Cosmic Space

Sierra Nevada Corp. lays out its space station plan

Sierra Nevada Corp. is lifting the curtain higher on its vision for a space ecosystem featuring its orbital space planes and inflatable habitats — a vision that it says could become a reality by 2028 if NASA signs onto a public-private partnership.

This week’s big reveal at SNC Space Systems’ development center in Louisville, Colo., comes as NASA is seeking input about plans for putting commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, or LEO. NASA’s current plan calls for keeping the International Space Station in operation until at least 2028.

By the time the ISS is retired, the space agency would like to have other destinations available in LEO for astronaut training and research.

“Commercial destinations are a critical piece of our robust and comprehensive plan for transitioning low Earth orbit toward more commercial operations,” Angela Hart, NASA’s program manager for the Commercial LEO Development Program, said in a news release. “This strategy provides us and industry the best path for success.”

That’s where SNC hopes to fill a role. The company already has a deal with NASA to conduct at least seven resupply missions to the International Space Station, using an uncrewed version of its reusable Dream Chaser space plane. If all goes according to plan, the first of those flights would be sent to orbit atop United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket in 2022.

SNC has continued to work on other elements of space infrastructure, including a crewed version of the Dream Chaser and inflatable modules that could provide living quarters in space or on the moon.


SpaceX wins cargo contract for NASA’s Gateway

SpaceX Dragon XL
An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s Dragon XL cargo ship as it is deployed from the Falcon Heavy’s second stage in high Earth orbit, on its way to the Gateway in lunar orbit. (SpaceX Illustration)

NASA has tapped a type of SpaceX cargo craft that hasn’t yet been built to deliver supplies to a moon-orbiting outpost that hasn’t yet been launched.

SpaceX’s robotic Dragon XL, a cylindrical, supersized version of its workhorse Dragon spacecraft, will handle shipments to the Gateway space platform as the first commercial provider to receive a Gateway Logistics Services contract from NASA.

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Space agencies focus on their Gateway roles

Jim Bridenstine at IAC
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is surrounded by top officials from other space agencies as he talks about what lies ahead for NASA and its partners on the final frontier. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Not everyone has signed on the dotted line to join NASA’s plan to start sending astronauts to the moon in 2024 via an outpost in lunar orbit known as the Gateway, but the world’s leading space agencies are already staking out their roles.

Russia, for example, plans to work on its own space transportation system that would parallel NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule. Europe and Japan are planning to provide logistical support for space operations. And Canada will be supplying the Gateway’s robotic arm.

Space agency officials laid out the status of their plans for the final frontier today during a panel discussion and follow-up news briefing at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington.

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Buzz Aldrin makes waves with latest moon vision

Buzz Aldrin
During a discussion presented by the International Academy of Astronautics in Washington, D.C., Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin recalls how enthusiastically he and his crewmates were greeted during a post-mission goodwill tour.(GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin says there’s no need for the lunar-orbiting Gateway outpost that plays a key role in NASA’s vision to land astronauts on the moon by 2024.

Instead, he envisions a differently configured transportation system that makes use of commercial rockets under the leadership of a “Space Exploration Alliance” that includes China as well as NASA’s current partners.

“I’m not a big fan of the Gateway,” Aldrin said today during a panel discussion presented by the International Academy of Astronautics in conjunction with this week’s International Astronautical Congress in Washington. “I do not believe we need a permanent structure around the moon.”

Aldrin sided with critics who say the Gateway’s benefits as a way station for moon-bound astronauts are outweighed by its limitations and its multibillion-dollar cost.

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Maxar to build the first piece of lunar Gateway

Power and Propulsion Element
An artist’s conception shows the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element with its solar electric propulsion system in action. (Maxar / Business Wire Illustration)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine today announced that the first major component for a future mini-space station in lunar orbit will be provided by Maxar Technologies, formerly known as SSL.

“The contractor that will be building that element is … drum roll … Maxar,” Bridenstine said during a talk at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, south of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “Maxar is going to be building that for the United States of America.”

Colorado-based Maxar will build the Power and Propulsion Element, or PPE, which will house the 50-kilowatt solar electric propulsion system as well as the communications relay system for the Gateway space platform. “It will be the key component upon which we will build our lunar Gateway outpost, the cornerstone of NASA’s sustainable and reusable Artemis exploration architecture on and around the moon,” Bridenstine said in a NASA news release.

The Gateway is destined to be the staging point for astronauts heading down to the lunar surface by as early as 2024. To meet that five-year deadline, the Gateway will have only one other component by that time, known as the mini-habitation module. NASA and its international partners expect to add more modules in the years that follow, leading up to a “sustainable” lunar presence by 2028.

