Tag Archives: Space Travel

Space Walk at the ISS

Building the International Space Station (ISS)

In part two of our coverage of the ISS (you can check out previous coverage here), we will take a closer look at how the station was actually built. With over a dozen countries involved, and so many different components (159 had been installed as of June 2011) that would make up this marvel of space architecture and international cooperation, things could never have been easy. The assembly of the International Space Station began in November 1998 when an autonomous Russian Proton rocket delivered Zarya into space, the backbone module of what would become the ISS, providing propulsion, attitude control, communications and electrical power but lacking long-term life support functions. Two weeks later NASA attached its first module, called Unity – this module then allowed the Space Shuttle to dock to the space station – to Zarya, and assembly was now truly underway.

It was to be another two years before the station would have a module for permanent habitation attached, when in July 2000 Zvezda was launch. This Russian module added sleeping quarters, a toilet and kitchen, oxygen generators, exercise equipment, plus a whole array of  communications amongst other things and it soon took over computer command control from Zarya. The first resident crew arrived in November of that same year in a Soyuz capsule at a time when MIR was being decommissioned and in the two years following, assembly milestones included the larger solar arrays, the primary US research facility Destiny and the station’s main robot arm Canadarm2. Then the unfortunate happened, as Space Shuttle Columbia blew up, putting the entire Space Shuttle programme and further expansion of the ISS at risk, but luckily assembly continued in 2005 as the investigation was concluded and modifications to the Shuttles were made.

In the years following, the station expanded rapidly with more truss segments and solar arrays being added, being able to support a growing number of modules including Harmony (also known as Node 2) which by itself expanded the station’s internal space by 20%, the European laboratory Columbus, and JAXA’s Kibō which was not only Japan’s first manned experiment facility, but is also the largest laboratory on the International Space Station. Early 2010 a third node, Tranquility, got added alongside Cupola, ESA‘s observatory module which you can partly see in Chris Hadfield‘s music video “Is Somebody Singing” as he looks out of its seven windows while playing the guitar. Space Shuttle Discovery’s last mission was to bring module Leonardo to the station, and by June 2011 a total of 15 modules made up the ISS.

Originally planned to have been finished by 2004/2005, it took till 2011 for it to be officially finished. However development is still ongoing in 2013 without the Space Shuttle programme and while there is already talk about decommissioning the station, new modules and components are still being added. If you want to know more, be sure to not miss this Discovery Channel documentary, and this handy infographic. Upon completion the station will have a mass in excess of 400 tonnes and if you look carefully into the nightsky, you might see those lucky few astronauts orbiting around 400 kilometers above you.

XCOR Aerospace Lynx Mark III

XCOR Aerospace

Looking at the near-future, we can safely start saying that the second half of this decade will see the rise of a new industry: space tourism. One of the companies that will do battle in this arena is XCOR Aerospace, a small American private rocket engine and spaceflight development company originally based at the Mojave Spaceport in Mojave, California. Its story starts in 1999, when four employees of Rotary Rocket’s rocket engine development team got laid off and decided that as they knew how to build rockets, they should have a shot at doing it themselves. Why should you pay attention to these guys? Well for one, they’ve got Buzz Aldrin on their side as you can see in this promotional campaign below by Unilever.

The Mojave Spaceport by the way is close by Edwards Air Force base, where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Aside from Aldrin, they are going about it a whole different way. Forget booster rockets and secondary launch vehicles. XCOR‘s Lynx looks like a mini-Learjet, but unlike a Learjet, this tiny reusable space ship can take off and travel to space all by itself. It is the company’s plan to do this four times a day, six days a week, which would allow XCOR to accept passengers, space experiments, and small satellites for deployment on just two days’ notice! An impressive feat if they can deliver on it.

The experience will be quite different from what Virgin Galactic is offering, as you’ll stay strapped into your seat in a pressure suit and it will just be you and the pilot (unlike the latter where you will be one of six paying customers, albeit not in a cockpit seat) but Rick Searfoss, XCor Chief Test Pilot and former NASA astronaut with three shuttle missions under his belt, says “We’re trying to position the Lynx adventure as kind of The Right Stuff experience.

