Monday, April 11, 2011

50 Years after Gagarin: The Next Great Space Race

Yuri Gagarin.
Tuesday is the 50th anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's journey into space aboard the Vostok 3KA-3 (Vostok 1) spacecraft, launched from atop a Soviet Vostok-K rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome Site No.1 on April 12, 1961 for a short, single orbit of the Earth.

According to this media advisory, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) will celebrate by patching a signal to the International Space Station (ISS), where the orbiting expedition 27 crew will take questions from journalists. CSA astronaut Robert Thirsk, who spent six months in space in 2009, will also be available for comment.

As for Gagarin, after his flight he became a worldwide celebrity, touring widely to promote the Soviet Union (USSR) and serving as an emblem of the early Soviet lead in our first great space race, a mid-to-late twentieth century competition between the USSR and the United States (US) for supremacy in outer space exploration.

The US won that race but then withdrew from the finish line, which was defined in 1961 by US President John F. Kennedy as "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth" before the end of the decade. The USSR eventually collapsed, leaving the world stage entirely and being replaced by the successor states of the Russian Federation.

But 50 years on, it's surprising how little has actually changed.

The Russians access space using a series of capsules and rockets designed for the Soviet space program by the Korolyov Design Bureau in the 1960s but still in service today. The US won't have access to space after the US space shuttle retires later this year, but there are a number of options on the drawing board just waiting to roll out, which is much the same as the situation at the dawn of the last space age.

X-15 being released from underneath a B-52.
Here's another similarity.

The best and most promising spacecraft undergoing testing either now or 50 years in the past was (and still is) suborbital, winged and carried aloft underneath a larger, conventional powered aircraft.

In concept and execution, there is very little to differentiate the 1950's design of the North American X-15 rocket-powered aircraft/ space plane and the early 21st century design of the Scaled Composites Space Ship 2 (SS2).

The materials used might be different, the avionics more advanced and the SS2's "feathered" wing, which helps to slow down the craft during re-entry, may work more elegantly than the high temperature materials used to protect the X-15, but any X-15 worker from the 1950's transported into the present would surely recognize SS2 as being cut from the same cloth and built for the same purpose.

SS2 being released from the White Knight 2.
But in the 1950's the X-15 was a unique plane, built in secret for the US military using technologies not expected to ever become widely available for public use.

So it never was.

SS2 is only the first of a series of suborbital, privately funded commercial space craft as outlined in my January 11th, 2011 post "The Shrinking Market for Sounding Rockets." They include craft from:
  • Blue Origin, a privately-funded company recently awarded $3.7 million in funding in 2009 by NASA under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program to development concepts and technologies to support future human spaceflight operations. The company has also built and flown a testbed of its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft design at their Culberson County, Texas facility.
  • Space Adventures which presently organizes orbital trips to the ISS and plans to offer suborbital and lunar spaceflights to scientists and the general public with US based suborbital vehicle developer Armadillo Aerospace.
These latest and greatest offerings are meant to be noticed by paying customers looking to kick-start our next great space race which is going to be fought, this time, for publicity and commercial gain.

So they will be.

Of course, these new craft will also add to our scientific knowledge. According to the October 12th, 2009 Universe Today article "Suborbital Could Be ‘Next Big Thing’ for Space Science:"
Sub-orbital science appears to be a win-win situation for both scientists and the nascent commercial spaceflight companies. For researchers, the flights represent cheaper and more frequent access to space than anything NASA can provide with the space shuttle, parabolic flights or sounding rockets.
Sub-orbital manned launchers can also provide useful, hypersonic point-to-point transportation services and serve as the basis for manned orbital launchers as outlined in the February 29th, 2008 Hyperbola article titled "SpaceShipThree Revealed."

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson.
They can also be readily modified to become unmanned, orbital, micro-satellite launchers as outlined in the November 10th, 2009 BBC News Space Man blog entry titled "LauncherOne: Virgin Galactic's other project."

Just as the first great space race was about to explode 50 years ago when Yuri Gagarin climbed into his tiny capsule, the second is just about ready to start now.

Someone should tell the CSA and the Department of National Defence (DND) that the cost of a micro-satellite launcher is going to drop an order of magnitude, travel time between continents is going to shrink substancially and achieving orbit will soon become much, much easier just as soon as these new space planes, with pedigrees going back 50 years, finally begin commercial service.

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