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Blue Origin gets in on lunar lander studies

Lunar landing system
An artist’s conception shows a landing system in lunar orbit. (NASA Illustration)

It’s almost as if Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos knew what was coming: His Blue Origin space venture is among 11 companies selected by NASA to conduct studies and produce prototypes of spacecraft that could carry astronauts down to the moon’s south polar region and back up by 2024.

Only a week earlier, Bezos unveiled a full-scale mockup of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander, which is designed to deliver payload or people to the lunar surface, as part of his vision to get millions of people living and working in space. At the time, he noted NASA’s accelerated plan to put humans on the moon within five years.

“I love this,” Bezos said. “It’s the right thing to do. For those of you doing the arithmetic at home, that’s 2024. We can help meet that timeline, but only because we started three years ago.”

Now the world’s richest person will be able to use some of NASA’s money to help make it so. In today’s announcement of the selection, NASA said $45.5 million would be awarded to the 11 companies under the terms of NextSTEP E contracts.

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VP Mike Pence revs up lunar gateway’s schedule

Mike Pence at JSC
Vice President Mike Pence is flanked by portraits of NASA’s Orion space capsule and a space station in lunar orbit as he speaks at Johnson Space Center in Texas. (NASA via YouTube)

During a pep talk to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, Vice President Mike Pence today highlighted what he saw as the mistakes of past space policy and touted an ambitious plan to put American astronauts on a new space station in lunar orbit by the end of 2024.

Pence said the Trump administration was working with Congress on a $500 million initiative to move NASA’s Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway “from proposal to production.” The first element of the outpost, known as the Power and Propulsion Element, is due for launch in 2022.

NASA’s first crewed launch of its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket is currently scheduled for 2023. That mission would send astronauts around the moon and back in an Orion deep-space capsule. Pence suggested that a follow-up SLS launch would send astronauts to dock with the Gateway sometime during the following year.

“Our administration is working tirelessly to put an American crew aboard the Lunar Orbital Platform before the end of 2024. … It’s not a question of if. It’s just a question of when,” Pence told the audience at Johnson Space Center.

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NASA puts out the call for Gateway’s first element

Solar electric propulsion
An artist’s conception shows a spacecraft that incorporates a solar electric propulsion system. (NASA Illustration)

NASA has laid out its plan for acquiring the first piece of its successor to the International Space Station, an outpost known as the Gateway that will be stationed in lunar orbit.

A draft solicitation, published today, calls for commercial partners to build one or more candidates to serve as the Gateway’s power and propulsion element, with launch set for 2022.

The Power and Propulsion Element would have a high-power, 50-kilowatt solar electric propulsion system capable of maintaining the Gateway’s position and moving it between different lunar orbits as needed. The spacecraft would also serve as the Gateway’s communications hub.

There’s be an in-space flight demonstration of the commercial spacecraft, lasting for up to a year. Then NASA could exercise an option to acquire one spacecraft for use as the first element of the Gateway.

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SNC gears up to build spaceship (and space station)

Dream Chaser
Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser atmospheric test vehicle is on display at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Sierra Nevada Corp. is showing off a prototype of its Dream Chaser space plane, but its focus is quickly shifting to building the real thing to send to orbit.

And as if that’s not enough, there’s an orbital power plant and space habitat to work on as well.

SNC executives provided what they promised would be a series of status reports today here at the 34th Space Symposium, in front of the engineering test vehicle for the Dream Chaser program.

The 30-foot-long, stubby-winged plane was built for atmospheric tests, to check the aerodynamics and flight control systems for an autonomous mini-space shuttle that will be capable of ferrying cargo to and from the International Space Station starting in 2020.

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NanoRacks plans to turn rockets into space outposts

NanoRacks space outpost
Artwork shows a Centaur upper stage that’s been converted into an outpost. (NanoRacks Illustration)

Don’t call them commercial space stations, or gateways, or portals. NanoRacks is laying claim to a different moniker for its new breed of refurbished orbital modules.

“We like ‘outposts,’” NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber told GeekWire.

The space outposts that Manber has in mind, at least to start out with, are converted Centaur upper stages — the rocket boosters that sit atop the first stage of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket.

NanoRacks’ concept calls for refurbishing the insides of a Centaur upper stage after it’s finished delivering an Atlas payload to its proper orbit, so that it can be reused as an orbital habitat. The work could be done by a crew on the International Space Station, or by a robot.

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