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NASA Taps 7 Commercial Firms For Suborbital Flights

samzenpus posted more than 3 years ago | from the space-outsourcing dept.

NASA 27

coondoggie writes "NASA this week picked seven commercial space companies to fly a manner of experiments on their suborbital aircraft. According to NASA the companies will split $10 million and get a two-year contract that will let NASA set up a pool of reusable suborbital systems that could help it test applications in everything from astrobiology to measuring the impact of a solar storm."

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what a joke.... (2, Insightful)

Dolphinzilla (199489) | more than 3 years ago | (#37048910)

10 millions dollars isn't enough to do the paperwork that is involved with working with NASA let alone doing anything useful. Especially since its is split between 7 contractors - clearly a move designed to make it look like the US Space program isn't dead.....

Re:what a joke.... (0)

shadowfaxcrx (1736978) | more than 3 years ago | (#37048926)

Agreed. And sub-orbital? Great. We're back to Mercury/Redstone. Go us.

Re:what a joke.... (3, Informative)

Gravatron (716477) | more than 3 years ago | (#37049326)

You don't always need to get to orbit to do research. For example, take a look at sounding rockets and the science they do.

Re:what a joke.... (3, Insightful)

derGoldstein (1494129) | more than 3 years ago | (#37049406)

Agreed.
NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Aeronautics: Noun: The science or practice of travel through the air.

Aeronautics are a key part of the research. I don't see how this is a "step back" -- it's necessary, and right now it fits the budget.

Re:what a joke.... (2)

shadowfaxcrx (1736978) | more than 3 years ago | (#37051040)

I never said sub orbital is pointless.

But we've been doing sub orbital since 1961. To go back to the level of capability we had then is pretty pathetic. Especially since we have (yes we, because we paid for and hauled most of it) a space station up there and can't get to it without crawling to other countries for a cab ride. I find that to be pretty stupid. If you haven't noticed, relations between the US and Russia are. . Strained. It doesn't take a giant leap of the imagination to conclude that some day Medvedev or Putin might just decide they don't like us anymore and tell us to pound sand when we want to get to or from the ISS.

Yes I know private companies have promised they'll get us a ride there real soon now, but look at how long the 787 was delayed. And that's an airplane. Private companies have been building those for hundreds of years. They're real good at it. Anyone who seriously thinks the private space companies are going to stay on schedule is deluding himself.

But hey. We're back to 1961 space technology. We can get to not-quite-orbit. I say again, go us.

Re:what a joke.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37051570)

I never said sub orbital is pointless.

But we've been doing sub orbital since 1961. To go back to the level of capability we had then is pretty pathetic. Especially since we have (yes we, because we paid for and hauled most of it) a space station up there and can't get to it without crawling to other countries for a cab ride. I find that to be pretty stupid. If you haven't noticed, relations between the US and Russia are. . Strained. It doesn't take a giant leap of the imagination to conclude that some day Medvedev or Putin might just decide they don't like us anymore and tell us to pound sand when we want to get to or from the ISS.

JAXA and ESA both have had projects for manned resupply -- I believe ESA's was canned a couple years ago, and JAXA's is on-again-off-again, but if Russia really started being dicks (even if only to the US, not Europe and Japan), I imagine one or both would get back on track.

Yes I know private companies have promised they'll get us a ride there real soon now, but look at how long the 787 was delayed. And that's an airplane. Private companies have been building those for hundreds of years. They're real good at it. Anyone who seriously thinks the private space companies are going to stay on schedule is deluding himself.

No, they haven't been building them for hundreds of years. Well, 1.08 hundreds, I guess. But compare the rate of progress in the first 30 years (1903-1933) vs. the last 30 (1981-2011) -- as technology matures and the "established" corporations settle in, progress slows. It's not obvious that that's a fair analogy for expected delays in private spaceflight, where companies can't sit on their corporate butts and sustain operations on income from their last generation of manned spacecraft, because they don't have one! No, they won't stay on schedule -- there's a thousand ways to fall behind, and almost none to get ahead. But they're under a lot more pressure to minimize delays.

But hey. We're back to 1961 space technology. We can get to not-quite-orbit. I say again, go us.

And a month ago, we were at 1981 space technology. In 2011. Is a temporary 20-year setback really that much more appalling than 30 years of near-total stagnation?

Of course, on the cargo side, we're mostly in the same situation we were with the shuttle -- most satellites and practically all inteplanetary missions were launched on conventional rockets, and all that capability remains intact. The only thing the shuttle brought to unmanned missions was on-orbit servicing and payload recovery, both of which were rarely used.

