Wednesday, October 30, 2013

ISS Positive Media Coverage


Click the arrow to watch on YouTube the Zero Gravity Solutions video, “Profits From Orbit.”

The International Space Station may be destroyed in Gravity, but in the reality-based world the ISS is starting to receive notice for its microgravity research.

A Huffington Post article titled “Climate Change, Food, and Hope” suggests that ISS research may lead to “a quantum leap in food production.”

A quantum leap in food production, while keeping the soil nutrient-rich, will be critical to our future survival, as the global population will grow to 9 billion by 2050 and perhaps 12 billion by 2100. A 2008 Pew Study estimates the U.S. residential population will explode from 330 million today to 438 million by middle of this century. With more than 50 percent of the world's population living in urban cities — we crossed that threshold last year — expected to surge to 75 percent in the next generation, where will the next sea change come from?

Can technology development in our space program contribute to the answer?

The zero gravity (aka microgravity) environment of the International Space Station now seems to hold some of those answers in low earth orbit.

The solution is right out of a sci-fi novel. And yet it's not. Add a sprinkling of Darwin at the speed of light and we take a major step closer understanding this quantum change.

The article focuses on Zero Gravity Solutions, Inc., which I wrote about on October 19.

According to the Huffington Post article:

By awakening dozens of dormant genes in fruit, plant, vegetable, and cultured cells, Zero Gravity Solutions' technology accelerates gene expression in evolution at warp speed. In short, they are leveraging Darwin's process of natural selection. Once those latent genes have revealed themselves, they are brought back down to earth, literally, planted in the soil and grow in ways that their earth-bound counterparts could only dream of.


A Billings, Montana high school student works on the electronics for an algae experiment sent to the International Space Station through NASA's HUNCH program. Image source: Billings Gazette.

Back on August 11, the Billings Gazette ran an article titled, “Central Students' Algae Experiment Headed for International Space Station.”. Local students were able to send their experiment to the ISS thanks to the NASA HUNCH program.

To quote from the NASA HUNCH web site:

HUNCH is an instructional partnership between NASA and high schools and intermediate/middle schools. This partnership benefits both NASA and students. NASA receives cost-effective hardware, while students receive real-world hands-on experiences. A spin-off of this teaming is the inspiration of the next generation of researchers and space explorers.

NASA provides materials, equipment and mentoring that is required to fabricate the items. NASA also provides quality inspection oversight during the fabrication of these items.

The Billings Central Catholic High School students designed and built an experiment to test how well algae grows — and how much carbon dioxide it consumes — in a microgravity environment.

According to the Gazette article:

The group from Central — James Dilts, Kylee Hrban, Nathan Heldt and Laura Westwood — decided they'd tackle the problem of oxygen. So far, the best way to have breathable oxygen in space is to bring it in big canisters.

That's expensive and labor-intensive.

The students figured, if they could find a way to produce oxygen in space, that might mitigate the problem. So they focused on algae.

“It's a single-cell organism,” said James Dilts, Stuart's older brother. “It's not a plant.”

Still, like big plants, algae uses photosynthesis to produce food and, in turn, expels a lot of oxygen. And as a single-celled organism, it could grow small in a petri dish, which is where the group started.

The students received a $30,000 grant from Space Coast-based CASIS, the Center for Advancement of Science in Space.

Over in Alabama, the Huntsville Times ran an article on October 25 titled, “Five Questions on the Key Space Science of Protein Crystals, Starring NASA and UAB.” UAB is the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The five questions were posed to Dr. Larry DeLucas, a former NASA payload specialist who is now the Director of the Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering at UAB.

In the July 31 blog article I wrote about five medical discoveries thanks to microgravity research, I mentioned the Hepatitis-C treatment that came from protein crystallization research on the doomed STS-107 Columbia flight. Dr. DeLucas designed the bottles that carried the experiment by Dr. Paul Reichert of Schering Plough, now Merck.

Here's one of the five questions in the Times article:

Q: How can scientists who believe in protein crystallization in space persuade their colleagues the space station is worth the time and trouble to get there?

A: “If we could have a box here on Earth that created microgravity (for growing crystals), everyone would be doing it, because we know we can get better crystals with it. But we can't. The unfortunate thing with the space station is we don't have constant access. I would love to see five commercial companies providing constant access at a reasonably low price so we could always be doing it up there. If they can do that with these commercial groups, then you might have, in this one science area, a reason for having a space station. But if you only do it once every two years, it's not good. You need to have constant access.”

As I've written many times, this is where the Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitats will come into play.


Click the arrow to watch on YouTube a computer animation of the BEAM arriving at the ISS in 2015. Video source: NASA.

A demonstration version, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, will be sent to the ISS in 2015. It will be there for two years to demonstrate the technology.

Bigelow hopes to launch the full-scale habitats once the commercial crew vehicles complete their NASA certification circa 2017.

