Monday, December 28, 2015


This morning's editorial cartoon in Florida Today. Click to view at a larger size.

Florida Today editorial cartoonist Steve Hall comments on last week's SpaceX landing, and the reaction from the OldSpace contingent.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Film Review: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

The stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy looking nerfherder and his walking carpet steal the movie. Image source:

WARNING! Spoilers abound! Do not read this article if you don't want to know what happens in the movie.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been in movie theatres since December 18, so that's enough time for you to have seen it.

I've seen it twice — once in 2D, once in IMAX 3D.

While I won't give away any specific major spoilers of the “I am your father” variety, you really shouldn't read further if you don't want the experience spoiled for you.

I'm a first generation Star Wars fan.

I was twenty years old when A New Hope premiered on May 25, 1977. That was near the end of my junior year in college. Those of you who are of subsequent generations have no idea how A New Hope affected American culture that summer. Of course, it wasn't called A New Hope originally, just Star Wars, but after George Lucas released his sequel The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, the first film was retitled, “Episode IV: A New Hope” and re-released in theatres on April 10, 1981. We knew there would be an Episode VI, and some day Episodes I-III.

This ad appeared in U.S. newspapers during the summer of 1978 as the film passed the one-year mark in theatres. Image source: Twitter.

Lucas was originally inspired to create a modern version of his beloved 1936 Flash Gordon serial. As with his Indiana Jones films also set in the 1930s, Lucas wanted to create a universe in the spirit of the serials that were part of his childhood.

Episode I, “Planet of Peril," from the 1936 Flash Gordon serial. Video source: Flash Gordon YouTube channel.

For better or for worse, the six Star Wars films reflected that vision, influenced as well by the teachings of mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Lucas began writing his earliest drafts for Star Wars in 1973. As with all stories, his saga went through many versions. Much of what he envisioned was jettisoned when the script came in at nearly 200 pages. (Film makers assume one minute per page.) A married screenwriting team, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, polished the draft into something more manageable, although they didn't receive screen credit.

Screenwriter Leigh Brackett was hired to write The Empire Strikes Back, but died from cancer in March 1978. Lawrence Kasdan replaced Brackett to finish the script, and also wrote the 1983 finale Return of the Jedi. Lucas did not direct the two sequels, preferring to play executive producer, but for the most part they were directed in the style established in Episode IV.

The Star Wars universe lay dormant until the late 1990s. Lucas wanted special effects technology to advance to where he could project on a screen his vision of all he wanted the universe to be.

The prequel trilogy began in 1999 with Episode I, The Phantom Menace. Lucas wrote the script himself and directed. The film is rightly criticized as the worst of the six he made. Its flaws may be due to the lack of a professional writer polishing his draft, and the lack of a director more interested in working with his cast then playing with his special effects toys.

Other films created by Lucas were critical and audience flops — Howard the Duck in 1986, Radioland Murders (another 1930s era film) in 1994, and Strange Magic released in January 2015.

The trailer for the 1986 George Lucas version of “Howard the Duck.” Video source: Night of the Trailers YouTube channel.

The track record suggests that Lucas movies are better when his stories are scripted by professional writers.

But I do think that one strength of the prequel trilogy is the political subplot. Maybe that's just because I'm a political wonk and notice such things. When I watch this trilogy, my attention is focused on Palpatine. His machinations to become Emperor weave throughout the the three films, as he plays multiple sides against one another to achieve his ultimate objective — ultimate power by perverting the Republic into an autocratic Empire ruled by himself as Sith Lord.

When Revenge of the Sith premiered in 2005, we were told that was the end of Lucas' Star Wars vision. At its core, the six-episode saga ultimately was about Anakin Skywalker's fall and redemption by his son's love.

In subsequent years, Lucas would say that was the end of the story, yet other times he hinted about where the story could continue if more films were to be made.

As this decade dawned, Lucas began working on ideas for a third trilogy. According to this May 2015 Vanity Fair article, “Lucas had decided to make more movies. He sketched out ideas for episodes VII, VIII, and IX, to be set initially several decades after Return of the Jedi, and approached Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill about re-upping.”

But Lucas shocked his fan base when in October 2012 Lucasfilm was sold to the Walt Disney Company for $4 billion.

Disney chose to reject Lucas' outlines and went its own direction. J.J. Abrams was hired to direct, and Lawrence Kasdan returned to write the script for Episode VII.

So here we are, nine days after the release of The Force Awakens, and Disney is well on its way to recovering its $4 billion investment. The movie has grossed $1 billion worldwide, and that doesn't count all the merchandise sales.

The Dark Side is tempting you if you read further without having first seen the movie. Image source:

The major impression I had leaving the theatre is that this film walks away from the look and feel of a George Lucas Star Wars film. That may be good or bad, depending on your viewpoint. But no longer do you hear dialogue such as, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The 1930s serial lingo is gone. The dialogue is often North American vernacular; Lucas was careful that his dialogue was more culturally neutral.

Lucas favored static camera shots, as does his USC film school chum Francis Ford Coppola. Rarely does Abrams choose a static shot, choosing to keep the camera moving with the action. If you saw the dizzy effects of his Star Trek films, you're familiar with the Abrams style, although I will note that rarely are we inflicted with lens flare as he did in the two Trek films. Static cameras were used in the 1930s because cameras were so heavy that they couldn't be mobile, other than on a track or dolly. For me, losing that style left me with the feeling that I was seeing an imitation of the Star Wars universe I've known for almost forty years. Younger generations may not care.

As noted, Lucas is an acolyte of Joseph Campbell, so his characters were archetypes from the Hero's Journey, as outlined at this link. We find those same basic story bullets in The Force Awakens (and most films, to be honest). One main complaint of critics is how similar The Force Awakens seems to A New Hope. Some of the visuals are quite on the nose, such as the desert planet Jakku substituting for the desert planet Tatooine.

I'll leave you to go through the Hero's Journey outline at the link to connect those dots to the film. Particularly unique in Episode VII is that “Refusal of the Call” applies to most of the major characters. Rey the scavenger wants to remain on Jakku, hoping her unknown parents will return. Finn the deserter Stormtrooper wants only to get as far away from the First Order as possible. Ridden by guilt, Luke Skywalker has disappeared after his Jedi training inadvertently turned the son of Han and Leia to the Dark Side. This led to Han leaving Leia and the rebellion, returning to smuggling. Kylo Ren is torn between the Dark and the Light, for reasons explained in the film.

Finn was kidnapped after birth by the First Order and raised to be a Stormtrooper, but deserts after his first battle. Image source:

Stormtroopers have been comic fodder for much of the Star Wars saga, incapable of hitting the broad side of a bantha with a blaster. Not any more. The stormtroopers in this film are vicious, and only miss when the script demands it.

Finn's story is a unique one in the saga to date, a rare exception to the rest of the film which largely recycles themes from earlier films. But the character is written and performed in such a way that I felt I was watching a young man raised in an American metropolis instead of a galaxy far, far away. Finn could have been a 1960s U.S. Army draftee who refused to fire when his squad was ordered to burn a Vietnamese village.

The nascent romance between Finn and Rey feels a bit forced, no pun intended. I didn't feel the characters had the sparks we saw fly between Han and Leia a generation ago, the sparks that fly in the early days of most romances. Finn could be explained away because this was probably the first time he'd been in close proximity to a girl, but Rey is quite independent. She has no need for him in her life. Remember Han's line about Leia, “There are no scoundrels in your life.” What need in Rey's life does Finn fill that would lead to romance?

