SpaceX Sets New Record for Reusable Space Travel

On Tuesday afternoon a SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near Long Beach, California, after completing its third mission …


The capsule launched into its third trip to space on July 25 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Carried by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, it reached the space station two days later as they floated above southern Chile on July 27, according to a SpaceXpress release. The successful rendezvous marked SpaceX‘s eighteenth Commercial Resupply Services mission to the flying laboratory.

Before setting the new record, Dragon previously broke ground as the first commercial vehicle to dock with the ISS. SpaceX, a pet project of Tesla founder Elon Musk, is a leader in the blossoming for-profit space exploration industry.

Among the cargo returning aboard the Dragon capsule was a robot called CIMON, a “smart speaker” built to assist astronauts in their research, kind of like an advanced Amazon Alexa. Here on Earth, NASA will now examine the returning cargo. The bounty in Dragon’s cargo hold also includes the results of experiments growing moss in microgravity environments and the findings of NASA’s Goodyear tire investigation, which looks at the effects of gravity on silica.

Experiments on tires in the sky could have real impacts here on earth. As NASA explained in a statement on the Dragon splashdown, “A better understanding of silica morphology and the relationship between silica structure and its properties could provide improvements for increased fuel efficiency, which would reduce transportation costs and help to protect Earth’s environment.”

On the other side of the stratosphere, Dragon is reducing costs and expanding possibilities in space travel.

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    Boeing and Lockheed Will Help Supply the Space Station

    Three years ago, fresh off its successful experiment supplying the International Space Station (ISS) using commercial rockets from SpaceX and Orbital …

    And then there were three.

    Three years ago, fresh off its successful experiment supplying the International Space Station (ISS) using commercial rockets from SpaceX and Orbital ATK, NASA expanded its Commercial Resupply Services program by adding privately held Sierra Nevada Corporation as its third contractor.

    There was just one problem: While Sierra Nevada was working up a “Dream Chaser” spaceplane to deliver supplies to ISS, and was designing it to be reusable as many as 15 times to keep costs low, what Sierra Nevada did not have was a rocket able to put the Dream Chaser into orbit even once. What this meant was that, in order to fulfill its contractual commitment to make “a minimum” of six supply runs to ISS, Sierra Nevada would have to find a partner to get it into orbit.

    Last week it found that partner.

    Dream Chaser spaceplane during a recent flight test

    Image source: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

    Sierra Nevada and United Launch Alliance: Together at last

    On August 14, Sierra Nevada announced that it has chosen Boeing(NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin(NYSE:LMT) joint venture United Launch Alliance (ULA) as its partner, and ULA’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket as its launch vehicle.

    Sierra Nevada said that Vulcan will carry the Dream Chaser to the ISS six times on its inaugural mission in 2021, loaded with up to 12,000 pounds of cargo for the astronauts; each time, it will depart from ISS carrying 7,000 pounds of scientific experiments (and ISS trash), reenter Earth’s atmosphere, and land them safely on a runway, touching down exactly like what it is — a (space) plane.

    What it means to investors

    For Sierra Nevada, this is a significant development. With help from ULA, the company will become a key member of the team of companies keeping the ISS in business, and gain itself a toehold in a space economy that’s on the verge of expanding to the moon.

    But this new partnership is arguably even more important for Sierra Nevada’s new partner, ULA, and for the two companies that own it, Boeing and Lockheed. Surprising for companies of their size, especially given their intimate ties to NASA, Boeing and Lockheed have repeatedly been shut out of past Commercial Resupply Services contracts, losing to lower-cost competitors. Through the partnership with Sierra Nevada and its reusable spaceplane, however, Boeing and Lockheed have finally found an “in” to the lucrative ISS resupply business, which is generating revenue of nearly $2 billion annually for its contractors over the period running from 2016 to 2024.

    ULA’s win is also a big vote of confidence in its new Vulcan Centaur rocket, which technically hasn’t even been built yet. (Although initially scheduled to enter service in 2019, Vulcan’s first launch has since been pushed out to 2021 at the earliest.) As ULA CEO Tory Bruno noted in a statement on the Sierra Nevada contract, “this is one of the first contracts for our new Vulcan Centaur rocket, and the first of the six missions will serve as the rocket’s second certification flight” — helping to win Vulcan the right to bid on additional contracts for NASA once that certification is in hand.

    Boeing and Lockheed bet the company

    Vulcan is absolutely crucial to ULA’s future as a space contractor — partly because it’s expected to “cost significantly less than [ULA’s Atlas V heavy launch rocket] while offering the same reliability,” according to ULA vice president of major development Mark Peller, and partly because it’s the first part of ULA’s plan to develop reusable rocket technology to close the technology gap between itself and SpaceX.

    Even more than that, though, Vulcan represents a “bet the company” gamble that ULA is making, and that Lockheed Martin’s $10 billion annual space business (and a good portion of the $23 billion that Boeing Defense, Space & Security makes, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data) are making vicariously. As Peller explains, Vulcan “can do what the full family of Atlas and Delta rockets can do.” Relying on that promise, ULA intends to replace its existing families of Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, and build nothing but Vulcans after 2021.

    The 2021 Dream Chaser launch could be our first clue whether that bet will pay off.

