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NASA Piracy Space Science

NASA Charters Flights Aboard Virgin's SpaceShipTwo 76

Posted by Soulskill
from the branson's-upper-atmosphere-experience dept.
Zothecula writes "Although Virgin Galactic is generally known as a space tourism company, it sees research experiments as a future mission segment and significant business opportunity. To this end, the company has signed a contract with NASA to provide up to three charter flights on its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane. The deal follows the curtain closing on the Space Shuttle program earlier this year and is part of NASA's Flight Opportunities Program, which is charged with providing reduced-gravity environments for research experiments while encouraging the emerging commercial space industry." In related news, a 68,000-sq. ft. facility has opened in California that will assist in the assembly of SpaceShipTwo spaceplanes.
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NASA Charters Flights Aboard Virgin's SpaceShipTwo

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  • When they ask, what was the moment that the US gave up. This will be the moment we remember. NASA having to charter flights to space, from a Private Company. When was it that, We the People, finally Deep Throated Corporations. It was then.

    Our priorities as a nation are completely screwed up.

    • by Darth Snowshoe (1434515) on Monday October 17, 2011 @12:57PM (#37741840)

      NASA chartered flights to low earth orbit. NASA built a spacecraft that's going to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Oh, and another one that's going closest to the sun. And robots to scoot around Mars for years at a time. And a telescope (Kepler) that's found hundreds of exoplanets already. Just for starters.

      If you want a bigger better NASA then call your congresspeople and support their budget.

      • by pavon (30274) on Monday October 17, 2011 @01:45PM (#37742404)

        NASA chartered flights to low earth orbit.

        And in this case, they didn't even do that; they just chartered ballistic zero-G flights. These SS2 flights replace/supplement the vomit comet, not any of NASA's actual space flight. The fact that the Shuttle was recently retired has nothing to do with this deal at all, and was just a red-herring/troll that should have been cut from the summary.

        • by Teancum (67324)

          While they may be doing things that normally would take place on the KC-135 (aka the "Vomit Comet") that NASA has operated in the past, it mainly is being used to replace the sounding rocket research.... which often went to the same altitudes which SS2 is expected to be reaching.

          The use of SS2 offers a number of advantages, most significant is that it is simply cheaper than sounding rockets, and furthermore the principle investigator (or somebody working for the investigator) can even ride along with the ex

          • by SETIGuy (33768) *

            While they may be doing things that normally would take place on the KC-135 (aka the "Vomit Comet") that NASA has operated in the past, it mainly is being used to replace the sounding rocket research.... which often went to the same altitudes which SS2 is expected to be reaching.

            And its not much good for that, either. Basically it's only good for experiments that can operate in an oxygen nitrogen environment pressurized at a bit less than one atmosphere. Basically biology experiments. Unless you're going to send up a vacuum chamber complete with pumps, that is. With a person aboard and with significant aerodynamic forces throughout the ride, I wouldn't think its stable enough for most microgravity experiments.

            I believe cost per mass is pretty good at $2500/kg for 590kg, but

      • by SETIGuy (33768) *

        NASA chartered flights to low earth orbit.

        No. Spaceship two is not orbital. It's suborbital.

    • by 0123456 (636235)

      This will be the moment we remember. NASA having to charter flights to space, from a Private Company.

      NASA routinely buys flights to space from private companies; who do you think launches all those Mars rovers? There's no good reason why they shouldn't do the same for manned flights.

    • Money money money money, MONEY

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sVUvpdT-NY [youtube.com]

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Why? Because we've finally decided that space travel, exploration, and research should be possible by private enterprise rather than exclusive to the government and military. Seriously, we should have started doing this in the 1950's.

      • by SETIGuy (33768) *

        Seriously, we should have started doing this in the 1950's.

        We have been. Thanks for noticing.

    • by Baloroth (2370816) on Monday October 17, 2011 @01:10PM (#37742008)

      Sigh.

      Okay, first of all, NASA has been using commercial companies to construct it's rockets for a long time now. The Space Shuttle? Yeah, that was made by Boeing and Lockheed Martin (among others), so it's not like corporations haven't been making basically everything we've put into space already. Same with the Saturn V and I presume most if not all other launch vehicles. They've just been costing us even more because of the combination of government and corporate incompetence (basically, anytime the government contracts out part of it's work to corporations like NASA did, you end up with overpriced and delayed projects. As proof: I offer the entire defense department and it's massive swollen budget. And NASA itself, in part.)