The scenes between Han and Leia were all too brief, and lacked the sass we loved. Maybe it's maturity, the decades of war, the sorrow of losing their son to the Dark Side, take your pick. I just can't imagine these two being within twelve parsecs of each other without having a verbal cage match.

Harrison Ford revels in his return to the role of Han Solo, and Peter Mayhew turns in his best performance as Chewbacca despite his health issues due to gigantism. My favorite scene in the film is when the Rathtars they're smuggling get loose on his freighter as debt collectors hunt them down.

I felt Carrie Fisher showed limited range in her performance, and many of her scenes appeared to have been cut to gloss over any deficiencies in her acting. Fisher admitted in interviews that it was difficult for her since she hadn't acted in a while. I doubt that J.J. Abrams ever said to her, “Faster and more intense” as Lucas did.

Since we all know Mark Hamill signed to be in the movie, it's no spoiler to reveal Luke Skywalker is in the film, but it's only to set the stage for Episode VIII. The story ends with a literal cliffhanger — the final scene is on a cliff — so we have to wait two years to learn what's going on with Luke.

C3PO and R2D2, Lucas' droid Greek chorus, also have little more than cameos. They have no Greek chorus equivalent in The Force Awakens. Their role always was to comment on happenings and offer perspective while moving along the plot. Rey's droid BB-8 only beeps and chirps, so his comments mean nothing to us, just to those in the story who speak the droid language. Lucas based Threepio and Artoo on Matashichi and Tahei, two characters in the Akira Kurosawa film The Hidden Fortress, another Lucas influence.

Many of us who've been on this ride since 1977 have our own expectations of what might have happened after the fall of the Emperor and the destruction of the second Death Star. It would be unreasonable to think the Empire instantly transformed into the Second Republic, but my expectation was that after thirty years of war both sides would be so entrenched and so depleted that maybe someone would reach out with a tentative feeler to find a settlement. I would have expected the “war” between good and evil to be those wanting peace against those who couldn't let go of generations of hate. But it's made clear in the dialogue that this next trilogy is all about an eternal struggle between the Darkness and the Light — even though “good” and “evil” in this galaxy now appear to be a matter of perspective. The First Order's General Hux gives this impassioned speech:

Today is the end of the Republic. The end of a regime that acquiesces to disorder. At this very moment in a system far from here, the New Republic lies to the galaxy while secretly supporting the treachery of the loathsome Resistance. This fierce machine which you have built, upon which we stand will bring an end to the Senate, to their cherished fleet. All remaining systems will bow to the First Order and will remember this as the last day of the Republic!

From his perspective, the First Order is good and the Resistance is evil — similar to Palpatine's argument when he took power.

And it's only a nit, but I always wondered if Leia would learn the ways of the Jedi once it was revealed she had the power of the Force. That wasn't addressed, although interviews suggest this image was of Leia being handed Luke's original lightsaber (Anakin's before he fell to the Dark Side) by Maz Kanata.

Maz Kanata (right) hands Leia a lightsaber. Image source:

Apparently the scene was filmed but Abrams chose to drop it. In the final version, Maz demurs when asked by Han how she came to have it, simply saying it's a long story. Perhaps we'll learn in Episode VIII.

The Force Awakens isn't a bad film. But it wasn't the film I wanted to see. Many filmgoers wanted to see the Star Wars universe, but not one written and directed by George Lucas. If that's you, then you'll enjoy the movie.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Land Ho

Click the arrow to watch a helicopter view of the Falcon 9 landing. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

“THE FALCON HAS LANDED” is the 72-point headline on the front page of this morning's Florida Today.

The front page of the December 22, 2015 Florida Today.

Reporter James Dean writes:

About two-and-a-half minutes later, the rocket's 14-story first stage dropped away and began the first of three engine burns to guide itself back toward a concrete pad at SpaceX’s “Landing Complex 1” at the Cape, the former Launch Complex 13.

Observers along the Space Coast and beyond could see rocket engines fire like a torch in darkness as the booster descended from as high as 124 miles up and slowed its fall from hypersonic speed.

A tremendous “boom” could be heard shortly after the stage touched down a few miles down the coast from where it had lifted off. Even [SpaceX founder Elon] Musk, from a vantage point several miles away, thought the rocket was a goner.

It turned out the touchdown coincided with the sonic boom created by the rocket's descent. Camera images showed the stage standing upright on four legs. The Falcon had landed.

A huge crowd of employees gathered at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, were jubilant, erupting in cheers and chants of “USA!”

Musk posted on Twitter:

Once at Landing Zone 1, Musk posted this brief video clip he'd filmed of the Falcon 9 on the pad.

The future will determine the historic importance of what happened here last night. It may be on the scale of what Chuck Yeager accomplished on October 14, 1947, when his Bell X-1 broke the sound barrier.

A fictional depiction of Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, as seen in “The Right Stuff.” Video source: TheAtomicFlowers YouTube channel.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Future Begins

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

SpaceX made history tonight by landing its Falcon 9 first stage back at Cape Canaveral. More tomorrow.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

But Wait, There's More

Click the arrow to watch “Sump'n Claus.” Video source: Saturday Night Live YouTube channel.

“Everybody gettin' sump'n.

— Kenan Thompson as Sump'n Claus, Saturday Night Live, December 13, 2014

Despite the rhetoric out of the Republican members of Congress about reducing the federal deficit, the GOP-led House and Senate agreed in October to raise federal spending by $80 billion over two years. A waiting game began to see where their largesse would find its way into pork projects on both sides of the partisan aisle.

For those of us who are advocates of the NewSpace movement, we hoped that funding might be restored for the slashed NASA commercial crew program.

Congress has underfunded the program every year since President Barack Obama proposed funding it in 2010. Commercial crew began under President George W. Bush — the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office opened in November 2005 — but the crew part of that went unfunded during the Bush administration, choosing to invest instead in the Constellation boondoggle.

Constellation fell years behind schedule, went billions of dollars over budget and received a series of bad audits from the General Accountability Office. In 2010, the Obama administration recommended cancelling Constellation, using the money in part to fund commercial crew.

The members of Congress representing NASA space centers and their contractors rebelled, and imposed a new program called Space Launch System. SLS was dubbed “Senate Launch System” by its critics, because its architects were Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who were out to protect jobs at Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers.

Lurking in the shadows all that time was Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), a fierce protector of Marshall Space Flight Center pork in Huntsville, Alabama. A three-time winner of the Porker of the Month award by Citizens Against Government Waste, Shelby is a long-time senior Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Because the GOP currently controls the Senate, he chairs its subcommittee in charge of NASA spending. Other authorization committees can write policy legislation, but Appropriations determines if a program gets money and how much. Appropriations bills can contain language that overrides authorization policy.

U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL). Image source: CBS News.

In the 2009-2014 period, according to Shelby received $88,800 from Lockheed Martin individuals and Political Action Committees (PACs), $70,044 from the Boeing Company, and $41,000 from Alliant Techsystems — the three Space Shuttle and Constellation legacy contractors. During that time, Congress cut commercial crew funding by 62% during its first three years, extending NASA reliance on Roscosmos for International Space Station access at least two years. Shelby was one of commercial crew's biggest opponents, insisting the money be spent instead on the SLS program — which, conveniently, is based at Marshall Space Flight Center.

