March 23, 2007 at 8:34 PM ET
Rumblings from online and offline grapevines are filling in the gaps in three sagas of space ventures: The usually secretive Blue Origin conducted what's said to be a successful test of its vertical-launch rocket system. ... The usually wide-open SpaceX is providing further details about its own almost successful orbital test launch. ... And Rocketplane Kistler has provided some additional hints about Bigelow Aerospace's not-yet-public plan for setting up an orbital tourist destination by 2012.
• Blue Origin, the rocket venture created by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, gave notice to the Federal Aviation Administration about its time frame for the latest launch of its prototype rocket ship, which takes off and lands vertically in the middle of Bezos' 18,600-acre West Texas test site. Blue Origin conducted a successful test in November - which Bezos waited until January to publicize - but air traffic controllers said there was no launch during a follow-up test window in December.
Since then, the FAA has been directing the flow of media inquiries back to Blue Origin, which tends not to say much. "As you may recall, Blue Origin's policy is not to comment on or confirm whether any test flights are scheduled or conducted," company spokesman Bruce Hicks told me in an e-mail today.
However, secondhand reports indicate that a test launch on Thursday was successful, with the rocket rising higher than it did back in November. When you add in the fact that the FAA's original notice to airmen is no longer in the agency's active database, that's pretty good evidence that the test did indeed take place.
• SpaceX put its low-cost Falcon 1 rocket into space for the first time this week, but the second stage didn't make it to orbit as hoped. Just after the test, the California company's millionaire founder, Elon Musk, said the mission was 95 percent successful. A couple of correspondents sent in dissenting views, however:
Greg: "Seems like the title of your SpaceX article should be loss of roll control and more spin control. Five minutes of flight and not getting anywhere close to the point of being able to insert the payload into the proper orbit hardly qualifies the Falcon 1 as being anywhere near a measure of success in my book. Whatever happened to the standard of trying to achieve mission success anyway? Forgive me, this must be an 'old space' measure that SpaceX will undoubtedly continue to push aside for now. How many years' late and how missed milestones has it been now? If the military’s primary measure of success is mission assurance and the ability of becoming more responsive … then I would say that it will be a very, very long time before SpaceX has any chance of becoming a serious contender. Do you know of anyone who is jumping up and down to put their satellite on the Falcon 1 given their poor track record? And however can the cost be anywhere near what has been advertised? Just more spin and smoke and mirrors. Perhaps you should write about that! I guess in the end, as the saying goes … you get what you pay for."
John Wickman: "Take a look at the Falcon launch video right at staging. You will see the first stage hits the second-stage engine exit cone. In slow motion, you can see the first stage lip hang up on the outer lip of the second stage exit cone before sliding free. The hit was so strong you see the second stage move dramatically. After the second stage engine comes on, you can see the lip on the end of the exit cone loosen, and then right before jettison of the payload fairing, the exit cone lip comes off completely. Looks to me like they have a staging problem."
|The Falcon 1 rocket lifts off Tuesday from |
SpaceX's Omelek Island launch pad.
Now SpaceDaily quotes Musk as saying that the first stage did indeed bump the second stage during the separation, although there was no damage done. He told SpaceDaily that the "bump will obviously need to be addressed." Musk also reported that the potentially reusable first stage was not recovered from the Pacific, because the GPS locator device mounted on the stage was not working at launch. (Even before the launch, SpaceX reported that the Falcon 1's GPS navigation system was flaky and might have to be turned off.)
There's a backup sonar beacon and light on the stage, but the recovery ship couldn't get to the projected splashdown site in time to see any sign of the hardware, Musk told SpaceDaily.
Although recovering that first stage isn't crucial to SpaceX's financial model, "long term, getting this right matters a lot for cost reduction," Musk is quoted as saying. SpaceX says Musk will issue a more detailed status report late today or perhaps on Saturday - and I'll update this item with any new information.
• Bigelow Aerospace is gearing up for a big announcement next month at the National Space Symposium in Colorado, but the veil was raised just a bit today by George French III, representing Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler. French, who is the son of Rocketplane's chairman and chief executive officer, told attendees at the annual Space Access conference that his company has signed a letter of intent with Bigelow to carry passengers to a Bigelow-built orbital "hotel" by 2012.
This fits right in with the vision of the company's founder, Nevada billionaire Robert Bigelow, who wants to develop a commercial operation to take tourists as well as researchers into orbit. Bigelow has said he'd like to get the private space station, or stations, going by 2012 so that he can turn his attention to farther-out space outposts.
French declined to say much more about the deal, for fear of stealing Bigelow's thunder. But Rocketplane's revelation makes perfect sense, and there are other potential spaceship operators as well. Bigelow has already made a development deal with Lockheed Martin. SpaceX is another possibility, considering that Musk (like French) is already working on a capsule and rocket capable of resupplying the international space station.
Is Bigelow Aerospace getting into the orbital hotel business, or is the company instead positioning itself as a general contractor for space structures? My bet is on the latter - but stay tuned for further updates.
Speaking of updates, there's plenty more about commercial space ventures coming out of the Space Access '07 conference in Phoenix. The bad news is that I'm missing out this year. The good news is that my brother bloggers are covering the event morning, noon and night. Here's the lineup:
Update for 10:40 p.m. March 24: I corrected the reference to George French III after seeing the comment posted below. As I read the conference reports, I confused him with his dad, Rocketplane CEO George French. Sorry about that, George!