RLV News


RLV News was one area in HobbySpace, a website created by Clark S. Lindsey. From space tech to space culture, games, art and resources, this site was a treasure chest about space just waiting to be explored.

If you have unexpectedly arrived at this site instead of the HobbySpace website let us point you to http://hobbyspace.com/​ for all the most current HobbySpace information

The new owner of this domain decided as an homage to the incredible amount of love and work that Clark S. Lindsey put into the site to create this one page, providing but a brief glimpse of RLV News offered its visitors.

Content is from the site's 2000- 2003 archived pages.


 

RLV NEWS

Orbital space prize; Peter Diamandis; ESA and the Kliper

Alan Boyle reports on the orbital space prize study carried out by the X PRIZE Foundation: After X, the O Prize? - Cosmic Log / MSNBC.com - Dec.8.05
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Speaking of the X PRIZE Foundation, they have posted a reprint of a magazine article about Peter Diamandis: Extraordinary Feats of an X-Man: An ambitious philanthropists wants to change the world, and have some fun too! - Philanthropy Magazine - July/August 2005 issue.
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ESA isn't giving up on finding money to invest in the Kliper: Europe to help finance new Russian spaceship: Space Agency chief confident he can win support for reusable craft - MSNBC.com - Dec.9.05

12/09/05 | Posted by TopSpacer

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Space sports and space business development

Leonard David has a very interesting article on the topic of space sports: Space Sports Closer to Reality - SPACE.com - Dec.9.05.

I'm sure that many people in the 1800s would have been highly skeptical if told that in the future there would be a huge industry based on people going up into the high mountains in the dead of winter to, of all things, slide down steep hills on boards attached to their feet. Maybe there will never be a killer-sports-app in space on the scale of skiing, but it's sure worth pursuing.

This sports effort also illustrates the "from the ground up" alt.space approach to developing new ideas. A weightlessness experience on an airplane flying parabolas is a far cry from an actual space experience in orbit. Nevertheless, we see an example here of how a low altitude business helps to lay the foundation for an in-space business later. While waiting for lower cost access to space, ideas like space sports can be tested and refined on the ZERO-G flights and public interest in such activities can be raised. So when a Bigelow habitat does get to orbit, it could quickly offer a selection of space sports for visitors, for TV reality shows, etc.

Commercial alt.space will offer three types of space or space-like experiences to the public:
Weightlessness flights -> Suborbital spaceflight -> Orbital spaceflight
There will be something in the range of the pocketbook for most any space enthusiast. The three business areas will be mutually supporting and should grow and prosper together.

12/09/05 | Posted by TopSpacer 

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WSJ on NM spaceport

The Wall Street Journal article - New Mexico Plans First 'Spaceport' For Space Travel - WSJ.com - Dec.9.05 (subscription required) - provides more details about the NM spaceport plan, which will be formally announced in a news conference next Wednesday in New Mexico. (See earlier MSNBC article.)
* The state plans to spend $200M on the facility and its support infrastruture (roads, utilities, etc) in the surrounding area.
* "The project depends on money from the federal government that has yet to be appropriated, and voters in counties near the site must approve a sales tax increase."
* Like most airports, public money would support the facility and companies would pay user fees.
* VG hopes to being flight testing in 2007 and the first commercial flight in late 2008 or early 2009.
* Will Whitehorn of VG said, "150 people have signed contracts and put down at least $20,000 toward their space trip. The company now has some $11 million in the bank, he said."

The article's title says this would be the "First Spaceport" but the Mojave Spaceport would dispute that. The piece also says that the FAA "must certify that the spacecraft is safe enough -- for passengers, crew and others on the ground." That's not quite right. There is not yet a certification process required for commercial passenger rocket vehicles. The main requirement for FAA licensing is that the company show that uninvolved third parties are sufficiently protected from harm.

12/09/05 | Posted by TopSpacer

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SpaceAlumni.org; Shubber Ali; Space tourism

A reader pointed me to SpaceAlumni.com website, which offers a number of interesting resources including an ongoing series of Interviews.

The most recent interview is with Mr. Shubber Ali, who is a founder of AstroVision Australia. The firm plans to launch a satellite in 2008 to geostationary orbit where it will "provide the first continuous live color coverage of the Earth in history." Mr. Ali describes the project in the interview .

