Category Archives: Space

The Abandoned Frontier

Mark Steyn reflects on the passing of John Glenn. I don’t agree entirely, and I think he misses some key points, one of which was that Apollo was a battle in the Cold War that didn’t have much to do with space. With regard to Charlton, anyone who thinks we’re in technological decline, and unable to do great things any more hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been happening in microelectronics, microbiology, and yes, spaceflight. I’d suggest that Mark read my recent essay on the need to get over Apolloism.

[Update a while later]

Henry Vanderbilt weighs in over at Arocket:

Apollo was amazing, yes. But it did things the brute-force, massively-expensive way. Just look at the size of a Saturn 5 ready for liftoff, versus how much came back. Multiply that by the size of the payroll for the hundreds of thousands building and operating it, spread over a handful of missions a year. That’s a lot of expensive aerospace talent and hardware spent on every mission – billions worth.

Of course, they had no choice but to do it that way. They had an urgent national goal, a tight deadline, an effectively unlimited budget – and a 1962 technology base. One example: The computer that flew a Saturn 5 weighed as much as a small car – and was less powerful than the chips we put in toasters.

Two things happened after Apollo, one immediately bad, one eventually good.

The bad thing is that in the seventies, bureaucrats took over, and did what bureaucrats do: They carved into stone doing things the Apollo way. Shuttle resulted: gorgeous, yes, but only somewhat less expendable and slightly less labor-intensive than Saturn 5. And, alas, somewhat more fragile.

For decades this bureaucracy defended their billions-per-mission turf and defeated all efforts to do things less expensively. (In fact it’s still trying, with a MANY-billions-per-mission bastard offspring of Shuttle and Saturn 5 called “Space Launch System”.)

But the other thing that happened is, back in the eighties a few of us saw this bureaucratic logjam forming, and looked into whether space really had to cost billions per mission. We concluded it didn’t. We began pushing the different approaches it’d take to get costs down to where all the useful things we might do in space begin to be affordable.

It took a lot longer than we hoped getting into this. But thirty years later, commercial space companies are doing things at a tenth of traditional NASA costs. And that’s even before the really radical new technologies kick in, like the reusable flyback boosters just entering test in the last couple of years.

I won’t defend the wasted decades. (It wasn’t us wasting them, though at a number of points we could have been less naive about how ruthlessly the bureaucrats would defend their turf.)

But at this point, despair over the wasted decades is obsolete. Costs are coming down fast, huge possibilities are opening up. We could still blow it, yes. But compared to even just five or ten years ago, right now the future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.

Henry Vanderbilt
Space Access Society
(founded in 1992 with the intent of being no longer needed and disposed of in five years. yeah well.)

As I said on the Space Show the other week, the future for human spaceflight has never been more exciting.

John Glenn

Farewell to a war hero, and hero of the early space age. The last of the Mercury Seven has gone to the stars. In the interest of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, I’ll ignore his political career for now.

[Update Friday morning]

One of John Glenn’s last acts was to praise reusable rockets.

[Update a while later]

[Update late morning]

NASA’s Mars “Plan”

Anatoly Zak has a report on Gerstenmeier’s recent announcement.

I’d say it’s more a delusional long-term vision than a plan. As I quoted Dale Skran in my anti-Apolloist screed from last summer:

…the NRC report is based on the unstated assumption that over the entire period considered, all the way out to 2054, there will be essentially no progress in rocketry other than that funded by NASA exploration programs, and that for the entire period the SLS as currently envisioned will remain the preferred method for Americans to reach space. It is difficult to imagine a more unlikely foundation for the planning of future space efforts than this. [Emphasis added]

And yet NASA continues to do so, because it has no choice, because Congress refuses to let it do it sensibly.

They are proposing a 20+ year plan. As I’ve noted in the past, even Mao never tried for more than five. Think back to 1996. Who would have predicted that, twenty years later, we’d have Internet billionaires building and flying vertical reusable launch systems? Or plans for private space facilities? Or the beginning of assembly of large structures in space? The notion that any plan for human exploration of the solar system that NASA has will survive contact with technical and budgetary reality of the next twenty years is ludicrous. But Apolloism marches on.

