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Posts Tagged ‘nasa’


Google Takes Control of Hangar One

Posted November 18, 2014 by Chuck Black
          by Brian Orlotti

Planetary Ventures LLC (a subsidiary of Google) has announced that it will lease a historic facility at NASA Ames Research Centre near Mountain View, California for $1.16Bln USD ($1.31Bln CDN) over the next 60 years.

Moffat Field Hangar One. As outlined in the June 19th, 2010 NASA update on “The Latest News on Hangar One,” the facility “is a recognizable landmark in the San Francisco Bay area and a part of its early aviation history. The Navy built Hangar One at Moffett Field in 1932 for the USS Macon and to serve as the West Coast base for the U.S. lighter-than-air aviation program. The Navy transferred the hangar to NASA in 1994 after Moffett Field was decommissioned.” The facility is currently closed to the public because of the high levels of PCBs present in the Hangar One building components, Photo c/o NASA.

As outlined in the November 10th, 2014 press release,”NASA Signs Lease with Planetary Ventures LLC for Use of Moffett Airfield and Restoration of Hangar One,” the firm will lease Moffett Federal Airfield (MFA), currently managed by NASA Ames, and restore the facility’s historic Hangar One, a large building originally built in the 1930’s for US Navy airships that has become a Silicon Valley landmark.

Planetary Ventures plans to invest over $200Mln USD ($225.4Mln CDN) in the 1,000-acre (405 hectares) property, which also includes Hangar Two and Hangar Three, two runways, a flight operations building, and a private golf course. The deal is expected to save NASA $6.3 million USD per year in operations costs in addition to the income from the lease.

Planetary Ventures development plans include refurbishing all three hangars and re-purposing them as research facilities to develop new technologies in space exploration, aviation, robotics and other emerging fields. Planetary Ventures will also build a public outreach facility to educate visitors on the site’s historical significance.

Moffett Federal Field in Sunnyvale, California with Hangar One on the left and Hangars Two and Three on the right. Photo c/o Wikipedia.

According to the February 10th, 2014 Silicon Valley Business Journal article, “Google’s Moffett Field plans include robots, space tech, aviation,” Google’s choice of Moffett Federal Airfield makes great sense from a strategic perspective. To the west of MFA is Mountain View, California’s North Bayshore area, home to many Google buildings comprising millions of square feet. To the east is Sunnyvale, California’s Moffett Park office sub-market, an office campus where Google has been growing rapidly. Google already leases a 42-acre site at the north end of NASA Ames Research Centre where it is building an ultra-green office campus.

With significant Google presence already in the area (with Google facilities, in effect, encircling NASA Ames), the acquisition of MFA will allow the company to consolidate its control over the region.

Brian Orlotti.
Google’s cutting-edge research into cargo delivery drones, internet-via-drone and internet-via-balloon will take the company skyward into the future. The Moffett Federal Airfield will be that future’s literal launch point.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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Ontario Firm Building Rocket Engines for Space Port America

Posted November 10, 2014 by Chuck Black
          by Brian Orlotti

It’s not well known outside rocket science circles, but recent launches from Spaceport America in New Mexico used suborbital sounding rockets built by Colorado based UP Aerospace which included rocket engines designed and built by Gormley, Ontario based Cesaroni Technology.

As outlined in the October 23rd, 2014 Las Cruses Bulletin article “UP Aerospace launches again from spaceport,” the most recent flight of the UP Aerospace SpaceLoft SL-9 rocket reached an estimated 407,862 feet, or about 77 miles above the Earth’s surface on October 22nd.

According to Jeroen Louwers of Cesaroni Technology, the firm doesn’t only build rockets. It also manufactures a variety of other products for the the aerospace, defence, and automotive industries.

But of course, Louwers is himself a rocket scientist who originally came from the Netherlands, where he earned his PhD in propellant chemistry. Prior to his employment with Cesaroni, Louwers worked at a Dutch company that sold electronics (such as altimeters and accelerometers) to model rocket makers.

Spaceloft SL-9 trajectory. Graphic c/o UP Aerospace.

During his tenure at Cesaroni, Louwers has been involved in the building of ablative insulators. Ablative insulators are used in the interiors of solid rocket motors to prevent damage from the intense heat of a rocket’s thrust.

