Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Fall

Click here to watch the SpaceX CRS-7 launch and loss. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

Less than five years after their first powered flight, Orville and Wilbur Wright brought one of their Flyers to Fort Myer, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The brothers hoped to sell their two-passenger craft to the U.S. Army.

On September 17, 1908, Orville took to the air with Lt. Thomas Selfridge of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Division. As the two circled the field, the right propeller broke and hit a guy wire bracing the rear vertical rudder. The Flyer plunged into the ground. Orville was badly injured but survived. Selfridge became the first known fatality in a U.S. powered flight.

The Wright Flyer crash on September 17, 1908. Image source: Wikipedia.

In May 1919, New York hotelier Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 to the first team that could successfully fly a powered aircraft non-stop between New York City and Paris. Over the next eight years, six men died in three crashes attempting to win the prize. On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to successfully fly across the Atlantic.

Later that year, seven lives were lost in August during the Dole Air Race to become the first team to fly non-stop between San Francisco and Hawaii.

During the spring and summer of 1927, twenty-one people were killed in various long-distance flight attempts.

Despite the fatalities, interest in aviation boomed. Entrepreneurs across the nation invested in starting their own airlines, some to deliver cargo, a few to fly people. The boom was spurred by the U.S. Post Office offering exclusive contracts in the mid-1920s to commercial companies that would fly air mail along designated routes. To defray costs, some of the airlines carried a few passengers, although the cargo was the priority.

One of the first commercial air mail pilots in 1926 was Charles Lindbergh. By flying commercial air mail, he gained the experience to cross the Atlantic.

Echoes of the earliest days of commercial aviation can be heard in the June 2004 report A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover released by the President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. Commonly known as the Aldridge Commission after its chair, the group was charged with recommending how to implement President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration.

In Section III, titled “Building a Robust Space Industry,” the commission found that “sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. This space industry will become a national treasure.”

The Aldridge Commission holds a public hearing in New York on May 3, 2004. Image source: University of North Texas.

The commission believed that, given the chance, “The private sector will continue to push the envelope to succeed competitively in the space field.” The report recommended using prizes as an incentive, specifically citing the Orteig Prize that led to Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic.

Recognizing that risk had to be introduced into the space industry if innovation could begin, the commission wrote:

Government regulation of the nascent private sector space industry is ongoing and will be necessary in the future, but it is important to ensure that this industry not become over-regulated. A key issue in the private space flight business is liability. There is a pressing need for a change in liability laws to set a reasonable standard for implied consent. People throughout society do dangerous things for fun and profit; it is not reasonable to impose governmental risk standards on people who are willing and eager to undertake dangerous or hazardous activities.

Based on the commission's recommendations, NASA opened the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office on November 7, 2005. NASA courted entrepreneurs who might want to be part of this venture to open space to the private sector.

One of them was Internet entrepeneur and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk.

April 20, 2005 ... NASA Administrator Michael Griffin (left) meets with SpaceX founder Elon Musk (right). Image source: Wikipedia.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin addressed the X-Prize Cup Summit on October 20, 2006. He recalled the origins of commercial aviation through the U.S. Post Office in the early 20th Century. That model would now be applied to the space industry. Griffin said:

If we can do this, we will be able to change the paradigm for transportation services to be more in line with the air mail service of the 1920s, meeting the logistics needs of the ISS, some 7,000 to 10,000 kilograms per year, after the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010. In the process, we may be able to spur innovation for low-cost access to space. This is a carefully considered investment with known risks that we can all see and appreciate, but with a potentially huge upside that makes it well worth the risks.

SpaceX received one of the first commercial contracts to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, even though the company had yet to successfully launch a rocket, much less a cargo ship.

A little more than two minutes after launch today here on the Space Coast, SpaceX lost its seventh commercial cargo flight to the ISS. A tweet by Elon Musk suggested a problem with the upper stage:

In less than a year, both commercial cargo companies have lost vehicles. Orbital ATK lost its third Cygnus flight last October when an engine on its Antares rocket failed. For now, NASA is without a domestic means of ISS cargo delivery.

But this is why the commercial cargo program was created. Failure must be an option if we are to progress. As Michael Griffin said in October 2006, the “potentially huge upside” makes it worth the risk.

Fourteen lives were lost during the Space Shuttle program due to two accidents. In the 1970s, the United States chose to put people on cargo ships, while the Soviet Union simply developed a robotic cargo ship. The first Progress flew in 1978. Although Progress ships have failed from time to time — most recently, on April 28 — no lives were lost. The Soviet Union and Russia have not had a space fatality since 1971.

Today's incident is a tragedy, but as with Cygnus no lives were lost.

