Saturday, January 31, 2015

Going Up

All images in this article are copyright © 2015 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to

On January 27, SpaceX released a computer animation of a Falcon Heavy launch from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

This morning, I drove out past 39A to shoot some photos so you can see how this historic pad is being converted for its third generation of spaceflight.

I stayed outside the perimeter fence following the same route as the tour buses, so I figure I'm not photographing anything that isn't already being photographed by the public tours.

Retro Saturday: Here's Johnny

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: MIT Tech TV.

Many documentaries of the Apollo 11 launch include stock footage of celebrities such as former President Lyndon Johnson and talk show host Johnny Carson in the VIP stand at the Kennedy Space Center press site.

This week's Retro Saturday is a five-minute home movie of the launch filmed by aviation pioneer Alexander de Seversky. It's archived on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology web site.

In addition to LBJ, his wife and Carson, I spotted Senator Barry Goldwater, former NASA administrator James Webb, and astronauts Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford.

Most impressive is the film of the launch ... In The Right Stuff, Glennis Yeager tells Chuck, “Punch a hole in the sky.” Watch for the Saturn V to punch a hole in the clouds and cast a shadow.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Closing the Gap

Click the arrow to watch Barack Obama's Titusville speech on August 2, 2008. Original video source: Florida Today.

“I'm gonna close the gap.”

— Presidential Candidate Barack Obama
Titusville, Florida, August 2008

In the summer of 2008, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama stopped in Titusville, Florida to deliver a speech that was his first significant public statement of his space policy if elected.

I've written before about that event, in particular this August 2011 blog article on the third anniversary.

During that summer, the Space Shuttle had twelve missions left to fly. Nine were to complete construction of the International Space Station. One was to service the Hubble Space Telescope. A tenth ISS construction mission to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer would be added by Congress in the fall of 2008, and an eleventh flight for cargo delivery was added by the Obama administration in September 2010.

Based on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's recommendations, in January 2004 President George W. Bush announced that the Shuttle would be retired upon ISS completion. A new program would begin with the eventual goal of developing deep-space human exploration missions. Constellation, as it came to be known, evolved in subsequent years to a projected system of components. The Crew Exploration Vehicle, later known as Orion, would have two launch vehicles. The Ares I was for delivering crew to the ISS and other low Earth orbit missions. The Ares V would be for missions beyond Earth orbit, such as lunar exploration and launching heavy cargo.

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

The original proposal that accompanied NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe to Capitol Hill projected a four-year gap between the final Shuttle flight in Fiscal Year 2010 and the first Crew Exploration Vehicle operational flight to the ISS in Fiscal Year 2014.

(Federal fiscal years begin October 1 before the year in question. FY10, for example, ran from October 1, 2009 through September 30, 2010.)

By the time candidate Obama appeared in Titusville, Constellation had fallen years behind schedule and gone billions over budget. A July 2006 Government Accountability Office audit concluded that Constellation lacked a sound business case. Three years later, an August 2009 GAO Audit repeated the warning:

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.

After Obama took office as President, he appointed the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, headed by Norm Augustine, to conduct an independent review of NASA's human spaceflight programs. The October 2009 report opened its executive summary with this paragraph:

The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources. Space operations are among the most demanding and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans. It really is rocket science. Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations. Such is the case today.

The proposed Orion/Ares I implementation schedule that accompanied the proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget. Click to view at a higher resolution.

The final Constellation budget prepared by the Bush administration submitted to Congress in February 2009 showed that first Orion operational flight had slipped to Fiscal Year 2016. The same for the Ares I booster. The “gap” had widened by two years.

The Augustine Committee believed that target was optimistic.

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.

The Bush administration had planned to deorbit the ISS in 2016, meaning Orion/Ares I were being built to go to a destination that would no longer exist.

(Section 601 of the 2008 NASA Authorization Act forbade NASA from taking steps to end ISS operations in FY15, and to plan for its extension to 2020. But NASA budget policy still assumed ISS would end in 2016.)

When the Obama administration submitted its first NASA budget proposal in February 2010, it recommended cancelling Constellation. The savings would be used to extend the ISS through 2020 (as required by the 2008 authorization act). In place of Orion/Ares I, the administration would fund the commercial crew program which had been on the books since 2005 but unfunded by the Bush administration; it built on a commercial cargo program that was a minor part of Constellation.

Click the arrow to watch the January 26, 2015 commercial crew media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Five years later, on January 26, 2015, the two commercial crew contract winners held a media event at Johnson Space Center to discuss their timelines for demonstration and operational ISS flights. NASA, Boeing and SpaceX plan to begin operational flights to the ISS in 2017 — the same year that the Augustine Committee believed Orion/Ares I flights would begin.

Did President Obama fail to close the gap?

The answer is that he tried, but Congress denied NASA the funding that would have closed the gap.

The commercial crew funding proposal that was sent to Congress in February 2010. Click to view at a higher resolution.

The original FY11 request sent to Congress in February 2010 proposed $5.8 billion over the next five fiscal years “to spur the development of American commercial human spaceflight vehicles.”

The last budget proposal prepared by the Bush administration, submitted in early 2009, listed proposed numbers for Orion and Ares I up through FY14. So let's contrast the cost of the approaches by the two administrations for developing crew access to low Earth orbit:

Orion 1,938.9 2,056.1 1,931.0 1,751.7
Ares I 2,143.3 1,985.5 1,950.1 2,012.0
CONSTELLATION TOTAL 4,082.2 4,041.6 3,881.1 3,763.7
COMMERCIAL CREW 500.0 1,400.0 1,400.0 1,300.0

Keep in mind that Commercial Crew only awarded milestone payments for the crew vehicle. The vendor was 100% responsible for launch vehicle development.

One can't help but be struck by the significant cost savings for NASA by ending Constellation. The last Bush budget projected $15.8 billion spent on Orion/Ares I during FY11-14. The original Obama request would have spent $4.6 billion over the same period. Commercial crew was projected to deliver human low Earth orbit access for about 29% of the Constellation boondoggle.

