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Successful SpaceX flight may open new era for researchers

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  June 4, 2012 05:50 AM

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Early in the 20th Century, cars and airplanes were awe-inspiring. Today both modes of transport have been domesticated — one can build either a car or a small aircraft from a kit. The successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last month, along with parallel advances in commercially operated spacecraft, puts us on the hopeful path of domesticating space exploration and making it far easier to conduct important space research.

The oft-uttered lament of university-based experimentalists like me has been the lack of access to space. Every time NASA releases an “Announcement of Opportunity” for space-based science missions of any size, there are 30 to 50 responses from which typically one or two are selected for the flight. Even if one assumes that only a third of these proposals are of the highest quality, the still means each launch leaves a lot of high-quality projects on the ground.

According to a 2000 report by the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences, high launch cost has been a primary impediment to placing more payloads in orbit. The argument has been that putting a not-so-expensive experiment aboard a high-cost launcher is not prudent. Those cost concerns are why university space specialists should welcome the new Falcon 9, and the Minotaur built by the Orbital Sciences, which now offer competitive low-cost launch options.

However, even more than 50 years after the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 started the space race, space missions remain custom-built projects, slow to develop and expensive to produce. In scientific exploration, the current rate of about one $100-300 million mission per year, along with an occasional $1-5 billion project, cannot support a broad range of experiments or accept the risk inherent in the more speculative — and thus more interesting — explorations. This has led to the “too large to fail” mindset, that only flies flight-proven, not state-of-the-art, technology. To make the next leap, companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences must turn space missions into a volume commodity.

Unfortunately, the work force capable of making this transformation happen remains remarkably small. The engineering and scientific infrastructure for aerospace is still in its adolescence due mainly to independently set goals for each NASA mission that have resulted in case-by-case designs. But there are some hopeful signs this is changing.

The NASA rocket and balloon programs, collectively called the suborbital program, have become the national leaders for hands-on training for developing a scientifically and technically competent workforce. CubeSats, the approximately one kilogram, self-contained satellites championed in the US by the National Science Foundation, have now seen worldwide acceptance. The Air Force-sponsored University NanoSat program is similarly stimulating technical creativity among university students. These are the programs that deliberately involve students in meaningful roles and encourage experimentation and innovation where failure is an acceptable option.

They are also a template of standardization and workforce development that the space industry should follow. The development of open standard for spacecraft, infusion of state-of-the-art technology, and a blueprint for low-cost satellite missions for science exploration would open up a new era. Such steps could revitalize the enthusiasm for scientific space exploration that has suffered in recent decades and make space accessible to a broad community. That could be the legacy of the commercial space age.

Supriya Chakrabarti is an experimental astrophysicist on the faculty of the Boston University Center for Space Physics, the Astronomy Department, and the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering.

AP Photo/Craig Rubadoux: The SpaceX launch of its Falcon 9 rocket and unmanned Dragan capsule lights up the sky during liftoff from a Cape Canaveral launch pad on May 22, as it streaks over a model of NASA's space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center, heading for a rendezvous with the International Space Station, opening a new era of dollar-driven spaceflight.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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