That's when the real fun begins, because both nations and private companies will be able to send researchers with experiments to the habitats. Dr. DeLucas' “constant access” will become a reality.

In closing ... Wrapping up this week will be the best of the top ten Space Station research results, posted by ISS Program Scientist Julie Robinson over the last two weeks on the A Lab Aloft blog.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

It's Not the Fall ...


A computer animation of Dream Chaser operations. Video source: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

The first remotely operated drop test of the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser ended badly yesterday, when landing gear failed and the vehicle flipped.

According to a Sierra Nevada press release:

The vehicle successfully released from its carrier aircraft, an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter, as planned at approximately 11:10 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. Following release, the Dream Chaser spacecraft automated flight control system gently steered the vehicle to its intended glide slope. The vehicle adhered to the design flight trajectory throughout the flight profile. Less than a minute later, Dream Chaser smoothly flared and touched down on Edwards Air Force Base’s Runway 22L right on centerline. While there was an anomaly with the left landing gear deployment, the high-quality flight and telemetry data throughout all phases of the approach-and-landing test will allow SNC teams to continue to refine their spacecraft design. SNC and NASA Dryden are currently reviewing the data. As with any space flight test program, there will be anomalies that we can learn from, allowing us to improve our vehicle and accelerate our rate of progress.

NASASpaceflight.com explained the “anomaly” (ETA means Engineering Test Article):

However, via what is being classed as a mechanical failure of the left landing gear (failure to deploy), the ETA lost control when “weight on wheels”, and flipped over on the runway.

Notably, the main landing gear on the ETA is not the same as what set to be employed on future Dream Chasers.

The beauty of the commercial crew competition is that participants must complete milestones to receive awards from NASA. Failures are not rewarded. Spaceflight Now explains:

NASA and Sierra Nevada have a Space Act Agreement to provide up to $227.5 million of NASA funding to the company. NASA makes payments as Sierra Nevada completes Dream Chaser design and development milestones.

One of the milestones tied to a financial payment was the completion of approach and landing test. Upon meeting predetermined success criteria, Sierra Nevada was set to receive $15 million at the conclusion of the milestone.

The Space Act Agreement describes the test this way: “A minimum of one and up to five additional Engineering Test Article free flight test(s) will be completed to characterize the aerodynamics and controllability of the Dream Chaser Orbital Vehicle outer mold line configuration during the subsonic approach and landing phase.”

The test's success criteria was redacted in a copy of the Space Act Agreement posted online.

Sierra Nevada has not yet disclosed the condition of the ETA. Even if it can be repaired, it will delay further tests and set back the company even further in the competition.

With the final selection of at least one commercial crew participant anticipated for the summer of 2014 (depending on Congressional funding), yesterday's incident would suggest that it's down to SpaceX and Boeing.

But that doesn't put Sierra Nevada out of orbital business. All three companies anticipate flights to the private Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitats later in the decade.


UPDATE October 27, 2013Alan Boyle of NBC News reports that Sierra Nevada will hold a press conference on Tuesday October 29 to discuss the incident.


UPDATE October 29, 2013 — Sierra Nevada released today a video of the test flight, but not the landing:


Click the arrow to watch the test flight on YouTube. Video source: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

A SNC representative posted this comment on the YouTube video:

We have assembled a team to investigate the cause of the anomaly and cannot release any further video at this time. Thank you for your patience while we conduct the investigation!

Alan Boyle of NBC News reports on today's press conference:

During a teleconference on Tuesday, Sirangelo said the vehicle was “repairable and [would be] flyable again.” There was no damage to the test vehicle's internal shell or electronics, and the damage to the external carbon-composite shell can be fixed, he said. The only question is whether the Dream Chaser would be repaired for another autonomous flight, or retooled for its first piloted flight. Either way, the vehicle would fly again later this year or next year, Sirangelo said.

“Our timeline isn't going to be affected by this,” Sirangelo said. The flight yielded so much good data about Dream Chaser's aerodynamics that “in a strange way [it] might actually accelerate the program,” he said.

Sirangelo stressed that the landing gear used during Saturday's test was adapted from the equipment for an F-5 fighter jet, and would not be used on future configurations of the test vehicle.

Early reports had said the ETA flipped on the runway, but Sirangelo contradicted that.

According to Robert Pearlman at collectSPACE.com:

“Unfortunately, we encountered an anomaly with the gear that we're still investigating, which caused the gear to not deploy properly on the left side,” SNC vice president Mark Sirangelo, head of the company's space systems division, explained to reporters Tuesday (Oct. 29). “After a period of time, the vehicle was unable to continue its roll down the runway and landed down on its left side and skidded off the runway into sandy dirt.”

The prototype space plane, which took several months to build, was damaged from the skid, but was otherwise left intact after the crash.

“The core structure, all of the flight controls, the rudders, the ailerons, all of those are all still attached, still working and are still part of the vehicle,” Sirangelo said. “What we did lose was some of the protective coating shell off of the vehicle and some minor damage to the composites and wheel structure.”

