Reliance on American vehicles to take humans back into space took another step up over the weekend, when the private company Blue Origin – founded by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos – successfully tested their crew escape system.
Putting people in space isn’t easy, and is fraught with danger. NASA requires that, in the case of an emergency, there is a proven escape system for the crew in case the rocket underneath them goes kablooie. One reliable system is to have a small solid rocket above the crew capsule that can pull it away to safety (which is how it was done for Apollo).
Interestingly, the Blue Origin method is to use a rocket underneath the capsule, so they call it a "pusher". Unlike other methods, this rocket is reusable, a technology NASA likes to explore. It lifted a full-scale suborbtial crew capsule to a height of 700 meters (2300 feet) and carried it 500 meters (1600 feet) downrange.
I couldn’t embed the video of the launch, but you can see it at the Blue Origin site. I recommend it. It’s pretty cool.
Blue Origin is notoriously secretive about what they’re working on. They have a crew capsule, and they’re working on an unmanned suborbital space vehicle called New Shepherd. They have their sights set on orbital flight, but it’s not clear exactly how they’re going about doing that. Currently, plans are to use an Atlas V for launching vehicles. However, just last week Blue Origin successfully tested a rocket engine they’re developing, and it’s obvious this is what they hope to eventually use to get to orbit.
Currently, the only private company that can go to space is SpaceX – their Dragon capsule is still berthed to the space station as I write this – but it looks like they won’t be alone for long. Sierra Nevada, another company, is also working on a suborbital vehicle called
Lynx Dream Chaser [oops! Got the name mixed up originally; Lynx is the XCOR spaceship] with an eye to orbit.
The more the merrier. With better tech, and competition, the price for getting to space will drop, and accessibility will go up. Some people wonder why I’m optimistic about space exploration in the near future. Well, here you have it. NASA can save a lot of money contracting out to these and other companies. If these plans go well, in ten years, maybe less, the face of space travel will have changed dramatically.
On Sunday, skydiver Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a high-altitude balloon and plummeted 40 kilometers back to Earth. I wanted to watch it live but missed it due to an appointment I had to keep. I heard it was heart-pounding, and Twitter went nuts over it. I wish I had seen it!
Still, my feelings on it are mixed. While I really am glad it got people excited, I couldn’t shake the feeling it wasn’t more than a stunt. A cool stunt, but a stunt. It was plugged as a way to learn more about spacesuits and all that, but I had my doubts. Having it sponsored by a sugary caffeinated energy drink marketed to teens also made me a bit wary.
I was thinking of writing something up about it, but then my friend and space historian Amy Shira Teitel wrote an excellent piece crystallizing my thoughts, so go read her article for more in that vein (which is also mirrored on Discover Magazine’s blog The Crux).
But what I really wanted to write about was this image I saw around Twitter and Facebook:
Why do I want to write about this? Because, in a nutshell, it’s everything wrong about attitudes on our space program. If I sound a little peeved, I am. Here’s why.
This meme was started in a tweet by revulv. I suspect it was just a joke, and to be honest it’s funny enough; I smirked when I read it. But someone took that joke and added the picture, and then it got spread around. And I can tell by the comments I’m seeing people really think it’s true – this idea has been around since the Shuttle retired, and it’s unfair. It’s simply not true.
First, as Amy points out in her post, Baumgartner’s jump was a record breaker, but he wasn’t in space. Our atmosphere thins out with height, and doesn’t really have an edge where air ends and vacuum begins. Because of this, there’s an arbitrarily agreed-upon height where we say space "starts" – it’s called the Kármán line, and it’s 100 km (62 miles) above sea level. Baumgartner was less than half that high. When I talked about his jump I used the phrase "edge of space", which is probably fair. He was in a pretty good vacuum by ground standards, but in space itself he was not.
Second, he wasn’t in orbit. A lot of folks confuse being in orbit and being in space, which is understandable. When we say something is in space that means it’s just higher than that arbitrary limit. You can get there via rocket by going straight up 100 km and then back down, for example. That’s a suborbital flight.
But being in orbit is different. An orbit is where you are free-falling around the Earth. Think of it this way: in orbit the Earth is pulling you down to the surface, but you’re going fast enough sideways that you never actually hit (to paraphrase Douglas Adams: orbiting is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss). Your velocity down and your velocity to the side add together to give you a circular (or elliptical) path.
Baumgartner used a balloon to go straight up. He wasn’t in orbit.
And that’s two of the three things that bother me about that meme picture: he wasn’t in space, and he wasn’t in orbit, two things the US has rockets that can do.
Now, some people will point out that in fact the US cannot do that, at least not with people. We don’t have any rockets rated for human flight into space.
That’s true, but brings up my third point, the most important, what a lot of people don’t seem to get: you need to add the words "right now" to the end of that sentence.
We can’t launch humans into space right now. But in just a few years we’ll have that ability. In spades.