I'm no fan of losing all domestic manned orbital flight capacity either -- I'm a nationalist, and while international cooperation is great, total dependence on any foreign government for spaceflight sits wrong with me; doubly so when it's a situation like Russia. But in ten years, I'd much rather see multiple private companies offering competing manned and unmanned orbital solutions, including some who weren't even in the unmanned market before (an outcome I'm confident we will have then) than 10 more years of the same expensive flights by the same committee-designed shuttle. Of course I'd rather we have both, but I'll take a small win if it's all we can get.

Re:what a joke.... (1)

shadowfaxcrx (1736978) | more than 3 years ago | (#37051764)

-laughs-

Yeah, I just read that. I meant 100 years, not hundreds OF years. That'll teach me to type fast and not review.

You're right, a month ago we were at 1981 space technology. I wasn't happy with that either - I always thought the shuttle should have been considered what it was designed for - to prove that space shuttles work, and then we go build the cheaper, better production model - but it was still better than anything else out there as far as getting us to LEO and the ISS. And it was ours, not the Russians'.

Now I'm not saying we absolutely had to keep the shuttle forever. Certainly not. But it would have been nice if we had kept it until we had something, whether commercial or NASA's, to replace it.

I agree completely with you that eventually spaceflight should be (mostly) privatized. (I say mostly, because we don't privatize all air travel either. The government has its own fleet of airplanes that are nothing like what the civilians get because it has needs we don't. The same will undoubtedly hold true for space).

Re:what a joke.... (3, Informative)

downix (84795) | more than 3 years ago | (#37049658)

NASA does plenty of suborbital work for research purposes. You can read about it here:

http://rscience.gsfc.nasa.gov/ [nasa.gov]

Re:what a joke.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37050876)

Indeed. "Go" where exactly? To do what? Space is an utterly hostile vacuum. What, precisely, is so appealing about that? Are you going to spout the same tired old clichés about manufacturing ball bearings in space?

Re:what a joke.... (3, Insightful)

derGoldstein (1494129) | more than 3 years ago | (#37049048)

10 million isn't enough to do the paperwork *within* NASA. We're talking about separate small companies, who will have a drastically different approach. This is a good idea -- push (support) the commercial efforts for a relatively low cost and see which innovations they can use themselves down the line.

Huge budgets lead to bloat and bureaucracy. Small companies will be forced to look at every dollar spent, and be result-oriented.

Re:what a joke.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37050422)

Much like smaller woman have smaller babies, therefore can have a baby in less time and with fewer resources.

Fucking stupid randroid.

Re:what a joke.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37050492)

Lesser time is not possible, but lesser resources, yes. You dont have to feed them as much as the fat ones. Their own body metabolism would also be less.

Re:what a joke.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37049224)

Hells bells... we're toys-R-us

Re:what a joke.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37049328)

NASA "oversight" of these 7 contract will probably require about 25 people. About enough to fill out a "small" review team.

Re:what a joke.... (2)

downix (84795) | more than 3 years ago | (#37049514)

NASA does many such contracts on a regular basis. This is for suborbital research, commonly done on vehicles such as the Black Brant and Terrior, a class of vehicles called Sounding Rockets. Several small companies have stepped forward with new suborbital programs which cost far less than these older systems, such as Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo, Blue Origin's New Shepherd and the XCOR Lynx, and the old contracts expire next year, so this is the right time to gather replacements.

The last contract setup cost us $4 million, but was in 1998, so with inflation in place, $10 million sounds about right.

Re:what a joke.... (1)

elfprince13 (1521333) | more than 3 years ago | (#37051250)

My lab had a research grant from NASA this summer with almost zero paperwork involved. Of course, whether or not we did anything useful is still up in the air.

Interesting approach (2)

derGoldstein (1494129) | more than 3 years ago | (#37048986)

Kind of like the Darpa "Cyber-Fast Track initiative" [slashdot.org] . It's a type of "outsourcing" to that takes advantage of ideas outside the organization. Independent companies will have a much greater incentive to reduce costs.

Re:Interesting approach (1)

Meneguzzi (935620) | more than 3 years ago | (#37068034)

More importantly, as you pointed out before, smaller companies have the ability to reduce costs, particularly administrative costs. The thing that makes bigger companies inefficient is the administrative bloat. People like to deride NASA about cost bloats (with some reason), but private is not necessarily leaner. If one has ever worked for a large company like HP, Dell or IBM (I only have experience with computer companies, but I think this apply to other giants), the admin bloat is just as bad.

suborbital testing (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37049094)

There are lots of ways to get "suborbital", and not all of them require rockets. Also, there is a whole lot of research to be done that doesn't need to be on a shuttle or Atlas 5.

Why? (0)

ReallyEvilCanine (991886) | more than 3 years ago | (#37049212)

Why not just farm it out to ESA or Russia? Arianne has a damned impressive success rate and Russia is waging a price war with China. Either way, your payload goes up at rock-bottom prices.

