Category Archives: Space History

The Burden Of Things

A post from Lileks with which I can strongly identify:

…what of the objects? You know, the things to which you apply Meaning simply by owning them for a while? That’s another issue. You have to realize that the meaning changes when you no long own them, which is a kind way of saying “it’s wiped clean when you die, mate.” There are some things whose previous meaning I can infer; my Grandma had a little metal container for pins, with 1893 Columbian Exposition engraved on the cover. It was regarded as junk, I guess, but my mom kept it, and then it passed to me. It’s possible my great-grandfather went. He got out of town from time to time. The fact that it sat on her dresser for seven decades was enough to infuse it with meaning, but that’ll be lost after me; daughter didn’t know her, never saw the farm, never saw the sleek 30s Sears bedroom-set dresser on which it sat. Daughter may see a corner of that dresser in an old photo, because I inherited it. But that’s the end of the chain – after that, it’s a series of facts, not a sequence of memories and emotions.

I’m a pack rat. I keep (and don’t organize) too much stuff. Every time we move, the books are a problem. We’ve been back in California over a year, and they’re still not quite unpacked and shelved. And movers charge by weight. I’m not sure what we would have done if the company hadn’t paid for the move. And I know that there’s not enough time in my allotment, sans dramatic life extension, for me to reread them. But I can’t bring myself (so far) to get rid of them. They contain too many remembrances. Accumulated stuff is the external memory of life, and I feel as though they’re a part of me and my sense of self. When I lose old email in a disk crash I feel partly lobotomized and amnesiac. At some point, though, I have to rationalize my possessions.

I had dinner with Leonard David Wednesday night, and we often talk about his collection of tchochkes and media bags that he has collected over the many dozens of space conferences he’s attended over the past few decades. They’re historically significant, and I doubt there are many people with as extensive a collection as his, but where to keep them all? I have the same problem, on a smaller scale. Someone needs to set up an archive to which such things can be contributed, assessed and put into context, but it takes money.

RIP, Outpost

And RIP, Apollo mentality:

The Outpost was an icon of the previous generation of NASA – test pilots, rough-and-tumble guys who blazed trails into outer space with their grit and determination. Or so the story went – when you delve deeper into the details, you find out that really it wasn’t their grit at all – the Right Stuff that we all know so much about really had very little to do with humanity reaching space. The world, America, even NASA allowed the myth to continue because it made much better press – some superhuman beings stretched us from the ordinary to the extraordinary. To glamorize the engineers who actually made it happen: how boring!

Unfortunately, that view was allowed to persist long after it was useful. Today’s NASA is hampered by many forces; one of the most detrimental is the crew office. The crew office is the greatest bastion of the Space Ego, where test pilots, sports heroes, and other mythical creatures can take refuge in perceived greatness.

Time to let go of the Cold-War past, and face a bright new free-enterprise future.

[Update Sunday afternoon]

A lot more (depressing) discussion in comments at NASA Watch. What this comes down to (a recurring theme here) is that space isn’t important. If it were, we’d fix things.

[Bumped]

[Update a few minutes later]

I think that this is related. As far as I’m concerned, shrinking the astronaut office is a good thing — they’ve had too many for years. And what they’ve really had too many of (with exceptions, of course) is people with attitudes like this:

Ross personally does not like the idea of turning to commercial providers to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.

“My personal druthers are to keep the program totally within NASA like we’ve done in the past – the vehicle, the launch team, control, everything – because I know, I’ve seen, how difficult it is to do and I’ve seen what happens when you don’t pay attention to details,” he continued. “Even as hard as we’ve tried to pay attention to details, being what I will call a professional flight launch team, and processing team and flight crew team and flight control team, we still miss things.

“We’re going to have some people that are very much novice in what they’re doing, and trying to do things as inexpensively as possible to make a profit and we’re now going to be putting our crewmembers onto those vehicles and trusting them to launch them safely and that concerns me,” he adds. “You can do it. I’m not going to say that you can’t. It all depends on how much insight, oversight, control, leverage that NASA is given in the overall process. That’s the big key to it,” Ross said.

