Watch This Space

Attempts by small space companies to win NASA contracts are as perennial as Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football.

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Their proposal made bold promises to launch four people into Earth orbit for the phenomenally low price of $20 million, and included plans for transportation to the moon. The actual work—everything from ground services to propulsion—would be done by a network of subcontractors that included Rutan’s Scaled Composites.

Hudson remained pessimistic about their chances, not even bothering to incorporate t/Space after submitting the proposal. Then, in July 2004, soon after DARPA awarded him an $11 million Phase II contract to design and test systems for a fast, cheap rocket, he got another call from NASA. He phoned Gump. “Are you sitting down?” he asked. “We got both!” T/Space was launched, and Hudson and Gump had to scramble to incorporate and get their paperwork in order that same day.

While Gump started fleshing out the t/Space concept, Hudson used the new money to advance his technical design, including the propulsion system. The engine would be built on contract by Tim Pickens’ new Alabama-based company, Orion. Pickens had helped design the innovative, self-pressurizing nitrous oxide- and rubber-burning engines for X-Prize-winner SpaceShipOne.

As with that engine, simplicity was essential for t/Space. No turbopumps, no supercooled hydrogen—just propane fuel and liquid oxygen, which are easy to handle and store on the ground. Pickens built a 20-ton test stand at Mojave, not far from Hudson’s abandoned Rotary Rocket launch pad, and fired the new rocket engine in July. Hudson stood about 300 feet away. “It’s a beautiful exhaust,” he says, “Almost transparent.” What’s more, the engine started and stopped cleanly. Over the next year Orion will conduct dozens more test firings under the DARPA contract, which will be key to t/Space’s future.

Depending on NASA’s as-yet-unspecified requirements for resupply flights to the space station (how much cargo? three passengers or four?), the same engine could be scaled up or flown in clusters. Hudson quickly worked out the rest of the design. To differentiate their resupply vehicle from NASA’s larger CEV, which will be built for the longer-duration moon voyages, t/Space dubbed it the Crew Transfer Vehicle, or CXV.

Hudson’s design for the CXV was inspired by the snub-nosed Corona/Discoverer capsules that reentered Earth’s atmosphere more than 400 times in the 1960s, carrying top-secret pictures taken by spy satellites. To protect against the fiery reentry, the CXV fuselage will be smooth, like the Corona’s, with no protuberances and an aft hatch. As further thermal protection, t/Space plans to use an insulating silicone tile developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center for Mars-bound spacecraft. The design adds an external water misting system to reduce fuselage temperatures further.

Last spring t/Space unveiled a full-scale (14-foot diameter) mockup of the CXV at the International Space Development Conference in Washington, D.C., which showcased many of the “emergent” space companies. Attendees—among them Buzz Aldrin and other space veterans—spent the next few days clambering in and out of the CXV, admiring the clean design, the touch screens, the spacesuited dummy, and the rotating seats for “eyes out” (more comfortable) reentry. As they climbed the stairs to the capsule, the most recent t/Space hire stood near its base, ready to discuss the vehicle he’d had a hand in designing. A genial, salt-and-pepper-haired southerner, veteran astronaut Jim Voss had joined the t/Space team in March as vice president for human spaceflight engineering.

Gump first met Voss at the 2002 All-Star Futures exhibition baseball game, when Voss threw out the first pitch as part of a Lunacorp promotion. (The same ball was later flown to the space station and “thrown out”—via TV—as the first pitch of that year’s World series.) When t/Space was gearing up in 2004, Gump called Voss and asked him to come aboard as a consultant. Since leaving NASA in 2003, Voss had been happily teaching aerospace engineering at Auburn University in Alabama, and had no desire to work for an aero-space giant and “manage a program on paper.” But the five-time astronaut liked the simplicity of t/Space’s plans. He had learned to appreciate simple, robust flight systems while training in Moscow for his 2001 space station stay. In Russian-built systems, he says, “not everything is done automatically. Sometimes all you need is a switch in front of you to turn on and off.”

While working on t/Space’s NASA proposal with Gump and Hudson, Voss would fly his Rutan-designed Long-EZ, which he’d built himself, up from Houston or Alabama. But the lightplane was not good in heavy weather, and he knew he was getting serious about t/Space when he convinced his wife that he needed a new Cirrus for the more frequent commutes to Washington. Voss is now in charge of all human-related spaceflight engineering.

The CXV’s nylon seats were prototyped and built in three months by his undergraduate engineering class at Auburn, working with a small t/Space grant. “They’re essentially ready for production,” Voss says proudly. The original task was to design a seat that rotated 180 degrees for reentry, but the students got hooked on the assignment and within six weeks were on their fourth full-scale working prototype. Toward the end Voss got into it too—it wasn’t unusual to see him sewing or working metal late into the night with the undergrads, says Jonathan Metts, the student project leader.

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