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Space Businesses

Excalibur Almaz To Offer Commercial Orbital Flights 76

Posted by kdawson
from the big-circle-in-the-sky dept.
xp65 alerts to the plans of an international consortium called Excalibur Almaz Limited to open up a new era of private orbital space flight for commercial customers. The group, consisting of Russian, US, and Japanese companies, will use a formerly top-secret Soviet re-entry vehicle called Almaz to carry paying research crews on one-week missions into Earth orbit by 2013. This ambition represents a large step beyond the sub-orbital flight market so far targeted by most other private space companies. "Excalibur has raised 'tens of millions of dollars' to initiate what will become a several hundred million dollar program, [CEO] Dula tells Spaceflight Now. He has spent more than 20 years eying this specific Almaz program... He also says 'the business plan closes' generating profits within a few years. His surveys have found research and science customers for space missions that are not tourist hops, but less demanding than ISS operations."
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Excalibur Almaz To Offer Commercial Orbital Flights

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  • Excellent! (Score:2, Funny)

    by natehoy (1608657)

    I'll go buy myself a ticket as soon as the proceeds from my uncle's estate come in, which should be any day now. Who knew, I had a Nigerian prince for an uncle. Small world, eh?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Shakrai (717556)

      I'll go buy myself a ticket as soon as the proceeds from my uncle's estate come in

      Why wait? I'm gonna book my flight now using my Visa card. Yeah, it's over my limit and I'll never be able to pay it back, but so what? It works for Washington and Wall Street ;)

      • by natehoy (1608657)

        Oh, well, if you're contributing to space flight, then your bailout check is on the way. I figure my uncle was (according to the estate executor) worth about 120 trillion dollars. I can afford to buy a few flights here and there.

        Oh, what the hell, spaceflights all around! If I can afford to borrow $400,000 and send it to the executor for bribe money to speed up delivery of my money, I can afford to borrow a little more to buy a few people some seats on a simple spaceflight.

        I'm sure the Russian guy I borr

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  • But I really doubt it. In fact, my bet is that if it was true, the first flight would be after 2015, which would be too late. By that time, spacex, scaled's SS3, Orion Lite, and bigelow BA-330 will be the place to be.
    • by FleaPlus (6935) on Tuesday August 18, 2009 @03:03PM (#29110559) Journal

      Is there any particular reason though why it would need to take until 2015? I imagine the development process is much simplified since the basic hardware they're using has already been developed and flight-tested, and they're just inserting in modern electronics and redesigning the service module. I'm guessing they (like SpaceX's Dragon) will probably want a few cargo flights before manned flights, of course, but I can't think of any show-stoppers.

      • by vlm (69642) on Tuesday August 18, 2009 @03:27PM (#29110925)

        Is there any particular reason though why it would need to take until 2015? I imagine the development process is much simplified since the basic hardware they're using has already been developed and flight-tested, and they're just inserting in modern electronics and redesigning the service module.

        Most "formerly top-secret Soviet re-entry vehicles" were designed to sit on top of ICBMs, and provide a ride that only a nuke would tolerate (heating, deceleration, no atmosphere, etc). On the plus side I heard some were lightly armored to discourage the star wars missile defense plan, provide some limited maneuverability on re-entry, and they are probably very reliable and stable.

        So, they don't have to bother with the aerodynamics, materials science, and control/navigation/guidance systems. Well maybe the guidance systems will need updating, unless you want to end every mission with a landing on the whitehouse lawn, downtown NYC, or Montana.

      • A capsule that has not produced in 30 years as well as a new service module, and you think that in 4 years, they will have FLYING PAYING CUSTOMERS? Heck, the thing weighed 20 tonnes, not including the weapons that were on it (cannon and later missiles; Interesting about that).

        2015 will be the absolute EARLIEST that it has a passenger. And even then, I seriously doubt it. I think that by 2013, SpaceX and Orion Lite will be running passengers to a BA space station. The reason is that when Augustine is done,
        • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Let me correct you on a few points.

          > A capsule that has not produced in 30 years

          The last flight of TKS spacecraft - and VA capsules are the part of it, it's those capsules which EA bought - was after Chelomey's death, in 1985. So, about 24 years.

