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Cosmic Space

Space plane’s schedule slips due to COVID

Sierra Nevada Corp. is closing in on the orbital debut of its Dream Chaser space plane, but the curtain-raiser will be later than previously planned, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The company had planned to send its first space-worthy Dream Chaser, dubbed Tenacity, on its first uncrewed cargo run to the International Space Station next year.

Then COVID-19 hit.

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Cosmic Space

Dragon’s crew hooks up with space station

After a 27-hour trip, three Americans and a Japanese spaceflier arrived at the International Space Station tonight for the first regular six-month tour of duty facilitated by a commercial space taxi.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which was christened Resilience, handled the docking autonomously. “Excellent job, right down the center,” NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins radioed down to ground controllers at SpaceX’s California headquarters.

“All for one, Crew-1 for all,” Japan’s Soichi Noguchi declared.

The Dragon’s four crew members floated through the hatch a couple of hours later. As he brought up the rear, Noguchi carried a Baby Yoda toy mascot, which served as the Dragon’s zero-G indicator for the Nov. 16 launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Hopkins, Noguchi and their crewmates — NASA astronauts Shannon Walker and Victor Glover — were greeted with smiles and hugs by the three spacefliers on the other side of the hatch: NASA’s Kate Rubins and Russia’s Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov.

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Cosmic Space

SpaceX kicks off its first certified crew flight to orbit

This is not a test: For the first time, a commercial space venture has sent astronauts on their way to the International Space Station for a regularly scheduled crew rotation.

Today’s launch of three Americans and a Japanese spaceflier in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, powered by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, followed the pattern set in May for the company’s first-ever crewed space mission. Like that earlier journey, this one is being funded by NASA at an estimated price of $55 million per seat.

But unlike May’s outing, this mission isn’t considered a test flight. Instead, it’s the first crewed SpaceX launch to be conducted under the terms of a post-certification contract with NASA. SpaceX’s space transportation system was officially certified for regular flights with astronauts last week — just in time for the flight known as Crew-1.

It’s also the first crewed orbital launch to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates commercial spaceflight. “This is a big night for many of us, and it’s a big night for the FAA,” the agency’s administrator, Steve Dickson, said at a post-launch briefing.

In response to issues that arose during the crewed test flight, SpaceX beefed up the Dragon’s heat shield and fine-tuned the triggering system for the parachutes used for the spacecraft’s at-sea homecoming.

The first opportunity for launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on Nov. 14, had to be put off for a day due to weather concerns — and when today’s countdown began, the chances of acceptable weather were rated at 50-50. But the weather improved, a glitch involving a hatch leak was quickly resolved, and the Falcon 9 rose from its launch pad into the night at 7:27 p.m. ET (4:27 p.m. PT.)

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, thousands watched the launch in person from Florida’s Space Coast. Hundreds of thousands watched streaming video coverage via NASA and SpaceX. Live coverage is scheduled to continue during the Dragon’s cruise to the space station.

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Cosmic Space

After 20 years, life on space station is due for a change

Twenty years ago today, the first crew moved into the International Space Station, kicking off what’s turned out to be the longest continuous stretch of habitation in any spacecraft. Now the space station is gearing up for another change of life.

The station’s first occupants — NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko — may not be as well known as, say, Neil Armstrong or John Glenn. But they did blaze a trail for the nearly 240 spacefliers from 19 countries who followed them to the orbital outpost.

Leading up to Nov. 2, 2000, the space station was envisioned as a steppingstone to the moon, Mars and beyond. Although the station never reached its potential as a literal way station for journeys beyond Earth orbit, NASA still talks up its value as a proving ground for future moon missions.

More than 3,000 science experiments have been conducted on the space station over the past 20 years, focusing on topics ranging from zero-G microbiology and plant growth to the ways in which long-duration spaceflight affects the human body and psyche. Perhaps the best-known experiment is the study that compared NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s in-flight health status with that of his earthbound twin brother, former astronaut (and current Senate candidate) Mark Kelly.

