Sunday, September 30, 2012

Incomplete Grade

In doing research about the early days of commercial space under the George W. Bush administration, I came across a May 2005 GAO audit of International Space Station logistics support.

For the unfamiliar, the Government Accountability Office is the federal government's non-partisan independent auditing agency. It is an investigative arm of Congress; contrary to occasional unsubstantiated assertions, the White House has no influence or control over the GAO.

This particular audit was written at a time when NASA was struggling to return to flight after the loss of Columbia on February 1, 2003.

President Bush had given a speech in January 2004 announcing that the Shuttle program would end once ISS construction was complete circa 2010. His Vision for Space Exploration speech proposed a new mission which redirected NASA away from Low Earth Orbit and out into the solar system. The program came to be known as Constellation.

Click the arrow to watch the January 28, 2004 Senate Science Committee on the Vision for Space Exploration.

Bush didn't mention it, but buried in the details was a proposal to begin a commercial cargo program.

For cargo transport to the Space Station after 2010, NASA will rely on existing or new commercial cargo transport systems, as well as international partner cargo transport systems. NASA does not plan to develop new launch vehicle capabilities except where critical NASA needs—such as heavy lift—are not met by commercial or military systems. Depending on future human mission designs, NASA could decide to develop or acquire a heavy lift vehicle later this decade. Such a vehicle could be derived from elements of the Space Shuttle, existing commercial launch vehicles, or new designs.

Nowhere was commercial crew mentioned.

In the months following Bush's announcement, Congress held hearings to determine NASA's progress. Apparently some members of Congress questioned whether NASA was sincere in pursuing the commercial program. According to the May 18, 2005 GAO cover letter:

In May 2004 and again in February 2005, NASA testified before the Congress that it had assessed using alternative launch vehicles for completing space station assembly and providing logistics support. According to NASA officials, their assessment showed that using alternative launch vehicles would introduce unacceptable operational risks, technical challenges, long program delays, and would ultimately cost more than returning the space shuttle to flight. Therefore, NASA concluded that the space shuttle’s unique capabilities provided the best available option for these missions. Despite these testimonies, concerns have been raised about NASA’s conclusions, both within Congress and the industry. Due to the uncertainty regarding when the space shuttle would return to safe flight and concerns that additional flights would be needed to support assembly and logistics operations, you asked us to determine whether NASA’s assessment of alternatives was sufficient to conclude that the space shuttle is the best option for completing assembly and providing logistics support to the space station.

What did the audit find?

Not much. Because NASA didn't really do a proper study.

In early 2004, NASA performed an informal assessment of alternative launch vehicles that was incomplete and did not provide a clearly documented rationale to conclude that the space shuttle was the best option to support space station operations. NASA identified significant challenges associated with using an alternative to the space shuttle for space station assembly, which could preclude these missions from consideration. However, the assessment conducted by NASA did not include an analysis of the schedule impacts or costs associated with using alternative launch vehicles for logistics missions later this decade. While we recognize that the extensive experience of its senior managers is an important element in evaluating alternatives, NASA relied primarily on headquarters expertise to conduct the informal assessment. NASA officials did not document the proceedings and decisions reached in its assessment. As a result, the existence of this assessment of alternatives cannot be verified, nor can the conclusions be validated. (Emphasis added)

The timeline here is critical. The "informal assessment" of alternatives to Shuttle was performed in "early 2004." It was one year after Columbia. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board's report in August 2003 had declared Shuttle "a complex and risky system". The Board recommended several changes to NASA bureaucracy, but didn't believe that NASA would do anything about it. From Page 13 of the report:

This chapter captures the Board's views of the need to adjust management to enhance safety margins in Shuttle operations, and reaffirms the Board's position that without these changes, we have no confidence that other "corrective actions" will improve the safety of Shuttle operations. The changes we recommend will be difficult to accomplish — and will be internally resisted.

The GAO audit's finding proved that CAIB was right. NASA was determined to fly the Shuttle and wouldn't consider alternatives.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Follow the Leader

Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka in May 2012 during quarantine before his launch to the International Space Station. Image source: NASA.

Space Coast congressional representatives Sandy Adams and Bill Posey have falsely claimed that President Obama has ceded space leadership to other nations, Russia and China in particular.

Here's more evidence that they've been lying to you.

After his September 17 return from the International Space Station, Russian space veteran Gennady Padalka told reporters at a post-flight press conference that his nation's space technology is grossly inferior to the United States.

"Our partners have launched a rover on Mars. They are testing commercial spacecraft, Mars rovers, unique landing equipment. I would like that to also happen in Russia. We are waiting for it," Padalka told reporters after a post-flight press conference held in the Cosmonaut Training center in the Moscow region.

Padalka said the Russian space equipment is highly reliable and safe, but is obsolete and no significant modernization processes are observed.

