Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Light the Candle

Click the arrow to watch the video.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex has added special light and laser shows for the holiday season.

The above is a video of a light show projected against the Saturn 1B in the Rocket Garden.

According to a KSCVC press release:

As the season progresses, so does the fun. From Dec. 2 through Jan. 4, the Visitor Complex presents the new Holiday Rocket Garden Light Show featuring a choreographed light and music show.

The excitement accelerates Dec. 22 through Dec. 31 when a second element is added to the show: a 3D projection mapping presentations shown on the side of the 223-foot-long Saturn 1B rocket. Also called spatial augmented reality, this technology is used to project images onto irregularly shaped objects, such as bridges, buildings, and now, a rocket. This remarkable presentation, a first at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, features custom animation blended with historic footage of actual launches and awe-inspiring views of Earth from the ISS. The show takes guests on a walk through NASA history, from our first launches to the moon, through the 30-year Space Shuttle Program and the assembly of the ISS, and onto the surface of Mars, thanks to actual images captured by NASA’s Curiosity and Opportunity robotic exploration rovers.

From Dec. 26-Dec. 31, a Holiday Laser Light Spectacular will be added to the festivities, featuring an incredible music and laser light show that will be visible in Orlando and throughout Central Florida. The green rays from the laser show are bright enough for astronauts aboard the International Space Station to see them.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Mapping the Cape, Part 1

Various raw clips of the first Cape launch pads circa 1950. Video source: AF Space & Missile Museum YouTube channel.

The Air Force Space and Missile Museum (AFSMM) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is a treasure trove of early Cape history.

The museum has one employee, a full-time director. Everyone else is a volunteer, or employed part-time by the museum's non-profit foundation.

A half-century ago, when it opened in the 1960s, the museum had a much larger staff of U.S. Air Force officers, and as recently as the middle of the last decade had a staff archivist.

All archival work today is performed by volunteer docents. What's not on display is tucked away in various locations around the Cape.

One hangar in the base industrial area houses drawers filled with old blueprints from the earliest days, when the launch facilities were largely still on the drawing board.

Several docents recently photographed a selection of the blueprints, and shared those images with me. This is the first of a series of articles as together we sift through the earliest efforts to map the Cape.

A September 1951 blueprint of USAF plans for developing the Air Force Missile Test Center (AFMTC). Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: AFSMM.

The first four pads were constructed on the tip of Cape Canaveral in the summer of 1950. Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team were moving their Project Bumper (modified V2) operations from the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico. Their base of operations was the reopened Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama but the rocket tests would be at the former bombing range of the Banana River Naval Air Station, on the tip of the Cape. Banana River NAS south of Cocoa Beach was transferred in 1948 to the USAF, which would rename the facility Patrick Air Force Base in August 1950. The former bombing range was named the Joint Long Range Proving Ground (JLRPG), and would go through many name changes over the years before today's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. CCAFS is under the command of Patrick AFB.

Click here for more on the evolution of CCAFS and the 45th Space Wing.

As the 1950s began, the Cold War with the Soviet Union led to the militaries in both nations ramping up their rocketry research. Although the USAF operated the JLRPG, the Army and Navy would also establish facilities and launch complexes. The Naval Ordnance Test Unit still operates today out of CCAFS.

The Army's von Braun would be the first tenant, but all three military branches began planning for rapid expansion at the Cape.

Until the arrival of the JLRPG, Florida's state highway A1A was a major north-south artery, running from Miami to Jacksonville. The route passed through the town of Cocoa Beach and what would become the City of Cape Canaveral, north through the Cape and into Volusia County.

This 1958 image shows Highway A1A rerouted from the Cape to Highway 520 in Cocoa Beach. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA.

Port Canaveral construction circa 1950 rerouted Highway A1A around the harbor, but it continued north through the Cape. Two dirt roads headed east towards the ocean. The Pier Road followed the coastline, passing the Cape Canaveral pier, eventually joining Lighthouse Road which led to the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse.

The above video clip at about the 1:30 mark shows an early modified V2 being towed on the back of a flatbed truck along the dirt Lighthouse Road to Pad 3 for launch. The footage apparently was filmed from the top of the lighthouse.

Lighthouse Road in 1950, looking south from the lighthouse. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA.

A Bumper (modified V2) launch from Pad 3 in July 1950, looking north from the lighthouse. Click the image to view at a larger size. Note that Lighthouse Road has been extended to Pad 3. Can you find the sentry and his jeep in the road? Image source: AFSMM.

When the USAF moved into the Cape, Highway A1A was rerouted to the west. The September 1951 map shows a “GUARD HOUSE” and “GUARD FACILITIES” on Highway A1A just north of the harbor, as well as South Patrol Road. The above video at about 1:30 also shows a sign “LRPG LAUNCHING AREA OPEN” being erected next to an existing sign, “ROAD PAVED TO CANAVERAL ONLY.” I believe this is Highway A1A at the Pier Road, which blueprints show is paved only to the Canaveral pier.

A March 1952 blueprint showing Redstone pads planned for next to the original four pads. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: AFSMM.

In early 1952, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), which employed von Braun and his team, began development of the Redstone, its first large ballistic missile. The Chrysler Corporation was selected for the contract in September 1952, but the above March 1952 blueprint shows that early plans were already underway to station the Redstone next to the four original Cape pads. Two pads next to Pad 4 are labelled “VERTICAL LAUNCHING PAD” with the qualifier, “TENATIVE (sic) LOCATION.”

A few Redstones would launch off Pad 4 between August 1953 and February 1955, before a permanent Redstone complex was built, Pads 5 and 6. More on those in another article; for now, on the September 1951 map note the “SECURITY FENCE” and “PERIMETER ROAD” around the Pads 1-4 complex.

Let's look closely at the March 1952 blueprint. Follow the road running to the lower left from these four pads. You'll see a structure marked, “Interim Missile Assembly Building.” A 1953 blueprint labelled the structure, “FUELED MISSILE STORAGE BUILDING.” Another blueprint in the AFSMM archives identifies it as today's Hangar O, which doesn't appear on modern CCAFS maps. In any case, it's believed that the earliest Redstones were stored here before launch from Pad 4.

Now follow Lighthouse Road from the four pads to the lower right. You'll find the first firehouse and the lighthouse, both of which still stand today. You'll see the future Hangar C labelled “Missile Assembly Building” and other facilities behind it.

This undated video shows the launch of a XSM-64 Snark and its landing on the Skid Strip. Video source: AF Space & Missile Museum YouTube channel.

The “Snark Lab” was for the Northrup Snark cruise missile. A low-priority USAF project for many years, the first Snark test launches were not until 1954. They had skids instead of landing wheels because they were designed to skid to a landing on the base runway, which was given the name Skid Strip that remains to this day. Scroll down to the lower right and you'll see the runway is labelled “Skid Strip.”

The X-10 Navaho on the Skid Strip in 1956. Image source: Federation of American Scientists.

Another of the lighthouse-area buildings is labelled “North American Laboratory.” North American Aviation had the contract for the Navaho, a supersonic intercontinental cruise missile. The Navaho program had two versions, the X-10 and later the XSM-64. The X-10 launched from and landed at the Skid Strip under remote or automatic flight controls. According to the Federation of American Scientists, North American “began operating a small field office at Patrick Air Force Base in 1953 to coordinate support efforts for the program, including the construction of two missile assembly buildings, a vertical launch facility for the XSM-64 and a 200 x 10,000-foot landing strip on Cape Canaveral for the X-10 vehicle.” The above September 1951 map labels the runway as both SKID STRIP and NAVAHO RUNWAY.

