While thousands of tourists spent Memorial Day weekend enjoying the make-believe worlds of Disney World, Universal Studios, and other Orlando attractions, several hundred people spent the weekend at the Omni Rosen Hotel, hoping the series of presentations they attended were a glimpse of tomorrowland, not fantasyland.
"Becoming a Spacefaring Planet" was the theme of the 16th annual International Space Development Conference in Orlando. In addition to tours of the Kennedy Space Center and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame/Space Camp, a wide range of presentations addressed a number of space issues. A summary of a number of key issues addressed at the conference is provided below.
Improving Space Access
As expected, one of the major themes of the conference was efforts to reduce the cost of access to space. Talks at the conference looked at government research programs to improve space access as well as private efforts and a very notable amateur effort.
A key session of the conference was an update by NASA and Lockheed Martin officials on the status of the X-33 project. The X-33 is the cornerstone of NASA's research into reusable launch vehicles. It will test a number of "core technologies" which may be vital to future launch vehicles, according to NASA's Gary Payton. Those technologies include a reusable cryogenic fuel tank, graphite composite structure, advanced thermal protection, and advanced propulsion systems.
Lockheed Martin has planned a series of test flights for the X-33, Jerry Rising of Lockheed Martin Skunk Works said. These range from short-range, Mach 4 flights within California to long-range flights from Edwards AFB to Montana, with speeds of up to Mach 15. If the test flights convince Lockheed Martin to develop the full-scale VentureStar vehicle, the company estimates development to cost $4.9 billion. They plan to offer flights with payload costs of $3000 a pound initially in 2005, declining to $1000 a pound by 2015.
A key pathfinder for some of the technologies needed for the X-33 and VentureStar will be tested in X-34 vehicle, Payton said. The vehicle, being developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation, will test autonomous landing in up to 20-knot crosswinds, subsonic flight through rain, and flight up to Mach 8. The vehicle is scheduled for a first flight at White Sands in October 1998, and Payton reported the system design for the X-34 was officially frozen earlier in May, clearing the way for OSC to start building hardware.
Lockheed Martin and NASA were not the only ones interested in reducing the cost of space access at the conference. Charles Limerick, senior engineer with Kistler Aerospace Corporation, provided an update on his company's progress developing a two-stage reusable launch vehicle, the K-1. The launch vehicle will be able to lift up to 5000 kg into a 200-km orbit once it enters operation in 1999.
The two stages are powered by NK-33 and NK-43 engines provided by Aerojet, and return to Earth using a combination of parachutes and airbags for reuse up to 100 times. Limerick said the company estimates a launch will cost $10 to 12 million. The launch site will be either at the Nevada Test Range or at Woomera in Australia, depending on which site is easier to get clearance for launches. Test flights are slated to begin in mid 1998.
Perhaps the most interesting talk about space access at the conference, though, was the presentation by Greg Allison, Bill Brown, and other members of HAL5 about the recent successful HALO launch. On May 11, the team of amateur rocket designers launched a hybrid-fueled rocket from a balloon gondola over the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket reached a peak altitude of 30-38 nautical miles, below their plans of 60+ miles but still the highest amateur rocket launch, and the highest ever for a hybrid rocket.
Allison and Brown described some of the challenges of building and launching the rocket, including a desperate search for helium for the balloon just before the scheduled launch. Fortunately, two tanks of helium were secured from a local Food King grocery store and brought to the launch site just minutes before the scheduled launch.
The HALO group has plans for two more missions in the near future. SL-2 (Space Launch 2; the May launch was SL-1) is scheduled for this fall from a NASA-operated barge in the Gulf of Mexico. That rocket will provide 600-700 pounds of thrust, and they hope this will be enough to propel the rocket past the boundary of space. A future rocket, SL-3, will provide even more thrust and bring the system closer to full operation for use in microgravity research.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the project was the price of the project. According to Allison, HALO was a project that cost about $15,000. Allison estimates that a similar project, operated by NASA and using NASA costing models, would have spent anywhere from $3 to 12 million.
