Space 2012 Conference highlights sustainable endeavors

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics met in California Sept. 11-13 and assessed America's next steps to get cargo and people back into Earth orbit to service the International Space Station.

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The U.S. space industry met Sept. 11-13 to discuss missions to Mars, the Moon and the International Space Station (ISS), in Pasadena, Calif., at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA, Reston, Va.) Space 2012 Conference. Facing a future redirected by the Obama Administration’s new U.S. space policy — and budget cuts — the conference kept a firm focus on its theme, “Creating a Sustainable Vision for Space.” Participants argued the trade-offs between human-crewed and purely robotic exploration and discussed the continuing cooperation between NASA and private industry.

One thousand attendees honored the life of Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, who died Aug. 25. Gen. James B. Armor, U.S. Air Force (retired), also was honored with the AIAA Von Braun Award for Excellence in Space Program Management. Armor is currently vice president of ATK Space Systems Div. (Beltsville, Md.), a leader in composites technology development. The conference also cheered the landing of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL, Pasadena, Calif.) Curiosity robot on Mars in May, and, in August, the success of Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX, Hawthorne, Calif.) Dragon — the first commercial spacecraft to dock at the ISS and return home.

The Dragon cargo module, built partly from composite materials, is a product of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, established in 2006 to stimulate the commercial space industry and to seek a replacement of the Space Shuttle for cargo delivery. Another COTS company, Orbital Sciences Corp. (Dulles, Va.), is developing a mostly aluminum cargo module, dubbed Cygnus, and a composite-shelled Antares launch vehicle. Although NASA is considered a financial investor in COTS, the agency has no equity in the venture — the success of the program is its only return on investment.

Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC, Louisville, Colo.) is developing the all-composite, piloted, seven-person Dream Chaser spacecraft (see photo) in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). Further, The Boeing Co.’s (Chicago, Ill.) Houston, Texas, operation is developing a seven-person capsule with CCP, which is designed to ultimately get humans back into low-earth orbit. The criteria for crewed craft stress safety and reliability. “So the next time a U.S. rocket and spacecraft are flying, it will be through CCP; there will be nothing else first with people on board,” says Ed Mango, Commercial Crew program manager at NASA Kennedy Space Center.