Pads 9 and 10 (not on the map) began construction in September 1953 for the XSM-64. We'll see those pads in a future article.

A January 1953 development plan for Cape Canaveral Auxiliary Air Force Base. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: AFSMM.

By early 1953, plans were already underway to begin test launches of the Atlas and possibly other intercontinental ballistic missiles. In the above blueprint, they're labelled “HEAVY MISSILE LAUNCHING AREA” but those locations would constantly change as the Cape's future design evolved in the months to come. More on the ICBM pads in a future article.

If you want to see what the tip of the Cape looks like today, click here for the Google Earth image. How many facilities can you identify from the original blueprints? Which were never built or no longer exist?

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Retro Saturday: Debrief: Apollo 8

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

Forty-fix years ago today, Apollo 8 returned from its trip to the Moon. It was the first time in history that a spacecraft had orbited humans around the Moon and returned them to Earth.

This week's Retro Saturday is a 1969 NASA film titled Debrief: Apollo 8. The film is narrated by Burgess Meredith, who at the time was well-known for his recurring role as the villainous Penguin on the recently cancelled campy Batman TV series.

Generally considered one of the most accomplished actors of the 20th Century, he was blacklisted in the 1950s due to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings because his name had appeared in a right-wing publication called Red Channels which alleged he was a Communist.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Articles of Interest

In the earliest days of this blog, I had an Articles of Interest series that was no more than a dumping ground for minor stories I didn't think merited a full-blown article.

Well, a lot of small stories have piled up on this side of the digital transom, so welcome back to Articles of Interest.

NASA issued a press release December 23 announcing unfunded Space Act Agreements with various companies. Space Act Agreements, or SAAs, are an informal legal arrangement between NASA and the private sector that avoids the formal structures of government contracting bids. Some members of Congress object to SAAs because they view it as a means for NASA to circumvent the political porkery often associated with the formal contracts.

An unfunded SAA means that no money changes hands. The commercial cargo and crew partnerships are funded, meaning that NASA establishes milestones for a partner to complete. If the partner succeeds, it receives a payment from NASA. An unfunded SAA simply means that each party assumes responsibility for its own costs.

The four companies were selected for a NASA initiative called Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities. According to the press release, those collaborations are:

  • ATK Space Systems, in Beltsville, Maryland, is developing space logistics, hosted payload and other space transportation capabilities.
  • Final Frontier Design, in Brooklyn, New York, is developing intra-vehicular activity space suits.
  • Space Exploration Technologies, in Hawthorne, California, is developing space transportation capabilities that could be used to support missions into deep space.
  • United Launch Alliance, in Centennial, Colorado, is developing new launch vehicle capabilities to reduce cost and enhance performance.

Florida Today published an article December 23 from the News Service of Florida about state agency Space Florida planning to update or reactivate two pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Board members of Space Florida, the state's aerospace arm, have agreed to put up a combined $6.4 million as part of two matches with the state Department of Transportation for improvements at Launch Pad 36 and Launch Pad 41 ...

As for the launch-pad projects, the more costly of the two, shielded under the code name Project Mountain, has Space Florida putting up $6.15 million for improvements to Launch Pad 41, including a new tower to make the facility capability of servicing human flights ...

The work at Launch Pad 36, which for more than 40 years was used for Atlas rocket launches, including the Pioneer, Surveyor and Mariner probes, is for an unnamed company referred to as Project Pineapple that is anticipated to spend $34 million at the site and employ 100 people within five years.

The state's money, $250,000, would go to upgrades in safety, the block house annex and the communications system at the site, along with construction of a new fuel and oxidizer storage area, test pad and landing pad.

The Launch Complex 41 program seems rather obvious. United Launch Alliance needs a tower to lift crew to the Boeing CST-100 that will launch atop the Atlas V in about three years.

Last September, NASA issued a request for proposals to begin the second round of commercial cargo delivery contracts to the International Space Station. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have the current contracts, but those will expire in a few years.

A month after NASA issued the proposal request, the Orbital Antares rocket blew up shortly after launch October 28 at Wallops, Virginia, losing the third Cygnus cargo delivery run. That would seem to open the door to other competitors, the beauty of NewSpace.

Space News reported December 16 that Boeing will consider developing a cargo version of CST-100 they will propose under this bid. Sierra Nevada also proposed Dream Chaser as a delivery vehicle. Presumably SpaceX and Orbital have also submitted bids.

Unlike Orbital's Cygnus, which burns up on re-entry, CST-100 and Dream Chaser return to Earth and can be re-used. The cargo version of SpaceX Dragon currently lands in the ocean; NASA doesn't want to use one of those again because of exposure to salt water. The crew version of Dragon, called the Dragon V2, is designed to soft-land on a pad. CST-100 would land in the U.S. southwest desert using parachutes and air bags, while Dream Chaser can land at airport runways.

In April, Sierra Nevada signed a letter of intent with the Houston Airport System to explore landing Dream Chaser at Ellington Airport. That would give Sierra Nevada the unique ability to deliver returned payloads to NASA's doorstep at Johnson Space Center, where most of NASA's ISS operations are based.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

NASA Updates Commercial Crew

For the fifth consecutive year, Congress has cut President Obama's budget request for NASA's commercial crew. The White House requested $848 million to hasten the end of the nation's reliance on Russia for International Space Station access. Congress budgeted $805 million.

The five percent cut is better than the 62% reduction Congress imposed over Fiscal Years 2011-2013, extending reliance on Russia two to three years. In Fiscal Year 2014, the Obama administration requested $821 million but Congress granted only $696 million, a fifteen percent cut.

If you don't like NASA reliance on Roscosmos, you need look no further than your local legislator.

In any case, the commercial crew program still sails into the headwinds, determined to make progress despite the best efforts of Congress ... which is a reference to the old joke, “What's the opposite of progress? Congress.”

On December 22, NASA issued a press release reviewing the program's status and looking ahead to 2015. Here's that press release in its entirety.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and the agency’s industry partners completed 23 agreement and contract milestones in 2014 and participated in thousands of hours of technical review sessions. The sessions focused on creating a new generation of safe, reliable and cost-effective crew space transportation systems to low-Earth orbit destinations.

“To say we’ve been busy would truly be an understatement,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of the Commercial Crew Program. “Our partners at Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX have made tremendous strides in their respective systems throughout the year and we’re happy to have supported them along their way. My team and I are excited to continue to work with our partners in the coming year.”

Blue Origin continued the development of its Space Vehicle spacecraft designed to carry people into low-Earth orbit. The company also continued work on its subscale propellant tank assembly through an unfunded Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) agreement with NASA, which was recently extended until April 2016. In the coming year, Blue Origin will further test its propellant tank and BE-3 engine.

