Sunday, August 29, 2010

The New Museum in Town

An Atlas Sustainer Engine on display in front of the Launch Complex 12 exhibit. Photo courtesy Carol Smith.

My wife Carol and I stopped by the new U.S. Air Force Space & Missile History Center, located just outside the south gate of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The Center is operated by the Air Force Space & Missile Museum, often known as the "Explorer 1 Museum" on base at CCAFS. The museum at Complex 26 is accessible only by paying for a Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex tour bus, except for when the CCAFS Public Affairs office conducts a free tour the second Wednesday of each month. The Center therefore is an effort to grow the Museum beyond its limitations, in a location more easily accessible to the public.

To reach the Center, drive north on SR 401 from the 528 Causeway past Port Canaveral. Just before you reach the CCAFS south gate, turn right into a building complex that is the south campus home of Space Florida. (The official address is 100 Space Port Way in Cape Canaveral.) One building is the launch control center for SpaceX. The Center is in a building behind SpaceX.

The Launch Complex 40 exhibit now includes some items donated by SpaceX. Photo courtesy Carol Smith.

The history of every launch complex at CCAFS is on display with its own exhibit. If you've ever wondered about the history of one particular pad, this is the place to find out. Some exhibits feature archival footage on a video loop. The exhibit will indicate if the pad is still in active use.

The LC-40 exhibit has a display case with a few items donated by SpaceX, which has taken over Launch Complex 40. I suspect we'll see a lot more SpaceX items donated to the Center in the years ahead.

The Center also has a gift shop, with many items you won't find at the KSCVC Space Shop. I picked up a 1999 documentary titled Thrust Into Space: How the Space Program Changed Brevard County. This 53-minute film has a lot of archival footage of the county and CCAFS in particular I've never seen anywhere before. The DVD was $12.00; I can't find it online, so you'll need to go by the Center to buy it.

But that's okay, because the Center is free. (Do the classy thing, though, and leave a donation in the box on your way out.)

The Center's hours:

Tuesday 9 AM - 2 PM
Wednesday 9 AM - 2 PM
Thursday 9 AM - 2 PM
Friday 9 AM - 2 PM
Saturday 9 AM - 5 PM
Sunday 12 PM - 4 PM

I'm told they have plans for expansion, but as always with these non-profits it will depend on their ability to raise money.

The Center has a partially completed web site at You can also contact its operators through the existing Museum web site at

The test console for a Gemini launch. Note the rotary phone! Photo courtesy Carol Smith.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Upside Down

Jeff Foust of the excellent Space Politics blog posted an article yesterday titled, "Space policy and topsy-turvy political philosophy". The gist of his article is the upside-down politics of commercial space.

Many Republicans would have you believe that they want less government and more privatization of government services, while they claim Democrats want big government and "socialism."

Yet those fighting President Obama's FY 2011 budget proposal that would invest in commercial space are mostly Republicans. Among them are Space Coast congressman Bill Posey and Alabama's U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, whose state hosts Marshall Space Center in Huntsville.

Certain Democrats have opposed the proposal as well, including Space Coast congresswoman Suzanne Kosmas, but at least Kosmas has supported efforts to diversify the local economy so that Space Coast no longer relies on government space as a major employer.

Many members of the House and Senate space subcommittees have viewed NASA's annual budget as a mechanism for sending pork to their districts, national priorities be damned. Their most recent effort is Congress taking it upon themselves to dictate to NASA the design for the next heavy-launch vehicle, as reported by Space Politics on August 15. If you look at the elements of the design, it specifies components that would be built by existing vendors in subcommittee members' home districts.

Such foolishness was responsible for the demise of "NASA's Constellation program, which also sought to direct pork to existing vendors. An August 2009 Government Accountability Office report titled Constellation Program Cost and Schedule Will Remain Uncertain Until a Sound Business Case is Established" (the title says it all) noted that Constellation would "maximize the use of heritage hardware and established technology in order to reduce cost and minimize risk." Which, of course, means using existing vendors.

By emphasizing heritage technology, the Constellation program was designed to avoid problems associated with the prior shuttle replacement efforts, which were largely rooted in the desire to introduce vehicles that significantly advanced technologies. Thus far, however, the Constellation program has encountered daunting challenges in terms of design, testing, manufacturing, and poorly phased funding that have led the program to slip its target for a first crewed flight to no later than March 2015.