In December 2014, Congress cut the Obama administration's commercial crew funding again, but only by five percent. It was hopeful sign Congress finally understood that Shelby's porking ways made the United States reliant on an increasingly unstable Russian partner.

Shelby was undeterred. In June 2015, Shelby's committee cut FY16 commercial crew funding by 25%. As result, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in August informed Congress that NASA was left with no choice to extend its reliance on Roscosmos to 2019.

Restoration of the funding would have to wait until the House and Senate reconciled their budget differences, a matter complicated by renegade Tea Party elements in the House of Representatives who threatened to force a default on the federal government's debt obligations. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in September announced he would resign rather than risk another government shutdown. That left him free to negotiate a compromise that would extend the debt ceiling two years, while also increasing government spending by $80 billion during that time.

Paul Ryan (R-WI) succeeded Boehner as speaker. It was left to Ryan to lead negotiations within and without his party for how to disperse the newly authorized spending.

Elsewhere in the Shelby empire, the Senator was fighting another battle on behalf of his OldSpace benefactors.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin are partners in a venture called United Launch Alliance. In 2006, the Federal Trade Commission granted ULA a legal monopoly for non-crewed government rocket launches. Until the rise of SpaceX in this decade, ULA enjoyed no competition for government contracts. The company's high prices drove the commercial launch business overseas.

Having demonstrated early success with its Falcon 9 boosters, SpaceX began to pursue U.S. Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office payloads, challenging the ULA monopoly. In March, an independent investigation concluded the Air Force was imposing unreasonable standards on SpaceX, perhaps to protect ULA's monopoly. The dispute was resolved in May when the Air Force announced that SpaceX was certified for military payloads.

The ULA Atlas V booster uses RD-180 engines produced by the Russian government-owned company NPO Energomash. After Russia invaded the Crimea region of Ukraine in February 2014, Congress responded with a ban on the purchase of RD-180 for U.S. military payloads. Led by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Congress voted in December 2014 to limit future military use of the RD-180 as part of the Fiscal Year 2015 budget bill.

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Image source: CNN.

The Atlas V is assembled in Decatur, Alabama, so Shelby has spent the last year on behalf of ULA working to repeal McCain's legislation.

McCain chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, but he doesn't have a seat on Appropriations, which left him outside the door when Shelby slipped language into this week's compromise bill that removes the restriction on RD-180 purchases.

According to Jeff Foust at Space News, the bill also increases the SLS appropriation to “nearly 50 percent more than administration’s request,” or to about $2 billion.

For the first time since President Obama's 2010 proposal, the bill fully funds commercial crew at the President's request, or $1.24 billion, for Fiscal Year 2016.

I'm left wondering if, in some Capitol Hill back room, Shelby agreed to end his block on commercial crew funding in exchange for votes lifting the RD-180 ban and for an increase in SLS funding above what anyone else requested.

McCain took to the Senate floor yesterday, blasting what he called “the triumph of pork barrel parochialism”, claiming that U.S. taxpayers would subsidize “Russian aggression and comrade capitalism.”

Here we stand with a 2,000-page omnibus appropriations bill, crafted in secret with no debate, which most of us are seeing for the first time this morning. And buried within it is a policy provision that would effectively allow unlimited purchases and use of Russian rocket engines.

What is going on here?

ULA wants more Russian engines. Plain and simple.

McCain blamed “ULA’s Capitol Hill leading sponsors, namely the senior Senator from Alabama, Senator Shelby, and the senior Senator from Illinois, Senator Durbin” for the legislation.

The omnibus spending bill must pass both the House and the Senate, where no doubt many amendments may be offered. Among those might be from Senator McCain to delete the RD-180 provision. At that point, it will be interesting to see who rises on Shelby's behalf.

If RD-180 purchases resume, it might also spell the end of ULA's proposed Vulcan rocket program. Vulcan's announcement in April was an implicit response to the RD-180 ban, as well as SpaceX plans to evolve Falcon 9 booster reusability. Vulcan would use either Blue Origin BE-4 or Aerojet Rocketdyne AR1 engines. Both are U.S. companies.

It's also possible that amendments might be offered to revoke the increases in SLS and/or commercial crew funding. Should that happen, especially if it comes from Senator McCain, we'll know there was a linkage between RD-180 and the NASA budget increases.

UPDATE December 17, 2015 3:45 PM ESTPolitico reports that Senator Richard Shelby now intends to vote against his own pork!

Sen. Richard Shelby loaded up the $1.1 trillion spending bill with pet provisions, including one measure worth hundreds of millions to a rocket manufacturer with operations in his home state.

But in an only-in-Congress twist, Shelby, a very senior member on the appropriations committee, still plans to vote against the sprawling omnibus package. He's citing the lack of language to restrict Syrian refugees as the reason.

UPDATE December 18, 2015USA Today reports that the omnibus spending bill includes $622 billion in tax breaks. No evidence that they intend to offset those tax breaks anywhere. So much for the Republicans being the party of fiscal restraint.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Back On Top

Astronauts Bob Behnken, left to right, Suni Williams, Eric Boe and Doug Hurley. Image source: NASA.

A NASA blog reports that United Launch Alliance has completed the primary construction of the new crew service tower at the Cape's Launch Complex 41.

Four astronauts training for test flights with NASA’s Commercial Crew program joined the festivities at Space Launch Complex 41 Thursday morning as one of the highest steel beams was placed on the Crew Access Tower during a “topping off” ceremony with United Launch Alliance, Boeing and Hensel Phelps at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch site in Florida.

The crew access arm and white room still need to be installed, along with an elevator.

The tower will service the Boeing CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle scheduled to launch in 2017, and may also support the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser if the company gets a commercial cargo contract. NASA is scheduled to announce its next commercial cargo contracts in January.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Space Seed

Click the arrow to watch a July 2013 ZGSI promotional video. Video source: ZEROGSI YouTube channel.

Boca Baton-based Zero Gravity Solutions, Inc. announced today that their product BAM-FX will fly to the International Space Station in March on the SpaceX CRS-9 Dragon cargo delivery.

According to the ZGSI press release:

Zero Gravity’s wholly owned subsidiary BAM Agricultural Solutions, in collaboration with Intrinsyx, will work with a group of California biology students on a BAM-FX flight in space to test if the positive effects that ZGSI’s proprietary BAM-FX™ technology has had in field crops on Earth can also help plant growth in the micro-gravity environment of the ISS. If positive results are obtained BAM-FX, may have applications in advanced life support systems for long duration missions and may support a variety of future international collaborative missions intended to bring human life into space and to help establish extra-terrestrial colonies in our solar system ...

This experimental flight opportunity has been generously provided by a grant from NanoRacks and is primarily supported by a high school student project in Germany called V3PO. Through a crowdfunding initiative and scientific support from BASF, the world´s leading chemical company, these German students and their mentors are going to conduct their own experiment on a plant associated fungal inhibitor. This project also receives partial funding and technical support from both ZGSI and Intrinsyx.

The BAM-FX experiments will study the growth and nutritional effects of BAM-FX in broccoli at micro-gravity and will be conducted by an academically advanced team of California based high school students that will be supervised and mentored by John Wayne Kennedy (ZGSI’s Chief Science Officer and co-founder), by Dr. John L. Freeman (Intrinsyx), by Dr. Chetan Angadi (Intrinsyx) and by Dan Saldana (Valley Christian High School).

