Will 2012 Finally Be NewSpace’s Year to Shine?

Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Corporation)

There’s a terrific scene in the film, “Independence Day,” that has great relevance to 2012.

Computer genius David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and Marine Capt. Steven Hiller (Will Smith) have just convinced President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) that they can fly a captured alien spacecraft up to the mothership and implant a computer virus that will take down the aliens’ defensive network, allowing humanity to launch one last, desperate counterattack. The President and his entourage depart, leaving the two men alone to plan their mission.

“You really think you can fly that thing?” Levinson asks.

“You really think you can do all that bullshit you just said?” Hiller replies.

Levinson doesn’t answer.

It’s a nice scene. Hiller’s “right back at ya response” is exactly what you’d expect from a cocky fighter jock. The fact that neither man answers the other one’s question shows they really don’t know if they can pull it off. And yet their lives, and the fate of the human race, depend on them doing precisely that.

So, do I think the Mayan predicted apocalypse set for December will involve an alien invasion? Maybe, but probably not. The scene is, however, very relevant for NewSpace this year. The time for talk is over; time to prove they can do all that bullshit they’ve been talking for so very many years.

And you know what? They might just pull it off.


“A big 2012.” That’s how Virgin Galactic CEO and President George Whitesides is describing the upcoming year. The plan is to integrate the motor into SpaceShipTwo, conduct powered flights, and fly into space — hopefully by the end of 2012.

Successful powered flights using a full engine would be a major milestone in a development effort that began almost 7.5 years ago. Virgin Galactic could put to rest persistent stories that engineers are still experiencing difficulty scaling up the hybrid propulsion system from SpaceShipOne for use on its much larger successor. And the missions would pave the way for commercial flights of the six passenger vehicles to begin.

Whitesides’ boss, Sir Richard Branson, has talked about flying into space with his family by Christmas. Being that such a flight is supposed to be the first commercial mission, my guess is that this is yet another one of his overly optimistic predictions. The Virgin Galactic officials who are actually working on the program have predicted commercial flights in 2013 — if they make any predictions at all. Whitesides has studiously avoided setting any dates.

Just next door to SpaceShipOne’s hangar in Mojave, XCOR is gearing up to build the Lynx Mark 1, the company’s high-altitude prototype. Flight ready hardware is already filling the 1940’s era hangar. The big event will be the arrival of the composite fuselage in a few week’s time.

XCOR is looking at rolling out the Lynx in July or August, with taxi tests in the months that follow. An initial hop off the runway and a short test flight are scheduled by year’s end. High altitude testing would follow. The company also plans to roll out the Lynx Mark II, which would be capable of reaching space, by the end of of 2013.

Can they fly by the end of this year? Probably, but it could be tight. There’s a lot of work ahead. And XCOR is an engine company that’s now building a spaceship, which could be a significant learning curve.

The deadline matters less at this point than getting things right. XCOR is in the best financial shape of its life. CFO Andrew Nelson told me on Friday that although XCOR is pushing to fly this year, there isn’t anything crucial — such as an investment round — riding on making that deadline. So, a delay into 2013 wouldn’t pose a problem, Nelson said.

Three other American companies — Armadillo, Blue Origin and Masten — are continuing development of their reusable suborbital vehicles this year. We can expect all three firms to push their vehicles to ever higher altitudes as the year goes along. With the exception of Masten’s vehicles, these spaceships will first fly experiments and eventually people on suborbital flights.

If things go well, 2012 will be the year that suborbital space market will begin to come into its own. There’s enough going on here that not everyone has to success, just enough to propel the industry forward. Between these vehicles and sounding rockets flown by companies such as UP Aerospace and Whittinghill Aerospace, the United States will have a robust capability for exploring suborbital space. That opens up entirely new vistas for flying people and experiments into space and testing novel space technologies.

Commercial Cargo

NASA plans to turn over cargo delivery to the International Space Station (ISS) to a pair of high-tech freight haulers named Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX. Both companies are coming up on crucial flights that will reveal whether the space agency made a good decision in outsourcing this crucial function.