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mission Accomplished


The Orbital Sciences Cygnus leaves the International Space Station on October 22. Video source: NASA.

The Orbital Sciences Cygnus burned up on re-entry yesterday — as planned — bringing to an end its successful demonstration flight.

The mission gives the United States two 21st Century robotic spacecraft capable of delivering cargo to the International Space Station. The Cygnus burns up on re-entry to dispose of garbage and waste, but the SpaceX Dragon was designed to be reusable so it soft-lands in the ocean. The Dragon is the only robotic craft capable of returning samples, experiments, and parts needing repair.

The Cygnus return effectively ends the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which began in 2006. According to the NASA web site, the agency spent $800 million investing in these two spacecraft. Contrast that with the estimated cost of one Space Shuttle flight, which was roughly the same, and required a crew.

Although there were many efforts over the decades to commercialize spaceflight, the COTS program as we know it has its origins in President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. Bush didn't mention it in his January 14, 2004 speech that would lead to the Shuttle's retirement, but the detailed VSE report sent to Congress included this statement:

For cargo transport to the Space Station after 2010, NASA will rely on existing or new commercial cargo transport systems, as well as international partner cargo transport systems. NASA does not plan to develop new launch vehicle capabilities except where critical NASA needs — such as heavy lift — are not met by commercial or military systems.

In June 2004, the Bush-appointed President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond issued a report that called for “breaking down of barriers to commercial and entrepreneurial activities in space, as well as a cultural shift towards encouraging and incentivizing more private sector business in space. Such a change in both perspective and posture is essential if we are to develop a broad-based, societal change in space business.”

NASA's Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office, or C3PO (yes, some in NASA still have a sense of humor) opened in November 2005.

Two companies were selected in the 2006 competition, SpaceX and Rocketplane-Kistler. After RpK failed to achieve its early milestones, the company was terminated from the program and replaced in 2008 by Orbital Sciences.

By the end of the Bush administration, the Vision's Constellation program had evolved into the Ares I intended to deliver astronauts to the ISS, and the Ares V which would take crews beyond Earth orbit. The vehicles being developed under C3PO would deliver cargo to the ISS.

But a 2009 review found that Ares I was billions over budget, years behind schedule, and lacked “a sound business case,” according to the Government Accountability Office. The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee found that Ares I wouldn't deliver people to the ISS until at least 2017, but paradoxically it would be funded by closing and destroying the ISS in 2015! NASA was building a rocket with nowhere to go. As for the Ares V, it was a paper exercise; the Committee found that it wouldn't fly until at least 2028, if ever.

And if the ISS was no longer going to exist, then COTS served no purpose either.

President Barack Obama decided to save the ISS by cancelling Constellation. The savings were used to extend ISS until 2020, to prime the pump on commercial cargo and to fund the commercial crew program which had gone unfunded under the prior administration.


August 2, 2008 ... Candidate Barack Obama promises to “close the gap” after the Shuttle's retirement during which the United States will rely on Russia for ISS access.

At an August 2008 campaign stop in Titusville, candidate Barack Obama pledged to “close the gap” during which the U.S. would rely on Russia for access to the ISS, and said he would speed “the development of the Shuttle's successor.” He didn't say what that successor would be; contrary to the popular rumor that circulates around the Space Coast, Obama never pledged to continue Constellation.

October 23, 2013 marks the first half of the fulfillment of that promise.

As for the commercial crew program, it's been set back one to three years by Congressional budget cuts. Although the Obama administration asked for roughly $800 million each of the last three federal fiscal years for commercial crew, Congress cut it by about $300 million to $400 million each year. This foolishness extended NASA's reliance on Roscosmos at least through 2017.

Despite that, two of the commercial crew competitors, SpaceX and Boeing, have stated in recent weeks that they hope to see their first crewed test flights in 2016. Sierra Nevada hopes to start remotely operated Dream Chaser drop tests at Edwards Air Force Base in the next few days.

So there's still hope for closing the gap, assuming Congress doesn't cut the commercial crew budget again.

In any case, commercial cargo has proven that commercial space works. The new financial model gave NASA access to two 21st Century spacecraft capable of delivering cargo to the ISS without risking a crew, and at a fraction of the cost.

It's been a long time since NASA had a success story that came in at a reasonable cost.

More importantly, commercial space has given birth to a new economy here in the U.S. that permanently opens space to the private sector.

None of this would have been possible if Constellation continued, destroying the ISS and leaving the U.S. without a permanent human presence in low Earth orbit. The U.S. would have betrayed its international partners, and left our economy without a microgravity research laboratory already delivering medical treatments to the market. On October 16, Zero Gravity Solutions announced a new product developed at the ISS to alter plant-based foods without genetic mutations.

The new economy is here. And it's thanks to commercial space.

Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

SpaceX Takes a Stand


A January 2007 image of the Stennis Space Center E-2 Test Stand. Image source: Industrial Corrosion Control.

One of the most surprising aspects of today's SpaceX announcement was that it came from the office of a U.S. Senator.

A press release by Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) announced that SpaceX has leased Test Stand E-2 at NASA's Stennis Space Center to help develop its Raptor methane-powered rocket engine.

According to the press release:

U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) today said the agreement signed today between the State of Mississippi and the commercial space company SpaceX bodes well for future job growth at and around NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County.

Cochran commended the accord which will involve SpaceX investing in the E-2 test stand at Stennis to support engine research, development and testing of the firm’s Raptor methane rocket engines. The agreement, signed by Governor Phil Bryant, also involved the Mississippi Development Authority, Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission and NASA.

“We have been talking with SpaceX for many years about working at Stennis Space Center, and I am pleased to officially welcome them to our Mississippi family. I hope this is just the beginning of their endeavors in our state,” Cochran said. “Our state wins through this beneficial public-private contract that will enhance the Space Center’s historic role in rocket engine testing and as a center for technical activity and skilled jobs.”

As reflexively as your knee jerking when your doctor hits it with a plexor, the Senator bragged about the jobs it would bring to his state.

The very last paragraph of the release had the important part:

“A robust test infrastructure is important to ensuring future astronauts will be as safe as possible when they climb aboard the next generation of rockets,” Cochran said. “Stronger testing saves money in the long run, and there’s no better place in the world to test rocket engines than Hancock County, Mississippi.&rduqo;

Jobs come before safety in the Senator's press release, but nothing new there.

With SpaceX already occupying government military launch complexes at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg, and a lease pending for Kennedy Space Center's pad 39A, the Stennis lease gives SpaceX yet another member of Congress who is now compromised by the presence of a NewSpace company in his district or state.

That may not have been the company's intention. SpaceX loves to recycle old government properties. Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral has the old liquid nitrogen tank from LC-37, two old antenna dishes from KSC's demolished MILA tracking station, and three of the crew escape baskets from LC-39.

But for those of us who like to read the political tea leaves, it neatly assures that one less member of Congress will try to backstab SpaceX as OldSpace lobbyists work Capitol Hill.

Here's the press release from Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant.


Related articles:

Biloxi Sun-Herald “Stennis Lands SpaceX, Another Rocket Testing Program

WLOX Biloxi “SpaceX Signs Agreement with Stennis Space Center&rdquo:

Saturday, October 19, 2013

ISS Helps Florida Biotech Company


Click the arrow to watch a Space.com video on Zero Gravity Solutions titled, “Profits From Orbit.”

Boca Raton-based Zero Gravity Solutions issued a press release on October 16 announcing proprietary agricultural technology developed on the International Space Station.

Zero Gravity Solutions, Inc. (ZGSI or “the Company”), (Pink Sheets: ZGSI), announced today the introduction of BAM-FX™, a proprietary technology designed for use in the space program, which we are now developing and preparing to deploy for agricultural use on Earth to create densely nutritious, immune system enhancing food for application to world agriculture. Initial data utilizing our technology as applied to agricultural use on Earth has demonstrated, through independent certified laboratory analysis, the ability to systemically deliver targeted minerals and micronutrients throughout a plant from seed or root to maturity. This was accomplished without the use of genetic modification or traditional fertilizers. The ability to create highly nutritious, immune system enhanced crops that are not Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) is a potentially significant, disruptive agricultural technology.

Harvey Kaye, chairman of the Company, stated, “Our six years of work on the International Space Station and the intellectual property we own has allowed us to introduce the first of an anticipated pipeline of technologies to help to feed the world.” Mr. Kaye further stated, “The commercial deployment of BAM-FX creates an executable path to revenue in the near term.”

Richard Godwin, the Company’s chief executive officer and president, stated, “During the next 12 months, the Company will be engaged in rigorous field testing in conjunction with end product users, foundations, governmental agencies and academia.” Mr. Godwin further added, “It is expected that peer-reviewed data resulting from this work will lead to final formulations, application methodologies, manufacturing, sales and distribution of this breakthrough technology.”

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Day the Space Station Was Almost Cancelled


Click the arrow to watch the Space Station debate on YouTube. Video source: C-SPAN.

June 23, 1993.

A date that almost lived in infamy.

On that date, the House of Representatives came within one vote of cancelling Space Station Freedom, which later became today's International Space Station.

The proposal was defeated, 215-216 with nine members not voting.

The House was deliberating the NASA Authorization Bill for Fiscal Year 1994. (Yes, unlike today, NASA budgets actually passed before the fiscal year began.) Rep. Tim Roemer, a Democrat from Indiana, rose to propose an amendment to the bill that would cancel the space station. He was supported across the aisle by Rep. Dick Zimmer, a Republican from New Jersey.

After more than three hours of deliberation, the House voted. The acting chair judged that the majority of the voice vote was Nay, but Roemer asked for a recorded vote.

