Saturday, October 10, 2015

Retro Saturday: Toward the Unexplored

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: Historia - Bel99TV YouTube channel.

This week is the last of three Retro Saturday films about the history of Edwards Air Force Base.

Toward the Unexplored is a 24-minute 1967 U.S. Air Force film about the history of the site, going back to 1856 when the railroad came through. The Army Air Corps came here in the 1930s to use the dry lake bed as a bombing range, and during World War II used a wooden Japanese battleship replica called the Muroc Maru for target practice.

The film shows some experimental aircraft flying during the 1960s, but the emphasis is on Edwards operations.

Not commonly known is that Edwards also had a rocket propulsion laboratory where rocket engines were tested. The film also touches on NASA aeronautics research operations at the site, such as the X-15. You'll also see the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle used by NASA to simulate flying the Apollo moon landers.

The documentary takes us full circle, ending with a look back at Chuck Yeager, who by this time had the rank of colonel and had become the first commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Dream On

Click the arrow to watch a Dream Chaser cargo promotional film. Video source: SNCspacesystems YouTube channel.

Sierra Nevada released yesterday a promotional video for its Dream Chaser cargo variant, coinciding with the appearance of its space systems vice president Mark Sirangelo at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The Denver Post reported on Sirangelo's remarks. (The Dream Chaser team is based in Louisville, Colorado.)

After Louisville-based Sierra Nevada Space Systems lost the NASA bid to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, many wondered about the future of its Dream Chaser spacecraft.

But rumors of its demise were greatly exaggerated: Space Systems chief Mark Sirangelo said Wednesday that two versions of Dream Chaser will begin flight tests early next year.

“We've come a long way — despite not having the NASA money — and we've been freed up to advance more rapidly,” he said in an interview. “In some ways, because no one was focusing on us, we've been able to get a lot more done.”

SNC is still working on a crew version of Dream Chaser, although they did not get one of the first NASA commercial crew contracts. Work continues under a contract awarded in an earlier round of competition.

The company has also submitted a proposal to ferry cargo to the ISS. NASA requested proposals in September 2014 for a second round of commercial resupply services, called CRS-2. In addition to SNC, it's believed that SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Boeing and Lockheed Martin also submitted bids.

SpaceX and Orbital, the two companies that currently have commercial cargo contracts, suffered accidents in the last year and for now are grounded. SpaceX may resume Dragon cargo flights by the end of 2015. Orbital will launch two Cygnus deliveries on an Atlas V at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 41, scheduled for December and March, until their redesigned Antares booster is ready to launch from Wallops, Virginia in mid-2016.

The Wall Street Journal reported October 1 that LockMart had been eliminated by NASA from CRS-2, although the report remains unverified.

Dream Chaser's only test flight was October 2013, when the spaceplane was dropped by a helicopter to land on a runway at Edwards Air Force Base. Dream Chaser flew to its landing as planned, but one landing gear failed to deploy, causing the prototype to skid off the runway.

SNC has signed development deals with the European Space Agency and the Japanese Exploration Agency. The new video shows Dream Chaser encased in fairing atop an ESA Ariane V. SNC has also pursued deals to land Dream Chaser at runways in Houston and Huntsville, as well as Kennedy Space Center. The company has purchased a United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch scheduled for November 2016 to be the first uncrewed test mission for Dream Chaser.

A guaranteed government revenue source would give SNC some much needed credibility. Without a CRS-2 contract, the company would be left looking overseas for government patrons, suggesting that Dream Chaser would also launch overseas.

In October 2014, Sierra Nevada and Stratolaunch announced an agreement to explore a mini-Dream Chaser to fly on the horizontal launch aircraft currently under construction at the Mojave Air & Space Port in the high desert of Southern California. But neither has any customers to date, government or commercial.

SNC yesterday also issued a press release with a photo of the Engineering Test Article (ETA) and a schedule update for upcoming tests.

The Dream Chaser Engineering Test Article. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

The press release concludes:

SNC has designed the Dream Chaser Cargo System as a solution for NASA's commercial transportation services needs under the Cargo Resupply Services 2 contract and for other fully autonomous orbital missions.