          > as well as a new service module

          If you read the sources, you'll find that the capsule doesn't need the service module to get launched into space. Saves money, too.

          > Heck, the thing weighed 20 tonnes

          That was for the full TKS, not the VA capsule. VA was abou

          • SpaceX Dragon's isn't proven to be reusable, is it? And a capsule which flies 10 times instead of just one (a particular instance of VA flew 3 times to orbit during testing phase) could turn costing less.
            Actually, from what I understand, I believe the idea is to use the capsule once for a human launch, then for a cargo launch, then for a science launch (with no return). I do have to say though, that it seems like that is likely to change. One thing about Musk is that he is a salesman and tells you the BES
        • by FleaPlus (6935)

          A capsule that has not produced in 30 years as well as a new service module, and you think that in 4 years, they will have FLYING PAYING CUSTOMERS? Heck, the thing weighed 20 tonnes, not including the weapons that were on it (cannon and later missiles; Interesting about that).

          I'm betting they chose the terminology of "revenue flights" rather than "manned flights" for a reason. As I mentioned in my earlier comment, I think it's likely that they'll be aiming for unmanned cargo/science flights at first, which of course don't need quite as many assurances as the manned flights do. This is the same pattern the SpaceX Dragon is following. Also, as another commenter noted, the service module likely won't be necessary for the cargo flights and initial manned flights.

        • by FleaPlus (6935)

          The reason is that when Augustine is done, we will see either Ares I dead, or slowed WAY up, and we will see 1, possibly 2 B allocated for private ventures.

          An interesting bit of trivia: Excalibur Almaz's VP of Technical Operations is former astronaut Leroy Chiao, who was also one of the Augustine Panel members. Of course, that doesn't (or at least shouldn't) increase the odds of EA getting a COTS or CCDev contract, but it's still interesting to note.

          • OUCH. I saw that he was VP, but I totally missed the fact that he is on the panel. THAT may make a BIG difference in what will happen shortly. In particular, I am fairly certain that another round of "COTs" will be done (obviously different, but same effect). I would have bet on l-mart, scaled, and possibly scaled/northrup (ss3) as well as SpaceDev would have the inside tracks on lots of interesting item. Having that clout in there, MIGHT make a difference esp. when opposed to SpaceDev (though a lot to be s
            • by FleaPlus (6935)

              Oh yes, I totally agree. From what I watched, it seemed that the consensus of the committee (esp. Bohdan Bejmuk) was that commercial transport contracts should definitely be open to the non-"NewSpace" companies like l-mart. It'll be interesting to see what happens now that Michael Griffin is no longer around to pressure the l-mart CEO into not participating. ;)

              One thing I've heard though is that there's apparently something in the EELV contract the ULA has with the DOD which either prevents bidding on COTS-

              • One thing I've heard though is that there's apparently something in the EELV contract the ULA has with the DOD which either prevents bidding on COTS-like contracts, or makes it much more difficult. Do you happen to know anything about this?
                Nope. But I have friends who work for ULA (I live in Highlands Ranch, CO), so will ask. As a SWAG, I would have to guess that they are prevented from taking major business risks with ULA money (currently, they are a monopoly; that will change when Falcon 9 is successful)
      • by cyn1c77 (928549)

        Is there any particular reason though why it would need to take until 2015?

        Well, they can send you up immediately. They just can't promise that you will return safely until 2013.

        Sure, it seems simple to just do a little electronics and design work, but then you have to check everything every way possible on the ground. Then you have to flight test it. And if there are any failures, even unmanned, you lose your investor funding...

        Personally, I would not want to be one of the early paying customers on any of the commercial space carriers, because people are definitely going to

  • by Bruce Perens (3872) * <bruce@perens.com> on Tuesday August 18, 2009 @02:47PM (#29110329) Homepage Journal
    A Gemini with a hatch in its heat shield is in the Air Force Museum in Dayton. At the Udvar-Hazy museum at Washington Dulles airport, there is a non-space-capable Gemini practice vehicle that was built to hang under a Rogalo wing and has runway landing gear. The intent was that they'd hang-glide the Gemini to a precision landing.

