Expert Voices

'New Space Frontiers' (US 2014): Book Excerpt

New Space Frontiers book cover
(Image: © NASA, Zenith Press)

Piers Bizony has written about science and the history of technology for a wide variety of publishers in the U.K. and the United States. His latest book, just released, is "New Space Frontiers: Venturing into Earth Orbit and Beyond" (Zenith Press, 2014).He contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

In his latest book, "New Space Frontiers," Pies Bizony looks to context from history to guide his perspective on the future of private spaceflight. Bizony provides insight into his perspective in the exclusive Expert Voices Op-Ed "Space Tourism Needs a Reality Check "and a gallery of images of existing and proposed private spaceflight vehicles, and below is the first chapter from "New Space Frontiers."

Chapter 1: Escape from Planet Earth

We are on the verge of a new era in space exploration. For the first time in history, private access to space is becoming almost routine. At this same time, NASA seems to have lost some of its former momentum, waiting for America to make up its mind about the broader future of the national space program. Tough choices lie ahead. The good news is that those choices can be based on a swiftly expanding set of technical possibilities, and mission options.

The journey forward starts on the basis of some difficult backward steps. The space shuttle fleet has retired after thirty years of service. The surviving orbiters, Atlantis, Endeavour, and Discovery, and the glide test prototype, Enterprise, are now on display in museums. Our memories of the shuttle system are a mixture of pride and sadness. The first ascent to orbit by Columbia in April 1981 thrilled the world, but in January 1986, Challenger exploded just seventy-three seconds after liftoff, and all seven crew members were killed. Faulty booster seals and poor management within NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration), the United States' space agency, were blamed for an avoidable disaster. Then the story of space travel and exploration improved, with the repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope and the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS). Americans once again regarded the shuttle with pride, and perhaps even took it for granted. The shuttle at its best was an adaptable workhorse, an incredible machine capable of transporting astronauts and payloads together. [8 Surprising Space Shuttle Facts ]

But as is often the case, pride came before a fall. In February 2003, Columbia disintegrated during reentry. Another crew was lost. A suitcase-size piece of thermal insulation foam had peeled off the huge external fuel tank shortly after launch and hit the orbiter's left wing on its leading edge, making a small but ultimately catastrophic hole. Two weeks later, as Columbia hurtled through the atmosphere at the end of its mission, hot gases rushed into that hole, destroying internal controls and melting the underlying metal airframe.

President George W. Bush responded to this catastrophe during a televised visit to NASA headquarters in Washington in January 2004. "Today I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system," he said. The first goal was to return the remaining shuttle fleet to operational status and finish the construction of ISS. No surprises there, but as his speech continued, radical new ideas emerged. "Our second goal is to develop and test a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014. Our third goal is to return to the moon. Using the Crew Exploration Vehicle, we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there. With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond."

NASA set to work on a new, wingless spacecraft design, with the crew compartment positioned at the top of the launch stack, thereby ensuring that any stray debris peeling away from the flanks of the rocket below would not endanger the crew. The cone-shaped capsule, commonly known as Orion, exploits reliable reentry techniques perfected back in the 1960s for Project Apollo. The Columbia accident investigators concluded that it is too risky to carry astronauts in the same part of a spacecraft that also contains the propulsion systems, because of the risk of launch failures and the danger of damage to the crew compartment. Investigators noted that the Apollo capsules were remarkably safe. The tough, compact command modules could always be instantly separated from other modules or rockets in the event of failures. When Apollo 13 suffered an explosion on the way to the moon in April 1970, the rear service module with the rocket engine was blown wide open, yet the capsule itself was unharmed and returned its crew safely home to Earth.

The space shuttle had no way of separating its crew compartment from the rest of the system. This may always be a problem for any space plane that does not have a separate escape module. NASA has returned to the capsule concept, including an escape rocket that can pull the capsule clear of a wayward launch vehicle. An improvement in crew safety was just one aspect of a new vision for NASA. Orion was incorporated into a grand vision of moon-Mars exploration, using a fleet of rockets and landers. The program as a whole was called Constellation. Robert Seamans, NASA's deputy administrator in the Apollo era, was one of a dozen enthusiastic veterans called upon to advise Orion's designers. "I served on what they called the 'Greybeard Committee,' all these old hands who knew how we'd reached the moon first time around. Astronaut John Young was there, and he'd flown in Gemini, plus Apollo, and he'd commanded the first space shuttle flight. We didn't fool around. They put us in a room from eight until five. They brought in food because there was no break for lunch. What we came up with is amazingly similar to what we did with the Apollo." Indeed, NASA officials described their moon plans as "Apollo on steroids." The proposal, which still exists as a detailed engineering concept, features a lunar landing craft, the Altair, carried to orbit unmanned aboard a heavy-lift rocket. Then the Orion and its crew locate it in Earth orbit, make a docking and head to the moon. On arrival, Altair detaches from Orion and drops toward touchdown. At the end of its surface stay, the lower part of Altair stays behind while the upper module blasts back into lunar orbit, makes a rendezvous with Orion and transfers its crew. Then Orion heads back to Earth for an Apollo-style reentry and splashdown. [Orion Launch: Why the World Needs More Than One Mars Effort ]

