Parabolic Arc Space Tourism ... and Much More Thu, 23 Feb 2017 08:31:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Aerojet Rocketdyne Acquires Coleman Aerospace Thu, 23 Feb 2017 08:31:37 +0000 EL SEGUNDO, Calif., Feb. 22, 2017 (Aerojet Rocketdyne PR) — Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, Inc. (NYSE:AJRD) announced today that it has signed a definitive agreement to purchase Coleman Aerospace from L3 Technologies, Inc. for $15 million in cash, subject to customary adjustments. The transaction is expected to close by the end of the month. Coleman Aerospace will operate as a subsidiary of Aerojet Rocketdyne, Inc. and will be renamed Aerojet Rocketdyne Coleman Aerospace, Inc. (“Coleman”).

Coleman, founded in 1980, is an innovative systems engineering and integration provider. Both a prime contractor and subcontractor, Coleman provides a variety of suborbital launch vehicles, payloads, and launch services. Coleman develops and integrates air- and ground-launched ballistic missile targets and mission planning for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, and hypersonic testing for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.

The acquisition builds upon and expands Aerojet Rocketdyne’s capabilities in mission analysis and systems engineering, and increases its product portfolio to include vehicle integration for small-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missile targets and other small launch vehicles. The Coleman business is expected to generate approximately $40 million in revenue in 2017.

“The addition of Coleman’s vehicle integration expertise supports our growth strategy for offering an expanded range of products and services to the defense and space markets,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, Inc. CEO and President Eileen Drake. “This deal represents a sound investment in both advanced technologies and new capabilities that build upon our decades of experience as the nation’s leading propulsion provider. We respect the long-standing reputation for quality and customer focus that Coleman has built in the aerospace industry and in the Orlando community, and we are thrilled to welcome them to our company.”

Coleman will operate at its existing location in Orlando, Florida and will assume the new Space Coast Integration & Test facility lease at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. A ribbon cutting ceremony to officially open the Space Coast facility is planned for this Friday, Feb. 24, 2017.

Aerojet Rocketdyne has nearly 5,000 employees at 14 sites around the country, including approximately 400 employees at its facility in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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NASA Partners With 8 Companies in Spacecraft, Launch Technology Thu, 23 Feb 2017 00:01:41 +0000 WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA is partnering with eight U.S. companies to advance small spacecraft and launch vehicle technologies that are on the verge of maturation and are likely to benefit both NASA and the commercial space market.

These partnerships are the result of a solicitation released in August 2016 by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), titled Utilizing Public-Private Partnerships to Advance Tipping Point Technologies. They mark the second round of public-private opportunities that enable industry to develop promising commercial space technologies that also may benefit future NASA missions.

“The first awards showed us how much the commercial space sector is ready to collaborate with us on developing capabilities that align with their business plans and meet NASA’s strategic goals,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for STMD. “By contributing their own funds to their projects, these U.S. companies are joining in innovative co-investments to enable NASA’s next generation of science and human exploration missions.”

A technology is considered at a ‘tipping point’ if an investment in a demonstration of its capabilities will result in a significant advancement of the technology’s maturation, a higher likelihood of infusion into a commercial space application, and a significant improvement in the partner’s ability to successfully bring the technology to market.

Small Launch Vehicle Technology Development

Small Launch Vehicle Technology enables the use of small spacecraft for technology development, science missions and to support deep space human exploration. The agency is partnering with the following companies to accelerate the development of commercial capabilities to enable frequent launches of small spacecraft to low-Earth orbit:

Masten Space Systems, Inc., Mojave, California
Maturing the M10A 25,000lbf Liquid Oxygen/Methane Broadsword Engine

  • Masten Space Systems is developing an engine which incorporates advanced manufacturing techniques.  The engine will be used to provide a lower-cost reusable launch service for the growing CubeSat and smallsat launch market.

Ventions, LLC, San Francisco
Development and Flight-Testing of a High-Performance Electric-Pump Fed Launch Vehicle

  • Ventions LLC will provide a full launch vehicle integration and orbital flight test demonstration of a two-stage launch vehicle. The launch vehicle will be capable of on-demand ground launch of small payloads to low-Earth orbit.

Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc., Irvine, California
Micro-Avionics Multi-Purpose Platform (MicroAMPP)

  • Tyvak will produce a commercial micro-avionics platform which supports launch vehicles and microsatellites. The project also will create a real-time system capable of simulating launch scenarios. Three test flights will be conducted to demonstrate the micro-avionics platform.

HRL Laboratories, LLC, Malibu, California
Additively Manufactured Ceramic Rocket Engine Components

  • HRL Laboratories will develop additively manufactured high-temperature materials applicable to rocket engine components. HRL Laboratories, working with their sub-contractor Vector Space Systems, will mature the technology resulting in a hot-fire test of a high performance liquid oxygen/propylene rocket engine. This technology can be applied to small and large engines for launch vehicles.

