Sunday, May 29, 2011

Articles of Interest

A NASA artist's concept of what the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle might look like on a deep space mission.

Items of interest from around the planet ...

Aviation Week reports that "Space Florida, a state-backed economic development agency focused on space and related technologies, has hired Masten Space Systems for a series of suborbital demonstration flights from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 36."

The $400,000 launch services contract includes multiple flights of Masten’s vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) reusable suborbital vehicle, called Xaero ...

The Space Florida contract enables Masten, which is based in Mojave, Calif., an opportunity to get hands-on experience operating at the Cape ...

Space Florida considers the program not just a boon for Masten, but also a way to set guidelines, operating requirements and facilities fees for other new vehicles that may be looking to fly out of Florida.

The Constellation boondoggle lives on. NASA announced on May 24 that the former Orion crew capsule, renamed the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, will be the crew capsule for the Space Launch System. Aviation Week reports that NASA "will stretch out the contract while it figures out how to build" the SLS.

The U.S. space agency has spent about $5 billion on Orion since it was started as the shuttle follow-on under the Constellation program. Now that it is being "phased" with the SLS, managers don’t know yet what it will cost to complete the development ...

The lag will make it even more important for NASA to begin using commercial cargo and crew vehicles to support the International Space Station.

Veteran space correspondent Todd Halvorson published an excellent article in Florida Today attempting to place the International Space Station in a historic context.

Spacewalking astronauts wound up 12 years of International Space Station assembly this past week, putting the finishing touches on a legitimate contender for the greatest engineering achievement of all time.

The Apollo moon landings, the Panama Canal, the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Giza all rank among the top engineering endeavors in human history.

But many think the $100 billion space station -- a project involving 100,000 people in 15 nations on three continents -- deserves consideration, too.

Halvorson notes that 159 spacewalks were required to construct the ISS, an incredible number that would have been unfathomable two decades ago.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Logsdon Calls for Global Space Commitment

Dr. John M. Logsdon was a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and is the author of "John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon."

In a May 25 Orlando Sentinel guest editorial, space historian John Logsdon called for "a cooperative effort in exploring space" that "may well hold the key to making space exploration, with the United States in a catalyzing role, a truly global undertaking."

The editorial was published on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's famous speech to Congress in which he called for the United States to send a man to the Moon by the end of the 1960s and return him safely to Earth.

Logsdon is the author of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, published last January. I reviewed the book in March, noting that it correctly debunked the mythology of Kennedy as a space visionary, and documented that his true interest was to show the world American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

Logsdon's column faults President Barack Obama for not taking a more leading stance in transitioning the government's human space flight program towards "a more innovative path."

Last year, President Barack Obama proposed a new approach to developing space exploration capabilities through increasing private-public partnerships and injecting new technologies into future launch vehicles and spacecraft. When widespread opposition to that approach appeared, rather than fight hard for his proposals, Obama last fall accepted a Senate-developed compromise that ratifies much of the spaceflight status quo of the past 40 years and mandates developing what has been described as a very large "rocket to nowhere."

This is not the way for this country to retain its "clearly leading role" in space. The systems developed in the next years will be the basis for the U.S. space program of at least the next quarter century. It is essential that wise choices of what to build are made before moving forward.

In 1961, Kennedy had the Cold War as leverage, and could accuse his proposal's opponents of being soft on Communism. Obama has no such leverage.

The members of Congress on today's space subcommittees seem more interested in directing government pork to their districts, and have shown their willingness to thumb their noses at the President on space regardless of their partisan stripe. Absent a compelling external threat, Obama doesn't have that kind of leverage.

I suggested in a May 25 column that an international space summit might be the way to give Obama leverage. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev informally speculated about such a summit in June 2010 but apparently didn't follow through, nor has anyone else.

Logsdon has the same idea. He recalled Kennedy's September 1963 speech to the United Nations which proposed the U.S. and USSR merge their Moon programs. Logsdon suggests Obama take the same approach:

With JFK's death, Apollo became a memorial to a slain young president, and Kennedy's cooperative proposal faded from memory. But as planning for 21st-century space exploration moves forward, his hope — that "the scientists and engineers of all the world ... work together in the conquest of space" — may well hold the key to making space exploration, with the United States in a catalyzing role, a truly global undertaking.

Inviting other world leaders to join the United States in committing their countries to a cooperative effort in exploring space would be a fitting way for President Obama to honor John F. Kennedy's space legacy of a half-century ago.

The only vulnerability I see in this approach is that, with the U.S. experiencing annual trillion-dollar deficits, it will be difficult to sell a major increase in government space spending to a Congress already bitterly divided on how to reduce the annual debt.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

JFK Feared Apollo Would "Look Like a Stunt"

President John F. Kennedy with NASA Administrator James Webb.

On the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's speech before Congress proposing a Moon program, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum released excerpts from a recording of a September 1963 meeting between Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb.

The recording is the second released by the JFK Library. The first was a recording of a November 1962 meeting that included Kennedy, Webb, and various NASA and administration officials.

The first recording substantially debunked the mythology that Kennedy was a space visionary. He is heard telling Webb, "I'm not that interested in space," reinforcing that his goal was not a robust and sustained space exploration program but to show the world that U.S. technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

The new release contains six excerpts totalling about 10 minutes from a 46-minute meeting. I've requested a copy of the entire recording and will post it online when available.