Both Boeing and SpaceX began work on the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts to develop systems to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

In 2014 Boeing closed out its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement and Certification Products Contract (CPC) with NASA. The company also completed its first two CCtCap milestones. Boeing worked with the agency to set an operating rhythm and path toward certification of the CST-100 spacecraft and United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. NASA evaluated the designs of the company’s ground-based systems that will be used to carry crews to the station, including the launch complex, crew training, countdown operations mission control facilities, landing locations and post-landing operations.

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) performed incremental tests of its reaction control system that will help maneuver its Dream Chaser spacecraft in space. SNC achieved its CCiCap milestone in November and built on previous propulsion system development efforts by implementing a compact prototype thruster operating in a vacuum chamber to simulate an on-orbit environment. This year, the company also performed wind tunnel and risk-reduction testing under its CCiCap agreement and closed out its Certification Products Contract with NASA. In 2015, the company will perform the second free-flight of its Dream Chaser test article at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center.

SpaceX performed two milestones, its Dragon Primary Structure Qualification and Delta Crew Vehicle Critical Design Review, in November as part of its CCiCap agreement. Under that agreement, SpaceX also performed other critical design reviews of its systems and operations this year. The company continued to provide NASA with data in preparation for the company’s Certification Baseline Review under its CCtCap contract, which was approved this month. SpaceX also closed out its CPC contract with NASA in 2014. Next year, SpaceX will perform two abort tests for its Crew Dragon spacecraft under its CCiCap agreement.

"Our partners and providers are working on real hardware and will be doing exciting tests next year,” Lueders said. “Pad infrastructures, processing facilities, hardware and crew training mock-ups, which are all key elements crucial to flying crew safely in just a few years, will take a more cohesive shape next year.”

NASA's goal for the Commercial Crew Program is to facilitate the development of a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station. With the CCtCap contracts announced Sept. 16, NASA’s goal is to certify crew transportation systems in 2017 that will return the ability to launch astronauts from the United States to the International Space Station.

For more information on NASA's Commercial Crew Program, visit:

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Orion, Well Done

Video filmed from inside Orion as it re-entered the atmosphere. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Looking like a steak left too long on the barbecue, NASA's Orion crew capsule returned December 18 to Kennedy Space Center after a cross-country procession.

NASA held a media event yesterday to unveil the capsule's current condition. NASA has yet to post images or video, but you can see both in this Florida Today report by James Dean.

Orion returns in its shipping container to Kennedy Space Center. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

I was driving through KSC near Operations & Checkout Thursday when I saw workers lining the road, videographers stationed at roadside and the security helicopter overhead. In the distance I saw this procession approaching, recognized the container and realized it was Orion returning.

Below are some images posted on KSC's Media Gallery page of the procession.

Retro Saturday: The Wonderful World of Trains

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: Classic Airliners & Vintage Pop Culture YouTube channel.

With the Christmas holiday only five days away, this week's Retro Saturday goes back to what was the definitive boy toy for my era.

A Lionel train.

The Wonderful World of Trains is a 1960 promotional film produced by the Lionel Corporation. Founded in 1900 as an electrical novelties company, it was best known for toy trains and model railroads.

The company sold its model train line to General Mills in 1967. The company eventually went out of business in 1993, although the Lionel trademarks are owned by Richard Kughn in Detroit.

Wikipedia has more on the Lionel history.

The little boy in me would still like a model train for Christmas ... Yeah, I know, good luck with that.

General John Medaris and Wernher von Braun at Cape Canaveral in March 1958. Image source: Getty Images.

If you're wondering what this has to do with space ... General John B. Medaris, who headed the Army Ballistic Missile Agency during the time Wernher von Braun developed the Redstone and launched the first U.S. satellite Explorer 1, left ABMA to become president of the Lionel Corporation in 1960. This 2002 edition of The Lion Roars has an article starting on Page 7 about an Operating Satellite Launching Car that Lionel developed for its toy train line once Medaris joined the company.

The Lionel Model 3519 Satellite Launching Car. Image source: Lionel Trains Library.

The Lionel Model 6650 Missile Launcher Car. Image source: Lionel Trains Library.

The Lionel Model 6544 Missile Carrying Flatcar. Image source:

The Model 6544 Missile Firing Car is demonstrated in the film, along with other military-themed toys.

Also note that the film opens with a little boy playing with his toy train set ... while wearing an astronaut helmet.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Palazzo's Pork

Click the arrow to watch the December 10 House Space Subcommittee hearing on SLS/Orion.

The Washington Post published an article today titled, “NASA’s $349 Million Monument to Its Drift.” Nominally about a useless engine test tower built at Stennis Space Center to appease Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), the larger context was to detail just how pork-laden has become NASA's annual budget.

The article cited NASA's former deputy administrator, Lori Garver, who since her departure in September 2013 has become an increasingly outspoken critic of Congressional porking. According to Garver, NASA projects are no longer about “why” but “how.”

“The [International] Space Station was sold as an $8 billion program. It ended up costing $100 billion. The Webb telescope was sold as a $1 billion program. It’s now up to $8 billion,” said Lori Garver, who served as the number two official at NASA from 2009 until last year. “It usually works out for them,” she said, meaning the contractors get paid, even when they raise the price.

Decision-making about NASA was twisted, she said, because of a mismatch between its huge funding and its muddled sense of purpose. “There’s no ‘why’” in NASA anymore, Garver said.

Instead, she said, there was only a “how,” a sense that something big still needed to be done. “And the ‘how’ is all about the [construction] contracts and the members of Congress.”

This nonsense was on display yet again December 10 when the House Space Subcommittee met to demand more spending on the Space Launch System and Orion capsule — even though Congress has yet to tell NASA what to do with these programs four years after ordering the agency to build them.

Subcommittee chair Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) — whose district includes Stennis — stated in his opening remarks:

The successful test launch of Orion demonstrates that we're on the right track for sending humans back to the Moon and Mars within our lifetimes. Across the nation, people were watching with the same hope and pride that all Americans had in the early days of our space program. At my Congressional district, children were bussed to the Stennis Space Center to watch a live feed of the launch. Events like this are what we need to inspire the next generation of astronauts and engineers, and SLS is a giant leap forward, making America the leader in space yet again.

To hide their porkery, Congressional politicians of both partisan stripes often claim these programs “inspire” people, without providing any evidence to back it up, or a rational cost-benefit analysis that would prove this money is better spent on a pork program with no mission than robotic technology which is far more affordable and has skills that can translate into the private sector.

There's no evidence that the nation was transfixed during the Orion test flight, much less to a level similar to the early 1960s. National television networks did not break into regularly scheduled programs. News anchors were not stationed at Cape Canaveral. The media events were attended by more than the usual small handful of “mainstream” journalists, but as typical for these events many of the journalists were credentialed reporters from space-themed web sites.

It's a myth that “all Americans” as Palazzo claimed actually united to support the 1960s space program. A 2003 monograph by space historian Roger Launius found:

Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45–60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space, indicative of a lack of commitment to the spaceflight agenda.

Launius reminded the reader that in the 1960s, “spaceflight served as a surrogate for face-to-face military confrontation” with the Soviet Union. Although today's relations with Russia are tense, NASA and Roscosmos remain trusted space partners after nearly twenty years of joint human spaceflight.

Palazzo continued:

The President has made clear that he does not believe that space exploration is a priority for the nation, and has allowed political appointees within the Administration to manipulate the course of our human spaceflight program. These decisions should be made by the scientists, engineers and program managers that have decades of experience in human spaceflight.

