Saturday, April 19, 2014

SpaceX Makes Waves

Click the arrow to watch the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Defying the weather gods, SpaceX launched its legged Falcon 9 yesterday, sending the cargo version of Dragon to the International Space Station for a planned Easter Sunday arrival.

For NASA and other payload customers, it was a relief to see their cargo on its way to ISS after multiple delays.

For NewSpace fans, it was the first launch of a Falcon 9 with the landing legs attached. After the first stage separated, SpaceX hoped to demonstrate it could steer the stage back to a landing target. For this mission, the target was a point in the Atlantic Ocean, but in the future it will be a landing pad, perhaps the Space Florida-managed Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted the mission's progress into the evening. As reported by Alan Boyle of NBC News, Musk indicated that heavy seas prevented recovery ships from observing the splashdown, although telemetry indicated the vehicle performed as hoped. A final conclusion awaits recovery of the stage and further data analysis.

Among the many microgravity experiments aboard is a thyroid cancer cell study to determine why certain cancer cells self-destruct in microgravity.

The cancer cell study is one of many packaged by Nanoracks, in partnership with the Center for Advancement of Science in Space. CASIS has several research payloads aboard, including “the protein responsible for Huntington’s disease; proteins involved in other neurodegenerative conditions, Cystic Fibrosis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other ailments; and membrane proteins involved in drug effectiveness.”

Click the arrow to watch the post-launch press conference. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch a CASIS video on its research payloads. Video source: ISSCASIS YouTube channel.

From Russia With Love

Click the arrow to watch the April 18, 2014 Rachel Maddow show. You may be subjected to an ad first.

If you watch The Rachel Maddow Show, you know that her opening segments tend to take an oblique angle to get to the main subject matter.

Last night's show opened with the Russian ship that's been off the Florida coastline the last few days, reportedly monitoring the SpaceX launch of Dragon to the International Space Station.

No one knows for sure if that's what it was really doing, although Maddow reported the ship's registry indicates it's used for salvage. I suppose one could speculate they were interested in recovering the Falcon 9's legged first stage if it went off course.

Russian spy ships off the Cape go back to the 1960s if not earlier, so this is nothing new if that's what it was actually doing.

In any case, it was a rare time when a national cable news/opinion show actually had NewSpace as its lead story.

Maddow talked about Dragon supplying cargo to the ISS and eventually flying crew, which would end global reliance on Russia.

That led into her main story about the Ukraine crisis, but it was nice to see NewSpace get some prime time for a change.

Retro Saturday: The Apollo 4 Mission

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: wdtvlive42 YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday film is a 15-minute NASA documentary on the launch of Apollo 4. It was the first uncrewed test flight of the Saturn V rocket.

Apollo 4 launched at 7:00 AM Eastern time on November 9, 1967 from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A. It was the first NASA launch after the tragic Apollo 1 fire on the pad at the Cape's Pad 34. While the Apollo capsule was redesigned, development of the Saturn V rocket continued.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Now Hear This

Click the arrow to watch the Senate space subcommittee hearing, “From Here to Mars.”

Last week while I was in Washington, D.C., three space-related hearings were held on Capitol Hill. I didn't attend any of them, much as I would have liked, but all three are now archived on my YouTube channel if you want to watch.

Of the three, I recommend From Here to Mars, which nominally was about human spaceflight to the Red Planet, but actually touched on a number of subjects, including the International Space Station and commercial space. Near the end, at the 1:38:30 mark, Senator Bill Nelson asks Jeffrey Manber of Nanoracks about the economic viability of commercial space. Mr. Manber replies that the January 2014 decision by the White House to extend the ISS to 2024 — pending congressional approval — has helped his company attract business that was going to China. He says that China is marketing its new space station by decade's end to customers who want to conduct microgravity research. Under current policy, the ISS is scheduled to end in 2020, about the time China's new station would be operational.

The conversation underscores the reality of China's human spaceflight program. Despite claims by politicians such as Space Coast representative Bill Posey (R-FL) and outgoing House Appropriations space subcommittee chair Frank Wolf (R-VA) that China's space interests are military, Mr. Manber's comments suggest they are economic. China intends not to conquer the Moon, but to seize the economic high ground in low Earth orbit. Ending ISS to transfer those funds to the Space Launch System would unilaterally surrender The New Economy, as I called it in a September 2012 column, to China.

