Friday, October 31, 2014

The Harder They Fall

Click the arrow to watch local news coverage of the crash. Video source: KABC TV Channel 7 Los Angeles.

The NewSpace wounds had yet to heal from Tuesday's loss of the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo module when Virgin Galactic tweeted this ominous message today:

Minutes passed and no official word came from the Virgin Galactic Twitter account. The silence was deafening.

Others in the Mojave Desert bearing witness to the test flight began to tweet reports of emergency dispatches on the local public safety scanner channels. An aircraft was down. Parachutes had been sighted. One pilot was alive but injured. Another pilot ... dead on arrival.

Nearly ninety minutes later, Virgin Galactic tweeted the worst.

During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo.

VSS Enterprise was no more.

During a press conference, a representative of Scaled Composites, the company that built SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic, announced that the two pilots were theirs, not Virgin's.

As of this writing, their names have not been released.

As with Orbital, initial suspicion has fallen on the ship's engine. With Orbital, critics have pointed out that the AJ-26 engines originated in the 1970s with the Soviet-era moon program. But with Virgin, critics are pointing at the use of a new exotic fuel.

Click the arrow to watch a May 8, 2014 polyamide-fueled hybrid engine test. Video source: Virgin Galactic.

After years of attempting to fly with a rubber-based solid fuel, Virgin abandoned that approach and switched to a plastic-based fuel.

The new engine had been tested on the ground, and today was the first test in flight.

But as with Orbital, it's too soon to conclusively point to the engine as the cause.

Long-range images of the SpaceShipTwo drop and breakup. Original source: Kenneth Brown.

Weeks like this are hard for those of us who are passionate about space advocacy, NewSpace in particular.

Accepting change is hard. Change means taking a risk, but innovation and progress can't happen without taking a risk.

If humans never took a risk, we'd still be cowering in caves.

At the same time, risk is calculated. When risk results in failure, some will accuse the failed of recklessness.

That charge may be true in this case. Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic's founder, has brashly claimed for many years that his suborbital commercial flights were only a year away and that he himself would take the first operational flight along with his family.

As recently as September, Branson told a New York City audience that he and his son would take flight in Spring 2015.

Critics have claimed that Virgin Galactic lacks a proper safety culture.

In July 2007, three Scaled Composites employees were killed when a hybrid motor exploded on the ground during a test.

Just how much risk is too much may be, like beauty, in the eyes of the beholder.

But if you look back at the advent of commercial air flight in the early 20th Century, the parallels are striking.

Hotelier and philanthropist Raymond Orteig. Image source: Philanthropy Roundtable.

The Orteig Prize was a contest funded by New York hotelier Raymond Orteig. He offered $25,000 to the first person who could fly non-stop between New York City and Paris.

You've probably guessed that Charles Lindbergh won that prize when, in 1927, he flew Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic.

But what you may not know is that Orteig offered that prize in 1919.

Before Lindbergh accomplished the feat eight years later, six men died in three different crashes.

Later that year, the Dole Air Race lost ten lives and six airplanes in an attempt to fly from San Francisco to Hawaii. Pineapple magnate James Dole was inspired by the Orteig Prize, and offered $25,000 to the winner.

Eighty-seven years later, we think nothing of flying from New York to Paris, or from San Francisco to Hawaii. How many people who fly those routes today think of the pioneers who lost their lives in a “reckless” attempt to prove it was possible?

Eighty-seven years from now, in the year 2101, it's entirely plausible that suborbital point-to-point transportation will be routine, and no one will think about that “reckless” flight on October 31, 2014 when two pilots risked their lives with a dubious engine design to prove that commercial suborbital flight is possible.

I suspect those 22nd Century passengers will think it was worth the risk.

SpaceShip Down

Click the arrow to watch video of a SpaceShipTwo debris field. Video source: CNN.

Aerial image of debris from a piece of SpaceShipTwo that landed near a highway. Image source: KTLA.

Three days after Orbital Sciences lost the Orb-3 Cygnus when its Antares rocket exploded, Virgin Galactic lost SpaceShipTwo, also known as VSS Enterprise, when its rocket engine exploded after drop from its mother ship.

CNN reports that one pilot is dead and one is badly injured. The test flight launched from the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The names of the pilots have not been released. In August 2013, Virgin Galactic announced the hiring of two pilots, one of whom was a former NASA Space Shuttle astronaut.

More information when available. A press conference is scheduled for 5:00 PM EDT.

Nanoracks Moving Customers to SpaceX

Nanoracks CubeSats deploy February 11, 2014 from the International Space Station. Image source: NASA.

Nanoracks issued a press release yesterday about the loss of their customers' payloads on the Orbital Sciences Orb-3 mission.

