Friday, April 29, 2016

Let's Make a Deal

This editorial cartoon by Steve Hall appeared in the April 25, 2016 Florida Today.

Florida Today reports that the SpaceX bid for its first national security mission came in at forty percent below what the U.S. Air Force anticipated.

Reporter James Dean writes:

SpaceX has slashed the going rate for launches of Global Positioning Systems satellites, highlighting the challenge United Launch Alliance faces as it is forced to compete for some national security missions.

SpaceX’s winning bid of $82.7 million for a GPS III launch, announced Wednesday, was 40 percent below what the Air Force had estimated the mission might cost, a senior Air Force official said Thursday.

The deal emerged from the first contract opened to competition by the Air Force in more than a decade, a period during which only ULA was certified to perform such launches.

But apparently unable to approach SpaceX’s price, ULA chose not to bid for the GPS III mission last fall, scuttling the promised competition.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Space Invaders

Giovanni Schiaparelli's map of Mars, compiled over the period 1877-1886. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA.

Exploring Mars has been a passion for humanity ever since primates looked up and wondered what were the moving lights in the sky.

19th Century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli mapped continents and seas on Mars, based on what he saw through his telescope primitive by today's standards. He saw “channels” on Mars, which in Italian he named canali, but that was mistranslated into English as “canals.” The difference? A channel is natural. A canal is artificial.

Someone built the canal.

Inspired by the notion, wealthy American astronomer Percival Lowell chose to build an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. This was in 1894, when Mars would make its periodic closest approach to Earth, called opposition.

The overenthusiastic Lowell soon announced his discovery of canals and oases on Mars. He claimed he'd seen artificial channels diverting water so a dying civilization might survive.

An 1895 illustration of Percival Lowell's Mars canals. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: The Planetary Society.

Other astronomers couldn't verify his observations, but the notion found its way into popular culture.

H.G. Wells published in 1898 The War of the Worlds, about first London and then the world under siege from parched Martian invaders. Wells wrote this description of the planet:

Its air is much more attenuated than ours, its oceans have shrunk until they cover but a third of its surface, and as its slow seasons change huge snowcaps gather and melt about either pole and periodically inundate its temperate zones. That last stage of exhaustion, which to us is still incredibly remote, has become a present-day problem for the inhabitants of Mars.

Wells referred to the 1894 opposition in his opening paragraphs:

During the opposition of 1894 a great light was seen on the illuminated part of the disk, first at the Lick Observatory, then by Perrotin of Nice, and then by other observers. English readers heard of it first in the issue of Nature dated August 2. I am inclined to think that this blaze may have been the casting of the huge gun, in the vast pit sunk into their planet, from which their shots were fired at us. Peculiar markings, as yet unexplained, were seen near the site of that outbreak during the next two oppositions.

A young Edgar Rice Burroughs, living in Chicago, was influenced by Chicago Tribune reporting on Lowell's findings. Burroughs' Barsoom series of Mars novels beginning in 1912 was inspired by Lowell's work.

Ray Bradbury's 1950 tale The Martian Chronicles was also influenced by Lowell's romantic vision of a desert planet criss-crossed by canals. This time, the invaders were humans fleeing a troubled Earth, displacing native Martians.

1989 cover art by Michael Whelan titled “Descent” for a reprint of Ray Bradbury's 1950 “The Martian Chronicles.”

Three years later, George Pal's version of The War of The Worlds premiered on American silver screens. Earth once again was on the receiving end of the invasion, only this time the Martians land somewhere near Corona, about fifty miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Chesley Bonestell art in the film's opening sequence depicted a nearly frozen Martian city with canals receding to the horizon.

The trailer for the 1953 film “The War of the Worlds.” Video source: Paramount Movies YouTube channel.

At the end of the 20th Century, author Kim Stanley Robinson published his Mars trilogy. In the first novel, Red Mars published in 1993, one hundred people set forth in 2026 on a multinational colony ship for Mars. (The colony ship is comprised of modified and linked Space Shuttle external tanks!). No Martians. No canals. No life.

