AIAA Space and Aeronautics Forum: Mars on their mind

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space and Astronautics Forum was held in late August and featured robust discussion about missions to low-Earth orbit and to Mars.

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The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics AIAA Space and Astronautics Forum (SPACE 2015, Pasadena, CA, US) launched Monday morning, Aug. 31, with a plenary panel titled, "Executive Vision Discussion on the subject, 'Where do we go from here?,'" moderated by AIAA president James Albaugh (retired president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes).

Panelists were: Robert Lightfoot Jr., associate sdministrator for NASA; Maj. Gen. Robert D. McMurry, vice commander, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center; Wanda Gigur, vice president and general manager, Civil Space, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company; and Gwynne Shatwell, president and chief operating officer for SpaceX.

And the answer? To Mars! agreed Lightfoot, Gigur and Shatwell, all of whom believe the focus on a mission to Mars is critical. But Gen. McMurry cautioned that he expects space to be a contested domain and that the military must adapt to working with commercial space to its advantage in order to protect U.S. interests.

A major reason given for going to Mars and cultivating it as a habitable planet is survival of the human species in the event planet Earth at some point and for some reason becomes uninhabitable. As a precursor, Mars advocates propose building systems to move many people to Mars in the not too distant future (in space time).

Mars advocates got a big boost in the success of the Orion mission in completing its first voyage to space and back in December 2014. NASA designed and built the Orion spacecraft for future crew travel to Mars.

Composites play an enabling role in space transportation largely due to their low weight, high modulus (stiffness), low coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE) and exceptional flexibility in manufacturing. But advancing technology is not the biggest challenge facing the Mars project. Interplanetary exploration is considered at least three presidential elections away, carrying the potential of a future administration de-funding the Mars project. In addition, acceptance of the idea by society in general is probably at least that distant.

Meanwhile, commercial and government entities have been making strong progress in technology. It was pointed out that we are already on Mars robotically, we have a presence in space on the International Space Station (ISS), we have global cooperation for ISS, we have promising new launch technology and satellite operations. As humans, we are definitely already a space culture.

The business of space

The question for Tuesday’s plenary panel was, “How has the business of space changed?,” moderated by Carissa Christensen, managing partner of The Tauri Group LLC (Alexandria, Virginia). Panelists were: Bruce Chesley, chief architect, Network & Space Systems for Boeing Defense Space & Security; Dan Collins, chief operating officer, United Launch Alliance (ULA); Phil McAliser, director of Commercial Spaceflight Development for NASA; and Robbie Schingler, co-founder and president of Planet Labs LLC.

And the answer is, plenty! In the 15 years of this century, Christensen counts:

  • Private “angel” investments and capital investments have increased from one or two transactions a year in 2000 to more than 60 in 2015
  • GPS products have grown from $15 billion in 2000 to $75 billion  in 2014.
  • Direct-to-home satellites from about $18 billion in 2000 to $95 billion in 2014
  • More players are entering the market, from maybe one company per year to one per month now
  • Payloads launched from 131 in 2000 to 302 in 2014
  • Market dollar size increased from $80 billion in 2000 to $323 billion in 2014.

Christensen also cited the increase of commercial products and services now in development or operation, notably the growing potential of satellite operations such as mobile broadband, imagery, weather and innovative communications; commercial space infrastructure and commercial engines; launch services and platforms.

One example of determined commercial space enterprise is Planet Labs (San Francisco, CA, US), a venture-capital company that is committed to imaging the whole earth every day. The company has launched more than 101 satellites to date (eight were unfortunately lost in the failure of the Falcon 9 rocket), with more to come. It focuses on serving customers by taking pictures to create a monitoring machine; its goal is global coverage with daily online delivery.

The current state of the industry requires up-front investment for space operations. It was pointed out that more efficient launch services will help investors get back a return on investment sooner. For mission success in launch technology and operation, the importance of reducing and consolidating infrastructure was stressed—reusing launch pads, reducing suppliers, relocating work off-site where possible, in general working more efficiently with partners and expanding commercial launches.

