Category Archives: Space

The Bioethics Of Mars Settlement

An interesting article over at Slate that raises similar concerns to mine:

If we send heterosexual astronauts, of different sexes and of reproductive age, on extended space missions, then the possibility of pregnancy looms. To ward that off, could it be ethical to demand sterilization for any potentially fertile astronauts in a mixed-sex crew? Radiation exposure may eventually take care of the issue by causing infertility, but some pregnancies could happen before infertility occurs. Is conception even possible in the zero-gravity of space, or in the low-gravity, high-radiation habitats on Mars? If so, would a fetus develop normally?

We don’t know, since it would seem patently unethical to even conduct these sorts of experiments today in space or anywhere else, at least with human subjects. Again, the physical and psychological dangers of procreating and living outside of Earth can seem inhumane, especially for involuntary subjects (the children). Yet many plans for space exploration already take it as a foregone conclusion that humans will reproduce in space. For some, it’s a crucial part of the business plan, as in the case of Mars One’s goal of moving toward a “permanent human settlement.”

As I noted:

What I would suggest to the Mars One people, though, is given that they’re planning to spend billions on this project, and the long-term goal is to have true human settlement of the planet, which necessarily involves offspring of the settlers, they devote a modest amount of their budget funding research that NASA has completely neglected for decades, but that others have privately proposed, to establish a variable-gravity laboratory in orbit where we can start to understand these issues. The fact that NASA (or Congress) have never given such research any priority whatsoever is eloquent testimony to how unimportant both consider the goal of spreading humanity into the solar system. But until we do, young people who want to go off to barren (at least initially) worlds will have to continue to face the prospect of remaining barren themselves.

Space really isn’t important, politically. Just “space” jobs.

[Update a few minutes later]

Meanwhile, Kate Greene says that economics would dictate that a Mars mission consist of all women.

Here’s my problem with that. While of course mass is an important consideration, it isn’t the only one. I would argue that any Mars mission would have to be based on an affordable mission concept, and that if it is, mass won’t matter that much, and if it isn’t, no one will go. Beyond that, I think there’s a flaw in the logic here, or at least insufficient information:

Week in and week out, the three female crew members expended less than half the calories of the three male crew members. Less than half! We were all exercising roughly the same amount—at least 45 minutes a day for five consecutive days a week—but our metabolic furnaces were calibrated in radically different ways.

During one week, the most metabolically active male burned an average of 3,450 calories per day, while the least metabolically active female expended 1,475 calories per day. It was rare for a woman on crew to burn 2,000 calories in a day and common for male crew members to exceed 3,000.

We were only allowed to exit the habitat if we wore mock spacesuits. So many Martian hassles, so little glory.

The data certainly fit with my other observations. At mealtime, the women took smaller portions than the men, who often went back for seconds. One crew member complained how hard it was to maintain his weight, despite all the calories he was taking in.

She doesn’t say, but is it possible that maybe the men were doing more physical work? If so, it might be that if the women had to do all of the heavy lifting, their calorie consumption would increase too. In any event, if you just want to send people to Mars for the sake of sending people to Mars, a female crew would be fine, but if you want to settle the planet, there would be a problem…

The Quality Of Metal 3-D-Printed Objects

Looks like it’s about to exceed any other fabrication technology:

“We can now control local material properties, which will change the future of how we engineer metallic components,” Dehoff said. “This new manufacturing method takes us from reactive design to proactive design. It will help us make parts that are stronger, lighter and function better for more energy-efficient transportation and energy production applications such as cars and wind turbines.”

The researchers demonstrated the method using an ARCAM electron beam melting system (EBM), in which successive layers of a metal powder are fused together by an electron beam into a three-dimensional product. By manipulating the process to precisely manage the solidification on a microscopic scale, the researchers demonstrated 3-dimensional control of the microstructure, or crystallographic texture, of a nickel-based part during formation.

Crystallographic texture plays an important role in determining a material’s physical and mechanical properties. Applications from microelectronics to high-temperature jet engine components rely on tailoring of crystallographic texture to achieve desired performance characteristics.

