|The Soyuz spacecraft. Image c/o William Self/ The Plain Dealer.|
NASA has issued a statement saying that it intends to purchase six seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to carry US, Canadian, European and Japanese astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and back to Earth in 2018.
As outlined in the February 6th, 2015 Space News article, “NASA Issues Sole Source Notice for Six Soyuz Seats,” the announcement was received with mixed emotions.
|Boeing CST 100 and Space Dragon V2. Graphic c/o Space.com.|
Although space enthusiasts may be discouraged by this extended astronaut downtime, it is helpful to remember that similar lulls have occurred before. Canadian astronauts experienced an 8-year gap between Marc Garneau’s 1984 mission and Roberta Bondar’s 1992 flight. US astronauts had a 6-year gap between 1975’s Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and 1981’s first Space Shuttle flight.
Made in Space (MIS), a Silicon Valley-based start-up that built a zero-gravity 3D printer installed on the International Space Station (ISS) four months ago, says the first set of objects is complete and the preliminary results are good.
|Graphic showing the parts that were printed as part of the 3D printing in zero gravity technology demonstration. Graphic c/o Made in Space.|
According to a Jan 27th, 2015 Made in Space blog post, “3D Printing In Space: Four Months In,” the printer created fourteen unique objects over the course of the experiment.
These ranged from objects designed to test the printer’s accuracy at creating features like holes and overhangs, to a part for the 3D printer itself (a faceplate), to an actual working tool: a small ratchet. The ratchet’s design file was even emailed to the ISS to be printed; the first time in history that this has been done in space.
The printed objects will be brought back to Earth later this year and sent to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama for analysis and stress testing.
The use of 3D printing technology in space, though still in its earliest stage, is poised to make a big impact. Space-based 3D printers would give astronauts the ability to manufacture tools and components on-site without needing to bring them along, with significant savings on space, weight and fuel.
In addition, the ability to manufacture objects in space would give astronauts greater options in unforeseen situations like malfunctions and accidents. In a sign of the technology’s potential, the US Navy is also experimenting with 3D printers, installing them on combat ships to see if they can be used to produce tools, components and weapons.
MIS was founded in August 2010 by Aaron Kemmer, Jason Dunn, Mike Chen, and Michael Snyder, who all met while taking part in the graduate studies program at Singularity University (SU), a private, unaccredited learning institution/space start-up accelerator located at the NASA Ames Research Centre in Moffett Field, California.
Also located at Moffett Field, MIS was one of the first startups to emerge from SU. MIS’ goal is “enabling humanity’s future in space,” by developing additive manufacturing (i.e. 3D printing) technology for use in the space environment. By creating an additive manufacturing capability in space, MIS seeks to accelerate and expand space development.
The emailing of an object to a space station for manufacture in orbit, which would have seemed the most Star Trekkian of fantasies 20 years ago, is now reality.
By Chuck BlackBC based UrtheCast is opening new offices and hiring new people. The firm has announced plans to open a second office in Vancouver able to house up to 40 video specialists, GIS experts, web dev…
|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.