SpaceX critics will point to the perfect flight record to date by rival United Launch Alliance, but it's unfair to compare the two. ULA was created as a legal monopoly in 2006 after Boeing and Lockheed Martin claimed there wasn't enough guaranteed government business to keep their production lines open. So ULA was formed, and for years the Department of Defense granted ULA bulk-buy contracts with little public explanation for the costs.

If not for SpaceX disrupting the launch industry, commercial satellite launches would still be going to overseas competitors because ULA costs too much. Since December 2013, seven commercial satellites have launched on Falcon 9 boosters from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The last time ULA launched a commercial satellite from the Cape was 2009.

Overlooked in today's reporting is the implication that commercial satellite launches might also halt until the upper stage anomaly is resolved. The ambitious SpaceX manifest will have to wait for the foreseeable future.

In his September 12, 1962 Rice University speech, President John F. Kennedy described the Apollo human lunar spaceflight program as “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” Lives would be lost. Technology would fail. He warned us it would not be easy. It would be hard.

Humanity reached the Moon in 1969, yet failures and fatalities still happen. They always will.

Today I met a 12-year old from a Colorado middle school who had an experiment aboard SpaceX CRS-7. I told her I was sorry she lost her experiment, but she was undeterred. Grinning from ear to ear, she said, "We'll build another one and do it again!"

That is what SpaceX will do. Build another one. And do it again.

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

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Going Up, Part 6

Click an image to view it at a higher resolution. All images in this article are copyright © 2015 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to

This morning I made my latest pilgrimage to shoot photos of SpaceX renovations at Pad 39A.

Most obvious are the SpaceX signs on the new horizontal hangar, and the administrative building across the street.

Below are the latest images, but here are the links to the images from earlier this year:

Going Up, Part 1 (January 31)

Going Up, Part 2 (February 24)

Going Up, Part 3 (March 29)

Going Up, Part 4 (April 27)

Going Up, Part 5 (May 26)

SpaceX CRS-7 Pre-Game Show

Click the arrow to watch the mission's science briefing. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch the mission's pre-launch briefing. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

SpaceX is scheduled to launch tomorrow its seventh Dragon cargo delivery to the International Space Station, under its contract with NASA. The instant launch window is 10:21 AM EDT.

Click here for the SpaceX/NASA CRS-7 Press Kit.

The weather forecast remains 90% favorable, with the only concern for now a violation of the cumulus cloud rule.

In addition to the two above briefings, a third is scheduled for today on the new International Docking Adapter that will be delivered by Dragon for future use by commercial crew companies. That will air on NASA TV at 2 PM EDT.

UPDATE June 27, 2015 — Here's the video of today's student science/commercial crew briefing. It's worth watching the beginning for the motivated middle school students flying an experiment aboard CRS-7.

Click the arrow to watch the briefing. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Retro Saturday: Western Aeronautical Test Range

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

The first “A” in NASA stands for Aeronautics, often overlooked by the world that thinks that the agency is only about astronauts in space.

This week's Retro Saturday is a 1988 documentary by NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California, north of San Jose. It's about the Western Aeronautical Test Range (WATR) based at Edwards Air Force Base, which is also the home to the Dryden Flight Research Center. In 2014, Dryden was renamed the Armstrong Flight Research Center after astronaut Neil Armstrong. The (WATR) was renamed the Dryden Aeronautical Test Range (DATR).

Clear as mud?

Anyway, the Range has history that precedes NASA's creation in October 1958. It was here that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. The X-15 flew here, its origins with NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). One of the X-15 pilots was some guy named Neil Armstrong ... and you thought they renamed the place because he walked on the Moon.

Tracking the X-15 required a new system dubbed the X-15 Range. Out of that evolved the WATR that would go on to service the Space Shuttle and decades of experimental aircraft.

If you're old enough to remember EGA computer monitors, you'll have a flashback watching this documentary.

Friday, June 26, 2015

NASA's Sidekick

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

Among the experiments headed to the International Space Station on the next SpaceX Dragon run is a test by Microsoft of a holographic virtual reality technology called HoloLens.

Project Sidekick would use HoloLens commercial technology to empower astronauts aboard the International Space Station. It was discussed during today's ISS science panel media event at Kennedy Space Center, which I'll post online when available.

UPDATE June 27, 2015 — The science briefing is on YouTube at this link. The Sidekick discussion is the third panel.

According to a NASA press release:

The goal of Sidekick is to enable station crews with assistance when and where they need it. This new capability could reduce crew training requirements and increase the efficiency at which astronauts can work in space.

HoloLens was demonstrated at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles earlier this month. Watch the below video to see the demonstration.

Click the arrow to watch the presentation. Video source: Kotaku YouTube channel.