One might think that Congress would enthusiastically support and approve such innovation and cost savings.

Their reaction, instead, was outrage.

I've written about this period many times, most recently on December 2, so we won't retread that subject.

But what I will do is present another table contrasting the years since the February 2010 proposal — what the Obama administration requested in each fiscal year, and what Congress authorized.

Orion 1,938.9 2,056.1 1,931.0 1,751.7
Ares I 2,143.3 1,985.5 1,950.1 2,012.0
CONSTELLATION TOTAL 4,082.2 4,041.6 3,881.1 3,763.7
COMMERCIAL CREW REQUEST 500.0 850.0 829.7 821.4 848.3
COMMERCIAL CREW ACTUAL* 321.0 397.0 525.0 626.0 805.0
* Actual figures taken from various NASA documents and may not reflect later adjustments.

According to a November 2013 NASA Office of the Inspector General report, the actual amount received in those first three fiscal years was only 38% of what the Obama administration requested in its original February 2010 proposal. That original proposal intended for the first ISS operational flights to be in 2015, which would have reduced the gap by at least two years from what the Augustine Committee projected.

Page 16 of the report (Page 26 in the PDF) states:

Generally speaking, we determined that each year’s budget decrement has resulted in an additional year of schedule delay. Even if the Program receives its full budget request in future years, the cumulative difference between the Program’s initial budget requests and receipts over the life of the Program would be approximately $1.1 billion.

The Obama administration is scheduled to release its Fiscal Year 2016 budget request on Monday February 2. Last year's budget proposal projected that the FY16 request would be $872.3 million. If history repeats itself, Congress will respond with a yawn and widen the gap yet again.

If you're unhappy with NASA's continued reliance on Russia, vent your wrath at your local member of Congress and your two U.S. Senators. The White House did its part.

"State of NASA" Pre-Game Show

NASA issed a media advisory yesterday announcing major events February 2 at space centers across the nation to spotlight the release of the agency's proposed Fiscal Year 2016 budget. Kennedy Space Center will host Administrator Charlie Bolden for the televised event.

The text is below ... but everyone should be cautioned that the President's budget request is advisory, so don't get too worked up by what is unveiled next week. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) reminded us of that last year when she made it clear she would seek more money for NASA, which not-so-coincidentally would be spent in her state.

January 29, 2015


UPDATE — NASA Hosts Media, Social Media for “State of NASA” Events at Agency Centers

NASA centers across the country are opening their doors Monday, Feb. 2, to media and social media for “State of NASA” events, unique opportunities for a behind-the-scenes look at the agency’s work on its journey to Mars.

Events at NASA centers will include media tours and presentations on the cutting-edge technologies developed and under development, as well as the scientific discoveries made as NASA studies our changing Earth and the infinite universe, and progresses toward the next generation of air travel.

Additionally, each center will connect via NASA Television with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at 1:30 p.m. EST at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Bolden will address the agency’s scientific and technological achievements and the exciting work ahead as we push farther in the solar system and lead the world in a new era of exploration.

Questions will be taken from media in attendance at Kennedy. The briefing will air live on NASA TV and the agency's website.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

He Ain't Heavy, He's My Falcon

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

SpaceX released today the above computer animation of a Falcon Heavy launch from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

As with many of these animations, some of it is no doubt fanciful but it is a first look at the company's plans for KSC's iconic launch pad.

It also shows how SpaceX plans to use the Cape's Pad 13 for Falcon 9 booster landings. Elon Musk recently stated he thought the center core would continue down range to land on the autonomous drone ship, but this video shows it returning to the Cape.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Plan to Launch America

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

NASA held a major media event this afternoon to provide a public update on its Commercial Crew program. Representatives from Boeing and SpaceX were part of the presentation. Both representatives gave detailed timelines for the next two years.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden outlined NASA's vision for turning over low Earth orbit in the mid-2020s to the private sector, and encouraged the media to check out the Bigelow BEAM prototype on display. The BEAM will go to the International Space Station on the SpaceX CRS-8 delivery currently scheduled for September. Bolden believes the Bigelow technology may be the eventual replacement for the ISS, which Bolden said would be disassembled and deorbited into the atmosphere once it's decommissioned.

Media reports:

Associated Press “Boeing, SpaceX Will Beat Russia on Price for Astronaut Rides”

CNBC “The New Space Race (Sort Of): SpaceX vs Boeing”

Florida Today “Boeing, SpaceX Aim for Manned Launches in 2017”

Houston Chronicle “The 21st Century Space Race Has Begun” “SpaceX Preparing for the Crewed Dragon Abort Tests”

A prototype of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module on display at today's media event. Image source: @StephenClark1 on Twitter.

Planetary Society to Set Sail from the Cape

Click the arrow to watch a LightSail promotional film. Video source: The Planetary Society YouTube channel.

The Planetary Society announced today that its LightSail spacecraft will launch in May from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

According to the project's web site, “our first LightSail spacecraft will hitch a ride to orbit aboard an Atlas V rocket for a shakedown cruise. We won’t fly high enough above the Earth's atmosphere for solar sailing, but we'll test our sail deployment sequence and snap some pretty pictures.” An embargoed press release issued January 23 by TPS said the Atlas V would launch from CCAFS.

According to the launch schedule, the only Atlas V launch scheduled for CCAFS in May is AFSPC 5. AFSPC is an acronym for Air Force Space Command. The official primary payload hasn't been released.

The first launch into space of a TPS LightSail will be aboard “the first operational launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket,” according to the January 23 release. That would be at Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A, currently under renovation.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Houston Has a Solution

A September 2013 Houston Spaceport promotional film. Video source: houstonairports YouTube channel.

In July 2011, as the Space Shuttle flew for the final time, I wrote a column titled “Houston Has a Problem.” It was primarily about the whining out of Space City because it didn't receive a Space Shuttle orbiter for display.