Congress has once again demonstrated support for the SLS and Orion by providing funding well above the President's budget request in the Omnibus for Fiscal Year 2015. While these priority programs may not enjoy support within the Administration, they certainly do from Congress. Let me be very clear — on my watch, Congress will not agree to gutting the SLS program. Not now. Not any time in the foreseeable future.

President Obama has never made any such statement. The fact is that, during an April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center — the first visit by a President to KSC since 1998 — he stated:

So let me start by being extremely clear: I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future. Because broadening our capabilities in space will continue to serve our society in ways that we can scarcely imagine. Because exploration will once more inspire wonder in a new generation — sparking passions and launching careers. And because, ultimately, if we fail to press forward in the pursuit of discovery, we are ceding our future and we are ceding that essential element of the American character.

April 15, 2010 ... President Obama's space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center.

(Yes, he used the dreaded “inspiration” word.)

What offended porkers like Palazzo was the next part of the President's speech, which served notice that porking had to end for NASA to survive.

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.

The Obama administration proposed cancelling a program called Constellation that, six years after it was proposed by President George W. Bush, had gone off the rails due to a lack of funding and technical problems.

An August 2009 report by the independent Government Accountability Office found that Constellation lacked “a sound business case” and had still unresolved technical issues.

Two months later, The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee issued a report which concluded that Constellation was not sustainable.

The original 2005 schedule showed Ares I and Orion available to support the ISS in 2012, two years after scheduled Shuttle retirement. The current schedule now shows that date as 2015. An independent assessment of the technical, budgetary and schedule risk to the Constellation Program performed for the Committee indicates that an additional delay of at least two years is likely. This means that Ares I and Orion will not reach the ISS before the Station’s currently planned termination, and the length of the gap in U.S. ability to launch astronauts into space will be at least seven years.

President Obama's Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposed cancelling Constellation, to funnel that money into commercial crew systems that could be ready by 2015, as well as extending the life of the International Space Station.

But that would end the flow of Constellation pork to those on the House and Senate space committees, so Congress mandated that NASA build another booster called the Space Launch System, and that it use the Orion capsule as the crew vehicle. No one ever said what was its mission, other than to save jobs.

Palazzo concluded his remarks with these astonishing claims:

This is a worthwhile investment for the taxpayer. It inspires the next generation of explorers to pursue science, technology, engineering and math, advances U.S. soft power in international relations, reinforces our aerospace industrial base, increases economic competitiveness, and advances our national security interests. Orion and SLS — the vanguard of our nation’s space program — are key to advancing these interests.

No mention if it also cures the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Particularly telling is that Palazzo and fellow porkers have routinely slashed the administration's requested funding for the commercial crew program, which would end U.S. reliance on Russia for ISS access.

A November 2013 report by the NASA Office of the Inspector General found that Congress had cut the President's commercial crew funding requests by 62% during Fiscal Years 2011-2013. The omnibus bill Palazzo brags about cut the President's Fiscal Year 2015 request from $848 million to $805 million, about 5.0%. These cuts have extended NASA reliance on Roscomos about two to three years, especially during a time of political tension between the U.S. and Russia.

Apparently Rep. Palazzo cares more about protecting pork than ending NASA reliance on Roscosmos.

The omnibus bill also cut NASA's new space technology programs by 15.6%, from $706 million to $596 million — a cut of $110 million.

The useless A-3 test tower under construction at Stennis in 2012. Image source: NASA.

Palazzo's voters are willing accomplices in this farce, as documented by the Post article. A self-described Tea Partier named David Forshee accepted a pipefitting job for the useless tower even though he knew it was government pork:

Forshee is a tea party supporter, somebody who hates for government money to be misspent. And here, he sees, it was misspent on him. After his interview at Hooters, he called a reporter back to be sure he had it right.

“They’re just saying they spent $350 million for no reason?” he asked.

Yes, he was told.

“Well,” he said. “Nice.” (He took the job at the new test stand anyway, to be sure the work stayed with his union local: “If we don’t do this work, then they’re going to give it to Local 60 out of New Orleans.”)

Palazzo and his fellow committee members continue to tell NASA “how” — the SLS and Orion — but still refuse to say “why.”

The only “why,” so far, is to help ensure the committee members get re-elected by voters with government-funded jobs.

UPDATE December 17, 2014 — Caught with his hand in the pork cookie jar, ABC News reports that Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) is blaming President Obama for the useless tower.

ABC News met with Sen. Roger Wicker, whose Mississippi congressional delegation saved the tower, to ask Wicker whether the tower was about saving the largest employer in the county — the John C. Stennis Space Center — or to advance space travel.

Wicker told ABC News that he hoped the tower proved to be “good money well-spent.”

“The country will benefit from it,” Wicker said. “It is an investment and I do believe a decade or so from now we’ll look back on it and say, 'It is money well-spent because the program has been revived.' That is the hope.”

The program has not yet been revived and the Obama administration has no plans to test the rockets.

“I hope the question is not so much why we continued building a partially built facility,” Wicker said. “I hope the question also becomes why did the president decide to cancel this program when science and technology has given us so much information and so much research. … That ought to be the question. Was the decision of the Obama administration ill-founded? And I believe it was.”

The Sun Herald, the local paper for Stennis, published today this interview with Senator Wicker about his useless tower.

“Congress agreed that it was not in the best interests of taxpayers, in Mississippi or elsewhere, to allow the site to sit incomplete, abandoned, and neglected, quickly falling into a state of disrepair,” Wicker said in a statement.

He sought to redirect the blame on President Barack Obama, who Wicker said “has abandoned America's manned space program” and “lacks the vision of his predecessors.”

The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi reports that NASA spends tens of millions of dollars every year maintaining unneeded facilities such as the Stennis tower.

A-3 joined a growing list of unused or underutilized structures costing the space agency tens of millions of dollars to maintain each year, according to NASA. An in-house study estimated NASA has up to 865 "unneeded" facilities, collectively costing more than $24 million in annual upkeep, he said.

An audit the inspector general's office released identified another 33 facilities, including wind tunnels, thermal vacuum chambers and other launch infrastructure, that NASA wasn't fully utilizing or that had no identifiable future mission. Taxpayers spent $43 million in 2011 to maintain those facilities.

A January 2014 Bloomberg report on the Stennis tower. Video source: Bloomberg Business.

According to a January 2014 Bloomberg Business video, NASA will have to spend $840,000 a year maintaining the useless tower. reported on January 8 about the “Useless $350 Million Structure.”

The test stand is an example of how U.S. lawmakers thwart efforts to cut costs and eliminate government waste, even as they criticize agencies for failing to do so. Attempts to close military bases, mail-processing plants and other NASA facilities also have been fought by congressional members whose districts benefit from the operations.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Retro Saturday: The Age of Space Transportation

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

This week's Retro Saturday film is The Age of Space Transportation, an undated mid-1970s film that promotes the upcoming Space Shuttle as an affordable, reliable and safe means of reaching low Earth orbit. According to this documentary, an orbiter would fly every two weeks.

The film was produced by Image Associates for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

The film was narrated by Jason Robards, a hot commodity at the time, because he'd won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1977 for his portrayal of Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee in All the President's Men.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Cygnus to Atlas V

The Orbital Antares explodes just after launch on October 28, 2014. Video source: NASA.

