U.S. Commercial Launch Industry Poised for a Renaissance?

The above chart from a GAO report released last week shows the sad state of the commercial launch market in the United States over the past decade as business has fled elsewhere and U.S. launch providers have focused on providing services to government clients.

After reaching a peak of 22 launches in 1998 (see fig. 1), the number of commercial space launches declined through 2001. This was due to a downturn in the telecommunications services industry, which had been the primary customer of the commercial space launch industry. Most of these launches were focused on putting payloads (e.g., satellites) into orbit. The 2004 spike in launches was caused, in part, by the five manned flights of SpaceShipOne, the only manned commercial spaceflights to date.

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Budget, Growth Rate and Safety Concerns Dominate House Hearing on FAA Commercial Space Budget

Below is a mashup of Republican and Democratic press releases describing last week’s House hearing on the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Office’s budget. Lawmakers expressed concerns about the large budget increase requested, the potential rate for commercial space, and whether the FAA could balance its dual role to regulate and oversee the industry. The piece has been edited to eliminate duplicate content and to improve flow and clarity.

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The Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held a hearing to review the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 budget request submitted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (also referred to as AST) and to examine new initiatives in the request to expand the office’s roles and responsibilities.

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FAA’s Commercial Space Expansion Encounters Skepticism on the Hill

Space policy analyst Marcia Smith has a detailed account of George Nield’s testimony before a House subcommittee. It seems that the director of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (ATST) ran into some skepticism from lawmakers when he pitched a 74% increase in his office’s budget.

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Bigelow Completes Initial Test on Life Support System

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver is given a tour of the Bigelow Aerospace facilities by the company's President Robert Bigelow on Friday, Feb. 4, 2011, in Las Vegas. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Bigelow Tests Life Support System
Space News

Bigelow Aerospace completed an initial closed-loop test in March of a prototype environmental control and life support (ECLS) system designed to support extended crew stays inside the inflatable habitats the company is building to provide research facilities and hotel accommodations in space.

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Nield: FAA Will Need to Expand its Authority Over Commercial Space

In testimony before the House on Thursday, FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation George C. Nield told lawmakers that his agency will need to expand its authority in the years ahead to keep up with the growing private spaceflight sector:

In the coming months and years, it may be necessary to revisit some of the statutes and regulations that govern the commercial space launch activities of the FAA. Specifically, the FAA’s legislative authority may require expansion to ensure public safety in space and on Earth, as the commercial space flight sector evolves. Potentially, there may be a need for greater regulatory authority in the areas of transportation on orbit as well as launch and reentry. In addition, the FAA’s licensing authority may also require revision regarding operations associated with commercial hybrid launch systems and commercial cargo vehicles intentionally returning to Earth, regardless of whether they return substantially intact.

Nield made his remarks while testifying about the FAA’s request for $26.6 million to fund its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). The office licenses launches in the United States and oversees safety regulations.

 

Nield Lays Out FAA Commercial Space Budget for Congress

FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation George Nield testified today about the agency’s proposed FY 2012 budget before the House Committee on Science’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. Key highlights from his prepared statement include:

  • $26.6 million overall budget for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation
  • 103 full-time employees
  • $1.2 million and 14 full-time positions “to develop and implement additional safety processes and requirements specifically for commercial human spaceflight and the FAA’s efforts to improve spaceflight safety”
  • $5 million and 50 positions for a new Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center to be located at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida
  • $5 million for the Low-Cost Access to Space Incentive to award to “the first non-governmental team to develop and demonstrate the capability to launch a 1-kilogram cubesat to orbit using a partially reusable launch system.”

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Critic: Musk is “Glib Salesman” Who Promises Too Much

SpaceX Founder Elon Musk

In the wake of Elon Musk’s blog post defending SpaceX’s pricing, Lexington Institute COO Loren B. Thompson (who?) has written a reply accusing the South African-born entrepreneur of being a “glib salesman” who has taken “NASA for a ride.”

Musk looks to be a big beneficiary of the Obama Administration’s move to commercialize space travel, mainly because he is willing to make promises nobody else will. His working assumption appears to be that if he reduces prices far below what current launch providers are charging, that will unleash pent-up demand that will permit huge economies of scale in building and launching rockets. No doubt about it, we could definitely build launch vehicles more cheaply if customers were demanding a launch every other week. But the laws of physics aren’t going to change no matter how much demand spikes, and Musk’s track record to date is not encouraging….

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CCDev Awards: Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada

1:24 PT: Waiting for the telcon to begin….funky piano music plays….not space themed…what about Rocket Man? Major Tom? Mystery Science Theater 3000?

1:27 PT: E-mail said press release was to have been online earlier….no sight of it so far…

1:29 PT: Latin flavored guitar music….

1:30 PT: Here’s we go….

Philip McAlister….generic description of CCDEV….Space act agreements run from now until May 2012…discussions with 8 bidders….

— Blue Origin, Kent, Wash., $22 million – crew abort and spacecraft design and maturation
— Sierra Nevada Corporation, Louisville, Colo., $80 million — Dream Chaser spacecraft
— Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Hawthorne, Calif., $75 million – Dragon capsule and abort system
— The Boeing Company, Houston, $92.3 million – CST-100 spacecraft

Total: $270 million out of $312 million in CCDev program awarded to companies

Two capsules, lifting body and biphonic (sp?) vehicle….i.e., whatever the hell Blue Origin is working on….