UP Aerospace, Inc., Littleton, Colorado
​Spyder: Critical Technology Demonstration Tests

  • A suborbital mission will demonstrate several subsystems for a launch vehicle currently under development.  The subsystems include a Guidance, Navigation & Control (GN&C) system, nose-fairing separation system, and lightweight staging system. In addition, a ground test will be conducted for the Stage 1 rocket engine. The launch vehicle will be capable of launching small nanosatellites to low-Earth orbit.

Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Virginia
Carbon Nanotube Infused Launch Vehicle Structures

  • Orbital Sciences Corporation will incorporate advanced materials for dampening into flight structures to reduce dynamic loads during flight.  They will build sub-scale and full-scale flight structures and complete end-to-end ground and flight testing. If successful, this technology has the potential to increase the payload capability and reduce costs for launch vehicles.

Small Spacecraft Capability Demonstration Missions

NASA is partnering with the following companies to advance small spacecraft capabilities through flight demonstrations with aggressive schedule and cost targets:

Trans Astronautica Corporation, Lake View Terrace, California
Theia: Synthetic Tracking Demonstration for Commercial, NASA and Other Government Agency Applications to Space Situational Awareness, Planetary Defense, and Asteroid In Situ Resource Utilization

  • Addressing a potential need for increased space situational awareness, this orbital demonstration mission will seek to detect near-Earth asteroids and orbital debris through a new technique that helps detect small, fast-moving objects that are dimly lit. Working with Deep Space Industries of Moffett Field, California, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Trans Astronautica will test a synthetic tracking system that detects objects streaking though its field of view and then, working in a way analogous to HDR imagery, builds a composite image of the object.

ExoTerra Resource, Littleton, Colorado
300-Watt CubeSat Solar Electric Propulsion Demonstrator

  • Opportunities to launch as secondary payloads offer an affordable way to get small spacecraft into orbit, but safety restrictions on launching with energetic and pressurized materials often prevents those spacecraft from carrying significant propulsion capabilities. ExoTerra will flight test a 300-watt solar electric propulsion system that uses iodine in place of xenon gas. Iodine can be launched as an inert solid and then vaporized into an ionized gas once in orbit, which removes the risk to the launch vehicle. Launching as a dense solid instead of a gas also increases the amount of propellant that can be stored in the same volume on the spacecraft. ExoTerra’s demonstration mission will attempt a flyby of a near-Earth asteroid with an instrumentation payload provided by Deep Space Industries of Moffett Field, California.

These fixed-priced contracts include milestone payments tied to technical progress and require a minimum 25 percent industry contribution, though all awards are contingent on the availability of appropriated funding. The contracts are worth a combined total of approximately $17 million, and each have an approximate two-year performance period culminating in a small spacecraft orbital demonstration mission or the maturation of small launch vehicle technologies.

These awards are funded by STMD, which is responsible for developing the cross-cutting, pioneering, new technologies and capabilities needed by the agency to achieve its current and future missions.

For more information about the NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, visit:

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TRAPPIST-1: A Treasure Trove of Planets Found Wed, 22 Feb 2017 22:30:06 +0000

Video Caption:
Seven Earth-sized planets have been observed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope around a tiny, nearby, ultra-cool dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1. Three of these planets are firmly in the habitable zone.

Over 21 days, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope measured the drop in light as each planet passed in front of the star. Spitzer was able to identify a total of seven rocky worlds, including three in the habitable zone, where liquid water might be found.

The video features interviews with Sean Carey, manager of the Spitzer Science Center, Caltech/IPAC; Nikole Lewis, James Webb Space Telescope project scientist, Space Telescope Science Institute; and Michaël Gillon, principal investigator, TRAPPIST, University of Liege, Belgium.

The system has been revealed through observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the ground-based TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) telescope, as well as other ground-based observatories. The system was named for the TRAPPIST telescope.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at Caltech/IPAC. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Spitzer, visit and

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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NASA VR: On the Surface of Planet TRAPPIST-1d Wed, 22 Feb 2017 21:52:52 +0000

Video Caption:
This 360-degree panorama depicts the surface of a newly detected planet, TRAPPIST-1d, part of a seven planet system some 40 light years away. You can explore this artist’s rendering of an alien world by moving the view using your mouse or your mobile device.

The depiction is based on the latest scientific data about this planetary system, and this world’s sister planets can be seen as bright points of light in a dark sky. Each world is roughly in Earth’s size range, in terms of both mass and diameter. Further observations will be needed to determine whether any or all of these worlds might be habitable.

For more on TRAPPIST 1, visit: and

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NASA Telescope Reveals Largest Batch of Earth-Size, Habitable-Zone Planets Around Single Star Wed, 22 Feb 2017 21:27:43 +0000
This illustration shows the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Scientists using the Spitzer Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes have discovered that there are seven Earth-size planets in the system. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”

Seven Earth-sized planets have been observed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope around a tiny, nearby, ultra-cool dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1. Three of these planets are firmly in the habitable zone. (Credits: NASA)

At about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth, the system of planets is relatively close to us, in the constellation Aquarius. Because they are located outside of our solar system, these planets are scientifically known as exoplanets.