The study raised questions about the potential impact of weightlessness and space radiation on long-term spacefliers. Over the course of nearly a year in space, Scott Kelly was found to have developed a heightened immune response to his self-administered flu shot. His genes also recorded a higher level of DNA repair than his brother’s, and the patterns of gene expression changed (although he was still genetically identical to his twin brother, despite what you may have heard).

NASA ranks the experiment involving the Kelly twins among the top 20 breakthroughs in space station science and technology. But you could argue that the most significant space station experiments relate to commercialization on the final frontier.

Back in 2012, SpaceX’s robotic Dragon capsule became the first privately built, commercial spacecraft to rendezvous with and resupply the space station. This year, an upgraded SpaceX Dragon made history as the first private-sector spaceship to carry humans into orbit — with the space station as its destination.

So what’s next? Next year may well see the first filming of a big-budget Hollywood movie in orbit, starring Tom Cruise — courtesy of a startup called Axiom Space, acting in concert with NASA and SpaceX. Axiom aims to have its own habitation module affixed to the space station by as early as 2024, as a preparatory step for a standalone outpost in low Earth orbit.

Meanwhile, Texas-based Nanoracks is getting set to have its Bishop Airlock sent to the space station sometime in the next couple of  months, as part of a SpaceX Dragon shipment. Like Axiom’s habitation module, the commercial airlock is seen as an opening move that could eventually lead to free-flying orbital outposts.

Boeing, the prime commercial contractor for the space station, is part of the team for Axiom’s module as well as for Nanoracks’ airlock. (Seattle-based Olis Robotics and Stratolaunch have also been on Nanoracks’ outpost team.)

If commercial space ventures follow through on their ambitions, it may not be long before private-sector astronauts outnumber the space station’s government-supported crew, which has ranged between two and six over the past 20 years.

NASA’s current plan calls for commercial entities to take over management of the space station’s U.S. segment in the years ahead. Theoretically, that would free up government funding to focus on the next “steppingstone to the moon and Mars” — a moon-orbiting outpost known as the Gateway.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture may well play a part in building the Gateway, by virtue of its partnership with Maxar Technologies. Blue Origin has also floated its own proposal for an orbital outpost, and is leading a lunar lander consortium that includes Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. SpaceX and Boeing are sure to be in on the next steps in space exploration as well.

In the years ahead, will the International Space Station become a shopworn space arcade, replaying the latter days of Russia’s Mir space station? Will it be deorbited, following in Mir’s fiery footsteps? Or could the world’s first international outpost in space undergo the orbital equivalent of urban renewal, backed by private investment?

The space station’s status as a steppingstone to Mars may be fading fast. But its time as a steppingstone to commercial activities and a commercial workforce on the final frontier may be just starting.

Further reflections on 20 years of life on the space station:

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Cosmic Space

Boeing astronaut chooses family over Starliner flight

Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson, who commanded NASA’s final space shuttle mission nine years ago, says he’s passing up his chance to be on the first crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner space taxi next year.

Ferguson, who is director of mission integration and operations for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, tweeted that he’s taking on a “new mission” that prioritizes “my most important crew — my family.”

The 56-year-old former astronaut told Space News that he didn’t make his decision lightly: “It surrounds what has really amounted to a year that is replete with family obligations that I just do not want to risk missing,” he said. Among those obligations, according to The Associated Press, is his daughter’s wedding.

NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, who has served as a backup spaceflier during Starliner training, will take Ferguson’s place.

“Butch will be able to step in seamlessly, and his previous experience on both space shuttle and space station missions make him a valuable addition to this flight,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said in a news release.

The other astronauts due to make the trip to the International Space Station next year are NASA’s Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann. Fincke joined the crew last year when NASA astronaut Eric Boe had to bow out due to unspecified medical reasons.

Ferguson had been looking forward to his Starliner trip for years. He joined Boeing soon after his final shuttle flight in 2011 and played a high-profile role in the Starliner effort — going so far as to help CBS late-night host Stephen Colbert try on Boeing’s spacesuit in 2017.