Some locals complained that a political conspiracy by the Obama administration had denied them an orbiter, even though more objective local observers noted that Houston's proposal lacked detail and committed funding. An August 2011 NASA Office of Inspector General report found no evidence that the White House had intervened in the site selection, but NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said that “many members of Congress, as well as state and local elected officials, tried to influence his decision through personal phone calls, letters, and comments they made to the media. Bolden also said he was contacted by family members of the Columbia crew who died in 2003 and by the candidate organizations themselves.” Sixteen members of the Texas Congressional delegation wrote a letter to Bolden complaining about the “Houston Shuttle snub” and Houston-area Rep. Pete Olson introduced legislation hoping to force NASA to give Houston one of the orbiters if another site's development failed.

Former Space Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale wrote in his April 14, 2011 blog article:

... Houston is blasé about the shuttles. Houston and Texas have come to regard NASA and JSC as entitlements. We deserve JSC and the shuttle just because of who we are.

More than three years later, it appears that some in Houston have figured out that they have to compete in the real world just like the rest of us.

KPRC-TV Channel 2 in Houston reported on January 22 about the comment period about to end for a proposal to certify Houston's Ellington Field as a commercial spaceport.

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The Houston Airport promotional film released in September 2013 is a CGI fantasy of launch vehicles that could be flying from Ellington, such as the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft that could also fly from Kennedy Space Center, and the Virgin Galactic satellite launch system.

The video falsely claims that “All of manned flight, every one of them, has been managed, has been controlled, has been guided from Houston.” Mario Diaz, the Director of the Houston Airport System who made the false statement, apparently never heard of the Russian and Chinese human space flight programs. Here in the United States, all six Project Mercury missions were “managed” and “controlled” from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, as well as the first crewed Gemini flight.

Falsehoods aside, at least the captains of Houstonian industry seem finally to be grasping that the days of entitlement are over. You have to earn it like everyone else.

It also means that Space Coast leadership, which also believed in entitlement up to the end of the Space Shuttle program, need to step up their game. Space Florida works to arrange commercial tenants for Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but still faces bureaucratic obstacles from those who guard their personal fiefdoms at the Cape.

Instead of fighting each other for scraps of federal pork, the elected officials that represent Texas and Florida should be working together to assure that all commercial spaceports in the United States are free to compete for private sector customers. Not only will the best site win, but it also assures that the rest of the world will come back to the United States as we pioneer a new economy based on reaping the rewards of cheaper access to space.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Retro Saturday: The Versatile T-38

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

Ever since the early 1960s, NASA astronauts have flown Northrop T-38 Talons to maintain their flight proficiency and travel from one assignment to another.

This week's Retro Saturday is a circa 1962 nine-minute Northrop Corporation documentary on the T-38. It focuses largely on U.S. Air Force use, but does mention it's also used by NASA.

This 2011 NASA article discusses the T-38's use as a trainer and a Shuttle chase plane.

Four 1960s-era NASA astronauts died in T-38 accidents.

In October 1964, Theodore Freeman was killed upon approach to Ellington AFB in Houston when a bird strike disabled a port-side engine.

In February 1966, Elliot See and Charles Bassett died when they crashed into the McDonnell Aircraft building in St. Louis where their Gemini 9 capsule was being assembled.

In October 1967, Clifton Williams crashed near Tallahassee, Florida due to a mechanical failure. He'd departed Patrick AFB in Cocoa Beach an hour earlier. He'd been projected as the Lunar Module pilot with Pete Conrad on what would eventually become the Apollo 12 mission.

More on the T-38 at the Northrop Grumman T-38 Talon web page.

This September 2007 image shows two NASA T-38s flying in formation at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB. Image source: NASA.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Moon Express Prizes the Cape

Promotional film of a December 2014 test flight at Kennedy Space Center. Video source: Moon Express YouTube channel.

Florida Today broke the story late last night that Moon Express is about to lease the Cape's Pad 36 through a deal with state agency Space Florida.

Moon Express is the first entrepreneurial “new space” company to commit to a significant presence at the Cape without a major government contract in hand. If it is successful, it would help diversify the area's space industry beyond its traditional base of NASA and Air Force contractors working on big rocket programs.

An initial group of 25 to 50 employees will include some relocating from the company's headquarters at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, and an office in Huntsville, Alabama. Among them is Tim Pickens, lead designer of the engine for SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed craft to put people in space in 2004.

They will also include local hires, potentially building up to a team of 100 or 200 employees here, ranging from machine shop workers to spacecraft engineers.

Moon Express is a participant in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. According to the Google web site:

To win the grand prize ($20 million), private teams (with no more than 10% in government funding) must:

  • Land a robot safely on the Moon
  • Move 500 meters on, above, or below the Moon’s surface; and
  • Send back HDTV Mooncasts for everyone to enjoy

. . . and this must all be completed before the December 31st, 2015 deadline! There are other prizes, too, for missions like surviving the lunar night and visiting an Apollo site.

Last month, Google announced the deadline had been extended to the end of 2016. “As part of this revised timeline, at least one team must provide documentation of a scheduled launch by December 31, 2015 for all teams to move forward in the competition,” according to a Google press release.

Moon Express has yet to announce a launch date or vehicle, although their web site states that, “The spacecraft is designed to ride to Earth orbit on low cost secondary payload opportunities aboard commercial launchers like the SpaceX Falcon 9 that are radically reducing the cost of access to space.”

SpaceX currently launches the Falcon 9 from the Cape's Pad 40, but the company hopes to have Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A operational by the end of this year for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches.

Presumably the symbolism of launching the robotic lunar lander from the same pad that sent all six Apollo crews to the surface of the Moon isn't lost upon Moon Express or SpaceX.

Launch Complex 36 was the site of all seven launches in the NASA Surveyor program that attempted to place robotic probes on the lunar surface to demonstrate the feasibility of crewed soft landings. Five of the seven probes launched between 1966 to 1968 successfully landed. The Apollo 12 crew visited the landing site of Surveyor 3 and brought back several components.

Apollo 12 commander with Surveyor 3 on the Moon, November 20, 1969. Click the image for a larger version. Image source: NASA.