In terms of a schedule, we haven’t seen a date yet as to when the first paying customers will be able to fulfil their dream. XCOR‘s CEO Jeff Greason at one point mentioned that they are in “the homestretch toward the first flight” but that the process can’t be rushed. “We’re not an industry that can ship beta.” In another recent development, XCOR moved announced it would move its operations and research to Texas where it has been promised $10 million in economic-development incentives and a more relaxed regulatory regime. The corporate website still says California, so surely a TBC soon.


Dennis Tito - the first space tourist

Dennis Tito (1940)

Dennis Tito is, while not the first non-astronaut in space, definitely the first space tourist. Self-funded with the capital he built up through his company Wilshire Associates (investment management since 1972), you wouldn’t exactly class him as the average neighbour living around the corner. With a Bachelor of Science in Astronautics and Aeronautics from NYU and a Master of Science in Engineering Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Tito was already well on his way to achieving his 40-year goal. On top of that, he is also a former scientist of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Being a pioneer is rarely easy, and often very expensive and the same goes for Tito. His milestone adventure set the New York born engineer and entrepreneur back $20 million. A small sum if you compare it to the value of the international clientele his company represents ($12.5 trillion) but definitely not even in the same ballpark as the flights Virgin Galactic, XCor Aerospace and others will offer in coming year (around the $100k-$250k mark seems to be the benchmark – given those flights won’t offer you to stay in orbit on board the ISS). Tito however did do it in 2001, over a decade before any of these companies would achieve flying humans into space on a commercial space flight. And he didn’t have an easy ride – NASA refused to take him up, or even train him on the grounds that he was not a trained astronaut… so the Russians trained him for 900 hours and facilitated the trip. Ten years before that, in 1991, he looked into going up into space on a trip to Moscow. Unfortunately his ticket became void in disastrous fashion, when the MIR space station fell uncontrollably from the sky that year.

It was space tourism company Space Adventures who brokered for Tito to join the Soyuz TM-32 mission in April 2001 and he ended up staying in orbit – most of that on board the International Space Station – for nearly 8 days. As we saw with later space tourists, he did several scientific experiments while doing his 128 orbits around the Earth. Not resting there, in January 2013 Tito founded the Inspiration Mars Foundation. Its mission: “launch a manned mission to flyby Mars in 2018“. That trip would take 501 days taking into account the shortest route possible with today’s technology – although it would probably take a considerable amount of training for the astronauts selected to withstand the psychological and physical rigors of that journey.

In an interview with the BBC 10 years after his achievement he said:

“I often thought that if I did spend my last penny, I could live on social security for the rest of my life and still be happy, because I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve. It was a sense of completeness – from then on, everything is a bonus. And the last 10 years, everything since then, has been just extra. And I think I am one of the happiest humans alive because of that.”

Start saving for the pursuit of happiness…


International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS)

By far the most known man-made object in space must be the International Space Station, or ISS. As large as a football field, with some patience and knowing where to look (check here for its current position) you could even spot it with the naked eye. The best chance to see it would be the hours before sunrise or after sunset, when the ISS is sunlit but the ground and sky are dark. Not only is it a behemoth of a construction, it was also astronomically expensive. If you look at the modules alone, you are talking around the 60 to 70 billion dollar mark… including transportation to and from (shuttle flights at $1.4 billion each for example) and other partners’ budget, it would be closer to $150 billion dollars. That’s $150,000,000,000!  A sum even Bill Gates, often quoted to be the richest man on the planet, couldn’t afford.

The Space Station is much more than an expensive construction for those few lucky astronauts though. As a collaboration of 15 nations working together to create a world-class, state-of-the-art orbiting research facility it provided the facilities to inspire a generation with science shows and genuine mini-concerts, provided tons of research data already and is probably the greatest ever human feat of international cooperation. In fact, you can check for yourself what the inhabitants are currently up to here (including sound)!

