Private firms race to make return to space

Atlantis is due home Thursday -- the shuttle's final flight. Today, the crew hung a small American flag on the door to the space station. That flag traveled on the first shuttle, back in 1981. It will stay at the space station for a few years, until a private firm sends astronauts up to get it. And, as CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports, there's a fierce competition among companies hoping to build America's next spaceship. Beneath the blue skies of Boulder, Colo., what's happening inside a makeshift garage could re-launch America's manned space program. This is where Dream Chaser comes in. It would be 1/40th the shuttle's size --a sort of space taxi, designed to carry up to seven astronauts, dock with the space station, and then return to Earth. Atlantis farewellThe Journey of AtlantisAstronauts bid goodbye to space station crew Jim Voss heads the space exploration team at Sierra Nevada Corporation, one of four privately-owned companies in a NASA-supervised competition to design and build a successor to the space shuttle. NASA is helping fund the companies and Sierra Nevada got $100 million in seed money."It's very much like the shuttle, but much, much, much smaller," Voss said of Dream Chaser. A former NASA astronaut, Voss went on five space missions. Now he's helping Sierra Nevada develop a reusable winged spaceship that he said would do a better job of returning experiments to Earth. "After six months on the space station, landing gently is much better than landing hard in a capsule. And for science return, if we return them to the Earth and it's not a gentle landing, we could destroy the science and it's of no use," said Voss. But Dream Chaser's competitors took a very different approach: they're all 1960's-style crew capsule. Boeing, SpaceX and Blue Origin are also getting development money from NASA. Stokes McMillan, who also left NASA's shuttle program to work on Dream Chaser, said compared to government projects, the private space business Continue Reading

CBS News Logo Private space travel to make giant leaps in 2013

Private companies building new spaceships to soar through orbital and suborbital space are looking forward to an action-packed year in 2013, with new flight tests, launches, wind tunnel tests and rocket technology trials all planned during the new year.   Of the many spacecraft being developed only one has already flown in space, the Dragon capsule built by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in Hawthorne, Calif.The unmanned cargo ship has flown in space three times so far, and carried supplies to the International Space Station twice in 2012 — first in May during a test and then again October. SpaceX’s next cargo flight to the station is set for May 2013. But a new astronaut-carrying version of Dragon is also in the works. The crewed capsule will be different from its robotic predecessor in several key areas, with SpaceX set to advancing technology for the new ship in 2013. SpaceX’s new Dragon “Dragon Version 2 won’t look like [today’s Dragon]. I think it looks pretty cool. Dragon one, we didn’t really know what we were doing so that’s why Dragon looks similar to things that have happened in the past,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk told an audience during a talk at the UK’s Royal Aeronautical Society in London on Nov. 21. Musk described Dragon version 2 as having “legs that pop out” and added that it uses parachutes and its eight SuperDraco thrusters for a “propulsive landing”. [SpaceX’s Dragon at the Space Station (Photos)] The SuperDraco thrusters, located around the base of the Dragon, also act as the pusher launch abort system to move the capsule (and crew) clear of its rocket during a launch emergency. While Musk was unavailable for to discuss SpaceX’s plans for 2013, company officials did provide details on its expected activities. In March the company will review its Dragon pad abort test that is planned for later in the year December; in May Continue Reading

CBS News Logo Sierra Nevada downplays landing mishap, calls test flight ‘very successful’