"These technologies date back to the 1980s. Nothing has been done in the twenty years since the foundation of new Russia. We are using the achievements of the Soviet Union," Padalka, who has visited the ISS many times, said.

Speaking about the achievements of his U.S. and European colleagues, Padalka said he had seen a robot working on the ISS.

An article published today on by Russian space analyst Jim Oberg provides far more blunt comments made by Padalka.

At the traditional Russian post-landing press conference on Sept. 21, cosmonaut Gennady Padalka complained about the "spartan" conditions aboard the Russian side of the station, especially as compared with the American side. The conditions were cold, noisy, overstuffed with equipment, and cramped — each Russian had about one-seventh the living space that the American astronauts had. "All of this gives serious inconvenience in the operation of the Russian segment," he said ... The equipment, he continued, was reliable and safe but was decades out of date. "Nothing has been done in the 20 years since the foundation of the new Russia," he complained. The Russian space technology is technologically bankrupt and "morally exhausted." It was, he told reporters, "frozen in the last century." He contrasted those conditions with the spaciousness and modernity of the American modules, and praised the advanced technology he saw there: the robotics experiment ("As always, still under study in Russia") and SpaceX's commercial spacecraft docking, for example.

Oberg's article about Roscosmos sounds similar to the complaints about NASA's bureaucracy. A bloated aerospace industry lacking sufficient demand. An aging workforce with obsolete skills. Grandiose plans to "fly everywhere" without the money or political commitment to support it.

Roscosmos General Director Vladimir Popovkin predicted today that, "Unless we undertake extreme measures, the sector will be uncompetitive within three-four years." Image source: RIA Novosti.

It's clear, however, that the Russians understand just how big a threat SpaceX is to the status quo.

[Roscosmos General Director Vladimir] Popovkin validated Padalka's assessment of the lack of technological progress by warning that Western advances into privatized space launch services would soon drive Russia out of the last corner of the international space industry where it had any standing. "We will become uncompetitive in the next three or four years if we don’t take urgent measures," he told the students.

Popovkin made his remarks in a lecture to science and technology students. You read about his remarks here and here on the English language version of the RIA Novosti web site

Among other measures, Popovkin suggests moving more of their space bureaucracy into the private sector. Sound familiar?

The Romney-Ryan campaign's space policy paper claimed, "America’s capabilities are eroding, and with each passing year will become more difficult to rebuild."

They should ask the Russians. It's pretty clear they don't agree.

X-37B May Move to Space Coast

Click the arrow to watch a Florida Today report on the X-37B. You may be subjected to an ad first.

Florida Today reports that the U.S. Air Force may consolidate X-37B spaceplane operations in Brevard County.

Maj. Tracy Bunko, a spokesperson for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said the service is “looking at space shuttle infrastructure for possible cost-saving measures, including the potential for consolidating landing, refurbishment and launch operations at Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.”

“Those investigations are in an early state, and any specifics will not be known for some time,” Bunko said. “But we are evaluating the feasibility of landing the X-37B OTV at Kennedy Space Center possibly as early as for the landing of OTV-3.”

It's been speculated for some time that the X-37B might go into one of the former Shuttle-era Orbiter Processing Facility hangars next to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

CASIS at CCAFS Museum Meeting

U.S. astronaut Joe Acaba on June 26 with Robonaut 2 in the Destiny module of the International Space Station. Image source: NASA.

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space will be the topic at the next meeting of the Air Force Space & Missile Museum docents on Monday evening October 1 at 7 PM EDT. The meeting is open to the public.

CASIS is contracted by NASA to manage the U.S. National Laboratory aboard the International Space Station. It is a critical component for fully exploiting the ISS now that it is operational.

The featured speaker will be Duane Ratliff, the CASIS Director of Operations. Here's his biography from the CASIS web site:

Duane Ratliff, CASIS Director of Operations, has most recently served as senior vice president at Dynamac Corporation, with operations expertise in supply chain management, government program management, space-based R&D, biotech facilities support, and payload development and execution. He also served as the liaison between Space Florida and NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for all operations and logistics planning for the Space Life Sciences Laboratory.

As the official liaison to NASA, the director of operations engages with requisite research and implementation centers to develop relationships that enable full utilization of NASA capabilities and legacy expertise. The director serves as a critical interface to the NASA ISS program office, coordinating the planning and execution of CASIS-managed payloads via (1) identifying appropriate resources and technology partners to ensure mission success of payloads and (2) facilitating payload development, testing, integration and execution of flight projects in collaboration with the NASA ISS payloads office.

Ratliff attended undergrad at Merrimack College in Massachusetts and majored in Physiology. He then attended Yale University and earned a Master of Public Health focusing on Occupational/Environmental Health Science. Ratliff is also a member of several associations, including, American Astronautical Society, National Space Society and a board member of the National Space Club.