Cygnus Launches from The Cape

Click the arrow to watch the Cygnus launch. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch the post-launch media briefing. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

After three delays due to bad weather, United Launch Alliance finally launched yesterday the Orbital ATK Cygnus robotic ship to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

Along with SpaceX, Orbital is one of two companies awarded contracts in 2008 to deliver cargo to the ISS. Orbital chose to launch its deliveries atop a new rocket called Antares, that would fly from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at the NASA facility in Wallops, Virginia.

Antares used refurbished Soviet-era engines built in the 1970s. The third mission was destroyed on October 28, 2014 when one of the engines failed shortly after launch.

Orbital has discontinued use of the refurbished engines, and will use new RD-181 engines from the Russian company Energomash. A test flight is planned for spring 2016.

To honor its NASA contract, Orbital signed an agreement with rival ULA to launch two Cygnus deliveries from Cape Canaveral. Cygnus will then return to Wallops, although many of the experiment payloads will continue to pass through Kennedy Space Center's Space Station Processing Facility before delivery to Virginia.

The next SpaceX Dragon delivery appears to be planned for mid-January. According to the blog of a principal investigator flying an experiment on SpaceX CRS-8, they ware told to plan for a launch on January 14 at 1:50 AM EST.

ISS crew member Scott Kelly photographed the Cygnus launching from Cape Canaveral. Image source: @StationCDRKelly Twitter account.


Click the image to see at a larger size. Image source: Florida Today.

Florida Today published this morning the above editorial cartoon by staff cartoonist Stephen Hall.

The caption in the lower right spoken by the turtle reads, “Nothin' like the government for crisp, timely, efficiency!”

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Orbital OA-4 Pre-Game Show

Click the arrow to watch today's science payloads briefing. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch today's pre-launch briefing. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

The latest forecast is 60% chance favorable weather for the United Launch Alliance launch of an Orbital ATK Cygnus robotic cargo ship tomorrow to the International Space Station.

The 30-minute launch window opens at 5:55 PM EST.

NASA held two media events today at Kennedy Space Center. One was about the launch itself, the other about the science payloads.

It's the first Cygnus launch since an October 2014 launch at Wallops, Virginia when an Orbital Antares exploded a few minutes after launch. Blame was placed on one of the refurbished Soviet-era booster engines. A redesigned Antares is scheduled to launch in the late spring of 2016 with new Russian RD-181 engines. Until then, two missions will launch on the ULA Atlas V at Cape Canaveral.

NASA used today's events to issue a press release touting the maturation of Kennedy Space Center as “a 21st Century spaceport.”

Making the best use of taxpayer funded resources has been a key objective from reorganization of the space center's management structure to providing optimum utilization of available assets.

Existing historic buildings and launch sites in use for more than 50 years are being converted to support a modern spaceport equipped with state-of-the art technology meeting the diverse needs of another half-century.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Crystal Clear

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

Dr. Paul Reichert is an associate principal scientist with Merck, an American pharmaceutical company. He's one of the most outspoken proponents of microgravity pharmaceutical research aboard the International Space Station.

Dr. Reichert's specialty is the field of crystalline biologics. He lectures on the subject at NewSpace events, such as the 2014 International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight.

On November 24, NASA's Space Station Live featured the above interview with Dr. Reichert. He explains how production of chemical treatments in microgravity could lead to eliminating intravenous treatments on Earth.

Click the arrow to watch a Merck promotional film about Dr. Reichert. Video source: Merck YouTube channel.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Has SLS Slipped to 2020?

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

I've written many times this year about how, despite insistence by the NASA bureaucracy that the Space Launch System will fly its first uncrewed test flight in 2018, informal remarks by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden have suggested it will be later.

Bolden testified before Congress in March that although SLS itself may be ready by late 2018, the Orion capsule it's to launch won't be ready until “sometime after 2018, to be precise.”

In September, two NASA executives were a bit evasive about when the first test flight, called Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, might actually launch. During a media teleconference, they insisted the actual EM-1 launch date wasn't important because people wouldn't be on board. The true important date they said was for EM-2, the first with people, which they announced was slipping into the 2021-2023 time frame.

NASA announced in late October that Orion had completed its Critical Design Review, but did not indicate if it was on schedule for late 2018. The press release simply stated, “The results of this review, known as a Critical Design Review, at the Program level will be briefed to agency leaders in the coming months.”

Earlier this month, NASA announced on November 19 that a coating would need to be applied to the Orion shell's heat shield tiles to protect it during re-entry.

For these future Orion missions, a silver, metallic-based thermal control coating will also be bonded to the crew module’s thermal protection system back shell tiles. The coating, similar to what is used on the main heat shield, will reduce heat loss during phases when Orion is pointed to space and therefore experiencing cold temperatures, as well as limit the high temperatures the crew module will be subjected to when the spacecraft faces the sun. The coating will help Orion’s back shell maintain a temperature range from approximately -150 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit prior to entry and also will protect against electrical surface charges in space and during re-entry.

The release did not state if this coating will delay the Orion schedule.

The latest hint that the launch date may slip comes from a video NASA released on November 24. Administrator Bolden was interviewed by a nine-year old who wants to be a reporter. The complete interview is above. Bolden says at the 1:25 mark:

... It's going to be the largest rocket we've ever built, and then it's going to carry on top of it a capsule that will have the crew, and that capsule is called Orion. Orion flew for the first time last year with no people in it, very successfully, so we're hoping to launch that sometime in the 2018 to 2020 timeframe.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What Goes Up ...

Click the arrow to watch a Blue Origin promotional film of the New Shepard landing. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

Blue Origin released a film yesterday depicting the successful landing of its New Shepard suborbital booster.

Although the company eventually intends to offer orbital launch services from Cape Canaveral, its first step will be suborbital adventure tourism at its west Texas launch site.

The New Shepard system is a reusable booster topped by a reusable capsule. It's designed to deploy the capsule at the internationally defined edge of space, 100 kilometers or 62 miles.

Once the capsule separates, the six participants feel weightlessness for about four minutes before gravity returns the capsule to Earth with a parachuted landing.

The booster is designed to descend through the atmosphere and steer to a powered vertical landing at its launch pad.

Other companies plan to offer suborbital tourism, with different designs.

Among the more prominent companies are Virgin Galactic and XCOR.

The Virgin Galactic WhiteKnightTwo carrier and its SpaceShipTwo crew plane. Image source: Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic uses a mother ship launching from a runway to carry the passenger ship to a high altitude. The crew vehicle is dropped, then its rocket engines take the seven passengers to the edge of space before returning to the runway.

In October 2014, the SpaceShipTwo ship VSS Enterprise was destroyed during a test flight when the co-pilot apparently prematurely deployed the feathering system.

The XCOR Lynx Mark I. Image source: XCOR.

The XCOR Lynx is a two-crew rocket plane, a professional pilot and paying passenger. The rocket engine would launch the crew to the edge of space, be weightless for five minues, then glide back to a landing at the runway. The adventure would last about thirty minutes. XCOR bills the Lynx as “the world’s first Instantly Reusable Launch Vehicle (I- RLV).”

XCOR announced November 25 that two company founders were “stepping back from their current positions” to “turn their attention to pursue other interests.”

