Saturday, June 28, 2014

Retro Saturday: Establishing a Rocket Research Range

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: wdtvlive42 YouTube channel.

So you want your own launch pad.

This week's Retro Saturday film tells you how to do it.

Establishing a Rocket Research Range is an undated 1960s-era NASA documentary about how to build a small launch facility for sounding rockets.

What is a sounding rocket? According to NASA:

Sounding rockets take their name from the nautical term “to sound,” which means to take measurements. Since 1959, NASA-sponsored space and earth science research has used sounding rockets to test instruments used on satellites and spacecraft and to provide information about the Sun, stars, galaxies and Earth's atmosphere and radiation.

A NASA image depicting the flight profile of a sounding rocket in its parabolic trajectory.

NASA has a Sounding Rockets Program Office at their Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, Virginia. Wallops was established in 1945 as a research center for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. In 1958, the NACA was merged with other federal agencies and research centers to create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Today's Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is a facility leased by the Commonwealth of Virginia from Wallops for launching commercial vehicles and payloads, such as the Orbital Sciences Cygnus atop the Antares rocket that delivers cargo to the International Space Station.

This film focuses on Wallops' early NASA days as a sounding rocket launch facility.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Emperor's New Clothes

Click the arrow to watch the June 25, 2014 “Pathways to Exploration” hearing on YouTube.

The Emperor's New Clothes, published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837, was about a ruler who was so vain and so arrogant that he could be duped by bureaucrats and noblemen into thinking he was wearing a cloth invisible to those who were unfit for office or “unusually stupid.”

One hundred sixty-seven years later, we watched this parable play out in real life as President George W. Bush proposed his Vision for Space Exploration.

The VSE was in response to the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which concluded that the Space Shuttle was “a complex and risky system.”

CAIB also cited “the lack of an agreed national vision” as a contributing cause for the accident, and repeatedly cited the lack of a vision throughout the report.

So on January 17, 2004, President Bush delivered his Vision for Space Exploration speech.

Click the arrow to watch the Vision for Space Exploration speech.

The elements of that speech were:

  • Complete the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) by 2010, then retire the Shuttle from service.
  • “... Develop and test a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014.” The CEV would be used to ferry astronauts first to the ISS, and later to “beyond our orbit to other worlds.”
  • “... Return to the moon by 2020, as the launching point for missions beyond.”
  • “With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.”

Two weeks later, on January 28, 2004, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe appeared before the Senate Science Committee to detail the VSE proposal. He displayed a graphic that came to be known as the Vision Sand Chart.

Click here to download the Vision Sand Chart from the NASA web site. The free Adobe Acrobat Reader is required.

The chart revealed some facts Bush failed to mention in his speech.

Constellation, as the program came to be known, would be funded by ending the International Space Station program. “Complete Station Research Objectives” was scheduled for federal Fiscal Year 2016, which would start on October 1, 2015.

The Bush administration would complete the ISS in 2010 only to shut it down in 2015.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle would fly for the first time in Fiscal Year 2014, meaning it would serve the ISS for only one year.

And for the five fiscal years after 2004, the NASA budget would increase by a total of only $1 billion spread out over those five years.

President Bush proposed a grandiose plan, but didn't bother to pay for it.

That was fine with many members of Congress, who were only concerned with how many jobs Constellation would generate in their districts and states. Constellation would use Shuttle-era contractors — Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) — who were big-money donors to their re-election campaigns.

For those willing to see, Constellation with its Ares launch vehicles and Orion crew capsule was the emperor with no clothes. But the bureaucrats and noblemen were happy.

By the time President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, Constellation was predictably in trouble.

In August 2009, the Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding that Constellation lacked “a sound business case.” It was years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. “While the agency has already obligated more than $10 billion in contracts,” the report noted, “at this point NASA does not know how much Ares I and Orion will ultimately cost, and will not know until technical and design challenges have been addressed.” Some of those technical problems, such as excessive vibrations during launch, might never be solved.

In October 2009, the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (commonly known as the Augustine Committee for its chair, Norm Augustine) issued a report estimating that Ares I would not fly until 2017, two years after the ISS would be decommissioned. Ares I would fly to a facility that would not exist. As for the Ares V that would be used for lunar missions, it wouldn't be available until at least 2028.

September 16, 2009 ... Norm Augustine presents his committee's findings to the Senate Space Subcommittee.

In early 2010, the Obama administration submitted its proposed Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget. It proposed that Constellation be cancelled, that the ISS be extended to at least 2020, and that the commerical cargo program be expanded to begin a commercial crew vehicle competition which would provide ISS transport.

The bureaucrats and noblemen were most unhappy.

When the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 was signed by Obama on October 11, 2010, Congress had reluctantly agreed with the President to end Constellation — but Congress imposed another program called the Space Launch System. Called the Senate Launch System by its critics, Congress mandated that NASA build its “monster rocket” as dubbed by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) using Shuttle and Constellation contractors and technologies. Constellation's Orion crew capsule would now be launched atop SLS.

Once again, the bureaucrats and noblemen were happy.

But Congress didn't provide the funding necessary to build SLS on schedule, much less specify any missions or destinations.

Nearly four years later, SLS still has no missions or destinations. It is the new emperor wearing only his birthday suit.

The members of Congress who imposed SLS upon NASA complain that Obama doesn't request more money for their monster rocket — even though under the Constitution it's Congress that determines the final budget and appropriations, not the President.

All but forgotten in the 2010 act was a requirement for NASA to “contract with the National Academies for a review of the goals, core capabilities, and direction of human space flight” in fiscal year 2012.

The language required the report to include “a review and prioritization of scientific, engineering, economic, and social science questions to be addressed by human space exploration to improve the overall human condition.”

