I’ve always felt that China’s exclusion from the International Space Station project has been a huge misstep on the USA’s part. Sure I can understand that there are some concerns, as there always are with any international co-operative effort, but the fact is that China really did have a lot to offer the ISS even if it wasn’t anything that the Russians could provide. Exclusion from such a project has sent them down their own path of space exploration and the last decade has shown that China are not only capable of putting their own Taikonauts up there but they’re also quite adept at pushing the boundaries of their capabilities much faster than governments have done in the past.
It was just on 9 months ago today that China launched their own space station, Tiangong-1. It didn’t take them long after that to launch an unmanned Shenzhou capsule and dock it with the space station, verifying that all the systems required for humans to be able to visit the station were in place and functioning correctly. 4 days ago saw the launch of Shenzhou-9 carrying with it 3 Taikonauts (including China’s first female space fairing citizen) with their destination being none other than Tiangong-1. Yesterday saw them dock and for the first time in history China now has a manned space station in orbit.
The total mission time for Shenzhou-9 is about 2 weeks giving the taikonauts around a week or so aboard Tiangong-1. In that time they’ll be doing some medical experiments and studying the development of butterflies in a microgravity environment. Realistically the payload of this mission is the taikonauts themselves and this just serves as a shake down of the systems aboard Tiangong-1 ahead of future missions that will visit it and it’s successors. There’s one more manned visit planned after this one concludes currently scheduled for some time next year, after that Tiangong-1 will be deorbited and then replaced by upgraded versions of the craft. Ones which will form the basis of their permanent space station.
China has made a lot of progress in the past couple years and it looks like they’re not about to stop any time soon. Whilst I don’t believe that their achievements will see them end up being contributors to the ISS it will put pressure on the USA to relax their rules around co-operation with them as their original reasons (that China had nothing to give the program and would only take) really don’t hold any ground anymore. Of course that’s never stopped anyone from holding on to an irrational point of view before and I don’t expect it to change any time soon.
It’s really quite exciting to see so much development in space exploration even if it isn’t new territory. Governments competing with each other for space supremacy is how we landed men on the moon before we had modern computers and China’s incredible efforts to get a foothold in space could spur on another race of similar magnitude. If I’m honest I do wish that this wasn’t the case, I’d much prefer them just to do it for the sake of doing it, but nothing gets superpowers moving faster than the potential for their pride to be hurt. With an election on the horizon there’s ample opportunity for the upcoming Presidential candidates to start affirming their commitment to being the leaders in space and hopefully we’ll start to hear them doing so soon.
It was late Friday night. My companions and I had just finished up work as we stumbled out into the hot, humid air that surrounded us here in Brunei. After a nearly 12 hour day we had our sights fixed on grabbibng some dinner and then an early night as we would have to come in the next day to finish the job. As we chatted over our meals a curious image appeared on the television, one that I recognized very clearly as SpaceX’s Dragon capsule that was launched no more than a couple days earlier. At the time it appeared that they were performing some last manuevers before the docking would occur. I couldn’t take my eyes away from it staring intently at the capsule that was driftly serenely across the beautiful backdrop of our earth.
The time came for us to make our departure and we headed back to the hotel. I hit up Facebook to see what was going on when I saw a message from a long time friend: “I hope you’re not missing this http://on.msnbc.com/JxfRMS“.
I assured him I wasn’t.
I was fixated on the craft watching it intently from 2 different streams so that I’d never be out of the loop. I monitored Twitter like a hawk, soaking in the excitement that my fellow space nuts shared. I almost shed a tear when Houston gave SpaceX the go to make the final docking approach as, for some unknown reason, that was when it all became real: the very first private space craft was about to dock with the International Space Station. At 13:56 UTC on May 25th, 2012 the SpaceX Dragon became the first private space craft to be captured by the International Space Station and not 6 minutes later it was birthed on the earth side docking port of the American Harmony module.
It’s an incredible achievement for SpaceX and proves just how capable they are. This is only the second launch of both the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule which demonstrates just how well engineered they are. Most of the credit here can go to the modularity of the Falcon series systems meaning that most of the launch stack has already seen a fair bit of flight testing thanks to the previous Falcon 1 launches. The design is paying off in spades for them now as with this kind of track record it won’t be long before we see them shipping humans up atop their Falcon rockets, and that’s extremely exciting.
The payload of the COTS Demo Flight 2 Dragon capsule is nothing remarkable being mostly food, water and spare computing parts and small experiments designed by students. What’s really special about the Dragon though is its ability to bring cargo back to earth (commonly referred to as downrange capability) something that no other craft currently offers. The ATV, HTV and Progress crafts all burn up upon re-entry meaning that the only way to get experiements back from the ISS now will be aboard the Dragon capsule. Considering that we now lack the enormous payload bay of the Space Shuttle this might be cause for some concern but I think SpaceX has that problem already solved.
