Category Archives: Space


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.


Chad Orzell has some problems with the reboot. So do I and while it’s not his main concern, he puts his finger on it:

The bit where he called out young-Earth creationism for the impoverished scale of its vision was cute, too, though I’m not sure it was all that necessary or useful (in that the people who believe that won’t be watching, and wouldn’t be convinced), but then the show has clearly established a pattern of throwing red meat to the anti-religious from time to time.

Yes, if by “from time to time” he means every episode so far. I’m not traditionally religious, but I find it gratuitous and off putting. The writers and Tyson seem to get some sort of righteous satisfaction from putting a rhetorical thumb in the eyes of believers. It does not advance science, or their own secular religious cause.

This Morning’s Space Hearing

Here’s a story by Dan Leone, in which Mo Brooks makes an historical ass of himself:

One SLS supporter, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), said he was “astonished” that Bolden would claim the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama had nothing to do with the current gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability. Brooks’ district includes NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, which is leading the SLS effort.

“When the space shuttle was mothballed [in 2011], President Obama was president of the United States,” Brooks said. “He could have made the decision to continue to use the space shuttle, or to continue to keep it available in the event of an emergency. He chose not to.”

He had no practical choice, Congressman. The point of no return on the program was reached before Obama took office. The parts needed to keep it flying were already out of production, and the cost of restarting it would have been astronomical, if it could be done at all. It makes me weep to see such monumental ignorance from the people who are running space policy on the Hill.

But Dan misses what is, to me, the big story from the hearing. Interestingly, Brooks office released a transcript late in the day:

Congressman Brooks:… What would be the consequences to the operational capabilities of the Space Station if within the next year, Russia chooses to deny us access by no longer allowing us to hitch a ride on their rockets?

Administrator Bolden:…The partners would probably have to shut the Space Station down…

Congressman Brooks: If the Space Station is shut down for an extended period of time, say a few years more or less?

Administrator Bolden: I will go to the President and recommend that we terminate SLS and Orion…

Congressman Brooks: Let me make sure I understand the sequence of events from your testimony. You correct me if I err. If the Russians deny us access to the International Space Station, it’s your testimony that because of what services we provide to the International Space Station, you would have to shut it down. And if the International Space Station is shut down, you in turn would then see no reason to have the Space Launch System or Orion, so is it fair for me to infer that you would then recommend that those programs be shut down too?

They should be, regardless of what the Russians do. But this is stupid. We have invested over a hundred billion dollars in the ISS. It is only now starting to do any significant research. What Bolden is saying that he would abandon it, rather than risk flying without an abort system, even though we flew Shuttle without an abort system for thirty years. I’d like to think that he wouldn’t actually do that — that he’d decide to just ask SpaceX how soon they could start flying people to keep the program going. I hope that he was just bluffing to try to get Congress to properly fund Commercial Crew, because if he isn’t, it’s maddening. If he’s serious, it indicates that he’s completely unserious about spaceflight. And of course, someone should write a book about that.

[Friday-morning update]

Jeff Foust has the story now over at Space Politics.

[Mid-morning update]

Here’s another report, from Marcia Smith.

Reusable Falcons

Jeff Foust mined Gwynne Shotwell’s Space Show interview for some interesting nuggets. Here’s what I found interesting:

Despite concerns about US access to the ISS given current tensions with Russia and NASA’s current reliance on Soyuz, Shotwell said she didn’t think it was feasible to greatly accelerate the development of a crewed Dragon. “We proposed a pretty forward-leaning program” for commercial crew, she said. “I don’t want to say that we couldn’t speed things up: we probably could, but it would have to be in lockstep with NASA.” She added that SpaceX current believes it can have a crewed Dragon ready “a little bit faster” than current NASA plans for flights in late 2016 or early 2017. [Emphasis added]

I’m pretty sure that if NASA went to her and Elon and said, “we want to fly this year, and we’re willing to do it without the abort system,” they’d be able to do it.