“We’re using well established metallurgical phenomena, but we’ve never been able to control the processes well enough to take advantage of them at this scale and at this level of detail,” said Suresh Babu, the University of Tennessee-ORNL Governor’s Chair for Advanced Manufacturing. “As a result of our work, designers can now specify location-specific crystal-structure orientations in a part.”

This will be key for human expansion into space.

ISPCS

The opening ceremony is a (brief, presumably) literal space opera about a mission to Mars.

[Update]

“Searching for nothing but action verbs” on Mars. OK.

[Update after the 20-minute opera]

Pat Hynes paying tribute to the late Bill Gaubatz, who helped her get this conference started ten years ago, who died in July.

Off To Las Cruces

I’m heading to the airport to go to ISPCS. I’ll check in later.

[Later]

OK, made it here, went to reception, much food and drink was consumed and many old acquaintances refreshed. Lots of compliments on the book, but this is the choir. Off to bed, and conference tweeting/blogging on the morrow.

Safe Is Not An Option: A Review

Finally, someone at NASA is willing to take the book seriously enough to critically review it. Obviously, I will respond at some point (TL;DR version, he cherry picks and ignores much of what I have to say, but that’s to be expected, given his NASA-centric viewpoint), but it’s a bad week between taxes and ISPCS. Anyway, despite my disagreement with the review itself, I’m sincerely grateful to Mr. Fodrocci for finally acknowledging the book’s existence, rather than (as much of the industry, including IAASS, has) pretending it doesn’t exist and hoping it will just go away.

Sierra Nevada’s Bid

Why NASA rejected it:

Although the document praises Sierra’s “strong management approach to ensure the technical work and schedule are accomplished,” it cautions that the company’s Dream Chaser had “the longest schedule for completing certification.” The letter also states that “it also has the most work to accomplish which is likely to further extend its schedule beyond 2017, and is most likely to reach certification and begin service missions later than the other ‘Offerors’.”

Discussing costs, Gerstenmaier says that “although SNC’s price is lower than Boeing’s price, its technical and management approaches and its past performance are not as high and I see considerably more schedule risk with its proposal. Both SNC and SpaceX had high past performance, and very good technical and management approaches, but SNC’s price is significantly higher than SpaceX’s price.”

Touching on why Boeing received a $4.2 billion contract, versus $2.6 billion for SpaceX, he adds “I consider Boeing’s superior proposal, with regard to both its technical and management approach and its past performance, to be worth the additional price in comparison to the SNC proposal.”

Given how subjective such evaluation processes are, it’s not an implausible story.

The Chairman Of The House Science Committee

is a moron:

“If Orion could provide a redundant capability as a fallback for the commercial crew partners, why is it necessary to carry two partners to ensure competition in the constrained budget environment?” Smith asked NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in an Oct. 7 letter co-signed by Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), chairman of the House Science space subcommittee.

So as a bonus, the chairman of the space subcommittee is an idiot, too.

The country’s in the very best of hands.

About That Mars One MIT Study

Some thoughts from Stewart Money, with which I agree:

While presented as a legitimate concern, $4.5 billion is after all a large sum of money, and a very tall hurdle to overcome, it still leads to an interesting counterpoint which the authors of the NASA funded study do not address. NASA is well on the way to spending $16 billion to get the Orion capsule alone through one crewed flight, a number which excludes the development costs of the Space Launch System as well as its ground infrastructure. The agency cannot even begin to put a price tag on gong to Mars. It would be interesting to see the same team run the numbers on that.

There is no doubt that Mars One is [a] risky concept, and if it is to ever gain real traction, it will have to endure a lot more scrutiny than presented in the MIT study. It should probably begin with a clear statement that Mars One is meant as an evolving concept, in which the final product may differ considerable [sic] from what has initially been put forward on a time frame which like all space projects, is subject to change. At the same time, its many critics might want to at least consider how much of the risk to any future Mars mission, whether one way of with a return ticket, could be reduced through advancing the Technological Readiness Level (TRL) of some of the core technologies the MIT team identifies.

Finally, they might want to ask why the U.S. is committed to a very different, but perhaps even more financially implausible plan.

Yes.

[Update a few minutes later]

By the way, Bas Lansdorp has responded in comments over at Marcia Smith’s place.

Von Braun And Elon Musk

Is Elon Wernher’s heir?