Looking over the scheduled flights it would appear that SpaceX is looking to make good on their promise to make the launches frequent in order to take advantage of the economies of scale that will come along with that. If the current schedule is anything to go by there will be another 2 Dragon missions before the year is out and the pace appears to be rapidly increasing from there. So much so that 2015 could see 5 launches of the Dragon system rivalling the frequency at which the Soyuz/Progress capsules currently arrive at the ISS. It’s clear that SpaceX has a lot of faith in their launch system and that confidence means they can attempt such aggressive scheduling.
I have to congratulate SpaceX once again on their phenomenal achievement. For a company that’s only just a decade old to have achieved something that no one else has done before is simply incredible and I’m sure that SpaceX will continue to push the envelope of what is possible for decades to come. I’m more excited than ever now to see the next Dragon launch as each step brings us a little closer to the ultimate goal: restoring the capability that was lost with the Space Shuttle. I’ve made a promise to myself to be there to see it launch and I simply can’t wait to see when it will be.
It’s strange, looking back over all my space posts of the past 3 years I couldn’t find any that were dedicated to the European Space Agency’s cargo craft, the Automated Transfer Vehicle. Sure I mentioned it in passing back when JAXA sent its first HTV to the International Space Station but even its second flight, named Johannes Kepler, obviously wasn’t inspiring enough for me to take notice. The only good reason I can come up with is the maiden voyage happened well before I got into blogging, but that doesn’t excuse me ignoring the significance of the ATV.
The ESA’s ATV is the only craft that the ESA has that participates in the ISS program. It’s a derivative of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module that the Shuttle used to carry up to the ISS and is meant to work alongside the Russian Progress craft that have been resupplying the ISS for years. Compared the Progress its something of a monster being able to deliver almost 4 times the payload although that’s offset significantly by the fact that it’s current launch rate is about once per year. The majority of the payload is taken up by reboost and attitude control propellant as the ATV is capable of reboosting the ISS, something which no other craft is currently capable of doing (the retired Shuttle was the primary reboost craft prior to this). The rest of the payload consists of crew and station consumables, roughly equivalent to the amount that a Progress craft would deliver.
Today sees the ESA’s 3rd ATV docking with the International Space Station:
Whilst it’s not pushing any boundaries or developing new capabilities the successful docking of the Edoardo Amaldi shows that the ESA can make the yearly launches of the ATV without incident. That’s quite an achievement in itself and means that the 2 currently planned ATV launches should go off without a hitch. With the upcoming flights from companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to the ISS you might be wondering why we’d bother having a craft like the ATV, especially when something like the Dragon has similar capabilities whilst also being reusable. The answer, from my perspective is two fold.
For starters neither of the upcoming private craft have the ability to reboost the ISS. Now doing this is non-trivial so its unlikely that either craft will gain that ability in the near term and as far as I can tell there are no other craft, current or planned, that have that ability. That surprises me as the second argument for the ATV’s existence, redundancy in capabilities, doesn’t exist with ISS reboosting. It’s possible that the upcoming Space Launch System with the Orion capsule might be able to do this but I can’t find anything that states that.
The second reason, as I alluded to before, is that when it comes to maintaining a human presence in space it doesn’t hurt to have redundancy for different capabilities. Whilst you can argue that there will be much better ways of doing things in the future it never hurts to have a backup that you can rely on. The ATV, with its rock solid yearly launch schedule, makes for a good fall back for other re-supply missions should they encounter any issues. Now all that’s required is finding another means by which to reboost the ISS and then we’ll have full redundancy across most of our manned space program activities.
Pushing the envelope of capabilities in space is a slow and arduous task where small step after small step eventually makes its way to the ultimate goal. Even with today’s technology it still takes us the better part of a decade to go from concept to reality, especially if you’re trying to build launch capability from scratch. Hell even my current crush, SpaceX, has taken 10 years to get to the stage they’re at and that’s considered blindingly fast even when you compare them to the superpowers of the world. China on the other hand has proven themselves to be extremely capable, innovating at an extremely rapid pace.
So rapid in fact that I was sure I had already covered their most recent accomplishment, docking Shenzhou 8 with Tiangong 1:
China’s technological capabilities took a major surge forward with the successful docking in space today for the first time ever of two Chinese built and launched spaceships – orbiting some 343 kilometers in the heavens above at 1:37 a.m. Beijing time Nov. 3(1:37 p.m. EDT, Nov. 2). China’s goal is to build a fully operational space station in Earth orbit by 2020 – about the time when the ISS may be retired.
Today’s space spectacular joining together the Shenzhou-8 unmanned spacecraft and the Tiangong-1 prototype space station was an historic feat for China, which now becomes only the 3rd country to accomplish a rendezvous and docking of spacecraft in Earth orbit.