If the development timeline for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner had been glitch-free, Ferguson and his crewmates might well have been in space by now. But last December, an uncrewed demonstration flight to the space station went awry due to software problems. As a result, NASA and Boeing had to pass up the station docking and end the flight early.

Meanwhile, SpaceX was able to proceed with the first crewed flight of its Crew Dragon capsule in May, beating Boeing to the punch.

After a months-long investigation, NASA and Boeing decided that another uncrewed test mission would have to be flown at Boeing’s expense. That mission is expected to take place late this year or early next year. If all goes well, a crewed flight will follow in mid-2021.

Ferguson said he has “full confidence in the Starliner vehicle, the men and women building and testing it, and the NASA astronauts who will ultimately fly it.” And he hinted that he wouldn’t mind getting another chance to go into space once he takes care of his family obligations.

“I’ve been asked what this means long-term: Does it mean that I’m leaving or does it mean that I’m staying and I just can’t do this,” he told Space News. “I just cannot launch next year. You can read into that as you see fit.”

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Cosmic Space

‘Space Hero’ aims for reality TV’s final frontier

Will “Space Hero” go where no reality TV show has gone before?

Twenty years after “Destination: Mir” promised to put the winning contestant of a broadcast TV competition into orbit, “Space Hero” aims to take advantage of new commercial spaceflight opportunities to follow through on that promise at last.

But cautionary tales abound.

“Destination: Mir,” created by “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett for NBC, fizzled out along with Russia’s Mir space station not long after the project was unveiled in 2000. A similar project, aimed at putting boy-band singer Lance Bass on the International Space Station, faded away in 2002 when producers couldn’t come up with the money.

The list goes on — highlighted by Mars One’s unsuccessful bid to get a Red Planet TV project off the ground, Burnett’s fruitless effort to create an NBC series focusing on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, soprano superstar Sarah Brightman’s abortive attempt to fly to the space station in 2015 and this year’s failure to launch for Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s space-based matchmaking show.

One British TV series, “Space Cadets,” told contestants that they were being trained for a space shot but actually set them up for one of the most elaborate hoaxes in television history.

This time will be different, said veteran entertainment industry executive Marty Pompadur, the chairman of Space Hero LLC.

“Space Hero is the new frontier for the entertainment sector, offering the first-ever truly off-planet experience,” Pompadur said today in a news release. “We aim to reinvent the reality TV category by creating a multi-channel experience that offers the biggest prize ever, to the biggest audience possible. Space Hero is about opening space up to everyone — not only to astronauts and billionaires.”

The show would trace the training of contestants for a spot on a spacecraft heading to the space station as early as 2023. Axiom Space, a commercial venture that has already struck a deal with NASA and SpaceX for a privately funded space trip, would be in charge of training and mission management. A global audience would cast votes to pick the winner, and there’d be live coverage of the 10-day space stay.

Space Hero says it’s currently in discussions with NASA for a potential partnership that would include educational initiatives. A countdown clock on the company’s webpage is ticking down to April 12, 2021, which marks the scheduled kickoff for the application process as well as the 60th anniversary of the world’s first human spaceflight.

The venture’s founding partners are Thomas Reemer, who has produced unscripted video programming in Germany; and Deborah Sass, whose career has focused on entertainment and lifestyle branding.

“When Thomas and I started this venture, we were very clear that there was nothing like it on the planet,” Sass said. “Today we have started our mission to find our distribution partner and are ready to take it to the next stage and get the world excited about Space Hero.”

The project is being produced by Propagate Content, a company founded by Ben Silverman and Howard T. Owens. Those executives have a storied pedigree in the entertainment industry, touching on shows ranging from “The Office” to an upcoming Eurovision spin-off series called “The American Song Contest.”

Will “Space Hero” succeed where past space TV projects failed? Those past efforts went by the wayside primarily because of a lack of funding. Potential distributors and sponsors have traditionally been chary about backing entertainment projects that could turn into a scrub — or, far worse, a Challenger-style tragedy.