Commercial Space Prospecting
One person who strongly believes in the need for cheap access to space is Jim Benson. Benson, head of the Space Development Corporation, presented his plans for the Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP), a privately-funded spacecraft that would be the first private spacecraft to leave Earth orbit and visit an asteroid, with the intent of staking a claim for future mining.
Benson, a veteran of the computer industry, left computers a year and a half ago and shifted his attention to his personal interest in space, which he believes may be due for the type of revolution that revolutionized the computer industry 20 years ago. He found that Earth-orbit activities, such as communications satellites, were too expensive and complicated for him right now, and while space tourism was important in the future, he found nothing in the short term of interest. He couldn't find a good current commercial use for the Moon, and Mars was far too expensive, which left near-Earth asteroids (NEAs).
Because NEAs lie in orbits similar to the Earth's, they have low delta-V requirements, making some easier to get to than the Moon. Benson described NEAs as "concentrated wealth", noting the ores found in an asteroid like 1986 DA have an estimated worth of tens of trillions of dollars, with ore concentrations 10 to 100 times that of deposits on Earth. Carbonaceous chrondites and expired comet cores, which may compose up to 50% of all NEAs, contains deposits of water vital to the development and exploration of space.
Astronomers have discovered over 400 NEAs, several times more than were known about 10 years ago. However, scientists estimate there may be as many as 1 million NEAs. To prompt amateurs to search for new NEAs, Benson said he will announce the existence of the Benson Prize at the American Astronomical Society meeting June 10. The Benson Prize will provide a cash award to amateurs who discover the next 10 NEAs.
Benson said he was first interested in using a duplicate of the Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission, currently en route to the asteroid Eros, but was put off by an estimated price tag of $80-90 million. Instead, working with an advisory board of scientists and engineers, as well as student teams at three universities, he has reduced the price of the spacecraft to as little as $30 million. The proposed NEAP spacecraft will include a camera, alpha-proton spectrometer, neutron spectrometer, and perhaps a magnetometer.
The purpose of the mission, according to Benson, is to size and characterize the asteroid, and then to touch it, for the purpose of filing a claim for future mining. Benson notes that there is no definition of private property in space, but said that someone needs to do something "to get the ball rolling."
Benson is considering using a Russian SS-18/19 or a Lockheed Martin LMLV-2 as the launch vehicle for NEAP, as well as launching as a secondary payload on an Ariane 4. He expects launch costs to run $8 to 12 million.
NEAP is only the beginning of Benson's space development plans. After that mission, Benson said he will seek additional finding for a phase 2, which would look to start businesses on the Moon. He also wants to create a private Deep Space Network, so that commercial missions do not have to try to rely on NASA's network. Benson hopes that within six years his efforts will have created 2,000 new jobs.
Government Policy and Plans
While an emphasis on private space efforts was evident at the conference, NASA and the federal government were not neglected. Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL), vice chair of the House Science Committee's space subcommittee, spoke on the government's role in space during a plenary session near the end of the conference.
While generally supportive of NASA and its work, and space exploration in general, Weldon took NASA to task for failing to include more science and commercial activities on shuttle missions over the next several years, as most of the shuttle fleet is dedicated to space station assembly flights. He said he was concerned that the hiatus in these programs could disrupt research projects and plans for future commercial experiments on the shuttle and space station. However, he called the current juggling of the shuttle manifest to account for delays in the space station a "silver lining" since it will allow more science to be done in the near term.
Weldon also provided a mixed message on funding for NASA. While he said that increased NASA funding was "one of my top priorities" for the current Congressional session, he advised that people must consider the "staggering" national debt and work within current restraints for funding in the near term. However, he predicted that there would be an "intense rush" for funds once the federal budget is balanced, at which time NASA needs to have proposals for additional funding ready.
