Thursday, April 30, 2015

Into The Blue

Click the arrow to watch the video of the April 29 test flight. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

The normally secretive Blue Origin today released videos and a press release about its test flight April 29 of its New Shepard suborbital booster.

New Shepard reached 307,000 feet, about 20,000 feet below the Kármán line, recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale as the boundary where space begins at 100 kilometers.

The press release, signed by Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, refers to New Shepard as a “she” and describes “her Very Big Brother” as “an orbital launch vehicle that is many times New Shepard’s size and is powered by our 550,000-lbf thrust liquefied natural gas, liquid oxygen BE-4 engine.”

Blue Origin, like its rival SpaceX, is working Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing (VTVL) technology. Bezos wrote that “unfortunately we didn’t get to recover the propulsion module because we lost pressure in our hydraulic system on descent.” SpaceX failed to land its reusable Falcon 9 on January 10 when it ran out of hydraulic fluid on approach to its drone ship landing pad. A second attempt on April 14 failed due to excessive lateral movement on landing.

A Blue Origin astronaut experience promotional film. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

Unlike SpaceX, Blue Origin plans to offer suborbital adventure tourism flights. That would put them in competition more with Virgin Galactic and XCOR.

Florida Today journalist James Dean reported April 10 that Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 36 is one possible launch site for Blue Origin's orbital operations.

Blue Origin had been mentioned as a possible suitor for a commercial complex at the old Shiloh farmland site, a proposal passionately opposed by local environmentalists. Space Florida, which proposed the Shiloh site, also leases LC-36 from the U.S. Air Force.

In 2013, Blue Origin lost a bid to lease Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A, after NASA selected SpaceX. Blue Origin proposed a multiuser pad they would lease to SpaceX until their company was ready to begin operations at an unspecified future point in time. NASA was more interested in finding a tenant ready to launch now, and SpaceX is currently investing its own money in upgrading 39A for the new Falcon Heavy. SpaceX hopes to test fire the Falcon Heavy at 39A by the end of 2015.

Blue Origin announced last September a partnership with United Launch Alliance, another SpaceX rival. ULA hopes to use Blue Origin's BE-4 engine on its next generation Vulcan rocket that will eventually replace the venerable Atlas V, which uses Russian RD-180 engines.

The BE-4 will use liquefied natural gas as a fuel, similar to the SpaceX Raptor engine which will use methane.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Russian Cargo Ship Out of Control

The launch earlier today of the Progress M-27M. Video source: Телестудия Роскосмоса YouTube channel.

Spaceflight Now reports that the Russian cargo ship Progress which launched from Kazakhstan at 3:09 AM EDT today is out of control.

Go to or follow them on Twitter at @SpaceflightNow for updates.

UPDATE April 28, 2015 8:15 PM EDT — It's not looking good for Progress M-27M.

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

NASA TV aired the above footage this morning that had been transmitted from the cargo ship.

According to a NASA press release:

The cargo of Progress 59 includes more than three tons of food, fuel, and supplies for the space station crew, including 1,940 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen, 926 pounds of water, and 3,128 pounds of spare parts, supplies and scientific experiment hardware. Among the U.S. supplies on board are spare parts for the station’s environmental control and life support system, backup spacewalk hardware, and crew clothing, all of which are replaceable.

The loss on October 28, 2014 of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket with Cygnus Orb-3.

The ISS lost one supply line last October when the Orbital Sciences Antares vehicle exploded on launch, destroying its Cygnus cargo ship. Orbital is working on a new version of Antares with Energomash RD-181 engines, but in the meantime won't fly until late this year, and that will be on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

If Roscosmos takes Progress off-line, then station reserves may start to dwindle.

According to Aviation Week:

While the U.S. segment’s food supply has enough reserves to last until Aug. 21, the date moves to July 5 if it must be shared with their Russian crewmates, according to an assessment provided by the NASA Advisory Council.

The next SpaceX Dragon delivery is scheduled to launch June 19, and the Japan HTV is scheduled to launch from Tanegashima Space Center on August 17.