By the way, the nose and leading wing-edges of Dream Chaser are made from a high-temperature material called TUFROC developed by NASA at Kennedy Space Center. According to a June 2015 SNC press release:

The TUFROC test articles were manufactured in Kennedy’s historic Thermal Protection System Facility to SNC’s specifications as part of the TUFROC technology transfer from Ames to SNC.

NASA licenses TUFROC to interested commercial parties.

The Toughened Uni-Piece Fibrous Reinforced Oxidation-Resistant Composite (TUFROC) represents an exciting leap in reusable thermal protection systems (TPS) technology that allows for much more affordable and sustainable operations involving Space Launch Services and other systems that utilize Earth re-entry vehicles. TUFROC has an exposed surface design and appropriate materials combination for a space vehicle that will survive the mechanical stresses induced in the initial ascent and will subsequently survive the extreme heating and mechanically stressful environment of re-entry. It provides a thermal protection tile attachment system, suitable for application to a space vehicle leading edge and for other uses in extreme heating environments (up to 3600° F., and possibly higher, for short time intervals).

Giving SNC a CRS-2 contract could translate into NASA creating more jobs at KSC in the TPS Facility. Never underestimate job creation as a motivating factor in NASA decisions.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Retro Saturday: The Air Force Flight Test Center

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: The Digital Implosion YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday features the second of three films about the history of Edwards Air Force.

The Air Force Flight Test Center is a 30-minute film from 1957, during Edwards' golden age. This is the height of the Right Stuff era, with the base upgraded for a new modern era of jet craft. A new concrete runway opened in October 1954, as an alternative to the historic dry lake bed.

Originally named Muroc, the name was changed in December 1949 to honor test pilot Glen Edwards who had died a year earlier in the YB-49 Flying Wing.

A number of experimental aircraft are seen in this film.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Flowing Hype Found on Mars!

Matt Damon may be popular now, but Ray Walston remains my favorite Martian. Video source: RetroAlexander YouTube channel.

The Martian premiered today at theatres across the United States.

Overwhelmingly positive reviews, building on the success of The Martian novel, all point to a big opening weekend at the box office.

The story hypothesizes how NASA's bureaucracy and culture would respond to a lone astronaut stranded on Mars. Although the novel's depiction of NASA is less than flattering, the story is an overall positive paean for the government space program.

The real-life NASA is exploiting the film's popularity, in particular to hype its plans to send people to the Mars surface by the end of the 2030s.

Space journalist Joel Achenbach wrote in The Washington Post last May that Andy Weir's tale “may have also saved the space program in the process.”

In recent months, NASA has apparently grasped that Weir has given the agency an enormous PR boost. He says the success of the book has allowed him to do “all these awesome nerdy things,” and he specifically mentioned touring the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (a NASA facility operated under contract by Caltech) in Pasadena, and spending a week at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where he got to meet real astronauts.

NASA has said, repeatedly, that its ultimate goal is a human mission to Mars, and that its human spaceflight programs steppingstones to that destination. But NASA doesn’t have the money to go to Mars now or anytime in the foreseeable future.

NASA doesn't have to cooperate with any film project it doesn't like, nor can a commercial enterprise use the NASA logo without permission.

The 2014 film “Interstellar” chose not to use NASA's real logo. Image source:

The 2014 space spectacular Interstellar, which featured Matt Damon in a secondary role, chose not to seek NASA's cooperation or licensing. NASA used Interstellar to promote its collection of cosmic observations, but did not actively link itself to the film's promotional campaign.

But The Martian has become the shark for NASA's remora.

This week began with NASA announcing that “liquid water flows” on Mars.

Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.

“Our quest on Mars has been to 'follow the water,' in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water — albeit briny — is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”

Using the word “flow” was one giant leap for hyperbole.

Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society posted that day on her blog a more sober analysis of the findings.

This work is considered very strong evidence that at widespread locations on present-day Mars, conditions sometimes arise for brief flows of briny liquid water — probably not rivulets, just spreading wetness in the soil.

Lakdawalla commented, “Personally, I don't think extant life on Mars is any more likely because of today's announcement than it was before. An incredibly salty, corrosive, transient water environment is not a very good place to look for life.”

Throughout the week, NASA TV and the agency's YouTube channels have featured content promoting the film and tying it to NASA's real-world Mars exploration research.

