Tag Archives: SpaceX

Coopertition is key for commercial space exploration

SpaceUp Seattle, an unconference about space exploration, happened over the weekend at the Museum of Flight, and while a big appeal of the format was that the agenda was written on the spot by attendees, it was clear that a big part of the draw for the event was the presence of some major players in commercial space ventures. Erika Wagner of Blue Orgin, Garrett Reisman of SpaceX, and Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources all made presentations on day one of the conference.

Wagner, business development manager at Kent-based Blue Origin, said the company’s goal is to get more people into space, and that they have to do two main things to accomplish it.

“We have to change the risk profile, we have to make this less risky; and we have to change the cost, make it less expensive,” Wagner said. She added that a key to cost containment will be to develop reusable rockets.


Garrett Reisman of SpaceX spoke about the company’s work at the SpaceUp Seattle conference Saturday at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Reisman, a former astronaut who is now a program manager at SpaceX, agreed.

“Affordable reusability is the key to having a real breakthrough in spaceflight,” he said.

Reisman feels it’s a great time to be an aerospace engineer.

“We’re at the cusp of what I think is going to be a golden age of spaceflight,” he said, comparing the era to the time of rapid advancement in general aviation that occurred around World War II. “Right now, we don’t know what a spaceship is supposed to look like, and that’s awesome!”

The two said their companies aren’t really in competition with each other. In fact, Wagner called it “coopertition” as they work together on regulatory and education issues. “We’re trying to build an industry right now,” she noted. “The market will sort it out.”

Reisman added that competition is good for the companies.

“It’s also really good for NASA. It gives them leverage and it makes us try to outperform each other. The end result is a much better product,” he said.

In addition, they’re pursuing different niches within the industry. Blue Origin is focused on suborbital spaceflight, while SpaceX is pursuing near-Earth orbit, geosynchronous Earth orbit, and beyond. The latter is partly because of the aspirations of SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

“My boss wants to retire on Mars,” Reisman quipped, “so the clock is ticking.”

Blue Origin, meanwhile, sees lots of customers for its suborbital work.

“We’ll be looking up and looking down,” Wagner said. “We believe there’s a real market for space science and Earth science payloads aboard these spacecraft.” She said NASA could never go into space frequently enough or inexpensively enough to make it happen, but if companies can drive the cost down, it will open things up for space tourists as well as university and corporate researchers—even small, local, science-fair projects might be able to scrape up the cash to be launched into space.

“Let’s put space in the hands of the people,” Wagner said.

Reisman agreed the doors to space will fly open once they get the cost of launching stuff down into the range of hundreds of dollars per pound.

“All the promises of science fiction—that suddenly becomes really doable when you get down to that level,” he said.

Speaking of science fiction, Lewicki, president of Planetary Resources, gave a talk that wasn’t about his asteroid mining company. Instead, he gave a presentation from the Keck Institute for Space Studies about a plan for lassoing an asteroid and bringing it close to Earth for further study. The notion drew some interest because NASA recently requested funding for preliminary work on the project.

Lewicki said it isn’t such a far-fetched notion to fly out to a small asteroid, capture it, and then park it in a Lagrange point for safe keeping and easy study. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is finding a suitable asteroid for the purpose.

There’s a wealth of information about the asteroid return mission on its project page.



SpaceUp Seattle symposium at Museum of Flight next weekend

Space exploration enthusiasts in the Northwest will have a chance to share their ideas with professionals in the commercial spaceflight industry at a two-day symposium next weekend. SpaceUp Seattle is scheduled for April 13-14 at the Museum of Flight.

Organizer Forest Gibson said attendees of SpaceUp Seattle will actually get to participate much more directly than they get to during Q&A sessions at the typical conference. In fact, SpaceUp is an un-conference; there will be no set agenda and anyone who shows up can choose a topic, give a talk, or make a presentation.

SpaceUp Seattle“It’s about the people who are at the un-conference deciding what they want to talk about,” Gibson explained. “This means there’s never any misalignment in terms of what people really want to hear, because it’s being decided in that moment.” So any topic is possible, from asteroid mining to model rockets.

Industry players such as Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Planetary Resources are expected to be there, but they won’t necessarily drive the conversation. In fact, Gibson said that for the professionals SpaceUp provides a chance to listen.