And that becomes the conundrum, because an overarching theme through the trilogy is the preservation of Mars wilderness. The planet's purity was defiled by first human robotic probes, then the arrival of the first humans, and now permanent colonists. Terraforming of Mars is debated to its extremes. Should the planet go “Green” or remain “Red”? Is there any point to preserving Mars' natural state now that humans have established a base? Or should a line be drawn?
The paperback book covers for Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy.

Robinson's philosophical deliberation came to mind when SpaceX and Elon Musk broke the Internet again with these April 27 tweets:

We all know that Mr. Musk's estimates are notoriously optimistic. He likes to challenge his employees with impossible targets.

This one is driven by orbital mechanics.

The prime launch windows for Mars missions are driven by opposition. The closer the planets, the less travel time and the less propellant required for the mission.

According to Universe Today, the next opposition will occur on July 27, 2018. The distance between the two planets will be 57.6 million kilometers (35.8 million miles). That's one of the closest oppositions in modern times; according to the article, the closest was in 2003, at a distance of 56 million kilometers.

The next opposition will be on October 13, 2020. That distance will be 62.1 million kilometers (38.6 million miles).

No wonder Elon is in a hurry.

NASA has released an amended copy of its unfunded Space Act Agreement with SpaceX. The original agreement was dated December 18, 2014. This copy was amended on April 26, 2016, the day before the SpaceX tweets. The agency will provide SpaceX with technical assistance and access to its deep space telemetry network. SpaceX agrees to share with NASA all its research. No money changes hands.

While NASA struggles to meet a November 2018 target date for launching its Space Launch System rocket Orion capsule on an uncrewed test flight around the Moon, SpaceX may have an uncrewed version of its Red Dragon on the way to Mars — at no cost to NASA.

Political implications abound.

How will the members of Congress who zealously protect SLS continue to rationalize the billions in pork wasted on the program, when SpaceX does it decades earlier for far cheaper?

Even if SpaceX misses the 2018 window, new Mars windows open in the fall of 2020, late 2022 and early 2025. SLS won't have its first crewed SLS flight until about 2022, and that will be a loop of the Orion capsule around the Moon. If SpaceX misses the 2018 window, it's very likely they'll make 2020. By then, commercial crew Dragons will be flying to the International Space Station, proving the ship's worthiness.

It's not too much of a stretch to foresee crews from NASA and other nations aboard a Red Dragon for the 2022 flight, perhaps for a rendezvous with a Bigelow Aerospace habitat. That could be a demonstration of how Robinson's colony ship might be assembled and utilized with today's technologies.

I'll be watching to see if Congressional porkers try to pass legislation forbidding the private sector from landing on Mars.

They might use Robinson's “Red Mars” as an argument.

Senior Editor Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society tweeted this comment on the Red Dragon announcement:

Ms. Lakdawalla doesn't oppose the mission, but Mars' “pristine” state might be an excuse for SLS porkers to try blocking the mission. The hypocrisy, of course, would be that they'd still be all in favor of a government vehicle doing the mission. But they could claim that the SLS goal of late 2030s for the first NASA landing would allow time for more robotic missions to collect and return “pristine” samples. All those SLS contractors, meanwhile, could cool their heels collecting taxpayer dollars, secure in the knowledge that Congress won't expect them to actually do anything for some time to come.

It's a ridiculous scenario, but the Senate Appropriations Committee just voted to cut funding for Mars landing technology programs to boost the SLS Fiscal Year 2017 budget by $800 million — even though NASA didn't request the money. The chair of the panel's space subcommittee is Richard Shelby (R-AL), a four-time Porker of the Month award winner whose state has the NASA center designing SLS.

Still think it's ridiculous?

Under the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, signatory nations are responsible for commercial space activities in their countries. Article VI states:

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty. When activities are carried on in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, by an international organization, responsibility for compliance with this Treaty shall be borne both by the international organization and by the States Parties to the Treaty participating in such organization.

As I read that, it could be interpreted as allowing another nation to fly crew on Red Dragon if the U.S. refuses to participate. But the U.S. could block the launch from its territory. So this could get ugly.