Although some media have compared the Blue Origin achievement to attempts by rival SpaceX to return a first stage booster, the Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) is more akin to the McDonnell Douglas DC-X Delta Clipper tests in the 1990s.

A July 7, 1995 DC-X test flight at White Sands, New Mexico. Video source: Samuel Coniglio YouTube channel.

The highest altitude reached by Delta Clipper was 10,300 feet or 3,100 meters.

According to an August 2010 Air & Space article, “Several DC-X engineers are involved in Blue Origin, the commercial space project funded by’s Jeff Bezos.” The article noted that two other companies, Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace, had successfully demonstrated VTOL technology.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver comments November 24 on the Blue Origin achievement. Video source: Bloomberg Business.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

It's Who You Know

James Dean of Florida Today reports that “Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana and other senior leaders were more involved than previously disclosed in illegal spaceport hires that may still be subject to federal investigation, according to records FLORIDA TODAY obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.”

Auditors found the hires of three administrative assistants supporting Cabana and two other high-ranking officials on the fourth floor of KSC headquarters suggested a deliberate effort to get around federal laws requiring competition and priority consideration for certain military veterans.

The article cites emails sent by Cabana to KSC's Human Resources Director asking that lesser qualified individuals be given preference in hiring, while ignoring more qualified candidates, some of whom were military veterans entitled by law to preferential hiring.

Florida Today posted a copy of a June 12, 2014 reprimand sent to Cabana by NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. In his letter, Lightfoot wrote:

While the report identifies many failings on the part of the KSC Human Resources office in its handling of these hiring actions, the report also indicates a recurring cultural issue that exists between the HR office and many elements of KSC senior management. The HR office has lost sight of its primary professional function and seems convinced that its value to KSC is judged by its ability to please individual managers. As you know, this incident has had serious repercussions for the Agency, and for the individual managers, selectees, and passed-over candidates involved.

Florida Today reported in March 2015 that, after auditors found evidence of illegal hires, “The U.S. Office of Personnel Management's findings prompted NASA Headquarters to place KSC's Human Resources Office under special oversight for six months last year, during which it monitored and approved all hiring decisions.”

NASA said that intervention was necessary because KSC's problems, if not corrected, could have put the entire agency at risk of losing the hiring authority granted to it by OPM.

When the article was published last March, Cabana's personal involvement was not known. Here's what Cabana told reporter James Dean in March:

Cabana said everyone that KSC hired was qualified.

“The key was that there were folks that should have been on the lists in addition to them that were not,” he said.

That was the case for two secretaries and an administrative assistant hired to support Cabana, Deputy Director Janet Petro and Associate Director Kelvin Manning, all of whom are veterans.

Cabana said he interviewed the three candidates referred to him and was assured in writing that proper hiring procedures were followed.

“I'm not an expert in all the OPM rules on HR hiring,” he said. “I trust my HR director. When I tell them to do something or ask them to do something, I expect them to do it within the rules, by the book. And I assume it's being done that way.”

The new evidence obtained by Florida Today shows that Cabana himself told the H.R. director to flout the rules. According to today's article:

As a result, the final interview lists for both Cabana’s and Petro’s jobs, which had been open to all qualified U.S. citizens, included just three names: Cabana’s “primes.”

“That works,” Cabana said of the outcome in an e-mail to Anania Wetrich, Petro and another employee. “All three on both lists is the right answer.”

Lightfoot's letter concluded:

Your e-mails to the HR professionals, which focused on particular desired candidates after the recruiting process had been implemented, undoubtedly contributed to the extreme lengths that the HR office went to in order to achieve certain results. At a minimum, the e-mails show a significant lack of awareness of how statements can be perceived and contributed to the HR office's loss of focus on the competitive process. Combined with your recent discussions on performance expectations for your struggling HR office, I believe this influenced their adherence to the process and subsequent outcomes.

Elsewhere in Personnel, Keith Cowing at NASA Watch reports that disgraced former commercial crew program Ed Mango will return to Kennedy Space Center.

In December 2013, Mango pleaded guilty to a felony charge of illegally intervening in a personnel matter in which he had a financial stake.

James Dean reported on the Mango affair:

Mango admitted taking out a cash advance on his credit card to loan an undisclosed amount of money to a program colleague to hire a law firm after she was arrested in 2012 at KSC. Court records identify the colleague as “C.T.” and “Thomas.”

Candrea Thomas, a NASA public affairs officer who served as spokeswoman for the Commercial Crew Program, was the only NASA employee involved in that program who was arrested at the center at that time, NASA has confirmed.

Thomas later pleaded no contest to forging temporary driver's permits while her license was suspended because of a second drunken driving conviction.

According to his plea agreement, Mango then pressured KSC's human resources department and Center Director Bob Cabana to limit NASA's discipline against Thomas, aware that she might not be able to repay his loan if she lost her job.

Mango also contacted KSC security personnel and was critical of the decision to arrest Thomas at her office.

Human resources personnel told NASA investigators that Mango's intervention made a difference.

One official said he felt Mango tried to intimidate him, and another said the case was handled in an unprecedented manner: the cost of a two-week unpaid suspension was meted out over multiple pay periods instead of one.

Despite the guilty felony plea, the judge fined Mango only $2,000, with no prison time or probation. He was reassigned to NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. after the incident.

But he's back.

NASA Watch posted on November 20 this internal KSC email:

Subject: GFAST Lead

All, As most are aware Kathy Milon has accepted a position on a Source Board and will be leaving her position in C3 soon. I first want to express a heartfelt thanks to her for her dedication and commitment to the success of GFAST and the C3 Project; truly a great job in getting us as far as we've come. So thank-you Kathy! Ed Mango has accepted the challenge to lead the GFAS Team, with the transition to commence immediately. I know everyone will support Ed in this new assignment and we're fortunate to have someone of his experience ready to step in. This assignment will be for what's likely to be for a few months as we identify a long-term solution and phase that person in over time. Please join me in thanking Kathy and wishing her well, and welcoming Ed into his new role! Please pass this info on to your teams or forward as appropriate.

Bob Willcox

Friday, November 20, 2015

NASA's Foreign Relations

The Council on Foreign Relations in recent days hosted two panels on NASA and space exploration.

The CFR is a globally respected international relations think tank. Founded in 1921, its roots can be traced to the days after World War I when diplomats and scholars held meetings in New York City to discuss post-war policies.

According to a CFR brochure, the organization today has nearly 5,000 members, including “prominent government officials, scholars, business leaders, journalists, attorneys, educators, religious leaders, and nonprofit professionals” in the United States.

Click the arrow to watch “The Path to Mars: A Conversation with Charles F. Bolden, Jr.” on November 12, 2015.

The first panel was in New York City on November 12 with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. Titled “The Path to Mars: A Conversation With Charles F. Bolden Jr.,” the presentation was an overview of NASA's current programs with the goal of placing humans on Mars by the end of the 2030s.

Click the arrow to watch “Emerging Technology: The Future of Space” on November 19, 2015.

The second panel was in Washington, D.C. on November 19. Titled “Emerging Technology: The Future of Space” the event had three panelists — former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, space policy analyst John Logsdon, and NexGen Space LLC Charles Miller. This panel was much more oriented towards the advent of the NewSpace phenomenon. Particularly fascinating for me were the segments discussing how some NASA bureaucrats conspiring with aerospace lobbyists and Congressional staffers have tried to thwart the growth of NewSpace to protect their own turf.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Congress Gets It Right

A July 2015 panel at the ISS R&D conference titled, “Viewpoints: Leveraging ISS to Enable LEO Commercialization.” Video source: ISSCASIS YouTube channel.