We have been in touch with all customers on the Orb-3 Mission and plan to be in touch with all our current and future customers on flight opportunities. Our focus today is on re-booking current customers who are manifested on Orb-4 and Orb-5, onto SpaceX or other cargo vehicles ...

We of course expect that Orbital will identify the root cause and be flying again. But we hope that from this setback we all can see the robustness of the space station program. No longer does the failure of one vehicle terminate a space station program.

The advantages of competition are proven again. Orbital dropped the ball, so Nanoracks is taking their customers elsewhere.

NASA was grounded 975 days after the loss of Challenger in January 1986, and 922 days after the loss of Columbia in February 2003. Now that NASA has choice, the ISS remains well-supplied.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Orbital Antares Update

Orbital Sciences posted this update today:

Update – October 30, 2014

Launch Site Status:

Based on initial sweeps conducted by an Orbital safety team, it appears a significant amount of debris remains on the site and it is likely substantial hardware evidence will be available to aid in determining root cause of the Antares launch failure. Some of the Cygnus cargo has also been found and will be retrieved as soon as we have clearance to do so to see if any survived intact. After up close visual inspections by the safety team, it still appears the launch site itself avoided major damage. There is some evidence of damage to piping that runs between the fuel and commodity storage vessels and the launch mount, but no evidence of significant damage to either the storage vessels or launch mount. Detailed evaluations by MARS and their engineering team will occur in the next couple of days. An Orbital-led team has begun cataloging and documenting the location of all pieces of debris over the next several days after which the debris will be relocated to storage bays on the island for further evaluation.

Antares Data Review:

Telemetry data has been released to Orbital and our engineers presented a very quick look assessment to the Accident Investigation Board at the end of the day. It appears the Antares vehicle had a nominal pre-launch and launch sequence with no issues noted. All systems appeared to be performing nominally until approximately T+15 seconds at which point the failure occurred. Evidence suggests the failure initiated in the first stage after which the vehicle lost its propulsive capability and fell back to the ground impacting near, but not on, the launch pad. Prior to impacting the ground, the rocket’s Flight Termination System was engaged by the designated official in the Wallops Range Control Center.

Antares Voices

As we await an official diagnosis for the loss Tuesday of the Orbital Sciences Antares, this post offers videos of notables discussing the event.

October 29, 2014 ... Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver on Bloomberg TV.

October 29, 2014 ... Science Correspondent Miles O'Brien on PBS NewsHour.

October 29, 2014 ... Miles O'Brien and former Shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly on CNN.

The Engines That Came In from the Cold

Click the arrow to watch the documentary. Video source: Matthew Travis YouTube channel.

The Orbital Sciences Antares rocket that exploded Tuesday uses engines originally built in the 1970s by the Soviet Union's Kuznetsov Design Bureau. Originally intended for the N-1 moon rocket, the NK-33 engines were stored in a warehouse after the program was cancelled.

In the mid-1990s, thirty-six of the engines were sold to Aerojet General. Aerojet refurbished the engines, renamed them AJ26-62, and sold them to Orbital for the Antares.

In 2001, U.K. TV Channel 4 produced a documentary titled The Engines That Came In from the Cold about how the Soviet engines came to be in American hands. This is six years before Orbital won a NASA commercial cargo contract.

Pundits are blaming the refurbished NK-33s for Tuesday's explosion, but so far no public evidence has been released to support that conclusion. An AJ-26 failed May 22 on a NASA Stennis test stand. All the engines are test-fired at Stennis before installation on the Antares. If the AJ-26 is responsible for Tuesday's failure, it already had been test-fired at Stennis.

Click the arrow to watch a March 29, 2014 AJ-26 test. Video source: NASA Stennis YouTube channel.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Deorbit Burn

Click the arrow to watch the explosion. Video source: NASA.

Icarus, in Greek mythology, was the son of Daedalus who dared fly too close to the sun on wings of feather and wax.

The feathers came loose, and Icarus plunged to his death in the sea.

As it plunged to its own fiery death on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket consumed in its flames the Cygnus module intended to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

In the subsequent media event, NASA officials stressed that the ISS typically has a six-month supply of consumables. The Russian Progress launched a few hours later and has already docked at the station. SpaceX is scheduled to launch Dragon CRS-5 on the Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral in December.

Click the arrow to watch the post-launch media event. Video source: NASA.

While competitors, customers and compatriots all expressed their sympathy and support, it's almost certain we'll see a Congressional hearing in upcoming months by members who've long had their knives sharpened for the commercial space program.

Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steven Palazzo (R-MS), who respectively chair the House Science Committee and its space subcommittee, issued a press release within hours that included this brief statement:

“We add our disappointment to the thousands in the space community who worked tirelessly in support of Tuesday evening's launch attempt at Wallops Island. We are relieved to hear there are no reported fatalities, and we anticipate learning more about the circumstances surrounding the launch failure in the near future.”

Other critics, such as Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), have yet to issue a statement.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, issued this release:

We should allow Orbital, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Space Authority, and NASA to do their job in investigating the extent of damage to property and assessing the cause of this unfortunate accident and possible impacts to the ISS program. Mishaps such as occurred yesterday are part of venturing into space and do nothing to diminish my strong support for NASA and our nation's space program.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) issued this statement:

Last night’s failed launch is the latest reminder that, despite our many successes in space, getting there is anything but routine. I was sorry to hear about the experimental data, equipment, and supplies that were lost in the explosion. Thankfully, no one was injured and I know that the accident investigation team is already hard at work examining the launch data and the site itself. They will work with the appropriate federal agencies to find the underlying cause of the failure and use that knowledge to ensure successful future launches.

Many members of the House and Senate space subcommittees have pressured NASA to “pick one and move on” in the commercial crew program, despite NASA's warnings that eliminating multiple options would result in the same long-term shutdowns the agency suffered after the Challenger and Columbia accidents. Competition also assures innovation and choice, as well as lower cost.

I suspect that eventually we'll hear the usual voices claiming this is proof that the private sector can't be trusted, while overlooking the fourteen lives NASA lost during the Space Shuttle program. NASA lost Challenger because managers insisted on launching despite warnings it was too cold, and managers for years turned a blind eye to the falling foam problem that led to the loss of Columbia.

If NASA had chosen Orbital as its only cargo delivery vendor, most likely we wouldn't see another flight for the foreseeable future. The agency would have to rely on the Russian Progress cargo ship, because its European and Japanese partners are ending their autonomous cargo programs.

But thanks to multiple vendors ... SpaceX can save the day.

SpaceX also assumes the heavy burden of being the sole vendor now, which means any accident could mean the demise by Congress of not only commercial cargo but also commercial crew.

I fully expect we'll hear the elected representatives of certain NASA centers start demanding that the Space Launch System be used to deliver cargo, even though it won't fly until late 2018 at the earliest.

NASA issued a press release this evening with an initial assessment of damage to the Wallops facility.

The initial assessment is a cursory look; it will take many more weeks to further understand and analyze the full extent of the effects of the event. A number of support buildings in the immediate area have broken windows and imploded doors. A sounding rocket launcher adjacent to the pad, and buildings nearest the pad, suffered the most severe damage.

At Pad 0A the initial assessment showed damage to the transporter erector launcher and lightning suppression rods, as well as debris around the pad.

Damage to Wallops Pad 0A this morning. Click here to see at a higher resolution. Image source: NASA.

If the Republicans take control of the Senate in next week's elections, the future of the commercial space program could be even murkier. Senator Shelby, infamous for directing pork to Alabama, has long opposed the commercial program because he sees it as a threat to Space Launch System jobs in his state. Shelby could be in line to chair the Senate's appropriations committee that funds NASA.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), despite his Tea Party roots, generally has been a sober and deferential companion to Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) on the Senate space subcommittee. Texas may have Johnson Space Center, but now it also has the new SpaceX commercial spaceport at Boca Chica.

Hopefully SpaceX can pick up the slack and prove that commercial space is the future, not pork politics. We might otherwise see NewSpace plunge into the sea, along with Icarus and Antares.

Click the arrow to listen to the Orbital Sciences teleconference late today.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Antares Orb-3 Explodes on Launch

Click the arrow to watch the launch and explosion. Video source: Brad Panovich YouTube channel.

The Orbital Sciences Antares exploded seconds after launch this evening, destroying the Orb-3 Cygnus vehicle delivering cargo to the International Space Station.

More in the morning, once we have some facts.

UPDATE October 28, 2014 8:15 PM EDT — Amateur footage of the launch and explosion. Listen for the BANG! at the end and watch for the shock wave.

Video source: Storyful Editor YouTube channel.

UPDATE October 28, 2014 8:30 PM EDT — More amateur footage from the Wallops press site. The media has to run for it.

Video source: Matthew Travis YouTube channel.

UPDATE October 28, 2014 9:00 PM EDT — Amateur footage of the explosion shot from a Cessna at 3,000 feet altitude near the launch site.

Video source: Ed Sealing YouTube channel.

UPDATE October 28, 2014 10:15 PM EDT — Amateur footage shot for RocketSTEM Magazine. The videographer kept his camcorder running during the evacuation.

Video source: UnTiedMusicStudio YouTube channel.

UPDATE October 30, 2014 7:45 AM EDT — Amateur footage from the NASA Wallops vistor center.