This exoplanet system is called TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. In May 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST announced they had discovered three planets in the system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, Spitzer confirmed the existence of two of these planets and discovered five additional ones, increasing the number of known planets in the system to seven.

The new results were published Wednesday in the journal Nature, and announced at a news briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The TRAPPIST-1 star, an ultra-cool dwarf, has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. This artist’s concept appeared on the cover of the journal Nature on Feb. 23, 2017. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Using Spitzer data, the team precisely measured the sizes of the seven planets and developed first estimates of the masses of six of them, allowing their density to be estimated.

Based on their densities, all of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky. Further observations will not only help determine whether they are rich in water, but also possibly reveal whether any could have liquid water on their surfaces. The mass of the seventh and farthest exoplanet has not yet been estimated – scientists believe it could be an icy, “snowball-like” world, but further observations are needed.

“The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1 are the first Earth-size planets that have been found orbiting this kind of star,” said Michael Gillon, lead author of the paper and the principal investigator of the TRAPPIST exoplanet survey at the University of Liege, Belgium. “It is also the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds.”

In contrast to our sun, the TRAPPIST-1 star – classified as an ultra-cool dwarf – is so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than is possible on planets in our solar system. All seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary orbits are closer to their host star than Mercury is to our sun. The planets also are very close to each other. If a person was standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky.

This poster imagines what a trip to TRAPPIST-1e might be like. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The planets may also be tidally locked to their star, which means the same side of the planet is always facing the star, therefore each side is either perpetual day or night. This could mean they have weather patterns totally unlike those on Earth, such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night side, and extreme temperature changes.

Spitzer, an infrared telescope that trails Earth as it orbits the sun, was well-suited for studying TRAPPIST-1 because the star glows brightest in infrared light, whose wavelengths are longer than the eye can see. In the fall of 2016, Spitzer observed TRAPPIST-1 nearly continuously for 500 hours. Spitzer is uniquely positioned in its orbit to observe enough crossing – transits – of the planets in front of the host star to reveal the complex architecture of the system. Engineers optimized Spitzer’s ability to observe transiting planets during Spitzer’s “warm mission,” which began after the spacecraft’s coolant ran out as planned after the first five years of operations.

“This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations,” said Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California. “Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.”

Following up on the Spitzer discovery, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has initiated the screening of four of the planets, including the three inside the habitable zone. These observations aim at assessing the presence of puffy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres, typical for gaseous worlds like Neptune, around these planets.

In May 2016, the Hubble team observed the two innermost planets, and found no evidence for such puffy atmospheres. This strengthened the case that the planets closest to the star are rocky in nature.

“The TRAPPIST-1 system provides one of the best opportunities in the next decade to study the atmospheres around Earth-size planets,” said Nikole Lewis, co-leader of the Hubble study and astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope also is studying the TRAPPIST-1 system, making measurements of the star’s minuscule changes in brightness due to transiting planets. Operating as the K2 mission, the spacecraft’s observations will allow astronomers to refine the properties of the known planets, as well as search for additional planets in the system. The K2 observations conclude in early March and will be made available on the public archive.

Spitzer, Hubble, and Kepler will help astronomers plan for follow-up studies using NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018. With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet’s atmosphere. Webb also will analyze planets’ temperatures and surface pressures – key factors in assessing their habitability.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center, at Caltech, in Pasadena, California. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at Caltech/IPAC. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about Spitzer, visit:

For more information on the TRAPPIST-1 system, visit:

For more information on exoplanets, visit:




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Russian Revivals: Sea Launch, Tourists Around Moon Wed, 22 Feb 2017 16:19:27 +0000
Zenit lifts off with communications satellite. (Credit: Sea Launch)

While Russia retired its Soyuz-U rocket with one final flight on Wednesday after 44 years and 787 launches, a couple of other programs — Sea Launch and tourists trips around the moon — have resurfaced.

The new owners of Sea Launch, the Russian private airline S7, was granted a license to begin launches of the company’s Zenit boosters again. Sea Launch last flew in 2014 when the company was majority owned by RSC Energia.

Operations were suspended due to a lack of business. Sea Launch has been plagued by failed launches and a bankruptcy since it was founded 22 years ago.

The first flight under the new ownership will actually take place from land. A launch will be conducted from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan sometime later this year.

Sea Launch uses a floating platform towed to the equator to launch communications satellites. The platform and a command ship have operated out of California.

Meanwhile, RSC Energia hopes to sign a final settlement soon with Boeing on a lawsuit over Sea Launch’s previous bankruptcy. The two companies founded Sea Launch in 1995 as part of a consortium that included Norwegian and Ukrainian partners.

