Monday, July 12, 2021

The Myth of the Mercury 13


An editorial cartoon that appeared on the front page of the Orlando Sentinel on July 18, 1962. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Newspapers.com.

Blue Origin announced on July 1 that Wally Funk will be one of the passengers when the company launches its first crewed spaceflight from Van Horn, Texas. The launch is targeted for July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

Funk was one of a group of woman aviators who were invited around 1960 by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II to undergo some of the same tests taken by the Project Mercury astronaut candidates in late 1958.

Over the decades, Dr. Lovelace's research was largely forgotten until a film producer named James Cross made a documentary about the group, whom he dubbed the “Mercury 13.”

According to an October 23, 1998 Orlando Sentinel article:

It was Cross who dubbed the women “The Mercury 13,” although they were never actually affiliated with NASA.

The documentary began a mythology that the women were part of a secret NASA program that was stopped by unnamed nefarious forces simply because “they” didn't want to see a woman go to space.

A July 2, 2000 Los Angeles Times article quoted one of the test participants:

Jerri Sloan Truhill of the Mercury 13 group says she’d be happy if NASA would “stop denying the contribution we made and were prepared to make. Instead they treat us as interlopers, invading their space.”

The article also quoted test participant Jerrie Cobb:

On Sept. 12, 1961, five days before the women were to report to Pensacola, the tests were canceled. Cobb hopped a plane to Washington, D.C., and banged on doors until she found the chief of naval operations. “He told me,” Cobb remembers, “that the tests were canceled because NASA did not want the tests run on women.”

No one has ever produced any evidence of a conspiracy to “stop” the so-called Mercury 13 — one reason being there was no “Mercury 13.”

A 2018 NASA history office article documents the facts behind the Lovelace program.

Lovelace’s Woman in Space Program was a short-lived, privately-funded project testing women pilots for astronaut fitness in the early 1960s. Although nothing concrete resulted, the women who participated have since been recognized as trailblazers, whose ambitions to fly the newest and the fastest craft led them to be among the first American women to gain access to sophisticated aerospace medical tests.

The participants were never together in one place. The tests were typically performed on one or two women at a time, as Lovelace selected test subjects largely from a group of women pilots called the Ninety-Nines. Not all tests were performed on all participants.

The testing ended when Lovelace requested permission to use U.S. Navy equipment at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Florida. The testing so far had been at his private clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but now he wanted to use government resources. Since this was private research not funded or requested by a government agency, the request was denied.

No conspiracy.

Trying to force the resumption of testing, Cobb flew to Washington, DC. She finally found a sympathetic ear in Rep. Victor Anfuso (R-NY), who held two days of Congressional hearings in July 1962.

On July 18, 1962, after the first day of the hearings, the Orlando Sentinel ran an editorial cartoon mocking the hearings. Titled, “Congress to Study Woman's Place in Space — They Drive Cars, Don't They?” the cartoon depicted stereotypes of women in that period, including a rocket crash-landed on the Moon.

Three women testified that day — Jacqueline Cochran, a contemporary of Amelia Earhart whose flying bombers for delivery across the Atlantic during World War II led to the creation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program; Jerrie Cobb, who'd in the 1950s also delivered planes; and Janey Hart, a helicopter pilot who was the wife of Senator Phil Hart (D-MI).

The Associated Press report as published in the Boston Globe was headlined, “Blondes Ask Equality for Space Women.”

Three blondes argued before a House Space subcommittee that all they needed was the training to join the Mercury astronauts in orbit ...

Miss Cobb, who testifies the same way she flies — with her shoes off — said women are now prevented from becoming astronauts because NASA insists its spacecraft pilots be test pilots — a job limited to men.


NASA astronauts Scott Carpenter (left) and John Glenn testify before Congress on July 18, 1962. Image source: Newspapers.com.

On the second day of the hearings, NASA chief of human space flight George Low, as well as Mercury astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, testified before the committee.

Low said that six women had applied for the second group of astronauts being selected at that time. According to the Associated Press report, “... none of the six women among 250 applicants for the 5 to 10 new astronauts now being picked met all the stringent age and training requirements.”

Low added that the pool of qualified men is more than ample to meet the need for 40 to 50 astronauts who may be used in the next few years.

The article quoted the two astronauts as saying that whomever was chosen had to be a qualified test pilot, regardless of gender.

“The best qualified people, whatever their sex, color or creed, should be picked,” Glenn added ...

Carpenter, asked for an opinion about women in space, disagreed with Rep. James G. Fulton, R-Pa., who said space travel is not so much in the experimental stage that women should be barred.

“There are many unknowns,” Carpenter said. “I think as many as possible should be eliminated.”

Carpenter added that present standards for astronauts are not a matter of protecting women but of protecting the program.

The hearings ended after the second day. No action was taken.

It had been more than a year since President John F. Kennedy, on May 25, 1961, proposed sending a “man” (not a person) to the Moon by the end of the 1960s and returning “him” safely to the earth.

Kennedy proposed what eventually became known as Project Apollo to demonstrate that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

At the time of these hearings, the United States and the Soviet Union were waging the Cold War. If Kennedy had not placed a time limit on Apollo — the end of the decade — perhaps the lack of urgency would have permitted more consideration for training women to be test pilots.

But that decision had been made by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. According to a NASA history web site:

NASA originally intended to issue a general solicitation of applications for the position of “research astronaut-candidate,” and considered that several occupations besides test pilot might qualify. President Eisenhower, however, directed the agency to select its astronauts from the ranks of military test pilots; this would simplify selection, keep out undesirable applicants, and eliminate the need to run security checks on the candidates.

Why were there no female military test pilots in 1958?

During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces used women to deliver military aircraft overseas. According to a U.S. Army history web site:

Cochran served as director of WASP and its training division, while [Nancy Harkness] Love was director of the ferrying division. In the 16 months WASP existed, more than 25,000 women applied for training; only 1,879 candidates were accepted. Among them, 1,074 successfully completed the grueling program at Avenger Field — a better “wash-out” rate than 50 percent of male pilot cadets.


Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. Image source: U.S. Army.

The WASPs were disbanded in December 1944. General Hap Arnold wrote:

When we needed you, you came through and have served most commendably under very difficult circumstances, but now the war situation has changed and the time has come when your volunteer services are no longer needed. The situation is that if you continue in service, you will be replacing instead of releasing our young men. I know the WASP wouldn't want that. I want you to know that I appreciate your war service and the AAF will miss you ...

Apparently there was only one female military test pilot during World War II.

Ann Baumgartner was a WASP pilot who was assigned to Wright Field Air Base in Dayton, Ohio. She flew various test flights at Dayton. “I was the first woman to fly a jet for nearly 10 years. I also flew some British bombers and the German JU-88,” she wrote. But she was turned out with the other WASPs when the program was terminated.

If the military had allowed women to apply for pilot training after World War II, some of them most likely would have qualified as test pilots.

But that's not the fault of NASA, or Project Mercury.

There's no evidence that any of the so-called “Mercury 13” participants had an engineering degree. Although many had extensive flight experience, none of them had test-pilot experience.

Contrast that with the résumés of the Mercury 7. Those pilots typically had engineering degrees, along with years of flying experimental aircraft, and some had combat experience.

Given the opportunity, women could have achieved the same but, for a dangerous rush program that had the highest national priority and international ramifications, military test pilots were the logical choice.

During the hearing, Glenn pointed out that the Lovelace Clinic tests had been only one small part of the astronauts' selection criteria.