This meeting was held on September 18, 1963, two days before a speech to the United Nations in which he proposed that the U.S. and USSR merge their space programs for a joint Moon mission. It was about two months before his assassination in Dallas.

In the excerpts released by the Library, Kennedy worries that public support of the Moon program is waning, and that it will affect his re-election chances. As heard in the recording of the November 1962 meeting, Kennedy is very concerned about the escalating costs.

Acknowledging it may be difficult to justify the expense solely on prestige — which was a main reason during internal Administration discussions in early 1961 — Kennedy suggests to Webb that they abandon the nominally civilian nature of NASA to declare the Moon program was a military adventure:

Well I talked to the other day, about 2 weeks ago, to McNamara and Gilpatric for a few minutes and said that I thought the space program, looking ahead, unless the Russians did something dramatic and we don’t have anything dramatic coming up for the next 12 months, so it’s going to be an attack on the budget, but this looks like a hell of a lot of dough to go to the moon when you can go — you can learn most of that you want scientifically through instruments and putting a man on the moon really is a stunt and it isn’t worth that many billions. Therefore the heat's going to go on unless we can say this has got some military justification and not just prestige. Otherwise Eisenhower is going to be kicking us around and we’re going to look like he’s probably right — they don’t want to spend that kind of dough. Why should we spend that kind of dough to put a man on the moon? (break) But it seems to me what we’ve got to try and do, is for the reasons you suggested: we’ve got to wrap around in this country, a military use for what we’re doing and spending in space. If we don’t, it does look like a stunt and too much money — some people – Christ, we can’t get money for some ( ) and all the rest and people saying we’re spending billions in going to the moon. If we can show that that’s true but there’s also a very significant military use. Now how are we going to do that.

It's stunning that Kennedy would toy with the notion of converting the Moon program to a military affair, because the National Aeronautics and Space Act is clear that NASA is civilian in nature and all military activities in space are the purview of the Department of Defense. That separation was written into the Act in 1958 because President Eisenhower feared any U.S. militarization would give the USSR justification to do the same.

I wrote a year ago that the Moon program was "a publicity stunt" intended to "show the world our technology was better than the Soviet Union."

In his own words, Kennedy admitted as much and suggested making Apollo a military program to conceal that.

This new recording is yet more evidence that Kennedy's Moon program was not what fifty years of mythology have portrayed it.

Apollo Astronauts Attack Obama

In a joint opinion column published in Florida Today, Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan attack the Obama administration's human space flight policies.

It's a shameful spin of disinformation that distorts the history behind how President Kennedy came to propose the Moon program, falsely claims that all was well with Constellation until it "fell behind schedule" due to "congressionally authorized funding falling victim to Office of Management and Budget cuts, earmarks and other unexpected financial diversions," and overlooks that Congress approved cancellation of Constellation, as no President has the authority to cancel a program mandated by Congress.

They claim:

Obama’s advisers, in searching for a new and different NASA strategy with which the president could be favorably identified, ignored NASA’s operational mandate and strayed widely from President Kennedy’s vision and the will of the American people.


Obviously the three have never read the National Aeronautics and Space Act, "NASA's operational mandate" as they call it. Nowhere does the Act require NASA to fly people in space, to explore other worlds or even to own its rockets.

They claim that Obama "strayed widely from President Kennedy's vision." So what?! Kennedy's "vision" was to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s and return him safely to the Earth. Mission accomplished. Why should we be shackled to an obsolete "vision" that has no relevance in the modern era where we collaborate with our former Russian rivals?

And as for "the will of the American people," time and again polls have shown that national "will" is quite tepid for a government human space flight program, with many preferring it be privatized.

I'm grateful to these three astronauts for their service to our country. But such lies and distortions only tarnish their legacy in my mind.

UPDATE May 26, 2011 — Two responses to the May 25 editorial by Armstrong, Lovell and Cernan.

Presidential Science Advisor John P. Holdren and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden write in USA Today that the three got their facts wrong on "how we got here":

The Obama administration inherited a space program in disarray after eight years of mismatch between vision and budgets, and decades of underinvestment in R&D on the technologies that long-duration crewed missions beyond low-Earth orbit will require.

The course correction that the White House has developed in concert with NASA and Congress will preserve the $100 billion International Space Station as the orbiting science lab and technology test-bed we need to prepare for the next steps in space. It will shorten the gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the restoration of a U.S. capability to carry our own astronauts into orbit. And it will focus NASA's unparalleled talents on truly visionary goals — developing and using new technologies to send astronauts to an asteroid for the first time, and then moving onward to Mars — rather than spending the bulk of our limited resources to return astronauts to the moon 50 or 60 years after we did that the first time.

Space analyst Rand Simberg writes in the Washington Examiner that the three "don't seem to be familiar with the facts":

I understand these mens' nostalgia for the space program of their glory days, and even sympathize with it. But they need to understand their own history better, and realize why no one has walked on the moon in the almost forty years since Gene Cernan last left boot prints in the dusty regolith. I can only hope that, over time, when dozens and hundreds, even thousands of people are going into space on commercial vehicles in the years to come, and even back to the moon, many at their own expense, they will still be alive to see it and come to regret their misguided attempts to slow down what could have happened earlier with more enlightened policies.

On Urgent National Needs

President John F. Kennedy addresses Congress on May 25, 1961.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

— President John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961

It's perhaps the most famous speech by any President in the history of U.S. human space flight.

And also the most misinterpreted.

Looking back through the prism of history, it might even be argued that the speech did more harm than good to the cause of a permanent human presence in space.

