Once again, NASA program officials and the world’s space press gathered in the remote southwest of Australia, fresh stamps on their passports. Ten thousand or more miles of travel and just six days separated them from their gathering in Florida for the launch of Falcon 9’s first flight, but here in the Outback the environment was different enough it seemed months had passed. For one, Woomera was certainly no Cocoa Beach. There was no oceanfront, no beaches, no minigolf with alligator petting zoos. Instead, the wildlife came straight to you, and the nightlife was barely extant. There were few bars other than the one the regulars were growing all too familiar with at the ELDO hotel, and that and the bowling alley were one of only a few retreats in town from the hotel rooms which retained all too many similarities with the barracks they had once been.
It had taken years for most of the regular reporters to settle into routines in Florida--some even lived nearby, and didn’t even have to rent hotels or spend nights away from family. Here in Woomera under the Outback sun, it took only three launches for a routine to calcify--the same sands, the same hotel rooms, the same military contractors from the air base, the same Woomera rocketry museum, though now featuring a few images some of the regulars had taken themselves. During the day, there were still a few novel attractions to seek out: wildlife tours or venturing out into the Outback to seek out places to watch the flights from downrange with remote cameras or even stakeouts during flight. Just outside the keep out zone, even a few kilometers downrange the rockets seemed to arc nearly directly overhead both coming and going--a unique angle on the K-1’s flight which was unavailable from most launch sites and which some of the photographers had begun to take advantage of to better show the launch and return of the LAP. A scrub on July 9th meant another two nights in the hotel, waiting for the next launch window while the K-1 personnel spent a full day reworking a ground support valve.
The nights around Woomera were slower than Florida, as the town shut down and options narrowed for entertainment. Indoors, there was the village bowling alley. Outdoors, there was one thing Florida couldn’t offer: searching the wonders of an impossibly clear southern hemisphere sky for stars and satellites with telescopes stored at the hotel. For those uninterested in these options or trying their luck with the hotel internet in their rooms, it left the hotel bar itself, which had become something of the nexus for over-lubricated discussions of the state of spaceflight. Its fridge was rapidly accumulating stickers as the new intermittent crowd staked a claim on the bar in a turf war with the constantly-present air base personnel and contractors. One RpK corporate logo on the fridge which had initially borne two Thales logos had spawned a NASA logo, then both the RpK internal and NASA external mission patches for K-1’s COTS Demo 1. Now, two more were added for COTS-Demo 2 over the course of another long evening as NASA officials, RpK staff members, space reporters, the occasional fanatical space-watching tourist, once again disrupted the quiet normalcy of the ELDO hotel bar, once more filling a hotel named for rocketry with talk of launch schedules and technology development. Hanging around the bar, the conversation mixed more prosaic topics like food, drink, sports, and personal life with Congressional op-eds, photography tips and tricks, Washington committee schedules, plant tours, and watercooler gossip overheard at various NASA centers. It was agreed that moving was a pain, that 2010 might be the Year of the Pitcher, and that NASA’s bets on commercial spaceflight seemed to be paying off. For less than a billion dollars of investment, NASA had funded two full vehicle development projects to completion. As the joke went around the bar, if you’d listened to Elon in the last week, COTS had funded two rockets, one of which was a revolutionary vehicle whose proven capability to replace Shuttle for flights to station would usher in a new era in which reuse would solve all of NASA’s problems...and the other of which was the K-1. Still, a tourist pointed out that for less than the cost of one Shuttle launch, NASA had gotten two new low-cost Delta II replacements whose potential seemed to extend far beyond their simple but important applications at ISS--though his argument about a Shuttle mission costing more than a billion dollars sparked a loud and boisterous debate over program overhead, marginal cost, and government accounting.