Although this is a docents meeting, all are welcome.

The meeting will be at the Museum's History Center.

To reach the History Center ... From the SR-528 Beachline, exit Terminal A at Port Canaveral and drive north on SR-401. Just before you reach the Air Force Station's security gate, you'll see a signal at the Poseidon Road intersection. Turn right and then left to enter the Space Florida parking lot. The History Center is to the right of Space Florida, behind the SpaceX Launch Control Center.

The meeting begins at 7:00 PM. The first half-hour is usually for museum business. The guest speaker begins at about 7:30 PM.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Danger, Will Robinson!

Danger! Clicking the arrow will show you a video about the Robot B9 replicas!

Among the artifacts in the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex Early Space Exploration exhibit is a replica of the Lost in Space General Utility Non-Theorizing Envrionmental Control Robot, Model B9.

You may know it simply as "Robot."

It was built by Mike Joyce, the proprietor of B9Creations in Rapid City, South Dakota. His company is licensed to produce Robot replicas.

Below are photos of the Robot in the context of its exhibit.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Grand Opening

On September 19 I posted photos of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex Rocket Garden the day after the construction fence was removed. The new entrance hadn't yet opened.

I returned today to find the entrance is now open. Below are photos.

A new express kiosk is available for electronic purchase of tickets.

A closer look at the kiosks. I didn't see anyone using them.

The new ticket booths. The old entrance is to the left behind the construction fence.

The new landscaped entrance.

A closer look at the entrance. Notice the EXPLORE marquee.

A new gift shop named Voyagers outside the gate, so you no longer need to buy a ticket to shop. But you'll still have to pay $10 to park.

A closer look at the new entrance gate.

The Will Call booth with Guest Services to the rear.

The pre-existing Early Space Exploration is now adjoined by an Information desk.

The Rocket Garden as it appears from the entrance.

The new walkway is called the Vapor Trail. It will extend eventually throughout the complex.

The Far Side of the Moon

A NASA proposal would station a deep-space human outpost at the L-2 Legrangian Point. Image source: Wikipedia.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that NASA has sent to the White House a proposal to station a deep-space outpost on the far side of the Moon.

Top NASA officials have picked a leading candidate for the agency's next major mission: construction of a new outpost that would send astronauts farther from Earth than at any time in history. The so-called "gateway spacecraft" would hover in orbit on the far side of the moon, support a small astronaut crew and function as a staging area for future missions to the moon and Mars.

The outpost would be at a location known as "L-2," a reference to the Legrangian Points calculated in the 18th Century by Italian-French mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange. At a Legrangian point, the combined gravitational pull of two large masses provides precisely the centripetal force required to orbit with them.

Unmentioned in the article is that L-2 will also be the location of the James Webb Space Telescope. The outpost could provide a base for telescope servicing missions. UPDATE 5:30 PM EDT — As many have pointed out, the JWST will be at the Sun-Earth L-2. The outpost will be at the Earth-Moon L-2. Some days, you should wait until you fully awaken before you write.

UPDATE September 25, 2012MSNBC's Alan Boyle published an in-depth article about the Sentinel article and its implications, including a discussion with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Aldrin's vision calls for NASA to lead in the construction of the infrastructure needed for space transport beyond Earth orbit, while leaving the development of facilities on the moon's surface to commercial ventures. A human-tended station at EML-1 or EML-2 could help direct the robotic construction of habitats and factories on the moon, to be occupied at a later time by humans.

"Those are steppingstones in confidence and training for interplanetary spacecraft," Aldrin said.

The eventual goal would be to have a human-tended station on the Martian moon Phobos, directing robots to build facilities for permanent residents on the Red Planet. And then? "We make a commitment to permanence," Aldrin explained. "It's like the Pilgrims on the Mayflower."

UPDATE September 25, 2012 5:15 PM EDTMarcia Smith at posted a report that NASA has issued a comment about the Sentinel story. It reads as a non-denial denial.

“NASA is executing President Obama's ambitious space exploration plan that includes missions around the moon, to asteroids, and ultimately putting humans on Mars. There are many options - and many routes - being discussed on our way to the Red Planet. In addition to the moon and an asteroid, other options may be considered as we look for ways to buy down risk - and make it easier - to get to Mars. We have regular meetings with OMB, OSTP, Congress, and other stakeholders to keep them apprised of our progress on our deep space exploration destinations. This concept is a part of the Voyages document that we mentioned in an earlier Update posted on in June:" Refer to page 26 of the chapter titled, “Habitation and Destination Capabilities.”

The partisan rhetoric in the opening sentence is a bit over-the-top, in my opinion. Even for an election year. NASA isn't supposed to be partisan.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Romney Campaign Releases Position Paper

The Romney campaign today released a space policy white paper titled, "Securing U.S. Leadership in Space."

