Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Changing Business Of Getting Into Space

An Atlas V rocket launching the MAVEN mission to Mars. The Atlas V will play a role in major developments announced this week. Photo credit: NASA

After the usual summer lull, space policy events in DC are shifting back into gear. Several events I attended over the last couple of days coincided with a some major announcements that provided plenty of fodder for conversation.

Tuesday featured the long awaited announcement by NASA of its selection of companies to provide transportation of crewmembers to the International Space Station. NASA's selection of SpaceX and Boeing to provide crew transportation marks a milestone toward implementing the nation's commercial crew policy and in restoring full American access to space.

The FAA used the occasion of its Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meeting this week in Washington, DC to announce its decision to grant a spaceport license to Midland International Airport in Texas, where XCOR Aerospace is planning to establish operations and will be joined by supporting companies including Orbital Outfitters. Midland is the ninth spaceport to be licensed in the US and is the first where commercial space activities will coexist with regular scheduled airline service.

The most surprising announcement this week was the partnership between United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin to develop a version of Blue Origin's BE-4 rocket engine to eventually replace the Russian RD180 engine in ULA's Atlas V rocket that launches many US national security, NASA and commercial missions. The BE-4 is a 21st Century engine design that is in some ways simpler and more efficient than older American or Russian engines. The BE-4 is a liquid oxygen/methane engine that produces 2.45 million newtons (550,000 lbf.) of thrust and is designed to be reusable.

While ULA has not indicated any plans to use the reusability feature in its Atlas V launcher, the partnership provides Blue Origin with an infusion of cash plus the opportunity to gain significant flight experience with the BE-4 that can be applied to the company's own planned reusable launch vehicles. SpaceX, the main domestic competitor of ULA and Blue Origin, is already aggressively developing reusability into its vehicles. With a major part of the US launch industry developing reusable vehicle capabilities, launch companies in other nations are likely to step up their efforts in this direction. The end result of this competition will be that access to space will become significantly cheaper and humanity will move toward becoming a truly spacefaring civilization.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In Remembrance of September 11, 2001

U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Michael W. Pendergrass

Thirteen years ago today, I overheard a coworker down the hall from my office telling someone else about planes hitting the World Trade Center. I checked in on the Internet and on news radio for reports on what would develop into the the modern era's day of infamy. We know of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but there was also the attack that did not occur because of the heroic actions of the passengers on United Flight 93.

Thirteen years of daily living, along with increasing domestic rancor, may have dimmed the feelings of shock, horror, and outrage and the response of prayer, compassion, and resolve that united the people of America and most of the world. However, the current horrific events in the Middle East and the growing tensions and confrontations around the world serve to remind us that the threat is still real. We must not allow complacency or political correctness to distract us from recognizing the reality of the current danger.

This anniversary stirs abundant remembrance and reflection and many stirring pictorial and video items have appeared on the web and on Facebook. I still find this audio/visual Internet presentation developed by a New Yorker shortly after the attacks as one of the most powerful portrayals of those times. The sequence is ~15 minutes long and some of the images and sounds are quite disturbing, others are inspirational. (Use the browser View/Zoom function and adjust the scroll bar to enlarge the slide show.)

It is important that we remember, not only to honor those who died and those who acted heroically that day, but to remain constantly aware of the ongoing and growing dangers, of the presence of real evil in the hearts of some people, and to maintain constant vigilance and a determination to defeat this evil. Finally, we must always remember to trust in God and his mercy during trying times. The story of the cross formed by two beams found among the ruins of the twin towers is recounted here.