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.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Articles of Interest

A September 21 test fire of an upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 booster in McGregor, Texas. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

I've been sick all week with the latest virus to merrily infect us in the Space Coast, so rather than writing separate articles I'll lump these various stories into one post.

Aerojet Rocketdyne had a bad week.

The Boeing Company rejected AR's $2 billion to acquire United Launch Alliance, which Boeing jointly owns with Lockheed Martin. According to the Reuters article, a Boeing spokesperson said, “The unsolicited proposal for ULA is not something we seriously entertained.”

But Reuters reports that AR is undeterred, contemplating a higher second offer for ULA.

United Launch Alliance flies the Atlas V and Delta IV boosters from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The United States government is ULA's primary customer, although on October 2 ULA is scheduled to launch a communications satellite for the Mexican government. It will be the first non-U.S. government launch for ULA since 2009.

A September 24 Fortune article suggests that the big winner is Blue Origin. The NewSpace startup has a partnership with ULA to develop methane-fueled engines for the proposed ULA Vulcan booster. Journalist Clay Dillow suggests that AR is so driven to acquire ULA because, without the OldSpace company, AR essentially has no other launch customers.

That point was emphasized when it was reported September 24 that AR agreed to pay $50 million to Orbital ATK to settle a claim filed after Orbital's Antares rocket exploded seconds after launch at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Virginia last October 28. AR sold Orbital refurbished Russian engines built in the 1970s for a cancelled Soviet-era lunar program.

The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to issue an official ruling on the accident's cause. According to the Sacramento Business Journal, “the two companies essentially agreed to disagree over what caused the October accident.”

The agreement ends the deal Aerojet had to send liquid propulsion rocket engines to Orbital for that company's Antares program and says the Rancho Cordova company must deliver the payment before month's end. As part of the agreement, Orbital will give back title to Aerojet for 10 engines scheduled for delivery under the previous deal.

I can't think of any other company that would go near these engines, so they'll become expensive paperweights. Check eBay soon to place your bid.

Also soon to appear on the paperweight market will be AR solid rocket boosters. The ULA Atlas V has used AR strap-on solid rocket boosters when required, but in the future the Atlas and Vulcan will use solids provided by Orbital ATK. According to a ULA press release:

“As ULA transforms the space lift industry, strong partners such as Orbital ATK are critical to reducing cost, introducing cutting-edge innovation and continuing our focus on mission success,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “We have relied for decades on Orbital ATK’s industry leading rocket motor technology, which is ideally suited to support our future rocket launch plans.”

While AR seeks new customers, the Sierra Nevada Corporation continues to seek a government contract to create a sound business case for its Dream Chaser spaceplane.

The Orlando Sentinel reported September 24 that SNC's plans to launch Dream Chaser atop an Atlas V from the Cape in November 2016 depend on the government committing to use it for commercial crew or cargo.

John Roth, vice president of business development for Sierra Nevada's Space Systems, said the company has not released any details on its potential commercial business yet.

“What everybody is waiting on is the award of the [NASA] cargo contracts. We do have a few customers that . . . might still do the missions whether we get one of the cargo contracts or not,” Roth said. “But a lot of customers would like to see us have that NASA contract.”

NASA is in the process of selecting vendors for its second round of commercial cargo contracts. Both Orbital and SpaceX, the current vendors, have suffered launch accidents in the last year.Beoing and Lockheed Martin also have submitted bids for the next round.

SNC might have more credibility if they'd step up the pace with demonstration flights. Their lone flight was a drop test in October 2013. The glide test was considered successful, but one of the struts collapsed on landing, damaging the prototype. SNC has development deals with the European Space Agency and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, but seems reluctant to more aggressively invest in Dream Chaser R&D without a guaranteed contract.

That doesn't stop SpaceX founder Elon Musk, whose company earlier this week test-fired at its McGregor, Texas site an upgraded Falcon 9 booster. SpaceX developed its Falcon 9 and new Falcon Heavy using only its own investment money. The company did receive in 2006 a contract from NASA to develop its Dragon commercial cargo spacecraft, and in September 2014 was awarded one of two contracts (Boeing was the other winner) to deliver crew to the International Space Station. SpaceX is chasing the global commercial satellite launch business neglected by ULA due to its monopolistic pricing practices over the last decade, and is investing its own money in building a commercial launch complex outside Brownsville, Texas. In January, Google and Fidelity Investments invested a combined $1 billion in SpaceX to help build a space-based Internet, and now own 10% of SpaceX.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Retro Saturday: Voyager Neptune Encounter Highlights

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

This week's Retro Saturday is a 1989 Jet Propulsion Laboratory video titled Voyager Neptune Encounter Highlights. The title pretty much sums it up.

Most of the video is a compilation of animation set to music, although there's a little narrative here and there.

Voyager 2 passed Neptune and its moons in the summer of 1989. It's now on its way out of the solar system heading for interstellar space.

A 1989 image of Neptune by Voyager 2. Image source: NASA.