In answer to other questions, Glenn said there has been a misunderstanding about the fact that 13 women pilots passed space tests given by the Lovelace Foundation at Albuquerque, N.M. One of them was Jerrie Cobb, a consultant to NASA, who plugged the girls-in-space idea before the subcommittee yesterday.

“They're such a minimum,” Glenn explained. “Those tests merely show if anything is wrong with you. As an analogy, my mother could probably pass the pre-season physical exam given the Washington Redskins. But I don't think she could play many games.”

The irony is that, while NASA chose military test pilots for its international prestige program, the Soviet Union secretly was recruiting candidates for the first space flight by a woman.

As these hearings were held, the Soviet Union was selecting and training women to be cosmonauts. The Soviet program viewed their spacecraft occupants more as passengers than actual fliers, so the woman recruits didn't have to meet the high standards of the American program. In November 1962, four finalists were given an honorary rank of lieutenant in the Soviet air force.

On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova launched in Vostok 6 to rendezvous with male cosmonaut Valeri Bykovsky in Vostok 5.

She logged more flight time than all the Mercury missions combined to that point.

The Soviets achieved a propaganda triumph that NASA failed to anticipate because of its fixation on a lunar landing by the end of the 1960s.

By the time the United States landed on the Moon in July 1969, American and Soviet relations were about to enter an era of cooperation and eventually collaboration in space.

Apollo and Soyuz spacecrafts docked in 1975, with crews visiting each other's ships.

The Space Shuttle program opened the ranks of NASA to civilians, and to women. Physicist Sally Ride became the first American woman to launch into space in June 1983.

In 1975, Captain Jane Holley became the first woman to graduate from the Edwards Air Force Base test pilot school, as a flight test engineer.


Capt. Jane L. Holley, the first female graduate of U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School. Image source: Air Force Test Center History Office.

In 1990, Eileen Collins was selected by NASA after graduating the Edwards test pilot program. She flew four Space Shuttle flights, commanding the last two, becoming the first woman to command a Space Shuttle mission.

Once the wrong had been righted, women proved they could be military test pilots and NASA astronauts.

Just don't buy into the mythology that some grand conspiracy existed within NASA to stop them from flying in the 1960s.

If you are told this myth, reply with the truth. It's far more compelling.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Columbus Conundrum


January 14, 2004 ... Physicist Robert Park and former NASA Associate Administrator Lori Garver appear on the “PBS NewsHour.” Original video source: PBS NewsHour.

“If Columbus could have sent a drone, he would have.”

— Professor Robert L. Park, “PBS NewsHour,” January 14, 2004

It's an argument as old as human spaceflight.

Why send a person, when a robot can do it more safely and cheaply?

The Project Apollo astronauts were preceded by robotic spacecraft. Project Ranger probes relayed pictures and science data as they approached and crashed into the Moon. Project Lunar Orbiter photographed potential Apollo landing sites. Project Surveyor robots landed on the Moon from 1966 to 1968, photographing the terrain and sampling the soil.

While NASA sent humans to return regolith samples, the Soviets sent robots.

Starting in September 1970, fourteen months after Apollo 11, the Soviets began returning samples from the Moon using robotic spacecraft.

Not all Soviet Luna missions were successful. Luna 15 landed on the Moon on July 21, 1969, the day after the Apollo 11 landing, but crashed on impact. But no lives were lost, much less risked.

Apollo astronauts returned 382 kilograms, while the Luna probes returned only 226 grams, tiny in comparison.

But Apollo was not intended to be a science mission. It was to demonstrate to the nations of Earth that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson's April 28, 1961 memorandum to President John F. Kennedy recommended a manned (not crewed, as in 1961 only men were in the American astronaut program) lunar excursion in response to the recent Soviet achievement of orbiting Yuri Gagarin.

Manned exploration of the moon, for example, is not only an achievement with great propaganda value, but it is essential as an objective whether or not we are first in its accomplishment — and we may be able to be first.

During a November 21, 1962 meeting with Kennedy, NASA Administrator James Webb argued for increased funding for science programs. Kennedy replied, “I'm not that interested in space,” that the only justification for the fantastic expense was “we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple years, by God, we passed them.”

Project Apollo's objective was to land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s, proving that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union. Once that objective was achieved, no political will existed in the White House or Congress to continue, as the mission had been accomplished.

In the decades since, several Presidents have given speeches announcing new programs to resume human deep space expeditions.

None had the political, and therefore financial, support of Congress to succeed.

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush delivered his Vision for Space Exploration.


January 14, 2004 ... President George W. Bush delivers his Vision for Space Exploration speech at NASA Headquarters. Original video source: C-SPAN.

The VSE was a response to the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which stated that the “lack of an agreed national vision for human space flight” was a contributing cause to the loss of the orbiter Columbia on February 1, 2003. Bush's VSE was an effort to provide that vision.

Among the goals he articulated in his speech was, “we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.”

To pay for it, Bush said he would reallocate $11 billion over the next five years from other NASA programs, and ask for a $1 billion increase over that same time.

VSE evolved into Project Constellation, which a 2009 commission found was “on an unsustainable trajectory.”

But on January 14, 2004, all that was in the future.

That evening, The PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer included a segment on Bush's VSE proposal. Journalist Ray Suarez interviewed two panelists, Professor Robert Park and former NASA Associate Administrator Lori Garver.

A physics professor at the University of Maryland, Dr. Park also represented the American Physical Society. During the program, he argued that sending humans was a waste of money, and that robots were a far safer and more efficient means of exploring the solar system.

A one-time executive director of the National Space Society, Garver had been NASA's Associate Administrator for the Office of Policy and Plans during the Clinton adminstration. She returned to NASA in 2009 as Deputy Administrator during President Obama's first term.

Garver would go on to become one of the fiercest critics of Project Constellation and it successor, the Space Launch System. But on January 14, 2004, in the private sector, Garver during the telecast expressed initial optimism about the VSE and the resumption of human deep space flight.

Park dismissed human space flight as “a romantic thing to do.” A one-time chair of the University of Maryland's Department of Physics and Astronomy, Park wanted the money spent on space telescopes and robotic probes.

The debate between the two that night is not particularly notable, but it reflects the seemingly eternal either/or debate regarding humans versus robots in space.

Dr. Park said:

You know, of course, this president's father stood on the steps of the Air and Space Museum in 1989 and made the same call. He said, “we're going back to the moon, we're going on to Mars.” He said, “like Columbus, we dream of shores we have not seen.” Well, if Columbus could have sent a drone, he would have.

Here's where Dr. Park went wrong.

Drones, of course, didn't exist in the late 15th Century.

But let's assume they did.

What would a drone have found?

Humans living on fertile land that must certainly was not the East Indies.

If you were the Spanish crown, what would have been your next step?

More drones?

Of course not.

There comes a point in time where humans must do the exploration.

(Or, in the case of the Spanish empire, conquest and subjugation. Drones couldn't subjugate the Aztecs.)

For all the progress in artificial intelligence, it seems unlikely that a fully autonomous self-aware robot will be available for humans to use in place of people for significant exploration.

Dr. Park cited the Spirit rover that had landed on Mars ten days earlier. He claimed it was far more capable than humans, because it could actually touch the soil and sense the air.

The problem, though, which remains today, is that rovers are not autonomous.

Depending on the alignment of the two planets, a one-way communication between Earth and Mars is anywhere from five to twenty minutes.

An Earth operator must receive the data transmitted by a rover and make a decision about where to send it next. The operator can only make a decision based on the limited information available.

