|Oleg Ostapenk. Photo c/o NASA.|
A series of recent, and often contradictory news reports, originating from Russian media outlets and picked up by western media, are only the latest signs that the Russian space industry is jockeying for position in anticipation of updates to its long-term space exploration plan.
This new plan is expected to be formally released in time for the 2015 International Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS2015), which will be held in Moscow from August 25th – 30th, 2015.
The most recent articles, as outlined in the December 15th, 2014 Sputnik Today post “Plans to Create Russian National Orbital Station Confirmed,” and the December 16th, 2014 Russia Beyond the Headlines post “Roscosmos: Russia to prioritize studies of Moon, Mars, response to asteroid threat in 2016-2025,” focused on a series of public comments from Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) head Oleg Ostapenk, who was quoted as “keeping all doors open” for new programs within the context of three major options:
Of course, a number of other options are also on the table. These include a potential high altitude space station, which could serve as a base of operations for a revived Russian manned lunar program and a new, super heavy Russian rocket.
Ostapenk also said that the “Roscosmos budget will not be cut, despite all financial difficulties. But I’m not going to make the sum public until it gets approval.” As outlined in the October 4th, 2014 Economist article, “On the edge of recession,” the Russian economy has been contracting for some time. The 2014 budget for Roscosmos was 165.8Bln rubles ($3.5Bln CDN) which already compares poorly with NASA’s 2014 budget of $17.6Bln US ($20.4Bln CDN).
Of course, it’s unlikely that Russia and Roscosmos will embark in a completely new direction. For example, the December 16th, 2014 Russia Today article, “US Orion, Russia’s future spacecraft ‘to be compatible for safety,” discussed the recent agreement between Russian spacecraft producer RSC Energia and US aerospace firm Lockheed Martin, to develop a compatible docking so that “Russian and American space explorers can help each other in an emergency.”
As outlined on the Russian Space web article, “Russia details its grand space strategy in 2010s; New deep-space ships, big rockets and nuclear space tugs are promised at the Moscow air show,” the last official Russian space plan, released to the public as part of the 2013 International Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS2013), set out a 30-year road-map in which human space exploration expanded outwards from the ISS to a crewed outpost at one of the Lagrangian points near the Moon.
The plan would have then forked into two paths: one leading to a crewed Lunar base followed by visits to asteroids by the 2030s—the other reaching the same goals, but in reverse order. Both paths would have culminated with a human landing on Mars by around 2040.
Roscosmos, envisioned the LaGrange and Lunar outposts as joint projects with other space-faring nations, including the US, Canada, and the EU. Unfortunately, soured relations between Russia and the West over issues like the Syrian Civil War, Iran, and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea have led to increasing calls (in both Russia and the US) for a return to fully independent national space programs.
Whether Russian and Western governments are willing to provide funding increases to their respective space programs for independent missions to the Moon and Mars remains an open question. Although Russia has capitalized on an oil-fueled economic boom to boost funding of its space program over the last few years, the recent drop in global oil prices may put the brakes on this revival.
We now see in both the US and Russian space programs a common pattern. Governments lay down ambitious space goals, companies then vie with each other for lucrative contracts to achieve these goals, only to have governments cancel programs and shift goals years later. This pattern becomes a self-perpetuating cycle whose result is always the same: humanity remaining an Earth-bound species.
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.
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.
|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 SpaceRef.com 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 thinklikeascientist.com.|
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.
But when we’ve figured it out, lets get back out there and resume our boldly going.