ISPS Day 1 wrap-up

Moon over Las Cruces

(The picture above doesn’t have anything to do directly with the conference, it’s just a nice view of the Moon rising around sunset Wednesday as seen from the conference site in Las Cruces.)

Yesterday’s sessions of the International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight didn’t have any groundbreaking revelations, but there were still some interesting developments and news from the various conference sessions, which I’ll summarize below:

  • One of the most informative presentations during the day was the first, by Valin Thorn, deputy program manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew & Cargo Program. He addressed head-on the recent decision to terminate the funded COTS agreement with Rocketplane Kistler, saying that they had missed milestones not only for their financing, but also a cargo module critical design review. He called the K-1 concept “outstanding” and said he wouldn’t be surprised to see them resubmit a revised proposal in the new round of COTS bidding.
  • John Herrington, filling in for George French in the same morning session (French was at the conference but called away to a board meeting), confirmed earlier reports that the company had lined up commitments from investors for $300 million of the sought-for $450 million (not $500 million as reported elsewhere), but those plans fell through because of a variety of reasons, including NASA’s agreement to buy Progress and Soyuz flights from Russia as well as comments by unnamed NASA officials that appeared to be disparaging towards COTS.
  • Herrington did say that work was proceeding with the XP suborbital spaceplane, and the company plans to announce a revised design of the vehicle on Friday. From what I understand, this will be more than a minor tweak to the existing modified-Learjet approach. Herrington said that some of the investors who has expressed an interest in the K-1 may also be interested in investing in the XP (which is done by a separate subsidiary company, Rocketplane Global), but didn’t have anything specific to say about XP financing.
  • Thorn’s talk also revealed some new developments by other companies that have unfunded COTS agreements. SPACEHAB is working on a concept called ARCTUS to develop a cargo spacecraft based on the Centaur upper stage. PlanetSpace, in addition to their work on their Nova booster and spaceplane, is also working on a less-ambitious concept that would use a launch vehicle called the Athena 3 (a Lockheed Martin Athena 2 augmented with two shuttle SRB segments) for carrying cargo to the station.
  • SpaceDev CEO Mark Sirangelo said his company is continuing work on its Dream Chaser design for both orbital and suborbital applications, including working with NASA on an unfunded COTS agreement. The company’s operations have been disrupted because of the San Diego wildfires that forced them to evacuate their Poway, California headquarters; he said their team is working on their new COTS proposal from a trailer on a beach near San Diego.
  • Sirangelo added that SpaceDev may work with Benson Space Company on engine technology for BSC’s suborbital vehicle, but plans no additional involvement on that project.
  • Hugues Laporte-Weywada, senior vice president of EADS Astrium, didn’t offer a lot of new details about his company’s suborbital space tourism vehicle. That effort started in early 2006 with market and design studies; the Rocketplane-like spaceplane won out over rocket-and-capsule and air-launched spaceplane approaches. The company is continuing work on both technology and financing, and hopes to have all the money lined up to develop the vehicle as soon as possible in early 2008.
  • The government-commercial synergy panel was a crowded mix of familiar topics (operationally responsive space, the Marine Corps’ SUSTAIN concept, and other RLV technology development work), without a lot of new developments announced.
  • Two afternoon panels featuring past and expectant space travelers were combined into one, with Anousheh Ansari and two NASA astronauts (Michael Lopez-Alegria and Dan Barry) discussing what their orbital flights were like, as well as expectant or would-be space tourists Reda Anderson (Rocketplane), Craig Willan (Virgin Galactic), and Lori Garver (who tried to arrange a trip to the ISS in 2002) discussing their expectations. One theme that emerged: when you’re in space, take time to simply soak in the experience rather than get caught up in tasks or taking pictures.

Thursday’s sessions appear focused on spaceport development, financing, and more discussions with astronauts. I will continue, as schedule and technology permits, to microblog some insights from the conference on Twitter during the day.

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