On November 24, Spaceflight Insider published a report claiming that the SpaceX Falcon 9 was the “potential prime 'contender'” to fly the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo vehicle to the International Space Station until Orbital's Antares is certified safe to fly again.

Orbital issued a press release today announcing that in fact it'll be the United Launch Alliance Atlas V that will fly one cargo delivery in the fourth quarter of 2015. To quote from the press release:

Orbital has contracted with United Launch Alliance for an Atlas V launch of a Cygnus cargo spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the fourth quarter of 2015, with an option for a second Atlas V launch in 2016 if needed. The Atlas rocket’s greater lift capacity will allow Cygnus to carry nearly 35% more cargo to the ISS than previously planned for CRS missions in 2015.

Orbital was grounded after its Antares rocket blew up October 28 shortly after launch from Wallops, Virginia. The explosion destroyed the Cygnus Orb-3 delivery vehicle. Some cargo on Orb-3 has been replaced and will fly on the SpaceX Dragon scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral on December 16.

ULA followed with its own press release:

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has signed a contract with Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital) (NYSE: ORB) to launch up to two cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program ...

The first mission is set to lift off in late 2015 aboard an Atlas V 401 vehicle from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. If required by Orbital, the second mission would be targeted for 2016.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Heavens and the Earth

I've received in the mail a copy of ... The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age originally published in 1985 by Walter A. McDougall. The book received the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1986.

The book was updated and reprinted in 1997 by the Johns Hopkins University Press, which is the copy I received.

McDougall wrote a new preface for the 1997 edition. He pulls no punches, and his comments about the state of the aerospace industry could have been written today.

Forty years into the Space Age one fact remains painfully clear: the biggest reason why so few promises have been fulfilled is that we are still blasting people and things into orbit with updated versions of 1940s German technology. In the long run, the chemical rocket is just not the key to the future, but NASA and its allies in the industry seem to have little interest in pursuing revolutionary launch technologies. In fact, the consolidation of the aerospace industry into fewer and bigger giants has only accelerated since the book appeared, the latest mergers being those of Lockheed/Martin/Grumman and Boeing/McDonnell/Douglas. Space technology is thus concentrated more and more in the hands of an industrial oligopoly contracting with a government oligopsony (NASA and the Air Force), neither of which has much incentive to make their existing technology obsolete.

In the next paragraph, McDougall seems to presage the rise of Elon Musk:

The way to restart the Space Age is to discover some new principle that makes spaceflight genuinely cheap, safe and routine. Under present circumstances, that breakthrough is more likely to be made by some twenty four-year-old visionary working in a garage in Los Angeles than by the engineers, laboring under political constraints in the laboratories of NASA or Rockwell.

For the record, in 1997 Elon Musk was 26 years old, living in the Silicon Valley creating Zip2, his first Internet business.

Mr. McDougall wasn't far off.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Retro Saturday: StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Wil Wheaton

StarTalk is a commercial radio program hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

This week's Retro Saturday goes back two years in time, to December 6, 2012 when StarTalk featured Tyson with a guest appearance by Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Big Bang Theory fame.

The show runs a bit more than a half-hour.

Some of the conversation is a bit R-rated in nature so, if explicit language offends you, you might want to give this a miss.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Orion EFT-1 Post-Game Show

Click the arrow to watch mission highlights and the post-landing media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

After nearly eleven years and an estimated $10 billion, the Orion capsule finally slipped the surly bonds of Earth for a 4½ hour uncrewed test flight that appears to have been almost completely successful.

When President George W. Bush proposed 3,978 days ago the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the International Space Station was about one-third complete, the Space Shuttle was grounded for a second time due to a fatal accident, SpaceX was two years away from its first Falcon 1 test flight, and United Launch Alliance had yet to be awarded a legal launch monopoly.

Russia was still a trusted space ally.

But for all my personal cynicism about the money wasted on Orion and the Space Launch System, for all the pork-barrel politics and lack of any actual mission approved by Congress, nonetheless I did feel moved when I saw the capsule soft-land into the Pacific Ocean with parachutes billowing in the sea air after a near-perfect test flight.

For those of us who grew up with Apollo, our childhood brains were imprinted with the heroism and drama associated with that image. It occurred to me that no one had seen this sight since 1975, and from a Beyond Earth Orbit flight since 1972.

It also gave those who've worked on the program a sense of vindication.

In the post-landing media event, a tearful Orion Program Manager Mike Hawes of Lockheed Martin said, “We've finally done something for the first time for our generation. It's a good day.”

Sisyphus finally rolled his rock up the hill.

If nothing else, today's flight showed NASA is still capable of producing a crew vehicle, given enough time and money.

NASA may not be as nimble or lean or bold as this generation's NewSpace companies, but the flawless performance today proved NASA still has the Right Stuff.

Media reports:

CNN “'Nearly Flawless': Orion Passes 2-Orbit Test Flight”

Florida Today “Orion Successfully Completes Test Flight”

Los Angeles Times “Orion Zooms Around Planet, Drops into the Pacific; Recovery Underway” “EFT-1 Orion Completes Historic Mission”

The New York Times “First Flight Test Is Successful for NASA’s Orion Spacecraft”

Orlando Sentinel “NASA Declares Orion Mission a Success”

Space News “Orion Aces First Test Flight”

Spaceflight Now “Orion Capsule Completes Epic Space Journey”

Washington Post “NASA’s Orion Completes Historic Flight, Ushers in 'New Era'”

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Click the arrow to watch the clip. Video source: SenBillNelson YouTube channel.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) took to a deserted U.S. Senate floor today to inform the empty seats of the postponed Orion EFT-1 launch.

Nelson is one of the political architects of the Space Launch System, atop which Orion might someday launch. Critics have dubbed SLS the Senate Launch System to note Nelson's involvement in spawning this pork project.

He's fond of calling SLS “the Monster Rocket,” apparently oblivious to the Frankenstein's monster analogy.

At the end of the clip, Nelson tells all of those not present that he will personally attend tomorrow's second launch attempt, and will return to report to the Senate next week — when, presumably, as many Senators won't care as they didn't today.

Garver Unchained, Part III

Click the arrow to watch the Lori Garver interview. Video source: Bloomberg News YouTube channel.

It's little more than a year since Deputy Administrator Lori Garver left NASA in September 13 and became General Manager of the Air Line Pilots Association.

Since then, Garver has picked her spots to speak truth to power about the relationships between Congress, NASA and the agency's legacy contractors that funnel campaign money into Congress to protect their interests.

After today's Orion EFT-1 scrub, Garver appeared on Bloomberg News and was asked about why she's been critical of Orion and the Space Launch System.

You can watch the six-minute segment for yourself, but this quote will echo through the halls of NASA Headquarters and Congress:

I understand NASA likes to launch things, this is something that the contractors and the politicians who sold this mission to the Congress have decided they would like to proceed with, but it's not something that in my view is the best use of NASA resources.

Click the arrow to watch the segment. Video source: PBS NewsHour YouTube channel.

Garver was also on the PBS NewsHour last night, along with many others discussing the value of the Orion/SLS program.