Other projects at Cesaroni include a design study on behalf of the Department of National Defence (DND) for a Canadian launch vehicle and a design study for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) for an indigenous launch vehicle utilizing a thrust vectored hybrid rocket motor.

As outlined in the November 7th, 2006 Cesaroni press release “Inaugural space flight uses Cesaroni Technology propulsion system,” the inaugural flight of the Spaceloft XL rocket using Cesaroni technology took place on September 25th, 2006.

According to the press release, while “the rocket did not reach its expected altitude of 110 km because of an airframe instability, the flight was a successful demonstration of the rocket motor developed and built by Cesaroni Technology, Inc.

According to Louwers, most of the Spaceloft XL engine’s parts are designed and built in-house at Cesaroni. UP Aerospace launches the Spaceloft XL rockets from its facility at Spaceport America.

Louwers also mentioned that, in addition to its commercial endeavours, Cesaroni supports the Canada-Norway Student Sounding Rocket exchange program (CaNoRock), by supplying the motors used in the program through a European distributor.

CaNoRock is a partnership among the Universities of Alberta, Calgary and Saskatchewan, the University of Oslo, University of Tromsø, the Andøya Space Centre and the Norwegian Center for Space Related Education (NAROM) which provides undergraduate university students a week at Andøya in order to gain hands-on experience in sounding rocket and payload instrument design.

Participants earn course credit for completing the program, which is funded through the CSA and the University of Alberta Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund. CaNoRock is intended to motivate undergraduate students to specialize in space-focused technologies.

Brian Orlotti.
The program also provides background information and practical experience with other platforms such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, aka drones) and long duration balloon missions.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic Sift Through Their Wreckage

Posted November 3, 2014 by Chuck Black
          by Brian Orlotti

Antares rocket. Graphic c/o OSC.

The NewSpace industry was dealt two hard blows this past week with two accidents (one of them deadly), which have triggered criticism from some media outlets on the merits of commercial space travel.

Here’s what we know.

On Oct 28th, an Antares rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) exploded about 15 seconds after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. The Antares vehicle was carrying a Cygnus automated cargo spacecraft (also built by OSC) on what would have been Orb-3, the third of eight resupply flights to the International Space Station (ISS) under OSC’s Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA.

Initial flight data analysis by OSC indicated that all systems functioned normally until about 15 seconds after launch, when a failure occurred in the rocket’s first stage after which it lost propulsion and fell back to the ground near the launchpad.

Before hitting the ground, the rocket’s self-destruct system was triggered by the Wallops Range Control Centre to minimize the spread of hazardous debris as well as to reduce damage to the launch site.

The Antares’ first stage is powered by two Soviet-era NK-33 engines designed in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the Kuznetsov Design Bureau and intended for the ill-fated Soviet N-1 moon rocket, a program which ended in failure. The unused engines were eventually purchased from Russia, re-branded and refurbished as the AJ-26 by Aerojet Rocketdyne and had powered four previous successful Antares flights.

However, as outlined in the June 9th, 2014 article, “Caution Prevails – Orbital Antares Launch to the ISS Postponed,” earlier in the year an AJ-26 engine scheduled for a 2015 mission failed a hot-fire test. Both AJ-26 engines on the Orb-3 flight had passed their hot-fire tests.

OSC competitors have also commented on OSC’s choice of 1960’s era engines to power their rockets. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX has been the most vocal critic, saying in the October 12th, 2012 Wired Magazine article, “Elon Musk’s Mission to Mars,” that:

Elon Musk. Photo c/o Art Streiber.

One of our competitors, Orbital Sciences, has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke. 

It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s.

I don’t mean their design is from the ’60s—I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere…

The OSC crash investigation continues.

The second accident occurred on Oct 31st, when Virgin Galactic‘s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane was torn to pieces and crashed, after detaching from the underside of its mothership WhiteKnight Two, while on a test flight over the Mojave desert.

SpaceshipTwo was being flown by two test pilots, Peter Siebold, the director of flight operations at Scaled Composites (the builders of SpaceShipTwo) and co-pilot Michael Alsbury.  Although Alsbury was killed in the crash, Siebold survived and is currently recovering in hospital.