Video source: wwwjscom YouTube channel.

UPDATE October 30, 2014 8:00 AM EDT — Another amateur video; according to the videographer, he was four miles away.

Video source: Liberty & Belle, Eagles of Shepherdstown, WV YouTube channel.

UPDATE October 30, 2014 7:00 PM EDT — This amateur video is reportedly from two miles away. The concussive blast is quite impressive.

Video source: Tim B YouTube channel.

This is a unique angle different from the others.

Video source: Brian Garrett Photography YouTube channel.

UPDATE October 30, 2014 7:30 PM EDT — Another amateur video from the press site.

Video source: Elliot Severn YouTube channel.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Orb-3 Pre-Game Show

Click the arrow to watch the NASA/Orbital launch briefing. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch the NASA/Orbital mission science briefing. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Orbital Sciences is scheduled to launch the Orb-3 mission today at 6:45 PM PDT from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

Click here for the Orb-3 press kit.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Retro Saturday: My Name ... Jose Jimenez

Click the arrow to listen to the Bill Dana comedy sketch on YouTube. Warning: the content is considered offensive by modern standards. Video source: dvidgreen's YouTube channel.

He was as much an icon of the Space Age as the Mercury astronauts, but today Bill Dana's Mexican astronaut Jose Jimenez comedy sketch is considered a racial parody and politically incorrect.

According to the official Bill Dana web site, the Jose Jimenez character began on The Steve Allen Show in the late 1950s. The biography states:

Adopted by the original seven Mercury astronauts, Dana became part of U.S space history on May 5, 1961 when the first words from planet Earth spoken to Alan Shepard (America's first man in space) were "O.K. José, you're on your way!" Bill and José are honored by their inclusion in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Astronaut Hall of Fame. He also serves on the board of the Astronaut Scholarship Fund. Bill's appearances at Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, and the London Paladium were highlights on the way to an honored and show-stopping appearance at the John F. Kennedy Inaugural Gala in 1961.

The routine was famously repeated on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Bill Dana as The Astronaut in 1963. Image source: Wikipedia.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fit to Print

A replicator on the Starship U.S.S. Voyager. Image source: Memory Alpha web site.

The replicator on Star Trek: The Next Generation and its sequels dematerialized matter and reconstituted it into another form. Although it could replicate food and other simple organic objects, the writers put a limit of the technology, deeming living beings and higher order organic creatures beyond its capability.

According to Memory Alpha, “replicators could be used for replicating machine parts, clothing or other objects ... Industrial replicators could even be used to replicate heavier machine parts.”

3D printing isn't quite a replicator, but it is a step in that direction.

The SpaceX CRS-4 mission delivered to the International Space Station in September the first 3D printer in space.

The printer was manufactured by Made in Space, a company located in Moffett Field, California. According to their September 19 press release:

Made In Space’s additive manufacturing technology creates 3D objects layer by layer from filament through an extrusion method specifically adapted for the challenges of the space environment. In addition to designing and building the hardware, Made In Space will be operating the printer from a mission control ground station ...

This first printer will be using ABS plastic while the second generation unit, scheduled for delivery to ISS in 2015, will offer multiple material capacity and an increased build volume. The second Made In Space printer will be available for use by businesses, researchers and anyone who wants to create in-space hardware rapidly, affordably, and safely.

New industries are popping up to provide the materials used in 3D printers. Stratasys, for example, offers “offers a powerful range of additive manufacturing materials, including clear, rubberlike and biocompatible photopolymers, and tough high-performance thermoplastics.” Shapeways will send you 3D printing material sample kits, offering polymers, plastics and metals in a variety of colors.

The limits on the Star Trek replicator may be no obstacle for 3D printers.

On October 20, 3D Printing Industry reported that “Vancouver’s Aspect Biosystems has created a 3D printer that will bioprint human tissue capable of developing full biological functions. The bioprinted tissue can be used to test dangerous or experimental drugs, and could eventually lead to completely viable and transplantable bioprinted organs.”

Konrad Walus, one of the co-founders of Aspect Biosystems. Image source: Aspect Biosystems web site.

According to the Aspect Biosystems web site, their mission is to “to engineer human tissues on demand for broad applications in the life sciences.”