There are other significant reasons for reinventing the capsule concept. The shuttles dropped down from low Earth orbit at less than 17,500 miles per hour. Orion capsules coming home from deep space missions will slam into the upper atmosphere at nearly 25,000 miles per hour. Winged shuttles cannot sustain that kind of shock. Orion uses a blunt and rounded heat shield that is more than capable of surviving high reentry speeds. Why not simply slow an Orion as it approaches Earth? Fuel for a powerful braking burn would have to be carried all the way into deep space and back again, thereby incurring a weight penalty. Most compelling of all, no one would wish to see an engine failure endanger a crew in the last hour of a mission. An Orion can hit the atmosphere without having to fire any rocket engines for a braking burn. This is a valuable safety feature.

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(Image credit: SPACE.com)

Development of flightworthy Orion systems has continued more or less smoothly ever since President Bush first lent his support to the vehicle. However, even before the banking crisis and credit crunch in the first decade of the 2000s, NASA's plan for a return to the moon looked ambitious. A year or so after Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, his administration proposed resetting NASA's priorities yet again: skipping the moon, putting Mars on the back burner, and aiming instead for an asteroid rendezvous by the mid-2020s. Predictably in hard economic times, NASA had to scale back its ambitions in response to budget constraints. The rocket architecture was adjusted, although the capsule design stayed essentially the same. After all, Orion was conceived from the outset as a multipurpose vehicle. As a consequence, design and construction work on this component has proceeded more or less steadily. The capsule taking shape today is America's new national crewed spacecraft. How deep into space it will eventually travel has yet to be determined. A giant new rocket for Orion is under development: the Space Launch System (SLS). This will be similar in scale and power to the Saturn Vs that propelled Apollo to the moon.

Virgin Galactic

There is nothing new about the idea of flying civilians into space. In the late 1960s the now-defunct Pan Am airline held out the promise of routine access to orbit, while bold plans for a resort on the moon were presented by the giant Hilton hotel chain. Both these famous brands featured in Stanley Kubrick's highly influential 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The realities of the NASA space shuttle dampened some of these dreams. Despite its many extraordinary achievements, it was not a pathfinder for routine commercial access to orbit, let alone to the moon. It flew relatively infrequently. It was costly to operate, and its occupants were almost exclusively professional astronauts who knew the risks they were taking on. Even so, in 1994 the American Society of Civil Engineers held a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to explore the possibility of holidays in space. Beautiful models of orbiting hotels and passenger shuttles were presented. Although many delegates were impressed by the perfectly feasible ideas on display, just as many were persuaded that they were impossible dreams. Financial experts warned that ordinary people would not be willing to pay the extraordinary amounts of cash required to book a space flight.

The pessimists spoke too soon. There are indeed people willing to pay for a taste of space. In 1998, the Virginia-based company Space Adventures negotiated with Russia's Star City cosmonaut training complex to provide private clients with $10,000 weekends of dressing up in space suits and clambering into simulator capsules. Customers also signed up for zero-gravity training flights aboard "vomit comets," planes flying a series of parabolic arcs, enabling passengers to experience a few minutes of weightlessness at the top of each arc.

This was just the more affordable end of the Space Adventures menu. On April 28, 2001, American investment financier (and ex-NASA engineer) Dennis Tito was sealed inside a Soyuz capsule, accompanied by two Russian cosmonauts on their way for a tour of duty aboard the ISS. Tito had committed $20 million of his own cash to secure this opportunity. He booked his flight through Space Adventures, with cooperation from the Russian Federal Space Agency (commonly called Rocosmos). At first, NASA was not keen on his mission. Tito had to remain inside the Russian modules of ISS throughout his week's sojourn. But his Russian hosts made him feel welcome. Cosmonaut Yuri Baturin told him, "We are very happy to accompany you to space. We like your mathematical mind, and we like even more your romantic soul."