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    Second docking adapter for commercial crew vehicles installed on International Space Station

    The dock adapter, actually IDA-3 since the first IDA was lost during the SpaceX launch failure of its CRS-7 mission on June 28, 2015. IDA-2, which was …

    The International Space Station is now more than ready for crew-carrying spacecraft flown by commercial companies to pay it a visit: The second planned International Dock Adapter (IDA) was installed on the Space Station during a spacewalk by NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Andrew Morgan earlier today.

    The dock adapter is actually IDA-3, as the first IDA was lost during the SpaceX launch failure of its CRS-7 mission on June 28, 2015. IDA-2, which was intended to be the second installed on ISS, instead became the first and was delivered in July 2016 during the SpaceX CRS-9 resupply mission.

    IDA-2 has already proven effective, too: It received its first docking vehicle on March 3 of this year, when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Demo-1 test vehicle used the automated docking procedure designed for this adapter to demonstrate how it will work eventually when crew are on board.

    IDA-3 is the second working dock adapter that uses this automated procedure, which makes it so that vehicles arriving at the ISS don’t have to be caught and guided in manually by astronauts with the help of the station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm. The automated procedure is designed as an industry standard of sorts, and should mean that any commercial crew craft, from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, to Boeing’s CST-100, and any other potential future craft, can easily and automatically dock with the ISS to transfer over passengers and cargo.

    Boeing is the company that was contracted to design and build these docking adapters. Each weigh about 1,150 pounds, and they’re about 42 inches high and 63 inches wide, which means it’s a bit of a tight squeeze for crew to come through (these aren’t big step-through passageways like you sometimes see in movies).

    Having both the IDAs installed on the Space Station is key milestone in the commercial crew program, but there are still plenty of hurdles left to clear — including the first test flights of commercial Crew vehicles with astronauts on board.

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    Don’t let your dreams be dreams! Itty-bitty space shuttle to ride into orbit on a Vulcan Centaur

    In 2016, NASA added SNC to the second round of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) for the International Space Station, joining SpaceX and the …

    Wannabe space station supplier Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has selected ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket to launch its Dream Chaser freighter in 2021.

    Dream Chaser is a fan favourite, being a lifting body-based spacecraft that can glide to a runway and land in a manner reminiscent of the old NASA Space Shuttles.

    ICYMI: @SierraNevCorp has selected ULA’s #VulcanCentaur rocket to launch six #SNCDreamChaser missions to the Space Station.

    — ULA (@ulalaunch) August 14, 2019

    Like SNC’s Dream Chaser, ULA’s Vulcan has yet to launch, with the first lift-off for the new rocket tentatively scheduled in 2021. As with some Atlas V variants, it will feature strap-on solid rocket boosters to lift heavy payloads. Unlike the Atlas, however, the first stage will be powered by two of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin BE-4 engines.

    The BE-4, seven of which will power the reusable New Glenn booster, has also yet to see action outside of a test stand.

    Of course, the Dream Chaser could launch on any conventional rocket so the selection of one that has yet to make its first flight is brave.

    Dream Chaser was famously intended as a vehicle to ferry crew to and from the International Space Station and bears a distinct resemblance to NASA’s HL-20 concept. Back then, the plan was to stick it on top of a ULA stack so perhaps last night’s announcement was a little less surprising.

    Sadly for SNC, in 2013 the Dream Chaser crashed following its first free flight after being dropped from a helicopter. One of the main landing gears failed to deploy and the vehicle swerved off the runway. While relatively minor damage was sustained, and the crew compartment remained intact, NASA opted not to proceed with the design and instead went with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

    In 2016, NASA added SNC to the second round of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) for the International Space Station, joining SpaceX and the then Orbital ATK in ferrying cargo to the ISS. Unlike the Cygnus but like the Dragon, the Dream Chaser will be able to bring substantial amounts of gear down to Earth, plugging a gaping hole left flapping in the space programme since the epic down-mass capabilities of the Space Shuttle were lost.

    Unlike the splashdown of the Dragon capsule, the Dream Chaser’s relatively gentle runway landing means boffins should be able to get access to the returned cargo within minutes of touchdown. And to further delight Shuttle-huggers, those landings are planned to be at the old Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center.

    CRS-2 calls for six missions between 2019 and 2024, and SNC has passed milestones confirming that there is a good chance the thing might actually make it off the ground. The team had originally selected an Atlas V for the initial missions starting in 2020, but a slip to 2021 means the Vulcan should be available.

    And 2013’s wobble? The company conducted a successful free flight and autonomous landing in 2017. ®

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    Former Juniper Exec, DISA Vet David Mihelcic Named to Competitive Range Solutions’ Advisory …

    David Mihelcic, an 18-year Defense Information Systems Agency veteran and former federal chief technology and strategy officer at Juniper Networks …
    David Mihelcic

    David Mihelcic, an 18-year Defense Information Systems Agency veteran and former federal chief technology and strategy officer at Juniper Networks (NYSE: JNPR) , has joined the advisory board of veteran-owned technology company Competitive Range Solutions.

    He aims to strengthen CRS’ technical approach to support customers and brings more than three decades of information technology and cybersecurity experience in the defense sector, the company said Saturday. At Juniper, he led a team of direct sales engineers and the technology aspects of the networking provider’s federal division.

    Mihelcic worked as chief executive engineer of network services at DISA for two years, then served as deputy program director for the Global Information Grid-Bandwidth Expansion program for four years before he was promoted to the CTO position in 2005. Alton, Ill.-based CRS offers program management, acquisition and operations support services to the government sector.

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