The next morning brought the chill of Australian winter as crews went about the business of bringing the K-1 to the pad again and spectators gathered both at the RpK site and at locations downrange. Half a world away from Florida’s summer heat, here it was single digits on the Celsius thermometer as technicians bundled in jackets hooked up the tow cart and began to roll the K-1 and the transporter erector the short drive back to the launch mount. No highs of 90 Fehrenheit here today--the weather brief was calling for cloudless skies, steady light to medium winds, and a high of 61 degrees Fahrenheit. On top of the K-1 for the COTS Demo 2 mission was the second of the two ISS payload modules that the ingenuity of RpK’s engineers had birthed. The Pressurized Payload Module flown on the previous mission was relatively simple: essentially, their standard length payload module with the standard heat shield door swinging open to reveal a CBM hatch on a pressurized internal space. On the Unpressurized Payload module, though, the CBM equipment had no hatch, just a fixed bulkhead mounting a forward facing camera and the various latches and bolting points needed for a CBM to function. Instead, once the module was berthed to station, a second hatch on the side of the payload module would swing open and allow access to an unpressurized volume--along with the telescoping Expanded Payload Module, the UPM demonstrated the original Kistler team’s creativity in “thinking inside the box” of the limited K-1 payload volume even as it highlighted the restrictions that box created and the need to potentially fix it for the future.
Similar to the volume on the Japanese HTV, though slightly smaller, the cargo bay of the UPM would mean that K-1 could carry external cargo like replacement station batteries, spares for the power and cooling systems, and (using a special pallet) external experiments to be mounted to the station’s ExPRESS Logistics Carriers (ELC-1 and ELC-2). While these were all capabilities the HTV could manage as well, having two such carriers meant any single vehicle’s stand-down wouldn’t shut down the ability to move external cargo to the station. Moreover, unlike the HTV’s expendable entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, the K-1’s internal bay was safely covered by the side hatch for the OV’s return to the ground. This not only enabled the UPM and its cargo pallets to be used again, but also would allow for the return of ELC payloads to the ground post-flight even after the retirement of Shuttle. Today, the exposed pallet was mounted, but carrying no cargo--the flight would just include demonstrations of cargo operations, not any actual transfers. There were, after all, fewer equivalents in the world of external cargo of the low-value consumables (the proverbial “Tang and T-shirts”) that the K-1 had carried up to station on its Demo 1 flight.
The minor delays of working up ground support equipment notwithstanding, the familiarity of the routines of Woomera were beginning to spread around the globe. For the second time, ISS program managers worked with RpK representatives to give final flight approval to the K-1 vehicle--an easy enough challenge, as almost all within RpK’s COTS team had NASA or legacy contractor experience. Randolph “Randy” Brinkley, the President of Rocketplane Kistler, had laid the groundwork of these relationships. As ISS program manager during the establishment of the station program, he had tremendous empathy for the concerns of his successor, William “Gerst” Gerstenmaier. With five years tenure as Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations on top of five years as either Manager or Deputy Manager of the ISS program, Gerst was tremendously influential in shaping NASA’s internal policies towards commercial vehicles arriving at “his” station. However, as much as ISS was Gerst’s, it was also Randy’s. Brinkley had overseen many of the modules now in orbit literally from drawing board to flight and designed many of the procedures Gerst now inherited. The relationship between the two as the K-1 proceeded through its demo operations was identified by many outsiders as respectful, candid, and critical to clearing roadblocks within NASA who were more concerned that a switch to commercial vehicle acquisition might mean a “cowboy” approach to engineering that could risk the safety of the station’s crew, infrastructure, or program-level goals.
Similar trust-building benefits came throughout the RpK org chart as employees worked with their NASA counterparts to complete open COTS Demo items and prepare for the second and final demonstration flight. Several of Jean-Pierre Boisvert’s flight control teams were former Shuttle, ISS, or ULA controllers, veterans of Atlas and Space Shuttle launches or people who had sat on console to monitor ISS on its long and winding path around the world. Thus, approaches and procedure reviews for robotics during the mission also went smoothly, aided by the design legacy which went into the vehicle itself--for instance, the systems the K-1 used to approach the station were almost identical to the Space Shuttle. Even novel issues like remembering to add half an hour to Woomera times to get to South Australia’s offset timezone were being worked around by NASA officials, Public affairs coordinators, and excited fans like myself. The rhythms of a K-1 launch were becoming routine--the rollout, ground umbilical checks, the two-hour fast loading of deeply cooled cryogenic propellants, and then the final half hour wait before flight.