Regardless of what NASA envisioned for COTS—indeed, regardless of what it had ever envisioned or accomplished under any program—the sum total of Congressional interest in NASA was always just ensuring a maximum of federal money goes into their district or state (and thereby, into their own campaign funds). So to their ears, COTS was simply another revenue stream that could go to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, or other established players under a slightly different operating scheme.

But a program that meant barely anything to Congress was taken up with enthusiasm by NASA as a way to modestly reduce the costs of one aspect of its program, and then “hijacked” by Elon Musk to radically and fundamentally alter the economics and pace of spaceflight. Every synergy he could find between NASA’s modest objectives and his own radical ones was exploited, driving the evolution of SpaceX technology and the rapid buildup of its infrastructure. No one saw him coming.

SpaceX’s conspicuous achievements only fed energy back into the system, driving NASA to become more ambitious, and the Congressional advocates of COTS to push forward with the commercial crew program. Only now were establishment forces in Congress beginning to raise eyebrows at SpaceX, but still did not yet see it as a threat. After all, transporting cargo was one thing, but surely crew flight was still over their weight class. This program, they assured themselves, would be a gimme for Boeing and/or Lockheed, and SpaceX would perhaps rise to a junior partner role in the system.

That confidence, however, quickly bled away as SpaceX continued to march forward with ever more drastic advances, offering prices far below a merely competitive advantage, and steadily developed hardware not even on the drawing board among the big prime contractors. Before these politicians knew it, and with the large-scale financial and technical assistance of NASA, a company they had barely heard of a few years ago was beginning to threaten the viability of long-established, multi-billion-dollar corporations with rock-solid Congressional relationships.

In a panic, the more powerful among them have repeatedly tried to scale back funding for commercial programs that would feed SpaceX, and sought to convince government agencies to throw roadblocks in its way in seeking additional contracts. But SpaceX’s popularity and political weight have grown even more quickly than its technical capabilities, and appears to be within a few years (at most) of transitioning from being an upstart to becoming simply the Program of Record.

Just as von Braun had originally hijacked a cruel, cynical weapon to pursue a dream of wonder and peace; as Korolev redirected the same dumb, unimaginative weapons program for his own people into achievements that will live in memory long after the name of the Soviet Union is long forgotten; and just as von Braun awakened a timid and pragmatic power to shoot for the Moon “because it is hard”; so it seems that soon — knock on wood — Elon Musk may have grown an afterthought commercial cargo-delivery program, one that sought merely to deliver junk to a space station at a slightly lower cost than before, into a revolution with no end, opening up the cosmos to humankind.

A very interesting, and I think insightful historical and political analysis.

Virgin Galactic’s Budget Problems

You know, if they’d get a working engine and actually start flying, I don’t think they’d need as big a promotional budget.

[Update a couple minutes later]

WhiteKnightTwo just took off with SpaceShipTwo, presumably for a glide test. Meanwhile, Jeff Foust has a story on plans for powered flight test.

[Update a while later]

Meanwhile, just down the flight line, here’s what it looks like to build a Lynx.

Orbits And Suborbits

I’ve updated yesterday’s piece at Ricochet to clarify, for those in comments. I’ve probably discussed this here before, but…

Per discussion in comments, there seems to be some confusion about the difference between high-altitude flight, suborbital flight, and orbital flight. As John Walker points out, orbital flight requires a minimum speed to sustain the orbit, but while that is necessary, it is not a sufficient condition. In fact, a flight can be suborbital with the same speed (energy) as an orbital flight. The best, or at least, most rigorous way to define a “suborbit” is an orbit that intersects the atmosphere and/or surface of the planet. So if you launched straight up at orbital velocity, it would still be a suborbit, because it would (after an hour or two, I haven’t done the math) fall back to the ground. So John’s numbers in terms of comparative energy are roughly correct for the particular vehicles being discussed here (XCOR Lynx and VG SpaceShipTwo), they can’t be generalized for any suborbital vehicle (e.g., a sounding rocket isn’t orbital, but it goes much higher than those passenger vehicles, often hundreds of kilometers in altitude).