Click here to access the eight-page document.

The introduction states:

Unfortunately, President Obama has failed to deliver a coherent policy for human space exploration and space security. As a result, he has created uncertainty and confusion within U.S. industry and the international community. The President’s disjointed collection of scientific projects lack guiding principles, plausible objectives, or a roadmap for long-run success. They also have left American astronauts to hitch rides into space on Russian spacecraft. America’s capabilities are eroding, and with each passing year will become more difficult to rebuild.

As I've written many times, the current "gap" requiring U.S. astronauts to "hitch rides" on the Russian Soyuz was created by the Bush administration in January 2004. In the wake of the Columbia accident, President Bush proposed that crew rotations move to the Soyuz as it was considered to be safer and cheaper. Bush also proposed that the Shuttle be retired once International Space Station construction was completed circa 2010; at that time, the United States would have a minimum four-year gap where it relied on Russia until the next crewed vehicle would be ready. All that was approved by Congress, and has been U.S. policy for eight years.

The same falsehood is repeated on Page 4:

For the first time since the dawn of the Space Age, the United States has no clear plan for putting its own astronauts into space.

The United States has a very "clear plan." It's called commercial crew.

On August 2, 2012, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced the winners of the commerical crew competition.

Click the arrow to watch the announcement of the three companies that will build vehicles capable of taking astronauts to the International Space Station.

Romney also asserts on Page 4 that "U.S. partners have reluctantly concluded that the United States is no longer serious about leading in space," without providing any evidence to back up that claim.

On Page 6, the document states, "Mitt Romney will strive to rebuild an institution worthy of our aspirations and capable once again of leading the world toward new frontiers."

But don't count on any more money to achieve this.

On the same page it states:

A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities. Romney will ensure that NASA has practical and sustainable missions. There will be a balance of pragmatic and top-priority science with inspirational and groundbreaking exploration programs.

So if there won't be any more money, how will Romney pay for these "inspirational and groundbreaking exploration programs" that he doesn't name?

That's what Bush did when he proposed the Constellation program — lots of "vision" but very little additional funding, which led to its demise.

And contradicting his assertion on Page 4 that the U.S. has no "clear plan for putting its own astronauts into space," on Page 7 Romney essentially endorses the current commercial crew strategy:

NASA will look whenever possible to the private sector to provide repeatable space-based services like human and cargo transport to and from low Earth orbit. It will provide clear and timely guidance as to expected needs so the private sector can plan and invest accordingly.

You can read the document and judge for yourself, but in my opinion this document has about as much integrity as all things Romney.

UPDATE September 22, 2012Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan spoke yesterday in Orlando at the University of Central Florida. Click here to watch:

Ryan said he was "in the Space Coast." He was actually about 40 miles away. He might want to look at a map.

As for his claim in the video that Obama broke promises made to the Space Coast, click here to read my August 2011 article reviewing what promises Obama made and which ones he kept.

Left unmentioned by Ryan is how his Republican brethren in the U.S. Senate filibustered the President's $35 million jobs bill to help the Space Coast, preventing its passage.

In the Trenches

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex offers a tour of Launch Complex 39-A. Recently the tour began to approach the flame trench, where guests are allowed to exit the tour bus and shoot photos.

Below are photos I shot this afternoon of the flame trench and surrounding technology.

Mobile Launch Platform 2 straddles the flame trench. The view is from the east looking west. Behind your viewpoint is the Atlantic Ocean.

The 300,000 gallon capacity water tank. It's not used to douse flames. The pipe is labelled SOUND SUPPRESSION. The water douses the noise in the flame trench so it doesn't shake loose heat shield tiles from an orbiter.

The south wall of the flame trench.

And the north wall.

The New Neighbors

View Larger Map
The proposed commercial launch pad would be near the old farm community known as Shiloh. Image source: Google Maps.

Florida Today reports that Space Florida has asked for land near the far north end of Kennedy Space Center to build a commercial launch complex.

The state wants to develop a commercial launch complex at Kennedy Space Center, a move that could persuade SpaceX not to pursue a similar site elsewhere in the country.

In a letter sent Thursday to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll requested 150 undeveloped acres at the northern end of the space center, near the former citrus community of Shiloh.

With Federal Aviation Administration approval, the site would operate outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. Air Force’s Eastern Range, which provides safety and tracking for launches from KSC and Cape Canaveral.

“The State proposes to develop and operate this site as a commercial launch complex independent of the neighboring federal range and spaceports,” Carroll wrote.

In the earliest plans for Kennedy Space Center, three additional launch pads were to have been built northwest of the current pads:

A 1963 map envisioning the future Kennedy Space Center. Image source: Wikipedia.

The described location would seem to be about where LC-39E would have been.