A year after Tito's flight, South African Internet entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth made a similar voyage, and NASA's rules concerning access to other areas of ISS were relaxed. On his return to Earth, Shuttleworth set up a foundation to encourage the teaching of math and science in Africa. So far, space tourists have shown as much dedication to their missions as any professional astronaut. In October 2005, when Greg Olsen became the third private entrepreneur to visit the station, he was mildly disturbed to be thought of as a tourist. "I spent over nine hundred hours in training. There were many exams, medical and physical, as well as classroom and competency tests. It's not like you pay your money and go on a ride. You have to qualify for this." As the founder of a New Jersey company specializing in optical and infrared sensors, he conducted serious scientific experiments during his time in orbit. He took care, however, not to compare his qualities with those of long-term professionals. "I'm a space traveler, and I have been in orbit, but I have far too much respect for astronauts and cosmonauts to call myself that."

One private citizen has funded his way to space not once, but twice. Hungarian-American software entrepreneur Charles Simonyi, the man who oversaw development of Microsoft's Office suite of applications, flew to ISS in April 2007 and again in March 2009. While entrepreneurs of such prominence and determination may have no great difficulty raising $20 million in travel expenses, we cannot expect too many repeat performances at those prices. The future of personal space flight will rely on reducing ticket costs to some thousands, rather than several millions, of dollars. In 2002, market researchers Zogby International surveyed over four hundred American business leaders and wealth-creating individuals about their appetite for space. One in five confirmed they would be happy to pay up to $250,000 for a suborbital flight, while just seven in a hundred was willing to contemplate $20 million for a sojourn in orbit. A happy balance of price points could create a vibrant market.

Getting Us There

Access to space for private citizens will develop once a genuinely cost-efficient spaceliner becomes available. In May 1996 a group of businesspeople held a gala dinner in St. Louis, Missouri, to celebrate Charles Lindbergh's historic 1927 first flight across the Atlantic Ocean, funded by an earlier generation of patrons from this Midwest city. The patrons had been competing for a $25,000 prize set up by New York hotelier Raymond Orteig, which was a substantial sum of money in 1927. Could a similar prize spur modern industry to develop cheap, affordable human space flight? And so the $10 million Ansari X Prize was created, under the leadership of Space Adventures cofounder Peter Diamandis. Its aim: to reward the first private reusable passenger carrying ship to reach the edge of space. Diamandis's partner in this prize initiative was a remarkable woman called Anousheh Ansari. She spoke no English when she emigrated to the United States from Iran in 1984 at the age of sixteen, but she hoped that living in the United States would help her realize her dream of becoming an astronaut. She enrolled at George Mason University, outside of Washington, D.C., to study electrical engineering. There she met Amir Ansari and his brother Hamid, the latter of whom she married in 1991. The three of them founded Telecom Technologies Incorporated. By 1996 it was the fifth-fastest-growing technology company in Dallas, Texas. Anousheh never lost her fascination for the human adventure of space flight, and she and her family were major sponsors of the Ansari X Prize. "As a child I looked at the stars and dreamed of being able to travel into space," she said when her financial involvement was announced. "As an adult, I understand that the only way this dream will become a reality is with the participation of private industry and the creative passion of smart entrepreneurs."

A dozen companies took up Ansari's challenge. A fascinating array of designs included delta-winged space planes, capsules shaped like seedpods, and one machine known as Roton, which featured rocket-powered helicopter blades. Some competitors built real hardware, while others were unable to finance much beyond computer generated concept artworks or unpowered mockups. But the seeds for a new industry were sown, and a number of companies that did not make the cut first time around are still in business. They are older, wiser, and less naive about the financial burdens of research and development in a complex field.

As a young man, pioneering aircraft designer Burt Rutan was inspired by NASA's quest for the moon and its many other bold and fast-paced achievements throughout the 1960s. He looked forward to similarly exciting new developments beyond Project Apollo. The decades dragged on, and the space agency became somewhat slower and more cautious in its ambitions, which were constrained mainly by shrinking budgets and escalating costs. Rutan grew impatient and decided to shoot for the X Prize by creating the first purely privately funded human carrying space vehicle. "Government space agencies want to commit us to their old-fashioned technologies," he announced. "We already know how that stuff works. What we need is the freedom to try some new, smarter, and less expensive ideas."

The company that Rutan founded, Scaled Composites in Mojave, California, is renowned for creating lightweight, fuel-efficient aircraft of exceptional beauty and elegance. Its most startling creation, SpaceShipOne, claimed the X Prize on October 4, 2004, when pilot Brian Binnie took the craft to an altitude of 69.5 miles. The region of sky where the Earth's atmosphere ends and space begins is nebulous at best. International convention defines the boundary as 100 kilometers, or 62 miles. SpaceShipOne ascended well past that boundary.

