FUELSPACE

FuelSpace is a blog focusing on the emerging commercial space economy, space exploration, energy production, technology and innovation. We also cover the skills that enable great achievements in these areas including sales and persuasion, productivity, self-discipline, and leadership.

Foundations of a Spacefaring Civilization, Part III: Investment, Setback, and Focus

There was a time when space exploration was the sole domain of government agencies. Over the past few years we have seen an explosion in commercial space firms with SpaceX leading the charge into this exciting new era, often referred to as "New Space". The time of government-only space activity is now behind us, and foundation of the commercial space industry is securely in place. Last year NASA asserted their newly minted role of customer and dolled out the massive $6.8 billion Commercial Crew Transportation Contract with $2.6 billion going to SpaceX for the development of the Dragon spacecraft and $4.2 billion going to Boeing for further development of the CST-100 crew transport capsule, a slightly larger version of Boeing's Orion spacecraft. Last year ended with the spectacular inaugural mission of the Orion, which was lifted to orbit by a Delta IV heavy rocket on December 5. Orion successfully tested a variety of capabilities in this first mission including basic spaceflight, re-entry, and recovery.  

A Delta IV Heavy rocket thunders into orbit from the Space Launch Complex 37B carrying the very first Orion spacecraft into orbit. Image Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA Video Credit: Spacevids.tv

 The SpaceX Dragon V2.  SpaceX was awarded a $2.6 billion contract to develop the spacecraft to full human-rated capacity.  Image Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX Dragon V2.  SpaceX was awarded a $2.6 billion contract to develop the spacecraft to full human-rated capacity.  Image Credit: SpaceX

 The Orion space capsule being recovered after its inaugural flight in December 5, 2014.  Image Credit: NASA

The Orion space capsule being recovered after its inaugural flight in December 5, 2014.  Image Credit: NASA

This was followed on December 23rd by the announcement that NASA had selected four US firms to participate in the Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC) program, which is aimed at leveraging NASA's experience and expertise to expand the private sector space development. These programs are just the beginning of a new space paradigm - one in which the private sector and the government work together to drive our space capabilities forward.  Check out the illustration below showing NASA's evolution road-map to Mars. 

 Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

Investment, Setback and Focus

The space business is not place for short-term day traders and trend-hounds. It is a long term play that requires great vision and persistence. It requires leaders and visionaries who understand the importance of this endeavor, and also its potential rewards. 2014 marked a historic year for investment in space programs. According to the Space Angels Network, 2014 was the third year in a row private space companies saw increased funding from the investment community. This included launch providers, satellites, space resource applications and human spaceflight endeavors. Google dove into the space business with the $500 million acquisition of Skybox, a space-based imaging and insight provider. They followed this up in early 2015 by announcing they would invest $1 billion in SpaceX to support the development of a massive network of low-cost satellites which will deliver internet to the entire planet. NASA leased the historic Moffett Field Hangar to SpaceX subsidiary Planetary Ventures for 60 years for $ 1 billion. Space-based hyperspectral imaging is also moving forward. This is a "folding" technology that allows long term space ventures to develop technology for their own goals and then fold them down to existing business sectors here on Earth. Hyperspectral imaging technology will be used by Planetary Resources to prospect for valuable asteroid resources in deep space. Here on Earth, this same technology will be used for agricultural monitoring, energy and mineral exploration, as well as military and civil government applications. Hyperspectral imaging start-up HySpecIQ awarded a contract to Boeing to develop the company's first earth observation satellites based on the Boeing 502 Phoenix platform. On the Space Agency side, we saw the 2015 NASA budget set to $18 billion. This includes $549 million more than what was requested by President Obama, indicating support for Space Exploration across the isles. The Chinese have their sights set firmly on the moon, while Russia announced a staggering $52 billion investment in their space program, including a possible Russian space station which could rival the International Space Station (ISS).  When we look at the combined government and private investments now coming online, you can quickly see why space is going to be a trillion dollar industry.  

Space is not a forgiving place. There will always be setbacks and failures in the space industry, and 2014 was no exception. The Orbital Science Corporation Antares Rocket carrying supplies to the ISS exploded shortly after liftoff on October 28, 2014.  Later that same week the Virgin Galactic Spaceship 2 crashed killing one of the test pilots. We were instantly reminded that space travel is not easy, it is the hardest thing we can do, and yet therein lies its importance. We must continue to move forward if we are going to insure the survival of our species. After the disasters, Orbital Sciences announced they would turn to the United Launch Alliance and the Atlas V rocket to ensure the completion of their future ISS deliveries and Richard Branson reaffirmed he would push forward with Virgin Galactic even after the crash.  