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress. Titled "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs," the speech was not solely about the U.S. space program or about the Moon. Its most famous passage, which is all that survives in our collective mythology, was only a few paragraphs near the end of the speech.

Click here to read the speech.

Click here to listen to the speech.

I've written several blog articles on the subject of Kennedy and NASA. Dr. John M. Logsdon, perhaps the pre-eminent space historian of our time, published a book in January titled John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, the authoritative work on the title subject.

Contrary to the mythology, Kennedy was not a space visionary. As a Senator in the late 1950s, he claimed that a "missile gap" existed between U.S. military rockets and those of the Soviet Union. Kennedy was wrong, and once in office was told so by defense and intelligence advisors. But his error was a significant and contributing factor to the birth of the Space Age.

Kennedy defined the "missile gap" as the difference in maximum lift capacity between Soviet and American rockets, implying that because a Soviet rocket could lift a heavier payload it somehow meant America's enemy could strike her with a more devastating nuclear weapon. It was a totally inaccurate interpretation of rocket technology; in reality, the U.S. was far superior at miniaturization than the USSR.

The fear of this "missile gap" at the height of the Cold War convinced Congress to adopt Kennedy's proposal to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s and return him safely to Earth. The motivation was to show the world that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union. In short, it was about "prestige," a word that shows up time and again in documents of the period. The evidence is clear that most Administration officials knew the U.S. had superior military might.

Fifty years later, no such fear of a "missile gap" exists. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The U.S. and Russia collaborate in joint operation of the International Space Station. Private company Lockheed-Martin chooses to use a Russian RD-180 engine as the first stage in its Altas V rocket.

So a Moon mission in today's world is no longer an "urgent national need."

Been there, done that, over 40 years ago.

No other nation has gone since, and none seem inclined to go any time soon.

A May 15, 2011 article in the Orlando Sentinel posed this fundamental question: "What's the mission of NASA's human-spaceflight program?"

Its purpose in its earliest days, before Kennedy's speech, was quite different.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act defines NASA's objectives. Nowhere does it require NASA to launch humans into space, to explore other worlds, or even to own its rockets.

Yet within a week after NASA began operation on October 1, 1958, NASA's first administrator, Dr. T. Keith Glennan, approved the Mercury Project. Mercury's goals were:

  • To orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth
  • To investigate man's ability to function in space
  • To recover both man and spacecraft safely
This was in the same time that Senator Kennedy insisted a "missile gap" existed between the Soviet Union and the United States.

After Alan Shepard's historic Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961, now-President Kennedy decided after extensive analysis by his administration to propose a Moon mission. Accomplishing such a feat cost the United States a total of $150 billion in current dollars. At its peak in 1965-1966, the NASA budget was over 4% of the federal budget. Today it's about one-half of one percent. Four percent of today's federal budget would work out to over $150 billion in just one year!

The beliefs of space advocates (including myself) aside, one would be hard pressed to argue today that human space flight is an "urgent national need." And as the Orlando Sentinel questioned, what should be the mission of NASA's human space flight program?

If there were a compelling argument that would convince members of Congress, and the taxpayers who elect them, to spend more for a robust government human space flight program, that argument would have been made long ago. Many printed and virtual publications argue the point, but the reality is it doesn't exist.

It's certainly a question I try to answer myself. How does one convince a space skeptic to spend more than the current $18 billion per year on NASA's budget?

Perhaps the more fundamental question should be ... why spend it on NASA?

Government space is hopelessly compromised by politics. Rand Simberg's May 13 opinion article in the Washington Examiner observed:

... [I]f you look at the people who wrote the [NASA Authorization Act of 2010] (Sens. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas, Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama) you will be struck by the amazing coincidence that they all have major Shuttle contractors in their states.

Orlando Sentinel reporter Mark Matthews wrote:

The intent of the law, championed by U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, was to keep shuttle contractors in business while preserving at least some of the shuttle jobs in Florida, Texas and elsewhere that are set to go away after the orbiter's last flight.

Should NASA's mission be to preserve government jobs?

The members of the House and Senate space subcommittees, most of whom have NASA space centers and/or contractors in their districts, seem to think so because it delivers pork (and implicitly votes) to the home front.

Part of the problem lies with how NASA expanded for the Apollo Moon program. NASA space centers opened across the country. Contracts were issued to aerospace companies throughout the nation. The argument was, quoting Kennedy from his speech:

... It will not be one man going to the moon — if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

Not much thought was given, apparently, to what might come after the Moon mission. All that money was spent on building a human space flight infrastructure dedicated to launching a human mission. But then what?

The argument inevitably comes back to politicians claiming we need to preserve this infrastructure and those employed by it. But no one seems to ask whether we really should. Did anyone raise the same argument when the horseless carriage arose to replace the stagecoach industry?

The Space Launch System directed by Congress in that 2010 act ordered NASA to develop a heavy-lift rocket based on Shuttle technology. Just what the nation will do with it was not specified by the act.

Human space flight is at a crossroads. We can continue to pour taxpayer dollars into a sclerotic and dysfunctional government agency hopelessly compromised by selfish political interest. Or we can seek another solution.

Commercial space flight seeks to be that solution.

It has its roots in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program begun in 2005 by the Bush administration as a more affordable means of delivering cargo to the International Space Station. The Obama administration in 2009 expanded the program to include transporting crew.