The project immediately earned back half the $20 million invested in the vehicle by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. Just as Charles Lindbergh's flight inspired a new transatlantic air industry, Rutan's team generated a similar momentum. On the ground, watching SpaceShipOne's prize-winning smoke trail through powerful binoculars, were two lifelong space fans from Britain: the entrepreneur and businessman, Richard Branson, and his colleague Will Whitehorn. Two days later, Branson announced that his Virgin investment group was ready to finance SpaceShipOne's larger successor, along with supporting ground facilities at a dedicated site in New Mexico. An additional $100 million was pledged for building a small fleet of Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceliners, each capable of lifting six passengers and two pilots. "Someday, children around the world will wonder why we ever thought space travel was just a dream we read about in books or watched, with longing, in Hollywood movies," Branson explained while announcing his venture to a startled world. "If we can make space fun, the rest will follow. This is a business that has no limits." Hundreds of customers paid substantial deposits against their $200,000 ticket fees, essentially making them partial funders of the new spacecraft's development and construction.

For the next four years, Virgin Galactic and its collaborators at Scaled Composites maintained a relatively discreet profile. At last, the hangar doors were opened to reveal Virgin Mothership (VMS) Eve, described by Branson as "one of the most beautiful and extraordinary aviation vehicles ever developed." Eve is a twin-fuselage jet aircraft capable of lifting the passenger-carrying Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Enterprise to the uppermost levels of Earth's atmosphere and releasing it for a blast into space. Twice the size of the White Knight carrier plane that lifted SpaceShipOne into the air in 2004, Eve is powered by four Pratt and Whitney jet engines, but the real work of lifting this aircraft into the sky is conducted by its wing, a continuous strip of reinforced carbon composite materials 140 feet long: the largest of its kind ever constructed. The smaller, winged rocket plane Enterprise was unveiled eighteen months after Eve's first public appearance.

Enterprise is suspended beneath Eve's middle wing section and carried to a launch altitude of ten miles. Enterprise then drops away, ignites its rocket motor, and climbs toward space, accelerating to three times the speed of sound. Meanwhile Eve heads back home for a conventional landing. Just two minutes after release, Enterprise is in space, and its occupants are officially astronauts. They experience at least five minutes of weightlessness, drifting free of their couches and staring at the Earth through the vehicle's large round windows, no doubt, taking plenty of pictures.

When rocket plane Enterprise begins to fall back toward Earth, it repositions its wings perpendicularly relative to the fuselage and reenters the atmosphere belly first, generating maximum air resistance. At just over thirteen miles above the ground, the wings rotate back to the horizontal position, and the vehicle glides home to a runway landing, ready to be refueled and flown again within a few days. Eve and Enterprise are forerunners of a fleet of vehicles being prepared for commercial flight.

Good for the Environment?

Former Virgin Galactic chief executive Whitehorn, the man who kick-started the project alongside his close friend Branson, maintains close links with the company. He is sure that personal space flight is just one of several markets that the VMS and VSS systems can exploit. "The spacecraft takes eight people up, including the two pilots, and brings them all down again to a safe landing. It's a glider, with wings, landing gear, and of course, all the life support for the human occupants," he explains. "Now imagine if we didn't have the people, and we didn't have to bring any of the machine down to Earth again. Instead, you have a slender expendable rocket, tipped by a satellite payload. VMS could launch small satellites all the way into full orbital space." An unmanned rocket, LauncherOne, slung under a VMS, will deliver 500 pounds of payload to low Earth orbit and at least 200 pounds to higher altitudes. Virgin Galactic's other hope for its new technology is that it might one day help reduce the aviation industry's carbon footprint. If Eve, Enterprise, and their sister ships can do the hard part—getting people into suborbital space—using composite materials instead of metal structures, then it should be possible for conventional airliners to reduce their dependence on aluminum and titanium for their wings and fuselages. Composites are lighter than metals and are therefore much more fuel-efficient. Virgin Galactic's technology might actually benefit the environment, just so long as everything works according to plan. As Whitehorn points out, "Aviation is being unfairly picked on by the green lobby. There are half a billion computer servers in the world, all dependent on carbon-derived energy when they are manufactured, and all of them constantly soaking up energy and pumping out heat during use. The endless growth of the Internet has overtaken aviation in terms of its carbon dioxide output."

Falcons and Dragons

Virgin Galactic's rocket plane is one of the most impressive developments in aerospace history. Even so, its mission above the atmosphere is brief, and it cannot reach full orbit, let alone make a rendezvous with ISS, which operates at 230 miles above the ground and arcs across the heavens at more than 17,000 miles per hour. Catching up and docking with ISS takes serious rocket power. The retirement of NASA's shuttle fleet has stimulated a new market for spacecraft capable of servicing ISS's needs.

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) is based in Hawthorne, California. The company was established in 2002 by Elon Musk, the man who built PayPal into an essential Internet tool before selling it to eBay. Musk risked $100 million of his own cash to start SpaceX while soliciting further investment, including from a NASA program known as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). Under this program, private hardware manufacturers are awarded staged contracts on achieving particular milestones. The emphasis is on providing launch services rather than adherence to specific space agency designs. Under COTS, manufacturers can choose the configuration of their vehicles, so long as they deliver the services that NASA needs while satisfying its stringent safety requirements.