The report was finally produced by the Academies on June 4, 2014. Click here to download a PDF of Pathways to Exploration.

According to the press release:

Arguing for a continuation of the nation’s human space exploration program, a new congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council concludes that the expense of human spaceflight and the dangers to the astronauts involved can be justified only by the goal of putting humans on other worlds. The report recommends that the nation pursue a disciplined “pathway” approach that encompasses executing a specific sequence of intermediate accomplishments and destinations leading to the “horizon goal” of putting humans on Mars. The success of this approach would require a steadfast commitment to a consensus goal, international collaboration, and a budget that increases by more than the rate of inflation.

Human Spaceflight Report Release & Public Briefing from The National Academies on Vimeo.

I'll leave it to you to read the report, watch the media briefing and the June 25 hearing at the top of this article.

My personal opinion is that this report is destined for the same dust bin as the last report ordered by Congress. In December 2012, the Academies issued a report titled, “NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus”. That one went nowhere too.

In my opinion, the fatal flaw in the latest report is that Congress directed the Academies to assume that human exploration is the primary purpose of NASA. The Academies, therefore, had to justify it.

Several members of the House Space Subcommittee in the June 25 hearing used the report to criticize the Obama administration's Asteroid Initiative, specifically the Asteroid Retrieval Mission.

The report recommended dedication to one “pathway” leading to a human Mars mission, one that “minimizes the use of dead-end mission elements that do not contribute to later destinations on the pathway.”

It did not criticize ARM other than to suggest that some aspects of ARM might create dead-end technologies that don't contribute to the pathway.

The members misquoted that to attack ARM, but they missed the point. The report concluded that if the pathway is a human spaceflight to Mars, then ARM may not be the best way to do it.

But what if the pathway were to be something else other than a fixation with a government human exploration program?

That was the question never asked — because Congress hadn't allowed it.

The two witnesses testifying about the report noted that the exploration pathway could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and might not be achieved until the 2050s.

If Congress isn't willing to commit to one path over those many decades, to commit the money, then they recommended that the human Mars mission should be abandoned.

Co-chair Mitch Daniels summed it up with this question for the subcommittee: “I just start with a very simple question — do you want to go to Mars, or don't you?”

Some of the noblemen — Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Mo Brooks (R-AL) and Steven Palazzo (R-MS) — reflexively blamed Obama.

But Obama years ago warned that a government exploration pathway was not sustainable.

April 15, 2010 ... President Barack Obama proposes a new course for NASA.

In an April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, Obama said:

But I also know that underlying these concerns is a deeper worry, one that precedes not only this plan but this administration. It stems from the sense that people in Washington — driven sometimes less by vision than by politics — have for years neglected NASA’s mission and undermined the work of the professionals who fulfill it. We’ve seen that in the NASA budget, which has risen and fallen with the political winds.

But we can also see it in other ways: in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives; to provide the resources to meet those objectives; and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century.

All that has to change.

Later in the speech, Obama proposed a “capabilities” approach for NASA that would enable the private sector to open up access to space, instead of the government bureaucracy:

... [W]e will extend the life of the International Space Station likely by more than five years, while actually using it for its intended purpose: conducting advanced research that can help improve the daily lives of people here on Earth, as well as testing and improving upon our capabilities in space. This includes technologies like more efficient life support systems that will help reduce the cost of future missions. And in order to reach the space station, we will work with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable.

Obama shocked the noblemen and bureaucrats, for he had committed blasphemy — he had said that the emperor has no clothes.

Members of Congress grew up in the Apollo era, and in my opinion most of them seem to think that's the only thing that NASA should ever do.

But they seem not to know that NASA was created in 1958 to be an aerospace research and development agency, not to spread humanity throughout the solar system.

That changed when President John F. Kennedy proposed in May 1961 that the United States land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s to prove to the world that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

And for the 45 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the Moon, the federal government has been trying to figure out what NASA is for.

Many of them seem to think NASA is a jobs program for their states and districts.

The Obama administration, in my opinion, wants to take NASA back to its purpose as defined by the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 — to “contribute materially” to a list of objectives. “Contribute materially” is very different than own and run everything.

Nothing in the 1958 act requires NASA to fly people into space. The Academies' press release comments that, in itself, it's hard to justify the government launching people just for the sake of launching people:

The committee concluded that although no single rationale, either practical or aspirational, seems to justify the value of pursuing human spaceflight, the aspirational rationales, when supplemented by practical benefits associated with the pragmatic rationales, argue for the continuation of a U.S. human spaceflight program, provided that the program adopts a stable and sustainable pathways approach. The aspirational rationales are also most in line with enduring questions the report identifies as motivating human spaceflight: “How far from Earth can humans go?” and “What can humans discover and achieve when we get there?”

The word “inspiration” is the first line of defense from those who argue for deep-space human spaceflight — but as the press release noted, it can't be quantified, much less proven.

The release suggests that “practical benefits,” coupled with inspiration, might justify the human exploration pathway.

But what if “practical benefits” were prioritized over inspiration?

That wasn't what Congress requested, so that question was never answered.

The Obama administration chose to emphasize practical benefits, or capabilities. Rather than making a government human spaceflight program the priority, it chose to build on the Bush administration's early ideas for a commercial space industry. The vision of “a robust space industry” was part of the original VSE proposal sent to Congress in February 2004, and articulated in detail by the President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond in June 2004.

By the time Obama took office in January 2009, two 21st Century robotic craft were being developed to deliver cargo to the ISS. The SpaceX Dragon and Orbital Sciences Cygnus are both certified and now run deliveries to the space station.

The Obama administration chose to fund a crew version of that program, which had been on paper during the Bush administration but never went forward. Three companies are now in the running to deliver people to the ISS, perhaps in as soon as two years — although Congressional budget cuts have delayed the program by at least two years, as Congress prefers to prioritize the SLS.

