Commercial Space: Lunar and LEO

Armadillo Aerospace qualifies at Level 2 for Lunar X Prize:

As part of the X PRIZE Foundation’s Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, Armadillo Aerospace, led by id Software founder John Carmack, successfully flew its lunar Lander rocket vehicle, “Scorpius,” twice in two hours, flying between a pair of landing pads to qualify for the $1 million top prize purse. This milestone event in privately funded space activity once again demonstrates the value of prizes to stimulate innovation. Other entrants in the competition will have the opportunity over the next several weeks to accomplish the same feat, but Armadillo’s flights mean it is certain NASA’s Centennial Challenges Program and the X PRIZE Foundation will be giving away at least $1 million before year’s end.

These successful flights underscore last week’s report to President Obama by the Augustine Commission, which called for increased commercial sector participation both in orbital operations and NASA’s efforts to reach the Moon by 2020.

In order to meet the requirements of Level 2 of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, the Scorpius vehicle had to simulate a full lunar lander mission with a flight profile that closely simulates the task of descending from lunar orbit to the lunar surface, refueling, and returning to lunar orbit. To match the performance of such a mission here on Earth, the vehicle was required to ascend to a height of 50 meters, translate horizontally to a landing pad 50 meters away, land safely on a rocky lunar-replica surface after at least 180 seconds of flight time, and then to repeat the flight by returning to the original launch site. The two flights of Scorpius, which weighs about 1900 pounds when fully loaded with its ethanol and liquid oxygen propellant, took place Sept. 12th at the Caddo Mills Municipal Airport in Texas, where Armadillo Aerospace’s facilities are based.

Does this mean that Armadillo is ready to send a probe to the Moon?

No. But the test proves that they might be able to send one there about the time the Chinese do.

Armadillo Aerospace Makes Record-Breaking Rocket Flights to Qualify for $1 Million NASA PRIZE Presented by X PRIZE Foundation

Speaking of commercial space enterprises, could NASA be taking a huge risk by contracting out all LEO (Low Earth Orbit) activities to private industry?

Will companies like SpaceX, Bigelow, Virgin and Almaz be up to the task?

The Augustine committee’s findings are good news for commercial launch providers. Most of the committee’s exploration scenarios would rely on the private sector to carry both cargo and crew to low Earth orbit. The committee recognized, however, that there is risk in such reliance, so they urged the development of new and stronger incentives for the launch industry. Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin offered a blunt assessment of this commercial approach, calling it “irresponsible” in a widely-read memo after the report’s release last week and, in earlier remarks to the committee, declared that the private sector shouldn’t be entrusted with our nation’s sole capability for human spaceflight.

Griffin makes a valid point. Relying on one or two companies for this strategically important capability could prove disastrous, especially given the fact that no company has yet demonstrated that they are up to the challenge. Can the government provide enough incentives for this industry to develop and thrive? Would a handful of government-sponsored missions to the International Space Station each year be enough of a market to sustain the industry or keep their prices affordable?

 

We could look to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program for an example. Like Griffin’s view of human spaceflight, the Air Force considers access to space for satellites to be a strategic capability that must be maintained by the government. However, the Air Force decided long ago not to design and operate their own launch vehicles. They recognized that big aerospace/defense contractors had sufficient expertise to do the job, and they gambled that these contractors would remain healthy and provide competitive pricing by tapping into the commercial satellite launch market.

As it turned out, the launch companies were indeed able to meet the Air Force’s launch requirements, but have been unable (some would say unwilling) to leverage the commercial satellite business. Given the prices the government was willing to pay for Delta 4 and Atlas 5 launches, and the (some would say onerous) schedule and operating requirements laid out by the Air Force, the companies have had little incentive to chase additional commercial business. The result has been steady increases in EELV costs and an almost complete lack of commercial launches at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport.

So would NASA be in the same boat if they contracted out for commercial crew flights to the International Space Station? Perhaps. Industry groups like the Commercial Spaceflight Federation say NASA’s decision to purchase commercial crew flights would jump-start multiple new markets in Low Earth Orbit, and the Augustine committee seems to agree. According to commercial launch advocates, the situation is not unlike the startup of commercial aviation after the government decided to contract for air mail service. No one doubts that commercial companies will soon be technically capable of supporting human spaceflight, the question is whether NASA would ultimately be saddled with the responsibility for maintaining (some would say subsidizing) this third-party capability, much like the Air Force now does for the EELV rockets.

NASA’s civilian space program is a joke anyway, with it’s chemical rocket redux, so why not let commercial companies handle it?

If it’s safety they’re worried about, let the FAA and the NTSB handle pre-flight inspections along with the company astronauts.

We can’t get to the Moon any slower anyhow, can we?

Can we sustain a commercial launch industry to meet NASA’s needs?

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