SpaceX is working on making sure their Falcon 9 rocket is human-rated for flight – even as I write these words they have a Dragon capsule berthed to the International Space Station. ATK is another. There’s also Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin (which just had a successful engine firing test), XCORR, and others. Let’s not forget Virgin Galactic, too. [Update: D'oh! Shame on me, and ironic too: I forgot to add Boeing and ULA's work on this as well.]
Both SpaceX and ATK think they’ll be ready to take people into orbit in 2015. Virgin Galactic and XCORR may be ready to do commercial suborbital flights before that date. [Note added after posting: I want to be clear; these are not NASA programs, but some have contracts with NASA, and I'm talking about the US as a nation, not necessarily as a government space program.]
The Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. We’re in the middle of what’s planned to be a five year gap where the US can’t take humans into space. Mind you, when the Apollo program shut down there was a nine year gap before we had a program to take humans to space again (with the exception of a few Saturn flights to orbit for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz mission; even then there was a six year gap until the Shuttle launches began).
My point? Things aren’t nearly as bad as people think. Yes, the Shuttle is retired, but to be brutally honest, while it’s an amazing machine, it could not nor would it ever be capable of taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit. It also cost way more than promised, and couldn’t launch as often as promised. I’ve made this point before, and it’s one we need to remember. Getting to space is not easy, and if we want to do it we have to do it right.
And let’s not forget we are still throwing rovers at Mars, probes at Jupiter, and one satellite after another into Earth orbit. We’re still going into space, if by proxy. Humans won’t have to wait much longer.
We need to learn from the past and keep our eyes on the future. By looking at the past we can see by comparison things are not so bad right now; we’re just in a lull before the storm. We’ll soon have not just the capability to put humans in space, but many capabilities to do it! Space travel will be easier and cheaper than it ever has been since the dawn of the Space Age.
My goal is to see nothing less than the permanent colonization of space by human beings, and I strongly suspect we are not that far from achieving it.
I recently attended a conference in Boulder, and I have to admit that before I went I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Now I do, and I’m very glad I went.
The meeting was the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference 2010 (NSRC2010), and its goal was to figure out how best to exploit an upcoming revolution in space travel: private companies making suborbital launches to the very edge of space.
Space, in this case, is defined as being 100 km (62 miles) above the Earth’s surface. There, the atmosphere is incredibly thin, which has obvious benefits for astronomical observations (less turbulence blurring images, darker skies to see faint objects, less air to absorb ultraviolet and infrared light). But perhaps just as importantly, the planned flights will have up to three full minutes of microgravity — what is popularly but inaccurately called weightlessness or "zero g".
That’s where my initial skepticism came in. What can you do with only a few minutes of free fall? Well, it turns out you can do a lot. There are a host of biological, engineering, and astronomical experiments that can be run in this environment, ones that would be far too prohibitively expensive to do on, for example, a Shuttle mission.
But this next generation of rockets from Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson’s effort with Space Ship 2, a model of which is pictured above), Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos from Amazon.com), and others will reach a height making a lot of this science possible. The region up to 100 km is too high to reach by balloon, and too low for orbital rockets, which is why it’s been dubbed "the ignorosphere". But it has its uses…
Observations of the Sun, for example, may not need much time to do because (you may have noticed) the Sun is pretty bright, so a three or four minute flight is enough to get some good data. The way incoming energy from the Sun couples with the Earth’s atmosphere is not hugely well understood, and a lot of it happens in this region high above the planet’s surface. Effects of low gravity on the human body can be tested, as well as on plants and other biological systems.
In fact, enough science can be done on these trips that the conference itself brought in 250 people interested in the topic. I was surprised at how many people came, as were the conference planners themselves: they were expecting half that many.
But there’s a lot of confidence here. Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator, gave a keynote talk, saying that NASA will pledge $15 million per year to this new field of research in the new budget (pending approval by Congress). Alan Stern, an astronomer and conference organizer, announced that Southwest Research Institute, for whom he works, will put up $1 million of its own money for researchers to fly into space, too!
Given that each flight will cost something like $200,000, this is a pretty decent pool of money to investigate the ignorosphere. That may sound like a lot, but in fact a lot of scientific grants are in this range; a few years back I had my own personal research grant on Hubble that was for more than $40,000, and while I was at Sonoma State University our small team routinely applied for educational grants for $50k and more. Getting $200k for a flight is well within the reach of a lot of researchers. Of course, they’ll need more to cover equipment and such, but compare that to the millions upon millions needed for an orbital flight, or even several million for a sounding rocket, and you start to see that this is a pretty good deal.
NASA itself can use this sort of thing as well, testing equipment and new technology to see how it behaves. This is a whole lot cheaper than putting something up on the Space Shuttle (or on the next generation of orbital rockets).
It was exciting to sit and listen to all the buzz about this new, intermediate frontier. But as interesting as the science was, there was something more important going on at this conference. Something that, I suspect very strongly, will change the way we look at space travel.
And that will be the topic of my next post on this. Stay tuned.