Category Archives: Space

Base Camps

Derek Webber writes that in order to advance into the solar system NASA needs to take some lessons from Everest climbers.

Not to mention be willing to lose folks occasionally.

[Update a few minutes later]

Jeff Foust notes that there seems to be an emerging consensus that Mars is the goal, though none on how to do it.

Meanwhile, John Strickland says we need an integrated approach, with robots and humans. to get to Mars. He seems to be focusing on Mars surface water, though. I think we need to trade that with manufacturing propellants at Phobos or Deimos.

My take, as always, is that destinations are less important than capabilities. Put an off-planet space-transportation infrastructure in place, and the entire solar system (including Europa and Enceladus) is opened up to us. But Congress would rather build big rockets.

Happy Berth Day To Dragon

It was launched on Good Friday, and now the Dragon has berthed with the ISS early in the morning on Easter Sunday, over the region of the world in which Christ was reportedly born, died, and resurrected. That wasn’t planned, though. They’d have preferred to have it up weeks earlier.

Meanwhile, no word from SpaceX about recovering the first stage. I’m going to interpret that as bad news, for now.

SpaceX Flight

Looks like another perfect flight of the Falcon 9 and Dragon. Press conference is scheduled at 1700 EDT, when they’ll presumably tell us how the recovery attempt went. They did report a successful entry burn.

[Update about 5 PM PDT]

Elon has some news:

[Another update about twenty minutes later]

[Update an hour or so later]

I should add that while this is great news, it will still be disappointing if the rough seas prevent recovery, or break up the vehicle, because they’ll lose data they’d like to have to see how the stage handled the flight. That’s critical to understanding turnaround. The good news is that they’ll be able to do this every flight (that doesn’t need a lot of performance, like their earlier GEO missions) to get it right, and finally start to understand that.

John Houboult

Rest in peace:

In November 1961, Houbolt took the bold step of skipping proper channels and writing a 9-page private letter directly to incoming Associate Administrator Dr. Robert C. Seamans. Describing himself somewhat melodramatically “as a voice in the wilderness,” Houbolt protested LOR’s exclusion from the NASA debate on the Apollo mission profile. “Do we want to go to the moon or not?” the Langley engineer asked. “Why is Nova, with its ponderous size simply just accepted, and why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive? I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox,” Houbolt admitted, “but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted.” Houbolt clearly saw that the giant Nova rocket and the expensive and complex Earth orbit rendezvous plan were clearly not a realistic option–especially if the mission was to be accomplished anywhere close to President Kennedy’s timetable. While conducting a rendezvous in orbit around the Moon was going to be a challenge, the weight, cost and savings of using LOR were obvious once one realized that LOR was not fundamentally much more difficult than Earth orbit rendezvous. This insights, and Houbolt’s brave and energetic advocacy of it, made all the difference.

It’s just a shame that they didn’t do earth-orbit rendezvous as well with smaller vehicles. We could have avoided the Saturn V and the Apollo Cargo Cult.

Geopolitics In Space

I talked to Glenn Reynolds yesterday about our Russian entanglement. Just civil, though, not the military space problem.

[Afternoon update]

Space News had a blistering editorial on Monday, excoriating the fools on the Hill:

Those who bemoan NASA’s reliance on Russia, yet shortchange the very program designed to fix that problem, are at the same time adamant that the agency spend nearly $3 billion per year on SLS and Orion, vehicles that for all their advertised capability still have no place to go. Their size and cost make them poorly suited for space station missions, even as a backup to commercial crew taxis, and in any case the first SLS-Orion crewed test flight won’t happen before 2021.

NASA currently lacks an independent crew launching capability because of decisions made a decade ago, the consequences of which were fully understood and accepted at the time. The longer this situation lasts, however, the more culpable the current group of decision-makers will become.

In that vein, the current criticisms of NASA and the White House might be viewed as a pre-emptive strike by lawmakers who sense their own culpability. But in pressing arguments that fail to stand up to even modest scrutiny, they not only undermine their credibility, they give NASA cover to pursue a Commercial Crew Program approach that might not be sustainable.

What a pathetic lot they are.