As I watched all this take place in a brisk Australian winter afternoon from the quiet of a Midwestern midnight over the slightly-less-choppy RpK live stream, I mused that I was beginning to appreciate the grace of the K-1 itself--a rocket designed not just to fly but to return, and with the compromises that meant. Sure, its blunt nose was odd, but it was the price of a safe return and the engineering optimization of rockets that not only went up but had people who cared where they came down. The stumpy LAP first stage was the price of balancing first stage downrange velocity increments with the need for boostback to the launch site--more propellant spent downrange meant more required to fly back. Parachutes and airbags instead of wings were...inelegant, but simple and foolproof. Like Shuttle, it was a rocket designed for both launch and return, and like the Lunar Module, it was one where aerodynamics of ascent came second to performance afterwards. Like the bumblebee, it seemed like traditional rocketry would expect it to perform poorly, and yet it did not care. They were thoughts which betrayed a certain lack of sleep, I thought to myself as I turned them over, but probably not less true in the light of day.
Finally, the K-1 lifted off and I got what I’d waited into the night to see. Over a few pulse-pounding minutes, there was the excitement of liftoff and initial ascent. After staging, I had noticed that the tension in my body drained quickly once the NK-43 engine was confirmed to be lit and firing, a time to admire the serene view as the OV left the world behind and wait out the more exciting events of the LAP’s return. The tension was always highest through the LAP’s flip-and-burn maneuver, not truly falling off until the confirmation from the ground that the drogues and then mains were out and the LAP was gently drifting the final kilometers to the landing zone. Before long, though, it was all over--the LAP was landed again, the OV had burnt its main engine to near-depletion and conducted its initial automatic trim to coast to circularization. Without quite as much showmanship as Elon’s organization, Rocketplane Kistler had calmly and professionally staked their own claim to the position of standard-bearer for commercial spaceflight. As much as Elon might talk up Dragon, future launch contracts, and the value of the new and untried in disrupting the familiar, the K-1 team could simply point to results and their close relationships with the ISS program leadership. Now, for the second time, the K-1 OV was on its way to station. For Rocketplane Kistler, it was a milestone, but not even the biggest news they planned to announce that week--after all, SpaceX wasn’t the only one with contracts on the books, nor was Dragon the only new vehicle in development. Indeed, if you asked around the office of their headquarters in Oklahoma City, you’d find outside of the direct K-1 support team and their management, many of the rest of the company didn’t even consider SpaceX their biggest competition...and that competition needed a shakeup as much as SpaceX did. The tool for that was waiting in a hangar northwest of town for the K-1 to fly and the chance to lavish press attention on another part of their team.
At the post-launch press conference in Oklahoma City, Jean-Pierre, Randy Brinkley, and Deborah Faktor Lepore were running the stage, answering a barrage of press questions fawning over the K-1. Questions were diverse, ranging from the current flight’s demonstration objectives and schedule to reach station over the next two days to future plans for the K-1 in operational service (both to the station and for other unstated customers) and the expected service date of the recently-announced second stack under construction with ATK at Michoud. If you watched the replay closely, you could almost see Jean-Pierre Boisvert grind his teeth when George French took the stage midway through the press conference to announce that also in two days, Rocketplane would be hosting a major press event here in OKC to officially roll out and unveil their Rocketplane XP suborbital tourist spaceplane. It was a thrilling moment for the team at Rocketplane who had worked so many years to bring to readiness their answer to Branson and Paul Allen’s SpaceShipOne and Two, and French effortlessly captured the press attention for the rest of the conference with only a few sporadic questions relating to the K-1 and its mission to ISS following. The upstaging of one RpK project by another was a reminder that while Woomera and Michoud might be the home of the K-1, here in Oklahoma City, the company’s spaceplane aspirations were much closer to home.