Cargo's final frontier
NASA is so far reported to have invested $380 million in SpaceX under a separate funding program, Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, while the company and its external investors have put in around $700 million. Elon Musk, the company’s chief executive and chief designer, recently addressed a media conference about the impending flight.
“This is a test flight, and we may not succeed in getting all the way to the Space Station,” he said. “I think we’ve got a pretty good shot, but it’s important to acknowledge that a lot can go wrong.
“The Space Station is going around the Earth at 17,000 mph, 12 times faster than a bullet from an assault rifle, and you’ve got to be tracking it to within inches for rendezvous,” he continued.
The second commercial party, Orbital, is a few months behind the SpaceX schedule, but hopes to testfire its Antares rocket this summer, followed by a demonstration mission to the ISS with the Cygnus capsule attached in the fourth quarter. Its launch site is the NASA operated Wallops Island facility near Washington, D.C.; the first live CRS mission is currently planned for early next year. The company’s three-part system for CRS comprises Antares, Cygnus and a pressurized cargo module developed by Orbital’s industrial partner, Thales Alenia Space. With this equipment, Orbital will be able to deliver up to 2,700 kilograms of pressurized cargo to the ISS. The single-use system will pick up waste from the station and burn up on reentry.
Antares will put satellites and other payloads into a variety of low-Earth and geosynchronous transfer orbits. Orbital is offering this facility to civil government, military and intelligence, and commercial customers, and has a 10-launch backlog.
A number of other private concerns are in the long-term mix to fly people and cargo into space. XCOR Aerospace and Virgin Galactic were among seven companies chosen by NASA in August 2011 to receive two years of financial support for further research into delivering cargo, initially to the edge of space, on reusable vehicles. NASA’s aim is to be able to draw from a wider pool of companies for payload integration and flight services. The seven firms are sharing $10 million of seed funding via the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Flight Opportunities program.
XCOR, based in Mojave, Calif., has spent the last seven years developing the Lynx, a piloted, two-seat, fully reusable rocket-powered vehicle that takes off and lands horizontally. The company, backed by high-profile investors, including top Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and former venture capitalists, aims to make a short debut test flight later this year or in early 2013.
“Over the following 12-to-18 months, we will gradually expand the envelope of flight until we are performing the full mission profile,” explains the company’s Mike Massee. The Lynx Mark I prototype vehicle is designed to achieve an altitude of 61 kilometers. “This is generally recognized, in civilian terms, as the edge of space, and 99.9999 percent of Earth’s atmosphere is below you,” Massee says.
The first production model, Lynx Mark II, will be able to reach 100 kilometers and will service both the suborbital tourism market and scientific/commercial markets. Envisioned to enter service by 2015 or 2016, it will be FAA- /AST-licensed and will operate like an aircraft up to four times per day. It will initially fly from Mojave Air and Space Port, in clear weather only on visual flight rules — in practice, it can operate through any licensed spaceport with a 2,400-meter runway.
The spacecraft is designed for low-cost operation, with the capability of a full turnaround in as little as two hours. The craft will also be available for wet lease. It can carry small payloads in its pressurized cabin. A later Mark III version will additionally carry an external dorsal pod with a payload capacity for experimental apparatus of 650 kilograms. The Lynx family of vehicles will offer the opportunity for research and scientific missions, private spaceflight, and micro-satellite launch.