Critics claim that commercial entities have yet to prove they can deliver on their promises, but that's true of any new program going all the way back to the Mercury Project. They criticize when a private company receives a partial subsidy from the government, but that's because NASA wants to accelerate development so these vehicles will be available as soon as possible. They argue that these companies have no experience, yet SpaceX has already orbited the first commercial cargo capsule in history and the other competitors include experienced aerospace companies such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.

Some of the most vocal critics have been those members of Congress trying to protect their pork.

Recent comments by NASA administrator Charles Bolden as reported May 23 by Aviation Week reveal just how "disruptive," to quote Bolden, the new commercial model may be to the status quo:

Administrator Charles Bolden [says] that the SpaceX approach to management is “disruptive technology” that can bring “great gains” to the space program.

“They don’t spread things all over the country the way that NASA and defense contractors tend to do,” Bolden told the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on May 19. “They’re very focused in two locations in the country. They bring everything in-house. They have no subcontractors, so everything comes to them. That’s disruptive.”

This would seem to imply that NASA needs to close and consolidate its space centers to save money and improve efficiency.

Good luck convincing the members of Congress representing those districts to let that happen.

Are there vulnerabilities with commercial flight? Of course. Those companies are driven by profit. Their agenda is set by a CEO and a board of directors. They cannot be forced to reveal their balance sheets, meaning we gamble human space flight on the integrity of these companies.

But is that any different from the problems we have now with government flight?

We can only speculate what might have been the course of human space flight if Kennedy had chosen to propose a different course, such as an incremental approach that wasn't a "race" with the Soviet Union. (Dr. Logsdon's book suggests a "race" may have existed only in the minds of the Americans, not the Soviets.) Kennedy himself proposed before the United Nations in September 1963 that the two nations combine their efforts for a joint Moon mission.

The "race" skewed NASA's mission. Yes, it resulted in a Moon landing, arguably the most significant achievement in the history of human technology. But we didn't follow up on it, and neither has any other nation.

My conclusion is that two steps are necessary to put us back on course to a responsible and affordable human space flight program.

The first is the direction already taken by the Obama administration — liberate low Earth orbit by turning over access to the private sector. That means not just vehicles such as the SpaceX Falcon 9, but also the commercial space station effort by Bigelow Aerospace. Key members of Congress may protest, but the gist of the 2010 space act is that the Obama administration got commercial space in exchange for giving Congress its government space launch system, which keeps the porkers somewhat distracted, if not placated.

The second step is the future of human space flight beyond Earth orbit. We can argue about how we get there, but where is "there"? The Moon? Mars? Asteroids?

We have no consensus, and really no leadership on the matter.

In April 2010, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev informally proposed an international summit of spacefaring nations to pool their resources. No one apparently took him up on it, nor did Medvedev follow up on the idea.

The International Space Station can be viewed as a model. The United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan collaborate to operate the facility. It will fly at least through 2020, and possibly to 2028.

The next logical step would be a permanent lunar colony, essentially an ISS on the Moon's surface. The cost would be much more than the ISS, and an unprecedented engineering challenge, as well as requiring a means of rotating crew as we do now with the ISS.

If an international space summit reached this conclusion and the spacefaring nations signed an agreement to proceed, it would be up to Congress to approve or reject American participation. This would put porking members of Congress in a difficult position — they may try to somehow obstruct the vote by insisting work be directed to their district, but if they vote against the proposal then they risk appearing as if they were embarrassing the United States in front of the global community.

That might be the only leverage over those with selfish parochial interests. Of course, once it passed then they'd return to trying to divide up the project — but at least U.S. human space flight would finally have a new mission.

It might even be deemed an urgent national need.

Friday, May 20, 2011

SpaceX "Disruptive Technology" for NASA

Aviation Week reports that how SpaceX runs its business could revolutionize NASA if the government agency applied the company's principles.

NASA might ease its “delicate position” by following the cost-cutting approaches used by Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX) in developing the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, a key member of the panel that reviewed U.S. human spaceflight plans for President Barack Obama is telling Congress.

Administrator Charles Bolden apparently agrees, saying that the SpaceX approach to management is “disruptive technology” that can bring “great gains” to the space program.

“They don’t spread things all over the country the way that NASA and defense contractors tend to do,” Bolden told the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on May 19. “They’re very focused in two locations in the country. They bring everything in-house. They have no subcontractors, so everything comes to them. That’s disruptive.”

The article quotes Princeton astrophysics professor Christopher F. Chyba:

“I think one would want to understand in some detail . . . why would it be between four and 10 times more expensive for NASA to do this, especially at a time when one of the issues facing NASA is how to develop the heavy-lift launch vehicle within the budget profile that the committee has given it,” Chyba says.

He cites an analysis contained in NASA’s report to Congress on the market for commercial crew and cargo services to LEO that found it would cost NASA between $1.7 billion and $4 billion to do the same Falcon-9 development that cost SpaceX $390 million. In its analysis, which contained no estimates for the future cost of commercial transportation services to the International Space Station (ISS) beyond those already under contract, NASA says it had “verified” those SpaceX cost figures.

Any attempt to consolidate NASA operations, of course, would run into a firestorm on Capitol Hill as members of Congress would fight to protect pork coming to their districts.

UPDATE May 22, 2011A second Aviation Week article by Frank Morring, Jr. details the testimony by Dr. Chyba:

Chyba repeated his 2009 warning that NASA has not been able to develop one vehicle and fly another at the same time, given historic budget constraints. But he said NASA may be able to learn from SpaceX as it develops the heavy-lift launch vehicle Congress has ordered it to build for missions beyond LEO.