Another advantage of this kind of funding agreement is that SpaceX and other companies involved in COTS are free to sell launch services to clients apart from NASA, because the space agency essentially buys the ride, not the horse. The very nature of a government space agency makes its operations expensive. For the sake of fairness, any tax-funded space program must request bids from a range of hardware manufacturers, whether of ground support systems or entire spacecraft. Even when agency chiefs suspect that a particular bid will not be appropriate, time and resources must be allocated to a transparent selection process. As the great rocket scientist Wernher von Braun once said, "We can get to the moon in ten years, but the paperwork will take longer." By way of contrast, smaller, leaner, and purely private companies such as SpaceX can operate more efficiently by working directly with favored subcontractors. Simplifying the bureaucracy can speed up development while keeping costs down. This is not to suggest that private enterprise is better than NASA's way of doing things. The U.S. Congress can raise far more cash for spaceships than any private company can. Even so, a distinct mood of change is in the air.

SpaceX's latest rocket, Falcon 9, is so named because of its cluster of nine Merlin engines: an array powerful enough to lift the company's flagship Dragon capsule, whose primary task is hauling cargo into orbit. This is just the prelude to a human-rated system. Dragon is a pressurized vehicle that docks with ISS and returns safelyto Earth. In theory, someone stowing aboard would reach space and come home again unharmed. In practice, an integral launch escape system and life support equipment will be needed before Dragon can ferry crews. These are under development. The crew-carrying variant, called DragonRider, will carry up to seven astronauts. This will be especially useful if all the occupants aboard ISS need to be evacuated in a hurry. Once docked, the ship's power systems will remain viable for at least six months.

A DragonRider capsule and its supporting systems will weigh in at around ten tons when fully fueled for launch. A future generation of carrier vehicle, the Falcon Heavy, will lift fifty tons to orbit: equivalent to a fueled Boeing 737 airliner complete with passengers, flight crew, and all their luggage. Musk is certainly ambitious. In April 2011 he announced that this new rocket "will carry more payload to orbit than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program. This opens a new world of capability for both government and commercial space missions." Powered by a cluster of three Falcon 9 first stages, the Falcon Heavy should launch twice the payload of a space shuttle at less than one-tenth the cost of a shuttle launch.

Of course history has seen such optimistic projections before from rocket manufacturers, but SpaceX achieved an orbital spacecraft, two generations of launch vehicle, and far more besides, on an expenditure of around $1 billion across its first decade of operations. This is a fraction of the expense traditionally associated with the rocket business. So far, so good. If SpaceX can find clients with sufficiently large payloads to justify the Falcon Heavy, the way will be clear for some very ambitious new capabilities in space, as long as the launch market, whether civilian or military, creates sufficient demand. New rockets must compete with existing vehicles. These markets are finite, and someone, somewhere, must eventually fail to win that crucial share of business that makes the difference between survival or shuttering their company. If anyone imagines that today's breed of private space entrepreneurs are just playing with their money, it's worth remembering that by 2008, Musk had used up almost all the cash from the PayPal sale, and freely admitted that SpaceX was "running on fumes" in the wake of three discouraging test launches of the Falcon 1 rocket. It took courage and commitment to keep the company on track. The fourth, flawless launch of a Falcon 1 in September of that year turned SpaceX's fortunes around, paving the way for development of the much larger and more powerful Falcon 9 launch vehicle, along with its key payload, Dragon.

Competition from relative newcomers is not always welcomed by the more traditional, large-scale aerospace manufacturers, some of whom have accumulated more than half a century's worth of experience in building space systems, from Saturn V rockets to ISS modules. In their capacity as major employers, a key handful of corporations exercise a certain degree of political influence over national space policy. Little wonder that COTS contenders tend to win only a modest share of NASA's budget. The most efficient company is not necessarily the one that creates the greatest number of jobs. Lawmakers in Congress bring to the table their own agendas when they debate national space policies. Some favor swift, efficient access to space, while others believe it is their proper and legitimate duty to protect jobs on the ground. Closing down giant aerospace plants in favor of leaner enterprises is not a pleasant option for anyone in the corridors of power. Then again, there aren't many members of Congress who relish massive space spending, either. NASA's plans evolve always into a balance between engineering truths and political necessities. Within this restless environment, a persistent new breed of companies may yet determine the future of space flight.

Space Planes or Capsules?