Earlier this month, Florida Today reported that SpaceX is about to formally lease the Cape's Pad 13 for future landings by its reusable Falcon 9 boosters.

UPDATE January 22, 2015 7:00 PM ESTMoon Express issued this release today officially announcing its agreement with Space Florida.

Moon Express and Space Florida have signed an agreement that will lead to Moon Express spacecraft development and flight test operations at SLC-36 starting early this year. The agreement allows Moon Express and the state of Florida to make investments into the refurbishment of SLC-36, leading to a revitalized range and the immediate creation of 25-50 new jobs and potentially hundreds of direct and indirect new jobs over the next 5 years. Moon Express will be making an initial capital investment of up to $500K into SLC-36, which will allow initial operations to transfer over from the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility where the company's MTV-1X vehicle has been undergoing flight testing in partnership with NASA under the Lunar CATALYST program. It is anticipated that capital investments will grow into the millions, some of which may become eligible for reimbursement through the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) matching funds program.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Elon Musk Plans Space Internet

Click the arrow to watch today's Seattle event. Video source: Cliff O YouTube channel.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has often fretted about the dangers of artificial intelligence, but he plans to bring humanity one step closer to the Skynet of Terminator fame with his proposal to build a global satellite Internet project.

As reported by Space News:

Elon Musk on Jan. 16 said SpaceX has submitted to international regulators the necessary documentation for a global satellite Internet project to eventually include some 4,000 satellites in low Earth orbit and initial service within five years ...

Musk did not provide a name for his satellite project, and there was no immediate way to verify what he or SpaceX have submitted to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Geneva-based United Nations agency that regulates orbital slots and radio spectrum. Also unclear is what radio frequencies the SpaceX network would used to deliver broadband from low Earth orbit.

“There’s multiple elements to the regulatory things,” Musk said in answer to a question during an invitation-only speech in Seattle announcing the creation of the SpaceX satellite factory there. “There’s the ITU filings and we’ve done the filings associated with that.”

Musk held a private event Friday evening January 16 in Seattle to court engineers who were potential hires, although local politicians were also in attendance.

With him was a flown SpaceX Dragon, which went on temporary display over the weekend at the city's Museum of Flight.

A flown SpaceX Dragon on temporary display in Seattle. Image source: Seattle Times.

Business Week published an exclusive interview with Musk that provided some detail for the project.

The Space Internet venture, to which Musk hasn’t yet given a name, would be hugely ambitious. Hundreds of satellites would orbit about 750 miles above earth, much closer than traditional communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit at altitudes of up to 22,000 miles. The lower satellites would make for a speedier Internet service, with less distance for electromagnetic signals to travel. The lag in current satellite systems makes applications such as Skype, online gaming, and other cloud-based services tough to use. Musk’s service would, in theory, rival fiber optic cables on land while also making the Internet available to remote and poor regions that don’t have access.

In Musk’s vision, Internet data packets going from, say, Los Angeles to Johannesburg would no longer have to go through dozens of routers and terrestrial networks. Instead, the packets would go to space, bouncing from satellite to satellite until they reach the one nearest their destination, then return to an antenna on earth. “The speed of light is 40 percent faster in the vacuum of space than it is for fiber,” Musk says. “The long-term potential is to be the primary means of long-distance Internet traffic and to serve people in sparsely populated areas.”

A related unconfirmed report is circulating on the Internet that Silicon Valley-based Google may provide a $1 billion for the SpaceX satellite project.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Google Inc. is close to investing roughly $1 billion in Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to support its nascent efforts to deliver Internet access via satellites, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The investment would value SpaceX, backed by Tesla Motors Inc. Chief Executive Elon Musk, at more than $10 billion, according to this person. It isn’t clear what exact stake Google could end up with in the fast-growing space company.

If Google completes the deal, it would be the Internet company’s latest effort to use futuristic technology to spread Internet access to remote regions of the world, alongside high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones. By extending Web access, Google increases the number of people who can use its services.

Elon Musk poses as Dr. Evil. Just sayin'.

UPDATE January 20, 2015 5:30 PM ESTSpaceX issued this press release today announcing Google and Fidelity as new investors.

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has raised a billion dollars in a financing round with two new investors, Google and Fidelity. They join existing investors Founders Fund, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Valor Equity Partners and Capricorn. Google and Fidelity will collectively own just under 10% of the company.

SpaceX designs, manufactures, and launches the world's most advanced rockets and spacecraft. This funding will be used to support continued innovation in the areas of space transport, reusability, and satellite manufacturing.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Retro Saturday: Assignment: Shoot the Moon

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

Our Retro Saturday films the last two weeks have focused (no pun intended) on documentaries about 1960s NASA programs to photograph the Moon in preparation for a human lunar landing.

We wrap that series with a 25½-minute 1967 NASA film called Assignment: Shoot the Moon. It covers Project Ranger and the Surveyor lander programs, but much of it focuses (pun intended, this time) on the pictures returned by Lunar Orbiter.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Missed It By That Much

UPDATE January 26, 2015 9:30 PM EST — SpaceX released this video late today of the reusable Falcon 9 crashing on the drone ship.

An animated GIF made from images tweeted by Elon Musk. Image source: The Verge.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk released overnight still photos of the reusable Falcon 9 crash-landing January 10 on the company's Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship.

The images were releaed in a series of tweets on Twitter.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

An Open Letter to Ted Cruz

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). Image source: Wikipedia.

Dear Senator Cruz —

To be honest, you and I share very little politically in common.

But this open letter is not to bash you, although personally I find much reason to do so.

My intent, instead, is to address the opportunity you have as the new chair of the Senate space subcommittee to help the United States create an entirely new economy based on opening space to the private sector.

I am hopeful that you might give this serious consideration. In the few times I've watched your demeanor during this subcommittee's hearings as its ranking member the last two years, invariably you have been respectful and deferential to Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), its long-time chair. Although I also disagree with much of Senator Nelson's space policies, his approach has been gentlemanly, sober and above rank partisanship. I hope you will continue his example.

