Monday, November 30, 2015

Crystal Clear

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

Dr. Paul Reichert is an associate principal scientist with Merck, an American pharmaceutical company. He's one of the most outspoken proponents of microgravity pharmaceutical research aboard the International Space Station.

Dr. Reichert's specialty is the field of crystalline biologics. He lectures on the subject at NewSpace events, such as the 2014 International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight.

On November 24, NASA's Space Station Live featured the above interview with Dr. Reichert. He explains how production of chemical treatments in microgravity could lead to eliminating intravenous treatments on Earth.

Click the arrow to watch a Merck promotional film about Dr. Reichert. Video source: Merck YouTube channel.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Has SLS Slipped to 2020?

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

I've written many times this year about how, despite insistence by the NASA bureaucracy that the Space Launch System will fly its first uncrewed test flight in 2018, informal remarks by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden have suggested it will be later.

Bolden testified before Congress in March that although SLS itself may be ready by late 2018, the Orion capsule it's to launch won't be ready until “sometime after 2018, to be precise.”

In September, two NASA executives were a bit evasive about when the first test flight, called Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, might actually launch. During a media teleconference, they insisted the actual EM-1 launch date wasn't important because people wouldn't be on board. The true important date they said was for EM-2, the first with people, which they announced was slipping into the 2021-2023 time frame.

NASA announced in late October that Orion had completed its Critical Design Review, but did not indicate if it was on schedule for late 2018. The press release simply stated, “The results of this review, known as a Critical Design Review, at the Program level will be briefed to agency leaders in the coming months.”

Earlier this month, NASA announced on November 19 that a coating would need to be applied to the Orion shell's heat shield tiles to protect it during re-entry.

For these future Orion missions, a silver, metallic-based thermal control coating will also be bonded to the crew module’s thermal protection system back shell tiles. The coating, similar to what is used on the main heat shield, will reduce heat loss during phases when Orion is pointed to space and therefore experiencing cold temperatures, as well as limit the high temperatures the crew module will be subjected to when the spacecraft faces the sun. The coating will help Orion’s back shell maintain a temperature range from approximately -150 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit prior to entry and also will protect against electrical surface charges in space and during re-entry.

The release did not state if this coating will delay the Orion schedule.

The latest hint that the launch date may slip comes from a video NASA released on November 24. Administrator Bolden was interviewed by a nine-year old who wants to be a reporter. The complete interview is above. Bolden says at the 1:25 mark:

... It's going to be the largest rocket we've ever built, and then it's going to carry on top of it a capsule that will have the crew, and that capsule is called Orion. Orion flew for the first time last year with no people in it, very successfully, so we're hoping to launch that sometime in the 2018 to 2020 timeframe.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What Goes Up ...

Click the arrow to watch a Blue Origin promotional film of the New Shepard landing. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

Blue Origin released a film yesterday depicting the successful landing of its New Shepard suborbital booster.

Although the company eventually intends to offer orbital launch services from Cape Canaveral, its first step will be suborbital adventure tourism at its west Texas launch site.

The New Shepard system is a reusable booster topped by a reusable capsule. It's designed to deploy the capsule at the internationally defined edge of space, 100 kilometers or 62 miles.

Once the capsule separates, the six participants feel weightlessness for about four minutes before gravity returns the capsule to Earth with a parachuted landing.

The booster is designed to descend through the atmosphere and steer to a powered vertical landing at its launch pad.

Other companies plan to offer suborbital tourism, with different designs.

Among the more prominent companies are Virgin Galactic and XCOR.

The Virgin Galactic WhiteKnightTwo carrier and its SpaceShipTwo crew plane. Image source: Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic uses a mother ship launching from a runway to carry the passenger ship to a high altitude. The crew vehicle is dropped, then its rocket engines take the seven passengers to the edge of space before returning to the runway.

In October 2014, the SpaceShipTwo ship VSS Enterprise was destroyed during a test flight when the co-pilot apparently prematurely deployed the feathering system.

The XCOR Lynx Mark I. Image source: XCOR.