[Bumped]

A Rudderless NASA

More thoughts from Mr. Papadopoulos. I don’t have time for a detailed critique right now, but I find it amusing that he thinks Neil Tyson is a reliable source about the history of exploration:

“In the history of civilisation, private enterprise has never led a) large, b) expensive, c) dangerous projects, with unknown risks,” said astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, during a talk for Big Think. “That has never happened.”

That is just nonsense on stilts, based on apparently a grade-school understanding. Columbus himself had already raised half the money privately. Cabot’s expedition was privately funded, based on a patent from Henry VII. Hudson’s expeditions were funded by British merchants who were seeking the Northwest Passage. The mouth of the Columbia was discovered by a seal trader. The vast majority of exploration of the Americas and the West was privately funded.

[Update at noon]

I’d forgotten about this post from last year. There is no evidence that Columbus got any money from the government.

SLS/Orion

The GAO is concerned (as well it should be, even though Congress doesn’t give a damn):

Space Launch System: “Based on current budget estimates, program officials have expressed concern that the first launch in 2017 could be delayed.” GAO says that the program will reach Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) this month (April 2014) and at that point NASA will establish cost, schedule and performance baselines for the initial (70- ton) version of the launch vehicle. GAO highlights funding risks associated with the flat budget profile under which NASA plans to spend $6.8 billion between FY2014 and 2018, and calls the schedule “aggressive.” It also worries that two years after the program was established, “many of the SLS program contracts remain undefinitized.”

Orion: “The mass of the spacecraft remains a top program risk.” GAO says the spacecraft being designed to take humans beyond low Earth orbit aboard the SLS could be as much as 2,800 pounds overweight at launch for the first exploration mission (EM-1) in 2017. The maximum lift-off mass for that mission is 73,500 pounds, GAO states.

Well, one solution to the overweight problem would be to launch without crew. There’s no need to, since they can go up commercially. That way you can remove the escape tower, which adds many thousands of pounds to the vehicle. Not that it should even be built at all, of course.

A Path To Nowhere

There’s an essay over at America Space worth a read, but a couple paragraphs are misleading:

Although President Obama inherited the decision to retire the space shuttle by the previous administration, he also inherited the rest of the Constellation program as well. The newly appointed President chose to terminate both programs, however, while apparently failing or not caring to properly take into account the U.S. dependency on Russia that would result by this decision for launching American astronauts to the ISS for many years in a row until new replacement vehicles could be developed. Since the retirement of the shuttle was tied to the development of the Constellation program, a cancellation of the latter should prompt a re-thinking of the decision for the former, something that ultimately didn’t happen. The space shuttles were finally decommissioned following the STS-135 flight in July 2011.

With the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the only way for U.S. astronauts to get to and from the International Space Station is currently onboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. That point was also stressed by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) during a debate with NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden at the recent hearing for the NASA Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request, held by the House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. “When the Space Shuttle was mothballed, President Obama was President of the United States. He could have made the decision to have continued to use the Space Shuttle, or he could have made the decision to keep it available in the event of an emergency. He chose not to,” said Brooks.

Obama didn’t choose to terminate the Shuttle. There was no choice, because that decision had been made years before, and production of key components and facilities needed to make them started to be shut down before he took office. It would have taken years and billions to restart that capability. In fact, he extended the program to the summer of 2011, past the original planned retirement in 2010.

The retirement of the Shuttle wasn’t tied to the development of Constellation. Even in 2004, before the ruinous Constellation project even began, the plan was for a three-year gap, because the so-called Crew Exploration Vehicle (which later morphed into Orion) wasn’t expected to be available until 2014. When Constellation was canceled, Shuttle’s retirement already being a fait accompli, the Obama administration planned to get Commercial Crew going by 2015, but as the author notes, continuous underfunding by Congress has slipped that out to 2017 (officially, anyway, on NASA’s business-as-usual snail-like development schedule). So Brooks is either lying, or doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You can’t keep something like the Shuttle “available in the event of an emergency.” That’s a demonstration of profound ignorance of how it worked. It would have cost billions per year, even if we hadn’t shut down the production lines, and it would have been unsafe to fly it with no regular tempo, a point I make in my book:

It should be noted that NASA currently plans only two flights for the SLS—one in 2017 to demonstrate the 70-ton capability, and one with a crew in 2021, to . . . somewhere. They have said that, when operational, it may only fly every couple of years. What are the implications of that, in terms of both cost and safety?