In any case, Lakdawalla raises a concern that was heard in the early 1960s after President John F. Kennedy proposed the human lunar spaceflight program on May 25, 1961. Project Ranger spacecraft had to be sterlized by baking them, which may have caused several technical failures with early missions.

For decades, it was thought that Surveyor 3 carried microbes that survived sterlization and then landed on the Moon. That was debunked in May 2011. Researchers examining Surveyor 3 parts returned by the Apollo 12 crew apparently contaminated the parts themselves.

All that sterilization didn't matter once the Apollo astronauts arrived. They left 96 bags of bodily wastes on the Moon at their landing sites, to reduce launch weight. So much for purity.

With Elon Musk in a rush to make the July 2018 launch window, another race against time will be to stay one step of Congress, which may try to find a way to ground Red Dragon.

The Martians in The War of the Worlds weren't concerned about Earth bugs. Contamination killed the space invaders. Should we return the favor?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Garver Unchained, Part IV

July 8, 2009 ... Nominated NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver have their consent hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Image source: NASA.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver published an opinion column in Space News today that finally pulls back the veil on the early days of the Obama administration when the botched Constellation program met its demise.

Garver's column, titled “Transition Fever,” at face value offers advice to the future teams working on the transition to the next presidential administration.

The meat of the article is the starkest revelation yet of how the Republican administration leading NASA in late 2008 and early 2009 all but refused to cooperate with the incoming team when it came to evaluating Constellation.

I've written many times over the years about Constellation's mismanagement and budget busting, such as this September 2015 column. In April 2008, GAO Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management Cristina Chaplain testified to Congress about Constellation's Orion capsule and its Ares I booster:

... [T]here are considerable unknowns as to whether NASA’s plans for these vehicles can be executed within schedule goals and what these efforts will ultimately cost. This is primarily because NASA is still in the process of defining many performance requirements. Such uncertainties could affect the mass, loads, and weight requirements for the vehicles. NASA is aiming to complete this process in 2008, but it will be challenged to do so given the level of knowledge that still needs to be attained.

Chaplain testified, “In fact, we do not know yet whether the architecture and design solutions selected by NASA will work as intended.”

July 31, 2008 ... An Orion parachute test fails in Arizona. Image source: NASA.

In today's column, Garver writes that when the Obama team met with the Bush-era NASA executive leadership running Constellation, they were stonewalled.

The Ares launch vehicle team came up from Huntsville and brought a slickly produced video to describe their program. The Orion team from Houston was only slightly more informative. I had sought the counsel of Sally Ride, who led Bill Clinton’s NASA transition in 1992, and she mentioned that the Aerospace Corp. was working on an analysis of the Ares program and she helped arrange for us to get a briefing from them. After a 20-minutes introductory briefing on the Aerospace Corp., our briefers concluded without sharing any details from their Ares study. Our detailed questions were met with nervousness and little eye contact. We later learned that NASA leadership had heard about our planned meeting and preemptively told them not to share the Ares results with us.

Later in the article, Garver continues:

NASA programs that are on track, on budget and providing great value are very likely to continue to be supported. But as I said to Mike Griffin in late 2008, you are asking us to buy a car without looking under the hood. That posture in 2008 led us to initiate the Augustine Committee, which confirmed Constellation was unsustainable.

Garver doesn't mention that, while the Augustine review was under way, the GAO issued yet another critical audit in August 2009. The report began:

NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case — including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time — needed to justify moving the Constellation program forward into the implementation phase.

The audit cited “a poorly phased funding plan that runs the risk of funding shortfalls in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. This approach has limited NASA’s ability to mitigate technical risks early in development and precludes the orderly ramp up of work force and developmental activities.”

The report cited several design challenges with Orion and Ares I.

To this day, some politicians on Capitol Hill and others associated with Constellation still express outrage that the Obama administration did the right thing by cancelling this boondoggle program.

Members of Congress representing NASA space centers and “OldSpace” contractors replaced Constellation with Space Launch System, which as predicted by many observers is quickly turning into another boondoggle. The 2010 legislation imposing SLS on NASA required the agency to use Space Shuttle and Constellation contractors, and those programs' technologies where possible, to protect the OldSpace workforce. That's why SLS critics call it the Senate Launch System.