Shackled to obsolete technology, and to vendors in the districts of space subcommittee members, NASA in my opinion will never be able to deliver a robust program that delivers humans into space.

As I've noted before, nothing in the National Aeronautics and Space Act requires NASA to fly humans into space, to explore other worlds or to own its rockets. It does list a number of categories in which NASA is expected to "contribute materially," but that's a long way from a mandate. The Act does require NASA to help grow commercial space, an amendment added by the Reagan Administration in 1984.

NASA was intended to be a crucible of aerospace innovation that would be exploited by other government agencies and by the private sector — not a space taxi service, and certainly not a government guaranteed job program.

The GAO report and the Augustine Commission's findings led the Obama administration to conclude that the only way to assure the quick development of American access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) was to prime commercial space, which is free of Congressional machinations. The proposal implicitly rejected the pork-first attitude of the subcommittees.

Hence the political firestorm in the months since Obama's proposal was announced.

Some space advocates honestly fear that ending Constellation means an end to human deep-space exploration. They want another Apollo, a permanent lunar colony, footsteps on Mars.

I'm all for that, but the harsh reality is that Constellation would have delivered none of it. The Augustine Commission estimated that the first lunar mission would have been around 2028, and what would it have accomplished? More Moon rocks? That would hardly justify the hundreds of billions of dollars flushed into pork-laden contracts by subcommittee members.

For years now, poll after poll show that a majority of Americans want less government spending on space, and for the private sector to take over. There is no widespread political will to go to the Moon, to establish a lunar colony, or to walk on Mars. Fantasize about it all you want, but it's not going to happen. President Obama could address Congress tomorrow to declare that we walk on Mars by 2020, just as President Kennedy did in 1961 with the Moon, but it wouldn't happen. Why? Nobody cares. There's no Cold War, there's no Space Race, there's no threat of nuclear Armageddon.

It's a different world now. The United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan jointly operate the International Space Station. Informal gestures have been made to invite the Chinese to join the ISS partnership. This is the future, not one nation flushing five percent of its annual budget into collecting more Moon rocks as happened in the 1960s.

The American space program is at a crossroads. Is it about pork, or is it about national interest?

Most sensible people would argue the latter, and the national interest right now is commercial space. The ISS partnership has invested years and $100 billion in completing the station, which is to serve as a crucible for scientific and medical research — NASA's true purpose under the National Aeronautics and Space Act. Our next step should be to make it more accessible to the world.

If we want a permanent human presence in space, we have to make it cheaper for humans to get there. A pork-laden government program isn't the solution. NASA will never fly you or me into space; political gimmicks like Teacher in Space and Congressmen in Space were tried in the 1980s and we know how those turned out.

Private citizen access to LEO will have to come from the private sector. Whether it's SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, the Boeing/Bigelow partnership or some other group, they are the ones who will provide private civilian access to LEO. The destination may be the ISS, Bigelow's inflatable habitat, or no more than a suborbital thrill ride. None of those options will ever come from a government pork program.

In recent days, Florida's U.S. senator Bill Nelson introduced a bill that would provide tax credits for commercial space initiatives, and President Obama's space jobs task force issued a report that calls for $35 million in federal grants to aviation, solar power and life sciences companies willing to locate in space communities and hire laid-off workers.

Those who appear to be most vocally opposed are Republicans who, in an election year, would criticize Obama if he walked on water. Yet they seem to offer no alternative other than to continue the status quo — which, of course, continues pork to their districts.

I'm no rabid believer in the invisible hand of capitalism. Private business exists to make a profit, and as we saw with Enron, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, British Petroleum, and many others in recent years much of the private sector lacks a moral compass. Capitalistic excesses typically occur where effective governmental regulation is absent. Since the Reagan administration, regulation has been a favorite target of conservatives, and in my opinion the results speak for themselves.

Whether it's NASA or the Federal Aviation Administration or both, someone needs to monitor commercial space to assure the technology is safe. But that should be the only government interference.

Others have suggested that the government should not subsidize commercial space, a philosophy I can understand. But the federal government for decades, if not centuries, has subsidized certain private sector activities to prime the economic pump, so this is hardly new. In a multi-trillion dollar budget, I've no problem with $5 billion to jump-start commercial space. Other nations have no problem subsidizing their growth industries, so why handicap ours in competition with the rest of the world?

