Why send humans to space?

The following are two old reasons but lately it seems more and more people are thinking of them:

  • a backup civilization, in case we blow it down here on Earth,
  • a source of rescue, in case we need it down here on Earth.

Path to space

This is an attempt to figure out how humans might start colonizing space based on economic, political, market, and technological forces. It tries to be entirely realistic and as such, rejects many fanciful notions that are usually included in such paths.

Source: NASA


April 16, 2016 - Bigelow's inflatable BEAM attached to the International Space Station

Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable habitat, called BEAM for Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, was successfully attached to the International Space Station (ISS). It was removed from the trunk of SpaceX's Dragon spaceship, the cylindrical section behind the capsule, using the ISS's CanadaArm 2 robotic arm and then attached to the Tranquility module.

The habitat will be inflated sometime in May due to the astronaut's already busy schedule. It will remain on the ISS for 2 years while it undergoes testing for radiation, meteorites and be entered by astronauts several times a year.

Credit: NASA TV

April 8, 2016 - SpaceX lands 1st stage of oribital rocket on ship

SpaceX once again made history, this time by landing the 1st stage of their Falcon 9 orbital rocket on their droneship, "Of Course I Still Love You" on the ocean. This is significant as for many of their flights the 1st stage will be going too fast and not have enough fuel to return back to Florida to land. It'll instead land on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean and then be returned to land for refurbishing and relaunch. Elon Musk has said that they'll attempt to relaunch this booster.

Image: SpaceX

December 21, 2015 - SpaceX lands 1st stage of oribital rocket on ground

SpaceX made history by launching a rocket with a payload to orbit and landing the 15-storey high 1st stage of the rocket back to a landing site near to where it was launched. This was no up to the edge of space and back down as Blue Origin did the month before (see news item immediately below), though that was still a historic first for different reasons. In this case SpaceX launched 11 ORBCOMM satellites to orbit at the same time. After a few minutes into flight, the 2nd stage separated from the 1st and continued to orbit, and after deploying the payload, then burned up on reentry. Different from any other rocket in history, after separation at a height of 125 miles (200 kilometers) the 1st stage did a boost back burn to turn the rocket around and head back to the landing pad. As the 1st stage rentered the atmosphere it did a reentry burn to slow down. Then a final single engine burn was done for a soft touchdown on a 282 foot diameter, reinforced concrete landing pad within 1000 feet of the processing area which is about six miles from the launch pad. Landing was at 9 minutes and 44 seconds after launch. Landing within 1000 feet of the processing area means the 1st stage would have to be moved only that distance for reprocessing and then reuse on a subsequent mission.

SpaceX had previously attempted landing on a drone ship out to sea and should a future mission require landing down range of the launch area then the drone ship will still be used.

Images: SpaceX
Time lapse of launch (bottom-right) and landing.

Below is a video of the landing. The full mission video is viewable here.

November 23, 2015 - Blue Origin successfully lands from suborbital flight to space

On November 23, 2015, Blue Origin launched their rocket to a planned test altitude of 100.5 kilometers, or 329,839 feet, and softly landed it again on a predetermined landing pad. 100 kilometers is the internationally recognized edge of space. At the same time a capsule which will one day carry people detached and landed using three parachutes.

Note that this was a suborbital flight and that this rocket would not be capable of launching either cargo or people to orbit, though it is Blue Origin's plan to one day do so. This is the first time a rocket has launched vertically to the edge of space and then vertically landed. This rocket is a major step to Blue Origin providing a suborbital service, carrying passengers to the edge of space for 4 minutes of microgravity and a view of the Earth from space.

Source: Blue Origin

Note that in the following video the rocket take-off, capsule landing and rocket landing are all real. An animation has been added of passengers in space which has not yet happened in reality and was not a part of this flight.

October 7, 2015 - SpaceIL has verified launch contract for Google Lunar XPRIZE mission

SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit organization, has announced they have a verified launch contract for launching their spacecraft to the moon in the second half of 2017. SpaceIL purchased the launch services from Spacecraft Industries who purchased the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to be used for the launch. This meets the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) requirement that a competitor have a verified launch contract before the end of 2015 in order for the overall contest deadline to be extended to December 31, 2017, giving all competitors more time. GLXP has announced that the deadline has been extended.

Courtesy of SpaceIL

July 18, 2015 - Planetary Resources Inc. deploys its first spacecraft

On July 16, 2015, Planetary Resources' first spacecraft, the Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R), was deployed from the International Space Station (ISS) for a 90 day mission. It was carried as payload to the ISS on Spacex's CRS-6 mission. The word "Reflight" is in its name due to an earlier attempt to launch the Arkyd 3 to space failed when the Orbital System Corp's Antares rocket that exploded during launch back in October 2014 (see the November 2014 news bites below.)

The spacecraft will test various core technologies to be used on future missions such as avionics, control systems and software for near-Earth asteroid prospecting.

In the photos on the right you can see the A3R being deployed along with an unrelated Cube Sat.