Ali also goes on to comment on various aspects of entrepreneurial space development and is generally pessimistic about the rate of progress. I thought I would add some counterpoint with regard to his comments on space tourism:
* Market studies are now irrelevant. Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures already have about 400 people who have put actual money down for tickets on suborbital spaceflights. Virgin says its flights for the first two years of operation are sold out and deposits total $10M. This happened despite the fact there are no vehicles operating yet. This is hard evidence that a market will be there when the vehicles are ready.
* I've heard other people posit it but I don't buy the fame is the motivation argument. People like Mark Shuttleworth and Greg Olsen, who came after the first participant, would go to space even if they had to go after the 10,000th. The did it for its own sake. They each said their trips were among the most marvelous and rewarding experiences of their lives and something they had always wanted to do. Olsen soon after his flight said he wanted to go back.
* There was a gap in the ISS tourist visits because the program was suspended after the Columbia accident, not because of a lack of interest. Space Adventures indicates there is a waiting list for rides to the ISS. I suspect they can get two tourists a year indefinitely despite the extremely expensive ticket price.

12/09/05 | Posted by TopSpacer 

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COTS commentary; Virgin spaceport; etc.

Michael Belfiore on the COTS announcement: NASA releases RFP for private spaceships - Dispatches from the Final Frontier - Dec.8.05
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Leonard David provides more info about Virgin Galactic and the New Mexico spaceport: Branson Eyes New Mexico For Public Space Travel Departure Point - SPACE.com - Dec.8.05
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I noticed a couple of new and intriguing images on the Bigelow Aerospace homepage that show the BA 330 Space Station and the Nautilus Space Station.

12/08/05 | Posted by TopSpacer

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Ron Dittmore of ATK on the CLV; Shuttle problems and fixes;

Ron Dittemore, president of ATK Thiokol Propulsion and a former space shuttle program manager, talks with Bill Harwood about the "Stick" CLV: Former shuttle chief talks about new CEV launcher - Spaceflight Now - Dec.8.05. Note the image of the vehicle on the Shuttle mobile launch platform.
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Harwood writes about the signs of an oxygen leak during the Discovery flight: Mysterious space shuttle oxygen leak being probed - Spaceflight Now- Dec.8.05
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Harwood also posts an extensive report on efforts to fix the PAL Ramp foam problem: Shuttle team set to debate removing tank foam ramps - Spaceflight Now - Dec.8.05

12/08/05 | Posted by TopSpacer

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Falcon 1 launch date announcement

Elon Musk announces December 20th as the new target date for the Falcon 1 launch. It could change depending on when the Missile Defense Agency tests are finished: Falcon 1 Maiden Flight Update - SpaceX - Dec.7.05. He also reviews the background of the LOX problems on the previous attempt and the reason for the engine computer reboot.

See some discussion of the announcement at Out of the Cradle.

(Item via a HS reader.)

12/08/05 | Posted by TopSpacer

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X PRIZE study for NASA of prize for human orbital vehicle

Press Release: X PRIZE Foundation Examines Potential Human Orbital Vehicle Prize for NASA

What:
The X PRIZE Foundation has completed a study examining the benefits and disadvantages for a Human Orbital Vehicle (HOV) challenge. The primary goals of the study were to gauge the interest and effectiveness of different prize amounts, identify key relationships between an HOV challenge and other NASA programs and make recommendations for potential prize rules and requirements.

Key members of the X PRIZE Foundation spent months conducting surveys with potential competitors, financiers and other industry experts. The results of these interviews were combined with the findings of previously completed studies and internal foundation expertise to create the final conclusions.

This study represents the commencement of a very serious foray into a major prize initiative for NASA. Presently, NASA's Centennial Challenges program is limited by the fact that individual prizes cannot exceed $250,000. That may change soon: the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, currently moving through Congress, will allow NASA to award much larger prizes. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill that is scheduled for conference in mid-December include provisions that would allow NASA to offer prizes worth millions of dollars or more.

Who:
X PRIZE founder and chairman Dr. Peter H. Diamandis
Executive Vice President Gregg Maryniak
Senior Advisor Dr. William Gaubatz
Vice President of Operations Michael Kelly
Director of Space Projects William Pomerantz

Where:
The full presentation available at www.xprizefoundation.com/news/HOVES-summary.pdf

12/08/05 | Posted by TopSpacer

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State commercial spaceport projects

In the 1990s there was an upsurge in interest by states in the US in developing local commercial spaceports. Most of this activity faded away following the failure of the LEO comsat market and the resulting collapse of several commercial launcher projects. (The cancellation of the X-33/Venturestar project also dampened interest substantially.)