Speaking of Rep. Wolf, in an April 8 House Appropriations space subcommittee hearing he spent three and a half hours grilling poor NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden about a range of allegations. Wolf was aided by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), two fierce protectors of Space Launch System. These members have disparaged the commercial crew program, and Wolf went so far as to falsely claim that his committee had fully funded commercial crew when the record is clearly the opposite. A November 2013 NASA Office of the Inspector General report found that Congress had cut the commercial crew program by 62% over Fiscal Years 2011-2013 from President Obama's requests. Wolf claimed that because Congress had given NASA the money Congress wanted, it was fully funded, even though Congress repeatedly cut the program from the President's request. This resulted in extending NASA's reliance on Russia for ISS access to at least 2017.

And if all this sounds like weasel-words to you, it should come as no surprise that Wolf, Aderholt and Culberson are all trained lawyers.

The final hearing was the April 9 House Space subcommittee markup of the Fiscal Year 2015 proposed NASA budget. It was a quick 20-minute meeting devoid, thankfully, of any melodrama. This committee determines authorized spending levels, while appropriations determines how much an agency actually gets.

The Senate authorization and appropriations committees need to do their thing too, and later this year both houses should reconcile their versions into a final bill that goes to the President. For those hoping for a veto, keep in mind that the NASA budget typically is buried in a massive document that contains the budget for most non-defense agencies, and because the President has no line-item veto under the Constitution he pretty much has to accept all or nothing.

This assumes, of course, that Congress is actually capable of passing a budget, unlike last fall when the budget stalemate brought the government to a standstill.

Meet the New Neighbors

Click the arrow to watch the Florida Today video. You may be subjected to an ad first.

It's official.

NASA signed a 20-year lease agreement yesterday with SpaceX for Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

Florida Today space journalist James Dean reported that SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell said the inaugural launch is targeted for the first quarter of 2015.

The big surprise was that Shotwell said that rocket will be the new Falcon Heavy, which was previously scheduled for Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California.

Click the arrow to watch the SpaceX Falcon Heavy promotional video.

In the above 2011 promotional video, it shows the Falcon Heavy launching from Vandenberg.

Shotwell also said that 39A could be used for commercial crew flights in two years, assuming NASA selects the crewed version of Dragon for that program later this year. The Dragon launches atop the Falcon 9, so 39A would be capable of launching both rockets.

Robert Perlman at offered this insight into 39A renovations.

SpaceX representatives have said that the company plans to retain and extend upward the 350 foot high (107 meter) fixed service structure that was added to Pad 39A for use by the space shuttle. The pad's rotating service structure, the large gantry that swung around to envelop the orbiter to install cargo in its payload bay, is not needed for Falcon rockets and may be removed.

“We'll have to build the launch head or launch crown over the infrastructure here, we'll leverage a lot of the plumbing that exists, we will have to bring in some of our own, and critically, we'll be bringing in all of our own instrumentation systems,” Shotwell described. “We'll be building a hangar ... to roll the vehicle out, go vertical and launch.”

Down the Cape Road at Pad 40, yesterday's Dragon launch to the International Space Station was scrubbed due to a helium leak on the pad. The next launch attempt is scheduled for Friday April 18 at 3:25 PM EDT, but the weather is forecast as only 40% favorable conditions.

UPDATE, April 15, 2014 — It took a day, but NASA has issued a press release about the SpaceX deal.

UPDATE, April 16, 2014Spaceflight Now reports that SpaceX will preserve a vertical integration option at 39A for U.S. Air Force payloads.

The U.S. Air Force requires its most precious payloads to be attached to their rockets in a vertical orientation. SpaceX's current processing paradigm uses horizontal integration, where satellites are bolted to the launch vehicle inside a hangar, then the rocket rolls to the launch pad and is hoisted upright within hours of liftoff ...

The military's insistence that its payloads be integrated with rockets vertically, an overlooked point in recent congressional hearings and debates on the future of the U.S. launch market, has forced SpaceX to rethink its concept of operations.

Vertical integration requires the presence of a fixed or mobile tower at the launch pad, giving cranes and workers access to lift and attach satellites to the rocket.

