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News roundup: Resuable SpaceX, new Mars simulation, Virgin's new pilot and Bigelow layoffs

Posted by [email protected] on November 6, 2011 at 8:05 AM

In space tourism news this week:

  • SpaceX to develop fully reusable launch system and more
  • Russia proposes Mars mission simulation on ISS
  • Virgin Galactic recruits first commercial space pilot
  • Bigelow Aerospace lays off half of workforce


SpaceX reveals reusable launcher plans and Mars ambitions

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has unveiled a video showing how a fully reusable two-stage launch system could work.

Musk also told the National Press Club the world's super-rich could colonise Mars for around half a million dollars on a a one-way trip.

The reusable version of the Falcon 9 is already code-named Grasshopper, based on an Environmental Protection Agency application published in October detailing SpaceX's test proposals.

The first and second stages won't use parachutes for a water-borne splashdown and recovery like the Space Shuttle's solid rocket boosters, but will land vertically under their own power on land.

The Dragon Capsule would abandon its service module and make a similar powered landing, using the pusher launch abort system as a retro rocket.

Of course, you need a lot less fuel to return to Earth, since the atmosphere does most of your braking for you, but the real problem is attitude control as you slow a tall rocket stack down to the speeds needed for a soft landing on hydraulic ram legs.

Musk's Mars vision has the tone of a Bond villain-esque plan to ship the super-rich from a dying Earth to a Martian utopia.

He's estimating a ticket price of about $500,000 per person would be affordable to about one in a million of the world's population.

At today's population growth rates, and the time it will take to develop a system for colonising Mars, Musk predicts 8,000 people will be able to afford his tickets.

What he doesn't say is how anyone will convince the world's elite to abandon their comforts, or how many PAs, housekeepers and servants they'll be able to take with them.

To be fair, Musk proposes the world could achieve his Mars colonisation with just one-quarter of one per cent of GDP, but he does seem to see a plutocratic future for humanity.


Russia proposes virtual Mars mission aboard the International Space Station

The ISS could be used for an 18-month simulated round trip to Mars, suggests the Russian Space Agency.

Roscosmos and the ESA have just finished a 500-day simulated Mars mission on Earth, with authentic communications delays and space-suited expeditions onto a simulated Mars.

The Russian space agency suggests the next stage could be to have two cosmonauts staying aboard the ISS for up to 18 months.

It wasn't unusual for Russia's spacemen to stay on earlier space stations for 300 days or more, but ISS tours of duty are limited to six months to limit bone and muscle mass loss.

A 540-day Mars mission would push astronauts to their limits, but simulating the experience in Earth orbit seems like a sensible precaution, perhaps using one of Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable modules to simulate Earth's first interplanetary spacecraft.

ISS work schedules are booked up until 2014, but the space station needs a compelling reason to keep its partners signed up for the long term, especially as America seems to be losing interest in the station it's spent so long building.


Virgin Galactic appoints its first commercial astronaut pilot

Former USAF test pilot Keith Colmer will become the first astronaut pilot to join the commercial spaceline's flight team.

Colmer will begin flight training and testing with chief pilot David Mackay, preparing for operational missions aboard WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic's twinned carrier planes and spacecraft.

Former combat pilot Colmer has more than 12 years of operational, developmental and experimental aircraft test flight experience, and more than 10 years of military experience in USAF spacecraft operations and flying.

He's a graduate of the USAF Test Pilot School, USAF Undergraduate Space Training Programme, Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Programme, and has a BSc in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT.

Virgin Galactic will announce additional commercial pilot crew as it nears the launch of commercial operations.


Tardy private spaceflight progress forces Bigelow to lay off workers

Bigelow Aerospace has laid off half its staff because no-one is ready to fly to its inflatable space habitats.

The company has successfully flown two test modules, and was hoping that commercial spaceflight would be spurred on by NASA's commercial crew delivery programme.

But delays to CCDev have pushed back any hopes of spaceships being ready until at least 2016, including the capsule from Bigelow's partner, Boeing.

Now founder Robert Bigelow has had to reduce its staff from 115 to 51 until the private spaceflight business catches up and other international clients recover from the global recession.

It would be easy to blame Bigelow and other space entrepeneurs for relying on government help, but one of government's roles is to encourage new economic development.

Unfortunately, US industry's greatest enemy today is a House and Senate where the members have become so entrenched in pre-election bipartisan warfare that they've abdicated any pretense of governing responsibly. Perhaps Elon Musk's got the right idea after all.

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