However, it didn't go away entirely. The Mojave Spaceport became the first commercial inland spaceport to be licensed by the FAA and it served as the base for the SpaceShipOne project. The subsequent plans by Virgin Galactic and several other firms to offer suborbital space tourism has inspired several states to renew their spaceport development plans. Here's a list of some of the state spaceport projects:

* New Mexico will develop a spaceport for SpaceShipTwo and other users like the XP Cup event: Virgin space venture eyes New Mexico: Announcement on spaceport expected next week - MSNBC - Dec.7.05.
* Florida is looking at spaceport sites outside of Cape Canaveral due to the high infrastructure costs there: State looks to launch spaceport: Facility would be used for commercial endeavors - Florida Today - Dec.8.05 + Florida looks at spaceport plans: Politicians worry about impact more ports could have - Bradenton Herald - Dec.8.05
* Oklahoma is developing a former Air Force base at Burns Flat into a spaceport: Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority (OSIDA)
* Wisconsin is considering more support for Spaceport Sheboygan

Jeff Foust discusses state spaceports: Spaceport policy - Space Politics - Dec.8.05.

12/08/05 | Posted by TopSpacer

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New commercial space niches; Kliper; Euro launcher policy

The development of a commercial entrepreneurial space industry is creating demand for new niche services. Michael Mealling suggests a couple of specific niches that are currently unfilled by any firms: Companies That Should Exist - RocketForge - Dec.7.05
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Jeff Foust comments on the decision at the European ministerial meeting not to fund participation in the Russian Kliper project and on the decision to for ESA to pursue a Euro-only launcher policy: ESA clips Kliper - Space Politics - Dec.7.05. He notes that the policy won't restrict the space agencies of individual countries from contracting with non-Europan launchers.
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Meanwhile, Russia continues with the process of contracting out the construction of the Kliper: Russian Space Agency To Hold Tender For Clipper Construction - SpaceDaily - Dec.7.05

12/08/05 | Posted by TopSpacer

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Discovery discovered unexpected problems [Update]

The PAL Ramp foam problem< /a> was quite a surprise to NASA engineers: NASA's PAL Ramp Foam Problem a Lesson in Failure, Shuttle Chief Says - SPACE.com - Dec.8.05.

STS-114 pilot James Kelly said,

The most critical thing for us as a crew was knowing the health of our vehicle, Kelly said during the conference. �If you don�t know there�s something to fix, it doesn�t matter how well you can fix it.

This is interesting in the context of news that there was another anomaly during the Discovery flight that NASA only recently decided was a real problem and not a sensor malfunction: Discovery leak under investigation - NasaSpaceFlight.com - Dec.6.05.

[Update: USSpaceNews.com reports that NASA may apply "a thick, thermally resistant paint to the surface of the ET". This would sacrifice about 600kgs of payload but would bond the foam and make it less susceptible to breaking off.]

12/08/05 | Posted by TopSpacer

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Switching HLV for Shuttle; Money for prizes [Update]

Robert Zubrin remains confident that NASA should and can build a new heavy launcher for the Moon-Mars Exploration program: NASA's New Plans: Positives and Negatives - Space.com - Dec.8.05. He suggests cancelling the Shuttle program now so that the money can be used to accelerate development of the HLV, which could then also be used to launch the ISS modules that would have been launched by shuttles.

[Update: Dan Schrimpsher thinks Zubrin overstates the need for the HLV: Arguing with your Father - Space Pragmatism - Dec.8.05.]
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Meanwhile, it looks like Congress will let NASA spend more on space prizes: Space programs in sight: Accord sought on moon, private-sector projects - LA Daily News - Dec.8.05.

    Congress is expected to reach agreement this month on NASA legislation that will formally endorse returning man to the moon and expand a prize program inspired in part by the Ansari X Prize.

12/08/05 | Posted by TopSpacer

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Merging EELVs into a bad deal

This article reviews the Air Force EELV mess: The Air Force Fails Rocket Science: A plan to create a joint venture for the production of heavy-launch rockets is a bad deal for taxpayers - Business Week - Dec.7.05. (Via NASA Watch.)

