Sunny Florida or Old Virginny? Orbital Decision Expected Soon

The Spaceports blog reports that Orbital Sciences Corporation is expected to make a decision this week on whether to fly its COTS rocket out of Virginia or Florida.

Both states have been heavily lobbying the Reston, Virginia-based company, which is developing commercial transportation to the International Space Station under the NASA program. The company will choose between the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island or Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Rocket and Spacecraft Updates: LockMart, SpaceX, JAXA, ESA and NASA

Taylor Dinerman examines the current state of the reusable launch vehicle industry over at The Space Review. He is particularly intrigued by a test of a sub-scale space plane that Lockheed Martin conducted in New Mexico last December.

Rob Coppinger of Flight Global takes a look at the success of SpaceX, the El Segundo, Calif. rocket company that has secured a NASA launch services contract that could be worth up to $1 billion without ever having launched anything into orbit. The contract involves the company’s Falcon 1 vehicle, which has failed in its only two launch attempts, and the larger Falcon 9, which has yet to fly.

Coppinger also examines new rocket and spacecraft concepts under consideration by Japan and Europe on his Hyperbola blog. JAXA is considering a VTOL concept that looks a lot like the vehicle that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is working on. Meanwhile, ESA and Russia are jointly examining various designs for a crew transport.

A major initiative has been launched to improve quality control for the Proton launcher, which has suffered two failures in eight months, Coppinger reports. Russia’s Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center and its partner, International Launch Services, will be working closely with subcontractors to prevent future problems.

In American space news, the Rocketsandsuch blog has a new post claiming that costs on NASA’s Orion program have risen again by about $3 billion.

IG: NASA Broke Law, Appointed Foxes to Oversee Orion Henhouse

NASA\'s Orion Spacecraft

The NASA Inspector General released a blistering report on Monday claiming that the agency broke the law when it created a key advisory board for its Orion lunar program and stocked it full of advisers who were employed by and stockholders in the companies they are supposed to oversee.

“NASA did not establish the Orion SRB [Standing Review Board] in accordance with Federal law or NASA guidance,” the report’s Executive Summary reads. “The Orion SRB meets the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) definition of an advisory committee. Although FACA committees must be established in accordance with FACA and NASA Policy Directive (NPD) 1150.11, ‘Federal Advisory Committee Act Committees,’ September 22, 2004, the Orion SRB was not.

“Had NASA initially recognized the Orion SRB as an advisory committee subject to FACA, NASA’s ethics process associated with advisory committee participation would have been triggered, resulting in a focus on board member independence and conflict of interest resolution. Aside from these considerations, independence is a requirement for SRB participation; however, of the 19 members of the Orion SRB, 6 (32 percent) were not independent of the Orion Project.”

The SRB’s chairman, former Skylab astronaut Edward Gibson, is a senior vice president and stockholder in Orion contractor SAIC, as is fellow member and former NASA flight director Neil Hutchinson, the Associated Press reports. Another unidentified SRB member works for SAIC.


NASA Ames, Universities in Talks on Moffett Research Park

NASA Ames and a group of local universities led by the University of California at Santa Cruz are in discussions about the development of a major new campus at Moffett Field to conduct space travel research, the Mountain View Voice reports.

“UCSC, Santa Clara University, the Foothill-De Anza College District and Carnegie Melon University have all signed a letter of intent with NASA Ames, with all of them seeking a major presence in the NASA Research Park planned for Moffett.

“‘It’s an agreement to hold open discussions between us and NASA to see if we can arrive at a plan that will allow us to implement a vision for the research park,’ said Bill Berry, managing director of UCSC’s Affiliated Research Center.”

Cassini’s Carolyn Porco Talks About Saturn, ‘Star Trek XI’, and J.J. Abrams

Cinema Boffin has a fascinating interview with Dr. Carolyn C. Porco, who leads the Imaging Science Team on the NASA/ESA Cassini mission. Dr. Porco talks a lot about her work on Saturn but also about her latest role: serving as a science consultant on J.J. Abrams’ highly anticipated Star Trek film.

Carolyn Porco

Porco said she first met Abrams when he attended a talk that she gave. About seven months later, Abrams called her about getting involved in the Star Trek film as an adviser on science and planetary imagery.

“His secretary called and said, ‘We have J.J. Abrams on the phone to talk to you,’ and I had to say, ‘J.J. who?’,” Porco admitted. “I don’t watch television, I’m not keeping up with it, I’ve never seen Lost….I’m just too busy. I’ve been living on Saturn for the past 14-18 years.

“So anyway, he talks to me and he says, ‘I was at the TED conference, I heard you talk, I was spellbound. I’ve been getting your emails. I’ve been thinking about you and I really felt that I had to reach out to you and involve you in this movie somehow,'” she added.

NASA, Caterpillar Collaborate on Lunar Construction Truck

NASA is partnering with construction giant Caterpillar to develop a remote-controlled “lunar truck” that will assist in the construction of a human base at the moon’s south pole. Caterpillar has a couple of videos on its website describing the program.

It’s an interesting project, and one that seems to have flown under the radar with the full-time space media since it began in 2006. A shout out to the Journal Star‘s Paul Gordon, who wrote about the partnership for the Peoria, Illinois newspaper’s Sunday edition. It’s an excellent story that is worth checking out.