The outer shell of an Earth return spacecraft is heavily shielded against the heat of reentry. Just as important is the shock wave, or bow shock, of tightly compressed air that the craft creates just ahead of it. The streamlined shape of a typical airplane is designed to reduce atmospheric drag by minimizing bow shocks. This is why most jets and airliners look so sleek. However, at reentry speeds of several thousands of miles per hour, a spacecraft's bow shock needs to be deliberately obstructive so that it slows down the vehicle rather than easing its passage. The shocked layers of air also help insulate the skin of the spacecraft against the friction of the atmosphere.

Slender wings on a spacecraft are great for making a controlled landing on a runway at the end of a mission, but they can be a nuisance if their bow shocks are so thin that they fail to create a decent insulation layer. Conventionally shaped wings on a vehicle descending from full orbital velocity would simply burn away. Another problem is one of fuel economy. In the vacuum of space, wings are dead weight, because they have no job to do; yet the launch system has to expend fuel carrying their mass into orbit.

NASA has worked extensively with "lifting body" vehicles, in which the distinction between winged and capsule configurations is deliberately blurred. Lifting bodies can be steered during atmospheric flight, like aircraft, but at the same time they create protective bow shocks, like capsules. A lifting body's contoured body shape provides winglike aerodynamic control, yet is sufficiently fat that the interior volume can accommodate useful mass, such as life support, fuel tanks, or other payloads. Experiments throughout the 1960s preceded the development of the space shuttle, whose thick wings had softly rounded leading edges. The space shuttles were never capable of deep space missions, whose returning crew modules must survive a 25,000 miles-per-hour reentry. The Orion capsule will be better suited for that challenge. For low Earth orbit operations, a new generation of lifting body–style minishuttles may yet be valuable because they can land with pinpoint accuracy. It is difficult and expensive to pluck capsules out of the ocean.

China in Space

For the best part of half a century, only two nations possessed the ability to launch humans into space. Russia began the adventure in April 1961 by launching cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit. Three weeks later, America launched Alan Shepard on a fifteen-minute suborbital arc, riding a cramped Mercury capsule atop a converted Redstone ballistic missile. The Space Race had begun. On July 21, 1969, America became the winner when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. Russia abandoned the moon, concentrating instead on Earth orbit.

But there was another player waiting in the wings. China pursued the development a manned spacecraft in the late 1960s, until the project was cancelled in 1972. There seemed no obvious reason to send Chinese astronauts into space after the Apollo lunar landings had been accomplished; and anyway, the Chinese economy at that time was not up to such a challenge. The mood in modern Beijing, however, has shifted dramatically. Arguments with America over the fate of Taiwan and disagreements about missile defense have created dangerous tensions but China is keen to prove its credentials as a superpower. Two decades ago in 1992 China decided that space was an arena that could capture the world's attention, and the manned space concept was revived, under conditions of total secrecy, as Project 921.

By the mid-1990s, secret transfer deals brought manned spacecraft components, space suits, and docking hardware from Russia into China. Two Chinese pilots, Wu Jie and Li Qinglong, and a dozen support workers, began a year's preparation at Star City, Russia. They went through the same processes as other foreigners preparing for trips to the Russian Mir space station, except they did not fly up to Mir after their training was complete. NASA astronaut John Blaha was at Star City in 1996, prior to his sojourn aboard Mir, just as the mysterious Chinese team arrived. "I heard they were there, but I never saw them. They kept totally apart from everyone else."

China is now happy to admit Project 921's existence under the more appealing name of Shenzhou (Sacred Vessel). The main spacecraft is similar in size and shape to Soyuz, the reliable old workhorse that has flown Russian cosmonauts into space for more than forty years. The rear of Shenzhou is a service module containing propulsion and life support systems and sprouting a pair of solar panels to boost the electricity supply. The middle section is the main crew capsule. It has a heat shield, parachutes to slow its final descent through the atmosphere, and small retrorockets to lessen the shock of touchdown on land.

As far as western experts can tell, Shenzhou is a close copy of its Soyuz equivalent, except that the front module is larger than the Russian version. What's more, it can be equipped with thrusters, life support, solar panels, and guidance systems that are entirely independent from the rest of the ship. Four early Shenzhou test flights followed the same pattern: the front modules continued flying in orbit long after the main crew capsule had returned to Earth. China is moving at its own steady pace toward a permanent space station capability.

Shenzhou's carrier rocket, the Long March 2F, is fired from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China, on the edge of the Gobi Desert. Long March also places small space station habitation modules into orbit. A new launch center is nearing completion on Hainan Island, at the southern tip of China. This ambitious base will support the even more powerful Long March 5 rocket. There are plans, also, for a Long March 7, capable of hauling larger space station components and other, perhaps military, payloads that make some American analysts nervous. According to Phillip Saunders, former director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in California, "China's space program is all about prestige. Right now, America and Russia are the only countries with an independent manned program. By joining the space club, China has staked a symbolic claim to being in the same league."