In fact the last thing I wrote was just over a month ago when China had successfully launched their Tiangong 1 prototype. In that time they managed to prep, launch and have Shenzhou 8 rendezvous with Tiangong 1 putting China on par with the small number of nations who have developed such capability. Over the next couple weeks Shenzhou 8 will un-dock and re-dock with Tiangong 1 in order to prove that the technology is solid. Once the mission has been completed Shenzhou 8 will return to earth for further analysis.
Launching two separate vehicles rapidly one after another is par for the course of any space program but what really surprised me was China’s plans for the next 2 craft to visit Tiagong 1. China has no less than 2 more missions planned before the end of 2012 and one of those will be a manned. When you take into consideration that China has only managed to complete their first EVA 3 years ago (a critical capability for keeping a station in orbit) having a manned station so soon afterwards is an incredible achievement. Going on their timeline we could see China have their own Salyut level space station before the decade is out, and that’s just incredible.
I’m hoping that with these accomplishments that both Russia and the USA recognize how valuable China could be for the future of their space programs and seek to include them in future endeavours. So far China is the only country explicitly excluded from participating with the International Space Station, most because the USA thought they’d be nothing more than a burden to them. Such rapid progress shows that they’re not only capable of replicating current technology but also innovating their own solutions, something which would be highly valuable to all current space fairing nations. It’ll take a long time for those political barriers to start coming down, but I hold out every hope that one day they eventually will.
Whenever I find myself getting frustrated with the sorry state of government funded space programs overseas I don’t have to look much further than SpaceX to feel inspired once again. From their humble beginnings back in 2002 they have shown they are capable of designing, building and launching rockets on a fraction of the budget that is currently required. Their ambition also seems to have no bounds with their CEO, Elon Musk, eyeing off a trip to Mars with the intent of retiring there. SpaceX is also the USA’s only launch system provider who’s got a roadmap for delivering humans to the International Space Station, a real necessity now that the shuttle fleet has retired.
You can then imagine how exciting it is to hear that SpaceX has received in principle approval from NASA to combine the next 2 Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS) demonstration flights into one. That might not sound like much on the surface but it means that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule could be docking with the ISS this year:
Over the last several months, SpaceX has been hard at work preparing for our next flight — a mission designed to demonstrate that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has given us a Nov. 30, 2011 launch date, which should be followed nine days later by Dragon berthing at the ISS.
NASA has agreed in principle to allow SpaceX to combine all of the tests and demonstration activities that we originally proposed as two separate missions (COTS Demo 2 and COTS Demo 3) into a single mission. Furthermore, SpaceX plans to carry additional payloads aboard the Falcon 9’s second stage which will deploy after Dragon separates and is well on its way to the ISS. NASA will grant formal approval for the combined COTS missions pending resolution of any potential risks associated with these secondary payloads. Our team continues to work closely with NASA to resolve all questions and concerns.
That’s right, if everything stays on schedule (which, I’ll admit, isn’t very likely) then we’ll see a Dragon capsule docking with the ISS and the first time in history that a private company has docked with a space station. The mission will test all of the fligh avionics, communication systems and docking procedures that SpaceX have designed for the Dragon capsule. Whilst the Dragon going up there doesn’t appear to have a cargo manifest it will be bringing cargo back down from the ISS, which will be a good test to see if their current design has any flaws in it that can be rectified for future missions.
The current docking procedure for the Dragon capsule is surprisingly similar to that of JAXA’s HTV. For the COTS Demonstration 2 flight at least the Dragon capsule will fly very close to the ISS where it will then be captured by CANADARM2 which will guide it into a docking port. It’s interesting because from the past few missions I had assumed that the Dragon was capable of automated docking, especially with (what seemed to be) rather advanced DragonEye sensor being tested on previous shuttle flights. Still automated docking is quite a challenge and the captured route is a lot safer, both for SpaceX and the astronauts aboard the ISS.
The announcement also comes hand in hand with some improvements that SpaceX has made to their launch stack. They’ve installed new liquid oxygen pumps that now allow them to fully fill the Falcon 9 in under 30 minutes, a third of the time it use to require. This means that SpaceX could roll out, fuel and launch a Falcon 9 in under an hour something that hasn’t been possible with liquid fueled rockets in the past. They’re also ramping up their production facilities with an eye to have up to 16 launches per year, a phenomenal amount by any measure.
SpaceX continues to show that the private sector is quite capable of providing services that were for the longest time considered to be too expensive for anyone but the super power governments of the world. The announcement that a Dragon capsule could be visiting the ISS this year shows how much confidence NASA has in their capabilities and I’m sure that SpaceX will not fail to disappoint. We’re on the verge of a revolution in the space travel game and SpaceX are the pioneers who will lead us there.