      A private company that does everything on it's own is likely to be far (far far) more efficient. Virgin Galactic has already shown this. It's succeed or die for them, while for Boeing (for instance), failure just means more money and a delay. I haven't a clue how you arrived at the conclusion you did. If anything, this makes us less dependent on an individual company. If Virgin fails, we go somewhere else. Free market, bitch. It wasn't a free market before.

      Oh, and BTW the other option on the table was to go to the Russians. I'll take an American company long before the Russian government. In a competition of greed and corruption, Russia won about 50 years ago.

      • by bkmoore (1910118)
        The prime contractor for Shuttle Orbiter was North American Rockwell. Rockwell was a pioneer in many areas from aerospace engineering to early semiconductors. I'm not sure how Lockheed Martin and Boeing entered the picture though.
        • Boeing is now the owner of North American. Lockheed and Martin Marietta merged to form Lockheed Martin. Morton Thiokol is now part of Alliant Techsystems (ATK.) The players are the same, but the head offices and business cards are different.
        • by Baloroth (2370816)
          Well, it's a little odd. Wikipedia (here [wikipedia.org]) lists Boeing first as the manufacturer, but in the Orbiter page, the only reference to Boeing was the modified 747 that carried the Shuttle. However, on further research Rockwell apparently sold their defense and aerospace divisions to Boeing in 1996, so that's how Boeing enters in. As for Lockheed Martin, they made the external tanks.
      • by farnham (160656)

        I'm pretty sure the space shuttle was built by Rockwell.

    • They have been purchasing airplanes from private companies to perform low gravity training/experiments [wikipedia.org] for decades. First they used a Convair C-131 then a Boeing KC-135 then a McDonnell Douglas C-9, and now a Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo. Building airplanes isn't in NASA's mission or goals, so I don't see why using an existing commercial solution is any different than using commercial toilet paper in their offices.

      • by Teancum (67324)

        The KC-135 was a plane that NASA themselves owned and the pilots flying the planes were on the NASA payroll. Zero-G Corporation has signed a contract with NASA to do some flights using Zero-G's airplanes that normally would have been done the original Vomit Comet, so I agree this isn't exactly new even if you consider that the company who they are contracting out has other business on the side besides NASA. The KC-135 plane was dedicated exclusively to NASA, and when Ron Howard wanted to film Apollo 13 on

    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      Who do you think built their rockets in the past?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      NASA is a contractor agency which has a large R&D wing. Generally, NASA doesn't build rockets anymore. Rockets have been assembled by maybe by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, but there are contacts out to others.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_NASA_contractors [wikipedia.org]

      While NASA should receive *more* funding for bleeding edge R&D, like permanent moon base and then Mars, a lot of the money is sent to NASA contractors and subcontractors and subsubcontractors. NASA leverages commercial opportunities and have b

    • by egamma (572162)

      When they ask, what was the moment that the US gave up. This will be the moment we remember. NASA having to charter flights to space, from a Private Company. When was it that, We the People, finally Deep Throated Corporations. It was then.

      Our priorities as a nation are completely screwed up.

      You're saying it would be better if we put out bids to private companies to build us an identical space ship?

      As a tax payer, I would prefer to pay for the use of a space vehicle, rather than the ownership of the space vehicle. NASA' should concentrate research, not shuttle maintenance.

      • by egamma (572162)

        When they ask, what was the moment that the US gave up. This will be the moment we remember. NASA having to charter flights to space, from a Private Company. When was it that, We the People, finally Deep Throated Corporations. It was then.

        Our priorities as a nation are completely screwed up.

        You're saying it would be better if we put out bids to private companies to build us an identical space ship?

        As a tax payer, I would prefer to pay for the use of a space vehicle, rather than the ownership of the space vehicle. NASA' should concentrate research, not shuttle maintenance.

        d'oh-- "NASA should concentrate ON research".

  • by Covalent (1001277) on Monday October 17, 2011 @12:52PM (#37741798)
    The military contracts jobs out all the time (think Halliburton). The results are mixed at best. This one feels more likely to be fair, cheaper, and successful, but I still have my doubts. As much heat as NASA catches for the flaws in its designs, space travel is VERY hard. I'm not sure Virgin can do it that much better.
    • by Teancum (67324)

      Considering that Richard Branson is going to be taking his family up on the inaugural (for regular commercial service) flight of his spacecraft, I think he has a vested interest in making sure the thing will work very well before NASA astronauts get on board. They aren't going into low-earth orbit, but merely re-creating the original Freedom 7 flight profile that Alan Shepard did back in 1961. They are going to get past the Kármán line, however, and certainly be in what will be on the fringe of

      • by ckaminski (82854)
        All things said about the Space Shuttle.