Boeing won a $330 million judgment against RSC Energia in U.S. court. Part of the settlement has included five seats aboard Soyuz spacecraft headed for the International Space Station. Boeing is looking to sell those spots to NASA.

Space Adventures vehicle for circumlunar flights. (Credit: Space Adventures)

In other news, RSC Energia is once again talking up a plan to send tourists around the moon using modified Soyuz spacecraft.

The Russian company developed the plan with U.S. space tourism firm Space Adventures many years ago. However,  planned flights have been repeatedly pushed back. The latest estimate coming out of RSC Energia is the 2021-2022 time frame.

The plan calls for sending two tourists and a pilot on a flight around the moon. Tickets have been priced at $150 million apiece.



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Progress Resupply Ship Launched to ISS Wed, 22 Feb 2017 15:02:17 +0000
Launch of Progress 66.

HOUSTON (NASA PR) — The unpiloted Russian Progress 66 launched at 12:58 a.m. Wednesday (11:58 a.m. Baikonur time) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It is now orbiting the planet on course for the International Space Station

The vehicle will deliver almost three tons of food, fuel and supplies to the Expedition 50 crew.

The spacecraft is set to dock to the Pirs docking compartment at 3:34 a.m. Friday, Feb. 24. NASA TV coverage of rendezvous and docking will begin at 2:45 a.m. Progress 66 will remain docked at the station for almost four months before departing in June for its deorbit into Earth’s atmosphere.

This was the first launch of a Progress cargo ship from Baikonur since the Progress 65 supply craft was lost Dec. 1, 2016.

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Dragon Rendezvous With Space Station Delayed Wed, 22 Feb 2017 14:56:36 +0000
Credit: NASA

HOUSTON (NASA PR) — The SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft waved off its planned rendezvous with the International Space Station at 3:25 a.m. EST. Onboard computers triggered the abort after recognizing an incorrect value in data about the location of the space station. Per the re-rendezvous plan built into every mission, the spacecraft automatically reset for another rendezvous and docking attempt in 24 hours.

The spacecraft is in excellent shape with no issues, and the crew aboard the space station is safe. The next rendezvous attempt is targeted for Thursday morning. NASA TV coverage will begin at 4 a.m. with grapple expected around 6 a.m. Installation coverage will begin at 8 a.m. Watch live on NASA TV and online at:

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Part III: All Aboard Elon Musk’s Mars Express Wed, 22 Feb 2017 04:05:15 +0000
A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

“The goal of SpaceX is really to build the transport system. It’s like building the Union Pacific Railroad. And once that transport system is built then there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new or build the foundations of a new planet.

“When they were building the Union Pacific, a lot of people said that’s a super dumb idea because hardly anybody lives in California. But, now today we’ve got the U.S. epicenter of technology development and entertainment, and it’s the biggest state in the nation.

Elon Musk
SpaceX Founder & CEO

By Douglas Messier
Managing Edtior

The idea of a transcontinental railroad to the West Coast came into the world in 1830 as many dreams do: as a visionary, if seemingly outrageous, plan that few people took seriously. Why build a rail line through a howling wilderness where almost nobody lived? It would be a hideously expensive boondoggle, a road to nowhere.

This same problem has dogged the space movement since Sputnik was launched 60 years ago. While Hartwell Carver and other backers of the transcontinental railroad were able to overcome all the obstacles in their way, human progress in the silent vacuum of space has been slow and halting. It has never lived up the expectations people had at the start of the Space Age.

There are no Pan Am shuttles to orbit, no spinning space stations with hotels and restaurants, no  moon base, no settlements at L-5, no honeymoons in space, no human expeditions to Mars, not even suborbital space tourism. The aging orphans of Apollo bemoan the lack of progress since the moon landings they watched, dream of things that could have been, and ask, “What the hell happened?” A lack of vision is usually blamed.

Space is hard. The environment is deadly. Building a railroad is a lot easier. All true. But, there’s a lot more to it than that.

A Question of Timing

Construction by the Central Pacific Railroad

There were many practical barriers to building a railroad to the West Coast when it was first proposed. Steam engines was still primitive, the terrain was challenging,  the distance daunting, the costs high, and the return on investment uncertain. There wasn’t a large population in the West for the railroads to serve, there were better business opportunities in the East, and the United States lacked clear title to any land on the West Coast.

In short, the combination of financial, technical, political and strategic factors needed to justify the immense public expense of such a massive infrastructure project was just not there. This was not a case of the American public and its leaders being short-sighted in the face of a visionary proposal. Instead, it was an entirely rational decision.

Over the next 30 years, all of these issues were resolved. The U.S. gained an enormous swath of Western territory. The Gold Rush swelled the population of California. Steam engines advanced. Routes were surveyed. And the outlook for a good return on investment (ROI) greatly improved.