The Future Of Space

As we mourn the loss of a pioneer, it’s important to note that it lies with the billionaires, not NASA or other government programs:

“One [path] is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event,” [Bezos] told the audience of scientists and engineers. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization, and a multi-planetary species.”

Ashlee Vance, longtime tech journalist and author of Elon Musk: Tesla, Space, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, thinks these ambitions are driven by a mix of entrepreneurial curiosity, altruism and a dash of egotism. “The guys who are rulers of the universe now are the nerds,” he says. “They were all geeks raised on science fiction and the vision of space we had in the 1960s and 70s. Now they have the money to make this a reality.”

Yes.

Loretta Jackson Delong (1948-2016)

Aleta

Received this morning:

Aleta, as she was known to all, passed away this morning in the Midland hospital ER. Aleta knew from the time she was twelve that she would build and fly spaceships. Her first professional work was as an engineering co op from Indiana Tech working on the Gemini program for McDonnell. Her engineering degree was cut short when she went home to nurse her mother back to health. After that, she joined the USAF as airman Jackson.

Aleta worked for Xerox for ten years as a repair technician and wrote both science fiction and non-fiction stories. She worked for the L-5 Society, both in Tucson and later in Washington DC. During her stay in DC, Aleta became an aide to General Daniel Graham and helped create the DC-X launch vehicle, later renamed the Clipper Graham. She also edited the Journal of Practical Applications of Space while with Graham’s Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.

As an indefatigable supporter of launch vehicle development, Aleta then became one of Rotary Rocket Company’s first employees, where she was general office manager. When the propulsion group was laid off from Rotary, Aleta was the person who told Jeff Greason, Dan DeLong, and Doug Jones that they had to stick with it, and founded XCOR Aerospace.

In the beginning, because the XCOR founders received no pay, Aleta took an additional job as a reporter/editor of the Mojave Desert News. Meanwhile, she was XCOR’s purchasing, personnel, bookkeeping, editorial, receiving, community outreach, and travel departments. As the company grew, she shed most of these tasks. In late 2015 she helped Jeff Greason start Agile Aero. Aleta was a personal as well as professional partner of Dan DeLong since the early days of Rotary, and they were officially married in 2016. The very next day, however, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and succumbed to complications of the chemotherapy regimen.

My deepest condolences to Dan, and her friends and family. She was a long-time friend and occasional colleague, and no one I know fought harder for our future in space.

[Monday-morning update]

I’ve added what Dan tells me was one of her favorite pictures of herself.

[Monday-afternoon update]

I encourage people to read all of the kind and understandably heartbroken comments, but this one from Dan is important for those who knew her:

Thanks all for the kind words. In order to allow time for those traveling, and to get around the holidays, the memorial service will be Sunday, Jan 15 at the Christian Church of Midland at 2608 Neely Ave. Thanks again, Dan.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it, but I’ll try.

[Monday-evening update]

Henry Vanderbilt remembers Aleta’s akita, Rufo.

Rofo

I do as well, because thanks to Rufo’s and Henry’s generosity, I once shared a hotel room with them at the Space Access Conference (despite my allergy to dogs, but I survived, and he was a great dog. And I’ve done that more than once, even after the passing of Rufo, despite the fact that I snore, for which I’m grateful to Henry, and will always regret any loss of sleep on his part).

[Late-evening update]

Via Clark Lindey, here is the local news reporting:

Greason, who is now the founder of upstart Midland-headquartered Agile Aero, said DeLong’s role in XCOR was invaluable in helping ideas become reality but that she always stayed in the background.

“During the time before I came to know her in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the idea of commercial or reusable space vehicles was a lonely idea to be a champion of,” he said. “She was one of a very small number of people running around and keeping that idea alive. She was never somebody who put her name on the front door, but wherever you turned … you’d find her as the person keeping the community together.”

Yes. I feel like Aleta was always there, and there is a big hole in my life that she no longer is.

[Update late evening]

Here’s a guestbook via legacy.com (not sure how official this is, but it’s via NASAWatch, and Keith apparently cannot bring himself to link to this website, despite the numerous encomia here, and its current numero-uno ranking on Google for Aleta’s name).