Courtesy of NASA
Courtesy of NASA

May 3, 2015 - Blue Origin successfully launches New Shepard to the edge of space

On April 29, 2015, Blue Origin flew their first developmental test flight of their New Shepard space vehicle to a height of 307,000 feet or 93.57 kilometers, just shy of the 328,084 foot or 100 kilometer mark, the officially selected height at which space begins. This is their suborbital vehicle, one which will provide passengers and scientific payload a few minutes of microgravity before returning to Earth. During their test the capsule succcessfully returned to Earth for a soft landing with the help of three parachutes.

Source: Blue Origin

April 8, 2015 - Ad Astra gets funding for next generation of VASIMR rocket

On March 31, 2015, NASA awards Ad Astra approximately $10 million over three years as part of NASA's NextStep program to advance the VASIMR rocket engine to technology readiness 5, a step closer to getting it ready for space travel. The VASIMR rocket is an ion engine capable of much higher thrust than other ion engines that could potentially someday shorten a crewed trip to Mars to just 39 days. The new rocket will be designated VX-200-SS (the SS stands for Steady State) and will be a fully integrated system capable of thrusting at high power continuously for a minimum of 100 hours.

Source: NASA

March 23, 2015 - News bites...

Mars One announced that due to a delay in paperwork for a large funding deal with a consortium of investors, they won't be in time to finance a follow-up study by Lockheed Martin in preparation for a previously planned unmanned mission to Mars in 2018, delaying it to 2020. This pushes back all the milestone dates by 2 years each, resulting in the planned landing of the first crew to Mars now being in 2027.

The Google Lunar X Prize has been extended from December 31, 2015 to December 31, 2016 given the unprecedented technical and finicial difficulty of the endeavour.

Astrobotic Technology announced that they will be sending their newer rover, Andy, to the moon as their entry for the Google Lunar X Prize in the second half of 2016 instead of the previously planned 2015. Their lander, called Griffin, will also carry under contract X Prize competitor team HAKUTO's twin rovers Moonraker and Tetris. This means that once Astrobotic's lander lands both their own and HAKUTO's rovers on the moon there'll be a Nascar style race to the finish on the lunar surface.

Credit: Astrobotic Technology

November 29, 2014 - News bites...

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, recently tweeted this photo of a landing platform for landing their rockets out to sea for recovery and reuse. In his tweet he said "Autonomous spaceport drone ship. Thrusters repurposed from deep sea oil rigs hold position within 3m [10ft] even in a storm." The platform's surface is 91m x 30m (300ft x 100ft) and wings extend the width to 50m (170ft). In future the platform will have refueling capability added so that the 1st stage rocket can be refueled to fly back to the launch site for reuse.

Image: SpaceX

Bigelow Aerospace has been waiting for years for the development of a space transportation system to carry people to and from its planned inflatable orbiting space station. With the progress of SpaceX with its Dragon space capsule and Falcon 9 rockets, and Boeing with its CST-100 space capsule, it looks like Bigelow is preparing to take the next step, judging by their having recently posted 100 job positions on their website.

Planetary Resources, a company with solid plans to do asteroid mining, was recently sending its first technology and system test platform called the Arkyd3 to space (see photos on the right.) Unfortunately it was a passenger on Orbital System Corp's Antares rocket that was exploded just short of getting off the launchpad on October 28, 2014. Planetary Resources said that such events are planned for and that it does not affect their schedule or budget. Their next test vehicle, the Arkyd 6, is planned for Q3 2015.

Image: Planetary Resources
Image: Planetary Resources

NASA recently did the first 3D printing in space on the International Space Station using a printer made by Made in Space, Inc., a space manufacturing company. The objective is to demonstrate that 3D printing works in a zero-gravity environment. The printer is designed to be controlled from the ground, limiting the astronauts' involvement to save them time. Test parts will be returned to Earth where identical printing is being done and the parts can be compared.

Source: NASA

September 16, 2014 - SpaceX and Boeing win contract to carry crew to/from the ISS

NASA announced that SpaceX with its Dragon spacecraft and Boeing with its CST-100 spacecraft have won the contract to carry crew to and from the ISS by 2017. Sierra Nevada Corporation with its Dream Chaser, the third contendor, did not win a contract. The contract is worth $2.6 billion for SpaceX and $4.2 billion for Boeing over several years. Each company will first perform one test flight to include at least one NASA astronaut to verify that the system can launch, maneuver in rbit, dock to the space station, and validate that all systems perform as expected. After that each company will do at least two missions to the ISS and as many as six. The spacecraft will also act as lifeboat while there.