Aspect Biosystems has developed a patent-pending 3D bioprinting platform and human cell culture technology capable of creating living human tissues on demand. Aspect Biosystems’ initial products and services aim to improve the predictive accuracy of the pre-clinical drug discovery process by providing pharmaceutical companies, contract research organizations (CROs), and researchers with physiologically-relevant 3D human tissue models that they can employ in the development of new drugs and therapies. Aspect Biosystems’ technology has the potential to drive a fundamental shift in the pharmaceutical industry by enabling the development of completely new therapeutics for diseases that they are not able to adequately address currently, as well as test or re-test drugs they may have discounted in the past due to a lack of appropriate models. Aspect’s technology also represents a powerful research tool for fundamental biology allowing scientists to ask and answer questions about cellular systems that are not possible today. Building on short- and medium-term goals, Aspect Biosystems has a long-term vision to expand beyond drug development by creating human tissues on demand for broad applications in personalized medicine, organ transplantation, cellular and molecular biology, and the development of safe cosmetics and personal care products.

Take that, Beverly Crusher.

According to, “The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Foundation and NASA have partnered together to develop a series of 3D Space Challenges focused on solving real-world space exploration problems. Students can submit 3D models directly to the site for a chance to win prizes, including a 3D print on the International Space Station.”

All these technologies help further the ability for human beings to permanently leave the Earth for settlement in deep space and on other worlds.

The movie Apollo 13 depicted how the crew had to kludge together a carbon dioxide scrubber for the lunar module. If they'd had a 3D printer, perhaps they could have just made one.

Bioprinting could lead to making organs that replace those injured while on deep space missions.

The 3D printing materials may be recyclable. If a part breaks ... throw it back in the machine, and let the machine remake it. Just like a replicator.

The replicators were common technology in the fictional 24th Century of Star Trek. Here in the 21st Century, we're about to creating the first replicator.

For more information on 3D printing, try 3D Printing Basics: The Free Beginner’s Guide on the 3D Printing Industry web site.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Look Out Below

An artist's concept of the Terrestrial Return Vehicle. Image source: Intuitive Machines.

Popular Science posted an article October 17 about a company called Intuitive Machines which hopes to develop what the magazine called a “UPS-Style Shipping Service” for the International Space Station.

Except there’s one little snag when it comes to conducting experiments on the ISS: It’s kind of far away. Getting critical samples from the station to Earth can be a lengthy process, and researchers usually have to wait anywhere from six months to a year before samples can make the trip to laboratories on the ground. These long waits can be risky, as live biological samples have a perishable lifespan and often need to be reviewed quickly before they degrade.

Well now, private spaceflight company Intuitive Machines has a solution to this problem. In cooperation with NASA, the company is developing the Terrestrial Return Vehicle (TRV), a spacecraft that can deliver experiment samples from station to Earth in less than 24 hours. Think of it as same-day shipping for the ISS. Such a short sample return time opens up more opportunities for research on the ISS that could never have been done before.

“Those experiment samples are left stranded on board until we can get a whole vehicle up there packed with 5,000 pounds of return cargo,” Steve Altemus, president of Intuitive Machines, tells Popular Science. “In our paradigm, we have opportunities to come home every single day, bringing critical samples home when they’re needed.”

According to the company's web site:

Intuitive Machines in cooperation with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been selected by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to develop a Terrestrial Return Vehicle (TRV) that will enable on demand, rapid return of experiments from the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory. Through this commercial service, Intuitive Machines will enable researchers to regularly and quickly return small samples and components from the ISS to Earth ... As part of this new venture Intuitive Machines is responsible for the overall design and certification of the return vehicle, as well as terrestrial payload return services for its customers. CASIS will provide integration onto a commercial launch vehicle for access to the ISS, as well as on-orbit flight operations services.

The Popular Science articles states a TRV will be “about the size of a bag of golf clubs.”

After it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, the TRV will release a super sonic drogue parachute to slow down its descent. Then, at about 25,000 feet, it will deploy a parafoil, allowing it to steer more easily to its landing site — a test range in the Utah desert. In total, the TRV’s return trip to Earth will take a mere six hours, which is comparable to how fast the Shuttle used to come home from the ISS.

In this artist's concept, the TRV ejects from the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo on the ISS. Image source: Intuitive Machines.

According to the company, the first TRV will be launched in 2016, presumably aboard either a SpaceX Dragon or Orbital Sciences Cygnus vehicle.

It's a neat idea, but immediately a few safety concerns come to mind.

Presumably the TRV will have some sort of hypergolic fuels on board to steer it into the atmosphere. Hypergolic propellants spontaneously ignite when in contact with each other, eliminating the need for an ignition source. The Space Shuttle had 44 Reaction Control System (RCS) jets that used hypergolic fuels to maneuver while in orbit.

Launching a hypergolic-fueled TRV inside a Dragon or Cygnus means that essentially the cargo craft is carrying a bomb on board.

In the early days of the Space Shuttle program, the orbiter was used to launch satellites from its payload bay despite the presence of fuel on the payload. The 1990 Augustine Commission report titled “Report of the Advisory Committee On the Future of the U.S. Space Program” stated that “in hindsight” it was “inappropriate in the case of Challenger to risk the lives of seven astronauts and nearly one-fourth of NASA's launch assets to place in orbit a communications satellite.”