    Reviving a 30-year-old Russian capsule which lost out to Soyuz sounds risky.

    • by FleaPlus (6935) on Tuesday August 18, 2009 @03:11PM (#29110661) Journal

      Reviving a 30-year-old Russian capsule which lost out to Soyuz sounds risky.

      If it's revamped and passes modern qualification testing, I don't see any reason not to reuse it. Also, unlike the Gemini, the tooling apparently still exists to construct new ones (unless I'm misreading). From what I've read, it seems that the reason the Almaz was ended didn't have anything to do with technical problems with the capsule, but more that the Soviet Union decided that having armed military space stations probably wasn't the best investment:

      http://www.astronautix.com/project/almaz.htm [astronautix.com]
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almaz [wikipedia.org]

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      > Reviving a 30-year-old Russian capsule which lost out to Soyuz sounds risky.

      Not on the technical ground, mind you; on political one. Energia, the Soyuz maker, didn't want Chelomey's company to be their rival in manned spacecrafts, and Energia was powerful enough to get the project closed after Chelomey's death.

      TKS development started in late 1960-s, while Soyuz spacecraft development started in 1960. And that decade have seen a huge advancement in rocketry.

  • MAKS (Score:3, Interesting)

    by superphysics (1619033) on Tuesday August 18, 2009 @02:47PM (#29110337) Homepage
    They're displaying their craft at the MAKS Air Show in Russia. They must be hoping to inveigle some multi-million dollar passengers. How many passengers do you suppose they need to break even with that price tag? Too bad they can't demonstrate it at the MAKS too.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 18, 2009 @02:48PM (#29110341)

    Is it easier to get something in a CIRCULAR orbit around earth, or is it easier to launch something to impact the moon.
    Getting to the moon seems like just getting escape velocity and proper aiming, but getting a proper circular orbit means achieving velocity AND THEN adjusting to get a proper orbit.
    If this is true, why aren't we seeing more moon shots?

    • Going to the moon is a big elliptical orbit. The Apollo missions had an abort of just letting the vehicle pass the moon and head back to earth. I think one of the early missions used it, and Apollo 13.
      • by Burdell (228580)

        The early Apollo flights to the Moon (Apollo 8, 10, 11, and IIRC 12) used a trajectory that would return them to the Earth with no additional engine firing; this was call the "free-return trajectory". Apollo 13 did _not_ use the free-return trajectory; they were on a path to orbit the Moon, and had to fire an engine (the lunar lander descent engine, since they were not sure about the state of the command module engine) to get back to a free-return trajectory.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by argent (18001)

      Circular velocity is less than escape velocity.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      As far as I know, you don't need anything close to escape velocity to get into a stable orbit (Circular or otherwise)

      LEO only needs a speed of ~7km/s, and GEO is only ~3km/s (but is much higher than LEO) - ES is more like ~11 km/s

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Is it easier to get something in a CIRCULAR orbit around earth, or is it easier to launch something to impact the moon. Getting to the moon seems like just getting escape velocity and proper aiming, but getting a proper circular orbit means achieving velocity AND THEN adjusting to get a proper orbit. If this is true, why aren't we seeing more moon shots?

      No, it's simply not true. The "skill" required to enter an orbit was mastered almost five decades ago. It's relatively negligible. The main restrictio

    • by buback (144189)

      When going to the moon you are not leaving the earth's gravity well, so you aren't actually escaping.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by natehoy (1608657)

      Ridiculously oversimplified response:

      Once you achieve orbital velocity, you've "hit" orbit. If you have too much power, your orbit will be higher than you planned. If you have too little power, your orbit is lower than you planned (possibly not achieving orbit, of course). Your orbit will continue as long as you have momentum, which is eaten up by the miniscule amounts of atmosphere and space junk bouncing off you as you orbit. To come back to Earth, slow down and you'll fall out of orbit and end up on

    • I like the idea of sending terminally ill people and politicians on one-way only trips to the moon....

      Can I subscribe to your newsletter?

    • by vertinox (846076)

      Is it easier to get something in a CIRCULAR orbit around earth, or is it easier to launch something to impact the moon.