12/08/05 | Posted by TopSpacer

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Virgin Galactic to use New Mexico spaceport

The SpaceShipTwo vehicles will fly out of a new spaceport in New Mexico:
* Virgin space venture eyes New Mexico: Announcement on spaceport expected next week - MSNBC - Dec.7.05.
* Suborbital flights: leaving from N.M.? - USA Today/AP - Dec.7.05
(Both links via spacetoday.net.) I assume it will eventually fly out of other spaceports as well.

12/07/05 | Posted by TopSpacer

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NASA COTS; LEO comsat replacements; etc.
Irene Klotz writes about NASA's commercial orbital transportation services (COTS) program: NASA seeks help from private rocketeers: Entrepreneurs could take over job of sending cargo and crew into orbit - MSNBC.com - Dec.7.05
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Iridium and Globalstar's LEO comsat businesses have been growing but they got a really big boost when the Katrina aftermath proved to many the value of satellite phones in emergency situations. The momentum continues with contracts like this one: Globalstar Service Provider Elsacom Wins 20 Million Euro Italian Government Contract To Provide Satellite Voice And Data Services - Globalstar - Dec.6.05. Globalstar can now afford to start replacing its older spacecraft and also put spares in orbit: Globalstar Receives Us Government Approval To Proceed With Launch Plans For Spare Satellites - Globalstar - Dec.7.05. (Orbcomm is also getting new contracts.) I think the LEO comsat constellations will gradually come to provide a small but steady baseline demand for replacement launch services.
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Maybe the EZ-Rocket will resurrect the rocket mail business: Rocket-aerophilately - Dick's Rocket Dungeon - Dec.5.05
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This is not an especially surprising press release: NASA Selects ATK to be Prime Contractor for First Stage of Next Generation Crew Launch Vehicle - ATK - Dec.7.05

12/07/05 | Posted by TopSpacer



About HobbySpace
Bringing space to everyone

In the beginning...

As explained in my original About HobbySpace text shown below, I created this web site to reach out to members of the general public who are interested in space but don't actively pursue that interest. I believe this is because they are simply unaware that fun and captivating space-related activities exist for regular folk and not just for rocket scientists.

I want to encourage people to join with the many hobbyists who enjoy space related pursuits such as observing and photographing orbiting spacecraft, flying high-altitude rockets, or even building hardware for space such as the many amateur and student nano-satellite projects.

Less technical activities include creating or collecting space inspired artwork and music. A sizable business, in fact, has developed around the collecting of space memorabilia.

These non-tech activities may give only a vicarious involvement with space but they can nevertheless provide a real sense of participation in humanity's expansion into this marvelous new domain.

A media campaign ...

To further publicize space hobbies and activities, I have published the following papers:To further publicize space hobbies and activities, I have published the following papers:

  • Space Fun for Everyone: A brief survey of space hobbies and activities by Clark S. Lindsey. This is a reprint of an article in National Space Society's Ad Astra Magazine - May/June 2002 (under the title Unconventional Space: Amateur Spacers?)
  • Space for Amateurs: The role of enthusiasts in space exploration and development by Clark S. Lindsey. This is a reprint of an article in British Interplanetary Society's Spaceflight Magazine, January 2002.

During interviews on The SpaceShow on January 27th, 2004 and August 13th, 2002, I discussed with Dr. David Livingston some of my ideas on how to encourage greater public involvement with space.

The HobbySpace Log - Space for All weblog provides the latest news and updates related to space hobbies and activities and
Cheaper access to space for everyone ...

While participation in space activities on earth is greatly rewarding, the ultimate goal of space advocates like myself is see the general public obtain the opportunity to experience outer space in person. I expect eventually that millions of people will not only visit space but settle there permanently.

However, the very high cost of transporting people from earth has been an overwhelming obstacle to public access to space.

NASA and other government space agencies around the world have a very poor record with regard to developing cheaper means of getting to space. The Space Shuttle, for example, was initially presented as a vehicle that would significantly lower launch costs. However, its extraordinarily complicated design required a huge army of people to refurbish (or rebuild) it between launches and this caused the shuttle actually to cost more to launch than any other vehicle. For many institutional and political reasons, the agency nevertheless remained committed until recently to flying the shuttles for several more decades.