Aside from the ignition potential, a leak of a toxic propellant would also be of concern, for no other reason than contamination of other experiments aboard.

Even though people won't be aboard the Dragon or Cygnus, I have to wonder how other ISS customers will feel about these “bombs” being aboard. The risk management people are going to have a field day.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Camping in Space

Click the arrow to watch the Alyssa Carson interview on CBS This Morning.

Huntsville's Space Camp was founded in 1982, according to its web site, “to inspire and motivate young people from around the world to join the ranks of space pioneers who persevere to push the boundaries of human exploration.”

I became aware of the program in 1986 when, less than five months after the Challenger accident, a movie called SpaceCamp was released in theatres. The movie is a bit silly, but at its core was the message that, give a positive direction early in life, youth can make a contribution to the future of humanity.

I was 29 when the film was released, too young for the kiddie corps, but found out they also offered adult programs. I attended Space Camp's adult program in November 1986, then returned in 1989 and 1994. During the 1994 visit, my peers voted me the Right Stuff award, which sits here on my desk.

I credit Space Camp with helping to start me on the journey that brought me from California to here on the Space Coast, where I'm now part of the third generation of human spaceflight.

That third generation might include Alyssa Carson, a 13-year old from Louisiana who puts my Space Camp record to shame.

According to her web site, Alyssa has been to the Hunstville Space Camp twelve times, as well as the Space Camps in Canada and Turkey, and the Sally Ride Camp.

Her call sign “Blueberry” was given her at Space Camp due to her diminutive size and the blue Space Camp flight suit she wears.

(My powder blue Space Camp flight suit from 1986 still hangs in the closet, but alas it no longer fits ... Let's see if yours fits when you're 58, Alyssa.)

In recent weeks, Alyssa has become a media sensation, including appearances on CBS This Morning and Al Jazeera America. She has also given a TedX talk, in Kalamata, Greece. She says her goal is to be on a human spaceflight to Mars.

Click the arrow to watch Alyssa Carson's TedX talk in Kalamata, Greece on June 7, 2014. Video source: trebprod YouTube channel.

You can follow her exploits on Twitter at @NASABlueberry1.

Another Space Camp alumna is Abigail Harrison, who goes by Astronaut Abby. Her web site is and you can follow her on Twitter at @AstronautAbby. She's four years older than Alyssa. Abby has also been invited to give a TedX lecture.

Click the arrow to watch Abigail Harrison's TedX talk in Tampa on October 25, 2013. Video source: TEDx Talks YouTube channel.

Space Camp alumni are changing the world. The Space Camp Hall of Fame includes Samantha Cristoforetti, scheduled to launch to the International Space Station on Expedition 42 on November 23. Samantha attended Space Camp at age 18.

When SpaceX launched its first Dragon demonstration flight ot the International Space Station on May 22, 2012, a Space Camp alumna was standing in the front row of the employees watching outside Mission Control. Watch for the Space Camp T-shirt.

SpaceX employees watch the Falcon 9 launch the Dragon COTS demonstration flight on May 22, 2012. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

The Space Camp web site credits Dr. Wernher von Braun for the original Space Camp idea. Von Braun “reasoned there should be an experience for young people who were excited about space.” He passed away in 1977, but Space Camp began five years later.

Maybe, one day, we'll see a Space Camp on Mars. Led by Blueberry and Astronaut Abby.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Retro Saturday: Атомный флагман (Atomic Flagship)

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

Something a little different for your Retro Saturday.

Атомный флагман (Atomic Flagship) is a 1959 Soviet documentary about the atomic-powered ice-breaker, Ленин (Lenin). The film runs about 21 minutes. It's narrated with an English-language voiceover.

According to Wikipedia, Lenin was “both the world's first nuclear-powered surface ship and the first nuclear-powered civilian vessel. Lenin entered operation in 1959 and worked clearing sea routes for cargo ships along Russia's northern coast. She was officially decommissioned in 1989. She was subsequently converted to a museum ship and is now permanently based at Murmansk.”

I don't think this quite qualifies as a propaganda film, but it has all the trappings. A great classical orchestra and sophisticated cinematography. It also would have made a great target for Mystery Science Theater 3000.

X-37B Returns to Earth

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: 30th Space Wing, Vandenberg AFB YouTube channel.

As reported by NBC News and other media outlets, the X-37B landed yesterday at Vandenberg AFB after nearly two years in space.

Boeing built two of these vehicles for the U.S. Air Force. This one launched December 11, 2012 from Cape Canaveral's Pad 41 for its second flight.