.

NASA is a palindrome: an agency formed that first couldn't get off the ground, then got up in the air, then into low orbit, then high orbit, then to the Moon, then to low orbit, and now can't even get off the ground. I used to be so proud of them...

Re:Why? (1)

derGoldstein (1494129) | more than 3 years ago | (#37049330)

You can probably plot that graph to the budget they're getting. There's not more USSR to have a pissing contest with. It used to be that NASA was part-exploration, part-military (during the space race, I mean). Now that it's "just" exploration and science, it no longer "justifies" the expense. Good thing the Europeans support projects like the LHC -- I don't think that with the current turbulence in the US economy we can expect too much money to flow into "science projects", of any kind.

Re:Why? (1)

powerlord (28156) | more than 3 years ago | (#37056388)

Good thing the Europeans support projects like the LHC

Yeah ... its a good thing Europe's economy is completely unaffected by any sort of economic trouble (downgrading of France's credit rating, rioting in England, Greece/Ireland/Portugal defaulting on loans).

I hope you're right, but we'll have to see what happens with the LHC, since the UK, France, Greece and Portugal are all CERN member states.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CERN#Member_states [wikipedia.org]

That's leaving aside something further happening, like this for instance: http://www.cnbc.com/id/43794479/Let_Greece_Ireland_Portugal_Default_Pimco [cnbc.com]

Re:Why? (1)

downix (84795) | more than 3 years ago | (#37049460)

Ariane is not a suborbital vehicle, so not quite understanding why it would be relevant.

Re:Why? (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 3 years ago | (#37049574)

Ariane is not a suborbital vehicle, so not quite understanding why it would be relevant.

Oh they've certainly made plenty of suborbital Ariane launches, plenty. Not intentionally, of course, but...

Seriously though, anything orbital inherently has an absolutely whopping suborbital capability.

Re:Why? (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 3 years ago | (#37050648)

Seriously though, anything orbital inherently has an absolutely whopping suborbital capability.

Not quite. Sure, you can buy a Delta IV for a half billion dollars to perform a sub-orbital mission.... but why spend so much money?

The point of hiring these particular companies is that they can send experiments above the Kármán line [wikipedia.org] at a price that is reasonable and affordable. If you have an experiment that depends upon a microgravity environment in order to work, at the moment there are very limited options available to test the design. There are drop towers (literally, where you get a box and drop it to the ground for a couple of seconds), parabolic flights on jets, and sounding rockets. All of these approaches are currently being used for testing prior to an orbital launch of a spacecraft, but sub-orbital spacecraft like is being offered in this contract adds an additional option and the ability to test something for a longer period of time in a microgravity environment prior to sending it into orbit.

Something else also being offered here is the ability to have these experiments operated by either researchers or professional astronauts during the flight itself... something that currently is unavailable without these new "space tourism" flights being available. If you are going to spend a billion dollars on some experiment which is going to Mars or Saturn, spending $200k for a sub-orbital flight is comparatively a trivial cost and something that can easily be justified. You can also get a funding grant for a research proposal on that size of a budget fairly easily, where it is much harder to justify spending several million dollars for something similar that makes it into orbit.

This isn't to say that the big boosters will be ignored, as they certainly are going to be used, but what was announced here on the original post was the ability to get things to happen with these smaller vehicles that are much cheaper to operate. The $10 million is basically a pot of money which is going to be available for researchers to explicitly develop projects that will work in the sub-orbital domain and provide a funding pool which can be used to help pay for such projects. If you have a university physics laboratory and want to fund a $300k microgravity experiment proposal, this announcement can help pay for the trip which will put the experiment into space. There are things to be learned in this environment that we simply don't know yet, in spite of the thousands of launches which have happened already.

An extra side benefit of all of this is that many of these sub-orbital vehicles like Spaceship Two are also going to have regularly scheduled trips into space, where it may be possible to conduct an experiment with a very small window of opportunity. The larger rockets usually have to be scheduled years in advance where the actual launch could be delayed by several months or more depending on issues that come up during the launch preparation process. These sub-orbital vehicles can launch stuff where the window of opportunity to make a measurement is only a few minutes long or only known a day in advance. The big rockets really can't be used in that same capacity.

Taps or double taps? (1)

martinX (672498) | more than 3 years ago | (#37049304)

NASA Double-Taps 7 Commercial Firms For Suborbital Flights

Nobody, but nobody, flies sub-orbital around here except us. Capiche?

Reusable is the key word (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37051338)

The big difference with this program is the reusable part, not the suborbital part. These companies are offering flights that will be significantly different from the delivery methods used today. Reusable rockets enable lower cost of operation and generally lower the barrier of access to space.

(Disclaimer: I'm part of one of the 7 companies listed.)

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