Ironically, much of China's early rocket technology was based on American developments. Among the founders of what's now NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was Hsue-Shen Tsien, a Chinese-born professor of mechanical engineering. During the McCarthy anticommunist era, Tsien's security clearance was revoked, and in 1955 he was deported back to China, where he became head of the nascent rocket industry. There was never the slightest proof that Tsien had betrayed American rocket secrets, but he certainly took valuable knowledge home with him. The first Chinese satellite was launched in April 1970.

Sidebars

EUROPEAN SUPPORT FOR ORION

New economic realities have stimulated fresh ideas about international cooperation in space, building on the diplomatic and cultural legacies of ISS. The Orion capsule will be supported by a service and propulsion module that—in all but a few interface details— has already proved its capabilities in flight. The 20-ton Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is the most complex spacecraft ever developed in Europe. Until recently, its main task was to deliver eight tons of crew supplies, propellant and scientific equipment to ISS at intervals of approximately 15 months.The ATV had three times the payload capability of its Russian counterpart, the Progress cargo vehicle. Although no one was launched aboard an ATV, astronauts wearing regular clothing could board once it was docked. Each ATV became an integral part of ISS for up to six months. During that time, an ATV's engines could be used to reboost ISS's orbit, compensating for atmospheric drag. Technology derived from this hardware is about to have a new lease of life. NASA's Orion spacecraft will be attached to an ATV service module, as depicted in this illustration.

RUSSIA'S WORKHORSE

Soyuz's first flight on April 23, 1967, was a disaster. Solo cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed when the landing parachutes failed and his capsule smashed into the ground like an unrestrained meteorite. Subsequent flights went more smoothly, until an even worse disaster on June 29, 1971. Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev suffocated when the air leaked from their cabin as they prepared for reentry after a trip to Russia's first space station, Salyut 1. The Soyuz's record since then has been impressive, and although the electronics have been updated, the basic exterior design has hardly changed in five decades. The crewed variant of the Soyuz has flown more than a hundred missions with no fatalities. There have been a few hair-raising close calls, including a launchpad abort when the carrier rocket exploded. Escape rockets pulled the cosmonauts safely away from disaster, and all three lived to tell the tale. In the absence of the space shuttle, American and European astronauts fly to ISS in Soyuz capsules, at a cost of around $70 million per seat. The cramped capsule cannot solve all future astronaut transport problems. It carries just three people, and two of them must be Russian pilots. The craft is not reusable, the landings are bumpy, and there is minimal control once the crew compartment hits the atmosphere, so the capsules have to descend over remote, unpopulated areas in Kazakhstan, not far from where they are launched in the first place. Soyuz's builders at the RSC-Energia Corporation are anxious to move major launch and recovery operations onto Russian soil, and to update the Soyuz concept altogether. A replacement vehicle, offering more crew space, and greater aerodynamic control during the reentry phase, may become operational for the year 2020.

First-generation XCOR Lynx vehicles will not fly all the way into space, but the altitude difference will only be of concern to pedants.
(Image credit: XCOR Aerospace)

THRILL-RIDE TO THE EDGE OF SPACE

XCOR Aerospace was founded in 1999 by veterans of the Roton helicopter-rocket project. The new company specializes in fitting small rocket motors to the rear of small aircraft, literally boosting their ability to climb into the sky. Rocket plane racing may soon be as common as conventional air races and acrobatics. XCOR's flagship project is the Lynx, a plane that uses rocket power to reach an altitude of around 200,000 feet: about two thirds the way to space. One pilot is accompanied by one fee-paying client.

SWINGING THE WINGS Ships returning from a 17,500-mile-per-hour orbit have little choice but to meet the reentry challenge head-on, but a suborbital craft has a more gentle option. It can minimize its reentry problems by losing most of its speed on the way up. This might sound crazy, given all the fuel and energy expended on the rocket-powered final ascent, but the object is not to stay in space for more than a few minutes. Think of a tennis ball thrown high into the air. At the top of its arc it hovers for the briefest moment, caught precisely between the force of gravity pulling it downwards and the last dregs of upward momentum imparted by your throwing arm. And then gravity wins completely and the ball falls back down to Earth. The key point is that although you threw that ball upwards as hard as you could, it slows almost to a standstill at the highest point of its trajectory. Burt Rutan was inspired by the example of a shuttlecock hurled aloft by a badminton racquet stroke. The shuttlecock runs out of momentum at the top of its arc, then drifts back to Earth, slowed by the aerodynamic drag of its feathers. In fact the repositioning of the spaceship's wings during descent is specifically called "feathering." This technique has been scaled up for Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise.

NEW DEPARTURES?

