Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Antares Launch, The Mid-Atlantic Space Coast And The 21st Century Space Age

The Antares rocket clears the launch pad on its way to orbit. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Sunday's launch of the Antares rocket, developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation, was a significant step toward achieving NASA's goal of acquiring a second American provider of commercial delivery of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).  It was also a significant step for the Mid-Atlantic region, in particular the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, in participating in the the growing 21st Century Space Age which is based on increased partnership among commercial, government and international players.

Orbital will now proceed to a demonstration of its Cygnus spacecraft delivering cargo to the ISS, tentatively scheduled for late June. The Cygnus demonstration will complete NASA's  Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program and Orbital will then join another company, SpaceX, in providing this service over the next several years under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. NASA is also partnering with several companies, including SpaceX, to develop commercial crew transportation to ISS, however Orbital has no plans to compete to provide that service.

This launch was a significant step not only for the Antares rocket and the commercial supply of cargo to ISS. It opens a wider future to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), colocated at the NASA facility at Wallops Island, VA. Located on the Eastern Shore shared by Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, the NASA Wallops Flight Facility has hosted suborbital and small orbital launches for decades, but Antares is the largest rocket ever to launch from this site and is comparable to the medium lift rockets that have frequently launched from  Cape Canaveral, FL.

Along with providing cargo resupply to the ISS, Orbital hopes to market the Antares to other government and commercial customers, launching out of Wallops and other sites. Meanwhile, the company will use its Minotaur V rocket to launch NASA's LADEE spacecraft to orbit the Moon. This mission is scheduled to launch from Wallops in August.

With a growing list of private ventures to explore the Moon, asteroids and even Mars, the MARS at Wallops Island is in a position to participate in these ventures. The runway at Wallops could also eventually host suborbital companies such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR carrying researchers and tourists into space for brief flights.

The area around Wallops includes Chincoteague, a laid back resort town most famous for the wild ponies residing on the nearby wildlife refuge. The surrounding area is largely rural and is facing trying economic times. The communities are excited about the new business and jobs the spaceport is bringing to the area. Other nearby Virginia and Maryland communities, including Ocean City, MD, a major family vacation resort, stand to benefit from the high tech jobs and additional tourism the spaceport will generate.

This area could become known as the Mid-Atlantic Space Coast as the activity and excitement at Wallops Island grow in the new and dynamic 21st Century Space Age.

NOTE: I observed the launch on Sunday from a site ~ 3 miles from the launch pad. Here is the amateur video I took of this historic launch. The first noise you hear is the wind, but the rocket's roar can be heard after launch.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

FY2014 Budget And Asteroid Retrieval

Asteroid retrieval mission concept: Image Credit: NASA/Advanced Concepts Lab

More than two months overdue, the Obama Administration released its FY2014 budget proposal yesterday. The proposed budget is already being picked over from left and right over its priorities and levels of spending and taxes.

The proposed budget for NASA is $17.7 billion, covering a range of programs including human and robotic exploration International Space Station (ISS) and associated commercial crew and cargo resupply, Earth science, aeronautics, technology development, etc. The most intriguing item is a new program to go and retrieve a small asteroid and park it in a stable orbit near or around the Moon, where it could be more easily accessed by astronauts to investigate the object hands-on. This proposal has the support of the two major asteroid mining ventures, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, provided NASA engages the commercial sector in a major way in carrying out this mission.

Some lawmakers are skeptical about the asteroid retrieval proposal, saying they'd prefer more emphasis on a return to the Moon. Achievement of either of these goals would probably depend on NASA engaging the private sector in a large way, as it has done for ISS cargo resupply and crew transfer, in order to accomplish missions at lower costs in what may be a long term tight fiscal environment.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Sine Die: The Circus on the Severn Folds Its Tent

The Maryland General Assembly adjourned last night after its ninety-day rampage. Governor Martin O'Malley was eager to start signing the torrent of legislation. Higher taxes and gun control are two of the high - err, mostly low-lights of this year's ninety-day session.

The repeal of the death penalty is one move I tend to support because its deterrent effect is doubtful while the risk of executing the innocent is real. While the death penalty may not be essential to defending members of society, allowing them to defend themselves and others through exercising their Second Amendment rights is essential. The Second Amendment v. gun control question will remain among the most contentious issues in the state and in the nation.