As the voting period drew to a close, the tally board showed Aye winning by a slight margin. If you watch the end of the above video, you can see the House members riveted as they watch the board and realize that the space station was close to cancellation. The final votes saved the station.

Even if the bill had passed the House, it still would have to pass the Senate and then go on to the President for signature. We can only speculate what might have happened.

The video is a reminder that since the mid-1960s Congressional support for a government space program has been tepid at best. That's unlikely to change any time soon.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Ukrainian Government is More Stable


Click the arrow to watch the “Gravity” parody on the October 12 Saturday Night Live. You may be subjected to an ad first.

Saturday Night Live in its opening sketch parodied how the government shutdown is affecting NASA.

My favorite line:

“He can move back to Ukraine, where government is more stable.”

Friday, October 11, 2013

Space Workshop October 12 in Cocoa Beach

Got the government shutdown blues? Want to channel your furlough frustrations into something positive?

Attend the Florida Space Development Council's Southeast Regional Workshop this Saturday October 12 at the Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront.

The FSDC is a chapter of the National Space Society.

Originally this was going to be an all-day event with morning workshops, but those were cancelled due to the government shutdown as NASA speakers are prohibited from attending. The afternoon events, however, are still on. According to an FSDC release:

  • Hear presentations from southeast NSS chapters.
  • Discuss the purpose of NSS chapters, success stories, and lessons learned.
  • Hear from NSS leaders about the organization, purpose, and future of the Society.
  • As members, express your views on NSS and ask questions of its leadership.
  • Enjoy keynote speaker Jim Kennedy, former NASA KSC Center Director.
  • Talk about your favorite topic and hear from others during our mini SpaceUp.
  • Light food will be provided but please plan to provide your own lunch.

Agenda:
12:00 Welcome & Introductions
12:15 Chapter discussions
1:15 NSS discussions
2:00 Break
2:15 Jim Kennedy keynote talk
3:15 Break
3:30 Mini SpaceUp

Speakers:

  • Yohon Lo, President of the Huntsville Alabama L5 society
  • Michael Mealling, President of the Georgia Space Society
  • Laura Seward, President of the Florida Space Development Council
  • Ronnie Lajoie, long-time NSS leader
  • Jim Kennedy, professional speaker, former NASA KSC Center Director

Attendance is $10. Membership is not required, but you can join the FSDC for $5.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Microgravity


Click the arrow to watch "Microgravity" on YouTube in HD.

If you read my October 6 review critical of Gravity, you'll know I was annoyed not just by technical inaccuracies but also writing shortcuts.

To remedy that — and to channel some furlough frustration into a more positive pursuit — I give you Microgravity.

The idea was to use 100% real footage of real astronauts in their daily tasks aboard the International Space Station. What they do is far more compelling to me than what Hollywood made up.

This is my fifth space video montage. Earlier videos:

“Faith of the Heart”

“Dragon Rider”

“Imagine the Fire”

“I Will Be Back One Day”

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Anti-Gravity


George Clooney and his superpowered Manned Maneuvering Unit. Image source: Warner Bros.

WARNING! Spoilers abound! Do not read this article if you don't want to know what happens in the movie.

When I first saw the trailer for Gravity last August, my reaction was negative. I wrote that there was “so much stupidity and inaccuracy“ that I couldn't imagine going to see it.

Maybe the government shutdown is getting to me, because on Day #5 of my furlough I determined to see the film. Because my day job is in the space program, I know that I will be asked by friends and the public what I thought of the movie.

So here we are on furlough Day #6 with a screed to note that my worst fears were affirmed.

I came at this film from a different angle than the typical moviegoer. In addition to being knowledgeable about human spaceflight, I dabbled part-time for many years as a professional writer. No, there's no Academy Award for Best Screenplay on my mantel — I don't even have a mantel — but I do have a knowledge of the basics.

One typical example of lazy screenwriting is the use of a deus ex machina. To quote from Wikipedia:

The Latin phrase deus ex machina, from deus (“a god”) + ex (“from”) + machina (“a device, a scaffolding, an artifice”), is a calque from the Greek “god from the machine” (ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός, apò mēkhanḗs theós). Such a device was referred to by Horace in his Ars Poetica, where he instructs poets that they must never resort to a “god from the machine” to resolve their plots. He was referring to the conventions of Greek tragedy, where a machine is used to bring actors playing gods onto the stage. The machine could be either a crane (mechane) used to lower actors from above, or a riser that brought actors up through a trapdoor.

To quote from The Guide to Literary Terms by Jack Lynch:

Few modern works feature deities suspended by wires from the ceiling, but the term deus ex machina is still used for cases where an author uses some improbable (and often clumsy) plot device to work his or her way out of a difficult situation. When the cavalry comes charging over the hill or when the impoverished hero is relieved by an unexpected inheritance, it's often called a deus ex machina.

