Private Rocket Launch Industry Ready for Liftoff

PHOENIX, AZ — Rocket-launch industry executives, engineers and related enthusiasts who comprised the core of the 140 attendees at the 17th annual meeting of the Space Access Society here appear fully fueled and ready to depend on commercial cargo and crew services in the coming era of U.S. civil spaceflight.

Both the meeting presentations and the opening-day mood of attendees were generally flush with excitement at the prospects for canceling or significantly downsizing NASA's current Ares/Constellation architecture in the post-Space Shuttle period, as envisioned in the Obama Administration's central rationale for the agency's FY2011 budget request.

Obama, in his speech Thursday, elected to keep a scaled-down version of the capsule-based Orion spacecraft and set a goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid and then on to Mars.]

"Is it a risk? You bet it's a risk," said Alan Ladwig, NASA's deputy associate administrator for public outreach, who presented the broad themes of the NASA budget request. "It's also a risk to rely on single rocket like Constellation that was not meeting its budget guidelines or its schedule," said Ladwig, adding that it was important to remember that "legacy companies don't have a divine right to all of the contracts that NASA has, and the 'upstart' companies don't have a divine right to innovation."

Multiple efforts underway

Jeff Patton of United Launch Alliance (ULA) said the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture could be ready to launch astronauts to orbit on a commercial basis in four-and-a-half years, at a cost of roughly $130 million for an Atlas-V class vehicle, after $400 million in launch site facility upgrades.

Patton emphasized that ULA has been investigating aspects of human-rating its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles since NASA study contracts for an Orbital Space Plane awarded in 2002. The company has also learned a lot about current commercial space business considerations working with Bigelow Aerospace as its planned launch supplier. Bigelow's forecasted crew demands in support of its planned launches of inflatable commercial space stations in 2014 and 2016 could drive a dozen launches per year, he said.

The reliability requirements to "human rate" a launch vehicle are not much different than those demanded to launch high-risk payloads such the recent New Horizons mission to Pluto, with its nuclear radioisotope power generators, he stated. ULA will use most of its $6.7 million in NASA funding for commercial crew development to develop an improved Emergency Detection System to identify critical launch situations, and to refine its models of the environments in severe failure modes such as near-pad aborts, Patton said.

After citing other major FY11 budget request themes such as "building a 21st launch complex" and directly involving the public more via participatory exploration and increased support for science education, NASA's Ladwig said that it would be at least two to three years before it becomes clear what the combination of commercial crew development and the maturation of the suborbital research and tourism markets will germinate.

"What's it all about? Opening space to humanity," Ladwig said. "We don't really know what will pan out. That's good thing. It is in fact a 'new ocean,' with a lot of people participating."

Acknowledging such an approach can be "a hard sell" in a struggling economy, he outlined a three-phase schedule. It begins with five years of NASA working with the private sector to develop "game-changing technology," followed by a period of infrastructure renewal and construction, leading to "sustainable human exploration" by the late 2020s, toward the ultimate goal of "becoming a multi-planet species."

Constellation going nowhere

The NASA space science program, which will soon see the return of oversight by a chief scientist position at the agency, has thrived in a regime where it sets more general strategic goals, rather than dates and destinations. "The Constellation program was going nowhere," he concluded. "Let's build on the legacy of Apollo -- it is time to move forward"

Augustine commission member Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace, addressed the criticism that the current NASA plan is lacking a clear destination, saying that commission members purposefully discussed this issue in the context of asking the question, why have a civil space program at all?

"One of the reasons is that it's supposed to be a technical 'push' program" to force development of advanced technology, Greason said. "You cannot do that with a 30-year plan," he said, comparing the over specificity of such approach to his earlier experience in the semiconductor industry. There, three years was considered a reasonable horizon for detailed planning and decades-long goals are vague and generally rely on experience -- often fortuitous -- gained along the way, he said.

His experience in industry and proprietary data that he was asked to review as part of the Augustine commission convinced him more strongly than ever that the U.S. aerospace industry is at a crisis point. "The U.S. industrial base has decayed so far that we are on the verge of not being a space power," Greason said, citing so many "single-string" suppliers and lost skills that the wrong sort of a launch failure could be crippling.

"It is a matter of national survival that we restore that industrial base" through federal investment in technology developing and more creative flight-testing regimes, he said.

Fresh attention to ideas such as in-orbit rocket fuel depots, in-situ fuel production at economically sensible places like Mars' moon Phobos, and commercial crew services are "starting to crack" the outmoded system, he said to a late-night audience of industry members and NASA outsiders. "The U.S. government has dropped the ball too many times, and now it's up to us."

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