Friday, July 04, 2008

Freedom of Space


July 4 is a day to remember past achievements while looking forward to the future. 32 years ago the first Viking Lander arrived on Mars. Its chemistry experiments found tantalising clues, but no firm evidence of life. Today Phoenix has made the first soft landing since Viking. In barely a month Phoenix has found more evidence of water, and other chemicals that would support life. Today the Moon and Mars seem within reach of our generation.

Monday at ICES was filled by talks devoted to Spacesuits. Tuesday afternoon was a special panel, the history of EVA suits (Gemini, Apollo, Shuttle) recalled by engineers who designed them. In those days women did most of the actual sewing, gluing, and assembly. The old men's trove of knowledge is priceless. Though Spacesuits are a fascinating subject, few books have been written on them. Like Polynesian navigation, much of the knowledge is passed down orally.

Wednesday's banquet speaker came from private Space. Larry H. Williams, Vice President of Elon Musk's SPACEX, gave an insider account of their progress toward orbit. Elon, whom we met in Washington, has a long-term goal: enabling setllement of the Moon and Mars. Larry said that US launch costs are high because of the "monopoly" of United Launch Alliance, which has forced most satellite launches overseas. Without making any firm promises, he suggested that SPACEX's Dragon could fill the dreaded "gap" between Shuttle and Orion.

Larry made a number of bold statements, like suggesting that Space could become THE issue of the 2008 election. For emphasis he showed a map of Florida's I-4 Corridor, home to Space jobs and electoral votes. SPACEX is very bullish about their future. 2 days before Independence Day, Larry reminded everyone that Falcon is an all-American launch system.

Possibilities of life on Mars increase the public's interest. Contracts have been awarded for a new generation of spacecraft and suits. Private Space is preparing to fill the gap in low Earth orbit. Freedom of Space means hope for the future, and it could be a very exciting time!

UPDATE: SPACEX has released their ambitious flight schedule. The first Falcon 9 will be moved to its pad at Kennedy Space Center during 2008. 4 more launches of Falcon 9 are scheduled for 2009, including 2 demo flights for Commercial Orbital Transport System (COTS.) The third demo, planned for March 2010, will dock with ISS (30-second video below.) Already NASA has decided to rely upon COTS for transport of cargo. The option for human-carrying flights has not been exercised, but Dragon may be the best hope for filling the "gap."

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