The spirit of entrepreneurship and exploration together in space

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Published on: May 6, 2012

Friday’s Atlas 5 launch was clearly the top space news story of the day here on Florida’s Space Coast, but another important space-related event happened that may have gotten lost in the noise.

Sierra Nevada – not the mountain range, college or brewing company but one of the new commercial space companies competing with others to launch people into orbit – announced on Friday they were committing to base their launch operations on Florida’s Space Coast.

The company’s proposed spacecraft is called Dream Chaser. It is a winged, reusable vehicle that comes from the same lifting body research and design heritage that led to the Space Shuttle. Roughly one-fourth the size of the Shuttle, it is designed to launch into orbit atop an Atlas 5 rocket, then re-enter the atmosphere and glide to a runway touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility – which I suppose is going to have to get a new name one day soon.

Sierra Nevada’s very public commitment to the Space Coast is the latest in a series of promising developments that should remind us that despite the ending of the Shuttle program, the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station remain open for business.

Of course, we should keep in mind that much of Dream Chaser’s future success here is contingent on the fact that NASA will ultimately select Sierra Nevada as a provider of launch services to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Development program.

This is the program that is part of the nation’s new space policy to get NASA out of the business of launching cargo and humans into low Earth orbit, and instead purchase launch services from private industry.

As a result, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is competing, for example, with Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft, which also plans a heavy presence on the Space Coast should it get the ultimate nod from NASA.

The CST-100 looks much like the Apollo command module and NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Boeing’s capsule would be manufactured, tested and launched here on the Space Coast, taking advantage of facilities at Kennedy Space Center that include use of one of the Shuttle processing hangars.

Initially launched on an Atlas 5, Boeing’s spacecraft also would be compatible with the Delta 4 and Falcon 9 rockets. The CST-100 is coming along in its development. In fact, just last Wednesday its parachute landing system was successfully tested for the second time in a month as a full-sized boilerplate vehicle was dropped from 11,000 feet over the Nevada desert.

And if that weren’t enough to keep track of, both SpaceX and a company called Blue Origin also are vying for the job to carry NASA astronauts into orbit and have received some funding from the space agency. SpaceX with its Dragon spacecraft – which could be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Kennedy Space Center or even South Texas – and Blue Origin with whatever it is they are going to call their option.

Before we get to the human-rated stuff, NASA also is looking to private industry for cargo delivery services to the Space Station, of which SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are now contracted to provide. SpaceX, again with their Dragon spacecraft launched from the Cape, and Orbital Sciences with its Cygnus spacecraft, which will be carried into orbit atop an Antares rocket launched from Wallops Island in Virginia.

All of this sounds like great news, and I’m just as excited as the next space cadet with all the new commercial space activity that is going on, but big questions remain.

There’s a lot of hype, at least here locally, about all the jobs these companies will bring to the Space Coast, but not every company is going to get the NASA contract that makes a lot of this possible. Not every company is going to be able to move in and use the facilities at Kennedy Space Center that were vacated by the Space Shuttle’s retirement.

And even with or without NASA money, industry observers wonder if there is enough of a market for these kinds of commercial launch services to keep these companies going? Can they make a profit?

And there are questions about how well these companies can deal with the technical issues that involve safety, reliability and quality assurance—concerns that have prompted many space veterans to worry that private industry will cut too many corners to save money and won’t be successful in the long run.

Look, this is a new way of doing things that involves a lot of change, and people are resistant to change; institutions even more so. There’s no denying there are technical and financial risks involved here, and there’s no doubt there will be serious setbacks of both types along the way. Spaceflight is not a forgiving business.

Yet I believe that as a nation we must be willing to accept that failures will occur and try again, encourage the possibilities that change offers, and embrace the joining of the entrepreneurial spirit with the spirit of exploration.

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