I grow increasingly weary of the oft-repeated (and much too oft-repeated in the last year) canard that private transportation providers will cut corners and be unsafe because they have to make a profit. The other one is that NASA somehow has some magical expertise and insight that private industry doesn’t have into human spaceflight safety, when in fact much of that, to the degree it exists is in private industry at places like USA and Boeing (who is building a commercial capsule).

Last time I checked, Southwest Airlines had a perfect safety record. Last time I checked, it was one of the most, if not the most profitable airline. And they seem to do both without any oversight by the “professional flight launch team” at NASA. Because, you know, those at Boeing and SpaceX and other places (many of whom are NASA veterans), are just “amateurs.” By these peoples’ theory, Southwest should be killing passengers every week or so. Why don’t they?

Gee, could it be because that they know that killing your customers is bad for business, and that if you go out of business, you don’t make any profits? On the other hand, the agency that not only hasn’t had to worry about profits, but had so much vaunted expertise in human spaceflight, and “knew what they didn’t know,” destroyed two multi-billion dollar Shuttle orbiters, and killed fourteen astronauts, while spending untold billions of dollars of other peoples’ money in apparent futility to make them “safe.” And each time that happened, the agency was rewarded with budget increases and new programs, which they then proceeded to screw up.

So you tell me, who has the more useful incentives, in terms of both cost and safety?

Mind, I’m not complaining that they kill people occasionally — this is a new frontier, and people are going to die. What I’m complaining about is that they’re spending so much money (and again, other peoples’ money) to do so, for so few results.

Fifty-Three Years Of Space

Today is the Sputnik anniversary. Here are my thoughts from the fiftieth, written three years ago, in Orlando, not far from Disneyworld’s Tomorrowland (the California version was built a couple years before Sputnik) with some tomorrows that remain tomorrows over half a century later.

Over at The Space Review, Jeff Foust has his own anniversary thoughts, in the context of last week’s historic House vote. Also, He alsoFrank Stratford discusses the role of Mars in future human exploration.

[Update a while later]

I didn’t read that Mars piece before I linked to it — I just assumed that because the home page said it was by Jeff Foust, that it was worth reading. Actually, it’s by someone down under named Frank Stratford, and it’s got some nonsense in it, with no very clear point.

Remembering Bill Haynes (Part 1?)

He flew for the military from the post-WW-II era to Vietnam, was a jet test pilot, was an F-100 squadron commander, risked his life many times for many years, and continued to enjoy commanding high-performance machines all of his life, when ironically, it suddenly and unexpectedly ended with him losing a battle of momentum between his Mazda sports car and a Toyota Highlander, on his way to church, a devout Lutheran who spent his life dreaming of the stars, now at final peace with his God. In that regard, he reminds me, sadly, of Pete Conrad, who after commanding a mission to the moon and back, and becoming a leading light of entrepreneurial space, died riding the motorcycle that he loved on a tight curve just outside of Ojai.

Bill Haynes used to tell the story of when he joined the US Army Air Corps in the 1940s, and told them that he wanted to go into space. “Better put down ‘extreme high-altitude flight,’ son,” the recruiter told him, after thinking for a bit. “The army doesn’t have a space program. Yet.” It still doesn’t, of course, because not long after, it spun off the Air Corps into the Air Force.

I first met him in 1981, when we were both working for the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo. He was working the Military Man-In-Space program, which was looking into military applications for humans in space, which would be tested with military astronauts on the Space Shutte, which was just going into service. After his military career ended in the late sixties, he had worked on both Skylab and Spacelab, and probably knew as much about space station design issues as anyone at the time. He was highly critical of the space station studies occurring at Marshall and JSC at the time, and predicted many of the problems that the program would encounter over the next decade and a half before it finally started actually launching parts into space.

He was also critical of plans to launch a fueled Centaur upper stage in the Space Shuttle (this was the original plan for launching Galileo). NASA was running into abort issues. In the event of a flight abort, they had to be able to dump the propellants before landing, because with full tanks, the stage not only weighed too much to land with, but presented a serious hazard, particularly because there was only a single bulkhead between the LOX and hydrogen tanks. The problem was that, in the event of a Return-To-Launch-Site abort, they couldn’t dump it fast enough. They had (heavy) helium bottles on board to blow the tanks down, but the pressure needed to make it happen fast enough for RTLS just blew through the fluffy liquid hydrogen, leaving it behind in a trail of helium bubbles.