        Spacecraft are not airplanes - yet. Virgin might change that, but I'm still skeptical until I see reliable 1-2 day turnarounds.
        • by Teancum (67324)

          Virgin is suggesting they may even have multiple flights in the same day, and the original Spaceship One had about a 1 week turn around as a specific requirement to win the original X-Prize.

          The one problem Scaled Composites has been having is getting their engine to work within the flight performance. It sounds like [scaled.com] they may have that bug licked, but I'm not sure what system they are using. From the summary, it looks like Scaled Composites hasn't settled down on a specific fuel/oxidizer combination yet ei

    • by Alioth (221270)

      The difference between this and usual military contract outs or prior NASA contract outs is this. NASA in the past would come up with something and ask a contractor to build it for them, especially a bespoke product (think the Shuttle).

      In this instance, NASA are doing the equivalent of buying airline tickets.

  • by Caerdwyn (829058) on Monday October 17, 2011 @12:59PM (#37741866) Journal

    In today's news, the nation which sent a man to the moon, but can no longer put a man into orbit, is buying tickets on stunt-planes to recreate the Mercury suborbital missions.

    Apparently, we're back in 1961. 50 years of "progress".

    • In today's news, the nation which sent a man to the moon, but can no longer put a man into orbit, is buying tickets on stunt-planes to recreate the Mercury suborbital missions.

      Or, in a less inflammatory tone: ... the nation which sent a man to the moon has continued interested in near earth mechanics and has contracted with a commercial vendor to complete this research in a cost effective manner.

      Another definition of progress.

    • by amliebsch (724858)

      That's not correct. The SpaceX Dragon capsule launched into LEO and recovered certainly has the ability to put a man into orbit. A human would have survived the previous flight. This can be purchased for the relatively bargain-basement price of 50 M$. I think you'll have a hard time

    • In today's news, the nation which sent a man to the moon, but can no longer put a man into orbit, is buying tickets on stunt-planes to recreate the Mercury suborbital missions.

      Not even close - as SS2 hasn't a fraction of Mercury's performance. What SS2 does is replace something NASA has been using for years - sounding rockets and the Vomit Comet.

      • He said mercury SUBORBITAL missions, AKA the redstone powered flight made by alan sheppard. Sheppard hit apogee at 168 KM altitude, SS2 will hit 110, granted it is only two thirs of the way there, but zero-g time is bound to be somewhere in the same ballpark, not to mention sheppard flew a one man capsule, and SS2 can take more people then the shuttle.

  • How do they build an aircraft hanger like that? Hundreds of feet on a side with no support columns and built by construction guys?

    The planes in them seem believable, because they're made out of aerospace grade unobtanium by $50/hr expert machinists. You expect something with a pedigree like that to hold together.

    However, the hangers are even bigger, made out of conventional "stuff" by good ole boys or illegals. The tension in the steel at the center of the door must be astounding...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    What more needs to be said?

  • by Spy Handler (822350) on Monday October 17, 2011 @01:09PM (#37741996) Homepage Journal
    that's not even pocket change for NASA... it's like the lint clinging to pocket change.

    NASA employed an army of some 35,000 people to operate the space shuttle. Assuming each worker was paid $60,000 average, and another $40,000 in health benefits, pension, etc (i'm being WAAY conservative here), that amounts to...... well I donno maths but its in the umpteen billions. No wonder Burt Rutan called NASA "a job program, first and foremost".

    Contrast that with SpaceX, which employs a few hundred people to run their Falcon program. Now you see why they can do things so much cheaper.
    • Software Engineering, Systems Engineering, and Aerospace Engineering all lean heavily on research done with public funds with NASA and the DoD. SpaceX isn't building a rocket from scratch. It is building on a public knowledge funded by your (or your parents/grandparents) tax dollars down to the very fundamentals of defining a process. At some point, there is a need to spin off public works to private corporations but that does not undermine the necessity of government involvement in high risk activities.
      • by Teancum (67324)

        What in the field of Software Engineering depends heavily on public funds financed from NASA? I'll grant how DARPA and the NSA have done some substantial contributions to the software industry (notably with the internet and cryptographic research from the respective agencies) but NASA?