UPDATE September 23, 2012Edward Ellegood at Florida SPACErePORT adds depth and history to the proposed Shiloh site:

Back in 1988, a feasibility study was completed for Spaceport Florida, identifying sites around the state that could accommodate the nation's first commercial spaceport. The study identified the "Shiloh" site near the northern boundary of Kennedy Space Center (land managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as a National Wildlife Refuge) as one of the two most attractive orbital launch locations...the other being the unused launch pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Environmental groups were quick to demand that Shiloh be removed from consideration, causing a race between then Republican Governor Bob Martinez and Democratic House Speaker Tom Gustafson to be the first to officially strike Shiloh from the list (see this archived 1989 article).

UPDATE September 23, 2012 5:45 PM EDTReuters has more on the proposed land deal.

Some of the requested land is believed to be owned by Florida, which lays claim to about 56,000 acres of the 140,000 acres that comprise the Kennedy Space Center and the surrounding Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

The federal government was allowed use of the land for the national space program, with the caveat that it would revert back to the state if it was no longer needed for NASA's purposes.

NASA never developed the Shiloh site.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Posey's Power Grab

Space Coast congressional representative Bill Posey at yesterday's D.C. press conference. Image source: Houston Chronicle.

Space Coast representative Bill Posey was one of six Republican congressmen who co-sponsored legislation introduced yesterday that would strip the President of any NASA decision-making authority.

Titled the "Space Leadership Act," the proposed legislation would turn over management of NASA to an eleven-member Board of Directors mostly appointed by Congress. That Board would then present the President with a list of three candidates for NASA Administrator. That Administrator would serve a ten-year term, and could be removed by a majority vote of the Board.

The six are Reps. John Culberson (TX-07), Frank Wolf (VA-10), Bill Posey (FL-15), Pete Olson (TX-22), James Sensenbrenner (WI-05) and Lamar Smith (TX-21). All are Republicans.

According to Posey's press release:

“NASA has suffered from a lack of continuity and long-term vision,” said Rep. Posey, Representative of Cape Canaveral, Florida. “Our bill fixes NASA's systemic problem and enables NASA to operate beyond short-term political agendas. It adds accountability to the agency, and puts an end to the abrupt terminations that have wasted too many limited dollars. The ability to commit to longer term projects will provide stability, which benefits our national space program, our national security, and will build the stable workforce that is needed to maintain U.S. Space leadership.”

Click here to read the bill.

Despite the sponsors' claims that the bill would take politics out of NASA's management, the language suggests the opposite.

The eleven-member Board of Directors would be comprised of eight political appointees by Congress, and three by the President. The majority leader in each house can appoint three members, while the minority leader in each house can appoint one. If one political party dominates Congress, while the President is a member of the other party, then the party opposing the President would have a 6-5 majority running NASA.

Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution vests "executive power" in "a President of the United States of America." Article I, Section I vests "legislative powers" in a "Congress of the United States." It seems unconstitutional to me for the legislative branch to try to give itself an executive power.

The bill specifies the "qualifications" for a board member, but ultimately just who is "qualified" would be determined by the politicians who appointed them. Appointees could be, for example, executives from aerospace companies such as ATK, Boeing or Lockheed Martin. The bill prohibits current employment with one of those companies, but says nothing about owning stock or drawing a pension from that company.

The Board would be required to submit a NASA budget to the President, who would then have to explain to Congress why the White House submitted a proposed NASA budget that differed from the Board's.

The bill also requires the budget to have "strict adherence" to "a balanced program" that includes "a flagship class mission," without explaining just what that is or what purpose it would serve.

A Florida Today article on yesterday's press event reports:

Posey and others at the news conference spoke about the billions “wasted” when the Constellation return-to-the-moon program advocated by former President George W. Bush was scrapped by President Barack Obama in 2009. Obama decided instead to focus on pushing the private sector to take over missions to the ISS and develop a heavy-lift rocket for an eventual mission to Mars.

Apparently no mention was made of the several GAO audits prior to 2009 which concluded that Constellation was years behind schedule, billions over budget and "lacked a sound business case."

Watch Sally Ride's presentation to the Augustine Committee.

In fact, it was the late astronaut Sally Ride who presented to an independent panel in August 2009 the findings that Constellation was not sustainable.

No President can cancel unilaterally a program already approved by Congress. The truth is that Constellation was cancelled by Congress after the President recommended a new course. Bipartisan leadership in Congress then directed the President and NASA to begin work on the Space Launch System, supposedly another "flagship class mission" that has no missions or destinations — but according to those who ordered NASA to do it, SLS saves jobs in their districts and states.

The legislation, introduced late in this year's session, has virtually no chance of passing. It's possible the authors hope it might be grafted onto any emergency legislation passed this fall to avoid sequestration; on it own, no President would vote to give authority over NASA to Congress.