Bill, Jim Ransom and I came up with a scheme to not only solve this problem, but to increase the performance as well (and one that readers of this blog may find familiar). Launch the stage dry. This would not only reduce the stage weight, because it wouldn’t have to take the loads of the propellant through the acceleration of ascent, but also reduce the weight of the cradle that held it, and eliminate the heavy helium bottles needed for abort.

Where would the propellant come from?

Because the Shuttle would launch with a light payload, there would be excess propellant in the External Tank at main-engine cut off condition, which could be transferred through the umbilical into the stage.

We did extensive analysis of it, but could never sell Lewis Research Center (the center responsible for the Shuttle/Centaur) or Rockwell on the idea (later, when I went to work for Rockwell, I worked with Jack Potts, the program manager for the Shuttle/Centaur, but after the program had died). Jerry Pournelle (who I hope is aware of Bill’s passing, and can make the funeral on Saturday and whose son, Rich, I saw in a meeting today, before I heard that Bill had been killed) has written about it.

Eventually, the delays of resolving the abort issue resulted in a shift of Galileo to a Titan, and many think that these delays, with lots of moves of the probe between decisions and the prolonged warehousing time until launch were the cause of the sticking umbrella antenna that reduced the data return when it eventually reached Jupiter, because it lost the graphite lubricant.

But the principle still applies, and was partially the basis for a lot of the recent propellant depot work (Dallas Bienhoff was at Aerospace at the same time as Bill and I, though I’m not sure if he was aware of the work at the time, and then went to work for Rockwell in Downey shortly before I did).

Other stories perhaps still to come, including the reactionless “Jones” drive, and the Crewlock. I hope that others who have Bill stories can chime in (I’m looking at you, Gary Hudson).

[Update a few minutes later]

Jerry Pournelle is apparently aware (you may have to scroll a little). I suspect he’ll have more to say later.

[Update in the afternoon]

As a commenter points out, I got the history a little wrong — Galileo did launch in the Shuttle, but on an IUS. The point remains that it was probably affected by the delays and remanifesting.

Happy Moon Day

It’s the forty-first anniversary. Mark Whittington took a few minutes off from fantasizing about the contents of legislation and the emotional states of others, and his imaginary Internet Rocketeer Club, to put together a long list of relevant links.

[Update a few minutes later]

Living on the moon — it’s the pits.

[Update a while later]

For those not aware, Evoloterra authors Bill Simon and I will be on The Space Show tonight from 7-8 Pacific (probably longer on the web).

[Update in the afternoon]

Speaking of Mark Whittington, his latest fantasy is that Constellation would have gotten us back to the moon in 2019. It’s hard to know how to deal with wilful delusions like this.

[Update a couple minutes later]

Bob Zimmerman displays a profound lack of faith in his country:

Sadly, it appears right now that the next manned lunar mission is probably not going to be an American mission. Though the exact outline of NASA’s future remains as yet unclear, President Obama has rejected the Moon as a future destination, and Congress appears willing to accept this decision.

Instead, either a Chinese, Indian, or Russian astronaut is likely going to be the next human to stroll onto Tranquility Base, taking pictures and souvenirs. All three nations have expressed a determination to get to the Moon. All three have also demonstrated in recent years the technological know-how for making it happen.

I will say no more than that I see no sign of either political will or capability of any of those countries to put a man on the moon. No one seems to be in any big hurry about it (e.g., China launches humans into space every three or four years). There is no indication that any of them are building the kind of infrastructure (either a heavy lifter or propellant depots) to enable it, and no demonstration of the ability to do vertical/vertical vehicles (not even at a Masten/Armadillo level).

My prediction is that the next human to trod the lunar surface will not be a government employee.

[Bumped]

Apollo Anniversary Thoughts

Nothing has happened since the fortieth anniversary to change my opinions in the long essay I wrote last summer.