Launch pad 39A's fixed service structure, a holdover from the space shuttle era, would fit the requirement.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Home on the Range

I've been in Washington, D.C. for the last week on vacation, so I have some catching up to do in the next few days.

Tomorrow (Monday, April 14) appears to be the day that NASA and SpaceX announce the lease for Pad 39A. According to the press release, media will be escorted to Pad 39A for the event, whatever it is. Seems to me there's no reason to go out there unless SpaceX intends to reveal their plans.

After that is the SpaceX launch of Dragon to the International Space Station, which was almost delayed due to a hardware problem with a backup device on the station's robotic arm. Launch time tomorrow is 4:58 PM EDT.

Last week saw several NASA-related hearings in Washington, some of which were quite contentious. I was in town, but I doubt my wife would have tolerated my sitting in a hearing for three hours booing members of Congress. Anyway, I'll get the hearing videos on YouTube in the next few days.

I visited both the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall and its Udvar-Hazy Center annex in Chantilly, Virginia. I'll post photos as time permits. It was interesting to see how the Smithsonian displays the orbiter Discovery compared to the Atlantis exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Discovery is treated as just one of many aviation-related artifacts, in one gallery with many other items from spaceflight. At KSCVC, Atlantis is the star of the show.

But first things first. The next new episode of Cosmos airs tonight at 9 PM EDT.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Retro Saturday: Space Shuttle, A Remarkable Flying Machine

Click the arrow to watch the video on YouTube. Source: Matthew Travis YouTube channel.

Thirty-three years ago today, at 7:00 AM Florida time, the Space Shuttle with the orbiter Columbia launched for the first time.

So it's only appropriate that this week's Retro Saturday film is Space Shuttle: A Remarkable Flying Machine, a NASA documentary about that first flight.

STS-1 was the first time that NASA launched a crewed flight without doing an unmanned test before. Although theoretically possible, NASA didn't attempt to launch an orbiter and pilot it by remote control to landing.

So astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen assumed the risk, spending two days in orbit.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Retro Saturday: Power of Decision

Click the arrow to watch the film on YouTube. Video source: Air Force Space & Missile Museum YouTube channel.

Does the current strain in American-Russian relations have you dreading World War III?

Here's a glimpse of what that might have looked like if unleashed in 1958.

This week's Retro Saturday film is Power of Decision, a Strategic Air Command training film. It simulates a war plan action in the event of an attack, executed by the Strategic Air Command in the Operation Control Room at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, and at the underground control room (location SECRET), by Strategic Air Command.

I won't tell you how it ends, but all these white male chain smokers sure were pretty stoic about Armageddon.

Near the end, you'll see some stock footage of various missiles launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. In the real world, the Cape had no functional weapons that would be used in a global war; it was a test launch site.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

American Exceptionalism

Russian defense and space minister Dmitry Rogozin says Russia has no space interests with NASA outside of the International Space Station. Image source: Wikipedia.

NASA issued a statement yesterday announcing they have suspended relations with the Russian space agency Roscosmos — except for the International Space Station.

Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.

Of particular interest is the next section, which bashes Congress for underfunding the commercial crew program.

NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration's for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches — and the jobs they support — back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we're now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It's that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America — and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.

A November 2013 NASA Office of the Inspector General report determined that Congress had cut commercial crew funding by 62% from the President's request over Fiscal Years 2011-2013. For the current Fiscal Year 2014, the program was cut by about 15% from the White House request. broke the story yesterday morning when it published an email from NASA Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations Michael O'Brien notifying employees of the suspension:

This suspension includes NASA travel to Russia and visits by Russian Government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or videoconferences. At the present time, only operational International Space Station activities have been excepted.

As an example of the interesting times we live in, Russian defense and space minister Dmitry Rogozin responded to the suspension with this tweet:

NASA suspends cooperation with Roscosmos (Rus Fed Space Agency) apart from work on the ISS ... Yet, apart from over the ISS we didn't cooperate with NASA anyway)

If Rogozin is right, then the suspension would appear to be largely symbolic.

It also leads me to wonder if someone in the White House sees the crisis as an opportunity to coerce Congress into properly funding commercial crew.