A human on Mars can make decisions far more quickly and capably than the rover, or its Earth-bound operator.

One possible solution might be to place the operator in Mars orbit. The operator would use virtual reality goggles and gloves to operate the robot in real time. Any samples can be returned not directly to Earth, but to the Mars space station.

That problem neatly avoids the person having to risk descent in the Mars gravity well, and ascent back to the station.

What remains, however, is the problem of that person surviving in a hostile space environment.

Park claimed that, “Most of the solar system is closed to us,” because of radiation and high temperatures. Humans were not made for deep space, he believed.

This is where the Columbus analogy fails Dr. Park.

The purpose of the 1492 Columbus voyage was to test the explorer's hypothesis that a shorter trade route to the East Indies existed than the current land routes, or following the African coast line around the dangerous Cape of Good Hope.

Knowing Earth to be a sphere, it seemed logical that one could reach the East Indies by sailing west instead of east. Columbus miscalculated the distance, believing it much shorter than it actually was.

Columbus had been a navigator, and had become intimately familiar with westerly trade winds he thought could be used to sail west to China.

He did not know, of course, that the Americas were in the way.

Columbus was fundamentally wrong about Earth's circumference, and he was wrong about a direct route to China.

What Columbus did prove was that it was possible.

It was the Age of Sail. Just as today's spacecraft are limited by chemical propulsion, sailing ships for centuries were limited to available wind.

Humans eventually developed engines to provide propulsion. That problem was conquered. Why? Because humans needed to travel faster and safer.

If drones existed, then humans would not have travelled, and the need to conquer wind would not have existed.

Scurvy was another common problem during the Age of Sail. The early settlements were plagued by drought and disease. European colonists failed to incorporate into their diets foods rich in Vitamin C.

If the imperial powers had relied only on robotic crafts, they never would have figured out how humans could survive in distant hostile worlds, simply because there was no need.

If humans are to travel beyond low Earth orbit, in the 21st Century we need to find similar solutions. How do people survive solar radiation, the space equivalent of scurvy?

If we don't send them, then no investment is made in solving the problem.

The imperial powers were, of course, motivated by greed and profit, but also by their finite resources. Earth's resources are finite. It may not happen for decades, or for centuries, but eventually we'll run out of resources.

Sixty years after President Kennedy sent the United States to the Moon for political prestige, NASA and its international partner agencies plan to hope to return to the Moon later this decade with Project Artemis.

Sure, some international prestige is involved, but this time we're not trying to prove we're better than a rival nation.

This time, it's to figure out how to stay.

Although private companies built Project Apollo, they did so based on NASA engineering specifications. NASA owned the technology.

That's certainly true of NASA's Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, but those were dictated by Congress in 2010 to protect Space Shuttle and Constellation contractors from unemployment. They're jobs programs.

The rest of Project Artemis relies on the American private sector to provide services developed through competition and innovation.

The three ships Columbus used in 1492 were private trade ships hired to make the voyage.


An artist's concept of the Gateway, built by commercial and international partners. Image source: NASA.

A one-way trip to the Moon is about three days. Artemis astronauts may land directly on the lunar surface, or they may dock at Gateway, a space station made of commercial components. Unlike the International Space Station, Gateway will have its own solar electric propulsion system, capable of changing its orbit, or even leaving orbit to venture into cislunar space.

Space propulsion will advance, just as ship propulsion advanced from the Age of Sail, to the Age of Steam, the Age of Diesel, and the Age of Nuclear Power.

Artemis plans a semi-permanent crewed habitat at the Moon's South Pole. Robotic probes have collected evidence that frozen water ice may exist in craters there cloaked in permanent darkness.

Columbus and other early European sailors brought fresh water with them, which was used sparingly. Rain water was collected along the way, if it rained at all.

On today's ISS, robotic cargo ships periodically deliver fresh water, although water is constantly recycled, even from sweat and urine.

Much of the ISS food is freeze-dried. It's reconstituted with warm water for consumption.

That's not far off from what the Columbus crews did. Their food was dried, pickled, or salted to last up to a year, although maggots were a constant problem. When it was time to consume the dried food, the sailors added water, just as do the ISS crew.

Dr. Park died in April 2020 at age 89. As did his contemporary, Carl Sagan, Park delighted in debunking pseudoscience, or what he called “voodoo science.”

If I would have had the chance to discuss the matter with him, I might have agreed with him that there was no immediate reason, rational or “romantic,” to send people back to the Moon or to Mars.

I would, however, have argued that he misinterpreted the nature of the Columbus voyage, and the other great voyages of exploration (and conquest) that were to follow.

The Age of Sail took almost four hundred years to pass. It might take that long for us to figure out how humans can survive on the Moon, Mars, and throughout the solar system.

If we only ever send robots, then we'll never learn how humans can live safely off the planet. It may not be necessary tomorrow, the next decade, or even the next century.

But it is inevitable.

Even when the day comes that artificially intelligent robots can perform the same tasks as a human, they will be in service of humans.

Robots will reduce the risk for the humans to follow.

I would tell Dr. Park, yes, send the drone first if you must.

But the humans must follow.

If not ... Why did you send the drone?

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

A Matter of Perspective


An artist's concept of the view from a Space Perspective flight. Image source: Space Perspecive.

Space Perspective announced today that they're now booking flights from Kennedy Space Center starting in 2024.

Introducing a new era in luxury travel experiences: Space Perspective reimagines the thrill of space exploration with the world’s most radically gentle voyage to space. Space Explorers and travel adventurers looking to upgrade their bucket list can now savor 360-degree views of planet Earth from 20 mi/30 km above in a luxurious six hour trip, inside Spaceship Neptune, propelled by a state-of-the-art space balloon the size of a football stadium. Up to eight guests can have the sensational experience from the comfort of plush, reclining seats in a beautifully appointed capsule, complete with a bar and a bathroom, for $125,000 each.

If you're looking for a trip to “space”, this isn't it.

Sure, it'll be a pretty view, but it's not “space.”

Many U.S. government agencies define “space” as beginning at 50 miles, or about 80 kilometers. That number can be traced back to the X-15 program. The U.S. Air Force awarded astronaut wings to military pilots who exceeded that altitude.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and other international agencies use the Karman Line as the definition of where “space” begins. Hungarian mathematician Theodore von Kármán in the 1950s argued that the point where orbital dynamics forces exceed aerodynamic forces was a sensible place to set the limit. Based on data available at the time, that worked out to about 100 kilometers.

Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell in October 2020 wrote that, using modern sources of data, “von Kármán’s argument places the line close to 80 km, largely independent of atmospheric variations and satellite properties.”

80 kilometers or 100 kilometers, either definition is far higher than Space Perspective's capabilities.


Earth's atmospheric layers. Image source: NASA.

The 30-kilometer limit for Space Perspective is the upper layer of the stratosphere. The highest altitude reached by a skydiver jumping out of a high-altitude balloon was Alan Eustace in 2014. His altitude was 135,890 feet, or about 41.4 kilometers. The uncrewed Japanese research balloon BU60-1 in 2002 reached an altitude of 53 kilometers. These balloons reached the lower reaches of the mesosphere.

The highest altitude reached by the X-15 was 314,688 feet (95.9 km) by Robert White in 1962. The highest altitude by a ground-launched airplane was 123,523 feet (37.6 km) by Russian pilot Alexandr Fedotov in 1977.