UPDATE April 29, 2015 8:15 AM EDTThe Russian news agency TASS reports this morning that “controlled deorbiting of the cargo spacecraft Progress M-27M is impossible.”

Specialists have arrived at the conclusion that controlled deorbiting of the cargo spacecraft Progress M-27M is impossible, a source in the space rocket industry has told TASS.

"Specialists have agreed that Progress is hopeless. Its controlled deorbiting is impossible," he said.

"Commands were sent many a time. None of them worked," the source said.

A press release from the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base states they have detected debris in orbit with the crippled Progress.

Joint Functional Component Command for Space's Joint Space Operations Center made an initial observation of an anomaly with an International Space Station Progress resupply cargo craft at 12:04 a.m. (3:04 a.m. EDT), today.

The JSpOC immediately began tracking the event and initiated the appropriate reporting procedures.

Currently, the JSpOC can confirm that the resupply vehicle is rotating at a rate of 360 degrees every five seconds.

Additionally, the JSpOC has observed 44 pieces of debris in the vicinity of the resupply vehicle and its upper stage rocket body, however, it cannot confirm at this time if the debris is from the rocket body or vehicle itself.

UPDATE April 29, 2015 9:00 PM EDTRussia Today reports that it is “impossible” for Progress M-27M to reach the International Space Station.

“After additional testing on April 29 we found out that several elements and tabs of the cargo spacecraft had shut down, and we also detected the leak integrity of the major-block engine,” Igor Komarov, head of Roscosmos, said at a press conference. “As a result, the further flight of the spacecraft and its docking to the ISS are believed to be impossible.”

Roscosmos has been pessimistic about further attempts at contacting the Progress spacecraft and regaining control over it.

“We are currently monitoring the systems of the cargo spacecraft and looking for options to burn the spacecraft in the atmosphere and probably to sink it in the ocean,” Komarov added.

The article states that the vehicle went into an orbit 40 kilometers higher than planned, and quotes the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) as saying its orbit has already decreased by seven kilometers.

According to, the Progress is projected to re-enter around May 9 at 3:00 AM EDT, give or take 50 hours. (Yes, I know, quite the deviation.) For what it's worth, projects this flight path over Florida for the morning of May 9:

Most observers at this point seem to think Progress won't survive re-entry, but Russian controllers have been making statements that they had hoped to control its re-entry by plunging it into an ocean, so we'll have to see what happens as events unfold.

UPDATE May 8, 2015CNN reports that the Progress cargo ship met its demise this morning over the central Pacific Ocean. “A few small fragments of Progress M-27M are expected to make it down to Earth.”

Weather or Not

The SpaceX Thales launch filmed by a GoPro camera near the pad. Video source: Matthew Travis YouTube channel.

After a 49-minute delay due to the weather, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 yesterday at 7:03 PM, deploying a Thales Alenia communications satellite for the Republic of Turkmenistan.

The Falcon 9 departed the Cape's Pad 40 thirteen days, two hours and fifty-three minutes after its predecessor launched April 14, sending the robotic Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station.

In the modern era, no other company has been able to launch as often from the same pad as has SpaceX.

I wrote last August about the shortest turnaround time for various Cape pads.

Within the last two years, SpaceX has reduced their turnaround times from 34 days to 22 to 14, and now to 13.

In a week, SpaceX is scheduled for a pad abort test on May 5 of its crew Dragon from Pad 40. The Dragon will be atop a simulated rocket structure, not an actual Falcon 9, but technically the Dragon will be “launched.”

As I wrote last September, the only equivalent I can find in the Cape's launch history is the turnaround of Pad 19 in late 1965 to support two Gemini launches. That was improvised, not planned.

Gemini 7 and Gemini 6A launched from Pad 19 in December 1965. Gemini 6 was supposed to launch on October 25 to rendezvous with an Agena Target Vehicle, but the Agena was destroyed during launch earlier that day, so Gemini 6 had no mission. It was decided to postpone the mission until December, so it could practice a rendezvous with Gemini 7, which launched on December 4. Pad 19 required only minimal repairs, and the renamed Gemini 6A launched on December 15.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Going Up, Part 4

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 Sunday April 26 I made another trip to shoot photos of the SpaceX upgrades at Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A. It was rather overcast, so the images aren't quite as bright as I would like.