A landing gear malfunction caused a small commercial spacecraft to skid off the runway Saturday after its first unmanned flight. On Tuesday, an official with builder Sierra Nevada said the malfunction caused relatively minor damage, while the test confirmed the flight worthiness of the winged "lifting body" design. "Ninety-nine percent of the flight that we really wanted to get -- which was does this vehicle fly, is it able to be controlled, does the software work, can it autonomously fly the vehicle in, can we acquire the runway and land -- all of that was 100 percent successful," said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada. "In fact, we probably performed better than the original test standards were meant to do." At this point, engineers are still assessing the damage endured by the "Dream Chaser" test vehicle as well as flight data characterizing the spacecraft's aerodynamic performance. Depending on the result, the company may opt to repair the test craft for additional unmanned test flights or to press ahead with plans for manned landing tests next year. "We don't think it's actually going to set us back," Sirangelo told reporters in a teleconference. "In some interesting way, it might actually accelerate it. Because if we've got all the data we needed to get, and it's still early, but if we were able to get all the flight data we were expecting to get, we might actually have been able to bring the vehicle back earlier and get it ready for its next flight. "We're going through that now, but we don't think there is going to be any signifiant delay to the program as a result of this. This was meant to be a test vehicle with a limited number of flights." Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser is one of three spacecraft under development as commercial candidates to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, ending NASA's reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets. The other competitors holding NASA development contracts are Boeing and Space Continue Reading

CBS News Logo Winged “Dream Chaser” joins space station cargo fleet

SpaceX and Orbital ATK will continue to provide unpiloted cargo delivery missions to the International Space Station under a new round of commercial contracts extending through 2024, NASA managers announced Thursday. But Sierra Nevada's winged "Dream Chaser" spacecraft will join the fleet, launching atop Atlas 5 rockets and robotically gliding to a runway landing like NASA's now-retired space shuttle. The Dream Chaser will allow researchers to gain access to biological samples and other materials returning from space within a few hours of touchdown, a high priority for station researchers. SpaceX's Dragon capsule, which currently splashes down in the Pacific Ocean southwest of Los Angles, will be upgraded to touch down on land as required under the new contract, officials said, offering equally speedy offloads of high-priority science cargo. Orbital ATK's Cygnus capsules are not designed to return through Earth's atmosphere and instead burn up during re-entry, carrying away unwanted trash and equipment as needed. But Orbital, unlike SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, will be able to launch to the station from Virginia or the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to provide additional flexibility. Kirk Shireman, space station program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said each of the companies will be awarded a minimum of six missions and possibly more based on downstream station requirements. Initial flights are expected to begin in late 2019. No actual flights have been ordered yet, and Shireman said he could not break down the cost per contract because of the wide variety of mission scenarios under development. While the "request for proposals" that went out to all the competitors listed a total contract value of $14 billion through 2024, the currently projected end of the station program, Shireman said the actual amount spent will be "nowhere near that much." They key feature of the second round of Commercial Resupply Services contracts -- CRS-2 -- is Continue Reading

Spaceport Alabama? Not yet, but new authority could seek one

The new Alabama Space Authority took its first steps Tuesday as members met around Wernher von Braun's conference table in Huntsville to push for more aerospace activity and jobs in a state where the industry is surging.Glenn Rizner, chief of staff of the Federal Aviation Administration's Commercial Space Transportation Office, briefed authority members on the two general types of federal space licenses available to states and localities: launch sites and vehicle operations. Authority organizers say don't expect a drive for that yet - beyond what is already under way - but there could be a push later. If that seems a stretch, remember that one Alabama city is already working to land a private spaceship at its airport, Airbus is growing rapidly in Mobile, and other aerospace announcements have come in a steady stream.With that background, the new Alabama Space Authority held its inaugural meeting at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center around a table used by von Braun's team when building America's first rockets and the Saturn V. State Sen. Gerald Dial (R-Lineville), who sponsored legislation to create the authority, was elected its chairman. Companion legislation was also introduced in the House by state Rep. Howard Sanderford (R-Huntsville).Sanderford was nominated as vice chair, but nominated U.S. Space & Rocket Center Dr. Deborah Barnhart, who served on the Florida Space Authority. Barnhart was approved by acclamation."When you look at how much space activity we have in the state now with the expansion of Dynetics and ULA (United Launch Alliance), it's such a critical mass," Barnhart said Wednesday. "We just want to optimize that to not leave anybody on the sidelines."Barnhart said the authority will also work in areas including education and workforce development. "We can show young people there are plenty of great jobs here in Alabama that they and their parents and teachers just don't know about," she said.Barnhart said trying to build a Continue Reading