The view of Kennedy Space Center from an altitude of 30 kilometers, as seen during the SpaceX CRS-21 flight on December 6, 2020. Image source: SpaceX.

This image from the fuselage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 during launch on December 6, 2020 shows the view of the Space Coast from an altitude of 30 kilometers, the limit for Space Perspective.

Two other companies offering suborbital adventure tourism flights are Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. Those are rocket-powered vehicles.

In May 2021, the Virgin Galactic ship VSS Unity reached an altitude of 55.45 miles, or 89 kilometers. A ticket for a Virgin Galactic flight costs $250,000.

A January 2021 Blue Origin New Shepard flight reached an altitude of 350,827 feet, or 106.9 kilometers. Blue Origin has yet to announce a ticket price.

Other companies have offered adventure tourism flights from the Kennedy Space Center runway.

Starfighters signed a Space Act Agreement in 2009 to offer flights on privately-operated Lockheed F-104 Starfighter aircraft. At one time, Starfighters offered suborbital space plane training flights, but no suborbital space planes have flown from KSC. Starfighters now offers F-104 pilot training programs.

Swiss Space Systems promised suborbital flights by 2015, but the company failed in 2017, amid allegations of financial shenanigans.

SpaceX is now offering orbital adventure tourism flights from Pad 39A. The Inspiration4 mission is scheduled to launch with four civilians in September. They'll spend about three days in orbit.

Starting in 2022, SpaceX will transport Axiom Space customers to the International Space Station, which orbits at an altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers).

If you want to go into “space”, you'll have to pay for a ride on a rocket-powered vehicle.

If you want to see “space” but not get close to it, Space Perspective might be an option.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Russians Are Going! The Russians Are Going!


The American Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis docks at the Russian space station Mir on June 29, 1995. Image source: NASA.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

By the end of the 1980s, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union was in its final days. The communist nation's financial exhaustion led the Gorbachev regime to seek a space partnership with the United States, which was flush with cash and starting a new commercial launch industry.

The George H.W. Bush administration saw an opportunity to end decades of Russian enmity, signalling an end to the Cold War and perhaps finding a partner for the President's Space Exploration Initiative.

The United States was planning a space station, named Freedom by President Reagan in July 1988, but the project lacked strong Congressional support. NASA's bureaucracy came under fire from a 1990 committee appointed by President Bush, which faulted the agency for “a natural tendency for projects to grow in scope, complexity, and cost.” The committee found that “NASA has not been sufficiently responsive to valid criticism and to the need for change.” A partnership with Russia might help sway skeptical members of Congress, arguing that it would reduce costs.

The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in August 1990 worried American political leaders, not only because of the threat to oil supplies and regional stability in the Middle East, but also the potential for desperate unpaid Soviet aerospace engineers to seek employment with rogue nations willing to pay well for their talents.

And so it was that the American and Russian space agencies, after decades of competition for international prestige, began to form partnerships.

International Launch Services, a business partnership between Lockheed Martin and Russian companies Khrunichev and RSC Energia, offered commercial uncrewed launch services on an American Atlas or a Russian Proton booster. Take your pick.

The Soviets had operated space stations in low Earth orbit since Salyut 1 launched in April 1971. Many smaller stations had orbited since then, a frequent destination for cosmonauts in Soyuz capsules, and for Progress robotic cargo ships. The Soviet Union had far more experience with space stations than did the United States; a new space station called Mir was under construction, with its first module launched in 1986. Unlike Freedom, which would require the Space Shuttle (and therefore risk the lives of crew) for assembly, Mir was assembled using Proton boosters. The Bush administration saw an opportunity for transfer of the Soviets' technology and expertise to NASA.

Mikhail Gorbachev was replaced by Boris Yeltsin in December 1991. The new Russian president, at a June 1992 summit with Bush, signed an agreement that became the foundation for American and Russian joint dependency in space for human space flight. Among the agreement's provisions:

  • A rendezvous between the Space Shuttle and Mir
  • Possible use of Russian technology on Space Station Freedom
  • American approval for a U.S.-built telecommunications satellite to launch on Proton

Bill Clinton succeeded Bush as the U.S. President in January 1993. The Clinton administration continued to expand cooperation in space with Russia. At an April 1993 summit in Vancouver, Yeltsin said that he and Clinton had “decided to join forces, the U.S. and Russian administrations,” in space.


Russian President Boris Yeltsin and American President Bill Clinton at Vancouver in April 1993. Image source: UPI.

In the last years of the 20th Century, the U.S. succeeded in persuading Russia to join the other space station partners —Europe, Japan, and Canada — in a unified project. Mir would be abandoned, and elements of Freedom would now be joined to Russian modules to assemble an International Space Station.

The core section was an American-financed, Russian-built module called Zarya (Russian for "Dawn"), which provided the first propulsion and power for the station. It was followed by the Russian segment's Zvezda (Russian for "Star") module, which housed the first crews. Assembly of the rest of the ISS was largely completed by Space Shuttle missions.

By the beginning of the 21st Century, the American and Russian human space flight programs had merged, reliant upon one another. U.S. space companies had become intertwined with their Russian counterparts, which came to rely on their American partners as a reliable source of revenue. Lockheed Martin, the earliest significant American company to embrace partnership with Russia, chose the Russian RD-180 engine for its new Atlas V booster. The first Atlas V launched in 2002.

After the Space Shuttle orbiter Columbia was lost on re-entry in February 2003, NASA turned to the Russian space agency Roscosmos for ISS crew and cargo deliveries. Had there been no partnership with Russia, the other nations would have had no means of rotating crews or transporting payloads until the Space Shuttle returned to flight thirty months later.

Comity goes only so far in international relations. It's an axiom that nations will always act in their own self-interest.

Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith wrote about self-interest in 1776 his fundamental work of classic economics, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Associate professor of political science Lauren Hall wrote for Adam Smith Works in 2018:

Rather than defending active vice as something that leads to virtue, Smith is critical of vicious behavior and argues in both “Wealth of Nations” and “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” that benevolent and virtuous behaviors are both necessary and desirable for stable social orders. Far from providing rationale for selfish material pursuits, Smith’s self-interest, properly understood, encourages a kind of virtue that protects both individuals and their communities. Smith’s self-interest is the foundation not just of economic order, but, along with sympathy, for the moral order on which the larger economic order rests. Self-interest, it turns out, is a key component in the creation of a stable, just, and orderly society in which individuals are secure and able to pursue their own goals.

Hall distinguishes between self-interest and selfishness:

The impartial spectator (Smith’s version of a conscience), which is built up over long experience, generally looks kindly on the pursuit of self-interest. It is, after all, nothing more than what everyone pursues. At the same time, the impartial spectator, impartial as he is, draws a sharp line between self-interest that is neutral in its effects on others and self-interest that harms others to benefit oneself.

Two significant events near the end of this century's first decade forewarned that the self-interests of the United States and Russia in space were about to diverge.

A year after the loss of Columbia, the George W. Bush administration announced its Vision for Space Exploration. The VSE aimed to return humans (presumably Americans) to the Moon by 2020, “in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations.”

The VSE also declared that the U.S. would, “Promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.”

No specific mention was made of Russia.

As for the ISS, the U.S. would honor its commitment to its international partners to complete the station, but its purpose would change from science to “understanding how the space environment affects astronaut health and capabilities and developing countermeasures.” The ISS would be phased out by 2015 to provide funding for the VSE, which would evolve into Project Constellation.