Before Garver joined the Obama election campaign in July 2008, she worked originally for Hillary Clinton's presidential bid. Garver currently is unattached to any candidate; she serves as general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association. Several observers, including me, think it's reasonable to assume that a 2017 Clinton White House might recruit Garver for a space-related post.

All of we space policy pundits will be watching to see if the next administration is willing to call out SLS for what it is, as did Garver and others eight years ago.

Prior “Garver Unchained” articles:

Garver Unchained September 10, 2013

Garver Unchained, Part II January 3, 2014

Garver Unchained, Part III December 4, 2014

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Orbital ATK Looks at VAB

A 2012 ATK promotional video for Liberty. Video source: atk YouTube channel.

NASA issued a press release today announcing negotiations with Orbital ATK to use Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building and a mobile launch platform.

NASA has selected Orbital ATK Inc. of Dulles, Virginia, to begin negotiations on an agreement to use High Bay 2 in the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The prospective property use agreement, which also will include a mobile launcher platform, reflects Kennedy’s transformation to a multi-user spaceport supporting both government and commercial organizations.

“Over the past few years, the people of Kennedy have worked diligently to transform the center. We are now a true multi-user spaceport supporting a variety of different partners successfully,” said Bob Cabana, Kennedy director. “We look forward to working with Orbital ATK in the future to help expand the capabilities of this unique, historic asset.”

NASA will remain the primary user of the VAB for the Space Launch System and Orion programs. If an agreement is negotiated, NASA will act as the overall site operator for the facility.

The potential agreement is the result of a competitive Announcement for Proposals the agency released in June 2015.

The June 2015 press release clarifies the mobile launcher in question would be one of the three originals from the 1960s, not the new tower for Space Launch System.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida has released an announcement for proposals (AFP) for private companies interested in using its Vehicle Assembly Building, High Bay 2 (VAB HB2) for assembly, integration and testing of launch vehicles.

In addition to VAB HB2, the center has three Mobile Launcher Platforms (MLPs) available for reuse in commercial space operations. This announcement supports Kennedy’s transformation to a multi-user spaceport that effectively utilizes assets identified in the center’s 20-year Master Plan.

James Dean of Florida Today broke the story earlier today. Orbital is interested in using the facility for a potential future military launch vehicle.

Pairing a solid-fueled booster with a liquid-fueled upper stage provided by Blue Origin, Orbital ATK’s proposed rocket aims to win Air Force certification to launch national security missions for which only ULA and SpaceX are now eligible to compete.

Orbital ATK says the large rocket would not displace the company’s smaller Antares rocket launched from Wallops Island, Virginia.

The Air Force earlier this year awarded Orbital ATK $47 million to study its new rocket concept as part of a broader program developing domestic alternatives to the Russian RD-180 engine flown by ULA’s Atlas V rocket, which launches most U.S. military missions.

SpaceX, ULA and Aerojet Rocketdyne also won contracts to study new propulsion systems.

Though not fully defined, Orbital ATK’s concept echoes the Liberty rocket that ATK — prior to its 2014 merger with Orbital Sciences — proposed for launches of International Space Station cargo and crews.

Liberty was a ham-handed attempt by ATK in 2012 to win a NASA commercial crew contract, even though it hadn't participated in earlier rounds of competition like other bidders. The artist's concepts showed Liberty using KSC's existing infrastructure, hoping the government agency would subsidize their use to give the legacy architecture a purpose. That strategy failed.

2012 conceptual images of the ATK Liberty. Original source: ATK via

The Liberty design proposed using a single-stage solid rocket booster similar to the cancelled Constellation Ares I. The independent Government Accountability Office issued a report in August 2009 concluding that Constellation lacked “a sound business case.” The report found “significant technical and design challenges” with Ares I, including vibration during launch and the risk of hitting the launch tower during liftoff. Unlike a liquid-fueled booster, a solid-fueled stage cannot be turned off once lit.

When ATK didn't get a commercial crew contract, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), whose district includes ATK, alleged that President Obama and NASA Administrator Bolden conspired to give one contract to SpaceX due to a supposed personal relationship with founder Elon Musk. Bishop provided no evidence, of course, just a smear.

