WASHINGTON — A Houston startup established by a former NASA official is developing a small vehicle to return experiments from the international space station that could be ready for flight by late 2016.

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the nonprofit organization that manages the national laboratory portion of the ISS, announced Oct. 16 an agreement with Intuitive Machines LLC to support the company’s development of its Terrestrial Return Vehicle (TRV).

The TRV, company president Steve Altemus said in an Oct. 27 interview, came out of a desire to find ways to increase the utilization of the ISS. One barrier, he said, is the difficulty of returning samples from experiments on the station back to Earth. Today, only the Dragon spacecraft by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft can return items from the station, and the latter has limited cargo capability.

“We were talking inside NASA for a number of years about rapid sample return vehicles from ISS,” said Altemus, the former deputy director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center who started Intuitive Machines last year. “What if we could return samples from the ISS on a nearly daily basis?” 

While the TRV the company is developing will not achieve that frequency of operations, it is designed to allow samples to be returned to Earth without waiting for a Dragon or Soyuz spacecraft. The vehicle, which Altemus described as about the size of a bag of golf clubs, would fly to the ISS inside an Orbital Sciences Corp. Cygnus or Dragon cargo spacecraft. The ISS crew would bring the TRV into the station and load it with samples for return to Earth.

Once loaded, the ISS crew would place the TRV into the airlock in the Japanese Kibo module, attached to an adapter called Cyclops developed at JSC for deploying small satellites. The module’s robotic arm would remove the TRV and Cyclops from the airlock, and Cyclops would gently eject the TRV away from the station.

Once the TRV has reached a safe distance, it would fire thrusters to deorbit. After re-entry, the lifting body vehicle would deploy a parafoil to glide to a landing. 

Altemus said the company is initially planning to use the Utah Test and Training Range as the landing site for the TRV, but is also looking at other locations in the Western U.S. Eventually, he said, it may be possible to bring the TRV back to a runway, like the Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Bringing an item inside the ISS that has a propulsion system, like the TRV, does pose some safety challenges, Altemus said. The company plans to use a warm gas propulsion system called tridyne, where an inert gas like nitrogen or argon is mixed with trace amounts of hydrogen and oxygen. The system is modeled after a jet backpack worn by astronauts performing spacewalks outside the station.

Once the TRV is operational, Altemus said, it could fly several times a year, with access to the Kibo airlock the limiting factor. “With the commercial customers that we’re talking to, I think we can fly six to eight of them per year,” he said.

Altemus estimated the first TRV would be ready for flight within 24 months at a development cost of no more than $5 million. He said Intuitive Machines had the funding it needed to support its development, although he did not disclose the company’s funding sources. CASIS spokesman Patrick O’Neill said Oct. 21 that the organization was providing Intuitive Machines with $300,000 as part of its agreement with the company, as well as transportation to the ISS for the TRV’s initial mission.

Altemus said the company planned to make use of lifting body technology that is under development at JSC for possible application on future Mars missions. The company is negotiating a nonreimbursable Space Act Agreement with JSC regarding that technology, providing hypersonic re-entry data from the TRV to NASA in exchange for technical assistance.

“It does enable more commercial use of the space station as a national laboratory,” he said, “but it also advances the state of exploration in the form of entry, descent and landing technology for Mars.”


Twitter: @jeff_foust

Email: jfoust@spacenews.com

Jeff Foust has more than a decade of experience writing about space policy, entrepreneurial ventures and regulatory affairs. In 2001, he established spacetoday.net to aggregate and summarize the day's space-related news stories. In 2003, he started The...