November 27, 2010

The Real Story Behind NASA’s Resurrected X-34 Space Plane (Source: WIRED)
The space press buzzed last week when NASA quietly moved its two long-grounded X-34 spaceplanes from storage at the agency’s Dryden center to a test pilot school in the Mojave Desert. At the desert facility, the mid-’90s-vintage X-34s would be inspected to determine if they were capable of flying again. It seemed that NASA was eying a dramatic return to the business of fast, cheap space access using a reusable, airplane-style vehicle — something the Air Force has enthusiastically embraced with its mysterious X-37B spacecraft.

The truth is a bit more complicated. An Orbital official said “[NASA] might be just trying get it out of Edwards’ valuable real estate." In fact, real estate has been a factor in the X-34s’ moves over the years, Dryden official Alan Brown said. After the program’s termination, NASA transferred the prototype vehicles to the Air Force, “which thought it might use them but never did,...When the Air Force needed room in the hangar, [the X-34s] were moved to a bombing range and sat out there deteriorating for several years.” Earlier this year NASA moved them back to Dryden.

The idea to ship the X-34s to Mojave was "to see if it could be refurbished and made flightworthy.” Provided they’re in flyable shape, it’s far more likely the space agency will make the X-34s available to private industry. “There are a number of firms interested in these things, developing communications and other technologies,” Brown said. “It would be helpful if they had a vehicle.” Brown implied he was trying to downplay the X-34s’ possible resurrection, but his reference to private industry hints at a far more exciting future for the space planes than would be likely in NASA service. (11/27)

European Space Ministers Emphasize Space-Based Infrastructure (Source: Space Policy Online)
The space ministers of the European Union (EU) and European Space Agency (ESA) met on Nov. 25 in Brussels for the seventh time since the two organizations signed a framework agreement in 2004. The two groups have overlapping, but not identical, memberships. The EU is a political body, while ESA is technical. The two have worked together on the European Galileo navigation satellite system and the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program for several years.

The Space Council meeting took place as part of a meeting of the Council of the European Union on "Competitiveness (Internal Market, Industry, Research and Space)." A press release from the EU said that the Council "endorsed a resolution on the orientations to be taken so that Europe can continue to develop world-class space infrastructures and applications, and to rely on efficient space systems to serve its citizens." The Galileo and GMES programs were given special emphasis. (11/27)

Circular Patterns in Background Radiation Suggest Big Bang Was Latest of Many (Source: Science News)
Most cosmologists trace the birth of the universe to the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. But a new analysis of the relic radiation generated by that explosive event suggests the universe got its start eons earlier and has cycled through myriad episodes of birth and death, with the Big Bang merely the most recent in a series of starting guns.

Researchers base their findings on circular patterns they discovered in the cosmic microwave background, the ubiquitous microwave glow left over from the Big Bang. The circular features indicate that the cosmos itself circles through epochs of endings and beginnings. (11/27)

Joint Space Programs Seldom Save Money, Report Says (Source: Space News)
Although constrained budgets may spur U.S. federal agencies to establish collaborative space missions, these joint ventures are inherently more complex and result in higher overall costs than independent projects, according to a report released Nov. 23 by the National Research Council (NRC).

The report’s primary recommendation is that agencies avoid collaborative Earth-observing or space science missions, said Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-chairman of the NRC committee that drafted the report, “Assessment of Impediments to Interagency Collaboration on Space and Earth Science Missions.” (11/27)

Chinese Communications Craft Rides Long March Rocket (Source:
China orbited a military communications satellite Wednesday on a Long March rocket, continuing the country's busiest year of space launches since the Chinese space program dawned more than four decades ago. The Long March 3A rocket launched Wednesday from the Xichang space base in southwestern China's Sichuan province. It was just after midnight Thursday morning at the launch site. (11/27)