      Its more complicated to calculate a moon orbit versus an earth orbit so I am pretty sure its going to take more resources to do a moon orbit.

    • by vlm (69642)

      Getting to the moon seems like just getting escape velocity and proper aiming

      Don't forget, at a precise instant. At each instant, your aim and desired delta-V vary. And a minor nit-pic that your delta-V can be somewhat less than escape velocity... After all you only need to match orbit w/ the moon, and if the moon were "orbiting" at escape velocity, it would have escaped.

      getting a proper circular orbit means achieving velocity AND THEN adjusting to get a proper orbit.

      You mean, getting any-ole vaguely circular orbit that doesn't dip below the atmosphere is no big deal. And yes you do need two burns because any delta-V change you make more or less results in a delta-position c

    • by SEWilco (27983)
      In terms of fuel, it is harder to reach the Moon because it requires more fuel than to orbit the Earth.
      In terms of accuracy, it is easier to impact the Moon than to reach a specific Earth orbit because of the Moon's gravity and its large size, so aiming is a little easier.
      However, if you want to impact a specific part of the Moon, then reaching Earth orbit is easier.

      (For some reason people are answering as if you want to land on the Moon, not impact it.)

    • Is it true that no one can hear you scream? What about sex? Except for the lack of screaming, zero G sex sounds like fun! I bet stuff is extra bouncy bouncy up there. Is it still okay to call you space people, or do you prefer 'people of space' now?

    • by roc97007 (608802)

      Because... it's not true.

  • by FleaPlus (6935) on Tuesday August 18, 2009 @02:59PM (#29110507) Journal

    Nice submission, although here's a few more details from my own submission:

    Excalibur Almaz has come out of stealth mode and unveiled their reusable spacecraft [spaceflightnow.com] capable of carrying a crew of three and/or cargo to orbit for up to a week. According to VP (and former NASA astronaut) Leroy Chiao, the spacecraft [excaliburalmaz.com] are designed to be launched on a variety of rockets, and are modernized versions of vehicles developed and flight-tested for the Soviet Union's military space station program (the company has also purchased some of the space stations for potential future use). EA plans to begin flight tests in 2012, with revenue flights starting in 2013. The company will likely be competing with the SpaceX Dragon [spacex.com] and Bigelow Aerospace's recently-announced "Orion Lite" [space.com] for a chunk of the emerging commercial orbital transportation market.

    An interesting bit of trivia is that the original Soviet Almaz space station [astronautix.com] carried a rapid-fire cannon [wikipedia.org] and performed a successful test-firing on a target satellite. I'm assuming the space stations which Excalibur Almaz bought don't have the cannons anymore. :(

  • Lot's of people can *say* they will offer space travel - and have. But the reality is a long way away. Beware putting down a deposit...
  • by icebike (68054) on Tuesday August 18, 2009 @03:19PM (#29110783)

    How does a pathetic rip off of a Gemini design qualify as a top secret re-entry vehicle?

    What was secret about it? Which Nasa subcontractor they paid ?

  • Just an interesting tidbit. And if you believe the signage on city streets, you can buy and sell them in pawn shops every couple of blocks in the former Soviet Union.
  • by fantomas (94850) on Tuesday August 18, 2009 @03:23PM (#29110849)

    More hype and a misleading Slashdot headline, what's new? How many of the X-Prize teams ever got a person more than 100 metres off the ground?

    "Excalibur Almaz To Offer Commercial Orbital Flights" - perhaps more like Excalibur Almaz *hopes* to offer commercial orbital flights. Early days of space exploration and all that but more hype than activity right now. Wake me up when they've done their first test flights with their own technical staff. I wish them and all the other commercial companies the best of luck - I so want it all to be successful and the prices to drop so an average guy like me might get up there one day - but it's mostly hype at the moment.

    • by FleaPlus (6935) on Tuesday August 18, 2009 @03:29PM (#29110965) Journal

      Excalibur Almaz To Offer Commercial Orbital Flights" - perhaps more like Excalibur Almaz *hopes* to offer commercial orbital flights. Early days of space exploration and all that but more hype than activity right now. Wake me up when they've done their first test flights with their own technical staff.