“The other thing that I think one would want to understand in some detail would be why would it be between four and 10 times more expensive for NASA to do this, especially at a time when one of the issues facing NASA now is how to develop the heavy-lift launch vehicle within the budget profile that the committee has given it,” Chyba said.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Space Station a "Historic Achievement"

An opinion column in Florida Today calls completion of the International Space Station "a historic achievement in the annals of space exploration."

Many said it could not be done, and there are those within NASA who have lost sleep knowing the extreme risks involved.

But the result has been among the greatest engineering feats ever, proving America’s technological prowess even as the future of U.S. human spaceflight remains mired in political acrimony and budget uncertainty.

A fact more impressive considering the station has survived a torturous, quarter-century path that includes several redesigns, Congress nearly killing it and delays in completion caused by the shuttle Columbia disaster.

The article notes that ISS is "now the centerpiece of U.S. manned operations, with funding through as least 2020 that provides the station a chance to prove critics wrong."

The Space Coast has a great deal at stake because the goal of creating a commercial launch industry at Cape Canaveral is keyed to private rockets flying cargo and crews to the station.

SpaceX and Boeing/United Launch Alliance want to ferry astronauts and other customers, including tourists, from the Cape to the station perhaps starting around 2015.

There also will be resupply flights with food, water and spare parts next year that, combined with the manned flights, could provide a robust launch rate and create jobs to help offset the deep post-shuttle workforce cuts.

Beyond that are hopes that ground facilities here could be a hub for preparing experiments headed to the outpost.

NASA Reviews Endeavour Tile Damage

Spaceflight Now reports that the orbiter Endeavour suffered "several gouges and dings from apparent debris impacts during launch" on critical tiles.

Quoting LeRoy Cain, chairman of NASA's Mission Management Team:

"This is not cause for alarm, it's not cause for any concern," he said. "We know how to deal with these things in terms of how to assess them. We know that if we get to the point where we need some more data for our assessment, we have a plan for going and doing that."

The final report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that Columbia was struck on its left wing by falling foam from the external tank, which led to the orbiter's destruction upon re-entry.

With the exception of one Hubble telescope service flight, all subsequent missions have flown to the International Space Station so astronauts would have safe harbor if the orbiter suffered damage during launch and could not return.

The external tank, dubbed ET-122, used on the current mission is a ten-year old model that was slightly damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It was pressed into service after Congress mandated an additional Shuttle flight in the NASA Authorization Act of 2008.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Rocket to Nowhere

Rand Simberg of Transterrestrial Musings wrote an opinion article for the Washington Examiner which exposes fundamental flaws in the Congressionally mandated Space Launch System, the successor to the cancelled Constellation program.

The new vehicle will use left-over engines from the Shuttle orbiters that are now being retired. There's only one problem. Unlike the Shuttle, which reuses the engines each time, the new vehicle will be completely expendable. There are only enough engines for it for four flights, and there are no plans to reopen the production lines at Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne to produce more, even if their cost wouldn't be prohibitive.

In other words, NASA plans to spend $10 billion to develop a vehicle that has no defined payload, and will only fly four times. Each flight of this vehicle will cost the taxpayers $2.5 billion dollars, while doing absolutely nothing to advance our progress in conquering space.

Why is NASA doing this? Because Congress insists that they "follow the law," and Congress wrote a law last year that NASA must spend a specified amount of money on a heavy-lift vehicle, using existing contracts and contractors. Why did Congress write that law? They will tell you that they wanted to ensure that the nation maintained forward direction and leadership in space, but if you look at the people who wrote the law (Sens. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas, Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama) you will be struck by the amazing coincidence that they all have major Shuttle contractors in their states. In fact, they are surprisingly up front about it.

Simberg's article refers to an Orlando Sentinel investigation by Mark K. Matthews. That article begins:

NASA's latest plan to replace the space shuttle would spend at least $10 billion during the next six years to test-fly a rocket made of recycled parts of the shuttle — with no guarantee the rocket would ever be used again, according to documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.

NASA is proposing a so-called "shuttle-derived test flight campaign" to provide the agency with a rocket it can use to test its nascent crew capsule — and keep shuttle workers and the aerospace industry busy — while the agency figures out what it really wants in a next-generation "heavy-lift" rocket that could go to the moon or beyond.

The article notes that SLS postpones the answer to a fundamental question: "What's the mission of NASA's human-spaceflight program?"

The answer would seem to be directing pork to the districts of those on congressional space subcommittees.

Space Journalist Legend on Commercial Space

NBC space journalist Jay Barbree has a lengthy article by NBC's veteran space journalist Jay Barbree about the pending arrival of commercial crew.

Barbree is the only surviving journalist to have covered every American human space flight.

The article opens:

NASA is retiring its space shuttle fleet, and many are wondering what’s next. Well, tighten your seat belt: The second great space race is about to begin, and it could shave two or three years off astronauts' down time without something American to fly.

The article reviews various commercial space proposals by SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada.

It also lumps in the Liberty proposal by ATK, although NASA failed to award ATK any prize money in the latest commercial crew competition. ATK has no contracts to fly any spacecraft provider on the Liberty rocket.

More importantly, the article notes the benefit of U.S. human space flight having multiple choices for crew vehicles. Barbree concludes:

You can bet it'll be a race to the finish line by the old and the new. And when there are two or more players in a market, the competition cuts costs for the consumers — in this case, NASA and the American taxpayers. All of us end up being the ultimate winners.