In my opinion, this is just another attempt at a power grab by Congress to solve a problem they have created themselves.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


If you've been to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in recent months, you may have noticed a lot of construction. Most of it is for the new orbiter Atlantis museum, but on the west side a new entrance is about to open.

When it's operational in a few days, guests will enter the complex directly into the historic Rocket Garden.

The Rocket Garden construction fence came down last night. Final work continues, but below are photos of how it appeared this morning.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

#1 on the Runway

Yesterday I went out to the Shuttle Landing Facility — a fancy NASA way of saying "runway" — to photograph the orbiter Endeavour atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft — a fancy NASA way of saying "747."

Below are photos I shot with my dinky cameraphone of the mated pair, the Mate-Demate Device used to couple them, and other stuff nearby.

The New Economy

The "next generation" employees at SpaceX react to the historic launch of their Dragon to the International Space Station in May 2012. Video source: SpaceX.

One day, soon, Man is going to be able to harness incredible energies — maybe even the atom. Energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds in some sort of spaceship. And the men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way to give each man hope, and a common future. And those are the days worth living for.

Joan Collins as "Edith Keeler"
Star Trek, "The City on the Edge of Forever"

In the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, many find it hard to look up. They won't even look at the horizon. They look down at their feet, perhaps blaming themselves or blaming others.

How can they look up, how can they look to the horizon, when they've lost their home and can't find a job? When their skill set is obsolete? When they can no longer earn an income at the level they once enjoyed?

Asking those with such immediate needs to look up might seem harsh, even insensitive.

But I believe that better times are almost here.

If you're looking down, you're going to miss it.

In the 1960s, an entire generation was witness to one of the greatest feats in human history. For the first time, humans left the Earth to walk on another world.

Looking back through their own eyes, many in that generation forget why Americans went to the Moon. And they forget that over half of their fellow Americans thought the Moon program was a waste of money.

That generation now leads in Congress. It has spent almost ten years trying to recreate Apollo. They ignore the circumstances that led to Apollo — the Cold War, the perceived need to create American "prestige" abroad, the fear that the Soviet Union had more powerful boosters capable of bombing American cities with nuclear weapons.

None of that exists now. The Russians are our space allies, and have been for twenty years.

Despite that, the United States wasted seven years on the failed Constellation program, and threatens to do the same now with the Space Launch System. Both are Apollo-style vehicles with no missions or destinations approved by Congress. They exist primarily to perpetuate Shuttle-era jobs and contracts in the states and districts of key elected officials in the House and Senate.

The supporters of these programs invariably claim that spending billions on a heavy-lift rocket will "inspire" future generations without explaining how. I've yet to run into anyone who's told me that SLS, or Constellation before it, has "inspired" them, whatever that word is supposed to mean.

I'm inspired — not by the latest Congressional black hole for taxpayer dollars, but by the new industrial revolution taking place in the American economy.

Private sector investors are creating new space vehicles that by the end of this decade will make access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) all but routine.

It's not just adventure tourism, although that's certainly part of it.

Watch a Virgin Galactic promotional video. Their spaceship is named the VSS Enterprise.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson recently estimated that in the next thirty years, millions of people may visit space.

"It's going to be an explosion of people having had the chance to go into space and enjoy the marvels of space travel. In the past 30 years, only 500 people have been to space. I suspect in the next 30 years there may be something like 5 million people who will have had the opportunity to become astronauts."

"Space" is defined by international standards as 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, above the Earth's surface.

The vast majority of those going into "space" will be on suborbital tourism flights offered by Virgin Galactic, XCOR and other companies.

The first Virgin Galactic commercial flights may occur in 2013, and are certain to be the top story in U.S. media. If you're looking for "inspiration," I'm sure thousands of wealthy people will eagerly pay the $200,000 to fly into "space" with Virgin Galactic.

They will return to Earth and tell their families, friends and neighbors about the experience — what they saw, what they felt, maybe even what made them upchuck. But they will be talking about space, the final frontier.

This will be a uniquely American enterprise. No other nation has private entrepreneurs investing in commercial space. If you're on Planet Earth and want to fly into space ... you'll come to the United States and spend that money here.

Beyond adventure tourism, the United States will have an entirely new economy based on scientific research and production in microgravity.

We've known for decades the incredible commercial potential for microgravity. It was proven in the 1970s on Skylab, and in the early 1980s with the Space Shuttle.

Few know it today but, in the early 1980s, the U.S. space program already had its first commercial astronaut. Charlie Walker, a McDonnell Douglas engineer, was designated a NASA payload specialist. He trained astronauts to perform the Electrophoresis Operations in Space (EOS) experiments, and eventually flew three times on the Shuttle himself. Walker performed early protein crystal growth experiments and acted as a test subject for several medical studies.