The orbiters will land in the future at Kennedy Space Center's former Shuttle runway. Two former orbiter hangars are being refurbished near the Vehicle Assembly Building to house the vehicles.

James Dean of Florida Today writes this morning that, “The Air Force said it is preparing to launch a fourth X-37B mission from the Cape next year.”

Friday, October 17, 2014

One Hot Video

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

NASA's Space Technology Launch Directorate released today infrared footage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 first-stage re-lighting its engine to steer back towards a theoretical landing site.

The booster's landing legs weren't installed for the September 21 launch of the Dragon cargo supply flight to the International Space Station, but it was an opportunity to put the stage through its paces.

According to the NASA press release:

NASA equipped two aircraft with advanced instrumentation to document re-entry of the rocket's first stage. The first stage is the part of the rocket that is ignited at launch and burns through the rocket's ascent until it runs out of propellant, at which point it is discarded from the second stage and returns to Earth. During its return, or descent, NASA captured quality infrared and high definition images and monitored changes in the smoke plume as the engines were turned on and off.

NASA's interest in the flight was potential technology for a Mars mission.

“Because the technologies required to land large payloads on Mars are significantly different than those used here on Earth, investment in these technologies is critical,” said Robert Braun, principal investigator for NASA's Propulsive Descent Technologies (PDT) project and professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “This is the first high-fidelity data set of a rocket system firing into its direction of travel while traveling at supersonic speeds in Mars-relevant conditions. Analysis of this unique data set will enable system engineers to extract important lessons for the application and infusion of supersonic retro-propulsion into future NASA missions.”

Lawyer Up

Investigative journalist Emma Perez-Trevino of the Valley Morning Star has obtained legal documents related to Sierra Nevada's appeal of NASA awarding commercial crew contracts to Boeing and SpaceX.

The Valley Morning Star is published in Harlingen, Texas, not far from the new SpaceX commercial spaceport at Boca Chica, Texas.

Space News reported on October 16 that Sierra Nevada had filed suit to force NASA to stop work on the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts awarded September 16 to Boeing and SpaceX.

Below are the links to the documents obtained by the Valley Morning Star.

Plaintiff's Application for a Temporary Restraining Order to Prevent Unlawful Override of CICA Stay (Sierra Nevada)

The Boeing Company's Unopposed Motion to Intervene

Memorandum in Support of The Boeing Company's Unopposed Motion to Intervene

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Women in Space

Click the arrow to watch the documentary. Video source: PBS Video.

On October 14, the PBS series Makers: Women Who Make America aired an episode titled, “Women in Space.”

It's an excellent history of how women were denied access to the U.S. space program until the liberation movement of the 1970s. Even after the first female astronauts were hired, they were still treated as an oddity by the media for many years.

I was impressed by the close of the documentary, which clearly states we're in a transition to a new era of human spaceflight. It features SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell and Lockheed Martin engineer Marleen Martinez, who's working on Orion.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Retro Saturday: The Astronauts: United States Project Mercury

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: AF Space & Missile Museum YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday film is a 27-minute NASA documentary from 1960 titled, The Astronauts: United States Project Mercury.

The events that led up to the Mercury program are documented in the book, Project Mercury: A Chronology available as a PDF at the link. Although many events led to Mercury, several criticial decisions were made by NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

In November 1957, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik II, NACA engineer Maxime Faget presented concepts for human spaceflight that involved using existing military ballistic missiles and “a nonlifting ballistic shape for the reentering capsule.”

During the next several months, both the NACA and the U.S. Air Force studied ideas for human spaceflight. Faget presented in March 1958 a paper titled, Preliminary Studies of Manned Satellites-Wingless Configuration, Non-Lifting. The paper put forward most of the key ideas that led to Project Mercury.

In April 1958, President Eisenhower announced that the NACA would be combined with non-military space research programs in the Defense Department to create a new National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Eisenhower signed the law on July 29, 1958, and the new NASA would begin on October 1, 1958. As NACA prepared for the transition, it laid the groundwork for the human spaceflight program. Although McDonnell Aircraft did not get the Mercury capsule contract until February 1959, it spent the eleven months prior researching a manned orbital spacecraft on its own budget.

One week after his agency's birth, the first NASA Administrator Keith Glennan approved Project Mercury on October 7, 1958.

The first U.S. human spaceflight with Alan Shepard would not be until May 5, 1961, a few months after this film was produced. But it's a good overview of events to that point, including astronaut selection and plans to upgrade from Redstone to Atlas.

By the way, the film's narrator, Mandel Kramer, had a long and successful career both as a radio actor and on soap operas. I've heard his voice narrating many documentaries during this period.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Going Up

The existing headquarters building that opened in 1965. Image source: NASA.