Who needs a one horse race?

Suborbital Commercial Payloads

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation released a press release today promoting a NASA announcement of suborbital commercial payload contracts.

NASA has announced its first four payloads to fly on commercial suborbital spacecraft, kicking off a new era of low-cost technology R&D, science, and STEM education enabled by new commercial spacecraft being developed by Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace. NASA also announced the latest round of payloads to fly on the Zero-G parabolic aircraft operated by Zero Gravity Corporation. NASA’s suborbital payloads announcement illustrates the high-payoff projects being pursued by NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT), a newly formed division whose purpose is to revitalize technology R&D at NASA through innovative research.

Florida Today reported last November that Masten had contracted to use Space Florida's Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Cost of Commercial Space

Aviation Week reports that a recently released NASA report attempts to estimate the cost and demand for commercial crew flights.

Click here to read the report.

Reporter Frank Morring, Jr. writes:

Private space companies probably can expect at least 44 paying passengers for trips to orbit in the next 10 years, NASA has told Congress, but the price per seat could be higher than the U.S. government already is paying for rides on Russia’s Soyuz capsule.

The agency’s congressionally mandated assessment of the market for the commercial cargo and crew transport to low Earth orbit (LEO) — the centerpiece of U.S. space policy for the post-shuttle era — carries no cost estimates, and is based largely on extrapolated historical data and projections by two firms that aren’t directly involved in building the commercial systems NASA needs to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station.

The report's pending release last month created a firestorm because of its flawed methodology.

Station-Keeping for China's Space Program

Despite false claims by certain politicians that China has surpassed the United States in space technology and will soon land humans on the Moon, in the real world China continues to move slowly towards its own modest space station.

Spaceflight Now reports that China hopes to launch two unmanned spacecraft later this year to attempt a docking maneuver for the first time in their history.

The docking experiment is a key step in China's aggressive plan to field a massive space station the size of NASA's Skylab research platform by 2020 ...

The space station would weigh more than 130,000 pounds. Its core module would stretch nearly 60 feet long, then two experiment modules would blast off and join together to form the complex in orbit, officials from the China Manned Space Engineering Office said at a news conference in April.

The last crewed Chinese flight was Shenzhou 7 which flew for three days in September 2008 with a crew of three.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cabana: "A Lot of Great Work" on the Way

KSC Director Bob Cabana at Tuesday's National Space Club meeting. Photo source: Florida Today.

Florida Today reports on yesterday's presentation by Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana at the monthly National Space Club meeting.

The number of jobs at Kennedy Space Center will fall to about 8,000 this year, then will begin to grow by as many as 2,000 jobs spanning several years as new programs are created, KSC Director Bob Cabana said Tuesday before the National Space Club.

"If we really do this right, we'll get back to where there are 10,000 contractors and civil servants," Cabana said at the group's monthly meeting.

The article quotes Cabana as saying NASA will announce in July the architecture of the Space Launch System mandated by Congress in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget. It also reports that the Obama administration's FY 2012 budget proposal includes $2 billion in upgrades for Kennedy Space Center, but it's up to Congress to actually include it in the budget.

Reporter Patrick Peterson wrote that Cabana's speech was "met with silence from the audience of several hundred space industry officials and employees." But as a National Space Club member and occasional luncheon attendee, my observation has been that most speakers are "met with silence." Most of the attendees are industry insiders there to network and read the tea leaves. The only way to get a rousing ovation out of this group would be to promise them generous no-bid government contracts.

The article concludes:

"It's going to be difficult, but we're pulling together a master plan," Cabana said. "We have to make these changes regardless of what the next vehicle is. We're not going out of business. We've got a lot of great work coming our way."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Reviewing Commercial Space

Two new articles about commercial space are now on The Space Review.

"Commercial Space Skepticism" by Jeff Foust reviews the current state of commercial space and the motivations of those trying to oppose it. He focuses in particular on last week's House space subcommittee hearing, which included a proposal for the FAA to open a Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center at Kennedy Space Center. Foust writes:

Some members of the subcommittee, though, were skeptical about the need for such a significant budget increase for AST. "You're asking for us to increase your budget for a 'what-if,'" claimed Rep. Sandy Adams (R-FL), who was perhaps the strongest critic of the proposed budget increase during the hearing (although, ironically, her district includes KSC and would thus benefit from the increased budget.) "I have grave concerns about that."

UPDATE May 9, 2011 8:30 PM EDTClick here to watch the video of the May 5 meeting.

Rep. Adams' questions begin at about the 50-minute mark in the video. It appears she is reading questions either provided for her or written by her in advance.

You can also read the report submitted by GAO Director Gerald Dillingham in association with his testimony at this hearing. On Page 11 of the report (Page 13 in the .PDF) it offers a preview of coming attractions:

We will evaluate NASA’s commercial crew transportation procurement strategy, insight and oversight plans, and indemnification approach — which NASA officials expect to provide to Congress in June — in response to a mandate in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and expect to issue a report later this year.

Foust also writes about a controversial article by the Lexington Institute slamming SpaceX. Foust notes the inaccuracies in the article; I should note that I've seen comments posted on several sites that allege financial ties between Lexington and the United Launch Alliance companies Lockheed-Martin and Boeing.