The subcommittee has been renamed to “Science, Space and Competitiveness.” I am encouraged by the addition of a reference to competition, because I hope it is an indication that you will embrace the nascent commercial space era that's often called “NewSpace.”

Some of your Republican colleagues have bashed NewSpace, apparently because they identify it with President Barack Obama. That perception is entirely false, other than it's the Obama administration that finally took seriously a commercial space movement that began in the mid-1980s with the Reagan administration.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act was amended in 1985 to add subsection 102(c), which states:

The Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (as established by title II of this Act) seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.

An artist's concept of Leasecraft. Image source:

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

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

Leasecraft was scheduled to launch on the Shuttle in 1988. The orbiter would rendezvous with the platform every six months to collect experiments and deploy new ones. But for political reasons — mostly due to the Challenger disaster — commercial use of the Shuttle was phased out in favor of prioritizing strictly government uses such as satellite deployment and space station construction.

In the first decade of the 2000s, Republicans Bob Walker, Newt Gingrich and Dana Rohrabacher all pushed to reopen the door for commercial space.

Their opportunity came in the aftermath of yet another Shuttle disaster, this time the loss of the orbiter Columbia over eastern Texas.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board report concluded that “the Shuttle remains a complex and risky system that remains central to U.S. ambitions in space.” The Board 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.

In response to the Board's findings, President George W. Bush delivered his Vision for Space Exploration speech on January 14, 2004.

Today is the eleventh anniversary of that speech.

Click the arrow to watch on YouTube President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration speech.

The speech focused primarily on retiring the Space Shuttle after the completion of the International Space Station, then starting a new program called Constellation that would return humans to deep-space flight.

President Bush failed to seek adequate funding for Constellation. As with most NASA programs, it fell years behind schedule and went billions of dollars over budget. That's why the Obama administration proposed its cancellation in early 2010.

But when President Bush's formal proposal was delivered to Congress in February 2004, it also planted the seeds for today's NewSpace movement.

The Vision called for NASA to increasingly rely on commercial transportation systems. NASA would no longer develop its own systems except where “critical NASA needs” could not be met by the private sector.

Bush appointed a “Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy,” chaired by former U.S. Air Force Secretary Pete Aldridge. The Aldridge Commission delivered its report on June 16, 2004.

You should read this. Click here to download the report. In particular, you should read Section III, titled “Building a Robust Space Industry.”

This is where NewSpace began.

June 16, 2004 ... Pete Aldridge and his commission hold a media event to release their report.

In their media event, the commission stressed their most important recommendation was to open space to the private sector.

To quote from the report:

The Commission finds that sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. The space industry will become a national treasure.

The report called for “the breaking down of barriers to commercial and entrepreneurial activities in space, as well as a cultural shift towards encouraging and incentivizing more private sector business in space. Such a change in both perspective and posture is essential if we are to develop a broad-based, societal change in space business.”

The commission noted that “It is the stated policy of the act creating and enabling NASA that it encourage and nurture private sector space.” They cited a NASA program called the Centennial Challenge that gives cash prizes for “advancement of space or aeronautical technologies,” and suggested that “NASA should expand its Centennial prize program to encourage entrepreneurs and risk-takers to undertake major space missions.”

It was Bush's appointee, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who approached entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk to participate in the commercial space program. In an October 2006 speech, Mr. Griffin stated, “In my first few weeks as NASA Administrator, I met with Burt Rutan, Elon Musk, Bob Bigelow, and other space entrepreneurs to hear their ideas.”

NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office opened in November 2005. SpaceX received its first NASA contract in 2006.

The commercial crew program was on the books from the beginning, but was never funded by the Bush administration because it focused on the Constellation boondoggle.

President Obama took office in January 2009. His administration appointed a new committee led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine. The committee's report concluded that Constellation was not sustainable; in fact, an August 2009 GAO report concluded that Constellation lacked “a sound business case” and still had a number of unresolved technical issues. Even worse, Constellation was to have been funded by ending the space station in 2015. The ISS would be built only to splash it into the Pacific Ocean.

When Obama's proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget went to Congress in early 2010, the administration proposed cancelling Constellation. The savings would be used to extend the ISS to 2020 and finally fund the commercial crew program.

Newt Gingrich and Bob Walker crossed partisan lines to support Obama's proposal, when they published a Washington Times column endorsing the President's plans to commercialize space. They wrote:

Reliance on commercial launch services will provide many other benefits. It will open the doors to more people having the opportunity to go to space. It has the potential of creating thousands of new jobs, largely the kind of high-tech work to which our nation should aspire. In the same way the railroads opened the American West, commercial access can open vast new opportunities in space. All of this new activity will expand the space enterprise, and in doing so, will improve the economic competitiveness of our country.

And there is the word that I hope you will embrace — competitiveness.

Congressional politics, unfortunately, underfunded Obama's commercial crew budget requests by 62% during Fiscal Years 2011-2013. That extended NASA reliance on the Russian space agency until 2017 for crew access to the space station. I assume you agree with me that reliance on Russia is not acceptable.

Senator Nelson and your predecessor, Kay Bailey Hutchison, felt it was more important to protect the existing NASA contractor work force in their states by replacing Constellation with a pork program called the Space Launch System. The SLS has been dubbed the Senate Launch System by its critics.

When NASA was created in 1958, it was not to direct government pork to the districts and states of those on space-related congressional committees.

That philosophy is a residue of the 1960s, when the entire nation was mobilized to prove to the rest of the world that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union. In current dollars, $150 billion was spent on “prestige,” a word that constantly appears in documents of the era.

In today's era of multi-billion dollar annual federal deficits, an Apollo rerun is not the responsible fiscal model for NASA in the 21st Century.

NewSpace has shown that the private sector is willing to invest its money in space exploration — and exploitation — if given the opportunity. SpaceX has provided NASA with a 21st Century robotic cargo ship at a fraction of the cost if it had been developed by NASA.