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CSF Names Retired Admiral as New President

CSF PR — The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is pleased to announce that Rear Admiral Craig E. Steidle (U.S. Navy, Ret.) has been named as President, effective May 15. Admiral Steidle was approved for the position by a unanimous vote of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s board of directors and will serve full-time in this capacity working from the organization’s headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C.
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Space Glove Designer: From Angels to Astronauts

Supermodel Heidi Klum. (Credit: The Heart Truth)
Superdiva Gisele Bündchen. (Credit: Gabriel Marchi)

The New York Post has an interesting profile of Ted Southern, a Brooklyn fashion designer who has gone from making wings for angels to spacesuit gloves for astronauts. He talks about the challenges of both and dishes on Victoria’s Secret supermodels Heidi Klum and Gisele Bundchen. The Post reports:

Not surprisingly, one of his favorite jobs involved outfitting Heidi Klum in giant wings to go with her Victoria’s Secret lingerie. He has also helped put together her famously over-the-top Halloween costumes.

“Heidi is by far the best and easiest model to work with,” Southern reports. “She’s so animated and fun to be around. She’s friendly to everyone.”

Gisele Bundchen? Not so much.

“She’s really tough. She’s always screaming, ‘What the f–k is this?’ “

Southern won second place in the Astronaut Glove Challenge in 2009. This led to a NASA contract which enabled the designer to set up his own business to make gloves as well as a full spacesuits for commercial space travel.
“Hands are really critical in space, and the gloves were consistently a weak point,” Southern says. “You need more flexibility and more torque.”
Read the full story.

Space Access ’11: Charles Miller on Fuel Depots and Railroads

ULA fuel depot

Charles Miller
NASA

  • These remarks are his own only, they are not pre-approved and do not represent official NASA policy
  • “We are winning, although it may not be as fast as those in this room would like”
  • In the middle of a paradigm shift – very exciting time
  • Last year, read a book about the transcontinental railroad – Asa Whitney, brother of Eli – developed the idea of a private/public partnership to build a railroad across the country
  • When he proposed it in 1844, was laughed out of Congress by skeptics
  • Asa Whitney never got to build the railroad or see the golden spike driven into the ground in Utah, but he was right
  • Many people see the commercial space dream as similarly crazy — they’re wrong

Commercial Spacesuit Companies Compete for Market Share

The FAA’s 2011 U.S. Commercial Space Transportation Developments and Concepts: Vehicles, Technologies, and Spaceports report has a section that looks at commercial spacesuits being developed by American companies.

One of these companies, ILC Dover, has been building spacesuits for NASA for decades, producing the suits worn on the moon by Apollo astronauts and space shuttle astronauts. The David Clark Company has been around since 1941, producing pressure suits for Chuck Yeager, Gemini astronauts, and the space shuttle program. The third company, Orbital Outfitters, is a newcomer that is designing pressure suits for XCOR’s Lynx suborbital vehicle.

The relevant section from the report is reproduced after the break.

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FAA Solicit Proposals for Commercial Space Infrastructure Grants

DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
Federal Aviation Administration
Commercial Space Transportation Grants Program

ACTION: Notice of request for grant proposals for the Commercial Space Transportation Grant Program.

SUMMARY: This notice solicits Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 grant proposals to continue the development of a Commercial Space Transportation infrastructure system, which supports the National Space Policy and Congressional intent. Begun in 2010, the program supports the Commercial Space Transportation industry by identification, prioritization, and funding for Commercial Space Transportation infrastructure projects.

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Battling Bacchus’ Baffling BSlog*

Another day, another bewildering blog post in The Hill, this time courtesy of former Florida Congressman James Bacchus, who once represented the district that contains the Kennedy Space Center:

Yet, for all the considerable promise of private commercial space exploration, it is not at all clear that commercial rockets will be able to be “man-rated” by NASA to taxi astronauts any time soon.

Yes. Yes, they can be.

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The Space Review Looks at Commercial Space

This week in The Space Review….

Getting down to the nuts and bolts of suborbital research
Interest is using the new generation of commercial suborbital vehicles for scientific research has surged in the last couple of years. Jeff Foust reports that, at a recent conference, the focus of the discussion had shifted to more practical matters like training and payload interfaces.

Why commercial human spaceflight will be safer, less expensive, and necessary
Development of commercial crew transportation systems has been one of the biggest hot-button topics in spaceflight today. Owen Garriott and Alan Stern make the case for why such systems are vital to America’s future in space.

American leadership in space: leadership through capability
What does it mean for the United States to be a leader in space? Christopher Stone argues that such leadership must come from maintaining the country’s edge in spaceflight capabilities instead of relying on others.

Soyuz landing tests new systems and old secrecy habits
Later this week a new variant of the Soyuz spacecraft will undock from the ISS and return to Earth. James Oberg notes that concerns about technical glitches with the Soyuz have also raised concerns about the openness of the ISS partners.

A chance of a lifetime: the missions to Comet Halley
Twenty-five years ago today the Giotto spacecraft flew past the nucleus of Comet Halley, part of an international armada of spacecraft sent to study the comet. Andrew LePage examines the Soviet, Japanese, and European spacecraft sent on a one-in-a-lifetime mission.