Space Day program looks at past, future of commercial space

By Joe Southern
jsouthern@fortbendstar.com

Wes Kelly, right, talks about the Stellar-J aircraft while Ken Zurek, left, and Segun Thomas listen. The men were speakers for the first Space Day program, held Friday at the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce. (Photo by Joe Southern)

The world marked a significant milestone Oct. 4 that few people seemed to notice.

Ken Zurek noticed. The local space historian and industry consultant organized the first Space Day celebration in recognition of 60 years since the first satellite was launched into orbit around the Earth.

The small, brief ceremony was held Oct. 6 at the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce and highlighted a history of spaceflight and a glimpse into the future of commercial space operations.

“This is a special day for me. I’ve seen all the major space events in the last 60 years, including Sputnik all the way up to now with the X-37,” Zurek said.

Zurek has been interested is space all of his life.

“I saw Sputnik come right over my parent’s home,” he said.

As someone who has closely followed historical events in space, Zurek said he was frustrated with the lack of commemoration for the space pioneers.

“There was only one person alone who stands out more than any other individual, Wernher von Braun. … He developed the Redstone, our first rocket, all the way to the Saturn V. He made it really possible. What’s unfortunate, you can’t even get his face on a postage stamp right now,” he said.

Not only is this the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1 buy the former Soviet Union, but is also the 40th anniversary of von Braun’s passing. Von Braun was a German rocket scientist who defected to the United States and led the country into the space and helped pioneer manned spaceflight.

“The biggest mistake we made was eliminating the Saturn V, Apollo, and the Saturn 1B, cancelling those programs,” Zurek said. “We’re actually redoing history right now. We’re making an Apollo type spacecraft on an Apollo type rocket right now.”

After giving a brief history of human space activities, Zurek turned the program over to Wes Kelly, owner of Triton Systems. His company is developing the Stellar-J, a reusable, fixed-wing aircraft capable of flying to the edge of space where it can launch small satellites. The aircraft would be based out of Houston Spaceport at Ellington Field.

Following up on Zurek’s history lesson, he said, “There is something about this that suggests space wasn’t accessible to middle interests.”

That all began to change in the 1990s with commercial interests making ventures into space. Kelly said commercial development of space is the next big step aside from sending humans to other planets. He said space tourism and launching small satellites will help move the space industry to its next level of evolution.

“There is a need to re-machine or retool our launch systems,” he said.

He sees the Stellar-J as a cheaper, faster and more reliable system for getting small satellites into orbit.

“This is the type of vehicle they’d like to see flying out of the Ellington spaceport,” he said.

Segun Thomas, chief executive officer of TGT, Inc., a high technology company, said there is an urgent need and a ready market for cost-efficient launch systems.

“There seems to be a convergence right now of opportunities,” he said. “The market is now at a cusp of where the computer industry was where you had the large, mainframe computers and the new desktop computers.”

He said the future of the satellite industry is getting bigger by getting smaller.

“In five to 10 years you will now be looking at satellites that are not managed by the big conglomerates anymore. These satellites will be built and managed by your farmers, your trucking companies,” he said.

He said small, sophisticated satellites are possible because of advancing technology.

“They have a backlog of close to 400 satellites to launch today. From an economy of scale standpoint, it’s a really huge industry that we’re stepping into,” he said.

That’s why he supports the Stellar-J and other commercial launch programs.

“All the ingredients are there; it’s just a question of how to put it all together,” he said.

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