A video animation of a SpaceX Dragon V2 mission. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

One of those companies, SpaceX, envisions reusable vehicle technology, with boosters and crew capsules that can return to a landing pad and be refueled for launch again.

Two of the commercial crew companies have agreements with Bigelow Aerospace, a Las Vegas company developing expandable habitats to replace the aluminum-and-steel structures used as space stations for the last half-century. Based on 1990s NASA technology cancelled by Congress, the first Bigelow Expandable Activity Module is scheduled to berth at the ISS in 2015 for a two-year capabilities demonstration.

Bigelow and the commercial crew companies might partner with Golden Spike Company, which plans commerical lunar flights. Two astronauts might launch on a SpaceX vehicle and rendezvous with a Bigelow habitat module in lunar orbit, and stay on the surface in a Bigelow station.

The Asteroid Retrieval Mission might be a dead-end technology if your goal is walking people on Mars, but it might be of great interest to commercial asteroid mining companies. Two companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, plan to harvest asteroids, perhaps by robotically capturing and returning those space rocks to cislunar orbits. On June 19, NASA announced that eighteen proposals had been selected to “mature system concepts and key technologies and assess the feasibility of potential commercial partnerships to support the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission.”

All of these are capabilities that NASA has nourished under the Obama administration.

People will still go into space. They just won't rely on a big government program built by contractors favored by Congress.

Who is the Emperor?

The Emperor is the space-industrial complex, a triad of NASA, government politicians and their career bureaucrats, and the legacy aerospace companies that fund those politicians' re-election campaigns.

The Emperor really doesn't care if he ever accomplishes anything, so long as his needs are satiated.

Hans Christian Anderson's parable begins with this paragraph. Perhaps it explains why NASA is always dressed up with no place to go.

Many years ago there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money on being well dressed. He cared nothing about reviewing his soldiers, going to the theatre, or going for a ride in his carriage, except to show off his new clothes. He had a coat for every hour of the day, and instead of saying, as one might, about any other ruler, “The King's in council,“ here they always said. “The Emperor's in his dressing room.”

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Code of Silence

Lightning yesterday near the SpaceX Launch Control Center. Image source: Florida Today.

The SpaceX Orbcomm OG2 launch was postponed yet again yesterday, when a lightning storm settled over Cape Canaveral and rained down apocalypse upon Pad 40.

Unofficial reports had lightning strikes near the pad, as well as a brush fire.

Another apocalyptic storm was unleashed yesterday afternoon, but this one was on the Internet.

The launch window opened at 5:46 PM EDT. Shortly before 3:00 PM, messages began appearing on Twitter that SpaceX had said it would not webcast this launch. Journalists tweeted that SpaceX was not responding to media requests.

SpaceX imposed a media blackout.

At 5:00 PM, Spaceflight Now posted it had received this email from SpaceX Senior Director of Marketing and Communications Emily Shanklin:

SpaceX spokesperson Emily Shanklin says there is “no special reason” the company is not webcasting today's launch.

“We've actually been ready to move away from the webcasts for awhile,” she wrote in an email to Spaceflight Now. “It takes a lot of resources but the main reason is these launches are becoming more routine and the full webcast isn't really appropriate anymore.”

Lightning struck the Twitterverse.

Impromptu efforts began to find people with cameraphones on the Cape who might be able to stream the launch live, or at least record it.

Others organized instant protests, bombarding the @SpaceX and @ElonMusk Twitter accounts with appeals to reinstate the webcast.

The worst consequence was raising suspicions that SpaceX was trying to hide something, at a time when it wages a fierce publicity battle with United Launch Alliance. ULA streams its launches, even classified military missions, and only cuts the feed when it's necessary for security.

For a company that prides itself on its social media status, it was a huge mistake that cost SpaceX credibility in some quarters.

I suspect that, once the Orbcomm mission launches, we'll find out the true reason for the blackout. My guess is that Elon Musk wanted to take pressure off his team by letting them work without media distraction.

A private company launching another private company's payload is under no obligation to share their work with the media. But at a time when SpaceX needs to convince Congress that it's worthy of launching military payloads, going dark is not the right move.

In law enforcement, the Code of Silence means that fellow officers don't report improper behavior by colleagues. I was in law enforcement out of college, and witnessed it many times myself.

Lack of public scrutiny invites the Code of Silence. It can create the public perception, even if unwarranted, that SpaceX has something to hide.

The real cause of the STS-51L Challenger accident was management's failure to acknowledge the limitations of the Space Shuttle. As recalled in this 2012 National Public Radio article, Morton Thiokol (now ATK) engineer Roger Boisjoly and others repeatedly warned the Solid Rocket Boosters could fail in cold weather, but were ignored by NASA management.

Armed with the data that described that possibility, Boisjoly and his colleagues argued persistently and vigorously for hours. At first, Thiokol managers agreed with them and formally recommended a launch delay. But NASA officials on a conference call challenged that recommendation.

“I am appalled,” said NASA's George Hardy, according to Boisjoly and our other source in the room. “I am appalled by your recommendation.”

Another shuttle program manager, Lawrence Mulloy, didn't hide his disdain. “My God, Thiokol,” he said. “When do you want me to launch — next April?”

These words and this debate were not known publicly until our interviews with Boisjoly and his colleague. They told us that the NASA pressure caused Thiokol managers to “put their management hats on,” as one source told us. They overruled Boisjoly and the other engineers and told NASA to go ahead and launch.