We won't know for a while what final NASA bill emerges from Congressional sausage-making, but in my opinion the more Congress views NASA as home-district pork with foolish orders such as dictating the design of the next-generation heavy lifter, the further behind NASA will fall which will only hasten the arrival of commercial space.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Atlas V Launch Photos

United Space Alliance launched an Atlas V rocket at 7:07 AM EDT today. Below are photos I shot from my home near Courtenay Parkway and Hall Road in north Merritt Island.

Friday, August 13, 2010

SpaceX Looks Beyond LEO

Aviation Week reports that SpaceX has a Merlin 2 engine in the works that would power a "super heavy lift" vehicle that could be used by NASA for missions beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) founder Elon Musk says plans laid out recently by a company official for growth beyond International Space Station resupply and missions beyond low Earth orbit are not official SpaceX policy.

Referring to a presentation given at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Joint Propulsion Conference in Nashville, Tenn., by McGregor rocket development facility director Tom Markusic (Aerospace DAILY, Aug. 5), Musk says, "Tom was throwing out a bunch of ideas for discussion."

Musk says provisional concepts for a deep space architecture were outlined as "brainstorming ideas" by Markusic. "The only thing SpaceX is intending to do for sure in the long term is to try to move toward super heavy lift," Musk says. The key element of this, as outlined in Markusic’s presentation, is development of the Merlin 2 engine. "Part of it depends on NASA and its willingness to fund a portion of that. We’d certainly hope it would be a private-public partnership with NASA, because that’s what it would take in the long term."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sean O'Keefe "Critical" in Alaska Air Crash

Sean O'Keefe was NASA Administrator from December 2001 through February 2005.

Former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe is in critical condition, one of four people who survived a private plane crash Monday night in remote southern Alaska. Also on board was O'Keefe's son Kevin.

According to the report, "Sean O'Keefe is in critical condition, while his son is in stable condition, according to the Providence Alaska Medical Center. Neither appear to have life-threatening injuries, according to a statement from an O'Keefe family spokesperson Wednesday."

Among the five dead is former Alaska U.S. Senator Ted Stevens.

Florida Today Editorial Supports Boeing

An editorial in Florida Today supports Boeing's nascent commercial space program, providing more evidence that commercial access to Low Earth Orbit is the future.

The premise of President Obama’s plan to use private companies to ferry astronauts into space is that it will spur competition, create jobs and close the gap between the shuttle’s end and the rockets that will replace it.

It’s a tall order, but a new development brings cautious optimism the approach is starting to take hold.

It came a few days ago when The Boeing Co. announced it’s getting into the game with an Apollo-like spacecraft it says will be ready to fly astronauts from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station by 2015.

The crews would be launched aboard proven Atlas 5 or Delta 4 rockets flown by the United Space Alliance consortium of which Boeing is part.

Another destination would be a commercial space station under development by Bigelow Aerospace in Nevada.

It would be half the size of the International Space Station, with a second outpost bigger than NASA’s orbiting platform and both constructed using interconnected inflatable modules.

Boeing now joins SpaceX in the commercial crew market, and the next few months will bring other steps that could help determine the viability of the concept.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Science and Politics of Space

Two articles of interest in today's Florida Today.

John Kelly's column "Science Put on the Back Burner" argues that "Fundamental science research often takes a backseat to ship-building and mission operations at NASA."

NASA, since Apollo, seems stuck in a cycle of investing billions in development of its next rockets and spaceships. Rising costs and schedule delays on the ship-building projects often force the agency to shift funds from research and science to keep the big development programs alive ...

Over and over again, the science and research that needs to be done to truly open the vast frontier to human space exploration has been treated as secondary to short-term priorities.

In the end, the nation continues finding itself in a position where everyone wants to talk about going to Mars, but the fundamental research and technology needed to make it possible are not being done.

Kelly cites a recent publication by the National Research Council, "Controlling Cost Growth of NASA Earth and Space Science Missions" as "adamantly reminding the nation's leaders of the need to reinvest in biological and physical science research necessary to make missions deeper into space possible."

As we've seen in recent months, the war is being waged between those who would perpetuate the waste (i.e. members of Congress who want to preserve the status quo with pork programs for their districts) and those who would fundamentally change NASA's business model (i.e. the Obama administration which wants NASA to help accelerate commercial access to Low Earth Orbit).

Which leads us to the other article, "Space Program an Issue Politically" by Dave Berman.

The future of America's human space flight program is emerging this summer as a front-burner political issue with voters like never before, elected officials and candidates say.