An artist's concept of the new headquarters building. Image source: Florida Today.

Kennedy Space Center held a groundbreaking yesterday for its new administrative headquarters.

According to Florida Today reporter James Dean:

Two years from now, employees and guests entering Kennedy Space Center's $65 million new headquarters building will walk into a two-story, glass-sided lobby, across a terrazzo floor decorated with star constellations.

The center director and other top leaders will ascend to the seventh floor of a sweeping white facade that anchors one side of the building, giving it an iconic appearance and hinting at KSC's past and future missions, according to its designers.

About 500 civil servants and contractors will fill seven floors of offices and conference rooms consolidating most of the center's administrative functions, and dine in a first-floor cafeteria decorated with a solar system motif.

Best of all, the 200,000 square-foot facility that NASA broke ground on Tuesday is expected to meet a "gold" standard for energy efficiency, saving KSC money over time compared to its existing nearly 50-year-old headquarters.

Click here to watch a Florida Today video report of the groundbreaking. You may be subjected to an ad first.

A Second Helping for X-37B

The Boeing X-37B at Vandenberg Air Force Base in December 2010. Image source: Wikipedia.

On January 3, Space Florida announced that Boeing had leased a former Space Shuttle orbiter hangar for the X-37B, an experimental robotic spaceplane the company flies on behalf of the U.S. Air Force.

The Orbiter Processing Facility had three hangars. Space Florida leased OPF-1 from NASA so it could be sublet to Boeing, but the fate of the neighboring OPF-2 was unclear. Unofficial sources said Boeing was going to use OPF-2 as well, but nothing official was confirmed.

Until now.

NASA issued this press release today:

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida has entered into an agreement with the U.S. Air Force's X-37B Program for use of the center’s Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) Bays 1 and 2 to process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle for launch.

The OPF bays were last used during NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. With the agency’s transition to the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, the agency currently does not have a mission requirement for the facilities. This agreement ensures the facilities will again be used for their originally-intended purpose — processing spacecraft.

“Kennedy is positioning itself for the future, transitioning to a multi-user launch facility for both commercial and government customers, while embarking on NASA's new deep space exploration plans,” said Kennedy Center Director Robert Cabana. “A dynamic infrastructure is taking shape, designed to host many kinds of spacecraft and rockets.”

In addition to vehicle preparation for launch, the X-37B Program conducted testing at Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility to demonstrate that landing the vehicle at the former shuttle runway is a technically feasible option.

The Boeing Company is performing construction upgrades in the OPFs on behalf of the X-37B Program. These upgrades are targeted to be complete in December.

Parsing the press release, it seems to state the deal is between NASA and the U.S. Air Force, not Boeing.

There's no mention of Space Florida involvement in the press release, nor on the Space Florida web site.

Space Florida also leased OPF-3 in October 2011 so Boeing could modify it for their CST-100 commercial crew vehicle. Now that Boeing has won a commercial crew contract from NASA, it's expected that Boeing activities will pick up at that hangar.

Boeing has two X-37Bs, one of which has been in orbit since December 2012. If and when it lands, that's scheduled to be at Kennedy Space Center's former Shuttle runway. In the past, the X-37B landed at Vandenberg AFB in southern California.


Click the arrow to watch “Dragonland” on Vimeo.

From time to time, I'm inspired to produce music montages.

Dragonland is about the SpaceX Dragon, although you'll see a few minor cheats here and there using footage from non-Dragon launches.

And because things sometimes move really slowly in space, some footage is sped up. So sue me.

The music is from the track “Dragonland” on the Sun album released October 1 by Thomas Bergersen. He's one of the composers for Two Steps From Hell, which originally formed to write movie trailer music but today releases its own albums.

Previous montages:


I Will Be Back One Day

Imagine the Fire

Dragon Rider

Faith of the Heart

Orion: Trial By Fire

Click the arrow to watch the video on YouTube. Video source: ReelNASA YouTube channel.

NASA released today a promotional film called Trial By Fire that details the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 mission, scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral on December 4.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Retro Saturday: Pioneers of the Vertical Frontier

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

This week's Retro Saturday is a 23-minute 1967 U.S. Air Force documentary about the Holloman Air Force Base Aeromedical Research Laboratory.

Titled Pioneers of the Vertical Frontier, it's about the primates used in testing aerospace technology in the early 1960s, such as Ham and Enos who flew before Alan Shepard and John Glenn.

Fifty years later, American cultural standards are quite different. The treatment of the chimpanzees depicted in the film would be considered appalling today.

A more modern interpretation is depicted in One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps. Some of the footage is quite graphic, such as a chimp destroyed during a high-velocity impact on a rocket sled at Holloman.