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Commercial Space Flight July 23, 2012

Posted by stemtastic in Space Craft.
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Imagine traveling in space like you have seen on Star Trek, Star Wars, and other space adventure movies. What used to seem like a far-fetched idea only possible in science fiction is now becoming a possibility. While we may not be able to hop in our personal spaceship and head to another planet or galaxy, commercial space flights are a reality. Private companies are now able to transport cargo into space and very soon, people will be able to take flights into space.

After 30 years of service, NASA ended the Space Shuttle program in 2011 with the final flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis. Although NASA retired the Space Shuttle program, it still needs to accomplish missions in space. The development of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCD) program has been designed to create partnerships with United States industry to develop safe and efficient space vehicles to transport astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and other Low Earth Orbit (LEO) destinations. Companies such as Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX are working with NASA engineers to design, test, and certify transportation systems that will provide transportation for astronauts and cargo to places like the ISS.

SpaceX recently reached a major milestone in the history of space travel. On May 31, 2012, the spacecraft Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to complete the mission of successfully transporting cargo to the ISS. The unmanned Dragon lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 22. After being docked to the ISS on May 25, it spent 6 days being unloaded and loaded with new cargo to be returned to Earth.

The Dragon spacecraft was propelled into space by the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Falcon 9 is a two stage, liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene powered vehicle.  Dragon is a reusable spacecraft designed to transport both pressurized and unpressurized cargo as well as crewmembers from LEO. The only mission completed so far has been unmanned.

In 2008 SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft were selected by NASA to supply the ISS through a minimum of 12 flights for a contracted $1.6 billion. Based on the successful first delivery of cargo, it appears that SpaceX is well on its way to fulfill their obligation.

Commercial space transport helps NASA in a couple of ways. First, it allows NASA to send astronauts to the ISS without needing to hitch a ride on Russian spacecraft. Once the Shuttle program was retired, NASA had no way of sending astronauts to space. SpaceX and companies like it will once again make that a possibility in the near future. Commercial space transport also frees up resources for NASA to develop its deep space exploration program including the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS).

Another area of commercial space flight that is gaining attention is space tourism. Virgin Galactic is one company providing the opportunity for people to experience sub orbital flight. The company claims to be on track for powered flight by the end of 2012. On June 26, 2012, they successfully completed a glide flight test and rocket motor firing. For a mere $200,000, you can purchase a ticket for the experience of a lifetime.

SpaceShipTwo is Virgin Galactic’s air launched glider with a rocket motor. In space, it will use small thrusters to maneuver. Since safety is a top priority, the spacecraft will use a hybrid rocket. This type of rocket uses the advantages of two types of rocket propulsion. It has the simplicity of a solid fuel rocket and the ability to be throttled or shut down like a liquid fuel rocket.

Another major safety design involves the way the spacecraft will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Before descending to Earth, the tail structure can be rotated up to about 65°. This allows the pilot to easily control altitude while keeping the spacecraft parallel to the horizon. This is accomplished without complicated fly-by-wire systems. Once the spacecraft has re-entered the atmosphere, the feather lowers to its original position and it is a glider to complete the trip home. According to their website, Virgin Galactic’s Burt Rutan designed SpaceShipTwo “uses aerodynamic design and the laws of physics for a carefree and heat free re-entry followed by a glide runway landing.” For safety, the spacecraft will be transported to an altitude of 50,000 ft by its launch vehicle WhiteKnightTwo. At this altitude, the spacecraft will be above most of Earth’s atmosphere thereby reducing the amount of drag the spacecraft has to overcome. Once SpaceShipTwo has been released, it will fire a rocket and ascend at 2500 mph to 62,000 feet. At this altitude, the passengers will be able to see some of the curvature of Earth and experience five minutes of weightlessness.

It may have seemed like the United States was giving up on space exploration and opportunities but the new age of commercial space flight has turned that around. More than ever before, we have the opportunities to provide more efficient space transportation systems to further research in space labs, explore deep space, and provide thrill seekers with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.