That's true not just in the northern Brevard County communities surrounding the Kennedy Space Center but across the county. And it's not just a hot topic in the races for seats in the U.S. Senate and House, positions in which the people elected could have direct influence over NASA's budget and policies. The shutdown of the shuttle program, NASA's future and the rippling economic impact is coming up in state, county and local races.

The article doesn't delve into the political history of how we got where we are today, nor does it explore the intricacies of the political battles at the federal level this year. It's mostly about how local candidates are being asked more about space than usual.

Berman did touch briefly on my hobby horse, that Shuttle was cancelled in early 2004 and local elected officials have had six years to prepare for this day but failed.

Melbourne Mayor Harry Goode said that, while it had been known for years that the space shuttle program would end, for many Brevard residents, "it's reality now," as layoffs begin.

Several local politicians, including Representatives Suzanne Kosmas and Bill Posey, wasted time by telling locals they would find a way to save Shuttle and Constellation. They failed, as I expected, and wasted six months that could have been used to accelerate a transition of the local economy to new jobs instead of promising to save doomed jobs.

Although the legislation is not final, it appears that at best NASA might be authorized to launch one more Shuttle mission if it can be proven safe. "Authorized" does not mean mandated. Until that study is completed, thousands of employees will be kept around collecting a paycheck while pretty much doing nothing.

Some remnants of Constellation may survive, but it's clear that Ares I and Ares V are dead. Congress may direct NASA to begin developing its own LEO rocket until the commercial sector demonstrates its technology is reliable — which implies that once commercial is approved the NASA backup technology will be terminated, meaning all that money has been wasted.

The Moon mission is most certainly dead, although a few die-hards are still spinning it otherwise. Congress appears likely to direct accelerated development of a heavy-lifter rocket that would be used for missions beyond LEO, although where they would go isn't specified. The House bill, which isn't finalized, attempts to dictate what technology will be used to build the heavy-lifter, so as to direct pork to the space committee members' districts. I suspect that aspect will be dumped once it goes to reconciliation between the House and Senate versions.

The Obama administration's original proposal will not pass 100% intact, but few presidential budget proposals ever do. Some representatives and senators may succeed in directing pork to their districts, and they may throw some speed bumps in the way, but in the end the Obama administration will have succeeded in turning around the Titanic just short of the iceberg.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Boeing: Space Taxis by 2015

A Boeing illustration of its space taxi.

Florida Today reported on August 6 that Boeing "plans to be ready to fly commercial space taxis from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station by 2015 and soon will decide where the spacecraft will be manufactured and assembled, officials said Thursday."

According to the Boeing press release:

Boeing is maturing the design of its CST-100 spacecraft under an $18 million Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Space Act Agreement with NASA. The CST-100 can carry a crew of seven and is designed to support the International Space Station and the Bigelow Aerospace Orbital Space Complex.

The CST-100 will be bigger than Apollo but smaller than Orion, and be able to launch on a variety of different rockets, including Atlas, Delta and Falcon. It will use a simple systems architecture and existing, proven components. The "100" in CST-100 refers to the 100 kilometers from the ground to low Earth orbit.

"Falcon" refers to the rocket under development by SpaceX.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The ISS Heats Up

A spacewalk will be necessary to replace a faulty cooling system on the American side of the International Space Station. reports that an unscheduled spacewalk will be required to replace a failed ammonia pump module on the International Space Station.

Expedition 24 astronauts Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson currently are scheduled to start the repairs on the station’s starboard truss Friday. Fellow astronauts Cady Coleman and Suni Williams spent the afternoon in the Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory practicing underwater the tasks needed to restore the cooling loop over the course of two spacewalks.

The cooling system is apparently American-built equipment. According to a Florida Today article:

The disabled pump has been at the space station since 2002 and operating fully since just 2006; it was a premature failure. The electrical short is believed to be internal to the pump. Engineers believe a new pump will solve the problem, but there is no guarantee ... If both cooling loops were to fail, the Russian side of the space station would have to carry the entire cooling load. The crew would have just enough time to attempt emergency repairs before, in all likelihood, abandoning ship in Russian Soyuz capsules to return to Earth.

Many of those opposing President Obama's FY 2011 NASA budget proposal have claimed it's wrong to rely on Russian technology because it's inferior. But this incident shows the United States isn't perfect either. That's why it's important to collaborate with other nations, not go it alone.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

NASA Debate Continues

Former Shuttle astronaut Ken Bowersox thinks some fear the faster yet perhaps more riskier commercial approach to space access.