Click the arrow to watch the October 1 event at Kennedy Space Center. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Bloomberg News noted that “NASA is working to maximize the return on its collaboration with the production.” Among the events, Kennedy Space Center hosted a 90-minute long presentation linking The Martian to NASA's Mars human spaceflight plans. Astronauts Bob Cabana and Nicole Stott joined the film's cast members Mackenzie Davis and Chiwetel Ejiofor on the dais.

Andy Weir's tale gets generally high marks for technical accuracy, showing what technology will be required for NASA to seriously attempt a human expedition to the Mars surface.

But NASA's budget nowhere nears the cost for such an endeavor, which may be the film's greatest conceit.

In late July 2014, NASA's former Goddard Space Flight Center director Tom Young criticized NASA's claims that it was going to place humans on Mars in the 2030s. Young said, “We are collectively perpetuating a fraud” by pretending the program on paper is executable for the available funding.

The Martian was written by Weir at the end of the last decade, when NASA's commercial crew program was on paper but unfunded. In the five years since, the NewSpace movement has begun in earnest. Billionaire entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, Bob Bigelow and Jeff Bezos are investing in 21st Century technology they hope will create a competitive space industry that will lower the cost of access to space. The habitat occupied by Damon's character in the film could very well be a technological descendant of the Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitats — and those are based on NASA's TransHab research in the late 1990s.

A Bigelow Aerospace model depicting a hypothetical Mars outpost based on its habitat technology. Image source:

Speaking yesterday at the Geekwire Summit in Seattle, former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said that the most practical way to send people to Mars “would be to get those costs down, to build things that we can afford to fly. … I think we’ve seen with some of the newer companies, that when you allow competition, you drive the cost down, you drive the time scale down.”

My view is, there’s a role for government in the investment and the research, and then there’s a role when the private sector and the markets take over. Is exploring Mars with people a government type of program? Likely. The first few times for sure. But how you get there doesn’t have to be just a government-funded program.

The government takes a very long time to innovate. The plan they are on now would use engines that were developed in the 1970s. Sixty years later, I just don’t think that’s our best way to go to Mars.

The Martian might be a box office blockbuster and win a bucket of awards, but it's unlikely to convince Congress to properly fund a Mars expedition. Part of the problem, as I've written ad nauseam, is that the congressional space authorization and appropriation committees are dominated by politicians whose sole interest is to funnel tax dollars into their states and districts through NASA space centers and their contractors. Innovation through private sector competition doesn't get them re-elected.

Maybe someone can come up with a movie script that shows how to survive that inhospitable environment.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Retro Saturday: XS-1 Transsonic Research Airplane

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: The Digital Implosion YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday is the first of three films about Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert north of Los Angeles.

The base began in the 1930s around a giant dry lake bed near a town called Muroc, which was “Corum” spelled backwards. The Corums were the family that settled the area. According to the history page on the Edwards AFB web site:

In 1910, the Corum family settled at the edge of this lakebed. In addition to raising alfalfa and turkeys, they located other homesteaders in the area for a fee of $1 per acre. As those settlers moved in, the Corum brothers earned contracts for drilling water wells and clearing land. They also opened a general store and post office.

Their request to have the post office stop named “Corum” was disallowed because there was already a Coram, Calif. So they simply reversed the spelling of their name and named it “Muroc.” Small, isolated homesteads dotted the land over the next 20 years.

The Army Air Corps established the Muroc Bombing and Gunnery Range at the dry lake in September 1933. During World War II, the remote site was a natural place for testing experiment aircraft.

The book and subsequent film The Right Stuff made the base famous for the site of Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier on October 14, 1947. This 18-minute 1950 Air Material Command film is about the XS-1, also known as the X-1, developed by Bell Aircraft Company as a joint project between the U.S. Air Force (which became a separate branch from the Army on September 18, 1947) and NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

You'll see lots of Yeager, but if you look closely you'll see two X-1 aircraft, with tail numbers 6062 and 6063. 6062 was the Army/Air Force craft — which is why Yeager flew it — while 6063 was the NACA craft.

Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier on October 14, 1947 in the Bell X-1 6062. Image source: Wikimedia.