An artist's concept of Leasecraft. Image source:

Fairchild Industries had planned to place in LEO a permanent orbital platform called Leasecraft that would be deployed and retrieved by the Shuttle. It would have been used to process pharmaceuticals and materials, and support NASA's astrophysics programs.

Leasecraft was scheduled to launch on the Shuttle in 1988. The orbiter would rendezvous with the platform every six months to collect experiments and deploy new ones. The New Economy was within our grasp.

But for political reasons — mostly due to the Challenger disaster — commercial use of the Shuttle was phased out in favor of prioritizing strictly government uses such as satellite deployment and space station construction.

Twenty-five years after Challenger, the International Space Station finally has been completed. Commercial microgravity research can begin again.

In the last decade, LEO research has led to potential vaccines for salmonella and MRSA, a type of Staphylococcus bacteria resistant to certain antibiotics. Those vaccines are now undergoing clinical trials with the Food and Drug Administration.

Not many people know that the United States has a National Laboratory aboard the ISS. A non-profit agency based here in the Space Coast called the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) has reviewed the most promising research to date and begun soliciting proposals from universities and the private sector to go further.

Watch a CASIS video on early research success with protein crystallization that may help with a cure for muscular dystrophy.

Protein crystallization, a CASIS research priority, might be the key to finding a cancer cure. How much do you think such a cure would be worth on the global market? That's why American private companies are now talking to CASIS about access to the National Laboratory.

But how will they get there?

That will soon be a uniquely American enterprise too.

Russia currently flies the only crew vehicle to the ISS. Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency fly automated cargo ships.

Those are owned by their governments.

But here in the United States, we are creating an entirely new economy based on the private sector delivering cargo and crew to LEO.

One has already flown. The SpaceX Dragon capsule berthed with the International Space Station in May. That was a demonstration flight to prove they could deliver cargo. That flight was so successful that SpaceX now begins a NASA contract for twelve cargo deliveries to the ISS. The first flight is scheduled for around October 8.

What's unique about the Dragon is that it will be the only cargo ship on Planet Earth capable of returning experiments and other payloads from the ISS. Other nations' vehicles burn up on re-entry. The Dragon will be reusable.

So in the New Economy, not only will the United States lead the world in microgravity research, but the U.S. will control the means of returning those experiments to the Earth.

By the middle of the decade, three American companies will be test-flying the world's first privately owned orbital crewed spaceships — the SpaceX Dragon, the Boeing CST-100 and the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser.

Two of those companies — Boeing and SpaceX — are partners with Bigelow Aerospace.

Watch a KLAS-TV news feature on Bigelow Aerospace.

Bigelow will construct the world's first private station. Its modules are made out of Vectran — ten times stronger than aluminum and five times stronger than steel.

According to the Bigelow Aerospace web site:

Although NASA initially developed the concept of inflatable space habitats, any substantial fabrication work was curtailed by Congress in 2000. Therefore, Bigelow Aerospace had to go through the process of re-designing much of what had been done before, developing, and eventually launching the world’s first expandable space habitat prototypes.

Two Bigelow habitat prototypes have been in space for five years, and are still functioning. According to the SpaceX launch manifest, Bigelow has booked a habitat construction flight from the Space Coast in 2015.

That's right around the time that Boeing and SpaceX should have their commercial crew vehicles in test flights.

Seven nations have signed agreements to use Bigelow habitats — Australia, Dubai, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In May, SpaceX and Bigelow announced a joint effort to market in Asia flights on Dragon spacecraft to Bigelow habitats.

They'll all be coming to the United States to reach space.

Perhaps the best aspect of the New Economy is that you'll no longer have to be a government employee to reach space. In the early years, you'll have to be rich, or have a wealthy benefactor, or perhaps rob your child's college fund. I suspect we'll see private companies leasing Bigelow habitats for research and eventually production, meaning that if you have a skill in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — your employer may pay the way for you.

For decades, the term "astronaut" was used with reverence. But by the end of this decade, it may become meaningless, as hundreds of private citizens will have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, if only for a few minutes.

The New Economy is so enticing that serious entrepreneurs are now investing in ideas once considered so outlandish they could be found only in science fiction.

Stratolaunch plans to build the world's largest aircraft for horizontal launch of payloads into orbit. That plane may take off and land from Kennedy Space Center, one of the few places in the world with a runway large enough.

Planetary Resources intends to mine asteroids for water and precious metals that could be returned here to Earth or used for deep-space missions and colonies.

Watch a Planetary Resources promotional video.

No other nation has the audacity to invest in such futuristic adventures.

No other nation has the ability to do it.

This will be the next Gold Rush. The gold will be microgravity.

The next generation of engineers, scientists and technicians emerging from today's universities will be the ones who seize this opportunity to take humanity to the stars.