Florida Today has several articles related to the direction of NASA.

Columnist John Kelly notes that astronauts, past and present, have no more consensus on NASA's future than does Congress. (Although Congress does seem to have consensus on the idea that NASA is a government jobs program ...)

Kelly concludes with this passage about former Shuttle astronaut Ken Bowersox, who's now vice-president of astronaut safety and mission assurance at SpaceX:

Ken Bowersox, a veteran space shuttle and space station astronaut who left NASA to join SpaceX on the commercial side of the industry, said he thinks he understands why they would lean that direction.

"People were really devoted to the goals of Constellation," Bowersox said this week while visiting his company's launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. So some of them are disappointed, he said, that after years of political debate and a final decision that seemed to cement a course for NASA for the first time in a long time, the nation now seems to be back at square one. Astronauts who worked most of their careers inside a big government program — NASA — see a government-driven program as a "sure thing" compared to a riskier privatized approach that seems less sustainable.

"It's so aggressive, it's so fast, that they're just naturally skeptical that it's possible," Bowersox said.

That said, Bowersox made his decision to switch over because he saw SpaceX — and other private companies — as the place where space exploration could be accelerated. Simply put, he thought they could get the job done sooner.

Bowersox's remark about astronauts seeing a government spending program as a "sure thing" reinforces my impression that NASA today is viewed as a guaranteed job program, not as the technological development agency as described in the National Aeronautics and Space Act. Nothing in the Act requires NASA to fly humans in space, to explore other worlds, or even to own its rockets. The NASA of today has little in common with the law of the land.

Opinion articles in today's paper by Brevard County's two members of Congress reinforce their perception of NASA as a jobs program.

Rep. Bill Posey, whose district includes Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, claims that commercial space "makes the gap longer" without offering any proof. The self-proclaimed fiscal conservative wrote that he wants to continue both Shuttle and Constellation without explaining how to pay for it. Posey concludes that, "America should not 'temporarily' outsource our space program to the Russians" but fails to note that decision was made by the Bush Administration in early 2004. Funny how it never seemed to bother him until now.

Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, whose district includes Kennedy Space Center, was more vague in her statement.

What matters most at this point is quickly signing into law a NASA bill that protects our workforce, minimizes the gap and maintains America’s global leadership in space exploration.

Again, NASA's purpose in the law is not to "protect a workforce." It's an aeronautics technology research and development agency. As for "global leadership," the next "space race" is in the commercial sector, which is where every other spacefaring nation is headed. No one else has a serious deep-space human exploration program. There's no money to be made in going back to the Moon, to an asteroid, or elsewhere. Knowledge? Yes. But those destinations will always be there, awaiting the day when technology develops to make those trips more quickly and cheaply.

It's supposed to be NASA's job to develop those new technologies, not keep recycling old technologies into a government jobs program such as proposed by the House bill.

The Florida Today editorial staff published its own opinion column urging Congress to "to stop holding NASA policy hostage and approve a compromise that allows the agency to begin moving toward a new future."

The article called the House bill "badly flawed" because it refuses to acknowledge the reality that Constellation's "long-term costs [are] unsustainable and the program unable to meet its moon-landing goals." They also criticize the House committee's attempt to strangle commercial access to space, calling it "a job killer in Brevard, where the companies hold the potential to create a new industry in flying astronauts."

The editorial also questions the Senate bill.

It would phase in funding for commercial rockets and other research and development projects that could be staged at KSC instead of providing the money up front, slowing the diversification of Florida’s space industry.

Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida, the state’s space-development arm, has said he fears that "kills outright the promise of real R&D opportunity for KSC."

The Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast is also worried, its leaders telling Nelson in a letter that Florida’s space future "might be bargained away for one more attuned to the needs of Alabama, Texas and Utah, in the name of political expediency . . ." reports on the House bill's status — it's been postponed as commercial space advocates rally their troops.

Florida Today urges a "compromise," but "compromise" in Congress means each committee member gets some pork for his or her district in exchange for a vote supporting a diluted bill.

This is why it's so important to divorce the government from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) access. No other spacefaring nation has a serious human deep-space program. They're all focused on LEO. That's the next "space race."

Imagine if 100 years ago, the federal government had roadblocked private enterprise from developing commercial air flight. How long would it have taken for the commercial airline industry to blossom, which allowed all of us to experience flight?

That's where we are now. It's a fundamental choice. Either the government controls access to space, or it doesn't. There is no "compromise." Pick a direction.