The speed necessary to achieve orbit is partly a function of the mass of the body being orbited, but it is also a function of its diameter, and whether or not it has an atmosphere. If the earth were a point mass, an object tossed out at an altitude equivalent to the earth radius (that is ground level) would have very little velocity, but it would have a lot of potential energy. It would fall, gain speed, whip around the center and come back up to the person who had tossed it. That is, it would orbit. So even for the relatively low-energy suborbital vehicles discussed in this post, the reason that they’re not orbital is simply that the planet gets in the way.

One other interesting point is that, under the definition above, subsonic “parabolic” aircraft flights in the atmosphere, to offer half a minute or so of weightlessness (offered by the Zero G company), are suborbital flights, in terms of their trajectory. I put “parabolic” in quotes because in actuality, if properly flown, they are really elliptical sections, as all orbits and suborbits are. The parabola is just a close approximation if you assume a flat earth, which is a valid assumption for the short distances involved. Galileo did his original artillery tables based on flat earth, which is why beginning physics students model cannonball problems as parabolas, but modern long-range artillery has to account for the earth curvature, and it does calculate as elliptical trajectories.

Finally, one more extension. Ignoring the atmosphere, every artillery shell fired, every ball thrown or hit, every long jumper, every person who simply hops up into the air, is in a suborbit. The primary distinction for the vehicles discussed is that they are in a suborbit that reaches a specific altitude (at least a hundred kilometers to officially be in “space”), and leaves the atmosphere.

Clear as mud?

What Happened To My Suborbital Ride?

I have some thoughts and links on the 10th anniversary celebration, over at Ricochet:

Basically, the late Jim Benson of SpaceDev (now part of the Sierra Nevada corporation, which finally seems to have given up on its own plans to use a hybrid motor for its Dream Chaser vehicle) sold Burt Rutan a bill of goods with the hybrid, with claims of simplicity and safety. In fact, as many of us told him at the time, he’d have been a lot better off purchasing a liquid engine from XCOR, but they didn’t have a sufficient track record at the time for him to think they could meet the deadline to win the prize. Then, once they’d (sort of) succeeded in flying something into space, they continued on with what they thought they knew. They’ve been in a sunk-cost trap ever since, unable to get themselves out of the hybrid-propulsion rut.

As I’ve long noted, the delays in the arrival of commercial spaceflight have been a combination of people who knew what to do not having money, and the people how had money not understanding the problem, and being too arrogant to listen to the veterans. Only now is the crucial combination of money and know how finally coming together.

As I note there, I stopped by XCOR in the morning before the event. Looks like they’re making good progress in bringing the spacecraft together.

Dreamchaser And Stratolaunch

I didn’t mention this earlier in the week, but SNC is teaming with StratoLaunch to get a subscale version into orbit. If it’s 75% scale, I figure that’s about 40% of the current interior volume, which lines up with their claim of being able to carry two or three passengers (the full-scale system is designed for seven). The big advantage of such a system would be single-orbit rendezvous, and runway landing, so if it happens, there’d certainly be a market niche for it.

The Perils Of Being Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Thoughts from Charles Cooke:

…the nature of the apology seems to tell us exactly why he did not just own up and move on. He can’t. He’s trapped, having become responsible for the self-esteem and self-identity of millions of adoring followers. Deep down, I bet Tyson wished he could just say, “my mistake.” Instead, he had to embed his note in an avalanche of superfluous pseudo-context; to insist that the whole affair “fascinated me greatly”; to enter into peculiar digressions about the nature of evidence and of memory; and, rather than admitting that a critic was right, to propose extraneously that “the mind is surely the next mysterious universe to be plumbed.” I find this all rather sad, I must say. I like Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m sure he’s a nice, smart, interesting guy. His most ardent followers, however, are not. And, if his behavior over the past month is any indication, he’s been captured by them.

Yes. This hasn’t enhanced his reputation. Or notoriety.

Martine Rothblatt

As Glenn notes, I’m old enough to have known her decades ago when she was Martin. I saw her for the first time since the sex change a year ago at the New Space conference in San Jose. Anyway, a fascinating profile of her.

[Update a few minutes later]

D’oh! Now it makes sense. Gabriel Rothblatt is Martin’s/Martine’s son. He’s running for Bill Posey’s seat in Florida (at the Cape) on a space platform, and he was at this year’s conference. Unfortunately, he’s a Democrat.