So in addition to providing resources about hobbies, I've gradually expanded the amount of news and information at HobbySpace that deal with the development of rocket vehicles in the private sector. This is where innovative approaches promise to lower launch costs by factors of 10 or more below current prices. My RLV and Space Transport News web log, in fact, has become the most popular
Launching into alt.space ...

This emphasis on commercial space development has expanded beyond just launch vehicles to include coverage of all types of non-governmental projects such as private space stations and space tugs.

When HS began, space tourism was considered a farfetched, if not ludicrous, notion by many people even within the aerospace industry. Dennis Tito changed all that virtually overnight and now space tourism is developing into a real industry. The winning of the X-PRIZE by Burt Rutan with the SpaceShipOne has set off a new race to develop commercial suborbital spaceflight. Routine operations are expected to begin in just a two or three years.

The movement towards innovative space projects pursued by non-governmental organizations, especially small, entrepreneurial startup companies, is referred to by various names such as the new space economy and commercial space but the most popular name is simply alt.space.

The alt.space community consists of new businesses, activist organizations, and individual space advocates and is growing rapidly. It has gotten significant attention recently with events like the X PRIZE and passage of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act.

I hope you will visit HobbySpace frequently as we monitor the exciting alt.space developments in the years ahead. If progress continues at the rate of the recent past, we will soon see an enormous jump in public participation in space activities.

In an article about Gary Hudson in the October 11th, 2004 print issue of the industry publication pace News, author Brian Berger included the following reference to HS: "... HobbySpace.com, an online publication that caters to the entrepreneurial crowd..."
More HobbySpace info ...

More articles:

  • Suborbital spaceflight: a road to orbit or a dead end? by Clark S. Lindsey, The Space Review, Dec.15, 2003.
  • The million man and woman march to space by Clark S. Lindsey, The Space Review, March 25, 2003
  • Suborbital Rockets to Space: The Next Logical Step? by Clark S. Lindsey. Reprint of an article in NSS Ad Astra, March-April 2002.

HobbySpace currently (as of January 2005) provides over 5000 pageviews per day to its visitors. Please contact me if you have a space-related service or business you would like to advertise to these space enthusiasts.

Space for All Blog

Some recent postings:

  • Video: Fly over Pluto and its largest moon Charon
  • Large sunspot erupts in a big flare and coronal mass ejection
  • Video: “Space to Ground” report on the ISS – July.14.2017
  • Juno: Flyby of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot
  • Music video: Mars anthem world premier: “Rise to Mars!”
  • Video: “How to Find an Inhabited Exoplanet”
  • Carnival of Space #517 – NextBigFuture.com
  • The Space Show this week – July.10.2017
  • Space Exploration auction at Sotheby’s in New York
  • Video: “Space to Ground” ISS report – July.7.2017
  • Space music: “Saturn” & “Venus” – Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, and Nico Muhly
  • Video: 20th anniversary of the Mars Pathfinder
  • “Cities in Space 2017” student competition at New Worlds Conference, Nov.10-11, 2017, Austin, TX
  • ESO’s Very Large Telescope captures a “Dazzling Spiral with an Active Heart”
  • Carnival of Space #516 – Links Through Space

 



Typical Articles

Spacefligth - January 2002


Space for Amateurs
The role of enthusiasts in space exploration and development
By Clark S. Lindsey
Reprint of article in Spaceflight Magazine - British Interplanetary Society - January 2000

Most people today believe that the space arena is exclusively for government agencies and giant aerospace companies. The suggestion of amateurs carrying out space projects seems almost ludicrous because of the huge costs involved.

In fact, amateurs do carry out real and substantial space related projects. Amateurs build and operate satellites, they communicate with space station crews via ham radio, they launch high power sub-orbital rockets, and they make discoveries in astronomy. A long time space enthusiast, Dennis Tito, has even kicked off the era of space tourism.
The broad definition here of "amateur" includes those people who pursue space interests outside of government and commercial organizations. So it includes not just hobbyists but also students pursuing thesis projects and activists in not-for-profit space advocacy groups. Note also that many of those in technical hobbies like building satellites are actually engineers and scientists in their "day jobs" but in their spare time they take part in amateur activities for fun.

Everything initially went smoothly with the powerful 640-kilogram communication satellite. The Ariane 5 launched from Kourou, French Guiana in the fall of 2000 put the spacecraft right on target for its intended orbit and telemetry signals soon came in strong and regular. But then, during a firing of the motor to boost the craft to a higher orbit, the satellite fell silent. Had the motor exploded, nullifying in an instant the decade long struggles of an international development team?

