The View From Here

Rockin' in the Space World

Written by: developer

I have to admit that there’s a soft spot in my heart for NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites. It was a tad more than 25 years ago that I had the rush of supporting my very first space shuttle launch, and it was a biggie: the launch of space shuttle Discovery on mission STS-26R — NASA’s return to flight, our first flight following the loss of Challenger nearly three years before.   

The emotional atmosphere was incredibly charged, and the media village that sprouted up at the KSC press center was huge and demanding, both an opportunity and a burden for the public affairs teams supporting the launch. Fortunately for me, I was too focused on the TDRS payload in Discovery’s payload bay to get swept up in much of the Return to Flight frenzy.

I suppose I should more accurately say I was focused on the Boeing Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) that would deliver TDRS-C to its final position in orbit, an unprepossessing little workhorse of an upper stage engine that would also deliver such interplanetary spacecraft as Magellan, Galileo and Ulysses, and, in a way, put me in a position to directly support shuttle-based exploration for a decade.

It is last week’s successful launch by United Launch Alliance that triggers this little trip down memory lane. On January 23, a ULA Atlas V rocket successfully launched NASA’s TDRS-L satellite from Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The first of 15 missions planned for 2014 by ULA, it was also the 78th consecutive successful launch for ULA in just over seven years. TDRS-L has quite a legacy to live up to — the TDRS-C we launched in 1988 had a designed life of 10 years . . . and is still in service more than 25 years later.

The TDRS-L mission pulled off with such aplomb by ULA is part of an incredible burst of specific impulse put on by the worldwide space community in January to launch 2014 on a stellar trajectory:

  • In January, the Space Foundation and NASA held several special events at Space Foundation World Headquarters and the Space Foundation Discovery Center, as part of the world premier of Water Falls, a new public education initiative linked to the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission, set to launch later this month (February 27) aboard a Japanese HIIA rocket from JAXA’s Tanegashima Space Center.
  • On Jan. 27, 2014, the South Korea Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning formally launched its Moon exploration program — which aims to put its first lander on the Moon by 2020.
  • On Jan. 6, SpaceX successfully launched the Thaicom 6 satellite, built by Orbital Sciences Corp. for Thai satellite operator Thaicom, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Next up for SpaceX will be CRS-3, the company’s third ISS resupply mission for NASA, featuring the company’s Dragon capsule riding aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.
  • Not to be outdone in the ISS resupply sweepstakes, on Jan. 9, Orbital Sciences successfully launched its Cygnus commercial cargo carrier to the ISS, aboard the company’s privately developed commercial rocket, Antares, from the Virginia Spaceport.
  • Virgin Galactic conducted its third powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo on Jan. 10, going supersonic (Mach 1.4) and reaching 71,000 feet over the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
  • Also in January, Arianespace announced flight dates for its first three missions from the Kourou Spaceport in 2014 — two Ariane 5 flights and one Soyuz flight, lofting five satellites for satellite operators ABS, SES, Hispasat and ESA.
  • That almost-forgotten solar system Rip Van Winkle, a.k.a. ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, awoke in January after hibernating for 31 months in the cold of deep space. Returning to the light and warmth of the inner solar system, Rosetta woke up and started preparing for its upcoming comet rendezvous — a gutsy, $1.7 billion attempt to orbit a comet and place an instrumented lander on its icy surface.
  • As if to remind us all of the allure of the Red Planet, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity celebrated its 10th anniversary on the Martian surface by turning over a mysterious rock that seemingly appeared out of nowhere — prompting speculation: “are the Martians just messing with us?” Between Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity, a ton of effort continues to go into answering this question, and two more spacecraft are on the way: NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, due to arrive in late September, and India’s Mangalyaan spacecraft, also due to arrive at Mars in September of this year.
  • And, let’s not forget that whilst at Kennedy Space Center for the launch of TDRS-L, ULA President Michael Gass joined with Sierra Nevada’s Mark Sirangelo and Space Florida’s Frank DiBello to announce an agreement to parlay currently under-utilized facilities at KSC into a commercial-style operating site for SNC’s Dreamchaser reusable spacecraft. The deal includes the purchase of an Atlas V launch vehicle from ULA, the sharing of Operations & Checkout facilities with Lockheed Martin, use of the former Shuttle Landing Facility for Dreamchaser operations — a win-win-win for NASA, the commercial crew program, for KSC Center Director Bob Cabana’s efforts to revitalize aging infrastructure, ULA’s plans to play in commercial crew, and Space Florida’s dreams of a vibrantly repurposed KSC.

Of course, as we’ve all heard so many times, “No bucks, No Buck Rogers.” Despite the increasingly commercial approach to space exploration, it is important to remember that strong political support for government space programs is crucial to our industry. And, in that regard, January was also a good month for us. As the House and Senate quickly moved an historic two-year federal budget, a deep dive into the space accounts therein revealed to the Space Foundation some delightful surprises, including a slight increase to the NASA budget. The U.S. Air Force, working with ULA, was able to craft some significant EELV savings, relieving some of the pressures from other Air Force space accounts.

Far from perfect, but compared to the government shutdowns and sequestration that have characterized the last two years, a much better scenario and another win-win for our industry.

The View From Here is that we’re Rockin’ in the Space World. If January is any indication, 2014 is going to be a year of monster hits. Sure, there’ll be a sour chord sounded here and there, and we’ve major challenges ahead in Space Situational Awareness, in Cyberspace, in getting ITAR reform across the finish line, and more. But the sound of missions launching and important programs reaching MaxQ is a sweet, sweet song.  

We’re going solid gold, with a bullet!

This article is part of Space Watch: February 2014 (Volume: 13, Issue: 2).