“Whether it’s just amateur enthusiasts or industry professionals, they get a feel where people’s interests really lie and what their concerns are,” Gibson said. “Having their ears to the ground about what non-professionals are concerned about is something they should be paying attention to.”

Gibson said there will be plenty at the un-conference for the casual observer, astronomy blogger, or aspiring space explorer. “It’s a chance to go and spend some time with a lot of other people who are interested in the same things,” he noted. “Especially with something that’s so new, you don’t know what opportunities could exist for you for being more involved in what’s happening professionally.”

In Gibson’s view it is important that SpaceUp Seattle go for two days. Participants will get comfortable with the process on day one, and really dive in the second day. So don’t worry—while you can give your own presentation if you’d like, there won’t be a pop quiz about Newton’s Third Law.

“It facilitates and encourages participation, but doesn’t require it,” Gibson said of the SpaceUp format.

There have been more than a dozen SpaceUps around the world over the last year and a half or so, and Gibson notes that while there is a core group of organizers, the effort isn’t really centralized. He expects that if next weekend’s event goes well, Seattle will have another within a year or so. After all, many commercial space companies are based in the Northwest, and with participants setting the agenda on the spot, the conversation won’t get stale.

SpaceUp Seattle runs at the Museum of Flight from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Saturday, April 13, and from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 15. The museum also is hosting a Yuri’s Night celebration on Friday, April 12, so it will be a full weekend of space observances.

Admission to SpaceUp Seattle is $35 for Museum of Flight members, $40 for non-members. Get tickets here.

More information is available on the SpaceUp website. SpaceUp is also on Facebook and Twitter.


Engineers become dreamers at NASA Future Forum

With a panel of aerospace engineers set to discuss commercial space investments and their benefit to the nation at the NASA Future Forum Dec. 9 at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, one was prepared for some heavy number crunching and rocket science. Instead, the group of representatives of various firms involved in commercial spaceflight focused entirely on the intangibles of inspiration, innovation, and vision.

A great example comes from Sierra Nevada Space Systems, which named its space vehicle Dream Chaser. Mark Sirangelo, head of the company, talked eloquently about the appeal of the industry.

Space Investments panel

A panel discussed Commercial Space Investments and Benefits for the Nation at the NASA Future Forum Dec. 9 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. L-R: Moderator Doug King, president and CEO of the museum, Phil McAlister of NASA, Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX, Peter McGrath of Boeing, Mark Sirangelo of Sierra Space Systems, Robery Meyerson of Blue Origin, and Steve Isakowitz of Virgin Galactic. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“It’s being able to see something built and grow from nothing, from an inspiration,” he said. Sirangelo noted that the companies involved are full of dreamers, and used Seattle’s aerospace giant as an example.

“There was a Boeing. It was a family and it was a person like we are,” he said. “We’re individuals who believe in something and believe that we can make a difference and be able to change something in the future.

“That’s the personal inspiration for me, being able to do something that hasn’t been done in this way before, to be able to fly something that I hope to be able to fly in the next few years, and understand that this is something that we’ve designed and built and developed. There’s no better satisfaction than being able to take that dream and make it a reality.”

Most of the panel participants were of similar age to the author. I was born two weeks before the launch of Sputnik, so my life is the space age and as a kid I was fascinated by the race to the Moon. It is the reason I am interested in space and astronomy today. Everyone on the panel told a similar story. Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said it’s important to remain interesting to the next generation.

“Space has to be cool. It has to be cool to be technical and enter into these kinds of fields,” Shotwell said. “Space is the best place to inspire children to do great things and study hard and focus on changing the world.” Her message to kids: “It’s OK to be a nerd!”

Peter McGrath of Boeing is a chip off the old block—his father also was an aerospace engineer—but he, too, took inspiration from Apollo.

Boeing Santa

The St. Nick on duty at the Museum of Flight seems to have a preference for the local aerospace company. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“I would also say it was seeing somebody walk on the Moon,” McGrath said of his career motivations. “We need to create that next environment, somebody walking on the Moon, to really energize the next generation of aerospace engineers.”

“We’re a nation of explorers,” said Robert Meyerson, president of Blue Origin. “Space represents that next frontier. I believe that strong investments in science and technology will make us stronger.”

The engineers did get around to tackling some problems. Steve Isakowitz, chief technology officer for Virgin Galactic, said the cost of space flight is a big hurdle. He noted that technology is making a lot of things easier and cheaper; Moore’s law holds that computer power doubles every 18 months while the cost drops. Unfortunately, that has not yet translated to space.

