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.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Congress Gets It Right

A July 2015 panel at the ISS R&D conference titled, “Viewpoints: Leveraging ISS to Enable LEO Commercialization.” Video source: ISSCASIS YouTube channel.

Despite its knack for fouling nearly every policy issue it touches, for once Congress got it right.

Both houses have approved the final version of H.R. 2262, titled the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.”

Legislation about commercial space has been passed many times over the decades. The Commercial Space Launch Act in 1984, for example, was passed “to encourage the United States private sector to provide launch vehicles and associated launch services by simplifying and expediting the issuance and transfer of commercial launch licenses and by facilitating and encouraging the utilization of Government-developed space technology.” The Commercial Space Act of 1998 established that “a priority goal of constructing the International Space Station is the economic development of Earth orbital space” by commercializing use of the International Space Station. Other commercial space language finds it way into various legislation, such as the authorization and appropriations bills that govern NASA's activities.

The “NewSpace” era of commercial space enterprise has finally arrived. Facing a choice between squashing this nascent industry or nurturing it, Congress chose the latter.

Technically speaking, H.R. 2262 amends several provisions in Title 51 of the U.S. Code, National and Commercial Space Programs. This is where NASA's enabling legislation resides.

Most of the professional space journalism sites have delved into the details of the act, such as these reports from Space News, Space Policy Online and Florida Today.

Not receiving much attention is Section 117, which among its provisions replaces the current §70102 that defines Space Shuttle use policy. The new §70102 defines Space Launch System use policy.

When Congress ordered NASA in 2010 create SLS, they did not bother to tell NASA what to do with it, other than protect Shuttle-era contractor jobs. That's why critics labelled it the Senate Launch System. SLS is running two years behind its Congressional mandate to launch its first uncrewed test flight.

H.R. 2262 finally makes a stab at narrowing its uses, if not defining them. The bill states that SLS “may be used” for “Payloads and missions that contribute to extending human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and substantially benefit from the unique capabilities of the Space Launch System.”

The use of the word “may” doesn't mean that everything else is illegal. The language contains no prohibitions for other uses.

For me, the key language is “extending human presence beyond low-Earth orbit.” Certain legislators who represent NASA space centers and contractors have tried to force the agency to use SLS and its Orion crew capsule for ISS crew and cargo runs in low Earth orbit. That's a job for the commercial cargo and crew vendors, but some members of Congress have tried to strangle the commercial program in a bid to protect existing NASA jobs in their districts or states.

Section 302 of the 2010 NASA authorization act specified that SLS was to have “The capability to serve as a backup system for supplying and supporting ISS cargo requirements or crew delivery requirements not otherwise met by available commercial or partner-supplied vehicles.” It's a provision still raised from time to time during Congressional hearings, when a member concerned about protecting his pork grills a NASA witness demanding to know why SLS isn't being designed for the ISS.

So the provision in H.R. 2262 would seem to give NASA the freedom to formally ignore the 2010 legislation, although it doesn't seem to outright prohibit ISS use.

Another critical provision is Congressional approval to extend ISS operations through “at least” 2024. The agreements between NASA and its international partners expire in 2020. In January 2014, the Obama administration proposed extending ISS to 2024, and began negotiating extensions with its partners. Russia agreed in July. Canada is on board. The European and Japanese space agencies informally have agreed, but need formal approval from their governments.

One of the biggest concerns for NewSpace investors and researchers has been the lack of a formal Congressional commitment to operate ISS through 2020. Why spend years investing in an experiment to run on ISS when the station may not be there? Researchers were spooked when the Bush administration's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration called for decommissioning ISS in 2015, just five years after completion, to spend the money on the Constellation program. A common theme at this summer's ISS R&D and NewSpace conferences was that long-term availability of the ISS is critical to growing the NewSpace economy.

The video at the top of this column is a discussion about this subject at the July 2015 ISS R&D conference. Below is a video from later that month at the NewSpace conference on why entrepreneurs are choosing to invest in space.

A July 2015 panel at the NewSpace conference, titled “The Case for Space Panel: Why Investors Invest (Or Don't Invest).” Video source: Space Conferences YouTube channel.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Retro Saturday: 2001 A Space Odyssey -- A Look Behind the Future

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

For our 100th and final episode of Retro Saturday, I present a 1966 documentary produced by MGM Studios to promote 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The film is introduced by Look publisher Vernon Myers, who states the magazine will help promote the film prior to its 1967 release. 2001 director Stanley Kubrick worked for Look as a photojournalist from 1945 to 1950.

The documentary notes that Kubrick invited space and other futurologists to help with the film's realism. Among them were rocketeer Fred Ordway and space illustrator Harry Lange. Both were contemporaries of Wernher von Braun at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and later with NASA.

Ordway was a personal friend of 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke. Lange designed the iconic helmet worn on spacewalks in the film.

It accurately predicts a laptop computer with Skype capability, although a briefcase with a typewriter and rotary phone isn't actually what we have today. Skype didn't become popular until a few years after 2001, but who am I to nitpick.

What the film didn't foresee was the general political apathy that post-Apollo would strip NASA of much of its human spaceflight funding.

The Apollo program wasn't about building the futuristic society depicted in 2001. It was about “prestige,” proving to the rest of the world that United States technology was superior to the Soviet Union. This is amply documented by space policy analyst John Logsdon's two books, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon and After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program.

We also see Arthur C. Clarke visit the Grumman plant in Long Island where the lunar modules are being constructed.

The Retro Saturday series was intended to help us learn about today and tomorrow by viewing films about the past. I hope you'll explore the other Retro Saturday articles to find the hidden gems resurrected thanks to the Internet.