UPDATE May 10, 2011 12:30 PM EDT — Thanks to a comment posted at the end of Foust's article, I located a December 9, 2010 article which details who's behind the Lexington Institute. Author Jen DiMascio interviewed CEO Loren Thompson and wrote:

The 501(c)(3) Lexington Institute doesn’t disclose its donors. But Thompson said it receives contributions from defense giants Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and others, which pay Lexington to "comment on defense."

The institute brought in $2.4 million in 2009, according to its financial statements. Thompson proposes projects to its clients, such as one he wrote earlier this year denouncing subsidies received by the European Union, an argument used by Boeing for bouncing its competitor EADS from the effort to win the $35 billion tanker contract.

It should also be noted that SpaceX sued in 2005 in an attempt to block the ULA merger, alleging it would stifle competition. The judge dismissed the suit, ruling that SpaceX couldn't show it had been damaged since it hadn't launched any rockets yet! That's like saying you can't report a bank robbery if you're not a customer of the bank.

Recently retired Planetary Society executive director Lou Friedman published an article titled "Public-Private Partnerships in Space". Correctly noting there is no longer a Cold War justification for uncontrolled government space spending, Friedman writes:

Where space may play a major role is in boosting or even setting standards for public-private cooperation, an ever-increasing need in our economic and social programs. Political systems worldwide need to cope with a host of economic and social issues and changes. In every space-faring country, there is a strong private and commercial sector increasingly important and—in many cases—larger than the government. The US shift encouraging commercial rocket development follows increased roles for the private sector in communications, remote sensing, weather, and other Earth observing applications.

UPDATE May 24, 2011Rand Simberg responds to Thompson at the Washington Examiner web site.

Jets on the Way to KSC

A Starfighters Inc. F-104 in action. They'll fly out of the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center.

Florida Today reports that Starfighters Inc. has more jets on the way to Kennedy Space Center.

"The big thing is that these are a newer generation aircraft, vintage 1980," Starfighters Inc. President and Chief Pilot Rick Svetkoff said. "They were the last ones off the assembly line."

The company makes its home in the 10-year-old Reusable Launch Vehicle Hangar beside the 15,000-foot shuttle landing runway. The F-104 jets can fly above 70,000 feet at twice the speed of sound. NASA and commercial space companies have used the four Starfighters to test high-performance equipment used on the space shuttle, as well as telemetry equipment and a new digital camera.

The article concludes:

As the shuttle program ends, the commercial space industry has become more interested in testing space hardware.

"A lot of new commercial space imperatives are very much in play now," Svetkoff said. "The commercial market is actually starting to grow. The space program is not ending. I think the gap is going to be picked up by the commercial side."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Maturing U.S. Human Space Flight

Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter rides in a 1958 Corvette during Saturday's parade in Cocoa Beach. Photo source: Florida Today.

Cocoa Beach held a parade Saturday as part of the ceremonies in recent days noting the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard's flight as the first American in space.

The Florida Today article about the parade included this passage:

John and Pat Neilon watched the parade from a shaded area near the fire station. The two moved to Cocoa Beach in 1957 from Washington, D.C., for his job with Vanguard. They still live in the home they built on the beach.

The 82-year-old retired director of unmanned launch operations, worked at Kennedy Space Center until 1986.

"I wish we could keep the program going, but if you look at the shuttles, they were built in the 1970s," he said. "They're old technology, old engineering. Hopefully the commercial aspect will pick up . . . and then, I think, the program will truly have matured."

Friday, May 6, 2011

FAA Wants to Bring 50 Jobs to KSC

Florida Today reports that the Federal Aviation Administration would bring fifty jobs to Kennedy Space Center if Congress approves funding for a new commercial spaceflight center.

The plans depend on congressional approval of a proposal to spend $5 million in fiscal 2012 on the Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center, which would oversee commercial spaceflight.

"We need to work together to make sure we have consistent and compatible requirements," George Nield, FAA's associate administrator for commercial space transportation, told the House space subcommittee.

The article notes that Rep. Sandy Adams (R-FL), whose district includes KSC, called the proposal "troubling" saying, "I am very concerned about the budget."

According to the subcommittee's official press release, committee chair Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) said:

"The Office of Commercial Space Transportation provides an essential public service, ensuring that commercial launches are undertaken with the highest level of safety. Their record of achievement is significant, licensing over 200 launches without any loss of life, serious injury, or notable property damage to the general public."

The subcommittee's web site does have some video archives of earlier meetings, so if this one comes online I'll post an update.

UPDATE May 6, 2011 10:40 AM EDTThe Space Politics web site has more details on the hearing, including more remarks by Rep. Adams. Blogger Jeff Foust wrote that Adams was "far more combative than her colleagues on the committee."

UPDATE May 9, 2011 8:30 PM EDTClick here to watch the video of the May 5 meeting.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Remembering Alan Shepard

NASA TV cameras film a ceremony unveiling a stamp honoring Alan Shepard. Note the Mercury-Redstone mockup directly behind the USPS logo.

Today is the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard's 15-minute flight that began the American human space flight program.

Florida Today reports on a ceremony yesterday in the rocket garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to honor Shepard with a "forever" stamp.

I was lucky enough to attend and took the photo at the top of this article.

Alan Shepard's daughter told a story about when her father went to the White House to visit President Kennedy.

In strode the President's daughter Caroline. Kennedy introduced Shepard as "the first American in space." Caroline looked around and said, "Where's the chimpanzee?"

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Perchance to Dream

Sierra Nevada concept art of the Dream Chaser approaching the International Space Station.

