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New vs. old space

— Space entrepreneurs like to draw a line between "old space," referring to established aerospace firms such as the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin; and "new space," referring to themselves. As we found during last weekend's NewSpace 2006 conference, the pioneers of new space are trying to push the envelope - and get a piece of the old-space pie in the process.

But the line between the two is getting fuzzier, thanks to alliances like the one announced this week between Orbital Sciences ("old space") and Rocketplane Kistler ("new space").

The "strategic relationship," announced Monday, was forged to support Rocketplane Kistler's bid for NASA funding under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS, which sets $500 million aside through 2010 for the development of new ways to transfer cargo and crew to the international space station.

Rocketplane Kistler

Artwork shows Kistler K-1 rocket.

Rocketplane Kistler is offering the Kistler K-1, a rocket that Kistler Aerospace had under development for years before that company was acquired by Oklahoma-based Rocketplane. About $600 million was put into developing the K-1 launch system as a means of delivering payloads to the space station, but the funds for the project dried up. As a result, the K-1 never got off the ground, even though the rocket is considered well more than halfway along the path to deployment. 

If Rocketplane Kistler is awarded some of the NASA money, Orbital will provide program management and systems integration services for the K-1 project. Orbital, which is best-known for its Pegasus air-based launch system, also would be making a "strategic investment" in Rocketplane.

"We are excited to have the opportunity to join a program that could revolutionize space launch services," David Thompson, Orbital's chairman and chief executive officer, said in Monday's news release. "Having studied the substantial amount of work that has been accomplished on the K-1 program and the planning that is already in place, we are convinced that it can be operational in a relatively short period of time."

Rocketplane Kistler and the other COTS finalists - Andrews Space, SpaceDev, Spacehab, SpaceX and t/Space - are waiting to hear by September which of them will be receiving millions of dollars from NASA for demonstrations of their flight technologies.

George French, Rocketplane Kistler's chairman and CEO, told me that Orbital's involvement should help his company hit the ground running if NASA green-lights the K-1.

"They're giving us their 'A Team,'" he said.

Orbital's know-how would also benefit Rocketplane's development of a suborbital spaceship known as the Rocketplane XP, he said. In fact, French hopes there will be more and more interplay between the suborbital and the orbital ventures - with the moon ultimately in his sights.

"For both our team and their team, COTS is the beginning, it's not the end," he said. "It's the dawn of a space program. And if we're successful, we'll give the United States a cheap, versatile launch vehicle that can launch satellites, that can send up free-fliers, that can dock with the space station and take payloads to the moon."

He made a point to mention that the Lunar Research Institute's Alan Binder, who was the principal investigator for the Lunar Prospector mission, was on Rocketplane Kistler's team. Other teammates listed in the company's presentation materials include Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, two old-space mainstays that are competing against each other to build NASA's big-ticket item, the multibillion-dollar Crew Exploration Vehicle (a.k.a. Orion).

French said it made sense for NASA to fund the COTS program as well as the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

"They're not giving as much money, so they're not going to get a Cadillac, but we will be able to drive, we will be able to go," he said.

In fact, some folks - at the Space Frontier Foundation and elsewhere - would rather see NASA rent the outer-space equivalent of a Ford Escort fleet than pay to have some Cadillacs custom-built for space exploration. Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Looking ahead, I'll close out this month's summer space tour on Friday by revisiting the subject of sex in space. If you have any observations to help launch the discussion, go ahead and drop me a line.