Spaceflight doesn’t come cheap: The projected ticket price for flying commercially to the space station on a SpaceX Dragon or a Boeing Starliner is thought to be in the range of $50 million to $60 million, and NASA has said it’d charge roughly $35,000 a day on top of that cost for a space station stay.

But if projects that are already in the pipeline for space station stardom — such as Estee Lauder’s skin care ad campaign or the granddaddy of them all, Tom Cruise’s zero-G movie — turn into palpable, profitable hits, then it just might be time to put “Space Hero” on your appointment calendar for must-see space TV.

Update for 5 p.m. PT Sept. 17: I asked Hannah Walsh, who is handling public affairs for Space Hero, about the venture’s funding. Here’s her emailed reply:

“Space Hero is currently in the second stage of fundraising, which is exactly where they should be in the plan, and [they] are very comfortable with where they are in the process. Contracts have been signed with all partners and the next step is to evaluate the distribution offers and choose the relationship that best suits the project. Potential investors can find out more by contacting investment firm Gerald Edelman.”

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GeekWire

NASA astronauts splash down in SpaceX Dragon capsule

The first mission to send NASA astronauts into orbit on a commercially owned spaceship came back down to Earth today with the splashdown of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in the Gulf of Mexico.

“On behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” Mike Heiman, a lead member of SpaceX’s operations team, told astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

The splashdown closed out a 64-day mission to the International Space Station, aimed at testing the first SpaceX Dragon to carry crew. The reusable spacecraft, which put 27.1 million miles on its orbital odometer, was dubbed Endeavour as a tribute to earlier spaceships.

In May, Endeavour’s launch atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket made history, and today’s return to Earth did as well: It was the first time since 1975 that a crewed NASA spacecraft returned to Earth at sea, and the first-ever space landing in the Gulf of Mexico.

The splashdown marked the completion of the first mission to launch astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil since NASA’s final space shuttle flight in 2011.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Astronauts dodge hurricane for Dragon homecoming

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule pulled away from the International Space Station today to begin the homeward flight for NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, even as Hurricane Isaias headed for Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Fortunately, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is heading for waters off Florida’s other coast.

Dragon Endeavour undocked from the station at 7:35 p.m. ET (4:35 p.m. PT), on track for a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Fla., at 2:48 p.m. ET (11:48 a.m. PT) Sunday. The alternate landing site is closer to Panama City, Fla.

Both sites should be far away from Isaias’ expected track along the United States’ Atlantic seaboard, and the timetable could be adjusted if the weather forecast changes. NASA and SpaceX had made plans for seven potential splashdown targets, but due to Isaias’ strength, NASA concentrated on the westernmost sites.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Russians give their OK for selling a spacewalk

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Russian space officials say that they’ve signed off on a commercial deal with Virginia-based Space Adventures to fly two customers to the International Space Station in 2023 — and that one of those customers would be allowed to do a spacewalk.

Space Adventures’ co-founder and chairman, Eric Anderson, told GeekWire that the company is now checking to see who’s interested.

“There is no specific client who’s been contracted for this one,” said Anderson, who has his office in Bellevue even though Space Adventures is headquartered in Virginia. “We’re looking for clients.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Virgin Galactic, NASA team up for orbital space trips

Charles Simonyi
Seattle billionaire Charles Simonyi took two privately funded trips to the International Space Station, in 2007 and 2009. (NASA Photo via Space Adventures)

Virgin Galactic says it has signed an agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas to develop a new readiness program for private-sector astronauts heading to the International Space Station.

Theoretically, such astronauts could include the likes of Tom Cruise, who is looking into making a movie at the space station, according to NASA. “I’m all for that,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said last month. “We’re going to do what we can to make that happen.”

Virgin Galactic declined to comment on which customers or companies it might be partnering with, but the company said the newly established program would identify candidates interested in purchasing a ride to the space station, procure their transportation to orbit, and arrange for on-orbit resources as well as resources on the ground.

Some elements of the orbital training program would make use of Spaceport America in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic’s base for commercial space operations.

Get the full story on GeekWire.