Despite its knack for fouling nearly every policy issue it touches, for once Congress got it right.

Both houses have approved the final version of H.R. 2262, titled the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.”

Legislation about commercial space has been passed many times over the decades. The Commercial Space Launch Act in 1984, for example, was passed “to encourage the United States private sector to provide launch vehicles and associated launch services by simplifying and expediting the issuance and transfer of commercial launch licenses and by facilitating and encouraging the utilization of Government-developed space technology.” The Commercial Space Act of 1998 established that “a priority goal of constructing the International Space Station is the economic development of Earth orbital space” by commercializing use of the International Space Station. Other commercial space language finds it way into various legislation, such as the authorization and appropriations bills that govern NASA's activities.

The “NewSpace” era of commercial space enterprise has finally arrived. Facing a choice between squashing this nascent industry or nurturing it, Congress chose the latter.

Technically speaking, H.R. 2262 amends several provisions in Title 51 of the U.S. Code, National and Commercial Space Programs. This is where NASA's enabling legislation resides.

Most of the professional space journalism sites have delved into the details of the act, such as these reports from Space News, Space Policy Online and Florida Today.

Not receiving much attention is Section 117, which among its provisions replaces the current §70102 that defines Space Shuttle use policy. The new §70102 defines Space Launch System use policy.

When Congress ordered NASA in 2010 create SLS, they did not bother to tell NASA what to do with it, other than protect Shuttle-era contractor jobs. That's why critics labelled it the Senate Launch System. SLS is running two years behind its Congressional mandate to launch its first uncrewed test flight.

H.R. 2262 finally makes a stab at narrowing its uses, if not defining them. The bill states that SLS “may be used” for “Payloads and missions that contribute to extending human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and substantially benefit from the unique capabilities of the Space Launch System.”

The use of the word “may” doesn't mean that everything else is illegal. The language contains no prohibitions for other uses.

For me, the key language is “extending human presence beyond low-Earth orbit.” Certain legislators who represent NASA space centers and contractors have tried to force the agency to use SLS and its Orion crew capsule for ISS crew and cargo runs in low Earth orbit. That's a job for the commercial cargo and crew vendors, but some members of Congress have tried to strangle the commercial program in a bid to protect existing NASA jobs in their districts or states.

Section 302 of the 2010 NASA authorization act specified that SLS was to have “The capability to serve as a backup system for supplying and supporting ISS cargo requirements or crew delivery requirements not otherwise met by available commercial or partner-supplied vehicles.” It's a provision still raised from time to time during Congressional hearings, when a member concerned about protecting his pork grills a NASA witness demanding to know why SLS isn't being designed for the ISS.

So the provision in H.R. 2262 would seem to give NASA the freedom to formally ignore the 2010 legislation, although it doesn't seem to outright prohibit ISS use.

Another critical provision is Congressional approval to extend ISS operations through “at least” 2024. The agreements between NASA and its international partners expire in 2020. In January 2014, the Obama administration proposed extending ISS to 2024, and began negotiating extensions with its partners. Russia agreed in July. Canada is on board. The European and Japanese space agencies informally have agreed, but need formal approval from their governments.

One of the biggest concerns for NewSpace investors and researchers has been the lack of a formal Congressional commitment to operate ISS through 2020. Why spend years investing in an experiment to run on ISS when the station may not be there? Researchers were spooked when the Bush administration's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration called for decommissioning ISS in 2015, just five years after completion, to spend the money on the Constellation program. A common theme at this summer's ISS R&D and NewSpace conferences was that long-term availability of the ISS is critical to growing the NewSpace economy.

The video at the top of this column is a discussion about this subject at the July 2015 ISS R&D conference. Below is a video from later that month at the NewSpace conference on why entrepreneurs are choosing to invest in space.

A July 2015 panel at the NewSpace conference, titled “The Case for Space Panel: Why Investors Invest (Or Don't Invest).” Video source: Space Conferences YouTube channel.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Retro Saturday: 2001 A Space Odyssey -- A Look Behind the Future

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

For our 100th and final episode of Retro Saturday, I present a 1966 documentary produced by MGM Studios to promote 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The film is introduced by Look publisher Vernon Myers, who states the magazine will help promote the film prior to its 1967 release. 2001 director Stanley Kubrick worked for Look as a photojournalist from 1945 to 1950.

The documentary notes that Kubrick invited space and other futurologists to help with the film's realism. Among them were rocketeer Fred Ordway and space illustrator Harry Lange. Both were contemporaries of Wernher von Braun at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and later with NASA.

Ordway was a personal friend of 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke. Lange designed the iconic helmet worn on spacewalks in the film.

It accurately predicts a laptop computer with Skype capability, although a briefcase with a typewriter and rotary phone isn't actually what we have today. Skype didn't become popular until a few years after 2001, but who am I to nitpick.

What the film didn't foresee was the general political apathy that post-Apollo would strip NASA of much of its human spaceflight funding.

The Apollo program wasn't about building the futuristic society depicted in 2001. It was about “prestige,” proving to the rest of the world that United States technology was superior to the Soviet Union. This is amply documented by space policy analyst John Logsdon's two books, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon and After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program.

We also see Arthur C. Clarke visit the Grumman plant in Long Island where the lunar modules are being constructed.

The Retro Saturday series was intended to help us learn about today and tomorrow by viewing films about the past. I hope you'll explore the other Retro Saturday articles to find the hidden gems resurrected thanks to the Internet.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Going Up Elsewhere ...

Click an image to view it at a higher resolution. All images in this article are copyright © 2015 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to

Yesterday I posted photos of the SpaceX upgrades at Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

Renovations are underway elsewhere on the Space Coast.

The next two photos are images taken from the Pad 39A area of Launch Complex 41 nearby at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A service tower is being erected for the commercial crew program. The Boeing CST-100, and perhaps one day a crew version of the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, may use this tower for loading astronauts into their vehicles.

Outside of the Vehicle Assembly Building, NASA completed primary construction last August on the Space Launch System mobile launcher. The next step is to install more than 800 pieces of mechanical, electrical and fluids equipment and about 300,000 feet of cable and several miles of tubing and piping.

The crane in the below images was assembled within the next month, presumably to start this next phase of work.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Going Up, Part 9

Click an image to view it at a higher resolution. All images in this article are copyright © 2015 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to

On November 7, for the first time SpaceX raised its new transporter erector on Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A. The American flag flew triumphantly from its apex.

I headed out today hoping to photograph it for you.

But the erector was back to horizontal, although it was still parked on the pad.

So below are photos taken today of the erector and other elements of the pad still under renovation.

Before that, here are the links to the images from earlier this year:

Going Up, Part 1 (January 31)

Going Up, Part 2 (February 24)

Going Up, Part 3 (March 29)

Going Up, Part 4 (April 27)

Going Up, Part 5 (May 26)

Going Up, Part 6 (June 27)

Going Up, Part 7 (August 9)

Going Up, Part 8 (October 16)

Just for fun, here are two transportation vehicles in the administrative parking lot at the bottom of the pad ramp.

A commercial crew vehicle, and ...

