Thursday, 9 October 2014

Commercial Spaceflight Comes to the Fore at Toronto Congress

Model of Next Generation Canadarm at IAC 2014 inspected by group including CSA astronaut Jeremy Hansen (second from right). Chris Gainor photos.

The 65th International Astronautical Congress, the third to take place on Canadian soil, will likely be remembered for marking the coming-of-age of commercial provision of human spaceflight. Sessions devoted to that topic at last week's congress at the Toronto Convention Centre were standing room only affairs in big rooms, unlike previous congresses, where commercial human spaceflight sessions took place in small and unfilled rooms.

The rise of commercial human spaceflight shows that the space policy of the Barack Obama administration is taking hold, especially with September's announcement that Boeing and SpaceX had been contracted to supply astronaut ferry services to the International Space Station, hopefully starting in 2017. Since the space shuttle flew its last mission in 2011, U.S. astronauts have been dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to the station. 

Boeing and SpaceX had major presences in the trade show at the Toronto IAC, as did Sierra Nevada, which  after the NASA decision against it is looking for other customers to buy into its Dream Chaser space plane concept. Sierra Nevada has also resorted to asking the courts to overturn NASA's decision to choose its competitors.

NASA officials explaining the turn to commercial provision of spaceflight services compared these spacecraft to trucks. When the U.S. government needs trucks today, it buys vehicles designed and built by private industry rather than designing its own trucks and having them built to those specifications. That policy is already in operation with SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft delivering supplies to the ISS.

NASA Associate Administrator  Bill Gerstenmaier told one session that NASA's current vision means far greater change than simply what spacecraft are used to carry crews to the ISS. Once the station is retired, perhaps as soon as ten years from now, radical changes could be in store for spaceflight in low Earth orbit (LEO).

Gerstenmaier said LEO should become the place where the private sector uses the space environment to improve life on Earth, providing services such as remote sensing of Earth and using the space environment to develop new materials.

If he were handed the money to build another ISS, Gerstenmaier said he wouldn't take it. "If you give your money to me, I'll take it and go explore." The targets of NASA's  exploration plans include the planet Mars, asteroids, the Moon, and other bodies in the solar system.

Much of that exploration will likely be done with the Orion spacecraft being built  for NASA by Lockheed Martin. Orion got its start under the Bush space policy a decade ago, and the first test launch of Orion is slated for December.

Model of Orion Spacecraft on show at IAC 2014.

Other commercial providers of spaceflight were also present at the congress. Virgin Galactic, whose plans to carry paying passengers on suborbital flights have been repeatedly postponed, updated delegates on their problems with propellant for their SpaceShipTwo vehicle and hopes to begin full operations next year. Tickets are available for $250,000 a ride. Far more expensive are commercial trips around the Moon being offered on Russian spacecraft by Space Adventures Ltd. at $180 million. 

Canada Plays Politics

A tradition at these congresses is for the heads of the world's major space agencies to gather. The leaders of the Russian and Chinese space programs were conspicuous by their absence from Toronto, and the reason turned out to be the Harper government 's decision to refuse them visas. 

In the case of Russia, many countries have sanctioned the Putin government for its illegal takeover of the Crimea and complicity in the destruction of a Malaysian Airlines aircraft, but Canada seems to be the only country extending these sanctions to space activities. Earlier this year, Canada had pulled a Canadian navigation satellite off a Russian rocket and at the congress it announced that the satellite would instead be launched by India.

Russia didn't have a booth at the IAC 2014 trade show, but Ukraine did.

Many delegates believe that the denial of visas to Russian space program officials, including well-known cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, constituted a victory of the Harper government's domestic political imperatives over Canada's international reputation. Most space programs today, especially Canada's, rely on international cooperation, and the Canadian government's handling of these visas could have unexpected repercussions.

Canada's space program, including the Canadian Space Agency's remaining astronauts, David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen, were front and centre at the congress, but with budgetary restraint being the order of the day at the CSA, there was little new on show except for Canadian contractor MDA's plans for a next-generation Canadarm for use on Orion and other spacecraft, new Earth-facing cameras slated for installation on the ISS by Vancouver high definition image provider Urthecast, and Toronto Italian espresso maker Lavazza's unveiling of a prototype espresso maker for the ISS.

While these products portend only minor changes, the rise of commercial human spaceflight means big changes in the field of spaceflight. With NASA leading the way by supporting commercial space providers, other space agencies, corporations and individuals may find it easier to book seats into Earth orbit.

In place of the Soyuz ferries and the ISS of today, tomorrow's space traveller may be able to choose between a number of commercial providers to get into orbit, where they will be able to visit space stations built by private providers, such as Bigelow Aerospace and its inflatable modules. And NASA astronauts, perhaps accompanied by Canadian astronauts and others, may fly beyond Low Earth Orbit to new destinations in the solar system. That's the vision spelled out at the Toronto congress, but events on Earth will ultimately tell whether this vision becomes reality.

The two most famous attendees at the congress were former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, and Bill Nye the Science Guy, who is doing a great job as the new face of the Planetary Society. I bumped into Nye on the first day of the congress. 

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