You will unfortunately have to wade through Senator Dick Shelby (R-AL) first, who's been a staunch defender of NASA contractor pork. Shelby is a frequent winner of the Porker of the Month award from Citizens Against Government Waste.

UPDATE December 6, 2014 — Lori Garver appeared last night on the MSNBC program All In With Chris Hayes. Mr. Hayes tried to pin the SLS porkfest on Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL); Lori tried to expand the list of those responsible but the segment ran out of time.

Click the arrow to watch the segment. You may be subjected to an ad first. Video source: MSNBC.

Prior “Garver Unchained” articles:

Garver Unchained September 10, 2013

Garver Unchained, Part II January 3, 2014

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Click the arrow to watch the post-scrub media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Despite 70% chance of favorable weather, the elements conspired to delay today's Orion EFT-1 launch by 24 hours.

As reported by CNN:

NASA spent most of Thursday morning's nearly 2½-hour launch window trying to work out various obstacles and kinks before scrubbing the launch around 9:40 a.m. ET. The first delay involved a boat that came too close to the launch area; more delays came because of wind gusts.

When the countdown resumed, valves failed to open in the boosters, eventually leading to the scrubbing.

Fueling of the liquid oxygen (LOX) began 175 minutes before launch, and liquid hydrogen (LH2) at 160 minutes. With a launch window of about 160 minutes, the tanks were filled with super-cold liquids from four to five hours.

Oxygen becomes a liquid at -297° F, and hydrogen at -423° F. It's suspected that the prolonged exposure to these liquids caused the valves to malfunction.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Journey to Mars

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

As part of this week's Orion EFT-1 publicity, NASA held a media event today to promote what they call “Journey to Mars.”

This new public relations outreach features a Starfleet-like logo and the below graphic outlining NASA's plan for sending people to Mars in the 2030s.

Click the image to see a larger version.

According to the press release:

While robotic explorers have studied Mars for more than 40 years, NASA’s path for the human exploration of Mars begins in low-Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station. Astronauts on the orbiting laboratory are helping us prove many of the technologies and communications systems needed for human missions to deep space, including Mars. The space station also advances our understanding of how the body changes in space and how to protect astronaut health.

Our next step is deep space, where NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples. This experience in human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit will help NASA test new systems and capabilities, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, which we’ll need to send cargo as part of human missions to Mars. Beginning in FY 2018, NASA’s powerful Space Launch System rocket will enable these “proving ground” missions to test new capabilities. Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown.

A fleet of robotic spacecraft and rovers already are on and around Mars, dramatically increasing our knowledge about the Red Planet and paving the way for future human explorers. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover measured radiation on the way to Mars and is sending back radiation data from the surface. This data will help us plan how to protect the astronauts who will explore Mars. Future missions like the Mars 2020 rover, seeking signs of past life, also will demonstrate new technologies that could help astronauts survive on Mars.

The problem with all this is that Congress has not approved any human spaceflight missions to Mars, and most members of the Congressional space committees are openly derisive of the Asteroid Initiative.

The House space subcommittee held a hearing in March 2014 urging NASA to fly two people past Mars and Venus in 2021 — while providing no funding or logical reason for such a stunt.

The same subcommittee held another hearing in June 2014 to bash the Asteroid Initiative and call for a human spaceflight to Mars — despite the testimony by National Research Council representatives who estimated such a mission could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and might not be achieved until the 2050s.

None of the subcommittee members has offered to stake his or her political career and commit hundreds of billions of dollars to a Mars human spaceflight. But that hasn't stopped them from demanding one.

Which makes today's media event, in my opinion, an exercise in wishful thinking.

The Orion EFT-1 Pre-Game Show

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

NASA held a media event this afternoon at the Kennedy Space Center press site in advance of Thursday morning's Orion Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) launch from the Cape's Launch Complex 37.

Representatives from NASA, Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance were on the panel.

Click here for NASA's Orion blog.

The Long and Winding Road

Orion EFT-1 atop a Boeing Delta IV Heavy at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 37. Image source: NASA.

In their Sunday November 30 papers, Florida Today and the Houston Chronicle published articles about this week's uncrewed Orion test flight, scheduled to launch Thursday December 4 from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 37.

Both articles addressed, in part, the pork-laden political path that led to this test flight, nearly eleven years after President George W. Bush announced on January 14, 2004 his administration's goal “to develop and test a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014.”

As I wrote in January on the tenth anniversary, Bush's speech was a political response to the August 2003 Columbia Accident Investigation Board finding that “the Shuttle remains a complex and risky system that remains central to U.S. ambitions in space.” CAIB showed a distinct lack of faith in NASA, citing a cultural arrogance resistant to change or external advice. They also blamed “the lack of an agreed national vision” as an organizational cause for the accident.

So Bush's speech was titled the Vision for Space Exploration. “I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system,” The President described a grand vision to complete the International Space Station by 2010, then retire the Shuttle, and replace it with a Crew Exploration Vehicle “capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the space station after the shuttle is retired. But the main purpose of this spacecraft will be to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds. This will be the first spacecraft of its kind since the Apollo command module.”

President Bush didn't match his vision with the necessary funding.

Achieving these goals requires a long-term commitment. NASA's current five-year budget is $86 billion. Most of the funding we need for the new endeavors will come from re-allocating $11 billion from within that budget.

We need some new resources, however. I will call upon Congress to increase NASA's budget by roughly a billion dollars spread over the next five years.

Two weeks later, on January 28, NASA Adminstrator Sean O'Keefe appeared before the Senate Science Committee to detail the President's proposal.

O'Keefe presented a graphic that came to be known as the Vision Sand Chart, which detailed how these existing resources would be reallocated.

The Vision Sand Chart presented by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. Click the image to view a larger version. Image source: NASA.

The plan, essentially, was to complete the ISS, only to end its operation around 2016. The Crew Exploration Vehicle wouldn't be ready until at least 2014; it was being built to fly to a destination that would be shut down shortly after completion. And until CEV was ready, NASA would rely on Russia for ISS crew rotations.

Despite the obvious funding shortfalls, reliance on Russia, and the proposal to build ISS only to splash it, Congress went along and eventually approved the President's vision, which came to be known as Constellation.

If you watch the video of the hearing, many of the Senators asked about Constellation jobs that would come to their states. Few showed any concern about the funding shortfall, and no one worried about sole-sourcing crew flights to Russia.

O'Keefe departed NASA and was replaced in April 2005 by Michael Griffin, an aerospace engineer by trade. O'Keefe had planned to have at least two contractors compete in a “fly-off” by 2008 to speed development and reduce costs, but that idea was scrapped by Griffin. According to a May 2005 article, Griffin wanted to down-select now, claiming it would reduce the four-year gap while also saving $1 billion.

An early Lockheed Martin proposed design for the Crew Exploration Vehicle. Image source: Wikipedia.

In July 2006, the Government Accountability Office issued a report which concluded that Constellation lacked a sound business case. The report warned, “Implementing the Vision over the coming decades will require hundreds of billions of dollars and a sustained commitment from multiple Administrations and Congresses over the length of the program.”

The GAO faulted Griffin's acquisition strategy:

The CEV acquisition strategy is not knowledge-based in that it calls for maturing technologies, designing systems, and preparing for initial production concurrently — an approach that our work has shown carries the increased risk of cost and schedule overruns and decreased technical capability. Therefore, we disagree with NASA's statement that it has the appropriate level of knowledge to proceed with its current acquisition strategy and award a long-term contract for the project prior to obtaining sufficient knowledge.