... a heavy lift transport vehicle.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Retro Saturday: Universal Gravitation

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: Historia - Bel99TV YouTube channel.

We head to the Great White North for this week's Retro Saturday installment.

Universal Gravitation is a 30-minute documentary produced in 1960 by Physical Sciences Study Committee (PSSC) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was hosted by two professors with the University of Toronto.

According to the American Association of Physics Teachers, the PSSC was founded in 1956 “ to reshape how physics was taught in high schools.”

The impact of PSSC was world wide. By the early 1960s more than twenty percent of all high school teachers of physics were involved in this project. PSSC produced a major new text book, more than fifty extraordinary movies, a sequence of lab materials that has not been equaled, and a series of short books describing in an engaging and insightful way many different aspects of physics — crystal growing, waves and beaches, how a TV works, neutrons, electrons, the universe, and the physicists who led the way to deeper understanding of a fascinating variety of phenomena.

At the time this film was produced, satellites had orbited the earth for three years. Human spaceflight was a year away.

This is the 99th episode of Retro Saturday. Next week will be the 100th and final episode of Retro Saturday. I have something special for the series finale.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Wait 'Til Next Year

In an October 29 blog article, I wrote that a Johnson Space Center procurement web site for the next round of commercial cargo contracts had posted that “NASA remains on schedule to support the November 5th award date.”

JSC updated the site today with this statement:

The anticipated CRS2 award is now no later than January 30, 2016 to allow additional time for the Government to assess proposals.

One eligible vendor said today they're out of the competition.

Space News reports that Boeing acknowledged their CST-100 cargo Starliner has been dropped.

Boeing spokeswoman Kelly Kaplan said Nov. 5 that NASA informed the company shortly before announcing the award delay that it was no longer considering the company for a contract. NASA did not give a reason for the delay, she said. Boeing has requested a debrief from NASA, which may not take place until after the contracts are finally awarded.

The article quotes Sierra Nevada and Orbital ATK representatives stating today they've been notified by NASA that they're still eligible, while SpaceX continues its policy of not commenting on procurement bids.

The procurement site features an Excel workbook listing interested parties who had responded to NASA's Request for Information. The file was last modified in April 2014. It lists 21 different companies that requested information. Orbital Sciences and ATK later merged into one company.

The Wall Street Journal reported on October 1 that the Lockheed Martin Jupiter system had been dropped from the competition. Neither NASA nor LockMart have confirmed the report.

UPDATE November 5, 2015 4:15 PM ESTFlorida Today and Bloomberg Business also report on today's events.

The Florida Today article quotes a SNC representative describing her company as one of the “offerors in the competitive range” while the Bloomberg article quotes the same person as saying SNC “was selected to re-open discussions.”

UPDATE November 5, 2015 8:45 PM ESTThis Washington Post reports quotes a Lockheed Martin representative implying their proposal is still viable.

Lockheed Martin also submitted a bid, but several news outlets have reported that NASA has also dropped it from the competition. NASA and Lockheed have not confirmed that, however, and in a statement Thursday, a Lockheed spokesperson said that, “we feel that our proposal offers value today through affordable, high-capacity Space Station resupply.”

UPDATE November 6, 2015The Denver Business Journal reports that local contractors Sierra Nevada and Lockheed Martin “will have to wait to learn if they get a piece of $14 billion in NASA contracts for delivering supplies to the orbiting International Space Station.”

Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. (LMSS), based in Jefferson County, and Louisville-based Sierra Nevada Corp. Space Systems both bid for some of the work ...

It's believed LMSS was dropped from consideration last month, though the company isn't confirming that.

Sierra Nevada Corp. Space Systems said Thursday it's been told by NASA its Dream Chaser spacecraft still in the running to carry cargo.

“SNC received notification this morning that the government has decided to re-open discussions with (bidders) in the competitive range,” the company's statement said. “SNC was selected to re-open discussions regarding its CRS2 proposal.”

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Retro Saturday: The Cape

Click the arrow to watch Part 1 of “Mir, Mir Off the Wall.” Video source: chalkieathome2000 YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch Part 2 of “Mir, Mir Off the Wall.” Video source: chalkieathome2000 YouTube channel.

“The Cape” was a syndicated TV series produced by MTM Enterprises. It aired only one season, in 1996-1997, then disappeared forever into memory.

MTM never released the series on VHS or DVD. According to various online posts, the rights to the series were sold by MTM and have gone from one studio to another.

The series was fairly sappy, but many space geeks were riveted as each week brought us an episode filmed on location in the Space Coast. Click here to find an episode guide. How plausible was, “Bull has a crisis on his hands when a bomb threatens Atlantis”?

You can also find the series discussed in this collectSpace thread.

This week's Retro Saturday features the two-part finale, “Mir, Mir Off the Wall.” The Russian space station is suffering a massive systems failure, so Atlantis is launched to investigate.

Yeah, right.

Part 1 had Atlantis damaged by a collision with Mir, so Columbia is launched to repair Atlantis.

Yeah, right.

Part 2, the series finale, features the two orbiters flying in formation, landing one behind another at the Shuttle runway.

Yeah, right.

But cool to look at.

The score by John Debney and Louis Febre was for me the most memorable part of the show — well, that and two orbiters flying in formation.

Click the arrow to listen to an extended version of “The Cape” theme. Video source: #LouisFebre YouTube channel.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Orbital Post-Mortem

Click the arrow to watch replays of the Orbital Antares ORB-3 launch and failure on October 28, 2014. Video source: SpaceKSCBlog YouTube channel.

A year and a day after an engine failure destroyed a commercial cargo delivery, NASA issued a press release and an executive summary of its investigation findings.

Orbital Sciences was one of two companies delivering cargo to the International Space Station under a Commercial Resupply Services contract. Orbital's Cygnus module launched atop the company's Antares rocket, boosted by Aerojet-Rocketdyne AJ-26 engines. Those engines were originally unused 1970s Soviet engines purchased by Aerojet and modified for Orbital's use.

Orbital merged in February 2015 with ATK to become Orbital ATK.

The press release states:

The team determined the proximate cause of the Antares launch vehicle failure was an explosion within the AJ-26 rocket engine and identified three credible technical root causes, any one or combination of which could have resulted in the engine failure. The team outlined six technical findings and made seven recommendations to address those technical findings. In addition, since Orbital ATK was in the process of procuring and testing new engines to replace the AJ-26 for future Antares flights while the investigation was ongoing, the team provided several recommendations for Orbital ATK and the ISS Program that were used to support those testing activities and to reduce overall risk for Antares return-to-flight and follow-on mission efforts.

Apparently NASA released only the executive summary because their findings refer to proprietary features of the Orbital engine and rocket. The executive summary mentions in several places that it cannot provide details of their findings due to proprietary information.

According to the summary, the NASA Independent Review Team (IRT) “determined that the proximate cause of the Antares launch vehicle failure was an explosion within the AJ26 rocket engine installed in the Main Engine 1 position.”

Specifically, there was an explosion in the E15 Liquid Oxygen (LO2) turbopump, which then damaged the AJ26 rocket engine designated E16 installed in the Main Engine 2 position. The explosion caused the engines to lose thrust, and the launch vehicle fell back to Earth and impacted the ground, resulting in total destruction of the vehicle and its cargo ...

