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Boeing Wins Manned Spacecraft Bid—We Think

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Boeing-capsule-CST-100When President Obama announced the end of the Constellation program, many people worried about the U.S. not having a method of transport for its own astronauts. Since then, American astronauts have been buying rides to the ISS on Russian Soyuz capsules. Given that Russia will soon be bowing out of the ISS, it’s now particularly important that NASA figures out another way to transport its astronauts. Hence the Commercial Crew Program, NASA’s way of soliciting transportation services from private companies. The three contenders were SpaceX’s Dragon, Sierra Nevada’s Dreamchaser, and Boeing’s CST-100. This morning, the Wall Street Journal reported that NASA “is poised” to award the $3 billion to Boeing.

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SpaceX Will Unveil The Dragon V2 Spacecraft Tonight

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unveilWhat are you doing tonight at 10:00 PM EST? For most of us science and tech geeks, that’s a rhetorical question. We’ll be gathered around our computers, watching SpaceX unveil the Dragon V2—the next generation of the Dragon Spacecraft. This iteration isn’t for shuttling cargo to the ISS, it’s for taking astronauts there, and beyond.

Dragon has been proving its worth for years, becoming the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the ISS and serving as regular cargo service to the station. But SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has always had grander plans. Since the U.S. currently relies on Russian Soyuz capsules to get astronauts into space—a method of transportation that won’t be available to us for much longer—now is the perfect time to reveal the spacecraft that may take its place and restore the U.S.’s ability to launch its own astronauts into space by 2017. The V2, which Musk will unveil himself tonight via the webcast, is also known as the “Space Taxi.”

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Meet Dream Chaser, America’s Next Space Shuttle

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Dream ChaserAs you probably know, President Obama announced his decision to end NASA’s space shuttle program Constellation back in 2010. Since then, the US has been paying to transport astronauts to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz capsules. NASA designed the four-person Space Launch System, a heavy launch vehicle, to replace the retired shuttles. So I’ve just been waiting patiently for that to come to fruition, somehow unaware of the Dream Chaser spacecraft, a commercial spaceflight transport system that will be able to take a crew of seven astronauts to the ISS, despite being about 1/3rd the size of a conventional shuttle.

The Dream Chaser will ride aboard an Atlas 5 rocket, which will propel the craft into low Earth orbit, potentially ferrying astronauts to the ISS. Service—or some kind of crewed mission—is expected to begin in 2017, with the first orbital crewless flight in late 2016. Dream Chaser’s first unmanned flight occurred in 2013, when it flew successfully but crashed due to a malfunction in its landing gear. Actually, the vehicle flipped over at the very end, coming to rest in an upright position, after which the malfunctioning left landing gear deployed. I like a spacecraft with a sense of humor. Despite the rocky ending, the flight was regarded as an overall success.

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Dream Chaser Spaceplane Announces 2016 Launch

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dream chaserFor a while, it looked like mega-bazillionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic would be the first company to get privately funded spaceflight successfully into space with crews and passengers, but not even a recent successful test flight can whitewash the constant delays that Virgin has suffered. Elon Musk’s SpaceX appears it will be the frontrunner, geared up for a 2015 launch. But should they fall behind schedule, Sierra Nevada Company will gladly capitalize with their Dream Chaser spacecraft, which will fire off on an automated orbital flight on November 1, 2016. Unless, you know, it doesn’t.

This decision to go forward with their flight plan comes just three months after a mostly successful prototype test flight ended with a “Whoops!” when part of the landing gear failed to deploy, sending the vehicle skidding off track. Really, that’s a pretty minimal problem, considering everything inside the plane itself remained intact, and all of the flight data was logged for the duration, which makes fixing the mistakes that much easier. And I guess the kinks are falling away with ease.

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SpaceX Is One Step Closer To Manned Flight Capability

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DragonBack in 2009, NASA began the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), designed to promote private sector development of human spaceflight. The eventual goal is to jumpstart a spaceflight industry capable of taking tourists and government astronauts into space. The program’s focus is on crew transportation system designs, an important first step in the development of a commercial industry which is predicted to deliver cheap, reliable, and more efficient transportation of space-going folks into Low-Earth Orbit. In 2012, NASA received proposals from companies committed to working on fully developed and integrated crew transportation systems. SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation were among those that received funding after a NASA evaluation, and are now expected to meet 15 milestones on the way to realizing their privatized human spaceflight plans. SpaceX just reached, and passed, the eighth milestone—a review of its in-flight abort procedures.

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft made its first manned test flight in December 2010, and a few years later became the first commercial vessel to dock with the ISS. Dragon is partially reusable, and will be sent into space by the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. The recent review focused on the craft’s SuperDraco engines, the software that controls the abort procedure, and the communication between the Dragon and the Falcon 9.

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NASA Commits A Billion Dollars To Develop New Craft For Human Spaceflight

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With all the news about the Curiosity Rover and SpaceX’s unmanned foray to the International Space Station, space exploration is back in the news in a way it hasn’t been for years. But one crucial and important thing is missing: a new spacecraft to replace the retired Shuttle and provide the future of human spaceflight for NASA. A NASA press release reveals that they’re focused on solving that problem, partnering with three companies to “design and develop the next generation of U.S. human spaceflight capabilities.”

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft in the process of docking with the International Space Station.

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