SpacePort America is located in the southern portion of Sierra County, 45 miles north of Las Cruces, New Mexico. In April 2008, county voters agreed to a modest increase in a local sales tax, to assist construction of the Spaceport, thereby boosting economic activity and local employment. Sierra County joined adjacent Dona Ana County in forming a special Tax Increment Development District. The business of private space flight is now embedded into the everyday economy. Virgin Galactic is the most prominent user of the new complex, but will not be the only company basing is operations here. New Mexico boasts calm, bright skies throughout most of the year. Its sparse population is at low risk from any wayward spacecraft, while the airspace above the launch site is already clear of conventional airliner traffic because of the nearby White Sands missile testing range. All being well, money will flow into the project: not just from privileged suborbital passengers, but also from visitors and tourists making day trips to Spaceport America, simply to watch the various vehicles in flight. Many will need overnight accommodation in nearby communities. They will also expect to purchase meals and soft drinks, souvenirs, books, toys, postcards, and so on. Most jobs around Spaceport America will be only peripherally to do with actually flying or servicing spacecraft. From the air, the terminal building and hangar complex looks like a cross between a stingray and a flying saucer, with a Star Wars-style suggestion of the Millennium Falcon's crab-like shape. Renowned British architect Norman Foster and his American partners at U.R.S. Corporation have delivered a practical and eco-friendly design that fits elegantly into the natural landscape. Certain vantage points make the hangar seem like nothing more than a gentle mound rising softly from the terrain as though it has always been there.

DRAGONS...

The pressurized section of a Dragon capsule is designed to carry both cargo and humans into space. Toward the base of the capsule, patented Draco rocket thrusters and fuel reserves are accommodated between the outer shell and the inner pressurized compartment. Thrusters for the crewed DragonRider may double as an escape system, powering the capsule clear of a launch vehicle in the event of problems. The cylindrical rear module trunk supports the spacecraft during ascent to space, carries unpressurized cargo, and houses Dragon's solar arrays. The service module remains attached to Dragon until shortly before reentry into Earth's atmosphere, when it is jettisoned. After descending under parachutes, Dragon splashes down in the Pacific. Future re-usable variants may touch down on land, using Draco thrusters to soften the impact

...AND SWANS

Orbital Sciences Corporation, based in Dulles, Virginia, established its reputation with Pegasus, the world's first independently developed space launch vehicle, which made its operational debut in 1990. The slender rocket, approximately the size of a cruise missile, is launched mid-air from under the wing of a conventional jet plane, a Lockheed L-1011 known as Stargazer. Pegasus can deliver one-ton payloads to low Earth orbit, for very modest costs. Today the company's much larger Antares rocket lifts the Cygnus ("Swan") cargo supply vehicle toward a semiautomated rendezvous with ISS. Meanwhile, the Pegasus principle is being upgraded, and on a huge scale. Paul Allen is working with Orbital Sciences, and Scaled Composites, on a massive air-launch system called Stratolaunch.

FEET FOR FALCONS

The moon may be out of reach for Tintin-style spaceships, but the dream of Vertical Take-off and Landing, or VTOL, continues to haunt many rocket designers, for the simple reason that everyone is exasperated by the idea of throwing away expensive rocket stages after just one flight. Elon Musk's SpaceX company is already flying some of the hardware associated with a landing system. The plan is for the expended first stages of Falcon rockets to fall back to the Earth under parachutes, then deploy shock absorbing legs as they near the ground. Accurately targeted touchdowns on land, cushioned by retro engines, could preserve precious machinery for re-use. A small proportion of the fuel normally consumed during liftoff and ascent would be held in reserve for the touchdown burn.

A BRITISH TRIUMPH?

A British team of engineers, led by Alan Bond, is creating a new engine that could revolutionize access to space, blurring forever the distinction between aircraft and spacecraft. The Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, or SABRE, exploits air while in atmospheric flight, just like a jet engine, then switches to an on-board oxygen supply while in space, just like a rocket engine. Bond's Skylon space plane has been under development for several decades. Recent successes with the SABRE development have spurred significant international space agency interest in these technologies. Here we see a Skylon docked to a space station built from Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable modules.

Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spacecraft poses for a beauty shot at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California.
(Image credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation/NASA/Griffin Communications)

SHUTTLE REVIVAL

Sierra Nevada's, a partially winged lifting body, draws on the HL-20 mini shuttle project, an abandoned but technically well reasoned NASA proposal from the late 1980s. Dream Chaser is funded in part by NASA's Commercial Crew program, the logical follow-on from the cargo-based COTS scheme. Sierra Nevada has other clients in mind, too. European space agency ESA has taken an active interest in DreamChaser, as all parties in ISS look to the future possibilities of crew access. NASA would prefer to devote its Orion spacecraft to deep space flights, while leaving low Earth orbital business to new private vehicles.

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