April 12, 1961: the USSR ushered in the era of human spaceflight with the launch of Yuri Gagarin on a single orbit flight of the Earth. Now 55 years after the historic first human spaceflight, United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Bigelow Aerospace have unveiled plans for the first ever commercial space stations.
Vostok 1/Yuri Gagarin: How it all began…
Fifty-five years ago, the age of human space exploration began with the highly-secretive and highly successful launch of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (then only 27 years old) and the Vostok 1 mission from what is now Baikonur Cosmodrome (formerly Tyuratam) in present-day Kazakhstan.
With the launch of Gagarin came an era that many believed to be impossible.
Not even 60 years earlier, humans had yet to make the first powered flight of any kind, and after that, many thought the sound barrier to be impenetrable.
But Gagarin’s mission proved that humankind could not only travel by rocket into Earth orbit, but survive the journey.
On 11 April 1961, the Vostok-K rocket with its attached Vostok 3KA spacecraft rolled out to the launch pad, site No. 1 at what-is-now the Baikonur Cosmodrome – a pad still used today for human launches to the International Space Station.
On 12 April, Gagarin woke up, ate breakfast, donned his spacesuit, and was transported to the launch pad, where he entered the Vostok 1 capsule.
One hour 57 minutes after Gagarin boarded the vehicle, the Vostok’s engines roared to life, and at 0907 local time (0607 UTC), Vostok 1 lifted off on its historic mission.
All three stages of the Vostok-K rocket functioned nominally and delivered Gagarin and Vostok 1 into Earth orbit.
Ten minutes after launch, Gagarin officially became the first person to achieve orbital velocity and began his historic trip around the Earth.
At engine cutoff, Vostok 1’s orbital inclination was 64.95 degrees with an apogee of 203 miles and a perigee of 105 miles.
Despite a perfect performance by the Vostok K rocket, it took flight controllers 25 minutes to confirm that Gagarin was in a safe and stable orbit.
At 0710 UTC the automatic systems on Vostok 1 began repositioning the vehicle into the retrofire position.
Shortly thereafter, the spacecraft’s liquid-fuel retrorockets fired for 42 seconds as Vostok 1 passed over Angola on the western coast of Africa.
At the time of retrorocket firing, Vostok 1 was 8,048 km (5,000 miles) downrange from the landing site in eastern USSR.
Ten seconds after the completion of retrorocket firing, the service module separated from the reentry capsule. The two halves of the craft, however, remained unexpectedly attached because of a bundle of wires.
The two halves of the spacecraft began reentry into Earth’s atmosphere at 0735 UTC while traveling over Egypt.
Upon reentry, the capsule experienced strong gyrations, at which point the wires connecting the two crafts broke and the reentry capsule settled into its nominal reentry orientation.
Encountering the full-force of Earth’s atmosphere a few minutes later, Gagarin experienced 8Gs during reentry.
At 0755 UTC, while still 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) above Earth’s surface, Gagarin’s ejection system was activated and ejected Gagarin from the reentry capsule.
Gagarin’s parachutes deployed as planned, and he glided to a safe landing ten minutes later.
The reentry capsule landed safely under parachute as well, with both Gagarin and his reentry capsule landing 26 km (~16 miles) southwest of Engels in the Saratov region.
Vostok 1’s landing site is commemorated today with a tall silver metallic rocket ascending to space on a curved column of metallic flame.
The monument also includes a 3 meter (9ft) tall white stone statue of Gagarin with his hand raised in greeting.
The Vostok 1 reentry capsule is currently displayed at the museum of RKK Energiya in Korolyov, which is located near Moscow.
A monument to Gagarin in his likeness also stands on Cosmonaut Alley in Moscow.
55 years later: Bigelow’s B330 space stations
What could prove – with a lot of work – to be an historic announcement came at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Speaking at the symposium, Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, and Tory Bruno, President and CEO of United Launch Alliance (ULA) discussed general and vague terms of an agreement that might see the veteran Atlas V rocket launch two expandable Bigelow spacecraft by 2020.
While the world of expandable space modules was once relegated to the arena of science fiction – as was human spaceflight – the technology has seen great improvements over the years following the 2006 and 2007 launches of the Genesis I and Genesis II expandable Bigelow modules, which are still functioning in orbit today.