NASA‘s ISS website is pretty comprehensive – it even tells you who’s on the station right now, and who will be on the next mission for instance. But let’s not forget that it wouldn’t have been possible to build the station without the funding and technical input and resources of the European Space Agency (or ESA, which is comprised of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom), the Russian Federal Space Agency (commonly referred to as Roscosmos, i.e. Russia), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) – this last one only having been established in 1989! All these nations’ organisations came together in January 1998 to sign the Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) which basically lays out who owns which modules, the station usage by the participant nations, and responsibilities for resupplying the whole mission.

Next time, we will check how the station was actually built. And perhaps you’ll see the ISS flying by next time you look up but better pay attention cause at 28,000 km per hour, it circles the Earth every 90 minutes. Stay tuned!

Blue Origin's crew capsul in space

Blue Origin

Blue Origin is a privately funded aerospace company set up by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, the man who made his billions – that’s billions, not millions – proving to the world that e-commerce was a viable business model. The secretive company has since 2000 been working on a suborbital crew capsule, conducting tests under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Blue Origin is developing a variety of technologies, with a focus on rocket-powered Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and orbital space. The company’s aim is to launch a spacecraft called New Shepard (named after Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space in 1961), a biconic design that can hold at least three astronauts, using a reusable first stage rocket to limit operating costs.

The company motto is Gradatim Ferociter, Latin for “Step-by-Step, Ferociously”. Not to be confused with Richard Dreyfuss’ “Baby Steps” in What About Bob? Besides all that, Bezos also seems to have developed a liking towards the Apollo program, as his privately funded expedition recently recovered two F1 engines from the bottom of the sea – you can read all about it here. Nice! We’re looking forward to the day where he decides to breathe some new life in the Zissou Society.

Back on topic, Blue Origin makes use of its own spaceport located about 25 miles north of Van Horn, Texas as well as NASA’s test facilities where they in October 2012 tested part of their new rocket engine. NASA In the meantime is hoping its CCP funding will pay off by 2017, because currently it is depending on the Russian Soyuz for supplying the International Space Station. It seems the burden of exploring space is shifting more and more from NASA, ESA and the like to private sector companies – let’s all look forward to the adventures that are bound to unfold in the coming decade – Blue Origin is definitely making steps in the right direction to be a part of it all.

SpaceX Dragon C2


Let’s take a closer look at SpaceX. If the fact that it was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk (aka “the real Tony Stark“) doesn’t guarantee it success (he did after all start PayPal and Tesla Motors amongst others!), the numbers do most of the talking: with nearly 50 launches on its manifest, representing more than $4 billion in contracts, SpaceX continues to push the boundaries of space technology down at 1 Rocket Road in California where their 3000 staff are headquartered.

A year ago, SpaceX successfully launched a private unmanned spaceship on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS), which made a bold statement that one of their main objectives is to offer a viable alternative to the now retired space shuttle program. With that effort, SpaceX‘s Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft to attach to the space station, deliver cargo, and return to earth.

The company has this month also signed a three-year lease with Spaceport America to test their Grasshopper reusable rocket, meaning they can test at higher altitudes, as well as Sir Richard Branson having neighbours in New Mexico. Furthermore, plans are underway though for a commercial launch facility in Texas to keep the action closer to home. SpaceX is on a mission. As Elon Musk recently said at SXSW:

“I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact”


Virgin Galactic at Spaceport America

Virgin Galactic

To start our series of company profiles, there’s none better than Virgin Galactic. Led by the charismatic Sir Richard Branson who built out his Virgin empire through a variety of different industries and ideas, they are planning to provide sub-orbital spaceflights to the paying public, along with suborbital space science missions and orbital launches of small satellites.

You can in fact reserve your ticket for a mere $20.000 here, with a full price of $200.000 – the ticket price will surely drop over time (although the wiki entry states it will go up to $250.000) but for now that trip into space will be mainly reserved for those millionaires (and billionaires – we don’t want to offend Donald Trump by calling him a millionaire) amongst us.

As the most prominent tenant of Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic is bound to lead humanity into a new era of space travel. We’ll all be bound to our screens and monitors when they launch the first commercial flight into sub-orbit, reminding us of the excitement of the first moon landing, and this will definitely not be a small step for man…