Space industry to go where few men have gone before

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On December 8, 2010 SpaceX became the first commercial company in history to re-enter a spacecraft from Earth orbit. SpaceX launched its Dragon spacecraft into orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 10:43 AM EST from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Dragon spacecraft orbited the Earth at speeds greater than 7,600 meters per second (17,000 miles per hour), reentered the Earth¹s atmosphere, and landed in its targeted landing zone in the Pacific Ocean.

The space industry is planning to make giant strides in commercial space travel, space exploration and satellite technology during 2012.

Insiders believe the year could mark the first commercial space flight.

“I’ll go out on a limb and say that by the end of the year, SpaceX will have made its first human space flight,” said Space Foundation Executive Director Elliot Pullham.

SpaceX made history in 2010 when its Dragon X became the first commercial space vehicle to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. The company spent most of last year gaining certification for its first cargo mission.

“It’s moving quickly,” Pullham said. “They’re getting ready to do their first crew mission — up and down. And they want to do it sooner rather than later. It’s highly possible we will see a true manned space flight this year.”

The commercial space industry is set to make big strides this year — aided by government contracts to send cargo and people to the International Space Station.

“Do we think that the government should fund NASA and the Air Force in a higher amount? Yes,” Pullham said. “But commercial companies aren’t letting that stop them from planning a very good year.”

The government ended the space shuttle program last year, and commercial developers like Colorado’s United Launch Alliance and New Mexico’s SpaceX, are rushing to fill the gap left by its absence.

In fact, Pullham says Colorado companies — Denver’s UAL and Boulder’s Sierra Nevada, in particular — are poised to have a very good 2012.

“UAL has nine launches scheduled for the Department of Defense,” he said. “That alone is going to keep them busy. In addition, NASA is working on commercial crew capabilities and they want to use UAL’s launch vehicle for those crews.”

Sierra Nevada is working on a commercial space shop, called the Dreamcatcher. They are going to work with Virgin Galactic and start drop tests.

“That means they’re going to drop it from higher and higher altitudes, as part of the test program,” he said. “It’s a step to getting it certified for manned flight.”

Global positioning satellites

Closer to home, Colorado Springs based Air Force Space Command, located at Schriever Air Force Base, and companies that service their global positioning system satellites will also have a great 2012, he said.

“They just launched a new GPS satellite late last year (2011),” he said. “Any contractors involved with that are going to do just fine.”

While exact numbers for 2011 growth in commercial satellite industry aren’t yet available, Pullham says the industry grew.

“Probably not by 7 percent like it did in 2010, but still around 5 percent,” he said. “And I’m willing to bet they’ll be back up to around 7 percent in 2012, as the economy improves.”

The lack of federal dollars is creating opportunities for the private sector, he said. And some government agencies are also jumping on board. He points to an Air Force decision to put certain payloads on commercial launches.

“That way, they can launch payloads at a much lowered cost — it’s a win-win for everyone,” Pullham said.

Space exploration

This is the year that the Air Force’s Space Command brings home a satellite, he said, that has been in orbit for years.

“I don’t know what they’ll find — or what they were doing,” he said. “But I bet it’s interesting.”

It’s also the year that NASA will land a new rover on Mars, the largest yet. Christened Curiosity, the rover is the size of a Humvee — where the current rovers, Spirit and Opportunity — are the size of golf carts.

“It’s going to be very exciting (when it reaches Mars),” Pullham said. “NASA is going to land it in a brand new way — sort of a sky hook that will drop it onto the surface, near the Mars’ North Pole. It’s going to be a nail-biter.”

Over the New Year’s weekend, NASA also launched two crafts — called the Grail system — that will orbit the moon, charting its gravitational geography, he said.

“The craft will send back information that will tell us more about the moon’s interior, and where it came from originally,” he said.

And for the first time in decades, the United States and Russia could be joined at the International Space Station — by Chinese astronauts.

“I fully think this year they will send a manned crew to the international space station,” he said. “The Chinese are set to become only the third country with that capability.”

In the meantime, the European Space Agency will unveil the largest telescope in the world this year, and the Japanese are launching satellites as well, he said.

“It’s going to be a much more exciting year than some people think,” Pullham said. “We’re not going to sit around and wring our hands about the lack of federal money — we’re pushing ahead.”

Civil Aircraft

Commercial aeronautics companies are pushing ahead as well. Boeing is poised for a big year, thanks to an Air Force contract for 16 refueling tankers.

The Aerospace Industries Association is predicting a better year for the civil aircraft sector, following a good 2011. Last year, the sector grew by 3.2 percent to $49.7 billion.

“Looking forward, the sector is likely to grow at some 3.4 percent from 2011 to 2013,” according to a report from the industry association. “Orders for civil aircraft rose to nearly $107 billion last year.”

Of course, the growth in the civil aircraft industry depends heavily on a single factor — fuel costs.

“High fuel prices create demand for new fuel-efficient aircraft,” the report said, “while at the same time eroding airlines ability to purchase new planes. The situation placed renewed emphasis on developing commercially viable alternative fuels.”

The United States is a leader in alternative fuel development for aircraft, and has completed test flights using fuels from a variety of grains and other plants.

Military

The draconian measures required by Congress to cut trillions from the budget won’t affect Colorado — at least not in construction projects. The latest defense budget includes $400 million for the state.

The bulk of that is for Fort Carson, which will receive nearly $286 million for construction of the combat aviation brigade. Estimates are that it will cost $700 million over the next four years to complete the brigade’s headquarters. Fort Carson will also receive $43 million for barracks for a National Guard training complex and $4.3 million for an energy conservation project.

The Air Force Academy will receive $13.4 million for an inspection station for large commercial vehicles entering the base.

The new defense appropriation also includes $70 million for Buckley Air Force Base in Denver, to create a single building for the National Security Agency. The total cost to house more than 800 NSA workers is expected to be around $141 million.

Pueblo Chemical Depot will get $15.3 million to continue work to destroy 2,600 tons of mustard agent in obsolete shells. The Army will get $13.6 million for a Reserve Center in Fort Collins. National Guard facilities in Alamosa and Aurora will get a combined $10 million.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is planning to unveil his roadmap to cutting $450 billion in the next ten years. That plan, experts say, will make it impossible for the United States to carry on two sustained ground wars simultaneously.