All of these developments are part of our journey out into space. Small steps forward amassed over decades are what will take humanity to the stars. Triumphs and tragedy leads to focus, and we are finally beginning to focus on the big problems that must be solved in order for us to take our next evolutionary leap. The dream ignited by the race to the moon is rising again in the public consciousness. The new space industry is driven by discovery and exploration, supported by government, and rooted in sound business plans searching for resources and riches. We are developing the engine that will drive us into the solar system. This engine has many components: investment, engineering, education, competition, capitalism, combined with the thirst for knowledge that makes us who we are. Humanity is finally taking the steps necessary to becoming a spacefaring civilization. 


Foundations of a Spacefaring Civilization, Part I: Rocket Technology

 The Deadalus Interstellar Spacecraft. Image Credit: Adrian Mann &  Icarus intersellar.org  If you do know what this website is...please, please check it out. 

The Deadalus Interstellar Spacecraft. Image Credit: Adrian Mann & Icarus intersellar.org If you do know what this website is...please, please check it out. 

Humanity's journey to become a spacefaring civilization is not a sprint. It is not one giant leap. It is the greatest marathon in history. It requires perseverance and grit. A slow crawl against all odds to fight our way out of Earth's gravity well and gain a foothold in space...and eventually on another world. The cosmos is a truly inhospitable place, and we will need all of our technology and willpower to survive as a species. You will not wake up one day and realize that humans colonized the solar system. This is aspiration unlike any other...one that can only be achieved by stacking experience and technological advancement on top risk-taking, huge investments, and cutting edge engineering. To get there we need to see profitable growth and big returns as private companies forge partnerships with governments to open new markets. State Space agencies must begin rethinking their strategic goals as a the commercial space economy begins to emerge. 2014 was a hallmark year for the space industry -- one filled with both triumphs and tragedy in pursuit of the stars. There were more space launches in 2014 than in any year in the previous two decades. It was a year greater than the sum of its parts, and one that will go down in history as one of the foundation years for our spacefaring civilization. Humanity is finally developing the framework and infrastructure necessary to become make the impossible...possible. Big things are starting to happen and the public and the investment community is becoming engaged in a way we have not seen since the space race of the 20th century. Over the next three weeks, we will show you why you should be so excited. We will start with rockets:

Rocket Technology is Advancing to New Territory

The rocket technology we use today is surprisingly similar to the rockets that were used 40 years ago. This is particularly odd when you consider how much humans love to improve upon useful technology.  Most transportation modes we use today are vastly superior, more reliable, and more cost effective than they were 40 years ago. This was far too long to go without a major breakthrough if we hope to expand into space. Luckily, things are beginning to change. The first area of innovation is in rocket fuel itself. We are beginning to see a shift away from Kerosene based rocket fuel (known as RP-1) and over to liquid methane (also known as liquefied natural gas). We already know that SpaceX's next generation Raptor engine will be fueled by methane and liquid oxygen. This was an obvious choice given SpaceX's focus on Mars. Methane rocket fuel can be sourced from the Martian atmosphere and other areas of our solar system, making it an ideal fuel for a spacefaring civilization. In 2014 we saw the announcement of a surprising partnership between Blue Origin, the space firm run by Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon) and the United Launch Alliance (ULA).  The ULA is the largest and most successful space launch provider in history and an established giant of US defense department and NASA launches. The two companies announced they would jointly develop a new liquid methane rocket engine known as the BE-4, which will power the ULA's Next Generation Launch System (NGLS). This marks the first major fuel shift we have seen in the space industry, hopefully with more innovations just around the corner. 

On the engineering side of the equation, SpaceX is getting very close to one of the greatest achievements in space launch capability. A true game changer. The traditional problem with rockets is they are incredibly expensive and they can only be used once. Therefore the best way to reduce the cost of space launch systems is to re-use the rocket core. This is a simple idea that is incredibly hard to achieve. It is known as the "holy grail of rocketry". If we can create re-usable rocket boosters, we can exponentially lower the cost of launching material to space. This is one of the most basic concepts required to if we are going to expand our reach into the solar system. On January 10, 2014, SpaceX successfully launched an unmanned dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS).  After the deployment of the spacecraft, the rocket booster successfully navigated back to an autonomous drone platform in the Atlantic Ocean where it attempted to land. The rocket did make it to the platform but landed "hard" and was destroyed. This marks one of the first times anyone has successfully controlled a rocket's reentry and navigation back to a platform in the ocean. SpaceX continues their relentless technological forward progress and hopes to successfully land a booster in 2015. Here is how they are going to do it:  

 Image Credit: SpaceX and  Karl Tate for Space.com

Image Credit: SpaceX and Karl Tate for Space.com

 The SpaceX autonomous ocean drone platform Image Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX autonomous ocean drone platform Image Credit: SpaceX

 SpaceX testing the reusable rocket stage in Texas. Image Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX testing the reusable rocket stage in Texas. Image Credit: SpaceX

Coming Next week, Part II: Space Mining & Orbital Manufacturing.  Subscribe below to have part II and III delivered to your inbox. 