This is my problem with Gravity.

Dei abound everywhere. And they are literally machina.

According to a Los Angeles Times story, writers Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón — father and son filmmakers — conceived the idea in 2009, “a story centered primarily on one character's adversities, which reflected her current professional strife.”

The duo's objective was to take what could be pure escapist fare and enhance it with themes of survival and finding meaning after loss. “That primal fear — of floating into the void — that's something that's a primal fear in daily life, the fear of losing ground,” Alfonso said.

We're on solid writing ground here, but the final script emphasizes the escapism while sacrificing plausibility.

I'll give the writers a pass on the conceit that the Space Shuttle program is still flying. It had been known since 2004 that the Shuttle would be retired once the International Space Station was completed, but not commonly known. I wouldn't expect the writers or their investors to abandon the project just because of that.

But from the opening title card, we are introduced to one writing cheat after another.

We're told in that card that the story takes place at 600 kilometers, or about 375 miles. Our characters are servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. So far, so good; that's about the orbital altitude for HST.

But while one astronaut, Dr. Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) services the telescope, crewmate Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) zips in circles around the Hubble and the orbiter Explorer using a futuristic version of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (an idea NASA abandoned long ago). We're told it's a prototype, hence its magical Buck Rogers features that will come in handy later in the tale. Deus #1.

Stone and Kowalski appear to be two of the most incompetent astronauts in NASA history. Apparently she was a medical doctor, but after six months of training she's now a bio-medical engineer and qualified to service the Hubble. Kowalski, supposedly a veteran, races around trying to break a Russian spacewalk record while blaring country music over the radio and jabbering tall tales with Mission Control in Houston. He's on the same channel as Stone, who finds all this very distracting. In the real world, any astronaut behaving so unprofessionally would be cashiered. But in Gravity this passes for character development.

A third astronaut named Sharif, doing a spacewalk in the orbiter's payload bay, plays bungee jumping with his tether. Another candidate for unemployment. In Star Trek, he would be a Redshirt.


Matt Kowalski uses his magical jetpack to tow Ryan Stone to the ISS. Image source: Warner Bros.

The incident that starts the peril is a supposed Russian anti-satellite test firing. Most likely inspired by the Chinese anti-satellite weapon test in 2007, we're to believe that Russia would actually carry out such a weapon test on a satellite in an orbit that could intersect the ISS, where it has cosmonauts on board. The narrative explains this away by saying the test had unintended consequences, with debris hitting other satellites that destroyed them and created more debris. At one point, we're told that most of the satellites in orbit have been damaged or destroyed.

Really?!

Communications satellites such as the NASA TDRS constellation orbit at an altitude of about 22,000 miles. We're at 375 miles. According to a September 2013 presentation by Daniel Rasky of NASA's Emerging Commercial Space Office, 1,046 active satellites are in orbit — 432 at Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (about 22,000 miles), 73 in Medium Earth Orbit (1,200 miles to 22,000 miles), and 541 in Low Earth Orbit (below 1,200 miles).

To quote the opening of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

So the notion of one anti-sat test wiping out most of the satellites orbiting the Earth to create a massive debris field wave is preposterous.

In any case, Armageddon (pun intended) is on its way, so our astronauts must seek shelter. Explorer, of course, is destroyed, along with the massively incompetent Sharif who got what was coming to him.

So where to go?

Using his magical jetpack with a nearly limitless supply of propellant, Kowalski tows Stone to the International Space Station. Deus #2.

The ISS normally orbits at an altitude of about 250 miles, so it would be more than 100 miles below Hubble, and that's assuming they were synchronized with each other. But they're not. HST orbits at an inclination of 28.5 degrees from the equator. ISS is at 51.6 degrees. So they're nowhere near each other.

Two Soyuz spacecraft are normally docked at ISS as emergency escape vehicles. One is gone; apparently the crew abandoned ship. The other is still docked, although its parachute prematurely deployed. Since Stone finds no bodies inside the ISS, I guess we assume only three crew members were on board. Perhaps ISS was in the middle of a crew rotation.

Due to plot complications, Kowalski is lost, leaving Stone on her own inside the badly damaged ISS. But before he drifts away, he concocts a plan for Stone to use the damaged Soyuz to ... wait for it ... fly to the Chinese Tiangong space station! Dei #3 and #4 fall into Dr. Stone's spacesuit lap.


If you're impressed by Dr. Stone's ability to fly Soyuz, wait until you see her operate a Shenzhou in a language she can't read. Image source: Warner Bros.

Stone tells us that she tested to fly Soyuz — and failed. But that's okay, she's going to fly Deus #3 to another station that happens to be in the same orbit as ISS and only 100 miles away.

This is where Gravity jumped the shark for me.

Not much is known in the West about the Tiangong space stations. The one shown in the film is nothing like the one in space now, which isn't even as big as the 1970s Skylab. The version in Gravity seems somewhat like the proposed Tiangong-3 that is projected for sometime in the next decade. Tiangong-1 is at an orbital inclination of 42.7 degrees so, again, nowhere near ISS.