NASA managers put pressure upon themselves because of the media spotlight on the launch due to the presence on board of Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe. Another reason was that, a decade before, NASA had promised Congress that Shuttle would fly once a week, which of course turned out to be untrue. Congress was raising questions, and the Reagan administration wanted to commercialize access to space through Shuttle, so NASA began to cut corners hoping to increase their launch rate.

Because NASA executives worked in an era before the Internet and social media, there was little transparency in their decision-making process. They made the wrong call. It resulted in the loss of Challenger and its crew.

The result was that NASA became a far more insular organization, an attitude noted years later by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

SpaceX has so far made the right call every time when it wasn't safe to launch. But a media blackout suggests a lack of confidence in their ability to make the right decision.

Friendship 7 was repeatedly delayed by one cause or another, yet a more open NASA shared every delay with the public. John Glenn eventually orbited the Earth, and the delays were forgotten.

SpaceX needs to demonstrate it has the Right Stuff and resume the webcasts.

UPDATE June 22, 2014 7:30 PM EDT — SpaceX announced it would resume webcasts today, however the launch was postponed again due to bad weather and “a potential concern identified during pre-flight checks ... The rocket will remain vertical on the launch pad with the next available launch opportunity targeting Tuesday, June 24th.”

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Retro Saturday: Missile to Moon

Click the arrow to watch “Missile to Moon.” Video source: Alabama Public Television.

This week's Retro Saturday isn't an older film, but it is about an older subject.

To honor the 100th birthday of Wernher von Braun, Alabama Public Television aired on March 27, 2012 a one-hour documentary titled Missile to Moon. According to the web site:

Missile to Moon tells the story of Wernher von Braun and Alabama’s significant contribution to the exploration of space. The program tracks the evolution of Huntsville from the “Watercress Capital of the World” to “Rocket City, USA,” Wernher von Braun’s journey from German rocket engineer to American hero, and the role this unlikely combination played in thrusting the United States into the forefront of the Space Age.

In addition to the above embedded video, you can watch online at

Click here to read a view by the Mobile Press-Register.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Pedal to the Metal

Click the arrow to watch the report. You may be subjected to an ad first. Video source: Associated Press YouTube channel.

With the first test flight of an uncrewed Orion capsule scheduled for December, NASA has begun a media blitz to let the public (and Congress) know they're still in business.

NASA held a media event June 18 in Kennedy Space Center's Operations & Checkout Building to preview Orion's flight. Present were NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and KSC director Robert Cabana.

Video of the event is below. The astronauts-turned-executives took several questions from the reporters.

One reporter asked if Orion was considered a backup plan for International Space Station access if the commercial crew program if the vendor candidates. Bolden emphatically said no, a bit of a surprise because for years several members of Congress have justified Space Launch System and the Orion capsule as a backup program for ISS access. The fig leaf has fallen.

Bolden also said it was possible that the first crewed Orion flight could occur in 2019, something he's mentioned informally in past Congressional hearings, but he told Congress they would have to fund it. So far, Congress has shown no inclination to accelerate the SLS timeline.

On their web site, NASA posted an article about what will be learned from the Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 in December.

Click here to read the Florida Today report.

Click the arrow to watch the media event. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

The Flippered Falcon

Click the arrow to watch. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

Just when you think Elon Musk can't blow your mind any more ... He flies a flippered Falcon.

SpaceX posted the above video June 18 on YouTube. It shows the experimental Falcon 9R (the "R" is for reusable) in a 1,000-meter test launch and landing at their McGregor, Texas site.

We saw a 1,000-meter test in May, but this one had fins on it for steering the booster during flight and landing.

SpaceX hopes to soon attempt a controlled landing on a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The company demonstrated a controlled landing in April with a target in the Atlantic Ocean.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Zot! Zot! Zot!

Click the arrow to watch the address. Video source: The White House YouTube channel.

He got it wrong the first time (it's “Zot!” not “Zoot!”), but President Obama thrilled the University of California Irvine graduating class of 2014 by ending their commencement address with their team's rallying cry.

I moved to the Space Coast with my wife in 2009 from Irvine. UC Irvine wasn't my alma mater; that was UC Riverside 45 miles up the 91 freeway. And the commencement address wasn't at UCI, it was at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. For years, I shot photography at that ballpark on behalf of their minor league teams.

So lots of good memories in this video.

The message of the speech was to be optimistic, to challenge those who deny science. Obama compared today's climate change denialists to the debate the nation had in the 1960s when President John F. Kennedy challenged us to put a man on the Moon by the end of that decade.

It’s pretty rare that you’ll encounter somebody who says the problem you’re trying to solve simply doesn’t exist. When President Kennedy set us on a course for the moon, there were a number of people who made a serious case that it wouldn’t be worth it; it was going to be too expensive, it was going to be too hard, it would take too long. But nobody ignored the science. I don’t remember anybody saying that the moon wasn’t there or that it was made of cheese.

It was vintage Obama, ending with a call for the students to reject cynicism and embrace hope:

Cynicism has never won a war, or cured a disease, or started a business, or fed a young mind, or sent men into space. Cynicism is a choice. Hope is a better choice.

Oh, the reason for the “Zot!” ... UC Irvine's mascot is the anteater, inspired by the B.C. comic strip. The mascot is named Peter the Anteater.

Don't laugh. The UC Santa Cruz mascot is the Banana Slug.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Retro Saturday: Gemini VIII, This is Houston Flight

Click the arrow to watch the film. You may be subjected to an ad first. Video source: wdtvlive42 YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday film is a 1966 NASA documentary about Gemini 8. It was the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit.

It was also Neil Armstrong's first flight, and almost his last.

Shortly after Armstrong and Dave Scott docked with the Agena, the #8 Orbit Attitude and Maneuvering System (OAMS) thruster on the capsule stuck open, causing a roll that accelerated to one spin per second. Armstrong fired the Re-Entry Control System (RCS) thrusters to get out of the spin. Mission rules required an abort after firing the RCS thrusters, so this ended the flight.

