Sunday, January 25, 2015

Houston Has a Solution

A September 2013 Houston Spaceport promotional film. Video source: houstonairports YouTube channel.

In July 2011, as the Space Shuttle flew for the final time, I wrote a column titled “Houston Has a Problem.” It was primarily about the whining out of Space City because it didn't receive a Space Shuttle orbiter for display.

Some locals complained that a political conspiracy by the Obama administration had denied them an orbiter, even though more objective local observers noted that Houston's proposal lacked detail and committed funding. An August 2011 NASA Office of Inspector General report found no evidence that the White House had intervened in the site selection, but NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said that “many members of Congress, as well as state and local elected officials, tried to influence his decision through personal phone calls, letters, and comments they made to the media. Bolden also said he was contacted by family members of the Columbia crew who died in 2003 and by the candidate organizations themselves.” Sixteen members of the Texas Congressional delegation wrote a letter to Bolden complaining about the “Houston Shuttle snub” and Houston-area Rep. Pete Olson introduced legislation hoping to force NASA to give Houston one of the orbiters if another site's development failed.

Former Space Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale wrote in his April 14, 2011 blog article:

... Houston is blasé about the shuttles. Houston and Texas have come to regard NASA and JSC as entitlements. We deserve JSC and the shuttle just because of who we are.

More than three years later, it appears that some in Houston have figured out that they have to compete in the real world just like the rest of us.

KPRC-TV Channel 2 in Houston reported on January 22 about the comment period about to end for a proposal to certify Houston's Ellington Field as a commercial spaceport.

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The Houston Airport promotional film released in September 2013 is a CGI fantasy of launch vehicles that could be flying from Ellington, such as the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft that could also fly from Kennedy Space Center, and the Virgin Galactic satellite launch system.

The video falsely claims that “All of manned flight, every one of them, has been managed, has been controlled, has been guided from Houston.” Mario Diaz, the Director of the Houston Airport System who made the false statement, apparently never heard of the Russian and Chinese human space flight programs. Here in the United States, all six Project Mercury missions were “managed” and “controlled” from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, as well as the first crewed Gemini flight.

Falsehoods aside, at least the captains of Houstonian industry seem finally to be grasping that the days of entitlement are over. You have to earn it like everyone else.

It also means that Space Coast leadership, which also believed in entitlement up to the end of the Space Shuttle program, need to step up their game. Space Florida works to arrange commercial tenants for Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but still faces bureaucratic obstacles from those who guard their personal fiefdoms at the Cape.

Instead of fighting each other for scraps of federal pork, the elected officials that represent Texas and Florida should be working together to assure that all commercial spaceports in the United States are free to compete for private sector customers. Not only will the best site win, but it also assures that the rest of the world will come back to the United States as we pioneer a new economy based on reaping the rewards of cheaper access to space.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Retro Saturday: The Versatile T-38

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

Ever since the early 1960s, NASA astronauts have flown Northrop T-38 Talons to maintain their flight proficiency and travel from one assignment to another.

This week's Retro Saturday is a circa 1962 nine-minute Northrop Corporation documentary on the T-38. It focuses largely on U.S. Air Force use, but does mention it's also used by NASA.

This 2011 NASA article discusses the T-38's use as a trainer and a Shuttle chase plane.

Four 1960s-era NASA astronauts died in T-38 accidents.

In October 1964, Theodore Freeman was killed upon approach to Ellington AFB in Houston when a bird strike disabled a port-side engine.

In February 1966, Elliot See and Charles Bassett died when they crashed into the McDonnell Aircraft building in St. Louis where their Gemini 9 capsule was being assembled.

In October 1967, Clifton Williams crashed near Tallahassee, Florida due to a mechanical failure. He'd departed Patrick AFB in Cocoa Beach an hour earlier. He'd been projected as the Lunar Module pilot with Pete Conrad on what would eventually become the Apollo 12 mission.

More on the T-38 at the Northrop Grumman T-38 Talon web page.

This September 2007 image shows two NASA T-38s flying in formation at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB. Image source: NASA.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Moon Express Prizes the Cape

Promotional film of a December 2014 test flight at Kennedy Space Center. Video source: Moon Express YouTube channel.

Florida Today broke the story late last night that Moon Express is about to lease the Cape's Pad 36 through a deal with state agency Space Florida.

Moon Express is the first entrepreneurial “new space” company to commit to a significant presence at the Cape without a major government contract in hand. If it is successful, it would help diversify the area's space industry beyond its traditional base of NASA and Air Force contractors working on big rocket programs.

An initial group of 25 to 50 employees will include some relocating from the company's headquarters at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, and an office in Huntsville, Alabama. Among them is Tim Pickens, lead designer of the engine for SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed craft to put people in space in 2004.

They will also include local hires, potentially building up to a team of 100 or 200 employees here, ranging from machine shop workers to spacecraft engineers.

Moon Express is a participant in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. According to the Google web site:

To win the grand prize ($20 million), private teams (with no more than 10% in government funding) must:

  • Land a robot safely on the Moon
  • Move 500 meters on, above, or below the Moon’s surface; and
  • Send back HDTV Mooncasts for everyone to enjoy

. . . and this must all be completed before the December 31st, 2015 deadline! There are other prizes, too, for missions like surviving the lunar night and visiting an Apollo site.

Last month, Google announced the deadline had been extended to the end of 2016. “As part of this revised timeline, at least one team must provide documentation of a scheduled launch by December 31, 2015 for all teams to move forward in the competition,” according to a Google press release.

Moon Express has yet to announce a launch date or vehicle, although their web site states that, “The spacecraft is designed to ride to Earth orbit on low cost secondary payload opportunities aboard commercial launchers like the SpaceX Falcon 9 that are radically reducing the cost of access to space.”