        About the only thing I can think of that was genuinely ground breaking by NASA was the development of time-share computer systems and real-time operating systems done in the 1960's. The Space Shuttle guidance computers devel

        • Particularly in the fields of software testing and VV&A, NASA set the gold standards. As you say, they aren't reasonable for most products but not everyone can use pi to 3 trillion digits either. I need to brush up but I seem to recall some of the standard software process models being NASA documented if not developed. It is not the case for all NASA teams, but in my SE courses NASA was something that came up often.
        • Sorry I think I see the problem in my wording. NASA software development heavily influenced early Software Engineering as with many other Engineering disciplines. Not that NASA funding somehow supports all of those engineering disciplines. My point was you can't say the private sector is $X dollars more efficient because they say went to the moon at current year dollars Apollo plus $X.
          • by Teancum (67324)

            I'll grudgingly acknowledge that NASA was heavily involved with "High Level Language" development, particular in terms of supporting financially some of the early FORTRAN compiler development efforts. Then again the field was so new that almost anything they did would be beneficial.

            The problem here is in part that NASA has been resting on their laurels and not really the same agency they were in the 1960's. It would be wonderful if NASA was pushing the envelope and really advancing technology in some mean

    • Contrast that with SpaceX, which employs a few hundred people to run their Falcon program. Now you see why they can do things so much cheaper.

      You're absolutely correct - it's always going to be cheaper to operate a mini van than a full size eighteen wheeler. Your mistake lies in confusing one for the other.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    NASA's job is to implement the laws written by Congress. These laws state that NASA is not supposed to do things with government employees that can be done with private companies. So if a private company can do the job the government should stop doing it and hire it out. This has already happened with the vomit comet. http://www.gozerog.com/

  • It is good news Private corporations are active in space.

    First and foremost- this makes the government somewhat accountable. If the government(s) has(have) a monopoly on space they can get away with activities we may not want them to.

    As the technology evolves we will require both public and private activity (new technologies often require the ingenuity of the private sector built on the foundations of the public sector). Ironically- the roles seem reversed here- but I suspect the same will hold true.

  • Everything NASA has ever flown was manufactured by private contractors. NASA designed a lot of it the contractors designed some of it but built it all.

    As other posters have said, almost everything these newbies ( SpaceX, Scaled Composites, etc. ) are flying is all based upon the R&D done by NASA and given freely to these companies.

    NASA administered, QA'd, supervised and launched ALL of the vehicles that have put people into orbit or on the moon and brought them home alive with very few exceptions.

    Priv

    • by 0123456 (636235)

      When it is time to go to MARS or to the nearest star do you really think that private companies are going to fund that?

      SpaceX wants to send people to Mars. I don't know about MARS.

    • by Chris Burke (6130)

      Private companies are now launching Satellites and their record is not nearly as good as NASA's but it is getting there, but again riding on the backs of the R&D done by, wait for it..... YOUR TAX MONEY.

      So while all of this is happening, are YOU getting a dividend check? Nope.

      Nope! Instead, all the tax money I paid into the Shuttle is finally coming close to getting me what the Shuttle was originally supposed to provide: Cost-effective and routine orbital capabilities.

      What IS going to happen is that they are going to follow the current Unfettered Capitalism model of paying the least they can, running safety margins razor thin and making a few people really rich and everyone else getting their jobs off-shored as soon as the technology is stable enough.

      I think you're underestimating the implications of a disaster on a manned vessel for these companies. While I agree with your point in principle, it isn't clear to me if pushing against prudent safety measures for the sake of making money off a single launch is going to be more prevalent than pushing against pru

      • by FlyingGuy (989135)

        All good points...

        In point of fact what they need to do is take that Saturn V sitting in Houston, carefully take it apart and blue print it as they do. That thing can push 500.000 lbs to LEO.

        They need to stop re-inventing the damn wheel and just build the damn thing while there is still some institutional knowledge around. It works, it is proven by many launches and it is a pretty simple beast.

        • by strack (1051390)
          no, not really. they just need to follow the design principles behind the Saturn V, updated with modern engineering and modelling.
    • by strack (1051390)
      ease up on the caps lock and bold tags there cowboy. the most recent rocket research spacex is using probably came from the apollo era. chemical rocket tech hasnt really advanced since the 70s. such is the physical reality of the thing. and what is so wrong about private companies using the results of government research? the entire point of government research is to benefit society as a whole. the boeing and lockheed duopoly have been growing fat on cost plus government contracts in the launch sector for

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