The biggest change since a month ago is the installation of the overhead cranes. The 50 ton crane is in the foreground, but I saw a 90 ton crane being installed last week.

Below are the latest images, but 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)

SpaceX Tries to Break Its Own Record

The TurkmenAlem52E/MonacoSAT telecommunications satellite. Image source: Thales Alenia.

Last September, SpaceX set a modern Cape record when it turned around its pad for another launch within fourteen days.

Fourteen days and fifty-two minutes, to be exact.

If today's launch of a Thales Alenia communications satellite goes as scheduled at 6:14 PM EDT, it will have been about thirteen days, two hours and four minutes since the last SpaceX launch April 14 on Pad 40.

As of this writing, the weather forecast is 60% favorable, but drops to 30% for Tuesday.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Retro Saturday: Viking 1 Landing Commentary

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: NASA Langley CRGIS.

This week's Retro Saturday is an excerpt from NASA coverage of the first transmissions on July 20, 1976 from the Viking 1 lander on the surface of Mars.

Many NASA and other web sites have information about the Viking program, such as the Goddard Space Flight Center web page, “Viking Program to Mars.” To quote from that site, “The primary mission objectives were to obtain high resolution images of the Martian surface, characterize the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface, and search for evidence of life.”

Two Viking probes were launched — Viking 1 on August 20, 1975 and Viking 2 on September 9, 1975 — from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

In the above video, the first data arrive from Mars at about the 18-minute mark. The first image is painted very slowly in strips, because the bandwidth back then was so low. We'd laugh today at how slow these black-and-white images were composed.

The first color image of the Mars surface transmitted by the Viking 1 lander. Image source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Missed It By That Much

The welding tool that was to build the Space Launch System. Image source: NASA via Space News.

Space News reports that assembly of the Space Launch System faces an unknown delay after it was discovered that a welding tool at NASA's Michoud facility is out of alignment.

Dan Leone reports:

The problem was due to a “miscommunication” between two ESAB suncontractors, Todd May, NASA’s SLS program manager, said here after an April 15 panel discussion at the National Space Symposium.

“The requirement, which was to be horizontal within one eighth of an inch [0.3175 centimeters] measured 170 feet up was not passed to one subcontractor, and instead that subcontractor used the standard tolerance requirements for plate flatness to horizontal within 0.06 inches at the base of the tower,” May wrote in a subsequent email to SpaceNews April 20. “This corresponded to a roughly 2.5-inch [6.35 centimeter] misalignment at the top, compared with the intent to have to towers horizontal to within one eighth of an inch [0.3175 centimeters].”

In other words, the [Vertical Assembly Center]’s baseplate, which secures the tool to Michoud’s concrete floor, was cocked too far to one side. The angle was very slight — the highest part of the baseplate was less than half a centimeter above its lowest part — but it was enough to put the whole tool out of alignment, May said.

While the baseplate’s alignment can be corrected easily enough, the plate sits at the very bottom of the VAC and cannot be accessed without disassembling substantial parts of the machine, said May.

Leone reported that “the exact effect on SLS’s development, both in terms of cost and possible delays, has yet to be calculated.” The facility was supposed to have been completed in March.

As I wrote in March, various statements and reports have implied that the Orion crew capsule necessary for the first SLS test flight has already slipped into 2019. NASA officials for now stick to their end-of-2018 launch date, but today's Space News reports adds more credence to the notion that we won't see SLS launch from Pad 39B until at least 2019.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Book Review: After Apollo, Part One

You can't really read John Logsdon's After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program without reading its predecessor, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.

