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Private Industry Taking to the Stars

private-industry-taking-to-the-stars

There’s an interesting interview with Franklin Chang-Diaz, CEO of space technology firm Ad Astra at Technology Review, detailing some of the ways that private industry can take up the slack left by the gutting of the space agency’s budget in recent years (though not put in such terms).

As a former astronaut, he knows what he’s talking about. Of particular interest though is an update on the progress of a new type of engine his firm is building, one that promises sustainable powered space flight. Longer, I suspect, than any currently available chemical rocket system in use.

TR: You are developing a propulsion system for deep space missions. What recent advances have you made, and what milestones have you reached?

FCD: We are getting ready to fly the VASIMR engine on the International Space Station (ISS). It is a 200-kilowatt plasma rocket, the most powerful rocket ever built to fly in space, and the prototype is being tested on the ground in our facilities in Houston. We have been gradually ramping up the power over many months, and our goal is to reach 200 kilowatts, which is the power level the rocket will run at on the ISS, and we achieved that today. We actually reached 201 kilowatts. It was a very exciting moment because it happened right when we were in the meeting, and I kept getting text messages.

TR: What is the next step in development of the engine?

FCD: The next step is to actually build the flight unit, which will be ready to launch October 2013. We will install it on the ISS and test it there. After the test is finished, we will use it commercially to reboost the space station [to a higher altitude] to provide the drag compensation. [Currently the ISS requires periodic boosts to get it to the right orbit for space shuttle or Progress dockings.]

So is NASA and human spaceflight going the way of the Defense Department? Where once in-house operations were shed and contracted out to private specialists? A couple decades ago this would’ve been a NASA JPL project. I’ve got mixed feelings on the issue– excited about the prospect of new technological revolutions, but a little wary of the lack of oversight and quality control from the scrutiny public money usually brings. My hopes are that if there’s an unquestionably reliable infrastructure or technology to space that private industry can build it would make future missions to the moon and beyond that much easier to conduct. After all, if there’s anything that private industry will succeed at, it’s cutting costs.

See the original article here.

See the page for the engine in development here.


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