All content is by Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK,
unless attributed to a different signed author.
(1) 2010: Manned spaceflight at the crossroads
The year 2010 may well be seen in retrospect as a pivotal one for manned spaceflight, balanced between the ancien régime owned by the joint gerontocracy of NASA and the Soviet/Russian space agency, and an emerging new regime whose outlines are gradually emerging from the mists of uncertainty.
Coincidentally, 2010 also wraps up a full half-century of manned spaceflight since Yuri Gagarin’s single orbit of Earth on 12 April 1961.
Total man-days in space over the calendar year add up to 2190, virtually unchanged from 2180 in 2009, and creating a new record of human time logged in orbit, though by the slenderest of margins.
The previous record was 1746 man-days in 1997, during the post-Challenger heyday of the Shuttle and the occupation of Mir. The post-Columbia run-down of the Shuttle programme has been more than compensated by the upgrade from a three-person station to one occupied by six people for most of the time, thus permitting a modest 25% increase in the annual human occupation of space over 13 years.
What is certain is that no further growth is in prospect while NASA and Roskosmos alone rule the roost.
Manned launches to orbit tell a more depressing story. There were three Shuttle launches and four Soyuz liftoffs, carrying a total of 31 people into orbit in 2010. That’s 2 fewer Shuttle flights than last year, and 15 fewer space travellers. The record so far of people going into orbit remains 63 in the year 1985, a full quarter-century ago (on 9 Shuttle and 2 Soyuz flights). The best flight rate the Shuttle could manage post-Columbia was 5 launches in the year 2009.
(2) 2011: Smoke signals from two dragons
Two trends seem likely to be consolidated further during the coming year: towards the emergence of China as a significant spacefaring power, and towards the emergence of commercial passenger spaceflight.
In 2011 China is expected to launch their modest space station module Tiangong 1 (8.5 tonnes, with a planned lifetime of 2 years). This is to be visited by Shenzhou 8 in an unmanned rendezvous/docking test, then by Shenzhou 9 (in 2011?) and 10 (in 2012?) carrying two or three astronauts each.
A reminder: Chinese manned flights so far have been those of Shenzhou 5 (October 2003), 6 (October 2005) and 7 (September 2008), with crews of one, two and three astronauts respectively. (Since the Chinese word for space is taikong, anyone wishing to use a specialised word for a Chinese government astronaut should say “taikongonaut”, not “taikonaut”, but I really don’t see the need.)
An increase in activity from one flight every two to three years to one every year is to be welcomed, and the breaking of the ISS monopoly on habitable infrastructure in orbit is to be vigorously welcomed. Yet until China has shown that these departures represent a sustainable increase in activity, their programme is still running at a glacially slow rate, and Michael Griffin’s confident assertion that the Chinese could be on the Moon in 15 years (as reported in a recent Raumfahrt Concret interview) must be viewed as wishful thinking.
Meanwhile, the other Dragon, that built and flown by SpaceX, enjoyed a flawless first test flight last month. According to SpaceX, this capsule could be carrying astronauts within three years of the award of a contract, and an initial commercial passenger spaceflight economy in which paying clients (governmental, industrial and private) fly on Dragon-Falcon 9 vehicles to Bigelow stations for science, commercial research and leisure purposes becomes foreseeable.
“In previous blogs, I’ve spoken about the barrier that the high cost of launching rockets is to space activity. Lower the cost and it becomes possible to do so much more. Elon Musk and SpaceX may just have taken a giant leap in that direction on Wednesday.” (Jonathan Amos, BBC blog)
“The total cost – including design, manufacture, testing and launch of the company's Falcon 9 rocket and the capsule – was roughly $800 million. In the world of government spaceflight, that’s almost a rounding error. And the ability of SpaceX to do so much with so little money is raising some serious questions about NASA. [...] Over the past six years, NASA has spent nearly $10 billion on the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule – its own version more or less of what SpaceX has launched – and came up with little more than cost overruns and technical woes.” (The Orlando Sentinel)
Charles Lurio reports in his latest e-mail newsletter on the knock-on effects: boosting the credibility of low-cost, entrepreneurial space technology suppliers, changing perceptions about commercial spaceflight, particularly in countries other than the USA, and increasing interest from angel and venture capital investors.
He writes that these “can only engender hope and recall the old question of when that ‘Netscape moment’ IPO may arrive for New Space. Given the refractory history of trying to change attitudes towards practical spaceflight, one should perhaps split it into two elements: First, that a major company goes public; Second, that such a success is combined with a sea-change in perception of the ‘product’ of spaceflight activity, putting it onto a vastly accelerated market growth curve. Many now anticipate an IPO by SpaceX within a year or so, but are not certain that it will definitively mark the latter shift. [...] We’re surely a lot closer to that ‘tipping point’ than I can ever recall, and the momentum is building. At minimum, SpaceX’s achievement is a huge leap towards it.”
See the debate about SpaceX and NASA at NASA Watch, particularly this astonishing comment posted on 28 December: “How many NASA engineers does it take to screw in a bolt?” (around a dozen, apparently).
See Rand Simberg for a roundup of commercial progress in 2010 and prospects in 2011: “2010: A Momentous Year for Commercial Spaceflight” (Rand Simberg in Popular Mechanics)
(Thanks to Robert April in Spaceflight, Jan. 2011, p.16-18 for this list.)
Progress has been painfully slow since SpaceShipOne’s three flights above 100 km in 2004, and it would be nice to think that the waiting is about to pay off. Certainly, both the Virgin Galactic and the SpaceX hardware seems to have performed well up to expectations so far.