Such a proposal might come from Roy Bridges, director of the Kennedy Space Center, who discussed a recent NASA meeting where plans for a manned mission to Mars by 2015 were discussed. The timeline discussed in the meeting included a manned lunar base in 2007.
To achieve those goals, Bridges said, the shuttle flight rate would have to be doubled. Bridges said this is possible with the development of a liquid flyback booster to replace the current solid rocket boosters. The liquid flyback boosters would, as their name suggests, use liquid propellants for two F-1-class engines, and would fly back to a runway using jet engines for reuse. Bridges said these would be coupled with the replacement of toxic chemicals in the shuttle's orbital maneuvering system and hydraulics to reduce processing time between missions.
Despite the proliferation of new launch vehicles which promise to offer lower costs to orbit, Bridges did not feel threatened. He noted that the shuttle has a launch capability far larger than other vehicles, including the proposed VentureStar. In fact, Bridges said he had discussed an idea of turning the shuttle Columbia, which is too heavy for use in International Space Station assembly missions, over to a company like United Space Alliance for commercial use.
Revisiting Space Activism
While commercial interest in space grows, and despite exciting new scientific developments within our solar system, the general public has not taken a strong interest in space. The failure of space activism efforts was discussed by two speakers at the conference.
Thomas Matula, a marketing professor at the College of West Virginia, noted that space activism marketed at the general public usually took on one of two themes: the benefits of spinoffs and pioneering spirit of settling a new frontier. Neither theme has been successful, he explained, because the general public tends to be more distrustful of technology and more risk adverse than the typical space activist, making those themes less convincing for them.
Matula proposed an alternative theme for space activism campaigns that centers around the fear that America is losing its competitiveness in the global marketplace, and that space can work to reverse that trend. Matula proposed several arguments to support this belief, including the ability of space to provide greater technical competentness to American industry and the ability of space exploration to provide more knowledge, a key resource in the information age.
Jeff Krukin of the Space Frontier Foundation was more direct, calling past space activism a "complete failure." He called for a new type of activism, focused on the statement "space is a place, not a program," with an emphasis on activities in Earth orbit and on the Moon.
In the new, more commercial era of space development, the adversaries of space activism are different, according to Krukin. No longer do people have to fight a public who is apathetic or antagonistic to space, but instead the opposition is a "well-meaning and educated public that believes space is a sacred place that should be protected from the ravages of humanity," he said.
The NSS handed out a wide range of awards during its award ceremony Sunday evening, May 25. Dr. George Mueller, former head of NASA's manned spaceflight programs in the 1960s and current chief executive officer of Kistler Aerospace won the Society's Wernher von Braun Award, given for lifetime accomplishment in space efforts with an eye to visionary, promotional, and management efforts. Space Pioneer Awards were given to Jim Spellman, for activist of the year; Greg Allison, for business and entrepreneurship for HAL5's HALO efforts; the team of scientists at the Johnson Space Center who announced the discover of possible past life on Mars, for science; and Lori Garver, on leave from the executive directorship of the NSS while working at NASA headquarters, for special merit.
For chapter awards, HAL5, in Huntsville, Alabama, won the Explorer award for HALO. The NSS chapters in the Chicago area shared the award for publicity and media for their efforts to publicize space during the Democratic National Convention, while the Austin Space Frontier Society won the political activism award for their efforts in their state's Republican convention. The new NSS Education chapter took the educator award for their work with teachers and students. Other chapters winning high honors include the Lunar Reclamation Society, Western Spaceport chapter, Beaver Valley chapter, Middle Tennessee Space Society, and the NSS Wichita chapter.
No announcement was made on the location of the ISDC in the year 2000. Tucson, Arizona and Rochester, New York are the current front-runners to host the conference that year. Prpearations are well underway for the next two ISDCs, in Milwaukee in 1998 and Houston in 1999.