Second of 2 Stories
It was a busy year for a number of commercial space companies. While most of them made considerable progress, the news wasn’t all good.
A Dream Deferred
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) had a pretty rough year, losing out on two major contracts and laying off more than 100 employees.
On a Friday in May, just as everyone was preparing for the long Memorial Day weekend, Virgin Galactic announced it was dumping the hybrid rubber motor SNC developed for SpaceShipTwo in favor of a hybrid nylon one produced by Scaled Composites.
The news came out of the blue, leaving SNC officials speechless. The company believed it had finally solved the oscillation and thrust instability problems with its motor.
Interestingly, SNC later abandoned the hybrid rubber motor it was developing for its orbital Dream Chaser shuttle. The company switched to liquid propulsion technology developed by ORBITEC, which SNC acquired during the year.
The company suffered another blow in September when NASA awarded commercial crew contracts to Boeing and SpaceX. SNC and Dream Chaser were left out in the cold, without the billions of dollars in government funding needed to complete and flight test the vehicle.
SNC protested the award to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), saying it could do the job cheaper than Boeing and alleging irregularities in the way NASA evaluated the bids. GAO disagreed, rejecting the protect on Jan. 5.
XCOR Makes Steady Progress
The Mojave, Calif.-based company made steady progress on its two largest projects: the Lynx suborbital space plane, which is set for flight tests this year; and a new upper-stage hydrogen engine for United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) rockets to replace the RL-10 motor.
The company also raised $14.2 million from investors. The Midland International Airport in Texas received its spaceport license from the Federal Aviation Administration, paving the way for XCOR to move there from California. The company’s spacesuit provider, Orbital Outfitters, also plans to move from Los Angeles to Midland.
Masten Takes Off
Masten Space System was selected along with Boeing and Northrop Grumman for DARPA’s XS-1 program, which aims to develop a low-cost, fully reusable launch vehicle. DARPA gave the three companies contracts to flesh out their concepts for test vehicles. XCOR is the subcontractor on the Masten project.
Masten also continued to use its Xombie reusable vehicle to test guidance and landing software in 2014. Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, Pa., which is competing in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, tested its software on Xombie.
NASA also selected Masten for a no-funds-exchanged partnership as part of its Lunar CATALYST program (see below). The program is aimed at fostering collaboration between the space agency and private sector companies that want to explore the moon. Astrobotic and Moon Express were the other partners selected.
Zero-G Brought Down to Earth
Zero Gravity Corporation found itself grounded for almost all of 2014 due to a bitter dispute with the owners of the engines that powered its G-FORCE ONE parabolic aircraft. The Boeing 727 was already ground for several months when the leaseholders repossesses the plane’s three engines in June. The company says it plans to start flying again in 2015 after it receives certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.
S3 Gets Busy
Swiss Space Systems (S3) had a busy year, announcing a memorandum of understanding to use the Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida, conducting drop tests in Canada, and announcing plans for a series of micro-gravity flights aboard its A-300 airliner. The company plans to compete with Zero Gravity Corporation for a NASA parabolic flight contract.
The company’s ultimate goal is to design a fully reusable satellite launcher and a vehicle capable of flying passengers between distant locations on Earth at extremely high speeds.
The Internet search giant showed clear signs of entering the commercial space business during 2014 with a number of strategic moves.
Google appears to be in a race with Facebook and other companies to bring broadband services to the roughly 2 billion people on Earth who don’t have them. The company’s took several forms, including:
- acquiring Titan Aerospace, which makes drones that can be used to provide communications services;
- launching Project Loon, a program to bring broadband to remote areas using high-altitude balloons on which it is working with the French space agency CNES; and,
- exploring the development of a large constellation of communications satellites to provide broadband from Earth orbit.
Google also explored a potential partnership with Virgin Galactic. Google would have made an equity investment in Richard Branson’s space tourism company. It also would have funded Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne, an air-launched small-satellite booster. However, the deal reportedly fell through.
Google acquired Skybox Imaging in 2014. The company provides high-resolution imaging and video from Earth orbit.
The center of Google’s aerospace efforts will be Moffett Field, which was formally managed by NASA Ames Research Center. A Google subsidiary, Planetary Ventures, signed a 60-year lease on the property in November. The deal includes restoring the historic Hangar One. which had its toxic siding removed several years ago.
In other news, the X Prize Foundation announced that the deadline for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize would be pushed back one year to Dec. 31, 2016. None of the 18 competing teams was scheduled to fly in 2015. If no team announces a firm launch date by the end of this year, the competition will end without a winner.
In September, Boeing was selected along with SpaceX for commercial crew contracts to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. The award was protested to the GAO by Sierra Nevada Corporation, which was not selected for a contract. The GAO upheld NASA’s decision on Jan. 5.
Boeing was also awarded a $30.6 million contract to build a micro-satellite launch vehicle under DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program. The booster, which will be launched by a F-15E fighter jet, will send payloads weighing up 100 lbs (45 kg) into low Earth orbit at a significantly reduced cost.
Ventions LLC also won a DARPA contract under the ALASA program to demonstrate a smaller air-launch booster.
In other news, Boeing fabricated a large composite cryogenic fuel tank under NASA’s Game Changing Technology Development program. Engineers successfully put the tank through a full series of tests to determine the suitability of the lightweight tank for spaceflight.