The IRT also developed a detailed system-level fault tree, timeline of events, and failure scenarios, and performed analysis and forensic investigation of the hardware recovered from the accident. The IRT concluded that the cause of the explosion on launch was loss of rotor radial positioning resulting in contact and frictional rubbing between rotating and stationary components within the Engine LO2 turbopump Hydraulic Balance Assembly (HBA) seal package. This frictional rubbing led to ignition and fire involving LO2 within the turbopump HBA. This conclusion is consistent with the proximate cause determination made by the Orbital ATK [Accident Investigation Board] investigation findings.

The report lists three possible “technical root causes” but cannot say for certainty if one or more caused the loss of rotor radial positioning:

  1. “... [T]he HBA and thrust bearing designs have several intricacies and sensitivities that make it difficult to reliably manage bearing loads. As a result, this area of the turbopump is vulnerable to oxygen fire and failures. The AJ26 engines were not subjected to a thorough delta-qualification program to demonstrate their operational capability and margin for use on Antares. Performing a thorough delta-qualification program for Antares would likely have revealed these issues.”
  2. “Forensic investigation identified the presence of both titanium and silica [Foreign Object Debris] within E15 prior to its impact on the beach. However, no firm conclusions can be drawn with respect to the quantity of FOD introduced to or already present within the engine prior to or at the time of the explosion. The lack of significant particle impact damage to the recovered impeller and other components indicates that there were not gross-levels of FOD present within the system. In addition, there is no clear forensic evidence that FOD directly or indirectly led to the E15 failure.”
  3. “Forensic investigation performed by Orbital ATK and NASA discovered the presence of a defect on the turbine housing bearing bore that was not consistent with baseline design requirements. The investigation determined that the defect was introduced during machining of the bearing bore housing and was therefore present prior to the engine [Acceptance Test Program] and Antares launch for Orb-3. Forensic investigation of Engine E17, which failed during ATP in May 2014, discovered the presence of a similar non-conforming defect in the housing bearing bore.”

The report lists seven technical recommendations. The first is that “NASA should not rely on the AJ26 for further missions without undertaking a more thorough inspection ...” That's not a concern, because Orbital ATK has ordered new RD-181 engines from Russian supplier NPO Energomash.

A redesigned Antares with Russian-made RD-181 engines is scheduled for a pad test fire in early 2016. Image source: NASA.

Orbital ATK issued a press release today stating the company plans a “hot fire” test in early 2016 for the redesigned Antares booster with two RD-181 engines.

In order to accommodate the RD-181 engines, several modifications were made to the Antares vehicle design. Upgrades completed and installed over the summer include a newly-developed and qualified thrust adapter structure, modifications to the first stage core propellant tanks, modified engine control avionics and new propellant feedlines.

In addition to the work being conducted for the hot fire test, the team is also receiving hardware for the full Antares rocket that will be used for its return to flight in the spring of 2016. The crew will be assembling that vehicle in parallel with the hot fire test vehicle. The next set of Antares engines recently completed acceptance testing and is scheduled to arrive at Wallops in December.

The summary also recommends cultural changes at both Orbital ATK and NASA suggesting that pre-launch processing was inadequate by both.

Technical recommendations call for Orbital to do a more thorough engine acceptance test, including more sensors, ensuring cleanliness, and “a more robust and verifiable moisture barrier approach.”

Three programmatic findings fault the relationship between Orbital and Aerojet-Rocketdyne. The report cites the “lack of an integrated partnership” between the two companies, which created “a low level of confidence in loss-of-mission predictions.”

In September, Aerojet agreed to pay Orbital $50 million and retake possession of Orbital's remaining ten AJ-26 engines. The agreement effectively ended any claims the two companies had against one another because of the accident.

The executive summary also states that the “management and risk model established for commercial services is well understood and embraced by and at all levels of the NASA team and community.” But the review team cited four “opportunities for improvement,” a polite way of pointing four metaphorical fingers.

The team concluded that “there is clear and consistent understanding and acceptance of the CRS risk approach throughout NASA and by the Service Providers,” but “[t]he perception of acceptable risk for any given CRS mission varied significantly within and between NASA organizations.”

The Launch Vehicle Assessment (LVA) as currently developed may provide a false sense of security in the overall risk associated with the launch vehicle design and a particular mission ... The proprietary nature of launch vehicle information may be serving as an artificial barrier to communications and leading to communication shortfalls.

The report recommends:

The ISS Program should reassign LVA management responsibility to a senior engineer at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) with significant launch vehicle development and assessment experience, as well as increase the number of individuals from MSFC engineering supporting development of the LVA.

In other words, Big Brother should be watching more closely.

Releasing the report today has a curious timing beyond just the one-year anniversary of the incident.

In April 2014, NASA requested proposals from commercial vendors for a second round of ISS cargo delivery services.

It's believed that incumbents Orbital ATK and SpaceX submitted bids for Commercial Resupply Services Round 2 (CRS-2). Other candidates are Boeing with a cargo version of their CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle, Sierra Nevada Corporation with a cargo version of the Dream Chaser spaceplane, and a Lockheed Martin system called Jupiter.

A promotional video released October 7 of the cargo Dream Chaser. Video source: SNCspacesystems YouTube channel.

According to a CRS-2 procurement web site, NASA will announce the new contract winners on Thursday November 5.

With both Orbital and SpaceX suffering accidents in the last year, it would seem the other candidates have a decent chance of winning a contract.

Even if Orbital ATK fails to win a new contract, they will still fly the remaining flights under their CRS-1 agreement. In August, NASA ordered two more Cygnus deliveries under CRS-1, which would take the existing contract through 2018.

It's strictly my speculation, but I think NASA may issue contracts to as many as three or four vendors. The last year demonstrated that two vendors are inadequate for redundancy. It would be in the agency's interest to grow the market with more delivery options.

The LockMart Jupiter appears to be a paper exercise, so that would seem to be the least likely to win a contract.

Desperately needing a contract is SNC, which is still fulfilling milestones for earlier rounds of a commercial crew contract. Dream Chaser failed to win any crew flights when those contracts were issued in September 2014. The spaceplane offers NASA an option other than SpaceX for returning cargo to Earth, and it's designed to land at any international airport runway. SNC has proposed delivering cargo to runways near NASA space centers in Houston and Huntsville, as well as Kennedy Space Center.

The crew version of the Boeing CST-100 will use parachutes and airbags to land in the U.S. southwest desert, so presumably the cargo version would do the same.

My worthless prediction is a few more cargo flights for SpaceX and Orbital ATK, with some flights circa 2020 going to Boeing and Sierra Nevada.

Check back on November 5.

UPDATE October 29, 2015 9:45 PM EDTJeff Foust of Space News reports he was able to get a copy of Orbital's internal report, and they reached a somewhat different conclusion on the root cause.

The Orbital report, though, identified a single “highly probable” technical root cause of the failure: a machining defect in turbine assembly of the turbopump that dates back to when the engine was manufactured in the former Soviet Union more than 40 years ago. An adjacent piece of the engine, recovered with little damage after the explosion, showed a “clear defect” in its machining, according to the report.

Orbital's report also identified several other technical root causes it deemed “credible” but less likely to have caused the explosion. Those additional causes included other technical problems with the engine and “poor long-term storage” of the engine, causing corrosion of engine components.

At first glance, it sounds like Orbital ATK is trying to put the blame on Aerojet-Rocketdyne.