Designed to carry passengers on suborbital flights, SpaceShipTwo is carried to its launch altitude by a carrier aircraft, White Knight Two, where it is released to fly into the upper atmosphere by igniting its rocket engine. On its return, SpaceShipTwo glides back to Earth and performs a conventional runway landing.

SpaceShipTwo. Graphic c/o

Initially, suspicions focused on SpaceShipTwo’s innovative new hybrid engine, which uses powdered plastic as fuel and nitrous oxide as an oxidizer, as a cause of the crash.

However, prior to May of this year, SpaceshipTwo had a different engine which used powdered rubber as a fuel. The powdered rubber/nitrous mixture garnered years of controversy after a 2007 accident in which two Scaled Composites employees were killed during an oxidizer flow test at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The test entailed filling an oxidizer tank with 4,500 kilograms of nitrous oxide, followed by a 15-second cold-flow injector test. During the test, an explosion occurred, killing three employees and injuring three others.

Despite subsequent investigations, no definitive cause for the explosion was ever found.

On Nov 2nd, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a press conference and tweeted the findings of its investigation thus far. Significantly, a review of the cockpit’s forward-looking camera shows that the feather (the mechanism around SpaceShipTwo’s wings and rear tail assembly that can be raised vertically to act as an air brake) had been unlocked by the copilot just before the craft hit Mach 1.

Normal procedure is to unlock the feather after reaching Mach 1.4 to prevent aerodynamic forces from extending it prematurely. The NTSB investigation is likely to continue on for some time.

Media reaction to the two accidents has ranged from the thoughtful and pragmatic, such as the November 1st, 2014 CNN article, “Deadly day for space tourism — but future ‘rests’ on such days, official says,” to the ignorant and short-sighted, as epitomized in the October 31st, 2014 Wired article, “Space Tourism Isn’t Worth Dying For.

The common thread in the criticism of commercial spaceflight is the supposed pointless waste of lives for the sake of a pastime for the wealthy.

All new frontiers come with their own set of perils, and space is no exception. Commercial spaceflight seeks to overcome those perils, taking the first steps toward humans living and working in space. The global aviation industry we rely on today was built on the risks taken and lessons learned from the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and countless test pilots.

NewSpace also owes much to the sacrifices of astronauts in the Apollo program and the crews of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. Risk and sacrifice are what open new frontiers and move societies forward.

Brian Orlotti.
Certainly its important to pause for a moment and figure out what happened last week with the Antares rocket and SpaceShipTwo.

But when we’ve figured it out, lets get back out there and resume our boldly going. 


Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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Sierra Nevada "Lawyering Up" to Defend Dream Chaser Space Plane

Posted October 20, 2014 by Chuck Black
          by Brian Orlotti

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), the builder of the Dream Chaser orbital space plane, has stepped up its legal fight against NASA in the wake of SNC’s not being awarded part of the latest in a series of contracts to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) beginning in 2017.

On Sept 16th, NASA announced its selection of the Boeing Company and SpaceX to receive $6.8Bln USD ($7.6Bbln CDN) in Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts. Of the two, Boeing was contracted to receive the larger share of $4.2 Bln USD ($4.73Bln CDN) with SpaceX getting $2.6Bln USD ($2.93Bln CDN).

The decision has generated controversy since Boeing has received more funding than rival SpaceX for performing the same mission with comparable spacecraft (the Boeing’s CST-100 versus the SpaceX Dragon V2) and also because SNC had been considered a favoured candidate.

All three companies had received funding in earlier rounds of commercial crew contracts, which were designed specifically to encourage multiple and redundant designs for less than the cost of traditional single sourced approaches such as the NASA Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). NASA was widely expected to drop at least one commercial crew candidate in the latest funding round.

But on Sept 26th, SNC filed a protest with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) regarding the CCtCap awards and NASA issued a stop-work order shortly thereafter. Then, on Oct. 9th, NASA lifted the order on the grounds that any delay in implementing the CctCap contracts would put the ISS and its crew “in jeopardy.”

In response, SNC filed suit on October 15th in the US Court of Federal Claims in Washington, DC for both a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to reinstate the stop-work order. The Court of Federal Claims began hearings on October 17th and has until Jan. 5, 2015, to rule on the case.

At this point, someone decided that the best way to defend against a suit would be to begin leaking confidential documents.