A written response from NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale rejected the GAO's findings. “NASA is confident that its acquisition strategy and plans for selecting a CEV Prime Contractor are based on sound business case, will establish a firm foundation for the Constellation program, and are in the Government's best interest.”

Ignoring the GAO's advice, NASA selected Lockheed Martin's Orion design in August 2006. According to the press release:

Manufacturing and integration of the vehicle components will take place at contractor facilities across the country. Lockheed Martin will perform the majority of the Orion vehicle engineering work at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, and complete final assembly of the vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla. All 10 NASA centers will provide technical and engineering support to the Orion project.

Jobs all around.

The release stated, “The first Orion launch with humans onboard is planned for no later than 2014, and for a human moon landing no later than 2020.”

A June 2009 conceptual image of the Orion CEV. Image source: NASA.

In November 2008, Barack Obama was elected President, and in January 2009 he was sworn into office. His administration appointed a committee headed by Norm Augustine to review the state of Constellation affairs.

The report, issued in October 2009, concluded that Constellation was not sustainable.

The original 2005 schedule showed Ares I and Orion available to support the ISS in 2012, two years after scheduled Shuttle retirement. The current schedule now shows that date as 2015. An independent assessment of the technical, budgetary and schedule risk to the Constellation Program performed for the Committee indicates that an additional delay of at least two years is likely. This means that Ares I and Orion will not reach the ISS before the Station’s currently planned termination, and the length of the gap in U.S. ability to launch astronauts into space will be at least seven years.

As for Orion, the Committee concluded:

Many concepts are possible for crew-exploration vehicles, and NASA clearly needs a new spacecraft for travel beyond low-Earth orbit. The Committee found no compelling evidence that the current design will not be acceptable for its wide variety of tasks in the exploration program. However, the Committee is concerned about Orion’s recurring costs. The capsule is considerably larger and more massive than previous capsules (e.g., the Apollo capsule), and there is some indication that a smaller and lighter four-person Orion could reduce operational costs. However, a redesign of this magnitude would likely result in more than a year of additional development time and a significant increase in development cost, so such a redesign should be considered carefully before being implemented.

As the Augustine Committee concluded its deliberations, the GAO issued another scathing Constellation audit in August 2009. The GAO reported:

NASA estimates that Ares I and Orion represent up to $49 billion of the over $97 billion estimated to be spent on the Constellation program through 2020. While the agency has already obligated more than $10 billion in contracts, 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.

The GAO also noted “significant technical and design challenges for the Orion and Ares I vehicles, such as limiting vibration during launch, eliminating the risk of hitting the launch tower during lift off, and reducing the mass of the Orion vehicle.”

On February 1, 2010, the Obama administration presented its first proposed NASA budget to Congress, for Fiscal Year 2011. New NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden stated in his prepared remarks:

Now let’s discuss the Constellation Program. The Program was planning to use an approach similar to Apollo to return astronauts to the Moon some 50 years after that program’s triumphs. The Augustine Committee observed that this path was not sustainable, and the President agrees. They found that Constellation key milestones were slipping, and that the program would not get us back to the moon in any reasonable time or within any affordable cost. Far more funding was needed to make our current approach work. The Augustine Committee estimated that the heavy lift rocket for getting to the moon would not be available until 2028 or 2030, and even then they found “there are insufficient funds to develop the lunar lander and lunar surface systems until well into the 2030s, if ever.” So as much as we would not like it to be the case, and taking nothing away from the hard work and dedication of our team, the truth is that we were not on a path to get back to the moon's surface. And as we focused so much of our effort and funding on just getting to the Moon, we were neglecting investments in the key technologies that would be required to go beyond.

So this budget cancels the Constellation Program, including the Ares I and V rockets and the Orion crew exploration vehicle. NASA intends to work with the Congress to make this transition smooth and effective, working responsibly on behalf of the Taxpayers.

February 25, 2010 ... NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testifies before the House Science Committee.

Congress howled with outrage.

In his January 2011 monograph on this period, noted space policy analyst John Logsdon wrote in A New U.S. Approach to Human Spaceflight that the Obama administration strategy was “a pause in developing new flight systems, instead making substantial investments in developing and demonstrating new, 'game-changing', technologies for several years and only then embodying them in a new heavy-lift launch vehicle and a crew-carrying spacecraft for deep space missions.”

The Obama proposal came under immediate attack from members of Congress whose districts would be affected by the new strategy, firms that were threatened by the cancellation of their Constellation contracts, and space flight veterans, including several Apollo astronauts. The criticisms focused on the viability of relying on the private sector for crew transport to the ISS and the lack of specific goals and schedules for deep space exploration missions. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) succeeded in getting a provision written into law that prohibited NASA from cancelling any Constellation contracts and from starting the new programs proposed by the president until the Congress completed action on the FY2011 budget proposal and had either approved, rejected or modified the new human spaceflight strategy.

In an April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, Obama proposed saving Orion, but only as an escape vehicle for ISS crew members.

April 15, 2010 ... President Barack Obama delivers a space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center.

But he also served notice that his administration intended to end the pork politics that had doomed one NASA program after another.

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.

Obama proposed increasing NASA's budget by $6 billion over the next five years. Congress ignored that proposal and instead imposed upon NASA the Space Launch System, with Orion atop it, to replace Constellation. One pork program was replaced by another. SLS was dubbed the “Senate Launch System” by a Competitive Space Task Force column in March 2011, and the appellation stuck. Since then, many members of the Congressional space authorization and appropriations subcommittees have pitted SLS and commercial space in a zero-sum battle, accusing the Obama administration of scheming to undermine SLS to benefit commercial space.

Logsdon wrote in his monograph:

I have been observing space decisions in the USA for over four decades, and I have never seen such a confused situation, with NASA unable to articulate a convincing case in support of the new White House strategy and with such intense congressional involvement (reflecting the billions of dollars and thousands of jobs at stake) in the specifics of the US program of future human spaceflight.

On September 14, 2011, Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) called a press conference to unveil the SLS/Orion design. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was allowed to speak for a few minutes, but the rest of the event featured politicians from both parties and houses congratulating themselves for the jobs they'd protected.

No one said much about what it would be used for.

Nelson labelled his creation “the monster rocket,” the Frankenstein metaphor apparently lost upon him.

September 14, 2011 ... Senators Nelson and Hutchison unveil the SLS/Orion design.

Congressional legislation required NASA to fly Orion for the first time by 2016, but as you might suspect Orion and SLS fell behind schedule.

A July 2014 GAO audit concluded that “NASA has not established an executable business case that matches the SLS program’s cost and schedule resources with the requirement to develop the SLS and launch the first flight test in December 2017 at the required confidence level of 70 percent.” The report cited inadequate funding:

The SLS program office calculated the risk associated with insufficient funding through 2017 as having a 90 percent likelihood of occurrence; furthermore, it indicated the insufficient budget could push the planned December 2017 launch date out 6 months and add some $400 million to the overall cost of SLS development.

The GAO also faulted Congress ordering NASA to use Shuttle-era technology for SLS.