Even if it's a fantasy Tiangong, Deus #4 has a Chinese version of the Soyuz called Shenzhou docked at its port. Why? Never explained. No crew are on board, and since the Chinese come and go in their Shenzhou they never have a backup attached.

In short ... Shenzhou has no reason to be there other than it's another deus for Dr. Stone.

As we might expect, when she enters Shenzhou all the buttons and labels are in Chinese. No problem. Even though Shenzhou is based on a mid-1990s Russian design that the Chinese have modified for their own use, she assumes the buttons must be the same. Pushing a few using trial and error, she manages to undock and re-enter the atmosphere.

When we left the theatre, even my wife said the movie was “stupid,” and she's usually far more forgiving about such things than I am.

Yes, Gravity is very pretty to look at. Yes, it's a new standard for computer generated imagery (CGI). Yes, its score rocks.

And, yes, I get that it's escapism and not to be taken seriously.

But in my opinion it's still lazy writing.

This continues a trend in filmmaking that I call the Transformers effect. Films no longer seem to require any kind of complicated plot or sublime character development. Just place one contrivance after another on screen with pretty effects and collect your money.

And that it has. According to the Los Angeles Times, Gravity had already earned $55.6 million heading into the weekend, making it the most financially successful October premiere in film history.

My greater concern is more philosophical.

Many space advocates are hoping that Gravity will inspire the public to take more of an interest in space, as happened after the movie Apollo 13.

That public interest was fleeting and did not translate into any sustainable congressional funding of the U.S. space program. Gravity won't either.

Is the only way to interest the public in space exploration to destroy something?

In Armageddon and Deep Impact, Shuttle-like vehicles were destroyed trying to save Earth from a massive asteroid impact. In Apollo 13, based on a true story, a crew were nearly killed and their craft lost. In Gravity, we destroy an orbiter, the Hubble Space Telescope, and two space stations for good measure.

Far more rare are films that inspire the public to support human space flight. The gold standard, in my opinion, is The Right Stuff although that was an exaggerated version of historical events from the late 1940s through early 1960s. It flopped at the box office. Contact, based on the Carl Sagan novel, cost about $90 million to make and worldwide earned about $170 million.

Gravity will make a huge profit for Warner Bros., but it will probably mislead the public into more misunderstandings about the human spaceflight programs. No, Hubble and ISS are not next to each other. No, the Shuttle isn't still flying. No, the Chinese don't have a robust space station nearby.

Will it do more harm than good for the cause of human spaceflight? That's the question I ponder as I await the end of the government shutdown and a recall from my furlough.


UPDATE October 31, 2013 — Several astronauts and scientists have weighed in with their thoughts on Gravity. Several chose to write articles:

Buzz Aldrin “Guest Review: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on Gravity

Leroy Chiao Gravity Works, If You Don't Focus on the Physics”

Samantha Cristoforetti “L-420: Logbook” and “L-417: Logbook”

Tom Jones “Why Gravity is an Irresistable Force”

Chiao and Jones combined with astronomer Phil Plait to write for Entertainment Weekly the article, Gravity: Panel of astro-experts on the science behind the film”

Mark Kelly “Mark Kelly Gives an Astronaut's View of Gravity

Michael Lopez-Alegria “Former ISS Commander Weighs In On Gravity

Scott Parazynski “An Astronaut Fact-Checks Gravity

Neil Degrasse Tyson “On the Critique of Science in Film”

Friday, October 4, 2013

Posey Responds

Day #4 furloughed from my job thanks to Congress.

Two days ago, I used Rep. Bill Posey's web site to submit a complaint about his participation in the government shutdown. The message was similar to the text I posted here the same day.

This morning, Florida Today printed my letter that I submitted.

This afternoon, I received a form email from Rep. Posey's office. It did not address my complaint that his actions resulted in my losing income because I'd been furloughed from Kennedy Space Center, nor did it address my complaint that he was trying to deny me access to affordable health care.

Mr. Posey's form response is below for your review. By the way, his claim that Congress is exempted from the Affordable Care Act is a myth, as documented by this Yahoo! Finance article.

He also misleads you with this statement posted September 30 on his web site:

“If there is a government shutdown and federal employees are furloughed, I will continue to work for you in Congress. However, I will also forgo my pay for the duration of the shutdown.”

What Mr. Posey didn't tell you is that his next payday isn't until October 31, by which time the shutdown should be over. He got paid on September 30, the day before the shutdown began.

And with that ... Mr. Posey's response.


Thank you for contacting me to express your support for legislation that would continue to fund the federal government. I am supportive of such legislation and hope that we can soon reach an agreement with the Senate and the President.

Since September 20, 2013, the House has sent to the Senate three different bills to keep the government funded. Each time the Senate voted down the bill. As the House waits for the Senate to appoint conferees, or otherwise work with the House for a resolution of the shutdown, the House has proceeded to pass bills to keep specific agencies open.