The railroad would provide a superior form of transportation to the West, shrinking a cross country trip from months to a week while greatly reducing the cost. It would open land along its route to settlement, boost trade with Asia through the San Francisco Bay, and unite the nation from East to West.

When the first rail was spiked at Sacramento in 1863, nobody thought building the Transcontinental Railroad was a “super dumb idea” as Musk claimed. It has been seen as an inevitability for about a decade, a national priority that had been blocked only by a bitter disagreement between North and South over the best route.

Miners during the California Gold Rush.

Far from being the home to “hardly anybody” in 1863, California was in the midst of a decades-long population boom. The number of inhabitants had quadrupled to more than 379,000 people between 1850 and 1860. The state’s population would rise by 47.4 percent to 560,247 inhabitants by 1870. The vast majority of this growth occurred before the railroad was completed in 1869.

Given the enormous benefits of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Federal Government was willing to fund a program of unprecedented scale and cost. It provided Union Pacific and Central Pacific with the required funding, land grants larger than the state of Texas, and loose financial oversight the owners of the railroads exploited to maximize their profits.

Central Pacific laborers laid the most amount of track — 10 miles — in a single day.

The two companies were able to focus on what they did best: building railroads. Other than constructing railway stations and depots along the way, the railroads could leave the responsibility for building out the towns and cities that grew up around them to others. The railroads didn’t have to worry about developing major cities on each end of the line. Council Bluffs and Omaha in the East, and Sacramento and Oakland in the West, had already been built.

Although the railroad’s builders faced many challenges in blasting through mountains, bridging ravines and battling the elements, the technology for the work was well in hand by 1863. They didn’t have invent new steam engines. The experience of constructing thousands of miles of track in the East gave the companies confidence they could overcome any obstacles.

A Cold, Barren World

This self-portrait of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on Feb. 3, 2013, plus three exposures taken on May 10, 2013. (Credit: NASA)

The contrast between the Transcontinental Railroad and Musk’s Mars plan is stark. None of the factors that made the railroad a no brainer in 1863 exists with regards to sending humans to Mars in 2017.

There are no cities on the Red Planet. No populations there to serve as yet. No critical mass of immigrants on Earth eager to seek a better life in its frozen, lifeless deserts. No territorial claims by any nations that need shoring up. No military rationale for occupying the planet.

There’s nothing on the Red Planet that we know of that we don’t have on Earth. Populating Mars isn’t going to open up trade routes with Jupiter, Saturn and the asteroid belt. The economic return on investment (ROI) from the venture is unclear.

Public and political support is fairly weak. NASA has a plan to send a handful of astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030’s. But, the space agency isn’t contemplating anything on the scale that Musk has proposed. Whether the new Trump Administration stays the course on Mars remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the world’s other major space powers Europe, Russia and China are focused on sending astronauts to the moon. Blue Origin Founder Jeff Bezos and United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno are promoting plans to develop a robust cis-lunar economy. Bezos, a billionaire whose wealth far exceeds that of Musk, has said he has no interest in Mars at all.

Interior of Interplanetary Transport System tank. (Credit: SpaceX)

If the Transcontinental Railroad was an evolutionary leap forward compared with Eastern rail systems, Musk’s Mars plan easily falls on the quantum scale. Nobody’s ever built rockets or spacecraft of the size and complexity that he has proposed. We have no record of building settlements on other worlds. The experience of Apollo and the International Space Station will only go so far when it comes to Mars.

It’s not that these technological challenges can’t be overcome. It’s more that the risk, cost and time involved will be vastly greater than Musk’s perpetually optimistic projections. And that will give pause to any investors and governments that are considering whether to back the venture.

Why Occupy Mars?

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

Although Musk has invoked the Transcontinental Railroad as a model, he has never tried to justify occupying Mars using any of the myriad practical reasons that were used to build the rail line. Instead, he has used two other rationales to support his plan.

The first is downright apocalyptic: humanity must move out into the Solar System in order to survive as a species. Mars is a backup world if Earth gets wiped out by a biological plague, nuclear war, homicidal artificial intelligence, or a giant space rock.

This is actually a dark twist on Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s famous quote, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.” It’s as if Musk is channeling Kodos: “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but it doesn’t matter what you do. Either way, your planet is doomed! Doomed!”

This argument is a tough sell. Given the choice between protecting all of their constituents on Earth, or spending billions of dollars to send a tiny fraction of them to Mars as a hedge against some future Armageddon that might never actually happen, politicians will choose the former every time. There’s really no contest.

This isn’t a lack of vision, just practical politics. Short of a clearly defined, existential global threat to Earth that nobody can do anything about, Mars as a backup will remain a weak argument. It’s more of a side benefit of getting people to Mars than a reason to do it.

Musk’s other main argument – the excitement and adventure of voyaging to a new world – resonates a lot more. Colonizing Mars – or just landing humans there to explore it – would be a monumental achievement. If an initial landing is followed up by an actual permanent settlement, that would indeed be a significant advance in the spread of human civilization.

