Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has just soared into the history books, making New Zealand just the eleventh nation to achieve satellite launch capability — although uniquely in the world, this was not a government operation, but a strictly private one. Arguably, Rocket Lab is even more private than SpaceX, as they do not lease a launch facility from a government agency — they own it outright, and built it all themselves. (The first purely commercial rocket, Pegasus, technically also has a privately operated launch facility, the L-1011 Tristar named “Stargazer”. But to date it has operated exclusively out of government airfields, as it’s easier for the materials handling issues that come up with a big solid-propellant rocket.) The vehicle, nicknamed “Still Testing”, was their second attempt, after an attempt last year (nicknamed “It’s A Test”) ended in a deliberate destruction due to telemetry loss during ascent. It carried three Cubesats to orbit, and the ambition is to free Cubesats from needing to piggyback along with bigger vehicles that just happen to be going to a mostly-acceptable orbital inclination, as Electron aims to be cheap enough for just a few Cubesats to pay for the mission. Time will tell if that’s achievable, but Cubesat operators such as Planet Labs (who flew a Dove imaging satellite on this mission) and Spire Global (who flew two of their Lemur communications satellites on this mission) seem confident. The launch site on Mahia Peninsula offers a very impressive range of orbital inclinations, promising to place smallsats anywhere from 31 degrees to polar orbits.
Here’s the official webcast; skip ahead to 14:50 for the exciting bits. 😉
It’s been pretty exciting watching commercial spaceflight getting off the ground. It’s gone slower than I’d like, but this is untested ground, after all. Commercial utilization of the ISS has been frustratingly slow, hampered by the reduced crew size following the Bush-era reduction in the ISS plan and further hampered by the red tape involved in getting an experiment to the ISS via NASA. That red tape is so slow in large part because NASA’s whole philosophy towards getting stuff on Station was developed during the Shuttle era, and heavily favors crew safety over other considerations. This is completely understandable, of course, but it means experiments can wait years to fly, which makes it all but impossible to do follow-up experiments on the same grant as the first one, and effectively forces student projects to be simple, standalone experiments.
NanoRacks, a Texas company that works with NASA to fly experiments commercially aboard the ISS, has found a way to simplify this process. Instead of each entity seeking to fly an experiment having to go through the whole process with NASA, NanoRacks takes care of all the paperwork and testing, and is able to greatly expedite it by offering experiment equipment that’s already approved by NASA and easily modified to suit a particular experiment’s needs without requiring a full recertification, and also designed to fit easily into an astronaut’s busy schedule. They also provide nanosatellite deployment services, via a dispenser aboard the ISS that can be loaded via the Kibo lab’s airlock.
And now, they’re looking to expand those services they already offer. With the ISS crew complement set to increase when Starliner and Dragon 2 enter service, having more ways to get customers for ISS is very much a good thing, and NanoRacks is keen to keep at the forefront of that. They have just signed a deal with Boeing and NASA to build another airlock for the space station. NanoRacks will build the Airlock Module, and Boeing will build its Passive Common Berthing Mechanism, which will allow it to be permanently installed on the Tranquility node (after PMA-3 is relocated in support of the Commercial Crew program). Airlock will permit larger payloads to be deployed than can currently be serviced via Kibo’s airlock, and also free NanoRacks from reliance on a government operated module.
If all goes well, Airlock Module is expected to launch in 2019, although NanoRacks has not yet procured a launch vehicle or been assigned a position in the ISS launch manifest.