Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Last Shuttle Flight

I am a guy that was born in the mid 1960s and grew up with the "Wow!" of space exploration.   I remember the last Apollo mission and Skylab.   I remember paying attention to the first tests of the Enterprise in 1977.   I also remember the first flight of Columbia in April 1981 - my high school had a TV set up in the library so we could watch the re-run of the launch and then watch the landing live.

I was excited by the manned space program.  It seemed like it was all progressing forward as it should, but that was not the case and here we are 30 years later finally retiring the shuttle.

The shuttle was a classic government operation - there was no concern about the bottom line.   There was no incentive to become as cost efficient as possible.   We have spent a generation effectively treading water because the development of space was hamstrung by government intervention.

From 1951 to 1981 the world went from the first basic rockets to having the ability to consistently bring people into space and have small space stations in orbit.   In the next 30 years very little has changed.   All that we have is the International Space Station and finally reached a point where there are at least six humans in space all the time.

I am very happy to see the end of the shuttle because I can be excited by space again.   There are now several companies competing to develop cost effective ways to deliver people and goods into low earth orbit.   NASA is now going to use what is called the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS).

Two companies are competing for COTS work - Space X and Orbital Sciences.  Both will fly supplies to the ISS this year and should then shortly demonstrate their craft to get people to the ISS.  Interestingly, the United Launch Alliance ( a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin), which produces the Delta and Atlas series of rockets, did not succeed in the COTS program.

The way COTS is set up, there is an incentive for the companies to explore ways to make the flights cheaper.
If the ISS were the only place up there, which it is at the moment, there would not really be much of a market for either of the companies.   Here is where I get excited, we will see a second space station in orbit in less than three years and it will be a fully private venture.

Bigelow Aerospace has started the construction of a space station that they will begin to assemble in space in 2014.   ISS construction started in 1998 and is not slated to be done till next year.   The Space Complex Alpha will start in space construction in early 2014 and is slated to be complete in 2015.    They are talking about building the second one, Space Complex Bravo in 2016 with it complete in 2017.

In 2015 it will be possible to lease space on Space Complex Alpha.

Space Complex Alpha will have 690 m3 space inside - the ISS has 837 m3 space inside.   Bravo will have an internal space of 1320 m3.   In only a few short years there will be three space stations in operation.

Bigelow can do this because they are using a completely new and dramatically cheaper technology to build the station.   It is much lighter while at the same time much, much bigger.

Bigelow will make space much more affordable - $28,750,000 for 30 days.   Book longer times and the costs go down - $390,000,000 for one year of space for two astronauts.   For $440,000,000 a year you can get a BA 330 unit which has enough space for up to 6 people long term.   Given what Canada has been spending on our space program, leasing space from Bigelow would be a much cheaper way to be up there.   There are seven nations that have indicated they are interested in space.

It will be cheap enough that some major universities will be able to consider having their own research facilities in space.

With this sudden expansion in space stations, there will be a much higher demand for flights to supply them and for flights to get people to and from the space stations.   By 2016 about 12 people will be living in space full time with a temporary total of up to 25 people.  By 2018 this will increase to 30 people full time and up to 50 at peak times with temporary people.  In only 7 years it is realistic to expect 40 to 50 flights from earth to the space stations.  In the last few years it has been about seven or eight.

With so many more flights there will be a lot of efficiencies in the rockets and the price to fly to space will drop dramatically.

We are on the cusp of the biggest boom into space ever seen.

This expansion excites me.  I will not go into space, but the odds that one of my four boys will go into space is more and more realistic.  

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