Armstrong had another close call on May 6, 1968 when his Lunar Landing Research Vehicle lost control and he was forced to eject just before it crashed.

Click the arrow to watch the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle crash.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Virgin Galactic Comes Together

Click the arrow to watch the CNN video. You may be subjected to an ad first.

Virgin Galactic is still years behind schedule, and years behind fulfilling its promises, but they're still ahead of the suborbital pack when it comes to free publicity.

Much of the CNN report is about The Spaceship Company, which is building SpaceShip Two, Serial Two for Virgin Galactic.

Last month, NBC News reported that “Virgin Galactic says it's switching from a rubber-based solid fuel to a plastic-based fuel for the motor that's designed to power its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane to the edge of space.”

“We made the decision to go with a polyamide, which is a fancy way of saying a type of plastic,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told NBC News on Friday. His statement came after months of reports indicating that an alternative to the rubber-based fuel, known as HTPB, was being used in some rocket test firings at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Closer to the Space Coast, competitor XCOR was one of three companies participating in a National Space Club luncheon Tuesday in Cape Canaveral.

XCOR Aerospace showed an artist's rendering of its two-seat Lynx space plane soaring high over the Florida peninsula, an experience it hopes to make a reality by early 2016 with launches and landings at Kennedy Space Center's shuttle runway ...

Those early $95,000 flights by a prototype Lynx will climb about 38 miles to approach the edge of space, short of the internationally recognized threshold of 62 miles — reached by 536 people as of November, according to Wikipedia — that a next-generation Lynx will cross.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

We're #1!

An artist's concept of a Boeing CST-100 commercial crew vehicle approaching a Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitat. Image source: Boeing.

“American exceptionalism” is a popular rhetorical phrase among political conservatives. The phrase is used to suggest that the United States is somehow superior to other nations on Earth.

The phrase, ironically, was coined in the 1920s by Soviet leader Josef Stalin to disparage the notion that the U.S. was somehow exempt from a Communist revolution.

In any case, there are those who believe that the United States must eternally demonstrate its superiority to the rest of the world.

Why is beyond me.

It's the same trap that led President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to propose landing a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. As amply documented by John Logsdon in John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, Kennedy proposed the Moon program to enhance American prestige abroad, countering the perception that the Soviets were technically superior in rocket launch technology.

In current dollars, the Apollo program cost about $150 billion. If any President today proposed spending $150 billion for “prestige” he'd be laughed at.

Apollo gave us 2,196 Moon rocks weighing a total of 842 pounds. Was it worth $150 billion?

NASA was created in 1958 to be an aerospace research and development agency. Its purposes were specified in the National Aeronautics and Space Act. NASA was only required to “contribute materially” to one or more of a list of objectives. There was no mandate to put people in space, to explore other worlds, or even to own its rockets.

Kennedy morphed NASA into a propaganda tool. A decade later, with over 800 pounds of Moon rocks, the U.S. was left with a vast space infrastructure looking for a purpose.

Forty years later, we're still looking, with no political consensus on what should be NASA's future. Most politicians in Congress couldn't care less, so long as taxpayer dollars flow into their states and districts.

Some claim that the U.S. has lost its space superiority. Space Coast Representative Bill Posey (R-FL) says “ our nation’s leadership in space is being threatened by Russia, China, India and others.” Sandy Adams, a Republican whose district included Kennedy Space Center until redistricting, wrote in 2011 that “the Obama Administration's budget willingly ceded that leadership to China, Russia and India — countries that understand the importance of human space exploration. We cannot continue to accept this administration's assault on American exceptionalism and world leadership.”

Is there any truth to this?

Gennady Padalka and Vladimir Popovkin would disagree.

Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka. Image source: NASA.

Cosmonaut Padalka commanded the International Space Station when the SpaceX Dragon flew its commercial cargo demonstration flight in May 2012. That and other American technology aboard the ISS left an impression upon him. When he returned in September 2012, he blasted his own nation for its technological inferiority.

Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka expressed regrets about the fact that Russian cosmonaut crews have to use equipment developed back in the 1980s to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) whereas foreigners are launching commercial spacecraft and using robots aboard the ISS.

"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.

Vladimir Popovkin was General Director of the Russian space agency Roscosmos from April 2011 until he was sacked in October 2013. Popovkin warned in September 2012 that if Russia did not privatize its space industry as the Obama administration is doing, they could no longer compete with the United States.

“Unless we undertake extreme measures, the sector will be uncompetitive within three-four years,” Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin said during a lecture to science and technology students.

A recent spate of failed launches is “only the litmus test,” he said. “The root causes are much deeper and more important.”

Russian satellites could end up priced out of the market because per-capita productivity in the aerospace sectors of competing countries is two to four times higher, he warned. “If nothing changes, we won’t be able to sell [Russian space technology] in 2015, because Western equipment will be priced 33 to 50 percent lower,” Popovkin said.

In order to raise productivity, Roscosmos ought to be converted into a space industry holding company that is not under direct state control. The new structure would be able to optimize headcounts at enterprises in the sector and better compete to hire the best people, he said.

Popovkin suggested that the “lower stages” in the production chain should pass into private hands, and called for a fundamental shift in the state's focus from producing a final product to providing conditions conducive to success.

Russia suffered a number of launch and other technical failures under Popovkin. The performance record hasn't changed under his successor Oleg Ostapenko, most recently the loss in May of a $275 million commercial satellite.

