SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Awarded NASA Contracts: $3.5 Billion Total

SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS (SpaceX)
SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS (SpaceX)

NASA has just signed two very large cheques for two private spaceflight companies, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corporation. The contracts will allow private launches to re-supply the International Space Station beyond Shuttle decommissioning in 2010, and SpaceX claims they could be doing it by next year.

These contracts represent some of the largest ever given to private enterprise, and demonstrates the trust the US space agency is placing in these space start-ups. The contracts are worth $3.5 billion combined; $1.9 billion for Orbital Sciences and $1.6 billion for SpaceX, equating to 8 flights from Orbital and 12 flights from SpaceX. For now, these contracts are for cargo deliveries only, replacing the Shuttle and providing a viable alternative to the Russian Progress flights. Critically, the US now has a very real prospect to bridge the “5-year gap” from Shuttle retirement (2010) and Constellation launch (2015).

All we need now is for SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket system to become “human rated” and we could see the first routine commercial launches of US astronauts before the Constellation Program is even rolled out onto the launchpad. Very exciting times

Source: Universe Today, SpaceX

The Space Exploration Crisis

President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency
President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency

When you look up on a starry night, what do you see?

Do you see a Universe with endless potential and resources for mankind to discover? Or, do you see an unnecessary challenge; too expensive, too risky and too pointless to consider wasting billions of tax-payers dollars on?

Right now, President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team is pondering the future of US manned spaceflight, and I’m sure they are addressing each of the above questions in turn. There has always been an unhealthy mix of politics and spin when it comes to the way NASA is funded, and while it would appear NASA’s future is confronted with a flood of budget cuts and red tape, the Obama administration will want to put a positive light on whatever direction they choose.

However, it will be hard to justify a funding cut (and therefore a delay) of the Constellation Program. We already have a “5-year gap” between Shuttle decommissioning and proposed Ares launch (2010-2015), if this block on US-administered manned spaceflight is extended, the damage inflicted on NASA will be irreversible. However, I doubt we’d ever be able to measure the permanent damage caused to mankind.
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The Cancer Spreads: Mars Science Laboratory Delayed Until 2011

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project is failing. But it is not suffering from technical failure en-route to the Red Planet, it hasn’t gotten itself stuck in a Martian sand-trap, it hasn’t even fallen foul of the “Galactic Ghoul”; the MSL is suffering from an overlooked space exploration hazard: bad management. According to today’s (not unexpected) NASA announcement, the MSL will not be launched until 2011.

I had a very bad feeling about today’s press conference, and it looks like my fears were justified. Due to technical difficulties, the launch of the MSL is being delayed by two years, as the overrun will ensure the mission misses the next Mars launch window. So I have to ask: why is an over-budget, behind schedule, poorly managed mission being allowed to sap the budgets of other NASA programs when the solution is so obvious?
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Sci-Fi Space Robots: Top Five

Update (Nov 18th): OK, it looks like this article just hit the front page of Digg. Whilst cool, I’ve made a very quick deduction that people from Digg must not read the text of an article before commenting. Please read the opening paragraph before shouting “OMFG! This guy should really understand what sci-fi means!.” Perhaps the title could be improved (read: “Top 5 Space Robots that Look Like Science Fiction“), but I think all this can be remedied by simply reading the text and not just looking at the pictures. Thanks!

I love science fiction, I always have. In fact, it was the main motivational factor for me to begin to study science in the early 90’s. Although sci-fi is outlandish, futuristic and seemingly impossible, there is actually a high degree of science fact behind the TV shows, movies and video games. So when I was young, sci-fi fuelled my enthusiasm for physics; more specifically, astrophysics.

Many years after these first forays into trying to understand how the Universe really worked, I now find myself drawn to real space missions doing real science only to find the divide between sci-fi and sci-fact is getting smaller and smaller. However, to ignite the imagination and build an enthusiasm for the “futuristic” science being carried out right now, it helps if the robotic embodiment of the satellite, rover, probe or lander looks futuristic itself (possibly even a bit “sci-fi”). This way we not only do great science, but we ignite the imaginations of men, women and children who would have otherwise ignored the science behind space exploration.

So, here are my top five missions to ignite the imagination, past and future…
Continue reading “Sci-Fi Space Robots: Top Five”

Today the US Will Make History: The Choice

This is probably slightly out of the scope of Astroengine.com, but having already made my feelings very clear about Obama’s stance on NASA and the McCain/Palin camp’s inability to understand science, so what the hell. Is there really a choice? In my view there is only one logical, ethical, intelligent and sensible choice. Let’s hope the US makes history today, but for the right reasons.

“Change” should not be a frightening concept.

A big thank you goes to Cosmic Variance for posting these videos.