Space travel to get boost from solar power

The reality of manned space travel has scientists on limited budgets looking at every angle that might make it happen efficiently. Recently, five aerospace companies contracted with NASA to study the idea of a new propulsion system, designed to turn the sun’s rays into electricity for space travel.

NASA hopes the end result is a new propulsion system that will power a reusable “space tugboat” capable of ferrying satellites from low-Earth orbit to the higher geosynchronous Earth orbit.

The idea is popular because a solar powered vehicle would save money on fuel and eliminate the need for the secondary rocket booster normally required to send a satellite into high orbit.

Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Aerospace Systems sector and Boeing‘s Phantom Works unit are two of the companies involved, each winning a four-month $600,000 NASA contract to conduct early-stage studies for a high-power solar propulsion system.

“The study has no hardware, so the `work’ is all design work, and will be done here in Redondo Beach mostly,” Northrop spokeswoman Mary Blake said in the Daily Breeze.

Just one piece of the space travel puzzle, the new solar-powered propulsion system would have other uses too, including cargo transportation for human exploration and cargo transportation to the moon.

Flickr photo by y gr33n3gg

That tanker order might not be going to Northrop and EADS after all

Remember that huge ruckus earlier this year when Northrop and EADS won a contract to supply the US Air Force with a multi-billion dollar tanker order?

Americans went livid when they found out that a partially European (not French) company was going to be supplying equipment for the US Armed forces and the entire affair turned into a political whining point. People claimed that the French (not Europeans) would be taking American jobs, although many would still be created with Northrop plan, and few seemed to take some time to look at the facts: Boeing’s aircraft was the weaker tanker.

On departing the competition, the Chicago based airframe manufacturer vowed to fight on, and lo and behold, their appeal to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found traction. Earlier this week the office determined that the competition was held unfairly and that the Air Force gave extra points to the opposing team where they shouldn’t have; you can read the gory details in this WSJ article, but I won’t bother you with them.

While these findings aren’t binding requirements to force the Air Force to rerun their competition, it’s a step in the right direction — an earlier recommendation by the GAO to rerun a helicopter manufacturing contract passed and is currently underway.

Now, if the entire competition goes back to the drafting table, Boeing will have a second chance to proffer the “correct” tanker and take another stab at America’s “overseas competition”. All at the cost of countless engineering, design, management, political and lobbying hours and even more tax dollars.

Fair is fair though, and as several commenters on the the above post and the GAO point out, you can’t award a contract on an uneven playing field.

May the best aircraft win.