Image: SpaceX
Image: Boeing

December 10, 2013 - New 2025 Mars crew landing date and Lockheed-Martin and SSTL selected for 2018 Mars One mission concept studies

Lockheed-Martin and Surrey Satellite Technoology Ltd. (SSTL) were contracted by Mars One to develop mission concept studies for a 2018 demonstration mission to Mars in preparation for the 2025 manned mission. The study by Lockheed-Martin will be for a lander with proof-of-concept technologies important for human habitation including producing liquid water from water in the Mars soil and testing various thin film solar technologies. The study by SSTL is for a communications satelite to be sent to near geosynchronous orbit for 24/7 communication between Earth and Mars except when the sun is between the two planets. It will relay image, video and other data with a bandwidth 4 times that of the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The 2018 mission date is two years later than the original schedule causing all subsequent dates to be pushed ahead by two years meaning the new date for landing of the first crew on Mars will be 2025 instead of 2023. This is in order to allow time for develoment of the 2018 mission's spacecraft, for time to find subcontractors for the lander's experiments and to organize a number of competitions for these missions.

Click here for more details.

Bryan Versteeg/Mars One Foundation

April 22, 2013 - Mars One astronaut selection process begins

The selection process for the astronauts to settle Mars as part of the Mars One plan has begun. This is a one-way trip to settle Mars, the first group of four settler to arrive in 2023. Click here for more details.

Mars One/Bryan Versteeg

January 17, 2013 - Bigelow to supply module to NASA for the ISS

Bigelow Aerospace and NASA have announced that Bigelow will provide a new habitable module called BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) for attaching to the International Space Station (ISS) for $17.8 million dollars around the summer of 2015. Unlike the current modules on the ISS, which are all basically metal cans, this will be an inflatable one. It'll ride a rocket up from Earth compressed in a 7 foot tube and then be inflated to 13 feet long and 10 feet in diameter. From the artists impression shown at right, it will be attached to the ISS's Tranquility Node.

It'll have a volume of just 560 cubic feet or around 16 cubic meters, much smaller than Bigelow's planned inflatable BA330 modules with volumes of 330 cubic meters. However, it will be habitable by the astronauts, who may even choose to sleep there on occasion as it's expected to be much quieter than the rest of the ISS. Proving its habilability will aid Bigelow in their business plans for their own space station Alpha.

Bigelow Aerospace LLC
Bigelow Aerospace LLC

May 25, 2012 - SpaceX and NASA successfully doc Dragon spacecraft to ISS

At 12:02AM Eastern time today SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft successfully berthed (was docked), at the International Space Station (ISS), at the time orbiting 250 kilometers about the Earth. It was berthed to the Earth-facing port of the station's Harmony module. This was the first commercial spacecraft to visit the station and the first US spacecraft to do so since the space shuttle Atlantis in July 2011.

The Dragon was launched on a Falcon 9 rocket on May 22 and spent May 23 travelling toward the ISS. It spent May 24 doing various maneuvering tests, approaching as close as 1.5 kilometers from the station. At 9:56AM eastern time on May 25th, Don Petit, a US astronaut aboard the station successfully grappled the Dragon with a 58 meter long manipulator arm and by around 12:02AM, berthing of the Dragon to the station was complete. This was followed by bolting of the craft to the station and then pressure checks to make sure there were no leaks. After that the air pressure in the Dragon will be equalized to that of the station so that the hatch could be opened, expected to happen the mornining of May 26th.

At one point during approach the Dragon's LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) system ran into a problem. It was picking up a reflection from a reflector on the Japanese Kibo module, one of three modules permanently connected to the Harmony module. From it's control center in Hawthorne, Texas, SpaceX narrowed the viewing aperture of the LIDAR system so that the reflector was no longer in its view and the approach continued without further issue.

The Dragon is delivering a little more than 1000 pounds of cargo including food, cargo bags, computers, and more, and will be returning a little more than 1300 pounds back to Earth. The Russian Soyuz spacecraft is the only other craft capable of returning cargo to Earth, however it's intended for crew and remaining room for cargo is about the size of a backpack. The Russian Progress, the European ATV and the Japanese HTV are designed only to burn up on reentry.

The Dragon will remain berthed at the station for approximately 2 weeks and on May 31st will return to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific a few hundred miles west of Southern California.

May 22 photos courtesy SpaceX
May 25 photos courtesy NASA

May 10, 2012 - SpaceX and Bigelow to conduct joint marketing

SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace have announced plans to conduct joint marketing focused on international customers. SpaceX will use its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to carry passengers to Bigelow's space habitats.

At this time SpaceX's Falcon 9 has successfully launched twice and will be attempting its first cargo run to/from the ISS, currently scheduled for May 19th. Passenger capability is expected within a few years. Bigelow Aerospace has already launched two small scale test habitats and is awaiting the development of passenger-carrying spacecraft before sending up three fullscale BA330 inflatable habitats to make up a space station. Bigelow has been partnering with Boeing and helping with development of their CST-100 spacecraft. With SpaceX, that now makes two future spacecraft to rely on.

Image: SpaceX

April 27, 2012 - Planetary Resources to do asteroid prospecting and mining

Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, has announced the existence of his company Planetary Resources which is working towards prospecting and mining near Earth asteroids, first for water and then for platinum. The first spacecraft, the Arkyd 100 series space telescope, will launch by 2014 to begin cataloging suitable asteroids. Click here for more details about Planetary Resources' plans.

Image: Planetary Resources

For older news see space news archive page.
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