The grassroots advocacy group Tea Party in Space has a platform that calls for “the goal of permanently settling the space frontier by fostering private as well as appropriate government activities in space.”

To accelerate the opening of the space frontier and settlement of space, the United States government should form appropriate partnerships with the private sector to cost-effectively develop technologies. NASA, acting as one of the principal agencies involved in space settlement, will play a primary role in these technology development efforts.

If you wish to demonstrate American exceptionalism to the rest of the world, the best way to do it is to unleash American enterprise.

Ralph J. Cordiner on the cover of the January 12, 1959 Time magazine.

In 1961, the year President Kennedy proposed the Moon program for prestige, General Electric Chairman of the Board Ralph Cordiner published an essay titled, “Competitive Private Enterprise in Space.” Cordiner was a Republican, and would go on to chair Barry Goldwater's finance committee during the 1964 presidential race.

Even though GE stood to make millions off the Moon program, Cordiner warned of the consequences of a bloated government space program.

In his essay, Cordiner wrote:

Since the space effort will, for a long time, be primarily a research and development effort, this tendency could lead to an unexpected, and perhaps undesirable, build-up of government-controlled facilities. Looking to the future, when the space frontier has been explored and is ready for economic development, we might well find the area pre-empted by the government, which would then have most of the personnel and facilities available. This would leave the nation almost no choice except to settle for nationalized industry in space ...

As we step up our activities on the space frontier, many companies, universities, and individual citizens will become increasingly dependent on the political whims and necessities of the Federal government. And if that drift continues without check, the United States may find itself becoming the very kind of society that it is struggling against — a regimented society whose people and institutions are dominated by a central government.

Cordiner's warning came to pass.

You have an opportunity to change that, by embracing NewSpace and challenging your colleagues to cease using NASA as easy pork for their states.

Yes, you will get political pushback from those in Houston who get fat off Johnson Space Center contracts.

But you also have the nation's first privately owned spaceport coming to Boca Chica, built entirely by SpaceX private funding.

Which model do you think is the better one for the future of American spaceflight?

Thank you for your time.

UPDATE January 14, 2015 5:15 PM ESTEric Berger of the Houston Chronicle published an interview this afternoon with Senator Cruz, asking a number of questions about the Senator's space priorities.

The Senator's web site also posted a press release today listing the Senator's space priorities.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

SpaceX Pads Its Lead

Coming soon to the Cape's Pad 13 ... A test flight of the reusable Falcon 9 at the SpaceX test site in McGregor, Texas. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

A rather poorly kept secret became public on January 6 when Florida Today published an article about SpaceX planning to use the inactive Pad 13 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as a landing pad for the Falcon 9 booster.

The environmental assessment for that use appeared online when posted a link to the draft report on the Patrick Air Force Base web site.

Also available at this link (in case the original disappears), the report was prepared for SpaceX and the U.S. Air Force in October 2014 by Gator Engineering and Aquifier Restoration, whose illustrations appear below. SpaceX was a prior G.E.A.R. customer in 2013.

The report not only reveals the company's plans for Pad 13, but lots of details about its operational strategies as well as the near future for the Falcon Heavy.

The below information is directly from the report. Page references are to the PDF number, not the section/page number in the report.

Page 8 states that SpaceX is working towards a “5-year real property license” from CCAFS for the facility, which seems a bit short compared to the 20-year lease with NASA at Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

Pad 13 as it currently appears on Google Earth. Click the image to view on Google Earth at a higher resolution and scroll the vicinity.

Page 10 states the purpose for the SpaceX project:

The purpose of this action is to provide a [Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV)] landing area by constructing a landing pad and associated supporting infrastructure for landing operations of the Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy vehicle in order to reuse it for future launches. This purpose continues to support SpaceX’s over-all missions for NASA and the USAF. The action continues to fulfill the United States’ expectation that space transportation costs are reduced in order to make continued exploration, development, and use of space more affordable. The Space Transportation section of the National Space Transportation Policy of 1994 addressed the commercial launch sector, stating that “assuring reliable and affordable access to space through U.S. space transportation capabilities is fundamental to achieving National Space Policy goals.”

This action is needed in order to increase the effective and cost efficient operation of space flight by providing a truly returnable, re-usable space vehicle close to the location that it was launched from. The need for the Proposed Action is also in line with NASA’s Space Act Agreement (SAA) and the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation mission, which is to continue to support of the U.S. goal of encouraging activities by the private sector to strengthen and expand U.S. space transportation infrastructure. The Proposed Action would provide greater capability in its mission to support the ISS and other commercial enterprises. Demand for launch services has increased over the past 20 years and the demand projections indicate that this would continue into the foreseeable future. In order for the United States to be competitive, the cost and frequency of launches needs to keep pace with world demand.

These national needs are cited throughout the document as critical justifications for the project.

Page 15 states:

“The scope for this EA is limited to the landing of the first stage of a Falcon 9 vehicle, or a Falcon Heavy single first stage, at LC-13, and the activities to support redeveloping LC-13 into a landing location. This EA does not include a multiple booster landing scenario since only one booster will be landing at this facility during a landing event.

Conspicuous by its absence is the crew version of the SpaceX Dragon, known as the V2. One would presume that Pad 13 could also be used for aborts or returns from orbit, but that is not mentioned. The Dragon V2 will launch atop the Falcon 9 at KSC's Pad 39A, but after orbital flight it would land whereever orbital mechanics permit.

A May 2014 promotional film showing computer animation of a Dragon V2 flight. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

The above May 2014 SpaceX promotional film shows the V2 landing at a pad near the CCAFS runway, called the Skid Strip. That pad currently does not exist. Presumably the CGI is just for illustration and is not an actual plan. Perhaps another environmental assessment will be required if Pad 13 is used for V2 landings — or SpaceX may seek another location closer to the NASA side of the Cape that would return the crew to their headquarters facility in the KSC industrial area.

The report states in several places that only one of the three Falcon Heavy boosters will return to Pad 13. The others would be recovered down-range, presumably on the SpaceX Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship.