A June 2004 report by a presidential commission predicted a role for the nation's international partners, but that role would be determined by U.S. self-interest:

How our international partners will participate in the vision will depend on the specifics of the architecture that will be established by the United States and the value potential partners bring to the elements of the mission. Prior to entering into government-to-government agreements, the United States must first determine its own requirements, expectations, milestones, and risks. It must also determine what part of its national industrial base it must protect and what technologies it is prepared to transfer to the international partners.

Nothing personal, comrades, but America First.

The VSE foresaw a four-year gap where NASA would rely on Roscosmos Soyuz spacecraft for American crew rotations to ISS. That reliance would continue until Constellation's Orion capsule came online, and its Ares I booster.

By the time Barack Obama became President in January 2009, Orion and Ares I were years behind schedule. If and when they came online, they were intended to fly to a location that the Bush administration planned to end by 2015. Section 601 of the 2008 NASA authorization act required NASA to keep ISS operational at least through 2020, but the Obama administration inherited a plan to shut it down in 2015.

The Obama administration, in its Fiscal Year 2010 budget request, proposed cancelling Constellation to extend ISS to 2020, and funding the commercial crew program, which was on paper during the Bush administration but unfunded, to end U.S. reliance upon Russia by 2015.

In a grand compromise, Congress finally agreed to extend ISS and cancel Constellation, but NASA would have to design and build a new system, the Space Launch System. Over the next three fiscal years, Congress underfunded commercial crew, providing only 38% of what Obama requested, extending NASA's reliance on Roscosmos until the end of the decade.

Protecting pork for legacy aerospace companies was more important to Congress than ending reliance upon an increasingly disruptive foreign power.

The other significant event was the rise to power in Russia of Vladimir Putin.


Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2015 at the opening of a Russia avation and space show. Image source: Associated Press.

The former KGB intelligence officer has been President or Prime Minister of Russia since 1999. Former U.S. Ambasador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote in Foreign Policy in 2020:

Today, Putin has replaced Russia's fragile democracy from the 1990s with a consolidated autocracy. Over time, Putin has explicitly rejected liberalism and multilateralism and instead embraced and promoted conservative, orthodox, nationalist ideas. The clash between Putinism and liberalism takes place not only between states but within them.

Russia failed to live up to a secret agreement that required “an end to all Russian sales of conventional weapons to Iran by the end of 1999.” The Iran Nonproliferation Act, passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and signed by President Clinton in March 2000, prohibited any U.S. agency from making any ISS-related payments to Russia unless their government demonstrated “a sustained commitment to seek out and prevent the transfer to Iran of goods, services, and technology that could make a material contribution to the development of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, or of ballistic or cruise missile systems.”

In 2005, Congress exempted Soyuz crew missions from the act through 2011, but also extended the sanctions to cover assistance to Syria and North Korea. The law now has the unwieldly acronym INKSNA. Since then, Congress has routinely granted INKSNA exemptions for ISS, with the current exemption running through the end of 2025.

In 2008, Putin sent Russian forces to intervene in a civil war in the former Soviet republic Georgia. The United States protested, publicly and privately, but no sanctions were imposed. Condoleeza Rice, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, wrote ten years later:

The United States is sometimes constrained in what it can do in circumstances such as the Georgian conflict. We focused our energies on stopping Moscow from overthrowing a new democracy that then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hated with a virulence that is hard to overstate. America and its allies raised $1 billion in aid for the Georgians. Sanctions levied on the separatist regions remain largely in place, so Moscow foots the bill for its adventurism in territory that is difficult to develop economically.

A Russian cosmonaut used the ISS to photograph the war zone. A NASA representative replied that the photos were for humanitarian activities, and no further action would be taken.

Using a similar pretext in 2014, Russia invaded the Ukrainian regions of Crimea and Donbas. This time, the United States, the European Union, and other nations imposed sanctions. Among the first Russian government officials sanctioned was Dmitri Rogozin, a deputy prime minister who had Russia's defense and space industries in his portfolio.

Fully aware that Congress had kneecapped NASA's ability to rotate its ISS crews, Rogozin threatened to terminate Russian taxi services to the station, but it was an empty threat. At the time, NASA paid Roscosmos $71 million per crew member for transportation, and a $457.9 million payment was due.

These threats are often for domestic consumption.


Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov. Image source: TASS.

Similar threats have been made since then. In April, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said on a Russian television news program that the nation was fully capable of going its own way with a new space station, leaving the ISS partnership in 2025.

That would be the year that the ISS exemption from INKSNA expires.

Unlike 2014, NASA now has its own options for rotating ISS crews. The SpaceX Dragon has been flying crews since May 2020. The Boeing Starliner's uncrewed demonstration test flight suffered multiple anomalies, but another demonstration is planned for late July, and a possible crewed test flight by the end of this year.

SpaceX and Northrop Grumman provide robotic cargo deliveries to ISS, with the Sierra Space Dream Chaser planned for service in the next year or two. The SpaceX Dragon is the only vehicle currently capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth. Dream Chaser will land on a runway, not just in the United States but possibly in other nations that contract for payload services.


An artist's concept of the Sierra Space Dream Chaser “Tenacity” currently being assembled at Kennedy Space Center. Image source: Sierra Space.

Russia needs the money, but the ISS partners soon won't need Russia any more.

The Zarya module, which provides propulsion for ISS, is owned by the United States. Russia can't decommission it.

As for Zvezda and the rest of the Russian segment, the service module suffers from leaks. Roscosmos could abandon it in place and walk away, but again that would terminate U.S. payments that keep Russian engineers employed.

The U.S. has plenty of domestic options for replacing Zvezda's capabilities and expanding the station, if it so desires. At least two American commercial companies, Axiom Space and Sierra Space, have plans to develop habitats that could be attached to ISS. The dormant Bigelow Aerospace attached its BEAM habitat to ISS in 2016.

Russia and China have announced a potential lunar exploration partnership, and are seeking international partners, but China isn't in a rush (early 2030s) and Russia doesn't have the money for such an expensive endeavour. No other nation has yet to join them, but eleven nations have signed NASA's Artemis Accords, mostly recently New Zealand and South Korea.

Putin and President Joe Biden are to meet June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland. Expectations are low, and space relations are not likely to be a top priority, but the posturing has already begun.

In a June 4 phone call with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Dmitri Rogozin reaffirmed Russia's support for ISS and “shared the plans to develop the Russian segment of the station.” But Rogozin also complained about the sanctions. According to the Roscosmos English-language press release:

Therewith, the head of Roscosmos stated several questions that had been initiated by the US side earlier and now are substantially hindering the cooperation. First of all this is about the sanctions introduced by the American administration against the enterprises of the Russian space industry, as well as the absence of any official information in Roscosmos from the US partners on the plans to further control and operate the ISS.

Three days later, on June 7, Rogozin once again threatened to withdraw Russia from ISS, but once again it was for domestic consumption, a Russian parliament hearing.

Will the Russians go their own way?

We may know more after the Biden-Putin summit, but history tells us that the Russians will always be at the table when cash is on it.

The question space policy wonks should be asking is, are the reasons for the American-Russian space partnership still valid?

If not, are there new reasons?

To the first question, I'd answer no.

To the second question, I'd answer yes.

It's in American self-interest to maintain a stable working relationship with Russia, as well as any other spacefaring nation.

But the U.S. should no longer put itself in the position of relying on Russia for habitat modules or crew rotations or cargo delivery services.

If NASA no longer pays Russia for space services, does Russia have the wherewithal to continue?

