NASA Cranks Up Its Rocket Science

Commercial space industry tests rockets, books flights, and builds spaceports in anticipation of playing a bigger role in the U.S. space program.

John Foley, Editor, InformationWeek

June 27, 2012

4 Min Read

NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space

NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space

NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

NASA and its aerospace partners are setting the stage for the next space missions through a series of rocket tests and other advances to spacecraft launch systems.

The space agency announced this week that a rocket thruster developed for Boeing's Commercial Space Transportation spacecraft, the CST-100, had successfully completed testing at the White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico. The tests evaluated the thruster's performance in extreme heat and made sure that its valves worked properly.

The CST-100 will comprise a crew module and a detachable service module. When fully configured, the spacecraft will be equipped with two dozen of the thrusters, manufactured by Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne, to be used for launch, in-space maneuvering, and reentry to Earth's atmosphere.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, this week posted a video showing its Merlin 1D engine firing smoothly for 185 seconds, the "full mission duration" of its planned use. An earlier version of the Merlin has powered three flights of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, including a round trip to the ISS in May, the first time a commercial spacecraft made that cargo-carrying trip.

[ NASA is making it easier for the private sector to license its technology. Read more: NASA Unveils Technology Transfer Portal. ]

The Merlin 1D will be manufactured in a more efficient way, with increased use of robotics and fewer parts, according to SpaceX. Plans call for it to be used in a Falcon 9 flight next year.

In another development, the "core stage" of NASA's next-generation Space Launch System passed a technical review last week. "Now that we have completed this review, we go from requirements to real blueprint," said Tony Lavoie, manager of the SLS Stages Element at Marshall Space Flight Center.

The core stage--more than 200 feet tall and 27.5 feet in diameter--is the heart of the launch vehicle, according to NASA. The SLS, manufactured by Boeing, will hoist NASA's Orion spacecraft and other payloads into low-Earth orbit and beyond. The space agency envisions the SLS being used in support of missions to asteroids, Lagrange points, the moon, and Mars. Its first test flight is scheduled for 2017.

Also this week, NASA extended an existing contract with Orbital Sciences to include its Antares launch vehicle for future missions. Under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, Orbital Sciences is scheduled to conduct two demonstration launches this year, after which it will begin providing resupply missions to the ISS.

With the conclusion of the Space Shuttle program, NASA is now depending on commercial partners like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to deliver cargo and, beginning in 2017, crews to the ISS. In testimony to Congress this month, the Government Accountability Office said there's been a steady buildup of research and development as the commercial space industry takes on a broader role, including carrying fee-paying passengers into orbit.

"The number of commercial space launches is anticipated to increase in the years ahead as NASA begins procuring commercial cargo transportation services to the ISS and private industry continues developing vehicles for space tourism flights," according to GAO. Virgin Galactic's waiting list of prepaid passengers now stands at 500, and 16 spaceports are planned or in development around the country to support the commercial space industry.

The forthcoming SLS rocket will use repurposed Space Shuttle engines for its first few flights. NASA has 16 of the RS-25 engines available for use.

Not all of NASA's rockets are packed with liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen, or other combustibles. When the retired Space Shuttle Atlantis goes on display at the Kennedy Space Center in July, it will be equipped with three newly installed "replica" engines.

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About the Author(s)

John Foley

Editor, InformationWeek

John Foley is director, strategic communications, for Oracle Corp. and a former editor of InformationWeek Government.

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