It won't happen because the government flushed billions of dollars into obsolete technology as a monument to a long-faded Cold War memory.

It will happen because of a New Economy that restores America's ability to dream, to be the economic engine that powers the world.

And those are the days worth living for.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

How Low Can You Go

Click the arrow to watch on YouTube the House hearing on commercial crew.

Last week, Congress held three hearings on various aspects of the government space program.

Space advocates might see that as a hopeful sign that their elected officials are starting to show more interest in space exploration.

But after watching these events, I came away with the impression that these politicians achieved a new narcissistic low even for this session of Congress.

Only one of the three was nominally scheduled to be about the Space Launch System, also known as the "Senate Launch System" or the "Monster Rocket." Yet the SLS was injected into all three hearings, as elected representatives sought assurance that Congress' pet space project was proceeding apace without any delay.

Never mind that the SLS has no missions, no destinations, and no vehicles capable of landing on another world or sustaining a crew on a long-duration space flight.

Some senators and representatives obsessed that the commercial crew and cargo program might be stealing away money from the SLS. Many suggested that commercial vehicles are unsafe, without providing any evidence to support that notion — and ignoring the cold fact that the government space program has lost seventeen lives during its turbulent history.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was the only representative who told it like it is.

Let me suggest that no one wants to face the fact that we can't afford to go to Mars now. The bottom line is, in order to have steady funding, we're going to have to defund every other space project that we have! Nobody here wants to face that! Maybe if we're going to provide safety, maybe if we're going to provide reliability and do this professionally, maybe we should set our goals to something we can actually accomplish within the budgets that are possible, without destroying every other aspect of the space program. I think that's what's happening here today. That's what we're really discussing.

Some members complained that commercial crew might not be ready until 2017, yet they totally ignored the fact that it's been delayed two years already because Congress radically cut the commercial crew funding requested by the White House during the last two budget cycles. They complain about the United States relying solely upon Russia to access the International Space Station, but that decision was made in 2004 and the reliance continues because Congress has declined to adequately fund replacement vehicles.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) told NASA executives during the commercial crew hearing that they shouldn't expect adequate funding:

I strongly suggest, I mean, especially in this environment here to pin an estimate of completion and activity based on a hope is a real challenge, I think, for the agency.

Congress can't have it both ways. They can't rail about NASA relying on Russia while at the same time inadequately funding the commercial crew program. It will be a test of Congress' sincerity to see how much they fund commercial crew. We already know they will cut the White House for FY 2013 from $830 million to between $500 million to $525 million. That was after cutting it by more than half for FY 12.

Watching these hearings is like watching the Mad Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland. I provide that for you below to compare with the hearing above to see if you can distinguish any signficant difference between the two.

Click the arrow to watch the Mad Tea Party on YouTube.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Now Hear This

Three space-related hearings were held this week in Congress. The webcast archives are below.

"Examining NASA's Development of Space Launch System and Orion," House Space Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, September 12, 2012.

"The Path from Low Earth Orbit to Mars," Senate Committee on Science, Commerce and Transportation, September 12, 2012.

"Recent Developments in NASA's Commercial Crew Acquisition Strategy," House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, September 14, 2012.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Last Endeavour

The orbiter Endeavour is scheduled to leave High Bay 4 of the Vehicle Assembly Building tomorrow morning at 5:00 AM EDT.

Today I was with one of the last public tour groups to enter the VAB. The public is not allowed to enter the high bay, but the doors were open for NASA employees and contractors to walk in.

Below are photos shot with my dinky cameraphone.

While shooting these photos, I was suddenly struck by the thought ...

This could be the last time ever for an orbiter in the VAB.

Atlantis is currently nearby in Orbiter Processing Facility 2 (OPF-2) being prepared for delivery on November 2 to the museum currently under construction at the Visitor Complex. The last I heard, Atlantis would not return to the VAB before going to the museum. One source, however — a knowledgeable one — suggests Atlantis could return to the VAB for about two weeks before the move.

But if my original sources were correct, then today ends a long history that began in April 1979 when the prototype orbiter Enterprise arrived at Kennedy Space Center for mating tests.

It may have ended in September 2012 as seen in the below photos.

Astronaut Tom Jones at History Center

Click the arrow to watch an excerpt of Tom Jones speaking September 10 at the History Center. Video courtesy Marek Cyzio.

Astronaut Tom Jones spoke Monday at the Air Force Space & Missile Museum's History Center. The subject was asteroid mining and its potential commercial benefits, as well as defending Earth from a potential catastrophic event.

Dr. Jones recently published an article titled "Snaring a Piece of the Sky" in the May 2012 issue of Aerospace America. Some of the material in the article was used in Monday's presentation.

Below are photos from Monday's event. All photos are courtesy Marek Cyzio.