The House approved a bill to pay the troops. Fortunately the Senate passed this bill, and it was signed into law. We have passed other bills with bipartisan support, including funding for: the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Park Service, the District of Columbia, the National Institutes of Health, and paying the National Guard and Reservists. I voted for each of them when they passed the House. Instead of passing these bills, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has chosen to prevent Senate passage of each of these bills. This is both unnecessary and unfortunate. I expect the House to consider additional funding bills in the days ahead, and I hope the Senate will ultimately pass them on to the President to be signed into law.

As I mentioned, the House has sent to Senate three bills to fund the government. On September 20, 2013, the House approved legislation to fund the federal government through December 15, 2013. This legislation was sent to the Senate for their consideration, and on September 23, the Senate began considering the funding bill. They amended the bill and sent it back to the House on September 27th with amendments, including a provision to cut funding off on November 15, 2013. On September 28th the House amended the bill and sent it back to the Senate with changes. The Senate met on September 30th and rejected the bill. A third House bill was voted down by the Senate late on Monday (September 30th).

The third House-passed bill, which we have asked to conference with the Senate, keeps the government open through December 15, 2013. It would also eliminate subsidies for and require the Congress and their staff as well as White House employees to sign up for health care through the Obamacare health exchanges. Finally, it would provide to individuals the same one-year waiver that the Administration unilaterally provided to large corporations. If large corporations are getting a pass on the bills mandates, shouldn't individuals?

I will keep your concerns in mind and am hopeful that these issues can be resolved in a timely manner. I would also add that I believe it is important that the House and Senate get back to regular order in considering the annual appropriations bills. While the House has passed several of these bills, the Senate has not passed an appropriations bill since 2011. That failure is one of the reasons that these important issues are crammed in at the end of the federal fiscal year (Sept 30th).

Thank you again, Stephen, for contacting me. It is an honor to serve you in the Congress. If I may be of service to you in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

Bill Posey
Member of Congress

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Beached by Congress

It's the third day of my furlough thanks to Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and his fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives, so I decided to take my wife to downtown Cocoa Beach for lunch.

Below are photos. We're at the end of Minutemen Causeway east of northbound State Route A1A.










Lunch was at Coconuts on the Beach:


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Nothing Better To Do

Today is my second day furloughed from my day job thanks to the government shutdown.

I submitted this letter to the Florida Today opinion page. Don't know if it will be published, but here it is.

I was employed at the Kennedy Space Center until my representative in Congress, Bill Posey, decided along with his Republican colleagues to shut down the government.

I no longer have a means of paying my bills.

At least I know that I will have access to affordable health care, but ironically Mr. Posey wants to take that away from me as well.

I look forward to voting against Mr. Posey in 2014.


UPDATE October 2, 2013 8:30 AM EDTFlorida Today has published an editorial ripping Rep. Posey for his participation in the government shutdown.

Workers at Kennedy Space Center endured the shutdown of the Constellation program. They survived thousands of layoffs from the end of the space shuttle program.

Now, they and their families will suffer from a vote by the very congressman they have trusted for support.

U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, voted for House budget resolutions that called for defunding or delaying parts of Obamacare in return for keeping the federal government running.

He knew President Barack Obama would never oblige that, although the Senate took time to vote “no.”

Consequently, about 2,000 civil servants were sent home Tuesday without pay from KSC as part of a partial government shutdown. Work stopped on a November launch to Mars of the probe Maven, potentially causing a two-year delay. Canaveral National Seashore closed. Call centers and operators for the Veterans Administration hung up.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Birthday With No Cake


Click the arrow to watch a September 1958 film introducing NACA employees to the new NASA administrator.

NASA was born on October 1, 1958, in response to events in the last year beginning with the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957.

That makes today NASA's 55th birthday.

No one is around to light the birthday candle, unfortunately, because Congress failed to pass a Fiscal Year 2014 budget by midnight. NASA has already begun sending out tweets on Twitter with this advisory:

Due to the gov't shutdown, all public NASA activities/events are cancelled or postponed until further notice. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Florida Today published an article on September 26 projecting the consequences of the shutdown on NASA.

Congress has failed to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the FY14 NASA budget. The House version would cut NASA's budget and prohibit the proposed Asteroid Initiative. The Senate version slightly increases NASA's budget and allows NASA to decide if the Asteroid Initative should proceed.

Contrast today's sad state of affairs with the optimism fifty-five years ago when Keith Glennan introduced Hugh Dryden to the employees of the outgoing National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. NACA was being absorbed into the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Glennan was NACA's last director, and would be deputy NASA administrator to Glennan.

Fifty-five years ago, Glennan and Dryden knew they had the joint backing of the White House and Congress. They also knew that when it came time to open their doors on October 1, they could actually open their doors.

Not so today.