The SpaceX Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship. Image source: Elon Musk on Twitter.

According to page 16, “It is anticipated that the stage would return to the landing pad within approximately 10 minutes after lift-off. Preliminary trajectory analysis indicates that a point directly beneath the vehicle at stage separation falls approximately 16 nautical miles from the launch site.”

The site would have a 200 foot by 200 foot square primary landing pad, with four 150-foot diameter contingency pads around its perimeter. Page 17 states, “The contingency pads would only be utilized in order to enable the safe landing of a single vehicle should last-second navigation and landing diversion be required. There are no plans to utilize the contingency pads in order to enable landing multiple stages at LC-13 during a single landing event.”

The main pad and contingency pads. Click the image to view at a higher resolution.

Page 17 continues:

At the location of the former blockhouse, a steel and concrete “stand” would be built to secure the Falcon stage during post-landing operations. The stand would consist of four Individual pedestal structures which would be transported to site and bolted to a concrete base. Each of the four pedestals, would weigh approximately 15,000 lbs, and would be 107 inches tall and 96.25 inches wide. A mobile crane would lift the stage from the landing pad, and transport and place it on the stand. Activities such as allowing the landing legs to be removed or folded back to the stage (flight position) prior to placing the stage in a horizontal position would occur there.

Worried about the stage going off course? Page 19 addresses that concern:

The guidance, navigation, and control system of the Falcon vehicle is triplicated such that the system is one-fault tolerant. The system consists of three inertial measurement units, three GPS receivers, three flight computers, and thrust vector control on the first stage. A destructive Flight Termination System (FTS) would also be active ...

The location of support facilities proposed for Pad 13. The report does not provide an explanation for the numbering. Click the image to view at a higher resolution.

For those who miss the twin sonic booms that heralded the return of the Space Shuttle orbiters, the report notes in several places the potential for a sonic boom as the Falcon 9 returns. But the boom is expected to occur about 30 miles out over the ocean.

The expected sonic noise pattern for a Falcon 9 RLV flying back to LC-13 from an approximate trajectory of between 040 degrees and 060 degrees. Click the image to view at a higher resolution.

Pages 64-65 of the report discuss the sonic boom potential in detail.

The maximum focus boom would be 3psf or less and occur beyond over the ocean 30 miles from the coast. CCAFS and the Daytona Beach area may experience a slight over pressure of up to 1 psf, but generally about .4 psf or less ... Based on the discussion above, sonic boom effects from landing operations at LC-13 would be less than other launch actions and would not cause a significant noise impact in sensitive areas.

SpaceX attempted to land its Falcon 9 on the drone ship on January 10. A shortage of hydraulic fluid resulted in a “hard landing” but the F9R did reach its target. SpaceX has indicated it intends to try again with its next launch, currently scheduled for January 29.

As fun as it is to watch SpaceX try to land on the ship, it's only part of a larger strategy to bring back rockets to Pad 13 so they can be refurbished, refueled and flown again.

It's been a long time since the Cape was the epicenter of aerospace innovation. The glory days are about to return, thanks to SpaceX.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Fluid Situation

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

SpaceX launched its fifth official delivery to the International Space Station early this morning, with a perfect performance of the launch and Dragon cargo ship deployment.

What was once considered revolutionary, and perhaps a bit perilous, has now become almost anti-climactic.

Now all the drama is focused on the SpaceX attempt to land the Falcon 9 first stage booster on an Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (SpaceX asks you not to call it a “barge”) in the Atlantic Ocean.

During Monday's pre-launch media event, despite the best efforts of NASA media personnel, most of the questions were for Space Vice-President of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann, who fielded a barrage of questions about the drone ship landing attempt.

As SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted this morning, “Close, but no cigar this time.”

A series of tweets throughout the day explained what happened.

It's unclear if the next SpaceX launch from the Cape will attempt a barge landing. As of this writing, it's scheduled to launch on January 29. That mission will launch the Deep Space Climate Observatory, a joint project of NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Elsewhere on Twitter, United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno responded to questions from tweeters, suggesting that the SpaceX plan to reuse rockets is not economically feasible.

Sounds to me like Mr. Bruno is whistling through the graveyard, but I'm not an expert, so I'll let nature take its course. So far, those who have bet against SpaceX have lost every time.

UPDATE January 11, 2015 9:00 PM has posted photos of the drone ship as it arrived earlier today in Jacksonville.

Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source:

Retro Saturday: The Lunar Orbiter

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

Last week's Retro Saturday film was about Project Ranger, the first NASA attempt to map the Moon's surface.

That program was followed by Lunar Orbiter, a rather generic title that describes exactly the program's purpose.

Unlike Ranger, all five Lunar Orbiters launched and deployed successfully. The orbiters mapped 99% of the Moon's surface in preparation for arrival later in the decade by Apollo astronauts.

This week's film is a 7½ minute produced by the Boeing Company for NASA about the Lunar Orbiter program.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The SpaceX CRS-5 Pre-Game Show

Don't call it a barge. It's an autonomous spaceport drone ship. Image source: Elon Musk on Twitter.

UPDATE January 7, 2015 8:30 PM ESTNASA announced this afternoon that the CRS-5 launch has been rescheduled to Saturday January 10 at 4:47 AM EST.

A Saturday launch will result in the Dragon spacecraft arriving at the space station Monday, Jan. 12. Expedition 42 Commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore of NASA will use the station's 57.7-foot robotic arm to capture Dragon at approximately 6 a.m. Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency will support Wilmore as they operate from the station's cupola. NASA TV coverage of grapple will begin at 4:30 a.m. Coverage of Dragon's installation to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module will begin at 8:15 a.m.

If the launch does not take place Saturday, the next launch opportunity would be Tuesday, Jan. 13 at about 3:36 a.m.

SpaceX was supposed to launch the Falcon 9 this morning with its cargo Dragon payload, but the attempt was cancelled with 90 seconds left in the countdown when readings indicated a problem with an upper stage actuator.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk posted this tweet 50 minutes after the scrub:

What's an actuator?

