Space: The Visionaries Take Over

Charles Krauthammerkrauthammer-sm writes: Fractured and divided as we are, on one thing we can agree: 2015 was a miserable year. The only cheer was provided by Lincoln Chafee and the Pluto flyby (two separate phenomena), as well as one seminal aeronautical breakthrough.

On Dec. 21, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, after launching 11 satellites into orbit, returned its 15-story booster rocketupright and intact, to a landing pad at Cape Canaveral. That’s a $60 million mountain of machinery — recovered. (The traditional booster rocket either burns up or disappears into some ocean.)

The reusable rocket has arrived. Arguably, it arrived a month earlier when Blue Origin, a privately owned outfit created by Jeffrey P. Bezos (Amazon chief executive and owner of this newspaper) launched and landed its own booster rocket, albeit for a suborbital flight. But whether you attribute priority to Musk or Bezos, the two events together mark the inauguration of a new era in spaceflight.

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Musk predicts that the reusable rocket will reduce the cost of accessing space a hundredfold. This depends, of course, on whether the wear and tear and stresses of the launch make the refurbishing prohibitively expensive. Assuming it’s not, and assuming Musk is even 10 percent right, reusability revolutionizes the economics of spaceflight.

[Read the full story here, at The Washington Post]

Which both democratizes and commercializes it. Which means space travel has now slipped the surly bonds of government — presidents, Congress, NASA bureaucracies. Its future will now be driven far more by a competitive marketplace with its multiplicity of independent actors, including deeply motivated, financially savvy and visionary entrepreneurs. Read the rest of this entry »


NASA Picks Four Astronauts to Fly First Commercial Space Missions

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“These distinguished, veteran astronauts are blazing a new trail, a trail that will one day land them in the history books and Americans on the surface of Mars.”

— NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA has selected four veteran astronauts to lead the way back into orbit from U.S. soil.

On Thursday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden named the four who will fly on capsules built by private companies — SpaceX and Boeing. Each astronaut has test pilot experience and has flown twice in space.

The commercial crew astronauts are: Air Force Col. Robert Behnken, until recently head of the astronaut office; Air Force Col. Eric Boe, part of shuttle Discovery’s last crew; retired Marine Col. Douglas Hurley, pilot of the final shuttle crew; and Navy Capt. Sunita Williams, a two-time resident of the International Space Station.

“These distinguished, veteran astronauts are blazing a new trail, a trail that will one day land them in the history books and Americans on the surface of Mars,” Bolden said on his blog.

SpaceX and Boeing are aiming for test flights to the space station by 2017. It will be the first launch of astronauts from Cape Canaveral, Florida, since the space shuttles retired in 2011.

In the meantime, NASA has been paying Russia tens of millions of dollars per ride on Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts; the latest tab is $76 million.

Bolden noted that the average cost on an American-owned spacecraft will be $58 million per astronaut, and each mission will carry a crew of four versus three, in addition to science experiments.

The four — who will work closely with the companies to develop their spacecraft — range in age from 44 to 50, and have been astronauts for at least 15 years. Each attended test pilot school; Williams specializes in helicopters. Read the rest of this entry »


Meet Valkyrie, NASA’s ‘Superhero Robot’

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Designed to compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, this “female” robot could be the precursor to robo-astronauts that will help colonize Mars.

What if NASA’s Robonaut grew legs and indulged in steroids? The result might be close to what NASA has unveiled: Valkyrie is a humanoid machine billed as a “superhero robot.” Developed at the Johnson Space Center, Valkyrie is a 6.2-foot, 275-pound hulk designed to compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). It will go toe to toe with the Terminator-like Atlas robot from Boston Dynamics in what’s shaping up to be an amazing modern-day duel. In an interesting twist, Valkyrie seems to be a girl. Read the rest of this entry »


Cautious Optimism About NASA’s Troubled New Telescope

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Andrew Moseman  writes:  They call it the successor to Hubble. But the James Webb Space Telescope is something more than the next great observatory to provide breathtaking views of nebulae and new insights to our place in the cosmos. It is also nearly all of NASA’s eggs in one basket, one that appears to be perpetually near the brink of disaster. But things are looking up. Relatively speaking.

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