I reviewed the JFK book in March 2011, shortly after its publication in hardcover. The book's principal contribution was debunking many of the myths that surround Kennedy's May 1961 proposal to send a man to the Moon by the end of the 1960s. Generally recognized as our nation's foremost space policy analyst, Dr. Logsdon produced one document after another to prove that Kennedy's primary interest in space was “prestige.” In fact, a November 21, 1962 recording of a heated meeting between Kennedy and Webb reveals the President stating, “I'm not that interested in space,” reminding the NASA administrator that the program's purpose was to prove to the world that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

We can only speculate what would have happened if Kennedy had not died in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

The political consequences of what he unleashed are reflected in Dr. Logsdon's After Apollo.

The full title has a question mark in it, but for brevity's sake I'll drop it here.

Whatever political “prestige” Kennedy believed the nation would reap from Apollo, the irony is that it was reaped by Richard Nixon.

I grew up in Nixon's suburban Southern California stomping grounds. My family's home was in Nixon's first Congressional district. I lived for over 30 years in Orange County, frequenting not only the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, but also San Clemente where Nixon's Casa Pacifica was located.

Nixon's impeachment trial was during my senior year of high school. Jimmy Carter had already succeeded Gerald Ford when my university offered a Political Science course on Nixon's political career. (I wrote a paper on Nixon's psychology, despite the teacher's warning not to do so.)

I even frequented Nixon's favorite Mexican restaurant, El Adobe in San Juan Capistrano. More about Nixon and El Adobe in this July 2014 San Clemente Times article.

You couldn't be a political wonk in those days without Richard Nixon being an influence on your thinking, for better or for worse.

The word “Watergate” is all but unmentioned in After Apollo. My guess is Dr. Logsdon found no relevance between the scandal and the decision to build what we know today as the Space Shuttle. The critical decisions were made long before the investigations in 1973 and 1974 that led to the downfall of Nixon and many in his administration.

The original design of the Nixon Library featured a Watergate room that implied the Kennedys were behind the investigation. Although Nixon and John Kennedy had been good friends, politically Nixon seemed to have an inferiority complex when it came to the Kennedy clan.

And so the god of irony chose to put Nixon in office in January 1969 to reap the “prestige” from the program most identified with his political rival.

Kennedy never had the opportunity to reap his prestige. Based on Logsdon's books, I conclude that JFK wanted the nation — not himself personally— to reap the prestige. If successful, politically he would personally benefit as a consequence.

For Nixon, it was the reverse. He and his inner circle determined in early 1969 that any Apollo prestige would accrue to Nixon personally, which he would spend as he saw fit.

Both Presidents saw the political value in being associated with astronauts, but Nixon took it one step further by requesting active astronaut Frank Borman as his personal liaison with NASA. To my knowledge, no President before or since has sought to have an active duty astronaut assigned to the Oval Office.

July 24, 1969 ... Astronaut Frank Borman (right) attends to President Nixon as he watches Apollo 11 land. Image source:

Nixon fully intended to reap Kennedy's “prestige” by sending Borman on a tour of allied nations. Subsequent Apollo crews, in particular the Apollo 11 crew who had first set foot on the Moon, were directed by the White House to take tours of nations friendly to the United States.

Logsdon quotes Borman on page 9 as saying that “Nixon was not only genuinely interested in space, but seemed to have embraced me personally as the space program's symbolic representative.” Borman was sent after the inaugural on a tour of European allies, the earliest steps towards a Nixon idea of flying astronauts from nations friendly to the United States as a reward for their support.

For all his neuroses, Nixon was a foreign policy chess master. He saw the southeast Asian wars as a sideshow distracting from the more important task of finding a détente with the Soviet Union. Nixon and his foreign policy advisor, Henry Kissinger, planned to normalize the relationship between the United States and China, which might be coaxed from its alliance with the USSR.

Logdson writes on page 13 that Nixon saw the Apollo 11 prestige as a tool in that quest.

Nixon also decided in June to make his long flight to the Apollo 11 splashdown on July 24 the first stop on a round-the-world diplomatic tour that would have as its theme “The Spirit of Apollo.” In this way Nixon could use his long trip to be present at the mission's end as a springboard for broader diplomatic purposes. In particular, Nixon was eager to visit Romanian head of state Nicolae Ceausescu, who had indicated that he could serve as a communication channel to Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai for a Nixon initiative to begin the process of normalizing the U.S.-Chinese relationship. This planning assumed ths mission's success, which was certainly not guaranteed, and thus represented significant risk-taking on Nixon's part.