South Korean Astronaut Hospitalized for Back Pain; Soyuz Blame Game Continues

South Korean astronaut Yi So-Yeon was hospitalized on Tuesday because of back pain that resulted from Soyuz’s rough re-entry on April 19. Telecoms Korea reports the 29-year-old Yi was undergoing tests at an Air Force hospital in Cheongju, Korea.

“She has complained of considerable back pains and will have to cancel all her appointments for the time being, including visits to the presidential office and TV interviews,” Telecoms Korea quotes a doctor at the hospital.

While Yi recovers, the investigation into what caused the off-course, high-G re-entry continues amid much finger pointing. Alan Boyle of Cosmic Log has a nice report of the claims, counterclaims and sometimes strange statements being thrown around. Both the Russian and American space agencies have downplayed the seriousness of the problem. Russian space chief Anatoly Perminov, fresh off his poorly received comments that having two women aboard Soyuz was bad luck, is playing up a conspiracy angle: false rumors are being spread by “people who are interested in destabilization of our relations with the American partners.”


California’s Mojave Air & Space Port Going Strong

Dale Hawkins of The Tehachapi News has the latest goings-on at the Mojave Air & Space Port, America’s only licensed civil-use spaceport. Scaled Composites is busy at work on SpaceShipTwo, XCOR is building its Lynx spaceplane, Rocket Propulsion Engineering Corporation is testing – of all things – rockets, and the National Test Pilot School is training new aviators.

India to Join Exclusive Human Spaceflight Club

Indian Space Research Organisation Chairman G. Madhavan Nair said on Monday that his nation plans to send a two-person spacecraft into space by 2015.

“In seven years, we must have a manned flight after three successful unmanned flights,” he said. “A small core team is already working on it and in six months we should get full approval from the Centre.”

India will use an upgraded version of the Geo-Synchronous Launch Vehicle, which on Monday launched 10 satellites into polar orbit. The Asian Age has more about the launch and India’s plans for human space exploration and a robotic lunar rover.

A Busy Week for Launches in India, Russia and China

An Indian PSLV rocket launched 10 – count ’em 10 – satellites into orbit on Monday. The cargo included the Cartosat-2A remote sensing satellite, an Indian mini-sat, and eight foreign nano-sats. The Times of India has details.

Meanwhile, the folks at Sea Launch are celebrating their first successful takeoff from terra firma. A Land Launch Zenit-3SLB blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday carrying an Israeli communications satellite. The company is a joint venture between Sea Launch and Russia’s Space International Services. More details here.

In other news, the ever reliable Soyuz rocket orbited the second demonstration satellite for Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system on Sunday. And a Chinese Long March rocket launched a data relay satellite on Friday that will support China’s human spaceflight program.

Spacecraft: Heal Thyself


We’ve all heard about the space missions that are DOA when NASA engineers lose touch with the spacecraft or lander. In other cases, some critical system fails and the mission is compromised.

Both are maddening scenarios because the spacecraft probably could be easily fixed if engineers could just get their hands on the hardware for a few minutes.

Ali Akoglu and his students at The University of Arizona are working on hybrid hardware/software systems that one day might use machine intelligence to allow the spacecraft to heal themselves.

Akoglu, an assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, is using Field Programmable Gate Arrays, or FPGA, to build these self-healing systems. FPGAs combine software and hardware to produce flexible systems that can be reconfigured at the chip level.


Pirates to Visit Conan O’Brien, Hilarity to Ensue

Brian Turner of the Kansas City Space Pirates – one of the groups competing in the Space Elevator Games – will be a guest on Late Night with Conan O’Brien on Friday, May 2. The late night funny man will interview Turner about space elevators, according to the Space Elevator Games blog. So, tune in or set your TiVo.

Mars Society Chapter Completes Testing on Mars Balloon Prototype

The German Mars Society has completed final testing on its MIRIAM balloon prototype in advance of a planned June 14 suborbital launch from the ESRANGE rocket facility near Kiruna, Sweden.

“MIRIAM is a flight test within the ARCHIMEDES atmospheric sounding probe for Mars project, and tests the full inflation and subsequent entry of an atmospheric entry balloon (“ballute”) here on Earth. It is jointly developed by The Mars Society Germany and several institutes of the University of the Federal Armed Forces of Germany in Munich.”

MIRIAM will be launched by a REXUS4 sounding rocket managed and built by the DLR Moraba group of Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany.

Virginia General Assembly Approves Wallops Island Improvements

The Virginia General Assembly has approved the The 21st Century Capital Improvement Program, a bond program which among other things will provide funding for improvements to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island. The commonwealth is trying to attract commercial space companies to the facility.

I’ve looked at the actual bill, but I wasn’t able to figure out how much money would be devoted to the project. I may have missed it, or this could be something that will be determined later. The plan – which enjoys bipartisan support – needs approval from the Virginia Senate before it can be sent to Gov. Tim Kaine for signature.

(Ne)X(t) Prizes: Cancer, Oceans, and Living to 225

The Space Prizes blog has an account of a podcast given by X Prize Founder Peter Diamandis as part of the Stanford Entrepreneurs program. Diamandis said the foundation plans to expand into the following areas:

  • deep sea exploration to map the ocean floor
  • a cancer cure prize with Lance Armstrong
  • doubling or tripling the human lifespan

The X Prize Foundation also is considering “My X Prize” competitions that would allow local groups to develop their own prize concepts.