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Space 2014: Major momentum shifts ahead?

Flying into 2014
Flying into 2014
Mark Garfinkel / Boston Herald

As 2013 draws to a close, the Examiner takes a look at the governments and institutions poised to thrive in space next year (or not).

Let’s start our tour close to home, with special focus on the Colorado space economy. Then we will look farther abroad to see what others may accomplish in 2014.

United States (NASA):

NASA will travel a winding, bumpy road in 2014. In some ways, the future never looked darker… and in others it never looked brighter.

Human spaceflight at NASA seems locked into a holding pattern as Congress, the White House, and NASA HQ endlessly debate priorities and directions. Manned asteroid missions officially remain the highest priority, but no one knows exactly what this means or how to do them. Until a real vision and plan emerges, maintaining the status quo is the best we can hope for: another year of ISS support, development of more technology to be used by others, and plenty of inspiration for science and technology students world-wide. Leadership issues won’t be solved in 2014, and budgets will continue to shrink in terms of capability dollars.

Space science at NASA enters 2014 in free fall, at least temporarily. Major reorganizations will vastly shrink the number of programs for researchers submitting proposals while increasing the scope of each program. The goal of this budget-neutral effort at HQ is to increase efficiency by lowering program manager overhead and redundancy. This might actually work - eventually. For now, all NASA science programs are in flux, and research output will undoubtedly suffer.

Meanwhile, the White House OMB (Office of Management and Budget) appears to be gearing up for another round of planetary science budget cuts, as they redirect funds toward areas of greater political interest (i.e. Earth Science). We know we’re in trouble when Bill Nye is our best hope (please read and support his open letter to the White House here).

At a NASA worker-bee level, 2014 should be another banner year. Teams will continue to work on robotics and deep space life support breakthroughs. Cutting-edge research into inflatable structures and landing systems promise to open up Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Mars to human settlement. Curiosity, Opportunity, MAVEN, and several Mars orbiters will continue to revolutionize our understanding of Mars while reducing the future risk to human explorers and settlers. Cassini will continue to probe the mysteries and wonders of Saturn, while Messenger does likewise for Mercury and the near-Sun region of the solar system.

So the bottom line at NASA: treading water is fine if the currents continue to push you toward a golden shoreline. An alternative, sinking like a rock, seems quite unlikely in 2014 despite some disturbing noises in Congress lately (see page 74 for some wildly inaccurate NASA budget analysis from the Congressional Budget Office last month).

For the Colorado space economy, the MAVEN mission to Mars will enjoy center stage. This mission will place the University of Colorado - Boulder at the forefront of Mars research, and its effects will spill over to many other local companies and institutions.

United States: Private Sector

The most exciting American private sector initiative in 2014 will be the Inspiration Mars mission. Dennis Tito’s challenging project should push engineers at NASA and elsewhere in new directions, leading to major improvements in spaceflight capabilities. Time is short, however, because the mission needs to launch by January of 2018 in order to catch the unusual orbital alignment that makes the mission possible.

Locally, the Orion Capsule project at Lockheed Martin bears close watching in 2014. Orion has passed a series of successful benchmarks in 2013. Continued development at the sprawling Waterton Canyon complex south of Denver should directly stimulate the Colorado space economy. NASA HQ’s top goal, sending human explorers to an asteroid, rests on the broad shoulders of Orion. So… no pressure, guys and gals!

Another major event in 2014 will be the launch of the first Falcon Heavy rocket by SpaceX. Hot on the heels of their first geosynchronous satellite launch in December of 2013, SpaceX will up the ante significantly with its next Falcon iteration. The Falcon Heavy arguably will be the first American heavy lift rocket since the Saturn V in the 1970’s (the Space Shuttle probably doesn’t qualify because most of its lift capability was absorbed by the mass of the shuttle). Using a Falcon Heavy and on-orbit assembly, manned Moon and Mars missions become feasible once more.

See below for more private sector NewSpace companies to watch in 2014. Most of these companies operate in the United States, though the NewSpace movement recognizes no national boundaries.

International Private Sector

Most of the buzz in the international private sector in 2014 will be about Mars-One. The Dutch non-profit organization intends to land the first human settlers on the surface of the planet Mars by the year 2025, ten years before NASA plans its first human mission to Mars orbit. Mars-One made major headlines in 2013 when its first-round astronaut selection campaign attracted nearly 200,000 worldwide applicants. If you want to go to Mars, watch their website for information about the next three rounds of applications!

[Disclaimer: your Denver Space Industry Examiner is also a technical adviser to Mars One, so stay tuned for many more details in upcoming articles.]

On December 10th, 2013, Mars-One returned to the world news headlines with its announcement of two trade study vendors for its 2018 technology demonstration mission: Surrey Satellite Technologies Ltd of the UK, and Lockheed Martin Corporation of the US. Surrey will consider a high-bandwidth telecom orbiter while Lockheed Martin considers a spacecraft similar to their 2008 Phoenix lander.

As currently envisioned, the 2018 Mars-One mission will be a mission of bold firsts:

  • The first time a private entity sends a spacecraft to orbit or land on another planet.
  • The first time any agency, including NASA, sends a (areo) stationary satellite to another planet.
  • The first time a comprehensive meteorological package lands on another planet.
  • The first time water is mined and power generation systems are deployed on another planet.
  • The first time a satellite will send back 24-hour data coverage of a single hemisphere on another planet.

To make the 2018 deadline, technical work needs to begin in earnest in 2014. In a limited way, this will directly benefit the Colorado economy because local engineers will no doubt contribute to Lockheed Martin’s study. Looking to the future, a strong Colorado footprint on Mars (figuratively) will lead to substantial economic benefits. Lockheed Martin’s involvement early in the Mars settlement process bodes well for the future of the Colorado aerospace community.