According to both the October 16th, 2014 Innerspace post “Hold On A Minute! SNC Files New Motion for Dream Chaser,” and the October 11th, 2014 Aviation Week article “Why NASA Rejected Sierra Nevada’s Commercial Crew Vehicle,” a leaked memo signed by NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations William H. Gerstenmaier stated that SNC’s price advantage was offset by “the lowest level of maturity” of the Dream Chaser’s design. The Dream Chaser, according to the memo, faced “significantly more technical work and critical design decisions” than its rivals, and also involved more schedule uncertainty.

The leaked documents also commented on why Boeing was being paid so much more money for doing pretty much the same amount of work as its two competitors.

I consider Boeing’s superior proposal, with regard to both its technical and management approach and its past performance, to be worth the additional price in comparison to the SNC proposal,” stated Gerstenmaier, at least according to the leaked memo.

Of course, SNC isn’t totally dependent on NASA funding to keep the doors open at the Dream Chaser facility.

In December 2013, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) announced a funded study, called the Dream Chaser for European Utilization (DC4EU) program, to investigate ways in which Europe might take advantage of the Dream Chaser crewed space plane technology. As outlined in the January 8th, 2014 SpaceFlight Now article, “Europe eyes cooperation on Dream Chaser space plane,” the ESA will also partner with the DLR to study European launch options under the DC4EU program.

Best of all, as outlined in the January 14th, 2014 BBC News article, “Dream Chaser mini-shuttle given 2016 launch date,” the Dream Chaser is currently self funded for at least one unmanned orbital test flight in November 2016, using an Atlas V rocket, from Kennedy Space Center.

As outlined in the October 15th, 2014 Space Daily article, “SNC contracted for U.S. military technology demonstrator satellite,” the firm also has other product lines and is not likely to drop off the face of the Earth anytime soon.

But there is at least one parallel between SNC’s response to the CctCap contract awards and last year’s battle between SpaceX and the Jeff Bezos owned aerospace company Blue Origin, over the use of Launchpad 39 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In both cases, a company believing itself wronged through favoritism sought to delay its competitors through legal means, to the detriment of the industry as a whole. In the case of Blue Origin vs SpaceX, aggressor Blue Origin lost.

Brian Orlotti.
Will aggressor SNC succeed in this new dispute? By blocking the progress of SpaceX and Boeing, an SNC victory could hamper the growth of the NewSpace industry.

Only time will tell which path the industry chooses.


Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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Space Agency Heads Congregating in Toronto on September 29th

Posted September 22, 2014 by Chuck Black
          by Chuck Black

Berndt Feuerbacher.

It wouldn’t be an International Astronautical Congress without public pronouncements from the heads of the largest government space agencies and the 65th International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014), which will be held in Toronto, Ontario from September 29th – October 3rd, will certainly be following in this tradition.

Expected to join moderator and past International Astronautical Federation (IAF) president Berndt Feuerbacher on Monday, September 29th at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC) for the traditional IAC Heads of Agencies plenary are the following government space agency representatives:

Charles Bolden.

Charles Bolden, the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Given that each representative will be expected to provide an introductory presentation on the latest developments from their respective agency and then take at least a few questions from the audience, it is assumed that Bolden will talk about why Boeing received so much more money than SpaceX ($4.2Bln USD for Boeing, as compared to $2.6Bln for SpaceX), for a contract to do pretty much the same thing last week, as part of the latest round of the NASA commercial crew program.

Xu Dazhe.

Xu Dazhe, the administrator of the China National Space Administration (CNSA). Coming off the successful International Planetary Congress, another major space conference, which was held Sept 10th to 15th in Beijing, China for the first time, the Chinese leader is likely to be focused on questions of international co-operation and recognition for China’s new role as a major space power. 

Jean-Jacques Dordain.

Jean-Jacques Dordain, the director general of the European Space Agency (ESA). He’s held the position since 2003, which makes him perhaps a little more experienced than his colleagues at the other space agencies. Dordain will likely face questions over the ESA next generation Ariane 6 launcher and the competition it faces from the US based SpaceX.

Denis Lyskov.

Denis Lyskov, the government secretary and deputy head of the Russian Federal Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS). With ROSCOSMOS head Oleg Ostapenko unable to attend (no doubt for political reasons), the far duller Lyskov, who is considered unlikely to discuss “trampolines” or “space gecko’s,” is expected to focus on the future expansion plans the agency has been dutifully running up the flagpole over the last year to see if anyone salutes.