NORAD radar scans, however, indicated the satellite remained in one piece. Perhaps it had simply gone into a temporary safe mode. The dates for two automatic resets passed without any sign of life. Many days of fruitless attempts to contact the satellite passed and hope faded that it would ever awaken. Finally, on Christmas day, a transmitter on the spacecraft responded to a ground command. The satellite eventually returned to nominal status with telemetry remaining steady and systems stable.

Is this the heroic tale of a government or commercial spacecraft saved by an army of professional ground controllers? No, the same small group of talented amateurs that designed and built AMSAT AO-40, formerly known as Phase 3-D (see figure 1), also carried out its rescue.

Early Amateurs

Space enthusiasts have long made significant contributions to its exploration and development. In the pre-World War II period, proponents of space travel met great skepticism and ridicule. Government funding for rocketry was virtually non-existent. So enthusiasts decided to take matters into their own hands and form societies to build rockets and develop space flight techniques and technology. William E. Burrows in his space history book This New Ocean [1] states:

"...ordinary citizens elsewhere delighted in the great space dream, and carried rocketry during the late 1920s and into the 1930s through a network of societies. They showed, at least for a while, that a new technology could be forged by amateurs. Like their counterparts in astronomy, archaeology, and paleontology, they made notable discoveries..."

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS), for example, was founded in 1933 and included both laypersons and a number of scientists and engineers. Arthur C. Clarke was an early member and president. The Society is well known for its many contributions to concepts and designs for reaching and exploring space. It developed, for example, the first genuine engineering design for a moon mission and many of the approaches turned out to be quite similar to those in the actual mission three decades later.

Excited by the breakthroughs in rocket design from Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth, societies devoted to building rockets formed in countries around the world. During the late 1920’s and 1930s, they managed, on small budgets and volunteer labor, to construct increasingly powerful rockets, including sophisticated liquid fueled vehicles.

The American Interplanetary Society, for example, actually preceded the BIS, forming in 1930, but changed its name in 1934 to the American Rocket Society (ARS). (The ARS later developed into today’s prestigious American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics or AIAA.) Founded by several science fiction writers and aficionados, the group didn’t reach orbit as intended but did succeed to inspire and train many engineers who later worked for the post-war US rocket companies.

While the rocket clubs’ attempts to develop practical applications such as "rocket mail" were not successful, the amateur rockets did manage to get the attention of some governments. The German Society for Rocket Travel, which included Oberth and Wernher von Braun, made such noticeable progress that, unfortunately, the Nazis absorbed it and made it the nucleus of the team that developed the V-2 missile.

Amateur Satellites

The V-2 illustrated to the world in dramatic fashion the tremendous capabilities of rockets and they soon became the serious business of governments and aerospace industries. Huge missile programs in the US and Soviet Union quickly dwarfed anything done by the pre-war rocket clubs. By the time of the Sputnik launch and the creation of the manned space programs, the few remaining space societies focused mostly on education and promotion of space exploration rather than designing or building hardware.



Figure 1. After stacking the Phase 3-D satellite on top of the Ariane 5, a technician removes the protection plug in the motor nozzle.
Photo by AMSAT-DL, Wilfried Gladisch.

However, a new group stepped forward and initiated the most impressive series of space feats thus far achieved by amateurs. Amateur radio operators, or "hams", became involved with space from the moment they picked up the first beeps from Sputnik 1. Soon hams proposed building their own satellites and using them for long-range communication [2].

In the late 1950s a group of California hams organized Project OSCAR (Orbiting Satellites Carrying Amateur Radio). Working in garages and basements and scrounging for parts, they managed to build the world’s first micro-budget micro-sat.

In 1961, just 4 years after Sputnik, OSCAR I rode an Air Force rocket to orbit from Vandenberg AFB, California. Pioneering the technique of "piggybacking" as a secondary payload on the launch of a major payload (in this case, Discoverer 36), the small satellite took the place of ballast and got a free lift to space. Weighing less than 5kg, the battery powered satellite transmitted a beacon that several hundred hams in 28 countries managed to pick up. The miniature spacecraft lasted for 22 days before burning up in the atmosphere.