Christensen acknowledged more uncertainty due to changing situations, such as market risks, because of changing personnel, government budget volatility, technical transformations, commercial human spaceflight safety and a changing industrial base and its leadership and vision.

The panel addressed the dynamic shifts across all business areas and the importance of being willing to change. A critical point made is that the world is different today. Staying stagnant and continuing doing things the way they have always been done is considered the bigger risk than moving forward.

In a later presentation, James Wertz, of Microcosm Inc. (Hawthorne, CA, US) asked, “Why is all this so expensive?” He points out that other high-tech products are being accomplished on time and on budget, but says the space culture is dramatically hard to change. “Reducing cost is not easy and requires changing the way we do business,” he says. “We have to want to do it and make it somebody's job to get it done.”

NASA’s Commercial Crew program was cited as one successful example of change in interaction between government and commercial entities.

Commercial crew and cargo

Kathryn Lueders, program manager for the Commercial Crew Program at NASA Kennedy Space Center, moderated a session on the commercial crew’s path to flight. Panelists were Hans Koenigsmann, vice president, Mission Assurance, for SpaceX and John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial programs, space exploration, at The Boeing Co.

NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX (Hawthorne, Calif.) as finalists from a field of five commercial crew and cargo competitors to develop and certify full crew transportation systems for transporting NASA and NASA-sponsored crews from U.S. soil to the ISS and back again. This will replace the space shuttle that was retired in 2011, and replace, as well, the current method of using Russian launch facilities.

The full systems include the spacecraft, rocket, ground and mission operations. Boeing is working on its CST-100 Starliner crew transportation system, to be launched using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. SpaceX ‘s Crew Dragon crew transportation system will launch using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX uses considerable composites in its design for the Cargo Dragon and the Crew Dragon, but considers the details proprietary.

The first crewed flight is scheduled for 2017. Beyond that, Koenigsmann and Mulholland agree they expect to expand capabilities from the ISS to Mars.

Cargo—NASA awarded the first Commercial Resupply Contracts (CRS) in 2008, and extended them in 2015, to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, now Orbital ATK (Dulles, VA, US), for cargo shipments to the ISS. These contracts cover more than 20 missions from 2017 to 2024. Awards for the second contracts (CRS2) are expected to be announced Nov. 5. Contenders are SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada Corp. (Louisville, CO, US) with its composites-intensive design (see CW article here).


SpaceX and Orbital ATK each lost a rocket last year and investigations into the causes are in progress. Orbital’s lost Antares was a medium launch configuration with payload separation systems fairing and primary structures made from composite construction. A new version is under construction with a new main engine system built in Russia and new generation avionics. It is expected to be ready for launch capability March 2016.  

SpaceX is building a new Falcon 9 designed for a 33% increase in performance, powered by a U.S.-built Merlin engine using liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene propellant.

United Launch Alliance (ULA, Littleton, CO, US) is a 50/50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Co., formed in 2006 to provide reliable, cost-efficient access to space for U.S. government missions. Its new Vulcan rocket, called a next-generation launch system, offers flexibility in a single system from low-Earth orbit (LEO) and beyond.

Arianespace, a European multi-national company based in Evry, Essonne, France, has launched more than half the communication satellites currently in orbit, serving 35 global customers, and will launch NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope sometime in 2018. JWST has considerable composites, including its backplane, built by ATK, and composite structure for the sunshield and bus built by Northrop Grumman (Redondo Beach, CA, US; click here for story).

More than 800 delegates from countries attended the SPACE 2015. This report summarizes some major features of the forum, but is by no means exhaustive. Other sessions covered software modeling, Mars habitats, propulsion, astronomy, exploration of the universe, satellites, robotics, balancing innovation and risk, cyber defense and much more.