The New York Times report on the suspension concludes with this speculation:

The decision to suspend the relationship with the Russian space agency is unusual for several reasons, not least because keeping the space enterprises alive has long been a symbol of Washington’s commitment to an apolitical working relationship with Moscow. Breaking it, some government officials have feared, would invite the Russians to retaliate by suspending nuclear inspections under the new Start treaty — inspections that have continued despite the differences over Ukraine.

But the Obama administration’s decision was made easier by the dwindling nature of the nation’s space program. Grand plans for international space programs have largely withered, as the space shuttle program has ground to an end. “There’s a sense that we don’t need the space relationships the way we once did,” one senior government scientist said, “because we don’t have as much going on in space.”

The authors are fundamentally wrong about a “dwindling” space program. As I wrote in September 2012, the objective is to create a new economy here in the U.S. based on opening low Earth orbit to the private sector.

The U.S. space program isn't NASA. It's NASA plus all its private-sector partners.

An example of a Golden Spike lunar expedition using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy as the launch booster. Image source: The Golden Spike Company.

SpaceX hopes to deliver commercial satellites to orbit for one-third the cost of its competition. Bigelow Aerospace will deliver an expandable habitat module to the ISS in 2015 aboard a SpaceX Dragon, a demonstration version of the larger modules scheduled to launch starting in 2017. The Golden Spike Company is developing a lunar lander for commercial lunar flights around 2020, possibly using SpaceX and Bigelow technologies.

U.S. space technology is so far ahead of Russia that in September 2012 Roscosmos General Director Vladimir Popovkin warned that SpaceX and other commercial launch services could drive Roscosmos out of business. “We will become uncompetitive in the next three or four years if we don’t take urgent measures,” he said. Popovkin was sacked a year later.

So despite the opinion of the Times writers and an anonymous scientist, the U.S. space program is alive and well, thank you very much.

The Russian space program is not.

Which may be why the Obama administration feels it has the upper hand here. Russia needs its partner spacefaring nations a lot more than we need them.

If Russia cuts Western access to the ISS, then they have no business.

Russian space policy expert James Oberg wrote on March 3 that “the United States essentially controls the only space destination: Russia's orbital hardware couldn't function without U.S. electrical power and communications services.”

And although Rogozin was talking about NASA and Roscosmos relations, he didn't mention United Launch Alliance use of Russian RD-180 engines on the Atlas V.

I wrote in August 2013 about a Russia Today article reporting that “Russia’s Security Council is reportedly considering a ban on supplying the US with powerful RD-180 rocket engines for military communications satellites as Russia focuses on building its own new space launch center, Vostochny, in the Far East.”

The article included this quote from Ivan Moiseyev, scientific head of the Space Policy Institute.

In my opinion, stopping the export of rocket engines to the US is stupid, as we would suffer financial and reputational losses. The US would not suffer much and would definitely continue with military space launches, while Russia would have to stop production of the RD-180, because no one else needs the RD-180 engine.

Click the arrow to watch the March 5, 2014 Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing on YouTube.

ULA's vulnerability was the topic of a March 5 Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing that included both ULA's CEO Michael Gass and SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

Mr. Musk hammered on ULA's RD-180 reliance, noting that SpaceX built its own engines here in the United States.

Yesterday six Senators urged the Defense Department to open launch vehicle procurement to competition beyond the ULA monopoly.

In my opinion, the administration's suspension of NASA / Roscosmos relations is a risk, but a calculated one. Russia's space economy is especially vulnerable, and that may be why the administration feels it can use space relations as leverage. The White House has proposed to extend ISS operations through at least 2024, but Bigelow habitats should be operational long before then. SpaceX hopes to have its first crewed test flights in two years, with Boeing and Sierra Nevada close behind.

Mr. Rogozin and his boss Vladimir Putin certainly know the Russian space economy is living on borrowed time. The message the administration is sending is, “We really don't need you.” The U.S. space program is exceptional, and Russia knows it.

The question is if Congress knows it.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Fast Cars and Rocket Ships

Click the arrow to watch the video. Video source: CBS News.

SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk was featured last night on 60 Minutes. On the show's web site, this page has the transcript along with video extras.

I think the “zombie apocalypse warranty” will be the most remembered line from the segment.