All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2013:
Elysium, Earth; Elysium, Mars (Sept.)
The Futures We Love to Fear (Aug.)
Do I Really Exist? (May)
New in 2015:
Short story The Marchioness
2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…
2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…
2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…
2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…
2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…
2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…
2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…
Index to essays – including:
The Great Sociology Debate (2011)
Building Selenopolis (2008)
Manned spaceflight on the plateau
awaits a new business model
Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK
With the Space Shuttle now out of the picture, manned spaceflight has settled onto a new zero-growth plateau.
Cumulative man-days in space for 2012 amounted to 1939.44, 11% down from the peak of 2190.11 achieved in 2010. That peak activity occurred thanks to six-person occupation of the ISS for most of the time coinciding with the last few Shuttle flights.
This plateau of activity at around the 2000 man-days/year level looks likely to persist for several years, until either or both of two things happen:
While a small amount of growth may be possible from Chinese space science building on last year’s successful Shenzhou 9 flight to Tiangong 1, a much more substantial and sustainable prospect for expansion is commercially marketed passenger spaceflight which attracts custom from a broad mixture of government, university, commercial and private clients (re the last of these, the British soprano Sarah Brightman is the latest to sign up for a trip to the ISS).
Last May, SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace announced a collaboration aimed at creating just such a service. Assuming that SpaceX can successfully qualify their Falcon 9 / Dragon system for passenger spaceflight over the next three years or so, this would open up a new paradigm for manned access to space with possibly far-reaching consequences for the growth of a true space economy.
SpaceX is extremely well positioned for such a move after the success of their two Dragon flights to the ISS in May and October of 2012. Elon Musk’s recent lecture to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London is available on YouTube.
Recent video of an extremely smoky test flight of SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket can be found here. While Grasshopper may appear to some to be an unlikely route to economical space access, the point of it is that, as Charles Lurio emphasises in the 31 December issue of The Lurio Report, “Grasshopper is a tool to work towards reusability by incremental testing, a fundamental part of the New Space development credo.” He adds: “Which approach is better?... _any and all that work_. What’s to be celebrated is the opportunity to try many different paths, in contrast to the frog-marching imperatives of the centrally directed Apollo era.”
The year just ended saw only 5 manned launches to orbit (four Soyuz, one Shenzhou) with 15 seats. It is scarcely necessary to remind the reader that this statistic is absolutely dismal in comparison with the 11 launches (9 Shuttle, 2 Soyuz) carrying 63 people to orbit over a quarter of a century ago. On this measure, manned spaceflight has still not yet recovered from the Challenger disaster in January 1986, and space agencies around the world continue to display no interest whatsoever in promoting any such recovery.
For whatever reason, their view remains that manned spaceflight must remain an elite activity, with meaningful growth towards a truly spacefaring civilisation postponed to the indefinite future, and Apollo-style astronaut jaunts to the asteroids or Mars substituting for any sustainable structural consolidation of our still tentative foothold in space.
Our hope for the New Year 2013 and beyond must be that the old space agency paradigm is swept away by private sector initiatives, at first based on a traditional ballistic missile architecture such as that of Falcon 9, but increasingly moving to spaceplanes such as Skylon by the 2020s.
The 28 November press release on last year’s successful test programme of the heat-exchanger which is the heart of Skylon can be found on the Reaction Engines website.