Click the arrow to watch President Nixon address the quarantined Apollo 11 crew on July 24, 1969. The presidential seal was added to the Mobile Quarantine Facility just before Nixon's arrival. Original video source: NBC News.

On Page 16, Logsdon writes that in early July 1969, as the Apollo 11 launch date approached, Nixon dispatched Borman to the Soviet Union, accepting an earlier invitation from Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Logsdon quotes Borman as remembering that Nixon “was already intrigued” with the idea of a joint U.S.-Soviet space mission — something President Kennedy proposed at the United Nations in September 1963, as Logsdon wrote in his JFK book. Where Kennedy failed, Nixon would succeed. The 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission became the public face of détente. But Nixon was in disgrace by then, having resigned in August 1974.

Logsdon also writes on page 28 that the White House wanted to personally choreograph the Apollo 11 crew's global tour.

Little in what NASA was proposing was acceptable to the White House, which wanted a “highly political and carefully choreographed” tour designed to “reward friends, snub foes” and to produce “a flood of positive foreign headlines.” Nixon, reflecting his August 14 decision to take over from NASA the responsibility for planning the astronaut trip, told Kissinger “if you leave things in their [government bureaucrats] hands like this, they come out with an utter disaster.”

A replica of the plaque left by Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon. Image source: NASA.

Nixon's signature appears on the Apollo 11 plaque left on the Moon. According to Logsdon, that idea came from NASA, “without White House urging, reflecting the space agency's interest in making the president positively disposed toward NASA's post-Apollo plans.”

After Apollo implicitly argues that Kennedy was right — the human lunar spaceflight program could be reaped for international prestige at the expense of the Soviet Union.

But my opinion is that it was Richard Nixon who reaped it far more than Kennedy or his successor, Lyndon Johnson.

In John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, Logsdon concludes on page 238 that Apollo did result in prestige for the United States and therefore for Kennedy, although the evidence he offers is largely intangible:

In terms of both shorter-term and more lasting impacts on U.S. international prestige and the associated national pride, Apollo was a substantial success. Within months of JFK's clarion call, NASA and U.S. industry were mobilized in a high-profile pursuit of the lunar landing goal. By declaring that the United States intended to take a leading position in space, and by then taking the steps to turn that declaration into practice, Kennedy effectively undercut the unilateral Soviet space advantage in dramatic space achievements well before any comparable U.S. success. The successful achievements of Projects Mercury and Gemini, and most notably the February 1962 first U.S. orbital flight of John Glenn, became initial steps in JFK's lunar quest and thus made the U.S. space program of the 1960s a source of international prestige and national pride. The psychological and political advantages of early Soviet space successes were quickly and effectively countered.

Logsdon seems to suggest that it was the mobilization itself, and not the actual achievement of boots on the Moon, that created prestige for the nation.

I don't know if this conclusion can be quantified. Kennedy never faced his re-election, so we don't know how the Moon program would have played out as a 1964 campaign issue. And as space historian Roger Launius wrote in 2003, polls throughout the 1960s show that voter support for the Moon program was tepid at best:

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

It's doubtful that Kennedy had calculated any long-range strategy for reaping this “prestige” when he proposed the Moon program to Congress on May 25, 1961. The proposal, near the end of a 45-minute speech titled On Urgent National Needs, was a reaction to a political crisis created by Yuri Gagarin's April 12, 1961 orbit of the Earth and exacerbated by the Bay of Pigs fiasco a week later.

That political crisis was partially Kennedy's fault, because as a Senator and presidential candidate he had claimed a “missile gap” existed between the U.S. and USSR.

It was an accusation he used against candidate Nixon in the 1960 general election. Nixon was Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower, and became the surrogate target of claims that the incumbent administration was weak on defense.

But the accusation was false. There was no missile gap, and Kennedy was told just that by government intelligence experts once he assumed office.