Russia needs China a lot more than China needs Russia. China would be a new signifcant revenue source. Russia has far more experience in space than does China but, once that institutional knowledge is transferred, China might go its own way.

Russia won't get to the Moon any time soon with China. But they will with the United States and the Artemis Accords partners.


Dmitri Rogozin. Image source: TASS.

So far, Russia has declined to participate in Project Artemis. In October 2020, Rogozin criticized Artemis, calling the Gateway space station “too U.S.-centric.”

My opinion is that the U.S. should treat Russia the way it treats its domestic commercial companies.

The idea behind “NewSpace,” which traces back to the VSE, was to create a robust commercial aerospace industry from which NASA (and the military) could purchase products off-the-shelf.

No longer would there be a single-source means of reaching space.

If Russia wants cash, if Russia wants to be treated as an equal, fine. Compete to provide services to NASA, as do SpaceX, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and the rest.

James Clay Moltz of the Naval Postgraduate School wrote in 2019 of “an increasing disconnect” between Russia's nationalist agenda and its growing isolation from the rest of the space community.

Ironically, the very success of the Russian space industry in integrating into global supply chains in the 1990s has now made it dependent on foreign components for construction of satellites. A recent study indicated that up to 75 percent of electronic parts on certain current-generation satellites come from the United States. With the advent of Western sanctions after Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, Russia has been forced to substitute substandard and often ill-fitting Russian or other foreign components from countries that do not adhere to UN sanctions. Russia may develop renewed capabilities, but it will take time and steady budgetary support for such efforts to succeed.

Moltz also wrote that NewSpace “has created serious new challenges” for Russia in the commercial space marketplace.

Put simply, prices are dropping, especially in the launch sector, and a variety of new products are now available from commercial start-ups that Roscosmos cannot produce or cannot offer with comparable quality and price.

Partnership with Russia in space no longer serves its purpose for the United States. Putin has shown no inclination to change the nationalist direction he is taking Russia. He recently signed a law banning certain opposition leaders and groups from running for office.

Putin may calculate that he can make more money selling Russia's aerospace technology to Iran and North Korea, but neither nation has a stable leadership, and as Adam Smith wrote rational leaders want a stable global order.

In any case, it's time to take Russia out of NASA's critical path. They'll be welcome back when it's in mutual self-interest.


Much of this article draws upon a February 2001 monograph by John M. Logsdon and James R. Millar, editors, U.S. - Russian Collaboration in Human Space Flight: Assessing the Impacts. Click here to access the PDF.

Insight into the first Bush administration's space policy comes from George H.W. Bush's National Space Council Executive Secretary, Dr. Mark Albrecht, in his 2011 work, Falling Back to Earth: A First Hand Account of the Great Space Race and the End of the Cold War. Click here to order the book on Amazon.com.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Nelson Fills the Bill


Rep. Bill Nelson flies on the STS-61C mission in January 1986. Image source: WLRN, Miami/South Florida web site.

In nineteenth-century America, when producers found short acts to supplement the main attractions, nicely filling out an evening’s entertainment, they were said in a rhyming phrase to “fill the bill.”

— Professor Paul Brians

The White House made official yesterday what had been rumored for a month now.

Former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) has been nominated to be the next NASA Administrator.

My February 23 blog article made clear what I think of this nomination.

I concluded, “My personal belief is that Senator Nelson is well-intentioned. But he's not the right man for this job.”

Others were involved, but Nelson remains the poster child for the pork-laden process that led to the Space Launch System.

During a March 18, 2010 Senate subcommittee hearing on U.S. commercial space capabilities, Nelson rhetorically posed the question:

What would happen if Congress decided — since the Congress controls the purse strings — that we wanted to take the $6 billion projected by the president over the next five years and use that not for human certification of the commercial vehicles but instead to accelerate the [research and development] for a heavy-lift vehicle for the Mars program?

Nelson set in motion an either/or battle between what came to be known as “OldSpace” and “NewSpace” for the future of NASA's human spaceflight progam.


A June 2020 estimate for Space Launch System costs. Image source: NASA Office of the Inspector General Infographic.

Here we are a decade later, and NASA has already spent more than $17 billion on SLS, according to a March 2020 NASA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report.

When he unveiled the SLS design in September 2011, Nelson said, “The cost of the rocket over a five- to six-year period in the NASA authorization bill was to be no more than $11.5 billion. This costs $10 billion for the rocket.”

Nelson told Bart Jansen of Florida Today on September 20, 2010, “If we can't do a rocket for $11.5 billion, we ought to close up shop.”

That was more than a decade ago. History has proven him wrong. SpaceX, and soon Blue Origin, will have heavy-lift vehicles that will render SLS all but obsolete at a fraction of the cost.

We've all said stupid things we've had to live down. But few of us have cost the taxpayers billions of dollars.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who dueled with Nelson in those either/or days, tweeted on March 18:

“The book” refers to a tell-all Lori is writing about events during her Obama administration tenure.

SLS will be the Scarlet Letters that Nelson will wear on his chest for the rest of his political life but, beyond the space policy wonk bubble we live in, Nelson's nomination seems to be universally praised.

My guess is that President Biden sees Nelson as a safe choice.

Biden and Nelson were contemporaries in the Senate. They were both viewed as centrist Democrats, compromisers who reached across the aisle to find a consensus.

Unlike Nelson's NASA Administrator predecessors, Charlie Bolden and Jim Bridenstine, it's unlikely that any serious opposition will arise in the Senate to block Nelson's confirmation. It was Nelson, ironically, who blocked the nomination of President Obama's original choice Steve Isakowitz, in favor of his STS-61C pilot Bolden. Nelson also objected to Bridenstine's nomination, saying that “The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and a skilled executive.”

Bridenstine yesterday released a statement endorsing Nelson.

A new President wants to avoid controversy and delay where possible. Biden's priorities ahead include the For the People Act voting reform measure, a big infrastructure bill, and raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations. He also has to bring in for a successful landing the battle against COVID-19.

The last thing he needs is a fight over the leader of an agency whose annual spending is less than one percent of the federal budget.

Nelson is two months older than Biden. They're both 78 years old. It's unlikely that Biden will serve more than one term. Vice President Kamala Harris may be the heir apparent.

Although not yet announced, it's been rumored that former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy will be named Nelson's Deputy Administrator. She might be the heir apparent as well.

I think Nelson will serve long enough to get Space Launch System across the finish line, then step down in favor of Melroy. He'll continue the status quo, which will appease the OldSpace crowd in Congress looking to protect the pork flowing to their districts and states.

Of the four Senators, including Nelson, who foisted SLS upon NASA in 2010 to protect OldSpace contractors, only one is left in office, Richard Shelby (R-AL). Shelby has announced he will retire after his term expires in January 2023. His departure will remove major OldSpace clout from the Senate appropriations process.

By then, either SLS will have flown or it will have failed.

When Shelby goes, perhaps Nelson will go as well.

In the meantime, Nelson fills the bill.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Garver Unchained, Part V


The March 7, 2021 telecast of “60 Minutes” included a segment on the women leading NASA's Project Artemis. Video source: 60 Minutes YouTube Channel.

Lori Garver is the biggest thorn in the backside of OldSpace.

The one-time Executive Director of the National Space Society, Garver is best known for her service as NASA Deputy Administrator during President Obama's first term.

Although she often shares the credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) with others for the revolution she unleashed on the NASA bureaucracy during those four years, Garver is the one who is lauded (or vilified) for ushering in the era of what is called NewSpace.