Cost wise, it means that each flight will cost several billion dollars, at least for those first two flights. If, once in operation, it has a two- or three-billion-dollar annual budget (a reasonable guess based on Shuttle history), and it only flies every couple of years, that means that each subsequent flight will cost anywhere from four to six billion dollars.

From a safety standpoint, it means that its operating tempo will be far too slow, and its flights far too infrequent, to safely and reliably operate the system. The launch crews will be sitting around for months with little to do, and by the time the next launch occurs they’ll have forgotten how to do it, if they haven’t left from sheer boredom to seek another job.

As a last-ditch effort to try to preserve the Shuttle in 2010, some suggested that it be maintained until we had a replacement, but to fly it only once per year to save money.[11] The worst part of such a proposal would have been the degree to which the system would have been even less safe, given that it was designed for a launch rate of at least four flights per year. It was unsafe to fly it too often (as NASA learned in the 80s as it ramped up the flight rate before Challenger), and it would be equally so to fly it too rarely. NASA’s nominal plans for SLS compound this folly, which is magnified by the fact that both internal NASA studies and independent industry ones have demonstrated that there is no need for such a vehicle to explore beyond earth orbit (existing launchers could do that job just fine, with orbital mating and operations), and it is eating up all the funding for systems, such as landers and orbital propellant storage facilities, that are necessary. All of this is just more indication that actually accomplishing things in space is the lowest priority for Congress (and unfortunately, the space agency itself, otherwise, the administrator would be more honest with the appropriators on the Hill).

There another point in the essay to be addressed:

Even if Commercial Crew was fully funded tomorrow, the participating private companies would still have to go through the same development and certification process for their spacecraft, and their launch date would still be two years into the future, at the very least. “Engineering is engineering,” said Kelly O. Humphries, News Chief at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Texas, during an interview for Motherboard earlier last week. “We’re working with commercial companies to make sure everything is done properly so the spacecraft will interact properly with the International Space Station. You’ve got to do things the right way, to make sure things are safe for people.”

Note that the spacecraft (at least the Dragon) already “interacts properly with the ISS.” That was proven out with commercial crewcargo. What they’re doing now is “certifying” that it is “safe” to carry crew to and from it. But as I note in my book, “safe” and “unsafe” are not meaningful words, absent quantification. If Congress told NASA they had to put up crew on a Dragon on Monday, they’d figure out a way to do it. If we had to get American crew into space on American vehicles this year, we could do it.

What would the probability of loss of crew be? Who knows? If you look at the Falcon 9 over all (eight successful flights with no failures), it now has a Bayesian reliability approaching 90%. NASA flew to the moon on Apollo 8 on the very first manned Saturn V flight, when the previous flight test had been a disaster. That NASA chooses to continue business as usual in ending its reliance on the Russians shows just how unimportant the issue is.

Space Tourism

Six reasons it matters.

As I often point out, people who complain about “joy rides for the wealthy” shouldn’t watch media devices like Blu-Ray players, because they were once just “toys for the wealthy.” As were the computers on which they type such complaints. I do think that, that some people, and particularly Virgin, overhype point to point. And it’s not clear what Virgin’s path is to either that or orbit with their current vehicle design. It doesn’t scale well with velocity.

Asteroid Strikes

New sensor data indicates that they’re from three to ten times more common than previously thought:

“The fact that none of these asteroid impacts shown in the video was detected in advance is proof that the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’-sized asteroid is blind luck.”

…The Sentinel Infrared Space Telescope Mission is currently due for launch in mid-2018, with an estimated mission cost of $400 million.

But we spend billions in trying to reduce the amount of plant food in the atmosphere.

Scientists Warn NASA

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn what scientists have to say about human spaceflight policy. It drives me crazy that we continue to operate under the delusion that NASA sends humans into space for the purpose of science, and that scientists have anything useful to say about the subject. Someone should write a book about that. Oh, wait.

[Update a few minutes later]

Here’s a better report on the topic.

What Keeps Women Out Of STEM

Among other things, they don’t like the dating pool. I wonder if The Big Bang Theory helps, or hurts with that perception?

[Update a few minutes later]

This seems vaguely related: Redefining boyhood. As a disease to be treated.

I guess you could say it’s a pre-existing condition.