So, Musk is on more solid ground there. The question is whether this rationale is sufficient to propel humanity to Mars given the lack of a clear ROI and other benefits of the kind that made the Transcontinental Railroad possible. It hasn’t to date.

The Road to Utopia Planetia

Red Dragon enters Mars atmosphere. (Credit: SpaceX)

Given Musk’s grand vision of a million people living on Mars decades from now, it’s easy to overlook the fact that what he presented in Guadalajara last September was not actually a plan for colonizing the Red Planet. Instead, it was the outline for building the machines to get settlers there.

“And once that transport system is built then there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new or build the foundations of a new planet,” he said.

Musk said almost nothing about where or how the settlers would live or what they would do once they got to Mars. In this regard, his invoking of the Transcontinental Railroad appears almost literal. Like the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, he wants to focus on the transportation side while leaving the rest largely to others.

This focus makes sense for several reasons. For one, building rockets and spacecraft is what SpaceX does best. And building this system is going to be a monumental task just by itself.

Tank for the Interplanetary Transport System. (Credit: SpaceX)

Second, there are no governments or private investors out there throwing boatloads of money at SpaceX to build a cosmic railroad to the Red Planet. For now, the company must find a way of developing a revolutionary new interplanetary transportation system on a limited budget composed largely on its own revenues an their founder’s fortune.

Musk was able to demonstrate progress on some of the pieces the transportation system in Guadalajara. He showed pictures of a gigantic fuel tank SpaceX had built and video of a test of an advanced Raptor rocket engine for the Mars ship. It was a good start, but there’s still a long way to go.

Raptor engine hot fire. (Credit SpaceX)

The billionaire laid out a plan to actually begin private missions to the Red Planet. The program would begin with sending a modified Dragon capsule in 2018 to land on the surface to test entry, descent and landing techniques. That mission would be followed every two years by additional pairs of Dragon vehicles that would deliver goods needed to support a crew.

In 2024, the first human mission using SpaceX’s giant rocket and spacecraft would be launched. About a dozen people would establish the first human base on Mars, using the equipment and supplies launched during earlier missions.

Musk warned that both his schedules and his cost estimate ($10 billion for initial development) were probably optimistic. That has proven to be true. Last week, SpaceX postponed the first Red Dragon flight two years to 2020. Given the enormous scope of the program and SpaceX’s past history with much less ambitious projects, additional delays are virtually assured.

Who Pays – and for What?

Upper stage of Interplanetary Transport System with passenger area. (Credit: SpaceX)

Musk has made it clear that settling Mars isn’t going to happen without a public-private partnership. The profits from his businesses and his own personal fortune that he has pledged toward the effort are not going to be enough to make it work.

Musk is hoping he can advance the ball far enough that the public and their leaders will become enthusiastic about going to Mars. Fearful of being left behind in settling the next great frontier, they will climb aboard Elon Musk’s Mars Express and provide the money and other support needed to make the program successful.

What exactly that means in terms of financial support is unclear; Musk has never laid out what settling Mars will actually cost beyond the estimated $10 billion required for initial development of the transportation system. And that figure might be excessively low.

While Musk’s talk about reducing the cost of a ticket to Mars to $200,000 makes the trip sound almost affordable, his lack of focus on the settlement makes the amount misleading. What are the habitats going to cost? Who’s going for them?

Keeping people alive on Mars – especially in the thousands and tens of thousands that Musk is proposing – would involve the building of an infrastructure of considerable size, complexity and reliability.

There are a couple of truisms about infrastructure. First, it’s expensive to build, maintain, expand and repair. Second, governments are usually the ones responsible for it. Private companies are happy to build infrastructure under contract to governments, but they don’t like paying for it. (Just ask the citizens of New Mexico about Spaceport America.)

If he wants taxpayers’ support for his Mars plan, Musk will need to a lot more candid about what the entire thing will cost, not just his part of it.

A Giant Leap into the Unknown

The Golden Spike ceremony celebrating the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah in May 1869.

The Transcontinental Railroad took about 40 years from when it was first proposed to completion. Before the first rail was spiked, a set of political, economic, technological and strategic factors had to come into alignment. Only then could such an expensive program be launched.

The lack of an equally compelling set of reasons for sending people to the moon and Mars has frustrated the dreams of space advocates for 60 years. The only time humans ventured beyond  low Earth orbit was during the Apollo program. That was not a program aimed at colonization; it was designed to show the superiority of one country over another.

There is a fundamental difference between the railroad and Musk’s Mars plan. While the rail line met series of needs and demands, Musk must create a demand for something that doesn’t exist beyond a small group of space enthusiasts.

This is very much in the spirit of the Silicon Valley where Musk made his initial fortune. The entrepreneurs there are forever creating new products and companies (smart phones, social media, PayPal, Uber…the list goes on) that nobody realized they needed, but which quickly became ubiquitous.