Not everyone is happy with the use of the terms “OldSpace” and “NewSpace.” I wrote a blog article about it in November 2013.

I wrote back then, “It's about a way of going about your business.”

OldSpace colluded with members of Congress to perpetuate lucrative NASA contracts using monopolistic business practices. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, ATK (later, Orbital ATK, today Northrop Grumman) had Space Shuttle contracts, Constellation contracts, and now Space Launch System contracts.

NewSpace welcomes competition. They invest their own money, sharing the risk in a new program, not expecting the government to pay for all of it.

The definitions are not always pure. Today's NASA Public-Private Partnerships are government seed money hoping to grow a vibrant domestic space industry by planting seeds where new technology might grow. NASA assumes some of the risk, but the entrepreneur must invest as well, assuming some of the risk. The commercial enterprise may fail or fall, and so NASA may be blamed by members of Congress for wasting taxpayer dollars instead of just giving a “cost-plus” guaranteed-profit contract to a legacy aerospace company.

NASA's commercial cargo and crew programs began under President George W. Bush. The Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office opened in November 2005, more than three years before Barack Obama took office.

Garver served on the Obama administration's transition team, so she knew that the Bush administration had funded commercial cargo but not crew. NASA was to rely on Project Constellation, a classic OldSpace cost-plus program, for crew rotations some day to the International Space Station, although on paper Constellation was to be funded by ending the ISS in 2016. Go figure.

In March 2009, two months after Obama took office, media reports surfaced that Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) had pressured the Administration into dropping its preferred NASA Administrator candidate, Steve Isakowitz. Garver confirmed that in a March 18, 2021 tweet. She wrote, “He personally blocked Obama's extremely qualified candidate to force his own,” retired astronaut Charlie Bolden, who had been pilot on Nelson's tag-along Space Shuttle flight in January 1986.

Garver eventually succeeded in the cancellation of Constellation and the funding of commercial crew, but it was only after the Administration compromised with Nelson to fund another cost-plus program known today as Space Launch System. Congress underfunded commercial crew by 62% over the first three years of the program, while SLS fell years behind schedule and went billions over budget despite Congressional largesse.

After she left office in 2013, Garver was freed of her expectations to support Administration policy and speak her own mind. Which she does quite well.

I began that year the “Garver Unchained” series of blog articles, documenting the more public instances in which she spoke her mind about the space-industrial complex. The most recent was April 2016, when she exposed how the departing Bush administration's NASA staffers were less than forthcoming with Constellation performance data.

On March 7, 2021, the CBS News program 60 Minutes ran a segment about NASA's Project Artemis, which relies on SLS and NASA's Orion crew capsule to send astronauts to the Moon. The segment included interviews by Bill Whitaker with Artemis Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and Marshall Space Flight Center Director Jody Singer.

The segment was pretty much a puff piece until Whitaker introduced Garver, who had the audacity to tell the truth.

I would not have recommended the government build a $27 billion rocket when the private sector is building rockets nearly as large for no cost to the taxpayer.

When asked about the multi-year delays and cost overruns, Singer replied:

The Space Launch System, I'm proud to say, has work that's over 45 states and over eleven hundred vendors, so the Space Launch System is a national vehicle. That means jobs. That means that across the nation, for the SLS alone, there's over twenty-five thousand people that have jobs.

Classic OldSpace.

It's not about efficiency. It's not about innovation. It's not about the destination.

It's about workfare.

Nelson and other members of Congress told us just that ten years ago, when they unveiled the Space Launch System design. One politician after another marched up to the microphone to brag about saving jobs in their district or state.

Garver described the SLS program as “socialist,” which seemed to surprise Whitaker. When he sought clarification, Garver replied:

You will plant the potatoes in March. You will build your rocket in my district.

Garver was referring to edicts issued in the Soviet era that required crops to be planted at a certain time of year to meet quotas, regardless of agricultural reality.

While NASA has spent the last ten years designing and building a rocket that has yet to launch, SpaceX has matured the Falcon 9, bound together three into the Falcon Heavy, and with its own money is test-firing (and blowing up) Starship prototypes in Texas.

The SLS core stage finally had a successful full-duration test fire yesterday in Mississippi. The stage may be shipped to Kennedy Space Center by the end of April. But most observers think the Artemis 1 uncrewed test flight won't be until sometime in 2022.

$20 billion can buy a lot of potatoes.


Prior “Garver Unchained” articles:

Garver Unchained September 10, 2013

Garver Unchained, Part II January 3, 2014

Garver Unchained, Part III December 4, 2014

Garver Unchained, Part IV April 26, 2016

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Out of the Blue


A Blue Origin pathfinder version of New Glenn briefly glimpsed February 12, 2021 inside their Exploration Park factory in north Merritt Island. Image copyright © 2021 Stephen C. Smith. Click the image to view it at a larger size.

Normally a quiet if not secretive company, Blue Origin surprised NewSpace observers on February 25 when they finally gave the outside world a glimpse into their Space Coast operations.

Blue was last heard from on January 14, when the company launched its latest suborbital test flight from the launch site outside Van Horn, Texas. Although this was the company's fifteenth successful uncrewed test flight of New Shepard, they've yet to announce when they might fly crew.

When that happens, it won't be at Cape Canaveral. New Shepard is for suborbital missions, not just for adventure tourism but also limited microgravity research. Those missions will launch from Van Horn, in the remote desert of west Texas.

Here in east-central Florida, construction of their Orbital Launch Site Manufacturing Complex on Space Commerce Road began in 2016. We've watched one facility after another being constructed, but here we are in 2021 and Blue has yet to launch anything other than hopes and dreams from the Cape.

A hint that actual hardware might arrive soon was spotted on February 12, when what appeared to be a New Glenn prototype poked its head out of the factory like Punxsutawney Phil out of his burrow. Emre Kelly of Florida Today confirmed that the artifact was a pathfinder. Simpler than a test article, a pathfinder is typically used for fitting tests and early simulations.

Blue remained silent until February 25 when the company issued a press release and posted three YouTube videos of Cape operations.

As major progress is being made on the New Glenn launch vehicle and its Cape Canaveral facilities, the schedule has been refined to match the demand of Blue Origin’s commercial customers. The current target for New Glenn’s maiden flight is Q4 2022. The Blue Origin team has been in contact with all of our customers to ensure this baseline meets their launch needs.

The press release blamed “the recent Space Force decision to not select New Glenn for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Services Procurement” for any delays, which seems odd, but whatever.


This first of three videos gives outsiders a look inside Blue's Merritt Island factory, where the pathfinder is clearly visible. Video source: Blue Origin.


The second video shows the 23-story tall New Glenn Tank Cleaning and Processing (TCAP) Facility. Video source: Blue Origin.


The third video unveils the renovated Launch Complex 36, once the home of the Atlas-Centaur. The Vehicle Access Tower is designed to support human spaceflight. Video source: Blue Origin.

Blue Origin is owned by Jeff Bezos, arguably the richest person on Earth. (Elon Musk was first until a slide in Tesla stock.) Bezos announced on February 2 that he was stepping down as Amazon's CEO to focus on other projects, including Blue Origin.

Unlike Musk, Bezos is not a hands-on guy when it comes to his rocket company.

Musk graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1997 with dual bachelor degrees in economics and physics. An engineer who once hired Musk for a startup company said that Elon “was not afraid to just go figure things out.”

Bezos has a degree in electrical engineering and computer science from Princeton University. These skills were parlayed along with early career experience in the banking and investment industries into creating Amazon. His passion for space colonization led him to create Blue Origin.