Walt Natynczyk.

Walter Natynczyk, the president of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Natynczyk, seemingly one of the shyest and most reticent CSA presidents in a long time, will likely keep his comments focused on longstanding Canadian government concerns over “international co-operation” and “collaboration” with the other space agency heads. 

Naoki Okumura.

Naoki Okumura, the president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Well into the second year of the five-year implementation phase of Japan’s updated basic plan on space policy, the JAXA head will likely want to talk the JAXA “application-focused approach” to space system development and the new JAXA small satellite platform, which Japan hopes to sell to other countries.

K. Radhakrishnan.

K. Radhakrishnan, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Expect Radhakrishnan to focus his comments on the ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), which should to enter orbit around Mars this week.

The plenary will be held on Monday, September 29th from 1:30pm – 3:00pm at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC) in Hall F on level 800.

It looks like a good show, well worth attending.

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Hadfield in China for International Planetary Congress; PM to Follow in November

Posted September 14, 2014 by Chuck Black
          by Brian Orlotti

Chris Hadfield. Photo c/o Paul Chiasson/ Canadian Press.

Several events over the past few weeks have highlighted China’s growing influence both in space affairs and the world at large.

For example, the International Planetary Congress, a major space conference, is being held Sept 10th to 15th in Beijing, China for the first time. The event is organized by the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) in co-operation with the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), a group which represents some 400 astronauts/cosmonauts from 35 nations.

The Congress’ theme is “Cooperation: To Realize Humanity’s Space Dream Together.” Chinese astronauts (called Taikonauts) will present reports from their previous spaceflights and China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, will present an invitation to the international community to join China in building its upcoming space station.

Last summer, Chinese officials stated that China’s 60-ton multi-module manned station is being fast tracked, with the first module to be launched in 2018 (two years earlier than previously announced). Additional modules are to be launched in 2020 and 2022.

As stated in the September 10th, 2014 Canadian Press article “Chris Hadfield to attend international space conference in China,” retired astronaut Chris Hadfield will be attending as Canada’s sole representative and will participate in a discussion panel with Chinese taikonauts on common space mission experiences.

According to the article, Hadfield, a former ASA president, said that he hopes that the Congress will spur a new round of international cooperation in space and, while China’s long term goals would include a manned Lunar base, the best model for that might be the existing international partnerships which helped to build the International Space Station (ISS).

Although Hadfield tiptoed around the International Planetary Congress’ political significance, the desire to work with the Chinese at either the governmental or private level was apparent when he stated:

Even if they (the Chinese) don’t make a direct overture, it is still 100 people who are quite influential in the space business having a chance — without a specific political agenda — to get together and talk about opportunities and build further relationships.

Hadfield’s remarks come on the heels of his July 2014 visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as outlined in the August 11th, 2014 post “Hadfield in Emirates, Russia in Lather & UrtheCast in Orbit,” when he publicly stating his interest in  helping the UAE to set up its own space agency and launch a Mars probe in 2021.

Also attending the conference are some 30 space travelers from the US, including active NASA astronauts. The Americans  are attending as private citizens and ASE members, however, and not as official NASA representatives. NASA is prohibited  by US law from space cooperation with China.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the 5th Canada China Business Forum, which was held in Beijing, China in February 2012. As outlined  in the September 12th, 2014 Canadian Press article “Canada-China investment treaty to come into force Oct. 1,” the Canadian PM will revisit China in November 2014. Photo c/o Canadian Press

Stronger ties with China in space could very well flow from Canada’s now-stronger economic links with China. As outlined in the September 12th, 2014 National Post article “Ottawa ratifies foreign investment deal with China despite tensions,” the Canadian government last week recently ratified the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA), a controversial 31-year foreign investment agreement with China.

Critics of FIPA say that the agreement will grant China control of Canada’s national resources while blocking Canadian businesses access to protected Chinese industries. FIPA advocates claim that the agreement will allow Chinese capital to flow into Canadian industry, spurring job creation and growth in a time of economic difficulty.

Brian Orlotti.
History has shown again and again that leadership vacuums are inevitably filled. Should the space programs of the US, Europe and Russia continue to remain in stasis, others are ready to step in and fill the void.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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