The XCOR Lynx is a two-crew rocket plane, a professional pilot and paying passenger. The rocket engine would launch the crew to the edge of space, be weightless for five minues, then glide back to a landing at the runway. The adventure would last about thirty minutes. XCOR bills the Lynx as “the world’s first Instantly Reusable Launch Vehicle (I- RLV).”

XCOR announced November 25 that two company founders were “stepping back from their current positions” to “turn their attention to pursue other interests.”

Although some media have compared the Blue Origin achievement to attempts by rival SpaceX to return a first stage booster, the Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) is more akin to the McDonnell Douglas DC-X Delta Clipper tests in the 1990s.

A July 7, 1995 DC-X test flight at White Sands, New Mexico. Video source: Samuel Coniglio YouTube channel.

The highest altitude reached by Delta Clipper was 10,300 feet or 3,100 meters.

According to an August 2010 Air & Space article, “Several DC-X engineers are involved in Blue Origin, the commercial space project funded by’s Jeff Bezos.” The article noted that two other companies, Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace, had successfully demonstrated VTOL technology.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver comments November 24 on the Blue Origin achievement. Video source: Bloomberg Business.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

It's Who You Know

James Dean of Florida Today reports that “Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana and other senior leaders were more involved than previously disclosed in illegal spaceport hires that may still be subject to federal investigation, according to records FLORIDA TODAY obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.”

Auditors found the hires of three administrative assistants supporting Cabana and two other high-ranking officials on the fourth floor of KSC headquarters suggested a deliberate effort to get around federal laws requiring competition and priority consideration for certain military veterans.

The article cites emails sent by Cabana to KSC's Human Resources Director asking that lesser qualified individuals be given preference in hiring, while ignoring more qualified candidates, some of whom were military veterans entitled by law to preferential hiring.

Florida Today posted a copy of a June 12, 2014 reprimand sent to Cabana by NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. In his letter, Lightfoot wrote:

While the report identifies many failings on the part of the KSC Human Resources office in its handling of these hiring actions, the report also indicates a recurring cultural issue that exists between the HR office and many elements of KSC senior management. The HR office has lost sight of its primary professional function and seems convinced that its value to KSC is judged by its ability to please individual managers. As you know, this incident has had serious repercussions for the Agency, and for the individual managers, selectees, and passed-over candidates involved.

Florida Today reported in March 2015 that, after auditors found evidence of illegal hires, “The U.S. Office of Personnel Management's findings prompted NASA Headquarters to place KSC's Human Resources Office under special oversight for six months last year, during which it monitored and approved all hiring decisions.”

NASA said that intervention was necessary because KSC's problems, if not corrected, could have put the entire agency at risk of losing the hiring authority granted to it by OPM.

When the article was published last March, Cabana's personal involvement was not known. Here's what Cabana told reporter James Dean in March:

Cabana said everyone that KSC hired was qualified.

“The key was that there were folks that should have been on the lists in addition to them that were not,” he said.

That was the case for two secretaries and an administrative assistant hired to support Cabana, Deputy Director Janet Petro and Associate Director Kelvin Manning, all of whom are veterans.

Cabana said he interviewed the three candidates referred to him and was assured in writing that proper hiring procedures were followed.

“I'm not an expert in all the OPM rules on HR hiring,” he said. “I trust my HR director. When I tell them to do something or ask them to do something, I expect them to do it within the rules, by the book. And I assume it's being done that way.”

The new evidence obtained by Florida Today shows that Cabana himself told the H.R. director to flout the rules. According to today's article:

As a result, the final interview lists for both Cabana’s and Petro’s jobs, which had been open to all qualified U.S. citizens, included just three names: Cabana’s “primes.”

“That works,” Cabana said of the outcome in an e-mail to Anania Wetrich, Petro and another employee. “All three on both lists is the right answer.”