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How Private Companies are Monetizing Space

One of the most common questions we hear reporting on the commercial space industry is "how do private companies make money in space?"  Its an important question, and one that lies at the very heart of this fledgling industry. Universe Today does a great job of summarizing the answer here

 SpaceX was just awarded $2.6 Billion to develop the human-crew rated version of the Dragon spacecraft, shown here. 

SpaceX was just awarded $2.6 Billion to develop the human-crew rated version of the Dragon spacecraft, shown here. 

3D Printing, CNG Stations, and Space Spiders

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you have at least heard the term 3D printing by now. 3D printing or additive manufacturing is the process of adding thin layers of a specific material on top of each other to “print” a product.  Each layer is fused together until the finished product is created. This is an alternative to the traditional method of subtractive manufacturing where you would remove material to form a final product. Current 3D printers can print objects out of wood, plastic, and now metal. Historically these systems have been used for rapid prototyping but are quickly making their way into the realm of manufacturing. We are now seeing 3D printers which are actually manufacturing high-end finished components. One of the most impressive products currently in 3D production is jet fuel nozzles. General Electric’s aerospace division has been printing high quality metal fuel nozzles for some time now. The program has been successful enough to warrant a substantial investment and expansion of the program.  

                                                            GE's LEAP engine will use 3D printed fuel nozzles.

                                                          GE's LEAP engine will use 3D printed fuel nozzles.

3D printing on a small scale is fantastic for a several applications. Rapid prototyping using 3D printers allows designers and manufacturers to test a variety of design configurations in real time. Modifying and testing prototypes much faster and more efficiently than ever opens the door to superior products that can be brought to market much faster.  In the realm of Natural Gas Vehicles (NGVs), this technique will be applied to compressors. Gas compressors are single most expensive component of a Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) fueling station. Rapid prototyping will allow compressor manufacturers like IMW, Ariel and GE to develop new, more efficient, and more affordable compressors. 3D printing will also enable the entire fueling station to be serviced much more reliably and cost-effectively. Today, if a compressor component fails, a technician is dispatched to repair the faulty part. Typically the service providers maintaining these systems must stock a huge inventory of critical parts. In the near future, 3D manufacturing will take the place of large parts inventories and allow technicians to simply print the part they need on-demand vs. stocking the component in a warehouse. Taking this concept further, we may very well have fueling stations that one day print their own replacement parts on-site when they sense a failure is eminent. A station technician can be dispatched and coordinated to arrive when the part is complete; he can then perform the repair without ever needing to visit a warehouse to locate the part.  The current barrier to this solution is printing times, which are still very long.  But be assured that production times are improving at a rapid pace.

And that is just the beginning. 3D printers are often thought of as being limited by their size. You can only print an object small enough to fit inside the printer itself. Well…not for long. The next evolution of 3D printing is already underway, and it involves scaling up 3D printers by combining the printers with sophisticated robotics. Researchers at the University of Southern California are developing a robotic 3D printing system that can print an entire house in 24 hours.   

                                                                      The Construction: 3D Printed Houses

                                                                     The Construction: 3D Printed Houses

A system of rails would be installed around the job site allowing the printer to move in three dimensions. Using concrete printers these robots would print a house from the ground up.  This technology will revolutionize every aspect of the construction industry.  In the NGV world, this means fueling stations that once took months to build, could now be assembled and operational in just days. While it is extremely unlikely an entire compressor would ever be printed on site, there are still several benefits to such an approach. The robotic printers would prepare the entire fueling station site in a short period of time, printing the concrete pad, high pressure piping and the electrical systems. For stations with time fill systems where each vehicle has a dedicated fueling hose, the entire time fill system consisting of concrete K-rail, gas lines and plastic-metal hosing is an ideal candidate for robotic printing.   

Once the site is prepared, the core equipment components would be installed.  While real world advances such as this will be implementing incrementally, the end result will be fueling stations that are built in far less time. This will improve costs by reducing construction time and labor, simplifying permitting, and even reducing insurance costs.

                                 Finally...Space Spiders.

                                Finally...Space Spiders.

For one last wow factor, I will share with you the ultimate domain of 3D printing: space. Doing anything in space is incredibly expensive, especially construction projects. For this reason you will see some of the most incredible advances in 3D printing occur in space, where the lack of gravity, abundance of raw material and free solar energy create the foundation for technologies that sound like science fiction, but are quite real. SpiderFab is developing 3D printing robots that will be utilized for space-construction projects. These are the enabling technologies that will allow space-based solar energy facilities and orbital fueling depots to become a reality. Companies like Planetary Resources will deliver fuel and raw materials to the resident staff of spider printers…setting the stage for the Trillion dollar commercial space economy.