In 1965 OSCAR III carried the first transponder on an amateur satellite and threatened to upstage Telstar I, the first commercial communication satellite. OSCAR III lasted for more than two weeks and over 1000 hams used it, demonstrating for the first time that multiple ground users could simultaneously communicate through an orbiting transponder.

In 1969 the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation, or AMSAT, organization was formed in the US and soon came to include chapters around the world. One of its initial accomplishments was to arrange a successful ride on a NASA rocket for the Australian built OSCAR 5, or AO-5, which was the first satellite to use a passive magnetic system for altitude stabilization.

Nearly 40 amateur satellites have reached orbit and there has always been at least one operational for the last 30 years or so. Groups in Britain, Russian South Africa and several other countries have built, launched and operated AMSAT satellites. AMSAT now has several thousand members and gets contributions as well from amateur radio operators who make use of the satellites for long distance communications. Donations of equipment come often from industry and government space agencies. Many university groups, such as a famous one at the University of Surrey, also became involved in amateur satellite development.

AMSAT categorizes its satellites according to "Phases". The beacon type, short-lived amateur satellites fall under the category of Phase 1. Those in low earth orbit but in higher orbits for longer life come under the Phase 2 category. Amateur satellites in highly elliptical Molnya-type orbits fall under category Phase 3.

During the slow moving period of the high altitude segment of the orbit, the Phase 3 sats provide long access times and very wide footprints, sometimes wide enough to connect hams on separate continents. The rescued AO-40, a phase 3 satellite, carries high power transmitters in several bands, including microwave, that will allow for lower cost, simpler ground stations, and broaden the use of amateur satellite to a larger range of users.

Most of the 20 or so AMSAT birds now in orbit consist of the Phase 2 MICROSATs. These 22cm cubes hold at least one store-and-forward (SAF) digital transponder. Hams can send a message to the satellite as it passes overhead and another ham on the other side of the world can later request a download of the message. AMSAT pioneered the use of SAF, which subsequently became available on some commercial satellite systems.

Other technologies pioneered by amateur satellites include the Doppler-location technique for search and rescue, low-cost medical data relay from remote locations, and satellite-to-satellite transmissions. In fact, the success of amateur satellites led to the increasing use of small satellites for scientific, commercial and defense applications. No longer is it taken for granted that only the largest possible satellite should be chosen for every application.

Space Age Hobbies

Besides communicating through their very own satellite constellation, amateur radio operators engage in a number of other space activities. Ham stations operated on several shuttle missions, for example, letting astronauts communicate with individual hams and student groups. On Mir the cosmonauts and astronauts grew very fond of their radio station, which, during their long missions, provided not only friendly chats with hams but also communications with family and friends. Following on this success, the International Space Station recently inaugurated a ham radio station as well (figure 2).

Figure 2. Expedition 1 crew member Sergej Krikalyov
at the ARISS amateur radio station in the ISS.
NASA Photo.

 

Even without a ham license, one can set up a low cost ground station to scan for signals from various spacecraft. A popular hobby, for example, involves receiving images from low orbiting NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency) weather satellites with a simple antenna, short wave receiver, and a PC that runs tracking and signal decoding software.

Other technical space hobbies continue to develop. Advanced amateur rocketry, for example, is making a comeback with a number of groups seeking to break amateur high altitude records. California’s Reaction Research Society sent a payload on a two-stage rocket to 53 miles in 1996, establishing the current record.

Amateurs have long made serious contributions to astronomy such as discovering previously unknown asteroids and comets. One new astronomy hobby involves using telescopes to take detailed pictures of orbiting spacecraft such as Mir, the ISS, and shuttles.

After the cancellation of NASA funding for SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), amateur groups stepped in to keep the search alive. The SETI League, for example, is an organization of amateur radio astronomers that currently operates more than 100 antenna stations in 19 countries.

A broader section of the public can enjoy a number of less technical space related activities such as collecting space memorabilia, attending space camps, and running space simulators on the home computer. Over 3 million people now participate in the SETI@Home project in which a screensaver program searches radio data for signals from our cosmic neighbors.

Space Activism

For the layperson, however, who wants to help humanity develop a robust and expanding space presence, the obstacles to the direct approach - hitching a ride on a rocket to the frontier - have been insurmountable (at least until recently). Instead, the alternative is to become a space activist. Following the approach of environmentalism and other social movements, space activists push government, industry and the public in any way possible for greater progress in space.