Ostapenko's superior, Dmitri Rogozin, has been bellicose in recent months after the Obama administration placed him on the list of Vladimir Putin cronies whose financial assets were frozen after Russia invaded Crimea. Rogozin mocked NASA as needing a “trampoline” to launch, and threatened to withdraw Russia from the ISS partnership when the current agreement expires in 2020.

The SpaceX Dragon V2 unveiled May 29 in Hawthorne, California. Image source: NASA.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk responded to Rogozin's bluster by unveiling the crew version of the Dragon. Musk said he hopes to fly the first NASA crew to the ISS on Dragon in two years.

Dragon V2 will use SuperDraco thrusters to steer back to a landing pad, making a soft landing using struts that will extend from the PICA-X heat shield.

Compare that to the Russian Soyuz, still based on early 1970s technology, using parachutes to hard-land on the steppes of Khazakhstan.

China licensed that Soyuz technology in 1995. Although they've modified it to suit their needs, the most people they've ever flown on one mission is three — a feat NASA first achieved in October 1968. As with Soyuz, it hard-lands.

Both Soyuz and its Shenzhou knockoff carry three crew members. The three vehicles in NASA's commercial crew program will carry seven.

China has flown only five crewed missions in its space program's history. The first was in 2003. The last was in June 2013; that mission lasted fifteen days. Shenzhou 10 docked at Tiangong 1, a space laboratory with a habitable volume of only 530 cubic feet. Compare that to the ISS, with a habitable volume of 13,696 cubic feet. The U.S. Destiny laboratory module alone has a pressurized volume of 3,700 cubic feet.

Larger space labs are planned to launch in the next few years, but China doesn't plan to have a serious space station until the next decade. In November 2013, a program representative said that the first China Space Station will not be operational until at least 2022.

An artist's concept of the 2020s China Space Station. Image source: China Manned Space Engineering via

Few details are available publicly about the station, but it appears to be much smaller than the ISS.

The Obama administration in January announced its intention to extend the ISS to at least 2024, if Congress and the ISS partners agree. NASA officials have mentioned the possibility of privatizing the ISS in the next decade; the Destiny lab is already managed by the Center for Advancement of Science in Space.

Whatever the fate for ISS ten years from now, by then U.S. companies will have expandable habitats in orbit — serviced by the commercial crew companies — that will render the aluminum-and-steel approach obsolete.

The Bigelow Aerospace BA-330 habitats are being built right now in North Las Vegas. The Vectran skin will repel objects that might penetrate the ISS (or a Chinese module), and may provide more protection from radiation. The habitats will be lighter and cheaper to launch. The BA-330 will have a pressurized volume of 11,654 cubic feet. The first two BA-330s are planned to launch in 2017, possibly on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

A computer animation of the Bigelow BEAM berthing at the ISS in 2015. Video source: NASA.

A prototype, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), will berth at the ISS in 2015 for a two-year demonstration.

Where is the Russian or Chinese equivalent?

We could list many other strictly private enterprises here in the United States, such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR suborbital tourism flights, and the Stratolaunch horizontal launch system.

The government-choked space programs in Russia and China can't possibly compete with the blossoming commercial space industry in the United States.

When the Bush administration began commercial space in 2004, the vision was to build “a robust space industry” that would “contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. The space industry will become a national treasure.”

Ten years later, and five years after the Obama administration began to prime the pump with the Commercial Crew program, we're on the cusp of a space technology revolution similar to what happened in the 1920s with the aircraft industry.

That's not happening in Russia, China or India. It's happening here in the good ol' U.S.A.

So if someone claims that the United States is no longer the global leader in space, send them the link to this column.

If you think it will help, order them one of these:

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Elon Works the Hill

Click the arrow to watch the video. You may be subjected to an ad first. Video source: CNN Money.

Elon Musk has wisened to the ways of the Hill.

SpaceX sent an early version of the Dragon V2 to the Newseum in Washington, D.C. this week where it was available to members of the public.

The true audience, of course, were members of Congress, and they lined up for photo ops inside the spacecraft.

CNN Money reports that, “More than a dozen lawmakers checked out the capsule including Senators Bill Nelson of Florida and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Reps. Rohrabacher, Charles Albert “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, Mike Honda and Antonio “Tony” Cárdenas both of California.”

In the CNN Money clip, Musk states the Dragon was brought to D.C. because it was difficult to get members of Congress to SpaceX headquarters in California. He wanted them to see what they might be paying for, if SpaceX wins a NASA commercial crew contract later this summer.

Musk minced no words for his competition.

Lockheed and Boeing are used to stomping on new companies, and they certainly try to stomp on us.

Regarding the U.S. Air Force funding United Launch Alliance using Russian RD-180 engines, Musk commented, “It's super messed up ... I mean, what the f--- ... you know.” He caught himself before completing the f-word.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Boeing and Bill Nelson Open Up

Click here to watch video of the Boeing event. You may be subjected to an ad first.

Florida Today reports on today's Boeing CST-100 media event at Kennedy Space Center.

The event appears to have been rather spartan compared to the SpaceX Dragon V2 unveiling May 29 in Los Angeles.

Florida Today space reporter James Dean wrote:

Boeing's formal presentation contrasted with the party-like atmosphere when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently unveiled Dragon Version 2 to a cheering crowd at the company's Southern California headquarters, shown via Webcast.

And unlike SpaceX, Boeing takes pride in the CST-100's use of proven rather than new technologies. Whereas the Dragon plans to use a futuristic precision powered landing system, the CST-100 will land on airbags.

It appears that Boeing is using the same OldSpace argument that joint venture United Launch Alliance uses to argue in favor of Atlas V and Delta IV instead of NewSpace SpaceX products — we've been around a long time, so go with proven technology and don't look for innovation.

A scale model of the CST-100 atop an retrofitted Atlas V launch system at the Cape's Launch Complex 41. Note the new crew-specific service tower. Image source: Orlando Business Journal.

