By Dan Nosowitz
Posting in Aerospace
With the launch of SpaceX's much-delayed but successful Falcon 9 rocket last week, there's been renewed attention given to private space efforts.
With the launch of SpaceX's much-delayed but successful Falcon 9 rocket last week, there's been renewed attention given to private space efforts. SpaceX and Bigelow are two of the most prominent private companies working in the field, and given the Obama administration's encouragement of private space efforts, you might hear those two names as often as NASA.
The idea here is that private, commercial companies can be run more efficiently than NASA, which is a massive and expensive governmental organization. The Obama administration is banking on this, and is investing in companies like SpaceX.
SpaceX was founded in 2002, and is run by Elon Musk, probably best known for co-creating PayPal and Tesla Motors. SpaceX is perhaps the most prominent private, commercial aerospace company out there; the company has been contracted by NASA to provide lift to the International Space Station. The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket on Friday is singularly impressive, despite several delays and a few hiccups. Says Kit Eaton of Fast Company:
Despite several technical glitches (an uncommanded roll of the rocket's second stage, and incomplete parachute deployment and resulting impact damage to the first stage) the dummy payload was pushed into almost precisely the required orbit--demonstrating that a small private corporation can now successfully rival the industrial-military complex in being able to loft satellites into space.
The Falcon 9 rocket might actually be used by Bigelow Aerospace for that company's inflatable space stations (yes, you read that right).
The New York Times has a profile of Bigelow Aerospace, which was founded in 1998 by Robert Bigelow (the multi-millionaire owner of the Budget Suites hotel chain), that sheds some light on the mysterious company. (Their factory in the Nevada desert is vigorously patrolled, and the CEO has expressed a long-time interest in UFOs.) Bigelow isn't funded by the government, but instead aims to launch its inflatable space stations and allow other sovereign nations to rent time on them for their own projects. For countries with smaller aerospace budgets, Bigelow's solution could be the only way to get into space.
Inflatable space stations are not a new idea; Bigelow actually licensed some of the tech from an old NASA program. It was abandoned by NASA due to some of the inherent problems of an inflatable craft, namely that micro-meteorites had a tendency to pop the hull.
But Bigelow has innovated and developed the tech much further. While it still uses the original idea of an airtight "bladder" with Kevlar straps, it now uses "alternating layers of aluminized fabric and foam [which] absorb and disperse the impacts of micrometeoroids, providing better protection than metal structures." Bigelow will attempt launch in 2014, using the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Jun 9, 2010
@Josephus Hap: You sure you're not smoking something? The Space Shuttle can't go to the Moon. It's designed to go to low-Earth orbit and no higher. You'd need twice the rocketry (basically another set of boosters and an external tank) to get it to the Moon. In any case that'd be incredibly wasteful--the Shuttle carries a lot of mass (wings, etc.) that's unnecessary on a lunar trip and would need lots of extra fuel to move around. And once you get to the Moon, the Shuttle can't land. Also, it takes days, not hours, to get from here to the Moon. UFO technology? Are you talking about the inflatable stations? Those were developed on Earth by human engineers.
It's great to see space exploration privatized, with civilian companies working on their own to advance into space. With that said, however, we should not be abandoning NASA, or our national space program. Space is still big enough that competition isn't an issue between the government and private companies, however companies do not yet have the capacity to do what NASA has been doing for over 50 years, and to suddenly "quit space" and expect private companies to instantly rise to the task of picking up the slack is unrealistic and irresponsible, and opens the door for other countries to eclipse us in the ongoing "space race". Indeed, Russia has just raised the price for carrying American astronauts into space on their shuttles by several times, in a blatent act of price gouging, since we will no longer have shuttles left to do it with. This is ridiculous, we're becoming a laughingstock of the international space community. It would be such a shame for the first country to the moon to become the marginalized "special child" of space exploration, for no real reason at all.
NASA has a totally different mission than any private venture. NASA is, first and foremost, a research organization, dedicated to exploration an learning. Private ventures are as interested in basic research as drug companies are in doing basic research. Drug research is done and paid for by the public--it is only when a substance shows promise that the drug companies move in. NASA exists to explore new areas. Private ventures exist to exploit known technologies...with little overlap. Since there is no intent on the part of private industry to "take over" NASA's mission, they can hardly do the job more efficiently. Only a fool would turn their back to developing and exploiting off-planet resources--such resources dwarf those available on Earth to insignificance. From energy to water to fuels and beyond, the rest of the inner solar system is loaded with things we consider "scarce" resources. The future of the species, if it has one, is "out there," not "down here."
It is after all only a space-suit. One that doesnt have to mimic the shape of a body, contain easily movable joints and removable parts like gloves and helmet. All these things only reduce the risk of damage to what is essentially a huge ball wrapped in layer upon layer of webbing and foil shielding, bonded with polymers. There are to my knowledge no deaths from space-suit failure to date, and any serious accidents have not been widely reported or I'd know about those too. But the news has carried numerous stories of critical mechanical failure on just about everything else. You can shoot holes in cans, break bottles and jars with an air-gun, but it wont hole a good football because its flexible. I'd trust Bigelow to keep me breathing. Now, all I need is a few hundred grand to test that theory... Peace
Furthermore to my comment : When Bigolow has that "hotel" there , it will be protected by a forcefield from small meteorites. UFO technology.
Bigolow may be the winner in the hotel business. If Nasa still comes to it's senses by June 15, a Shuttle could, when using the offered UFO technology, fly one to the Moon in a couple of hours. The crew could relax there and make excursions on that little dead planet. Later a Shuttle could fly to Mars (one day's time only! ) and plant another other there. Same thing. Then Nasa and Bigolow could make some money with Space Tourists .If Nasa falls asleep, Bigolow might want to get in contact with the Russians. They have already expressed interest in the technology to fly to deep space.
The following statement reported as "fact" is in reality a bit disingenous: "The idea here is that private, commercial companies can be run more efficiently than NASA, which is a massive and expensive governmental organization." Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and all the other major aerospace companies (aka "The Primes") are all private, commercial companies. The problem has always been a "cost plus" vs. "fixed price" contractual arrangement with the commercial aerospace sector and the Government (i.e., NASA).
And just to reiterate, there has NEVER been any risk in expandable designs of 'popping' the hull. This is not a balloon. Any craft that stood any measurable risk of 'popping' would be ill equipped to survive in the near zero pressure environment of LEO.
thanks, geekinutah, I was just about to say the same thing. Aside from greater resistance to micrometeorites, expandable (Bigelow's preferred terminology) hulls tend to puncture, whereas rigid hulls in general and metal hulls in specific tend to shatter. The shatter event may be minor, but the difference is significant. In the case of a small hole, the flexible hull structure even stands some chance of temporarily self-sealing, whereas even a tiny hole in a rigid hull is a critical event. The estimated time required to repair a damaged inflatable hull is also measured in hours, whereas the rigid design gives astronauts tens of minutes to solve a depressurization event. This was as true of Transhab as it is of Bigelow's designs. Fortunately, we've never had the misfortune of demonstrating that capacity for either design, so this is ultimately all in theory. But my money is on the flexible design any day.
"Bigelow actually licensed some of the tech from an old NASA program. It was abandoned by NASA due to some of the inherent problems of an inflatable craft, namely that micro-meteorites had a tendency to pop the hull." This is not accurate, the transhab technology was actually shown to be more resistant to micro-meteorites than what is currently used as shielding on the ISS. There was never a reason give for transhab's cancellation. Some speculate that it was political or strictly a budget decision. For some more context here's an interview with the guy who led the development on transhab: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/686/1