Most activists work within one of the many space advocacy organizations. Examples include the BIS, the National Space Society, and the Space Frontier Foundation. These organizations promote space with magazines, conferences, and other outreach efforts. Many groups also pursue political action, which typically means seeking more funding for government space programs but now often involves fighting for special legislation such as tax breaks for startup space companies.

Some activists, frustrated with the slow pace of space development, have decided to take a more direct, hands-on approach. They attempt to design and build hardware themselves, or to fund the efforts of others, and to initiate space enterprises.

For example, the highly successful Lunar Prospector mission, which detected signs of water ice on the lunar poles, actually began as an activist project supported by the Space Studies Institute and the Houston Space Society in the late 1980s [3,4]. With member donations and proceeds from sales of posters and a special space music CD, the project made considerable progress, including the development of an alpha particle spectrometer experiment designed by Dr. Alan Binder. The project reached an advanced design and specifications stage and even got an offer from the Soviet Union for a free launch on a Proton rocket.

However, the project fell short of the $2 million or so in funds and donated hardware needed to complete the spacecraft. Fortunately, Dr. Binder later led a collaboration to win a NASA Discovery contract to carry out the project. Although the activist groups were no longer directly involved, the design progress made from their efforts gave the project a solid base on which to build. Also, when NASA funding problems threatened the Discovery program, activists campaigned to save it and the Lunar Prospector mission.

The Mars Society began in 1998 and is led by the energetic Mars exploration proponent, Robert Zubrin. While urging Congress to fund a robust NASA Mars program, the Society also carries out a number of projects itself to develop techniques and technology for Mars exploration. For example, in the summer of 2000, volunteers assembled a prototype Mars habitat on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic where the stark landscape is believed to be about as close to the surface of Mars as any place on earth. Each summer, a new group of volunteers will return to the base to continue development of the facilities and to test equipment for life support, recycling and other tasks. The Society is also developing a similar project in the American Southwest.

One space enthusiast, Dennis Tito, did possess the resources to hitch a ride to the frontier. It was, however, a space activist, Rick Tumlinson, one of the founders of the Space Frontier Foundation and of MirCorp, who first proposed the space trip to Mr. Tito and convinced him to do it [5].

Synergies in Amateur Space

It seemed quite appropriate that Tito, the amateur astronaut, relied on the space station’s amateur radio system to make calls to his family back on earth. Generally, though, the various amateur activities have not interacted with each other. The AMSAT projects, for example, took place mostly within the amateur radio community where satellites were seen as an exciting but also practical way to supplement their hobby and not as a step towards settlement of the solar system.

Interesting interactions, however, among the various amateur activities are starting to appear. For example, the Mars Society’s Australian chapter has begun a project, along with several other Australian space and university groups, to build a satellite with an AMSAT bus to provide low cost store-and-forward communications among the Society’s various bases, such as the one on Devon Island, and their support facilities. Here we see low cost amateur satellite technology in support of the worldwide research efforts of an activist organization.

In the not so distant future, more such synergies may develop in which many amateur efforts combine to create very powerful space projects. For example, an amateur nano-sat, funded by a publicly supported activist organization, could be sent into orbit around the Moon to return data and imagery for student research projects. Sending spacecraft deeper into space might present communication challenges but perhaps the antennas of the amateur SETI projects could be borrowed to communicate with spacecraft sent to an asteroid or even to Mars.

Space for Everybody

Most people believe that space is an arena where they can be spectators but not players. Governments and commercial companies certainly dominate space activity and will do so for the foreseeable future. Only they possess the resources to create the infrastructure of transportation, habitats, and other technologies required to make access to space possible and life there sustainable.

Nevertheless, private individuals outside of government and industry can still find meaningful ways to participate in space exploration and development. Amateurs have made substantial contributions in highly challenging areas such as rocketry and micro-satellites and activists have successfully influenced government space policy and encouraged, and sometimes even initiated, commercial space ventures.

As the space infrastructure expands and transportation costs fall, we will see more and more opportunities for hobbyists and the general public to participate, either directly or vicariously, in space endeavors. Greater public participation can in turn lead to greater support for government space programs and to more market opportunities for companies as with, for example, space tourism.

Of course, it is not crucial that a hobby affects the course of space history. Whether it’s as complex as building a satellite or as basic as backyard observation of passing satellites, what’s important is that these activities are fun, educational and give a sense of participation and presence on our last great frontier.

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