SpaceX currently launches the Falcon 9 from the Cape's Pad 40, but the company hopes to have Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A operational by the end of this year for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches.

Presumably the symbolism of launching the robotic lunar lander from the same pad that sent all six Apollo crews to the surface of the Moon isn't lost upon Moon Express or SpaceX.

Launch Complex 36 was the site of all seven launches in the NASA Surveyor program that attempted to place robotic probes on the lunar surface to demonstrate the feasibility of crewed soft landings. Five of the seven probes launched between 1966 to 1968 successfully landed. The Apollo 12 crew visited the landing site of Surveyor 3 and brought back several components.

Apollo 12 commander with Surveyor 3 on the Moon, November 20, 1969. Click the image for a larger version. Image source: NASA.

Earlier this month, Florida Today reported that SpaceX is about to formally lease the Cape's Pad 13 for future landings by its reusable Falcon 9 boosters.

UPDATE January 22, 2015 7:00 PM ESTMoon Express issued this release today officially announcing its agreement with Space Florida.

Moon Express and Space Florida have signed an agreement that will lead to Moon Express spacecraft development and flight test operations at SLC-36 starting early this year. The agreement allows Moon Express and the state of Florida to make investments into the refurbishment of SLC-36, leading to a revitalized range and the immediate creation of 25-50 new jobs and potentially hundreds of direct and indirect new jobs over the next 5 years. Moon Express will be making an initial capital investment of up to $500K into SLC-36, which will allow initial operations to transfer over from the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility where the company's MTV-1X vehicle has been undergoing flight testing in partnership with NASA under the Lunar CATALYST program. It is anticipated that capital investments will grow into the millions, some of which may become eligible for reimbursement through the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) matching funds program.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Elon Musk Plans Space Internet

Click the arrow to watch today's Seattle event. Video source: Cliff O YouTube channel.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has often fretted about the dangers of artificial intelligence, but he plans to bring humanity one step closer to the Skynet of Terminator fame with his proposal to build a global satellite Internet project.

As reported by Space News:

Elon Musk on Jan. 16 said SpaceX has submitted to international regulators the necessary documentation for a global satellite Internet project to eventually include some 4,000 satellites in low Earth orbit and initial service within five years ...

Musk did not provide a name for his satellite project, and there was no immediate way to verify what he or SpaceX have submitted to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Geneva-based United Nations agency that regulates orbital slots and radio spectrum. Also unclear is what radio frequencies the SpaceX network would used to deliver broadband from low Earth orbit.

“There’s multiple elements to the regulatory things,” Musk said in answer to a question during an invitation-only speech in Seattle announcing the creation of the SpaceX satellite factory there. “There’s the ITU filings and we’ve done the filings associated with that.”

Musk held a private event Friday evening January 16 in Seattle to court engineers who were potential hires, although local politicians were also in attendance.

With him was a flown SpaceX Dragon, which went on temporary display over the weekend at the city's Museum of Flight.

A flown SpaceX Dragon on temporary display in Seattle. Image source: Seattle Times.

Business Week published an exclusive interview with Musk that provided some detail for the project.

The Space Internet venture, to which Musk hasn’t yet given a name, would be hugely ambitious. Hundreds of satellites would orbit about 750 miles above earth, much closer than traditional communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit at altitudes of up to 22,000 miles. The lower satellites would make for a speedier Internet service, with less distance for electromagnetic signals to travel. The lag in current satellite systems makes applications such as Skype, online gaming, and other cloud-based services tough to use. Musk’s service would, in theory, rival fiber optic cables on land while also making the Internet available to remote and poor regions that don’t have access.

In Musk’s vision, Internet data packets going from, say, Los Angeles to Johannesburg would no longer have to go through dozens of routers and terrestrial networks. Instead, the packets would go to space, bouncing from satellite to satellite until they reach the one nearest their destination, then return to an antenna on earth. “The speed of light is 40 percent faster in the vacuum of space than it is for fiber,” Musk says. “The long-term potential is to be the primary means of long-distance Internet traffic and to serve people in sparsely populated areas.”

A related unconfirmed report is circulating on the Internet that Silicon Valley-based Google may provide a $1 billion for the SpaceX satellite project.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Google Inc. is close to investing roughly $1 billion in Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to support its nascent efforts to deliver Internet access via satellites, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The investment would value SpaceX, backed by Tesla Motors Inc. Chief Executive Elon Musk, at more than $10 billion, according to this person. It isn’t clear what exact stake Google could end up with in the fast-growing space company.

If Google completes the deal, it would be the Internet company’s latest effort to use futuristic technology to spread Internet access to remote regions of the world, alongside high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones. By extending Web access, Google increases the number of people who can use its services.

Elon Musk poses as Dr. Evil. Just sayin'.

UPDATE January 20, 2015 5:30 PM ESTSpaceX issued this press release today announcing Google and Fidelity as new investors.

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has raised a billion dollars in a financing round with two new investors, Google and Fidelity. They join existing investors Founders Fund, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Valor Equity Partners and Capricorn. Google and Fidelity will collectively own just under 10% of the company.

SpaceX designs, manufactures, and launches the world's most advanced rockets and spacecraft. This funding will be used to support continued innovation in the areas of space transport, reusability, and satellite manufacturing.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Retro Saturday: Assignment: Shoot the Moon

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

Our Retro Saturday films the last two weeks have focused (no pun intended) on documentaries about 1960s NASA programs to photograph the Moon in preparation for a human lunar landing.

We wrap that series with a 25½-minute 1967 NASA film called Assignment: Shoot the Moon. It covers Project Ranger and the Surveyor lander programs, but much of it focuses (pun intended, this time) on the pictures returned by Lunar Orbiter.