The SLS program could experience additional schedule pressure if unanticipated challenges associated with using heritage hardware occur when integrating it into the launch vehicle’s operational environment and modifying manufacturing process to incorporate new materials. The use of heritage hardware — legacy engine, booster, and propulsion systems — was prescribed in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, but the hardware was not originally designed for SLS. Therefore, the SLS program must ensure each heritage hardware element meets SLS performance requirements and current design standards prior to the 2017 test flight. Although the heritage hardware challenges have yet to affect the SLS schedule, each heritage hardware element shares the common issue of operating in the SLS environment that is likely to be more stressful than that of its original launch vehicle as well as unique integration issues particular to that element, which must be resolved prior to SLS first flight in 2017. For example, according to agency officials the engines from the Space Shuttle require additional heat shielding because of the increased temperatures they will experience in the SLS environment, and the avionics within the solid rocket boosters from the Constellation program are likely to require additional cushioning to protect them from increased vibrations. Until the core stage is demonstrated, however, the SLS operating environment can be defined only through analytical predictions. Further, eliminating asbestos as a key insulating material within the solid rocket boosters on the SLS has required changes to the booster manufacturing processes to meet safety requirements.

This is what happens when politicians think they are engineers.

As for Orion, an April 2014 GAO assessment of large-scale NASA projects reported:

The Orion program is developing and building hardware for its first exploration flight test (EFT-1) in September 2014, but development challenges continue to threaten the program. The mass of the spacecraft remains a top program risk. Despite mass reduction efforts, the spacecraft could be up to 2,800 pounds over the maximum lift-off mass requirement for the un-crewed first exploration mission flight (EM-1) of the Space Launch System in 2017. The program has made changes to the heat shield’s design in order to address the possibility of cracks between its ablative material and the underlying shield structure due to thermal expansion during its initial test flight in 2014; however, the spacecraft is expected to undergo more stressful temperatures during later launches.

So here we are, nearly eleven years after Bush's Vision for Space Exploration Speech, with an overweight capsule launching on a two-orbit demo flight, and no plans to fly people in it until the early 2020s.

But it protects jobs, right?

Sunday's Florida Today article by reporter James Dean sums up how Orion has soaked the taxpayers:

NASA estimates it will cost between $8.5 billion and $10.3 billion to get Orion ready for its first flight with astronauts in 2021. That estimate, however, excludes nearly $6 billion spent before the Constellation program was canceled.

NASA is spending roughly $1 billion a year on Orion, which adds up. At least 15 years will pass from Orion's contract award in 2006 to the first crew launch.

Nearly 3,300 people work on Orion, including 625 civil servants and 2,650 contractors. That's in the same ballpark as the entire staffs at SpaceX, United Launch Alliance or Orbital Sciences.

Orion's cost stands in stark contrast to the commercial vehicles developed to launch cargo to the ISS and now being readied to fly astronauts as soon as 2017.

NASA spent $396 million to help SpaceX ready Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules that have completed four station resupply missions. This week's test flight alone will cost $375 million.

NASA projects spending a total of about $5 billion to develop multiple commercial crew vehicles from start to finish, or a little more than half Orion's cost to reach its first test flight.

Yet SLS and Orion still don't have a specific mission.

President Obama in his April 2010 speech proposed using an asteroid mission as a stepping stone to human exploration of Mars in the 2030s. Congress has failed to act, although most members in hearings have dismissed the asteroid idea.

The “Journey to Mars” graphic on the NASA web site. Click the image to view a larger version.

But that hasn't stopped NASA from promoting the Orion test flight as the first step towards humans on Mars.

The first future human mission to Mars and those that follow will require the ingenuity and dedication of an entire generation. It's a journey worth the risks. We take the next step on that journey this Thursday, Dec. 4, with the uncrewed, first flight test of Orion ...

Orion is the first spacecraft built for astronauts destined for deep space since the storied Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s. It is designed to go farther than humans have ever traveled, well beyond the moon, pushing the boundaries of spaceflight to new heights.

At least one Apollo-era astronaut is skeptical about these claims.

In an interview with, Apollo 15 command module pilot Al Worden was asked his thoughts about Orion:

AmericaSpace: NASA will soon launch Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), which will test Orion’s capsule in flight and reentry. It has been described as being most similar to Apollo 4, which launched in late 1967. Many space buffs (unfortunately) were not alive or very young during Apollo, so they might not get (or understand) the link as far as space history is concerned. Do you think EFT-1 is as significant (or not) as Apollo 4, and why?

Al Worden: No, I don’t think it is that significant at this time in the space program. Apollo was really the first and most successful spacecraft we used. Orion is supposed to be the spacecraft to go farther out than anything before it. I am not a fan, so it is not very important to me. There are much better reentry shapes that could return from Mars and have the L/D [lift-to-drag ratio] to reenter the atmosphere without some tricks. This shape incidentally was developed because the people at Houston believed they knew how to do it, since they had done it before. However, not one person is still there who was involved with Apollo. We are reliving the past with Orion, and not adding to the technology to get us to Mars. Orion, with its limited L/D, will have to do an atmospheric braking maneuver before making the final reentry.

I don't wish ill upon EFT-1, but I wonder what would happen in the halls of Congress if the test flight results in the heat shield failing upon re-entry, or some other failure. How much longer will Congress perpetuate this charade? Would those members who represent districts with NASA space centers or contractors declare a success?

In June, I wrote a blog article titled “The Emperor's New Clothes” which documented Congress' interminable ability to deny reality to perpetuate the space-industrial complex.

Succeed or fail, EFT-1 will do nothing to change that.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Clock Has Started

The new digital countdown clock at the KSC press site. Image source: NASA.

On November 26 I posted an article about the demise of the historic Kennedy Space Center countdown clock that had been in use since the Apollo 12 flight in November 1969.

The new digital clock was installed a few days later, and today NASA issued a press release about its features.

The new display, which sits on the same mount as the former countdown clock, is already up and running and has been showing NASA TV images along with a test countdown in the lower corner. The completion of the display came about a week before Orion heads to space on its first flight test. News media, families of center employees and NASA guests will do as so many have done before: follow the progress of the countdown on the grassy area around the turn basin while looking out toward the launch pad for the rocket to ignite.

This time though, they will be able to get far more from the display than the clicking lights and numbers. NASA's whole prelaunch program will be available to showcase on the display. So if the numbers stop counting down, those following along won't have to wonder whether it is a built-in hold or a technical glitch with the rocket — they'll know quickly from the screen.

“I think this is an upgrade that will really surprise news media with how much more information they will get to see while they are outside to watch the launch,” said George Diller, a NASA Public Affairs officer whose launch commentary has accompanied dozens of countdowns for space shuttles and expendable rockets. “It's really neat to be able to see the launch pad up close on the monitor while still experiencing the magic of seeing the countdown and then the rocket rise above the tree line.”

The new display is very similar in size to the historic clock, with a screen nearly 26 feet wide by 7 feet high. While not true high-definition, the video resolution will be 1280 x 360. The new countdown clock sports a widescreen capability utilizing the latest breakthroughs in outdoor LED display technology. The display, which comes at a cost of $280,000, will provide images from multiple sources, as well as the countdown launch time. Also, streaming video will be an option.

UPDATE December 2, 2014 — NASA has released more images of the new clock's installation and testing.