Aviation Week reports that Sierra Nevada plans to use Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo mothership to conduct tests of the Dream Chaser spaceplane.

Sierra Nevada is one of the big winners in the second round of NASA’s CCDev program, netting $80 million of the total $269.3 million payout aimed at maturing concepts for private spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and other low Earth orbit destinations. Designed for a maximum crew of seven, the Dream Chaser is a lifting body spacecraft based on NASA’s HL-20 crew vehicle, and will launch on an Atlas V.

The atmospheric drop test of the full-scale vehicle, expected sometime in the second quarter of 2012, will assess handling qualities as well as stability and control during an unpowered descent to a conventional runway landing. The design of the low-speed flight control system is being fine-tuned after drop tests of a scale model were conducted in December at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center from a helicopter hovering over the dry lakebed at Edwards AFB, Calif.

The Space Coast might see test launches not long after that.

The Dream Chaser is expected to have a cross-range capability of 1,700 km (1,000 mi.) and with a subsonic lift/drag ratio of 4:0, a “landing will be feasible on 7,000-foot runways,” he says. However, with launches currently planned from Kennedy Space Center’s SLC-41 launch pad (and possibly SLC-39B after conversion), the primary landing site is Cape Canaveral’s 15,000-ft. main runway.

Beyond atmospheric drop tests, further development plans include an un-piloted orbital test flight (OFT-1) boosted by an Atlas V, followed by a crewed OFT-2. The system is aiming for initial operational capability in 2015.

Chuck Yeager on Commercial Crew

General Chuck Yeager, the man with the "right stuff."

While doing research on the Internet, I found a February 1991 interview with Chuck Yeager, the icon of the "Right Stuff" era. This was after the Challenger accident; Yeager was on the investigation board appointed by the President.

Twenty years later, it seems that what Yeager said back then could still apply today.

Excerpts from the Q & A:

What other problems do you see with NASA as it stands?

Chuck Yeager: Basically, the bureaucracy. It's a civil service organization. It's difficult to get dead wood out of it, it has a tendency not to let loose of operational programs and keep on doing research and development. The shuttle is a good example. We could probably run the shuttle program for about one-tenth of what it is costing today with a good civilian organization that's in it to make a profit.

(Blogger's note: That last sentence sounds like Yeager endorsed commercial crew twenty years ago!)

You've been outspoken about these things for many years, and I imagine that alienates some of the administrators at NASA.

Chuck Yeager: I don't lose any sleep over it.

Later in the interview ...

What do you think of the direction NASA is going in today? What do you think the big priority should be?

Chuck Yeager: I think that basically we are stuck with the shuttle. It's that simple, because of narrow-mindedness and not looking at what's available in the world. NASA doesn't have any choice; it's pretty well hamstrung as to what its goals are in the future and what they can accomplish. Since it's the only kid we've got, we've got to support it. If we look at the laboratories that we are building, space vehicles out in permanent orbit and also the moon as a possible launching site for deep space exploration -- manned and unmanned -- they should be supported about the same amount as far as I'm concerned. The year that I spent on the President's space commission, developing a master plan for what the United States should do in space for the next fifty years, was very interesting in that you went through all of these things. That was the year prior to the shuttle accident, and we went to our industry to get answers. What do you think we can do in space? We went to the academic world and NASA, who is supposed to be our experts in space. The one thing that we noticed when we started going to the different NASA centers, like JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Marshall and others, is that these people don't even talk to each other! They don't even know what each division is doing. The different levels of supervision at NASA don't even communicate. For a whole year we sat and looked at this, and then bang, the shuttle accident happens, because of those characteristics. It was unfortunate.

Today, NASA has cleaned up its act quite a bit. They are being a little overcautious, which is costing them in payload with the shuttle. Also, they are over-budgeted. They don't get more money than they need, they are just spending a heck of a lot more than they need to. It's unfortunate, but that's the only space program that we have. Except the Air Force has been quietly developing space weapons systems the last 15 years, just for its own defense. That has paid off now in things like the Patriot missiles.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Who Broke Obama's Promise to Space Coast?

Who cost the Space Coast $40 million in jobs transition aid?

That's the question posed by Florida Today columnist Matt Reed in today's edition.

... A murkier picture — one of neglect and fallout from political brinkmanship — emerges from a retracing of activities surrounding the Presidential Task Force on Space Industry Workforce & Economic Development.

A representative from local Republican congressman Bill Posey blames Obama for not reaching out to him:

"There was no point person to put it in any budget," Posey spokesman George Cecala said of the $40 million. "This was not our initiative. If the president had reached out, we could have helped."

This would be the same Congressman Posey who in 2009 introduced the so-called "birther bill" shortly after both he and Obama took office.

As for Rep. Sandy Adams, whose district includes Kennedy Space Center:

Republican Rep. Sandy Adams, whose district includes Kennedy Space Center and Titusville, never Weighed in publicly on the $40 Million, and her office did not respond to a request for comment last week.

Adams voted against the April 8 compromise, not because of NASA, but because Congress didn't cut deep enough, she said in a prepared statement.

The article concludes:

White House spokeswoman Hannah August stressed Friday that Obama has also proposed much bigger initiatives in Brevard, including $4.25 billion over five years to develop human spaceflight on commercial spacecraft from the Cape to the International Space Station.

True, that's much bigger and possibly more important than the $40 million for a few clean-energy startups or a spec building for a research lab.

But a promise kept by Washington to the Space Coast would have proved significant nonetheless.