Lightfoot's letter concluded:

Your e-mails to the HR professionals, which focused on particular desired candidates after the recruiting process had been implemented, undoubtedly contributed to the extreme lengths that the HR office went to in order to achieve certain results. At a minimum, the e-mails show a significant lack of awareness of how statements can be perceived and contributed to the HR office's loss of focus on the competitive process. Combined with your recent discussions on performance expectations for your struggling HR office, I believe this influenced their adherence to the process and subsequent outcomes.

Elsewhere in Personnel, Keith Cowing at NASA Watch reports that disgraced former commercial crew program Ed Mango will return to Kennedy Space Center.

In December 2013, Mango pleaded guilty to a felony charge of illegally intervening in a personnel matter in which he had a financial stake.

James Dean reported on the Mango affair:

Mango admitted taking out a cash advance on his credit card to loan an undisclosed amount of money to a program colleague to hire a law firm after she was arrested in 2012 at KSC. Court records identify the colleague as “C.T.” and “Thomas.”

Candrea Thomas, a NASA public affairs officer who served as spokeswoman for the Commercial Crew Program, was the only NASA employee involved in that program who was arrested at the center at that time, NASA has confirmed.

Thomas later pleaded no contest to forging temporary driver's permits while her license was suspended because of a second drunken driving conviction.

According to his plea agreement, Mango then pressured KSC's human resources department and Center Director Bob Cabana to limit NASA's discipline against Thomas, aware that she might not be able to repay his loan if she lost her job.

Mango also contacted KSC security personnel and was critical of the decision to arrest Thomas at her office.

Human resources personnel told NASA investigators that Mango's intervention made a difference.

One official said he felt Mango tried to intimidate him, and another said the case was handled in an unprecedented manner: the cost of a two-week unpaid suspension was meted out over multiple pay periods instead of one.

Despite the guilty felony plea, the judge fined Mango only $2,000, with no prison time or probation. He was reassigned to NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. after the incident.

But he's back.

NASA Watch posted on November 20 this internal KSC email:

Subject: GFAST Lead

All, As most are aware Kathy Milon has accepted a position on a Source Board and will be leaving her position in C3 soon. I first want to express a heartfelt thanks to her for her dedication and commitment to the success of GFAST and the C3 Project; truly a great job in getting us as far as we've come. So thank-you Kathy! Ed Mango has accepted the challenge to lead the GFAS Team, with the transition to commence immediately. I know everyone will support Ed in this new assignment and we're fortunate to have someone of his experience ready to step in. This assignment will be for what's likely to be for a few months as we identify a long-term solution and phase that person in over time. Please join me in thanking Kathy and wishing her well, and welcoming Ed into his new role! Please pass this info on to your teams or forward as appropriate.

Bob Willcox

Friday, November 20, 2015

NASA's Foreign Relations

The Council on Foreign Relations in recent days hosted two panels on NASA and space exploration.

The CFR is a globally respected international relations think tank. Founded in 1921, its roots can be traced to the days after World War I when diplomats and scholars held meetings in New York City to discuss post-war policies.

According to a CFR brochure, the organization today has nearly 5,000 members, including “prominent government officials, scholars, business leaders, journalists, attorneys, educators, religious leaders, and nonprofit professionals” in the United States.

Click the arrow to watch “The Path to Mars: A Conversation with Charles F. Bolden, Jr.” on November 12, 2015.

The first panel was in New York City on November 12 with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. Titled “The Path to Mars: A Conversation With Charles F. Bolden Jr.,” the presentation was an overview of NASA's current programs with the goal of placing humans on Mars by the end of the 2030s.

Click the arrow to watch “Emerging Technology: The Future of Space” on November 19, 2015.

The second panel was in Washington, D.C. on November 19. Titled “Emerging Technology: The Future of Space” the event had three panelists — former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, space policy analyst John Logsdon, and NexGen Space LLC Charles Miller. This panel was much more oriented towards the advent of the NewSpace phenomenon. Particularly fascinating for me were the segments discussing how some NASA bureaucrats conspiring with aerospace lobbyists and Congressional staffers have tried to thwart the growth of NewSpace to protect their own turf.