To make a donation to Mars-One, visit their webpage or go directly to their crowdfunding site. As with many other NewSpace efforts, up-front funding and support from the general public is critical to the success of their mission.

China

China will accomplish great things in 2014, but no one knows exactly what they will be. A few tantalizing hints have emerged toward the end of 2013, however.

By the time you read this, China may have landed its first rover on the Moon. Observers disagree about what this means for 2014 and beyond, but they do agree that the rover must be part of Some Larger Plan. The smart money bets on a program of continued lunar missions of increasing capability, culminating in a manned lunar landing later in this decade.

Longer term, a Chinese lunar settlement seems more feasible than a settlement on Mars. The Chinese military controls their space program, and a settlement on the Moon would offer more military benefits than a settlement on Mars.

We probably won’t see a manned lunar landing in 2014, but we should see more, clearer signs about the ultimate direction of the Chinese space program. We should also witness more science and manned Earth orbital missions, but details and timeframes are anyone’s guess.

The important thing to note with China is momentum. They have economic, political, and public support for their space program unseen since the 1960’s in the US and Russia. They can also draw upon the combined experience of decades of spaceflight in other nations, manned and unmanned. At this point in time, they can do almost anything they want in space - and in short order. So the real question is simply: what do they want?

India

On November 5, 2013, an exciting new player entered the space science scene: India launched its first Mars orbiter, named Mangalyaan. While Mars One was making its 2018 mission announcements on December 10th, Mangalyaan successfully completed its first mid-course trajectory change on the way to Mars.

With this mission, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) becomes a full-fledged member of an elite club of space explorers. If Mangalyaan successfully reaches Mars orbit on September 24th, 2014, it will be the first Asian spacecraft to orbit another planet (China and Japan have previously tried and failed).

Longer term, India’s prospects in space may be limited more by politics than technology. A vocal minority in the Indian government would rather spend money on short-sighted local efforts. Successful Mars orbital insertion in 2014 could go a long way towards silencing the nay-sayers. Ironically, India’s greatest advantage in space is its economic frugality: the total mission investment into Mangalyaan was less than $75 million (US), roughly one-tenth the cost of a similar NASA mission.

Global Space Economy

According to the Space Foundation’s most recent annual report in April, 2013, the global space economy grew from $285 billion to $304 billion in 2012. Continuing the same 6.7% growth rate would place the global space economy at just under $350 billion in 2014. The 10-year cumulative total projects to around $4 trillion.

Note that most of the 2014 global economic output in space remains annoyingly vulnerable to the ups and downs of government budget cycles - and in particular the current US budget situation. Sequestration cuts to US military-space could deter growth in 2014, though investments in other nations (i.e. China) may pick up the slack.

Looking farther ahead to some worst-case scenarios for 2015 and beyond, the unlikely destruction of NASA human spaceflight threatened by the Congressional Budget Office would directly reduce the global space economy by around 2%. The cumulative long-term reductions would be far more devastating, and perhaps some effects would be felt in 2014 as well. A perfect storm in 2015 and beyond, lingering sequestration cuts and major cuts to manned and unmanned spaceflight at NASA, could easily reduce the global economic spaceflight market by 10x the paltry amounts saved in the US budget.

NewSpace 2014

NewSpace companies will continue their frantic pace in 2014. Here’s a roundup of the main players to watch.

Partnered with local Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation, the B612 Foundation has made good internal progress on their Sentinel Space Telescope mission to discover and track near-Earth asteroids. They have also asked for the public’s support in funding the mission, so please visit their website for details and consider a generous donation.

Planetary Resources Inc and Deep Space Industries continue to eye the mineral wealth in the asteroid belt, but how they get there is anyone’s guess. PRI’s short term goal in 2014 is the development of their ARKYD 100 telescope in LEO, which seems to be a cheaper but less capable version of the B612 Foundation’s Sentinel mission. Likewise, DSI’s plans are quite cryptic and they promise a better timeline on their website soon… but their initial Firefly series of low cost survey missions to asteroids strongly resembles a more mature Hummingbirds-Charm mission concept proposed and developed years ago by local N-Science Corporation in Golden.

Local company Golden Spike has contracted with Honeybee Robotics to perform a detailed trade study of private human/robotic lunar missions. This partnership, also announced on December 10 (quite a busy day in space), promises to bring together seasoned, effective teams of doers and enablers with proven success records in prior space missions. The trade study should be complete midway through 2014.

Bigelow Aerospace enjoyed a fairly quiet 2013 but remains one of the top companies to watch in 2014. They are moving ahead with two ambitious projects in space: BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module), a small inflatable tech demonstration module for the International Space Station, and BA-330, a massive inflatable habitat with 330 cubic meters of volume. If all goes well, the company may construct their own private space station in LEO by docking two BA-330 modules together in 2016. Expect these plans to evolve throughout 2014.

Another worthy company for your donation dollars this holiday season is Uwingu. This company serves as an on-line connection site, linking donors and space supporters with science researchers who can put sponsor funds to good use. Expect to see an announcement in early 2014 about a new collaboration with one or more entities above, along with (hopefully) increased levels of funding for many more private space science initiatives.

Watch Aleph Objects in 2014 too. This local Loveland company has become a major vendor for 3D printers servicing a variety of markets and applications, including space (they are a Silver Sponsor of Mars One, for example). The 3D printer market is exploding, and Aleph’s Lulzbot Taz 3D printer has received top ratings from several independent review organizations. 3D printers are now required hardware on any wanna-be Moon or Mars human exploration mission, though adaptation to low gravity or low air pressure environments may prove tricky.

Happy New Year to all!