October 01, 2012
Credit: Credit: Excalibur Almaz
Frank Morring, Jr. Washington
NASA's deep pockets have always driven human spaceflight developments, and they continue to do so even as the U.S. agency backs away from the government-owned vehicles that typified the first 50 years of human spaceflight.
While most of the commercial crew vehicles under development in the post-shuttle era got their starts with NASA seed money, a couple of companies are seriously working on crew vehicles without a major role for Uncle Sam.
They are as different as night and day. Secretive Blue Origin is drawing on the deep private pockets of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos to build human spacecraft for the prospective orbital and suborbital markets, carefully concealing his company's activities from prying eyes at a closed factory near Seattle and a remote test site in West Texas.
Swashbuckling Excalibur Almaz is openly promoting its plans to upgrade 40-year-old Soviet human-spaceflight vehicles for tourist flights to cislunar space, inviting visitors to kick the tires on their venerable hardware at open houses in their Isle of Man headquarters.
“Originally they were the Russian equivalent of the American Air Force MOL program, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory,” says Art Dula, a longtime space entrepreneur from Houston who is listed as founder and CEO of Excalibur Almaz, which operates under the oversight of the U.K. Space Agency (UKSA). “While the Manned Orbiting Laboratory didn't get to flight hardware, the Russian secret equivalent of it did, with three space stations and nine successful orbital flights by the reentry vehicle.”
Dula says his company has acquired five “reentry vehicles” and two of the Salyut-class orbital stations, and has obtained assurances from their builder—the now-private missile-manufacturer Mashinostroyenia—that there is enough of a supply base left to refly them if a market emerges. That market, says Dula, would be privately funded trips to lunar orbit or an Earth-Moon Lagrangian point, where at least one of the stations would be pre-positioned.
Technical details are sketchy. Excalibur Almaz is working with Busek Space Propulsion of Natick, Mass., to obtain Hall-thruster technology to move the stations to cislunar space, Dula says. EADS Astrium of Bremen, Germany, will adapt systems originally developed for the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle to outfit the Russian structures.