Since that time, Bigelow and its expandable technology systems have waited for the opportunity to provide human-based expandable habitat platforms in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
This next step began just four days ago when a Bigelow expandable module, BEAM, launched aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on the CRS-8 resupply mission to the International Space Station.
Now at the Station, BEAM will be removed from the SpaceX Dragon capsule’s cargo trunk and attached to the ISS for what is anticipated to be a two-year experimental phase to validate expandable module technology in the human spaceflight arena.
Following yesterday’s announcement, it is now understood that the BEAM module is a steppingstone designed to gain useful in-flight experience of how expendable technology works with human spaceflight activities before the notional launch of the two B330 modules at the beginning of the next decade.
Confusion from the announcement:
If realized, the two B330 modules would represent the first commercial space stations placed into LEO.
However, there is some confusion and several unanswered questions following yesterday’s press conference, which many noted actually failed to announce a solid partnership between Bigelow Aerospace and ULA.
On the surface, it appears that Bigelow Aerospace is attempting to do exactly as stated: launch the first two commercial space stations into orbit by the beginning of the next decade.
However, a majority of the press conference focused on an intriguing, and to date not discussed by NASA, plan to notionally place one of these B330 expandable modules on the International Space Station.
During the press conference, Mr. Bigelow noted enthusiastically that one of these modules would account for approximately 30% of the current internal volume of the ISS.
Moreover, Mr. Bigelow stated a B330 modules would provide more work space for NASA and potential commercial partners wishing to lease portions of the facility.
Confusingly though, there was also much talk of amateur astronauts and private company astronauts to operate equipment leased on the space stations – including the module that would notionally be placed on the ISS.
The primary aspect of this confusion stems from the fact that NASA has traditionally shied away from space tourism as well as use and interaction of ISS facilities by paying commercial space customers on Russian Soyuz flights.
Additionally, there were allusions to the fact that NASA might pay for – or at least co-finance a launch of – one of these modules should it be placed on the ISS.
Moreover, the press conference also talked about the use of commercial transportation companies – specifically SpaceX (whose Dragon2 capsule featured in the press conference), Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and Blue Origin – to ferry crew to the space stations as well as perform resupply missions to them.
Interestingly though, no representatives from these companies were present, have ever spoken of such a notional agreement, or have since issued a statement on what was discussed yesterday.
When asked if these commercial companies knew of what was being discussed, Mr. Bigelow stated that he knows “those folks.”
Historic first commercial space stations:
Despite the confusion, the historic aspect of the announcement, if it comes to fruition, would be an incredible step forward in the commercialization of LEO.
Speaking at the press conference yesterday, Mr. Bigelow stated that “As a result of improvements in affordability and access to space, new industries are now becoming possible, and will eventually enable lunar enterprises in the 2021-2031 timeframe.”
Mr. Bruno added that this was an exciting time. “We’re standing on the threshold of a massive expansion of humanity beyond Earth. LEO commercialization is a key part of this. We’re talking about LEO becoming a place that even normal people can eventually go to live and work.”
Describing this as the “democratization of space,” Mr. Bruno and Mr. Bigelow discussed a scenario where “amateur astronauts” – those selected by their companies to fly to and operate experiments on leased portions of the B330s or those who are able to pay for a space holiday – would be able to launch on commercial provider capsules and spend a week to 45 days living and working in the modules.
Moreover, Mr. Bigelow’s plans don’t stop at LEO.
When asked how many B330s could be produced by 2025, Mr. Bigelow responded that “If we have the wherewithal to get two B330s ready for flight in 2020, we’ll keep that facility in place.
“How many we could ramp up to by 2025 will depend on the staff to put these together.”
Mr. Bigelow noted that the B330 production facility can accommodate the build of more than one B330 at a time – potentially allowing for construction of modules that could eventually be placed in and around the moon or other destinations.
Regardless of future plans, the immediacy of attempting to place two commercial space stations in LEO is an extreme step forward in access to the abundant microgravity research environment near Earth.
If these modules are launched, they will represent the first non-government locations available for medical, physical, Earth observation, and astrophysical research, could potentially expand the number of people living and working off of planet Earth, as well as dramatically alter and reshape the way we think about the resources and benefits of spaceflight.
(Images: L2 Historical, Bigelow, ULA/Bigelow, L2 (Bigelow) and several renders from L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)