On Feb. 7, SpaceX is set to launch a Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon freighter to ISS. This is the third flight of the rocket and the second of the cargo vessel. It’s also the first flight of the full Dragon; the previous mission featured only the capsule without its service module and solar panels.

The freighter will be first put through its paces in orbit. If those results are positive, astronauts aboard the station will berth Dragon — with a token cargo aboard — to the orbiting facility. Later, the vehicle will be undocked and parachute into the ocean.

The first ISS-bound Dragon undergo preparations. (Credit: SpaceX)

If the mission succeeds, the space agency will clear SpaceX to begin a series of commercial cargo flights to ISS. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract for 12 flights to the station. If the fails, another demonstration flight will be required and commercial deliveries will be pushed back.

Meanwhile, Orbital Sciences Corporation is busy preparing for its own demo mission to the station. First up will be the launch of its new Antares launch vehicle on a solo flight in late February or March. If that flight is successful, the company will launch its Cygnus freighter to be berthed with the station in April. Like the Dragon mission, the vehicle will carry a token payload.

Once Orbital Sciences can fly a successful demo flight, it can commence flying eight cargo missions to the station under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA.

Commercial Crew

This will be the year that NASA will decide on what will replace the space shuttle for human missions to Earth orbit.

The space agency will issue a request for proposals in February for the third round of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. NASA plans to select at least two winners by August to prepare their systems for production.

And then there were two. The four funded crew vehicles funded under NASA's CCDev program.

It’s going to be a very difficult decision. NASA has been funding the development of space vehicles by Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX, which all have various strengths. The space agency will need to leave two viable systems on the cutting room floor.  And the companies building them will then need to decide whether to continue with their projects using private funds.

The only thing that seems fairly certain is that United Launch System will receive funding to human rate its Atlas V rocket, which has been chosen by three of the four crew vehicle competitors. Unless, of course, ATK convinces one or more of these providers to switch to the Liberty rocket and get NASA to fund the booster’s development.

NASA will have far less oversight on the development of these systems that it had on any previous human spaceflight vehicles. The space agency had planned to use the traditional Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) contracting method for the third round of CCDev. However, officials decided to stay with looser Space Act Agreements after Congress provided only $406 million in the FY 2012 budget instead of the $850 million the Obama Administration requested. NASA concluded this funding level was too low to support two systems using FAR.

Key members of Congress have objected to this change, and they have promised to hold hearings to examine the logic of this move later this year. Having significantly underfunded the commercial crew program, probably expecting that NASA would be forced to select only system for development using FAR, they are now expressing deep concerns about safety issues.

It’s not clear what Congress can really do at this point. Legislators have already approved NASA’s budget for FY 2012, which runs through September. NASA will issue the CCDev RFP and make awards before the new budget goes into effect. Congress could require that the space agency use FAR in future rounds as part of the FY 2013 budget. However, NASA has already signaled that it plans to do that anyway when it procures flight services.

One unfortunate result of the lower funding level is that the first flight of America’s new spacecraft has slipped about a year into 2017. This means that NASA will have to spend about $450 million extra to buy rides from the Russians to the International Space Station. This is roughly what Congress cut out of the request this year.

It would be nice if Congress would look at the logic of its funding decisions during these upcoming hearings. However, one should never expect legislators to examine their own bullshit — especially not in an election year.

The Road Ahead

People have been talking about the coming era of commercial spaceflight and tourism for so long it’s easy to get cynical about it.  I mean, who hasn’t heard that story about how the Apollo moon landings inspired some really rich person to want to fly into space? You hear that enough times and it’s just like, We KNOW! OK?! Just go already! Stop talking about it!

Just before the July 4 counterattack against the aliens in “Independence Day,” President Whitmore gives a stirring speech to the pilots about how, if they are successful, the Fourth of July would no longer be just an American holiday. It will become the day that humanity declared its independence, that it would not go quietly into the night.

NewSpace has a similar opportunity to declare independence from the government monopoly on access to space. One hopes they can seize it. Otherwise, it’s going to be another long year of listening to a lot of bullshit. And nobody wants to hear that.

Carpe diem et ad astra!