“In fact if you look at the economics of space travel, the cost has either remained the same or even increased, depending on how you do the math,” Isakowitz said. “I think the challenge to the panel here is to change that, to create our own law. Perhaps every five years the price of space travel will be cut in half, so that more and more people will have the opportunity to enjoy space travel and allow us to push the frontier of space exploration.”

NASA of course remains the major player in the field, but Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, said it’s perfectly logical for the companies represented on the panel to help take us to space.

“For lower orbit, where the International Space Station travels, that’s a place that we’ve been many times over the last 40 years,” McAlister said. “So we feel like it’s time now to transition some of the responsibility for launching crew and cargo to low-Earth orbit to the private sector.”

McAlister also noted that having the private sector involved will provide a buffer of sorts to the vagaries of federal spending.

“If this commercial crew and cargo industry takes off we’re no longer dependent on just NASA’s budget going up and down,” he said. “The private market will spur these innovations, spur these opportunities, so when kids get closer to high school they’re going to see these opportunities. It won’t just be about NASA. The pie will be bigger.

“That’s why I believe this is the right path not only for NASA but for the nation.”

You can watch the entire panel discussion on the NASA TV video below.



SpaceX flight to ISS announced at NASA Future Forum in Seattle

The NASA Future Forum held Dec. 9 at Seattle’s Museum of Flight was all about the approach of creating a new economy out in space, getting private enterprise to take over the work in low-Earth-orbit while the NASA plans for getting us out beyond the Moon to deep space. As if to underscore that point, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver broke some milestone news during her keynote address at the forum.

Lori Garver

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver does a live NASA-TV broadcast in the Great Gallery of The Museum of Flight in Seattle Dec. 9. Garver was in town for the NASA Future Forum. Museum of Flight photo by Ted Huetter.

“We have set the target date for launch on February 7 next year for SpaceX’s second commercial orbital transportation services (COTS) demonstration,” Garver announced. “Pending all the final safety reviews and testing, SpaceX will send its Dragon spacecraft to rendezvous with the International Space Station in less than two months.”

It would be the first commercial linkup with the space station.

Garver noted that NASA has invested some significant seed money, about $800 million, in COTS for getting crew and cargo to the ISS. The February mission will give SpaceX the chance to show what it can do.

“It is the opening of that new commercial cargo delivery era for ISS, and it’s great news for NASA and SpaceX together,” Garver said.

Garver said the new approach makes sense. NASA’s gig has always been to learn the unknown and create knowledge and technology. LEO is hardly a mystery any more, and private companies are demonstrating that they can do it. She adds that if the private sector and competition can lower launch costs, it will leave more resources for the science.

“We’re here to learn from each other, just like we have for all of these years, how we can more effectively advance personal and commercial space flight, how we can more effectively transition the technologies that we develop at NASA to the private sector to create those high-paying jobs and open up endless possibilities for economic growth,” Garver said. “Together we are truly developing an industry that until recently had been largely science fiction, but now it stands poised to open the new frontier, that next chapter in human space development.”

NASA Future Forum

Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Commercial space transportation already is a significant industry. In 2009, according to Garver, it generated $208 billion in economic activity in the U.S., employing about a million people who brought home $53 billion in wages.

She disagrees with the notion that the end of the space shuttle program was some sort of signal that the United States was no longer in the space game.

“Our job is just beginning,” she said. “The excitement and adventure is just beginning, and the opening of the space frontier is just beginning.”

She said the agency fully embraces the approach and NASA’s agenda: “Investing the nation’s valuable tax dollars to assure a healthier, more competitive industrial base that advances technology, provides more scientific benefit, and expands humanity’s presence farther than ever before while creating new markets, new industries, and new jobs to enhance our national security and our economic future.”

NASA has always had partners from the private sector, and Garver referred to the aerospace industry as a community.

“What we are trying to do is have our whole community gain a competitive advantage, moving out faster on this ambitious new direction that our nation’s leaders have given us,” she said. “Developing new technologies, developing partnerships, providing opportunities for competition and innovation, and looking for ways to get the most mileage out of all of the hard work over the decades that this community has invested in the fields of engineering, science, aeronautics, and technology.”

“This is what will inspire the next generation.”

You can watch Garver’s entire talk on the NASA-TV video below.