Tech Transfer Seen as a Cost of Winning Business (Source: Space News)
The most successful Earth observation satellite builder on the global market, Astrium of Europe, is willing to accept that 20 percent of its contracts’ value goes to transferring technology to customer nations and ultimately may undermine future Astrium business, a senior Astrium official said. Astrium makes a conscious effort to limit the amount of technology it inadvertently gives to customers. But some contracts, most recently one with the government of Kazakhstan, stipulate that the winning bidder must train local engineers in satellite production and satellite imagery analysis. (11/27)

Space Tourism Attracts Silicon Valley Leaders (Source: Silicon Valley Mercury News)
With a boost from several prominent Internet figures, space tourism is becoming a big business, even though significant technical, business and political hurdles remain before it becomes a regular -- and commercially viable -- occurrence. Virgin Galactic says it has the clear lead among a growing number of companies that hope to establish space as a tourist destination, but a host of other companies hope to launch even more ambitious -- and expensive -- space tourism voyages.

SpaceX has a key test scheduled for Dec. 7, when it tries to become the first private business to do what only six government agencies around the world have achieved -- fly a space capsule into orbit and then recover it safely back on Earth. For about $20 million, SpaceX ultimately hopes to carry paying passengers into orbit. Boeing, using a seven-passenger space capsule that could be available by 2015, will provide trips on a new seven-passenger capsule to NASA's space station, or to a private space station being developed by Bigelow Aerospace. Blue Origin, which is bankrolled by founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, is also working on a suborbital passenger rocket. (11/27)

Space Adventures Builds Multi-Vehicle Backlog of Space Tourists (Source: Silicon Valley Mercury News)
Space Adventures has already sent eight paying passengers into space using Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin is first in line for a future flight to orbit. Now, the company is advertising a trip around the moon for two paying passengers, which could happen in three to four years at $100 million a seat, a trip to the moon is a bit steep, but it's less than one Silicon Valley tycoon spent trying to get to Sacramento.

Space Adventures is also working with a Texas company, Armadillo Aerospace, to develop a rocket that would carry private passengers on a suborbital trip like Virgin Galactic's. A Space Adventures official said the company has more than 100 Armadillo flight reservations at $110,000 a trip. "We hope to beat Virgin to it, but that's part of the fun at the moment," he said. "This is now really hard cash that is going into these projects, where people will start to fly on those vehicles in the next few years. Is it one year? Is three? Is it five? I don't know. But there is an inflection point where these ideas have got the money they need in order to succeed." (11/27)

Masten Plans Mojave Test Flights Before Florida Mission(s) (Source: Space News)
Michael Mealling, Masten’s vice president for business development, said in October the company would conduct its first test flight of its Xaero vertical takeoff, vertical launching vehicle in November from the company’s test site at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Following that independently financed flight, Masten planned to conduct two NASA-funded flights in December that will send Xaero to a height of 5 kilometers.

Masten’s flight-test schedule has since slipped about a month to the right. Masten was selected by NASA in November to share $475,000 with Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace to conduct flight demonstrations under the U.S. space agency’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program. Masten’s portion was $250,000. (11/27)

Sarah Palin Talks NASA in New Book (Source: Space Politics)
Former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's new book spends a little over a page talking about space policy-—or, more accurately, contrasting the policies of the 1960s with what she considers the diminished horizons of today. She describes watching the Apollo 11 landing on a black-and-white TV set. “As with Theodore Roosevelt, JFK’s ambition to put a man on the moon perfectly captured a nation that feared neither hard work nor failure.”

Today’s “national leaders”, though, she claims, lack “Kennedy’s confidence and brio”. “Instead of announcing ambitious new goals for the space program, we have the head of NASA telling Arab television that his agency’s ‘foremost’ goal, according to President Obama’s instruction, is ‘to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science and math and engineering.’” That’s a reference to NASA chief Charles Bolden’s now-infamous interview with al-Jazeera.

The passage, though, doesn’t mention that the administration later said that Bolden misspoke and that such outreach was not NASA’s primary mission. It’s also unclear, from Palin’s claim that the administration hasn’t declared “ambitious new goals for the space program”, whether she is unaware of NASA’s new direction, including the goals announced by President Obama in his April 15th speech at the Kennedy Space Center, or if she doesn’t consider them sufficiently ambitious. (11/27)

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