According to Wikipedia:

An actuator is a type of motor that is responsible for moving or controlling a mechanism or system.

It is operated by a source of energy, typically electric current, hydraulic fluid pressure, or pneumatic pressure, and converts that energy into motion. An actuator is the mechanism by which a control system acts upon an environment. The control system can be simple (a fixed mechanical or electronic system), software-based (e.g. a printer driver, robot control system), a human, or any other input.

The initial report was that the anomaly was “actuator drift.” This 2007 Hydraulics & Pneumatics article goes into detail:

Actuator drift occurs when a valve is out of null, resulting in a piston moving slowly or drifting when there is no control signal (e.g. when the electrical power is off). In some cases, this drift is desired — such as when null is adjusted so that the piston rod retracts to a safe position upon loss of the control signal.

Problems arise when the rate of drift is too high or in the wrong direction. For example, with a high drift rate, as much as a 10% control signal to the valve could be required just to compensate for the out-of-null valve. If a 10% control output is required just to hold position, only 90% is left to make the actuator move in the direction opposite the drift. Consequently, the actuator may only get to 90% of full speed in that direction. Therefore, in applications where quick moves are needed, a strongly biased null valve can keep the actuator from reaching the desired full speed.

Got that?

Most likely it's a minor fix, but due to orbital mechanics the next launch window is Friday January 9 at 5:09 AM EST.

Not counting the first demonstration flight in May 2012, this is the fifth contracted SpaceX cargo delivery to the International Space Station. Click here to download the CRS-5 press kit.

On Monday, NASA held three media events to discuss the launch; the videos of those events are below. Clearly the most popular person was SpaceX Vice-President of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann, who was peppered with questions about the planned attempt to land the Falcon 9 on the company's drone ship.

Koenigsmann made it quite clear that you're not to call it a barge because it has thrusters for propulsion.

As discussed in this December 16 SpaceX press release, the drone ship is the latest step in the game plan to develop reusable rockets the company hopes will reduce launch costs.

A fully and rapidly reusable rocket—which has never been done before—is the pivotal breakthrough needed to substantially reduce the cost of space access. While most rockets are designed to burn up on reentry, SpaceX is building rockets that not only withstand reentry, but also land safely on Earth to be refueled and fly again. Over the next year, SpaceX has at least a dozen launches planned with a number of additional testing opportunities. Given what we know today, we believe it is quite likely that with one of those flights we will not only be able to land a Falcon 9 first stage, but also re-fly.

This assumes that a customer will accept the increased risk of launching a payload atop a previous flown rocket, but someone will eventually take the discount SpaceX will probably offer to be the metaphorical guinea pig.

SpaceX hopes repeated drone landings will convince the U.S. Air Force to allow the company to land its rockets and crew Dragons at the Cape's Pad 13 — yes, the worst kept secret in these parts is finally out, reported in this morning's Florida Today but quietly known to many of us for months. The article states there is no final agreement, but renovation work has been underway at Pad 13 for some time now.

If the Air Force remains stodgy, SpaceX could continue to use the drone to land the vehicles off-shore and then transport them back to port, presumably in Jacksonville where the drone ship was berthed for this mission. During a Reddit chat last night, Musk wrote that with Falcon Heavy launches the center stage could wind up landing on the drone ship down range rather than incur the fuel penalty of trying to return it back to the Cape.

Since two-thirds of the Earth's surface is covered with water, the drone ship gives SpaceX incredible flexibility in placing a mobile landing pad pretty much anywhere there's a large body of water.

I'll also mention that recently I drove past Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A, being remodelled by SpaceX for the Falcon Heavy. Two pile drivers stand on the crawlerway at the base of the ramp, where a new horizontal integration facility will be built. The gravel on the ramp has been removed for the rails SpaceX will use to transport the rocket horizontally to the pad, where it will be erected to vertical for launch.

Enjoy the below videos, and hopefully we're back here on Friday to write about history.

Or grumble about another delay.

As I often say, “It wouldn't be a SpaceX launch without a little melodrama.”

Pre-launch media event with ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini, SpaceX VP of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann, and U.S. Air Force Weather Squadron representative Major Perry Sweat.

ISS Research and Technology panel media event with ISS Program chief scientist Julie Robinson, CASIS director of operations and education Kenneth Shields, Micro-5 Principal Investigator Cheryl Nickerson from Arizona State University, and NR-SABOL Principal Investigator Sam Durrance from Florida Tech.

CATS Earth Science Instrument Briefing with ISS Program chief scientist Julie Robinson, NASA program scientist Robert Swap, and CATS principal investigator Matthew McGill.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Retro Saturday: Lunar Bridgehead

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday is a 29-minute film from 1964 titled, Lunar Bridgehead. It was produced for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Project Ranger was a NASA program originally intended to conduct various scientific observations of the Moon. Conceived in 1959, Ranger probes were to hurdle towards the Moon, conducting experiments upon approach before crashing into the surface. Technology had not yet evolved to the point where a probe could orbit the Moon.

After President John F. Kennedy proposed the human spaceflight program on May 25, 1961, JPL was informed that Ranger would now prioritize reconnaissance for potential Apollo program landing sites. Ranger scientists weren't particularly happy, but NASA was paying the bills.

The first six Ranger missions failed for various reasons. After Ranger 6 failed to transmit images upon approach, NASA threatened to cancel the program if JPL didn't deliver results.

Lunar Bridgehead is a JPL film about the Ranger 7 mission, the first that succeeded. No mention is made in the film of the prior failures or the termination threat hanging over the program.

Watch near the end for Dr. William H. Pickering. He was the JPL Director from 1954 until he retired in 1976. Dr. Pickering was a key figure in many of the earliest robotic probes launched by the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. He was with Wernher von Braun and James Van Allen in Washington, D.C. the night of January 31, 1958, when the U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, from Cape Canaveral.

Bill Pickering, James Van Allen and Wernher von Braun lift an Explorer 1 replica the night of January 31, 1958. Image source: Wikipedia.