Four decades have passed since the first small step on the dusty surface of our nearest neighbor in the solar system in 1969. It has been almost that long since the last man to walk on the Moon did so in late 1972. The Apollo missions were a stunning technological achievement and a significant Cold War victory for the United States. However, despite the hope of observers at the time—and despite the nostalgia and mythology that now cloud our memory—Apollo was not the first step into a grand human future in space. From the perspective of forty years, Apollo, for all its glory, can now be seen as a detour away from a sustainable human presence in space. By and large, the NASA programs that succeeded Apollo have kept us heading down that wrong path: Toward more bureaucracy. Toward higher costs. And away from innovation, from risk-taking, and from any concept of space as a useful place.

As I wrote, Apollo was a magnificent technological achievement, but in terms of opening up space, it was not only a failure, but the false lessons learned from it have held us back ever since.

The History And Future Of Space Exploration

I missed my connection to LA, and am stuck in Chicago until I can find a flight some time tomorrow. It’s kind of late, and I don’t have much time for blogging, and many of you may have already seen it, but Glenn Reynolds has a piece on space exploration in the Journal tomorrow. And of course, Tuesday will be the 41st anniversary of the first steps on the moon. It’s not too late to plan a party to celebrate. I and the co-author, Bill Simon, will be on The Space Show that evening. We may even do a live version of the ceremony, though that’s still TBD.

Apollo Is Finally Over

I’ve had a lot of differences with John Logsdon over the years, but in this Space News piece (pointed out to me by Charles Lurio), he gets it pretty close to exactly right (i.e., we’re pretty much on the same page):

Yale University organizational sociologist Gary Brewer more than 20 years ago observed that NASA during the Apollo program came close to being “a perfect place” — the best organization that human beings could create to accomplish a particular goal. But, suggested Brewer, “perfect places do not last for long.” NASA was “no longer a perfect place.” The organization needed “new ways of thinking, new people, and new means.” He added “The innocent clarity of purpose, the relatively easy and economically painless public consent, and the technical confidence [of Apollo] … are gone and will probably never occur again. Trying to recreate those by-gone moments by sloganeering, frightening, or appealing to mankind’s mystical needs for exploration and conquest seems somehow futile considering all that has happened since Jack Kennedy set the nation on course to the Moon.”

Introducing “new ways of thinking, new people, and new means” into the NASA approach to human spaceflight has not happened in the two decades since Brewer made his observations. That was the conclusion of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003, and despite the positive steps taken since then to operate the shuttle as safely as possible, much of the Apollo-era human spaceflight culture remains intact. Trying to change that culture and thereby close out the half century of Apollo-style human spaceflight seems to me the essence of the new space strategy. There is no way of achieving that objective without wrenching dislocations; change is indeed hard. Gaining acceptance of that change will require more White House and congressional leadership and honesty about the consequences of the new strategy than has been evident to date.

Sadly, White House and congressional leadership and honesty have been in pretty short supply lately, on both this issue and others.

Space History Bleg

Does anyone have a reference that describes the decision to reduce the size of the Shuttle fleet from seven to five during the Carter administration, and Mondale’s role?

[Update late evening]

Thanks for all the inputs from all the commenters. I’m a little surprised, because my recollection (from the time — see, I’m such a fogie that I actually claim to remember such things) was that Mondale had reduced the fleet size by two in the late seventies. I apparently have some reading to do to get it right.

Commercial Human Spaceflight Prospects

Jeff Foust has a good roundup of the current state of play in industry/congressional skepticism about the ability of the new players to do the job.

And Tom Frieling describes an appallingly bad book on space history. This kind of thing is really inexcusable, and may feed ignorance for years. When I do my pieces for The New Atlantis, I circulate drafts among a lot of knowledgeable people, to make sure that I get it right. If I write a book, I’ll do the same thing. But I guess that kind of thing isn’t very important to some authors and publishers.

Made It To Vegas

…but a lot later than we wanted, due to hellacious traffic getting out of LA. Things didn’t really start to move until we got halfway up the Cajon Pass. So, later dinner at Mandalay Bay, and then on to Colorado in the morning. But Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. I’ll leave you with a video from another Christmas eve, forty-one years ago.

I had a piece on this story last year, on the fortieth anniversary. Hard to believe it’s been a year since I wrote that.