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Possibilities Of Low-cost Launch


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ISS Demonstrates Possibilities Of Low-cost Launch

Upcoming SpaceX ISS payloads highlight the value of access
May 24, 2017Frank Morring, Jr. | Aviation Week & Space Technology

Tom Mueller, the technical wizard behind SpaceX, made a rare—if virtual—public appearance at the New York University (NYU) Astronomy Club in May, Skyping in from Hawthorne, California, with a surprisingly detailed look at what his company is doing, how it is doing it and why. The why is very interesting, for reasons that transcend launch services.

“I think the transport problem has to get solved, and then the killer apps in space are going to appear,” Mueller says in a transcript of the call posted on Reddit. “And we don’t know what they are yet; it’s like when the internet first came out, and people were like, ‘what good is that?’”

Some of the payloads set to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) June 1 on SpaceX’s next commercial cargo mission illustrate what happens when cutting-edge minds get a new toy to play with. Mueller, one of the first employees who signed on with SpaceX cofounder Elon Musk, did not mention them in his wide-ranging talk, but some of them have the potential to be the sort of killer apps that easier access to space can deliver.

The lineup on the 11th commercial resupply mission to the space station is all over the map and very impressive, enabled by the continuous availability of the unique environment in and around the orbiting laboratory. If Mueller, Musk and their colleagues achieve their goal of cutting the cost of space launch a hundredfold, the research on ISS today truly is—as Mueller suggests—just the beginning of a new “paradigm” in space.


Tucked into the SpaceX Dragon freighter’s pressurized cargo hold is a familiar example of microgravity research: a new drug NASA says may be able to rebuild bone that is lost without the structural loading that gravity provides on Earth, and to prevent further loss. The crew will use onboard laboratory mice to test it, potentially to the benefit of their successors in deep space and to the millions on Earth who suffer from osteoporosis.

Bone-loss medications have long been a favorite topic of research on the ISS, for obvious reasons. So have testing structures and mechanisms that, unlike human bones, are designed to operate in microgravity. The next Dragon will deliver a Roll Out Solar Array (ROSA) developed by Deployable Space Systems of Palo Alto, California, as a potential power source for the solar-electric propulsion systems NASA hopes will deliver multiton payloads to Mars. Space Systems Loral (SSL), a partner in the development, plans to upgrade its commercial satellite buses with the new arrays as well.

ROSA works like a tape measure, unspooling into a structure rigid enough for spaceflight with “strain energy” in booms along the array’s edges that support the solar cells attached to a lightweight mesh. “It’s more power without increasing the mass dramatically,” states Al Tadros, the SSL vice president overseeing ROSA.

Other experiments riding the Dragon will test new concepts for recycling water and removing carbon dioxide in human-occupied spacecraft with precisely configured capillary structure, expand commercial opportunities for Earth observation from the station, and potentially validate a concept for deep-space navigation using neutron stars.

With the right detectors and software, rapidly spinning neutron stars known as pulsars can act as accurate natural clocks, helping controllers determine a spacecraft’s position by timing the pulses of radiation as it sweeps around like a lighthouse. The NICER/Sextant experiment (for Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer/Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology) will test the theory with an array of small X-ray telescopes (see photo) and collect scientific data on neutron stars as well (AW&ST Dec. 15-22, 2014, p. 20).

For the NYU astronomy students, Mueller described how SpaceX is tackling every ounce of weight on its launchers, building in-house whenever possible to avoid vendors trained in the government’s oversight-heavy procurement process, and working toward a methane-fueled launch vehicle because methane is cheap, and it can be generated on the red planet that Musk hopes to colonize in his lifetime.

Mainly, though, the company is working toward total reusability to cut the cost of launch. It has thrilled the spaceflight community with its dramatic tail-down landings and has flown a paying customer on a used main stage. It has started flight testing recovery techniques for the $6 million fairings that shield its payloads during ascent, and ultimately it will recover the upper stages as well, Mueller says.

Like the ISS partnership between the U.S. and Russia, space launch is a Cold War offshoot. SpaceX is paving the way beyond that era.

“The problem is that we throw these rockets away,” says Mueller. “Until very recently, that was just the way you thought about rockets, because they were originally developed as ICBMs, and of course that’s not reusable.” 

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