Unlike SpaceX, which is investing in the future regardless of the commercial crew selection, Boeing representatives implied that further commercial crew activities at KSC by the company depend on their receiving a NASA award late this summer.

According to the Orlando Sentinel:

“If we are selected, we have a transition plan that would take effect immediately to move workers from Houston, Huntington Beach [Calif.] and other places,” said John Elbon, Boeing's vice president for space exploration. “We'll staff up significantly by early 2015, and that is going to make for a really nice impact for the Space Coast.”

WMFE 90.7 FM quoted Mr. Elbon as saying that “it'll be tough to carry on without a NASA contract.”

That's not a problem for SpaceX, which chooses to invest its own money in new technologies without waiting for a government handout. SpaceX developed the Falcon 9 without government subsidy, is now developing the next-generation Falcon Heavy rocket without government subsidy, and is developing without government subsidy the reusable Falcon 9 booster that will land on a pad. Dragon V2 is a big part of SpaceX founder Elon Musk's vision to one day colonize Mars, so Dragon will continue without the NASA award.

Apparently no one asked about Boeing's partnership with Bigelow Aerospace, which is building expandable habitats for deployment in low Earth orbit later in the decade. Boeing and Bigelow held a joint media event in Las Vegas April 30 to display the non-NASA version of CST-100 and mockups of that habitats scheduled to launch in 2017. Had I been there, I would have asked if Boeing would proceed with CST-100 for Bigelow customers, regardless of the NASA award this summer. If so ... they have to launch from somewhere.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) was among the speakers. One comment by the senator didn't make the Florida Today article, but you should take note:

ARM is the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission. LEO is shorthand for Low Earth Orbit.

Elsewhere, reports that the first crewed flight on Space Launch System might not be until 2023 if NASA Safety Office and Astronaut Office safety concerns can't be addressed.

So although the topic of conversation was the CST-100 hangar, maybe someone should have asked Senator Nelson why he made the taxpayer flush billions into his “monster rocket.”

Media articles:

Bright House News 13 “Boeing Unveils New Capsule Destined for Space by 2017”

Florida Today “Boeing Shows Off Crew Capsule at KSC”

Orlando Business Journal “Why Central Florida Should Watch Boeing's Next Step Into Space”

Orlando Sentinel “Boeing Showcases Capsule That Could Become 'Taxi' to Space Station”

WMFE 90.7 FM Orlando “Boeing Puts its New Spacecraft on Display”

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Final Cosmos

Click the arrow to watch the interview. Video source: bailesie YouTube channel.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey ends its run tonight on Fox TV.

I'd like you to take a few minutes and watch Carl Sagan's last public interview, with Charlie Rose in May 1996. Carl passed away seven months later.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Retro Saturday: UFO: Friend, Foe or Fantasy

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: CBS News via nutsandboltsUFO YouTube channel.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey ends tomorrow night, so this week's Retro Saturday looks at a CBS Reports gem from 1966 by Walter Cronkite titled UFO: Friend, Foe or Fantasy.

The one-hour documentary includes an interview with a 32-year old Carl Sagan. A gum-chewing Carl Sagan, no less.

Click here to watch the Sagan clip.

In this interview, Sagan is described as an astronomer who is a consultant to a U.S. Air Force scientific panel. He is joined by astronomer Thornton Page who had served in 1953 on a scientific committee called the Robertson Panel after its chair, physicist Howard Percy Robertson.

At the time of this interview, Sagan was lecturing at Harvard. He didn't move to Cornell until 1968.

Although his presentation skills aren't quite refined at this point (spit out the gum, Carl!), the early seeds of his scientific skepticism are evident.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Master Plan

A 1963 map showing five projected launch pads at Kennedy Space Center. Image source: NASA.

NASA has posted online its Kennedy Space Center Master Plan for the next twenty years.

Click here to read the executive summary.

The Master Plan is NASA's blueprint for converting KSC into a multi-purpose spaceport, a vision that began in 2011 as part of the Obama administration's ongoing efforts to open space to the private sector.

Don't think this is what will happen in the next two decades. It's only a direction. Expect lots of people to object.

The above map from 1963 should remind us of what happens to master plans. KSC never built Pads 39C, D or E. Nor did they ever build the Nuclear Assembly Building north of the Vehicle Assembly Building, which would have been used for processing nuclear-powered engines.

Public hearings are debating the merits of the Master Plan. We'll look at the details of how the Plan intends to change today's KSC.


Vertical Launch Facilities — Pads 39A and 39B go back to the original plan in the mid-1960s. Built for Apollo, they were modified in the 1970s for the Space Shuttle. Those two pads today are being refurbished for the third generation of human spaceflight.

Existing and proposed vertical launch pads at Kennedy Space Center. Image source: NASA.

Pad 39A was leased in mid-April to SpaceX. The company intends to use it for their planned Falcon Heavy, as well as International Space Station commercial crew flights on the Falcon 9.

Pad 39B will be used for NASA's Space Launch System. NASA will tell you that it's a multi-user pad, but so far no other potential users have emerged.

The Master Plan resurrects Pads 39C and 39D from the 1960s plan, although it doesn't specify who the potential users might be. The pads would be in different locations than the 1963 map, but appear to be along where the crawlerway would have been extended for those original pads.

Noticeable by its absence is the proposed Space Florida commercial spaceport at Shiloh, alongside State Route 3 roughly northwest of where Pad 39E was proposed in the original 1963 plan. Local environmentalist groups have fiercely opposed the development, which is also part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. (KSC and MINWR share the same borders.) During a February 10 congressional hearing at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, a compromise was floated by Charles Lee, the Director of Advocacy for Audubon Florida, suggesting that his group wouldn't object to new pads south of State Route 402.