In Dr. Walter McDougall's 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning space history book ... the Heavens and the Earth, he quotes on page 204 comments made by Vice President Nixon on December 10, 1959 at a dinner meeting of NASA and presidential science advisors to debate the administration's future space policy:

Speaking without notes, Nixon rambled on for forty-five minutes, the august audience listening in confusion, boredom, or admiration to a man who grasped, rightly or wrongly, the political symbolism of the Space Age. Politics, thought Nixon, had to rank higher than science. Congress would seek to make the U.S. program seem a failure and try to vote more money whatever the budgetary consequences. The real motive in space was prestige, but the excuse for action would be the presumed military implications.

McDougall writes on pages 218-219 of how, as early as the Sputnik crisis in the fall of 1957, the Democrats in Congress plotted to “play up the missile gap” allegedly caused by the Eisenhower administration being “primarily interested in restraining the federal budget.” This Democratic strategy was aimed squarely at Nixon, and was formulated in January 1960, just a month after Nixon's dinner comments.

John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon at a 1960 televised campaign debate. Image source: Life.

So I suppose there's a certain vengeance in Nixon reaping Kennedy's prestige, intended or not.

It's a line of thought that Logsdon doesn't consider in the book, although certainly he notes how the Nixon administration went out of its way to avoid any acknowledgement of Kennedy during the events of 1969.

Logsdon writes on page 9 that “Richard Nixon agreed with Kennedy's rationale for the lunar landing effort.” The historical evidence is persuasive that Nixon concurred with the “prestige” argument, and exploited it as a foreign policy tool to a degree that Kennedy and Johnson never attempted.

If, indeed, it played some peripheral role in coaxing China to normalize relations with the United States at the Soviet Union's expense, then Nixon reaped the prestige in a way Kennedy never could have imagined.

Logsdon writes at the end of Chapter 1, on page 30:

Richard Nixon was able to harvest the fruits of Kennedy's and Johnson's nurturing of Apollo without any additional commitment of tangible resources on his part. His major, and not insignificant, contribution was linking the prestige of the office of the president of the United States to the Apollo achievement. He did so skillfully, personally orchestrating his engagement with the lunar landing and its aftermath.

The rest of the book is about how the Nixon administration moved beyond the “prestige” rationale, acknowledging that, as peace was made with the Communist bloc, prestige would no longer be a convincing argument for spending billions on space as a propaganda stunt.

The end of “prestige” as a rationale was lost on NASA's administrators, who believed the rhetorical arguments of a decade ago would still apply in the decade ahead.

In a bit of literary whimsy, Dr. Logsdon chose to structure After Apollo as a two-act play, with an overture, Act One “No More Apollos,” Act Two “What Next?” and then a finale followed by an epilogue.

So it's only fitting that my review also be in two acts.

Part Two will focus on the core of After Apollo, the long and tortured process that led to the Space Shuttle program.

UPDATE May 29, 2015Click here to read Part Two of the review.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Retro Saturday: The Saturn Propulsion System

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

This week's Retro Saturday film is a 14-minute NASA documentary titled, The Saturn Propulsion System, which tells you what it's about.

The narrator somewhat disingenuously claims that Saturn from its beginning was intended for civilian use, but that's not quite true.

Saturn began in the late 1950s when Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team were still working for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama. The Defense Department was looking to develop a heavy-lift vehicle for launching spy and communications satellites into space. The idea behind Saturn was to cluster the fuel tanks and engines from the existing Redstone and Jupiter rockets developed by von Braun's team for ABMA into a “Super-Jupiter.” By early 1959, it became known officially as Saturn.

The political shock in the aftermath of the Sputnik I launch on October 4, 1957 eventually led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA, officially born on October 1, 1958, began looking at various ideas for a heavy-lift vehicle, including von Braun's Saturn.

In 1959, the Defense Department chose to pursue the U.S. Air Force Titan C. Rather than cancel Saturn, von Braun and ABMA were transferred to NASA on March 15, 1960. NASA no longer had to rely solely on the military for its launch vehicles.