      Excalibur Almaz has apparently already raised a significant amount of money, which they've used to purchase several Almaz reentry capsules and have contracted with the Russian manufacturer to make the necessary modifications. They're well past the vaporware stage by this point, with flight-tested hardware in their possession.

  • Wow, Almaz. Never thought I'd hear that name again.

    I wonder, what science do they think people will be using this for? I guess it could replace some of the Shuttle-only payloads we used to fly, but for anything else the ISS is a much more capable research laboratory. I should know, keeping them doing science is my job these days.

    I guess it might have better downmass? Usually, though, you only want to bring it home if you think the long term exposure effects are interesting. This won't be very long term.

    All

    • Re:But what science? (Score:4, Informative)

      by FleaPlus (6935) on Tuesday August 18, 2009 @03:50PM (#29111293) Journal

      I wonder, what science do they think people will be using this for? I guess it could replace some of the Shuttle-only payloads we used to fly, but for anything else the ISS is a much more capable research laboratory. I should know, keeping them doing science is my job these days.

      I guess it might have better downmass? Usually, though, you only want to bring it home if you think the long term exposure effects are interesting. This won't be very long term.

      My understanding is that a large part of the problem is that it takes a terribly long time to get anything launched to the ISS and you have to go through a substantial amount of red tape. Currently, you need a lead time of years to fly an experiment on the ISS, which makes it really difficult to do meaningful science in the fast-paced scientific environment. Heck, a grad student putting together an experiment would be lucky to have the experiment results back before they finished their PhD. Hopefully the more rapid access from commercial providers (SpaceX Dragon, Bigelow Aerospace's Orion Lite, and now Excalibur Almaz) will help change that picture.

  • Excalibur? (Score:4, Funny)

    by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland AT yahoo DOT com> on Tuesday August 18, 2009 @03:57PM (#29111363) Homepage Journal

    Just because some watery tart lobs a spaceship at you is no basis for a space program.

  • by eples (239989) on Tuesday August 18, 2009 @04:00PM (#29111397)
    Are they taking the deck gun off for the tourist flights? No, I'm serious - the Almaz had a 23mm aircraft cannon mounted [wikipedia.org] to its underside to shoot at american targets (maybe the MOL? [wikipedia.org])

    A recent NOVA episode [pbs.org] interviewed a couple of former cosmonauts who said the only time it was fired was a test just before they decommissioned (de-orbited) the last one.
  • They have raised maybe 10-20% of the money they will need to make it to the FIRST Launch. How long have they been doing this "in the dark"? Something tells me your deposit is as secure with them as your 401K was with Bernie Madoff. I doubt your insurance pays off if something happens on your "trip" due to poorly designed Russian hardware. You think the US program is risky and we all know we've had fatalities but the Russians are far ahead in cosmonuat deaths, many which were never recognized as occuring d
  • Everything remotely useful, at least.

    USSR lost in technology war and that was for a reason - because our tech sucked. Yes, that's "ours" 'cause I helped to desing it too (electronics anyway), for military/space program as well. And I would guess, US did not exactly do nothing in the field of electronics and material sciences since USSR is no more.

    If someone is willing to trust your life to inferior control systems and 30+ year old mechanics - that's his problem. Me, I'd pass.

  • Possession of a capsule capable of orbit is great. Making it work is another. It's sort of like buying a cool bucket seat with a six-point harness, and saying you are on your way to the Indy 500. You are, but...

    In any case, I wish these guys the best of luck.

  • "He has spent more than 20 years eying this specific Almaz program."

    A lot of people have been watching it that long. Here's the bibliography from the Almaz article in Encyclopedia Astronautica. The earliest article is 1991:

    # Pauw, H, Spaceflight, "New Facts About Soviet Space Stations", 1994, Volume 36, page 89.
    # Haeseler, Dietrich, Spaceflight, "Original Almaz Space Station", 1994, Volume 35, page 342.
    # Kidger, Neville, Spaceflight, "Almaz - A Diamond Out of Darkness", 1994, Volume 36, page 86.
    # Chugunova,

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