Despite promises to press on, in January 2013 an ATK official stated the company would not proceed with Liberty unless it received $300 million in external funding from a government agency, either the United States or overseas.

ATK and Orbital Sciences announced in April 2014 that the two companies would merge, a marriage consummated in February 2015.

Solid-fueled boosters are not used by any commercial launch company, to my knowledge, anywhere on Planet Earth. To quote from the Aerospace Corporation web site:

Liquid- and solid-fuel rockets each have special capabilities, advantages, and applications. For military purposes the “rifle-readiness” of solid rocket motors gives them an advantage over liquid rockets. There is no need to lose the precious minutes required for fueling liquid propellants with a solid motor.

Liquid rockets are often preferred for space missions because of their more efficient use of propellants. Because of their high thrust and simplicity, however, solid-fuel rockets are also used with space launch vehicles. Some launch vehicles, such as the space shuttle, combine both liquid engines and solid motors.

The Space Shuttle design in the early 1970s went with solid-fueled boosters to reduce cost, not necessarily because they were preferable for human spaceflight.

NASA's current Space Launch System must use ATK solid rocket boosters on its first two flights because that design was mandated by Congress in 2010 when it created SLS. NASA was required by Congress to use existing Shuttle and Constellation technology and contractors, where possible. No other nation uses solids to launch people.

Liberty, in my opinion, was an attempt by an OldSpace company to get the government to pay for its commercial spaceflight operations. That attempt failed. This new effort sounds like another attempt to get the government to subsidize the company's operations, this time for a military launch vehicle.

More affordable and less dangerous options are available with other commercial companies.

So I won't be holding my breath waiting for Franken-Liberty to roll out of High Bay 2 any time soon.

OneWeb to Join Them All

Click the arrow to watch the WKMG-TV Channel 6 Orlando report of the media event.

After months of rumors, OneWeb and Space Florida finally announced on April 19 that the startup small satellite company will establish operations at Kennedy Space Center's Exploration Park.

OneWeb is a partnership of Virgin Galactic and Airbus, among other major corporate investors.

A June 2015 OneWeb Constellation promotional film. Video source: Airbus Defence and Space YouTube channel.

James Dean of Florida Today reports:

A state-of-the-art factory opening next year at Kennedy Space Center will put the Space Coast at the forefront of a new type of space business: mass production of satellites.

OneWeb Satellites on Tuesday confirmed plans to crank out as many as 15 small communications spacecraft a week from its assembly line, work expected to create 250 jobs in the 120,000 square foot facility to be built in KSC’s Exploration Park on Merritt Island.

That’s a blazing pace in an industry that typically takes months to put together large communications satellites that may cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Satellites today are really manufactured in artisan way: It’s labor intense, very hands on, and it takes a long time,” said Brian Holz, CEO of OneWeb Satellites. “We’re going to build one in an 8-hour shift.”

An artist's concept of the OneWeb manufacturing facility. Original image source: OneWeb.

OneWeb founder Greg Wyler told WKMG-TV that some of what they call “microsats” could be launched from Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne system using KSC's former Space Shuttle runway.

In October 2015, Virgin Galactic received a contract from NASA's Venture Class Launch Services program to demonstrate its ability to deploy a smallsat into orbit. According to the press release, that demonstration flight will occur at the Mojave Air & Space Port.

Click the arrow to watch the LauncherOne promotional film. Video source: Virgin Galactic YouTube channel.

OneWeb intends to create a space Internet with a global constellation of its microsats. The necessary orbits and trajectories will require launches from around the world. In the WKMG interview, Wyler mentioned the Russian launch site in Baiknour, Khazakhstan and the European Space Agency launch site near the equator in Kourou, French Guiana as other locations the company may use.

For Space Florida, OneWeb is the second major tenant to move into Exploration Park. In September 2015, Blue Origin announced its plans to establish operations at the site.

Before that, the state agency had failed for more than five years to find an anchor tenant for the site, after groundbreaking in June 2010.

Click the arrow to watch the Exploration Park media event. Video source: CCI321 YouTube channel.