It appears that NASA has embraced the compromise to move forward, although it doesn't address the primary reason Space Florida proposed Shiloh in the first place — to open a spaceport not owned by NASA or the U.S. Air Force.

Commercial launchers believe government landlords will add unnecessary regulatory burdens that will add to the cost of their operations, and their launches for commercial customers may be treated as less important than government missions.

According to a June 3 Florida Today article, “Space Florida says it has already ruled out the new NASA sites for both environmental and operational reasons.”

The state believes the locations in largely wetland areas would be more environmentally damaging, and force more disruptive closures of Playalinda Beach — an issue of particular concern to Titusville residents and leaders.

The pads' location on land controlled by NASA and the Air Force, plus their proximity to each other and NASA's pad for exploration missions, also don't provide the conditions commercial launchers want, Space Florida says.

KSC's master plan promotes cultural changes needed to make the center more commercially friendly, and proposes commercial zones where NASA oversight would be minimized.

At the same time, it envisions NASA managing and generating revenue from commercial operations.

The plan encourages profit-sharing partnerships, offering services “such as on-site dining, service facilities, or recreational opportunities to compete with private sector business developments,” and pursuing exemptions to laws prohibiting competition with the private sector.

It suggests assigning a senior manager to drive implementation of NASA's vision for a multi-user spaceport.

As for the Small Vehicle Launch Area, “a 2007 Vertical Launch Site Evaluation Study concluded that a vertical launch pad could also be sited to the south of 39A and to the north of pad 41 to accommodate small/medium launch vehicles,” according to the Master Plan web site.

Why is Launch Complex 41 on the map? Even though it's under Air Force control, the complex is within Kennedy Space Center borders. That goes back to the 1963 Webb-McNamara Agreement, which specified that NASA would manage “the tract north and west of Cape Canaveral now being purchased by NASA, hereinafter referred to as MILA, excluding the TITAN III site, which is considered a part of [the Atlantic Missile Range].


Vertical Landing — The only commercial vendor close to needing a vertical landing pad is SpaceX, with the reusable Falcon 9 and the recently unveiled Dragon V2 for commercial crew. SpaceX already plans to use as a landing pad one of several abandoned launch complexes on Air Force property near the tip of Cape Canaveral. Other companies, such as Blue Origin and Masten Space Systems, are developing vertical landing vehicles, but neither appears likely to fly on the Space Coast any time soon. Both were rumored to be potential Space Florida clients at Shiloh.

A proposed vertical landing pad near Canaveral National Seashore. Image source: NASA.

The site would be between the NASA railway and State Route 402, near Canaveral National Seashore. That might anger environmentalists, although Audubon Florida pledged to support facilities south of SR-402 if land north of the highway were transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Mr. Lee and the Audubon folks might argue that their SR-402 compromise applied only to Shiloh, not anything near the Canaveral National Seashore.


Horizontal Launch and Landing — The existing Shuttle Launch Facility already has several future potential customers, such as the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, the Boeing X-37B, Starfighters, Stratolaunch, XCOR and Swiss Space Systems. That runway is oriented northwest to southeast, and was originally built for orbiter landings, not launches. An east-west runway allows takeoffs over the ocean, in case of an accident or encroaching development; SLF takeoffs to the south go over the Industrial Area and the Visitor Complex.

The Master Plan adds a new east-west runway to the existing Shuttle Launch Facility. Image source: NASA.

In July 2013, NASA announced it had selected Space Florida to manage and operate the SLF (which presumably will be renamed). It's unclear if the east-west runway would also be managed by Space Florida.

Environmentalists and other locals are already objecting to the second runway, as well as Pads 39C and 39D. SR-402, the northern boundary of the east-west runway, is the access road to Canaveral National Seashore.


Rail Transportation — The Transportation Plan states that “KSC supports the opportunity to expand the rail network that currently terminates in the Industrial Area to provide connectivity to Port Canaveral and mainland rail networks via the Jay Jay Railroad Bridge.”

The Master Plan would extend the NASA Railroad line south to connect to Port Canaveral. Image source: NASA.

According to the web site:

  • This potential divestiture could maintain rail capability at the Center, while minimizing the cost to NASA programs. An expanded rail connection to Port Canaveral could be achieved using easements on KSC land.
  • Rail connections to each of the future seaports could expand delivery options for hardware transport from ships to KSC assembly areas, which could also benefit both NASA Programs and non-NASA activities.
  • Future planning and ongoing maintenance for any additional internal rail connections and the rail easement extension to Port Canaveral could be managed by Canaveral Port Authority, given their interest in creating a linkage to the main FEC line in Titusville.

All the land within the extension on Merritt Island is within KSC's borders. It would pass near KARS Park, a popular recreational facility for KSC employees. In some places along the route, residential areas lie just beyond the KSC border.

The idea was discussed during last February's congressional hearing, and Rep. John Mica (R-FL) endorses the proposal. Mica chaired the February hearing at KSCVC.

The proposed bridge across the Banana River is certain to generate controversy from boaters and environmentalists, who complained during a May 22 briefing that not enough information has been made public.


The KSC Master Plan Executive Summary ends with this quote from President John F. Kennedy:

For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past, or the present, are certain to miss the future.

That quote seems aimed directly at the many people who like things just the way they are.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Q&A with Elon Musk

Click the arrow to watch the event. Video source: Derrick Stamos YouTube channel.

A member of's Forum has posted a video of the Q&A with Elon Musk after the May 29 Dragon V2 unveil event.

Click here to read the forum thread on the video. The person who attended the event and filmed the video posted that Bigelow Aerospace founder Bob Bigelow was also in attendance but did not interact with the media.