At the time of this film, NASA was launching the Saturn I, still called C-1 by some because that had been its designation when the Saturn Vehicle Evaluation Committee in 1959 looked at various scenarios for ABMA developing a booster for NASA. C-1 referred to Series C, Option 1. The historic Saturn V moon rocket evolved from the C-5 option.

President John F. Kennedy's May 25, 1961 proposal to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s gave Saturn a destiny. Six years later, on November 9, 1967, the first Saturn V launched from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Baseball and Astronauts

April 12, 1965 ... Gemini 3 astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young meet with Astros manager Luman Harris. Image source: Beaumont Enterprise.

The city of Houston and Major League Baseball this week are marking the 50th anniversary of the Astrodome, the self-proclaimed Eighth Wonder of the World.

Before the move indoors, the team was called the Colt .45s, although they were commonly referred to as the Colts.

The franchise joined the National League in 1962. That was the year that NASA began work on the Manned Spacecraft Center, now known as Johnson Space Center.

So as the team moved into the first domed stadium, it seemed only natural to connect the team's futuristic ballpark to humanity's future in space.

The December 12, 1964 Sporting News reports the team's name will change to Astros.

All but lost to history is that the franchise had a local connection to a second NASA space center.

The team moved its spring training camp in 1964 from Apache Junction, Arizona to Cocoa, Florida.

The facility known today as the Cocoa Expo Sports Center was originally named Cocoa Colt Stadium. During the summer of 1964, a professional Florida Rookie League was based at Cocoa Colt. Four major league teams — the Colt .45s, Twins, Tigers and Mets — all played their games at Cocoa Colt.

A 1966 Cocoa Astros Florida State League uniform. Image source:

Twenty-two astronauts threw the first pitch at the Astrodome on April 9, 1965. That was an exhibition game between the Astros and the New York Yankees.

The field didn't get its famous AstroTurf until 1966. That first season, it was believed the translucent dome would allow enough light for grass to grow naturally. After a year of dead grass, Monsanto installed a short pile artificial turf called ChemGrass. It earned the nickname AstroTurf because of where it was installed.

Houston Astros groundskeepers drag the infield wearing mock spacesuits circa 1966.

The Astros left the dome in 2000 for a new ballpark, currently named Minute Maid Park. But astronauts still appear at games, sometimes throwing the first pitch.

The STS-135 crew throw out the first pitch at Minute Maid Park on September 13, 2011. Image source: Houston Chronicle.

UPDATE April 18, 2015 — On their April 9 telecast, Astros broadcasters remember the Houston Astrodome, showing clips from when the stadium opened in 1965.

If At First You Don't Succeed ...

Click the arrow to watch the Falcon 9 landing attempt. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

SpaceX tried and failed April 14 at its second attempt to land a Falcon 9 booster on its barge autonomous spaceport drone ship.

(Elon Musk says not to call it a barge.)

According to Aviation Week:

Video of the stage descending to the landing ship showed the vehicle approaching quickly but decelerating. However, closer to the platform the Falcon 9 showed an excessive horizontal velocity component that prompted the single engine used for landing to gimbal to correct the flight path angle. Exhaust from the Merlin engine could be seen raising clouds of water from around the platform as the stage maneuvered close to the edge of the landing zone. The control system then commanded vectoring of the engine nozzle to an angle that effectively over-compensated for the previous flight path angle correction. By this time the vehicle was too low to make further corrections and landed at too great a tilt and speed to safely land.

SpaceX founder and chief technology officer Elon Musk tweeted that “excess lateral velocity caused it [the booster] to tip over post landing.” In a later tweet that was subsequently withdrawn, Musk then indicated that “the issue was stiction in the biprop throttle valve, resulting in control system phase lag.” In this statement, Musk was referring to “stiction” — or static friction — in the valve controlling the throttling of the engine. The friction appears to have momentarily slowed the response of the engine, causing the control system to command more of an extreme reaction from the propulsion system than was required. As a result, the control system entered a form of hysteresis, a condition in which the control response lags behind changes in the effect causing it.