Musk hopes to do the same with Mars. It will be interesting to see if he can pull it off in the decade ahead. Musk is nothing if not a great salesman. Mars is his most challenging sales pitch to date.

The Series




























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Space Tango’s Takes First Step to Commercializing Microgravity Research Wed, 22 Feb 2017 00:13:44 +0000 CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched Space Tango payloads on Commercial Resupply Services – 10 (CRS-10) on February 19th at approximately 9:39 AM EST. Payloads will be installed in the TangoLab Facility on the International Space Station (ISS). CRS-10 is Space Tango’s first commercial opportunity to begin use of the facility hardware for researchers and customers to utilize microgravity for application on Earth.

“Our focus is not necessarily the six people up there,” explained Space Tango CEO Twyman Clements, “but the 7 billion people down here.”

Clements and his start-up company are working towards commercializing access to microgravity in order to expand the field of exomedicine and other research. The TangoLab facility allows Space Tango clients and partners to build high-performance and reliable experiments that can be designed and tested in microgravity.

“Space Tango is a leader of a rapidly growing entrepreneurial space industry in Kentucky,” shared Kris Kimel, Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation president and Space Tango chairman. The state of Kentucky continues to be a huge supporter in all of Space Tango’s endeavors.

Additional content regarding Space Tango and our ​ ​customers’ payloads can be found here.


Space Tango designs and builds integrated systems that facilitates microgravity research and manufacturing focused for application on Earth. Their service allows users to focus on their research while Space Tango manages the complexities of traveling to and operating in microgravity. Space Tango’s first product is the TangoLab-1, a fully automated system allowing multiple experiments to run simultaneously and independently. TangoLab-1 was installed on the International Space Station in mid-2016. Space Tango’s vision only starts with TangoLab-1; Space Tango is developing an entire pipeline of products to increase the variety, volume and ease of using microgravity.

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NASA Authorization Act Calls for Study of Sending Orion to Space Station Tue, 21 Feb 2017 22:11:17 +0000
NASA astronaut Suni Williams exits a test version of the Orion spacecraft in the agency’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston. The testing is helping NASA identify the best ways to efficiently get astronauts out of the spacecraft after deep space missions. (Credit: NASA)

The Senate-approved NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 would require the space agency to conduct a study of whether the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle would be capable of carrying crews and supplies to the International Space Station.

The measures refers to the previous NASA authorization act passed in 2010 that required Orion to serve as a backup in case there were problems with the commercial crew vehicles now being developed by Boeing and SpaceX.

Under the required study, NASA would confirm that spacecraft has the capability to service the space station, determine which launch vehicle(s) other than the Space Launch System (SLS) it could fly on, and estimate the cost and schedule impacts on planned SLS and Orion flights.

The relevant part of the authorization bill is reproduced below.

(e) Report.—

(1) IN GENERAL.—Not later than 60 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator shall submit to the appropriate committees of Congress a report addressing the ability of Orion to meet the needs and the minimum capability requirements described in section 303(b)(3) of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 (42 U.S.C. 18323(b)(3)).

(2) CONTENTS.—The report shall detail—

(A) those components and systems of Orion that ensure it is in compliance with section 303(b)(3) of that Act (42 U.S.C. 18323(b)(3));

(B) the expected date that Orion, integrated with a vehicle other than the Space Launch System, could be available to transport crew and cargo to the ISS;

(C) any impacts to the deep space exploration missions under subsection (f) of this section due to enabling Orion to meet the minimum capability requirements described in section 303(b)(3) of that Act (42 U.S.C. 18323(b)(3)) and conducting the mission described in subparagraph (B) of this paragraph; and

(D) the overall cost and schedule impacts associated with enabling Orion to meet the minimum capability requirements described in section 303(b)(3) of that Act (42 U.S.C. 18323(b)(3)) and conducting the mission described in subparagraph (B) of this paragraph.

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ISRO Tests GSLV Mark III Cryogenic Upper Stage Tue, 21 Feb 2017 08:44:13 +0000
GSLV Mark III upper stage engine test. Credit: ISRO

MAHENDRAGIRI, India (ISRO PR) — The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully tested its indigenously developed Cryogenic Upper Stage (CUS) for GSLV MkIII on February 17, 2017. The cryogenic stage designated as C25 was tested for a flight duration of 640 seconds at ISRO Propulsion Complex (IPRC) in Mahendragiri. C25 Stage had earlier been tested successfully for 50 seconds on January 25, 2017 to validate all the systems.

Prior to Stage development hot tests, three CE20 engines were realised and two engines were subjected to qualification tests in sea level conditions. This included 800 seconds duration hot test and the third engine identified for flight was tested in high

Altitude conditions for a duration of 25 seconds.

This Stage test is a significant milestone as it is the last in series of engine and stage development hot tests before the first development flight of GSLV MkIII.

