Space Symposium Looks Forward After Discovery's Final Flight

April 18, 2012
Technology Editor Bill Wong highlights space technology at the 28th annual Space Symposium as well as the shuttle Discovery's last flight.

I am at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs and watched the final flight of the shuttle Discovery atop a specially modified 747 today. NASA's Discovery landed in Washington, D.C. destined for the Smithsonian Institute (Fig. 1). The transition will be from shuttle to commercial space flight but the government pulled the plug too soon and it is going to cost us. The International Space Station (ISS) will be serviced by Russian space flights until then and it will not be cheap.

The cancellation of the shuttles was a political event, not a technical one. The shuttles had more life in them. The transition to commercial space flight was a little optimistic.For a little optimism though you can check out my interviews at the Space Symposium on EngineeringTV.

Figure 1. Space shuttle Discovery landing at Washington Dulles Airport. It is destined for the Smithsonian Institute.

There are a number of commercial endeavors on the horizon. SpaceX is planning on an April 30th launch of its Dragon capsule. The initial experiment will be to deliver cargo to the ISS. It will be flown by remote control and then captured by the ISS astronauts. It will then return to earth so the capsule can be reused. By the way, I also got a walk around the ISS model by NASA.

The SpaceX crew was busy preparing for the launch. We did get to chat with one of the competing solutions from Boeing. It's CST-100 (Fig. 2) is designed to hold up to seven crew members. The CST-100 will be launched on the Delta IV rocket. Like the competing solutions, the CST-100 is designed to be reusable. It should work for at least ten trips and it can handle cargo, crews or a mix.

Figure 2. Boeing CST-100 (Crew Space Transportation) capsule is one of a number looking to replace the shuttle for transporting human and cargo to low earth orbit (LEO).

I also got a chance to chat with a number of other space vendors at this show including Northrup Grumman. One platform they are delivering is the James Webb Space Telescope (Fig. 3). The JWST is a large, infrared-optimized telescope built with multiple beryllium mirrors.

Figure 3. James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a large, infrared-optimized telescope that will replace the Hubble.

The architecture of the JWST is interesting because its sensors need to be very cold, about 45 degrees Kelvin. A five layer sunshield and a cyrocooler are needed to keep the temperature down to allow high accuracy readings.

Most of the discussions were captured on video and you can find them at Engineering TV. Links will be added here soon.

Some of the ones I didn't snap a picture of included some students from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Graduates and undergraduates are participating in NASA sponsored projects including rockets with advanced telemetry systems and even a satellite called the CubeSat. The CubeSat is only four inches long and weighs only a few pounds but it will expand in space to expose antennas, solar panels and sensors.

There will be a gap where the U.S. lacks launch capability to deliver cargo and personnel to the ISS. The slack will be taken up by other countries including Russia but there is no lack of experimentation, new projects and future research by NASA, commercial vendors and students.

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