Watch This Space

I’m way behind in posting any commentary here even though there have been a number of interesting developments in the space industry. So here we go again.

Lockheed Martin announced a fascinating space vehicle design called Jupiter (after the first intercontinental railroad engine) as their entry in the CRS-2 (commercial resupply service) program. It is a partially re-usable space tug with an integral robotic arm that is used to swap out payload modules. It uses a fair amount of existing designs, much like Orbital ATK’s Cygnus, but adds a long-lived segment that transfers fresh cargo modules. This is very reminiscent of 1970s vintage space cargo tugs. LockMart postulates that this design could be used not just for ISS resupply but also in support of cis-lunar and even interplanetary activities.

I like the idea and think it is rather clever, but I wonder about the economics. Usually complex designs (robotic arm, replaceable modules, refueling, etc.) are costly to develop and tend to have features that don’t work as designed or as well as expected. This results in stretched out development schedules, increased costs, and diminished capabilities. Still, it is a fresh take on the pre-shuttle space tug concept and it will be interesting to see how it fares.

Another development was a set of conferences and workshops that resulted in some interesting announcements. One was from the Pioneering Space National Summit, an invitation-only gathering of over 100 people from government, industry, and advocacy groups. It’s notable that I have yet to find a list of who actually participated in this summit and who signed the consensus statement. They came out with a rather bland vision statement that essentially said space exploration is a good thing and that it should eventually lead to space settlements. Apparently the fact that they got so many people from many disparate organizations to agree on the wording was considered a huge accomplishment. I can see their point, but if it took a herculean effort to wordsmith a vanilla pudding statement like that, it is going to be really difficult to make the really hard decisions.

Another invitation-only workshop was co-sponsored by the Planetary Society and considered human missions to Mars. The idea was that recent studies predict sending people to Mars (and bringing them back) will be unaffordably expensive. This workshop re-examined that and determined that the current NASA budget trend would still allow development of human missions to Mars within twenty years. One of their key findings was to include sending people on Mars orbital missions first. It would take both government and private sector involvement but could be done without a need to double or triple NASA’s budget. That is encouraging news, but it still requires a long-term national commitment that I’m not sure can be established in today’s short attention span political and social climate.

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