The C25 stage is the most powerful upper stage developed by ISRO and uses Liquid Oxygen (LOX) and Liquid Hydrogen (LH2) propellant combination. The stage carries 27.8 tons of propellants loaded in two independent tanks. Development of a cryogenic stage has unique design challenges, with liquid Hydrogen stored at -253 deg C and liquid Oxygen stored at -195 deg C in its tanks. To store these cryogenic fluids, special multi-layer insulation is provided for the tanks and other structures.

The development of the cryogenic stage was led by Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC) with support from various System Development Agencies from other ISRO Centres of ISRO, viz., Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), ISRO Propulsion Complex (IPRC) and Sathish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC), SHAR.

The Cryogenic Stage development tests were carried out in two phases. First, the Stage was subjected to fluid mock-up, wherein the stage preparation and servicing at launch complex in SDSC, SHAR, Shriharikota was completed to prove all the ground facilities established for servicing the cryogenic stage. This was followed by testing of the Stage at ISRO Propulsion Complex, Mahendragiri. From the Stage realisation to completion of testing was accomplished in four months.

The performance of the Stage during the hot test was as predicted. Successful hot test for flight duration qualifies the design of the stage and the robustness of the facilities conceived and established towards its development.

The flight cryogenic stage is in advanced stage of realisation, and forms the upper stage of GSLV MkIII the next generation launch vehicle of ISRO, capable of launching 4 ton class satellites into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). The vehicle consists of two solid strap-ons (S200) motors, one earth storable liquid core stage (L110) and the Cryogenic Upper Stage (C25).

The GSLV MkIII vehicle integration activities are in progress at SDSC, SHAR for its first development flight (GSLV MkIII-D1) targeted for April 2017.


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Update on the Railroad Series Tue, 21 Feb 2017 07:11:58 +0000
Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.

For anyone waiting with bated breath for the final installment of my Transcontinental Railroad series — and I know there are at least three or four of you out there — please be informed that I expect to publish it on Tuesday. Like the railroad itself, finishing it is taking a little bit longer than I anticipated. Writing history is one thing; drawing conclusions from it is a bit more complicated.

So, thank you for your patience!



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MOU Signed to Study Campbeltown Spaceport Mon, 20 Feb 2017 17:38:49 +0000
Credit: Discover Space UK

ARGYLL, Scotland (Discover Space UK PR) — Leading UK Space science and technology firms QinetiQ and Telespazio VEGA UK have agreed Memorandum’s of Understanding (MoU) to work with Discover Space UK on investigating the potential for a horizontal launch spaceport at the Campbeltown site on the West Coast of Scotland.

The agreements follow discussions and site visits arranged by Discover Space UK to promote the former RAF airbase’s suitability for potential space plane launches. Under the terms of the MOU partners have agreed to investigate the launch capability at the Campbeltown Spaceport, develop feasibility and business cases as well as engaging with government and other stakeholders to advance the UK space industry.

“I am delighted that both QinetiQ and Telespazio VEGA UK are going to investigate the Campbeltown sites potential for becoming a UK Spaceport launch site and would like to thank all those involved in the process so far,” stated Tom Millar, Director of Discover Space UK.

“We strongly believe that the Campbeltown site and indeed the whole Highlands and Islands region offer the very real potential for the creation of safe, affordable and commercially viable spaceports within the United Kingdom.”

Councillor Aileen Morton, Policy Lead for Sustainable Economic Growth for Argyll and Bute Council, which has formed a consortium with DSUK, said: “This is a project being driven by the local community, with the full backing of Argyll and Bute Council. We are intent on embracing industries of the future and, with the UK space industry creating up to 100,000 jobs by 2030, our focus is on bringing some of these jobs to the area.

“With this rapidly growing industry envisaged to generate £40billion by 2030, we want this area to play a significant part, because we have much to offer.”



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Kennedy Space Center Takes Step Toward Multi-Use Spaceport Mon, 20 Feb 2017 17:17:39 +0000
Credit: NASA

The SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 39-A is another milestone for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as a premier, multi-user spaceport. Lifting off from the historic launch site in the photo on the right, SpaceX CRS-10 is the company’s 10th commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station.

Pad 39-A now is operated by SpaceX under a property agreement with NASA.

The first ever launch from Kennedy’s Pad 39-A was Apollo 4, in the image on the left. Lifting off on Nov. 9, 1967, it was the first test flight of the Saturn V rocket that took Apollo astronauts to the moon.

The first space shuttle lifted off April 12, 1981 from Pad 39-A for STS-1 — the center picture. NASA astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen flew the shuttle Columbia for two days, landing at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

The SpaceX CRS-10 launch of a Dragon spacecraft is the first from Pad 39-A since the final space shuttle mission on July 8, 2011. The Dragon will deliver about 5,500 pounds of supplies to the space station, such as Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment (SAGE) III instrument to further study ozone in the atmosphere.