But there's no evidence that Bezos involves himself in daily engineering decisions as does Musk. Elon tweeted in February 2019, “I have been chief engineer/designer at SpaceX from day 1.” He then wrote, “Had I been better, our first 3 launches might have succeeded, but I learned from those mistakes.”

The Blue Origin motto is Gradatim Ferociter! meaning, “Step by Step, Ferociously.” SpaceX has had plenty of spectacular failures, while Blue has had none, but that's okay as far as Musk is concerned. During a February 11 podcast, Musk said:

“This is a test program. We expect it to explode. It’s weird if it doesn’t explode, frankly. If you want to get payload to orbit, you have to run things close to the edge.”

A decade ago, Musk had an ample share of harsh critics. I heard Space Coast locals dismiss him as a “hobbyist” who would “blow things up and kill people.”

Well, they were right about the “blowing up” part.

Musk's approach was antithetical to the NASA and “OldSpace” way of doing business. In the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s, when computers were in their infancy, the only way for military (and later civilian) government programs to learn rocket technology was to test a rocket science hypothesis by launching it. If it blew up, figure out where you went wrong and try again. It was hideously expensive, but in the end the United States mastered rocketry.


In the early days of American ballistic missile rocketry, technological advancement came from trial and error — often error. Video source: Air Force Space & Missile Museum.

As the technology matured, NASA grew risk-averse. Losing fourteen crew members on Challenger and Columbia didn't help. In 2011, former National Space Council executive secretary Mark Albrecht described NASA as a “risk-averse feudal empire” and worried that “the national security space program is not far behind.”

In 2006, Boeing and Lockheed Martin formed United Launch Alliance, a legal monopoly to assure that both companies were the only two suppliers of medium-to-heavy national security-related launch services in the United States. Commercial payload customers, such as communications satellites, went overseas to Europe, Japan, and Russia, costing less. Launching on a Russian rocket might be more of a risk, but the company paid a little more in insurance premiums and still came out with a better deal than flying with ULA.

It look a long time for SpaceX to break through ULA's legal monopoly, but today's NASA helps space entrepreneurs by absorbing some of the risk. NASA purchases a service to help advance the technology. If the service fails, as happened with the SpaceX CRS-7 cargo Dragon launch, NASA loses payload but SpaceX (and NASA) learn what went wrong and fix it. Those lessons helped develop a more reliable and robust Falcon 9 that now sends NASA crew to the International Space Station.


The SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure on June 28, 2015. Video source: NASA.

Despite its public failures, SpaceX now dominates the global launch industry. The question in my mind is where will Blue Origin find customers, when they're ready to fly.

Those SpaceX Phase 2 launch services contracts went to SpaceX and ULA, because they have proven hardware ready to fly. Blue Origin does not. It was a criticism levelled at SpaceX a decade ago when they complained about the ULA monopoly. You don't have proven hardware. Why should the military take a risk with expensive national security payloads?

The Obama administration's NASA helped SpaceX and other “NewSpace” companies mature their technologies by absorbing the risk. The Trump administration continued that approach with Jim Bridenstine as Administrator.

Some argue that today's launch market is glutted with too many providers. The emergence of small rocket companies is adding to the glut.

Is there a market for New Glenn?

SpaceX has trouble finding customers for Falcon Heavy. In three years, Falcon Heavy has flown only three times, the first a demonstration flight sending Elon's cherry red Tesla Roadster to intersect with the Mars orbit. The Falcon Heavy manifest has a classified military payload scheduled for July 2021, and another in October 2021. According to one list, two Heavy launches are booked for 2022. NASA just announced the Falcon Heavy will launch the first two elements of the Gateway lunar orbital station, but that awaits Congressional funding.

Comparing data on both companies' web sites, Falcon Heavy can deliver more payload than a New Glenn. Falcon Heavy can deliver 140,000 pounds to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), while New Glenn will deliver 100,000 pounds. To geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), Falcon Heavy can deliver 58,000 pounds, while New Glenn will deliver 28,000 pounds.

Blue has announced a few New Glenn commercial customers. Eutelsat was the first, originally targeting 2022. A pre-bankruptcy OneWeb was next, reserving five launches with their Exploration Park neighbor, but post-bankruptcy who knows where that stands. Asian company mu Space has also announced a flight with New Glenn.

Blue Origin does have a NASA contract for Project Artemis. Blue is part of a “national team” that includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper developing a lunar lander called Blue Moon that could be used for crew or cargo. Two other companies, SpaceX and Dynetics, have submitted competing designs. NASA intends to down-select to one or two of these competitors in April.. Congress has not provided NASA with the funding to go ahead with the project, so this may not be a significant revenue source for Blue any time soon.


The Blue Moon technology demonstration for Project Artemis. Video source: Blue Origin.

Blue has a reliable income source providing its BE-4 engines to ULA for the new Vulcan rocket. A Vulcan pathfinder arrived at Cape Canaveral last month. The most powerful version of Vulcan delivers slightly more payload to orbit than a Falcon 9, but doesn't approach the New Glenn or Falcon Heavy.

Another project on the horizon for Blue is Project Kuiper, which technically is an Amazon project but logically would launch on New Glenn, just as the Starlink satellites launch on the Falcon 9. But just as with launch vehicles, Bezos is far behind Musk in the competition to build an operational satellite constellation.

A March 1 article by Eric Berger of Ars Technica suggests that Blue's business suffers from unrealistic timelines and too many competing projects.

But many of the criticisms fairly levelled at Blue Origin were once levelled at SpaceX.

SpaceX has no rockets. They can't legally challenge the ULA monopoly.

SpaceX can't survive without government contracts. Those are taxpayer subsidies!

Elon has too much on his plate, with SpaceX and Tesla Motors and Solar City and The Boring Company. Elon is easily distracted.

SpaceX projects go off on tangents that are cancelled. Remember Red Dragon? Elon should focus on one project.

Elon's timelines are unrealistic. There's “Elon Time” and real time.

I think those of us who dabble in space punditry tend to be impatient. Rocketry is still expensive and difficult and dangerous. In addition to New Glenn, it's taken years for Blue Origin to renovate Launch Complex 36. SpaceX signed its LC-39A lease in April 2014. The first SpaceX launch from 39A was February 2017. Blue signed its LC-36 lease in September 2015, but unlike SpaceX they've had no hardware to launch.

Blue Origin can survive as long as Jeff Bezos wants to invest his otherworldly riches in keeping the company going. But the fundamental difference between Blue and SpaceX is the latter's willingness to take a risk to compete. SpaceX is the hare to Blue's tortoise; in fact, Blue has a tortoise on its coat of arms.

In the parable, the tortoise won the race.


UPDATE March 4, 2021 — SpaceX launched, landed, and blew up another Starship yesterday in a 10-kilometer hop from their test site in Boca Chica, Texas. The test was a quintessential demonstration of how SpaceX advances its knowledge base by tolerating failure, even encouraging it.

Eric Berger at Ars Technica wrote:

Starship is undergoing a unique development program, progressing through rapid iterations and taking risks by design. Each failed mission buys down risk for future flights. It's no accident that SpaceX is building a new Starship every two or three weeks in South Texas. Being hardware-rich means you can move fast, try, fail, try again, and ultimately succeed.


The March 3, 2021 SpaceX Starship SN10 test. Begin the launch at the 10 hour 23 minute mark. Video source: NASASpaceflight YouTube channel.