NASA involed in either developments?

    The commercial-government partnership can do wonderful work, but government has to allow the free rein, To sell the issue, To present the problem and set the date. Invest yes but for results. and leave politics out of it(a difficult thing). Also the goal must be set. NASA has had no human goal in space since 1972. The shuttle was good but was too limited. The space station? it could have been built with 20 of those shuttle tanks with less heartburn. To the moon is not good enough. To Mars with a budget that replaces the waste we are spending on two wars. Now that’s a goal.

    Long rant, Sorry for that 1. Goal, 2. Goal Manager 3. Long Term Budget (Years). The rest is gravy… and they will sing of us in the Hall of Heros!


  12. DaveS

    I’d point out that even Zephram Cochran used military rocket hardware to get his gadget into space.

    Aviation history is rife with aero companies going out on a limb to make a better airplane on their own dime. That’s because the cost of an airplane program compared to the strength of the economy was small, so there were plenty of aero companies with the kind of assets to do that once or twice. And, many failed. The ones that succeeded did so because there was a real and rich market out there, if they could just get the technology right.

    This is not so with spacecraft. Spacecraft programs are hideously expensive, the kind of expensive that even governments can’t easily maintain. Any company would be lucky
    to be able to complete a spacecraft program on assets alone.

    Second, there’s not the rich market beating at the door, if they could only get it right. They have to expend themselves and all their investors to make the spacecraft, then INVENT a way to use it. That’s a very tall order.

    Oh, and by the way, nobody has yet invented a *versatile* spacecraft. So each mission (low earth orbit, lunar, mars) takes a NEW spacecraft. And still no profit.

  13. Ferris Valyn

    A number of you are criticizing commercial space – a simple question – you say there isn’t a market for it, because its so expensive. Do you ever wonder why its so expensive?

    We’ve got to learn how to do these things cheaply. And I do believe there are more markets than you realize out there. Among them, we have to actually use ISS.

    And the vehicles being talked about for this are mostly suborbital, which are all cheaper than the current suborbital vehicles, such as sounding rockets.

    Believe me, Obama made the best decision.

  14. Looking forward to the conference.

    As this conference focus implies, the definition of commercial space extends all the way from sub-orbital. I dare not even call it the low end although it’s obvious sub-orbital needs the least amount of power.

    Commercial space will progress. Especially with the administration not providing inspiration to the people, commercial companies do. A hotel in space, for example, is still not a reality, but it provides a future possibility. I just hope Mars becomes a reality in my lifetime and is not slowed down for too long…

  15. Bob Pincus

    There are companies out there that are doing a lot of independent development on vehicle launchers that can (and are) be used for launching satellites and possibly serve as a resupply ship for ISS. Orbital has the Pegasus as a commercial vehicle and obivously are making a profit. SpaceX and the others will probably follow suit.


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