Another video of the landing failure posted on Vidme by an anonymous user.

Various media reports this week quoted SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell as saying the next attempt may occur on land and not at sea. Since SpaceX has only two launch locations, Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg, that means the company would need permission from the U.S. Air Force to land at their base.

If permission were received, the next Cape opportunity might be in June with the next Dragon cargo delivery to the International Space Station. The next Vandenberg launch is in July, the NASA/NOAA Jason-3 ocean surface topography mission. But SpaceX is also scheduled sometime this year to demonstrate an in-flight launch abort for the crew version of Dragon, the V2, at Vandenberg.

The damaged drone ship after its return to Jacksonville seaport. Image source:

Thursday, April 16, 2015

ULA Embraces Competition

Click the arrow to watch the April 13, 2015 media event. Video source: UnitedLaunchAlliance YouTube channel.

United Launch Alliance held a media event Monday at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs to reveal that its new “Next Generation Launch System” would be named Vulcan.

ULA held an online naming contest, allowing visitors to vote as often as they wanted.

“Vulcan” was not one of the original names, but an organized campaign by Star Trek fans in the wake of the death of actor Leonard Nimoy got Vulcan added to the ballot.

The choice of the Vulcan name may find ULA in court.

Vulcan Aerospace said Monday they've already notified ULA that this is a potential infringement on their trademark rights.

According to the Vulcan Inc. web site, the company was formed in 1986. Among its holdings is Stratolaunch Systems, currently building the world's biggest airplane as a horizontal space launch system. The web site describes Vulcan Aerospace as “the company within Vulcan that plans and executes projects to shift how the world conceptualizes space travel through cost reduction and on-demand access. Led by industry veteren Charles Beames, Vulcan Aerospace collaborates across Vulcan Inc. for projects dealing with space including overseeing Stratolaunch Systems, one of the projects leading the movement into 'Next Space.'"

Legalities aside, for me the most striking aspect of this media event was the declaration by ULA CEO Tory Bruno that the company will transform itself from a legal government monopoly into a commercial enterprise that will take on SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Ariane, Proton and other global competitors for the growing launch market.

The federal government allowed Boeing and Lockheed Martin to have a legal monopoly in 2006, after both claimed there wasn't enough guaranteed government business to keep their production lines open. So ULA was formed, and for years the Department of Defense granted ULA bulk-buy contracts with little public explanation for the costs.

The rise of SpaceX has changed all that, demonstrating that it's possible to run a very efficient launch business at a fraction of what ULA charges.

In 2014, SpaceX launched the first commercial satellite payloads since 2009 from Cape Canaveral. Five were launched in 2014, with eight on the manifest for this year.

According to the ULA media event, the new Vulcan rocket's engines will be retrieved during launch.

The SMART Reuse approach would retrieve the first stage engines from the edge of space. Image source: United Launch Alliance.

After the upper stage ignites to propel the payload into orbit, the Blue Origin BE-4 engines would separate from the first stage and use an inflatable hypersonic decelerator to re-enter the atmosphere. As it approaches the Earth, a parafoil would deploy so it could be captured by a helicopter, then returned to a ship or barge.

Mr. Bruno said that this is more cost-effective than the SpaceX approach, which attempts to land the entire stage on a drone ship. Bruno believes that the engines are the only parts worth the cost of recovery and reuse.

SpaceX attempts (and fails) April 14 to land a Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship. Image source: SpaceX.

The market will determine in the end who's right, Mr. Bruno or Mr. Musk.

But that's the great thing about competition. No one would be debating which approach is more cost-efficient if the nation had only ULA as a launch service. ULA would not be evolving its technology today without the government paying for it. Mr. Bruno said ULA would fully fund Vulcan research and development, but also acknowledged he would gladly accept a government subsidy.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are 100% funded by the company and its investors.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

When Obama Visited KSC — Revisited

Click the arrow to watch President Obama's speech on YouTube.

Five years ago today, President Barack Obama delivered a space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center.

I wrote about the event in 2010, and wrote about it again in 2013 after three years of perspective.

The cynic in me wonders if the lesson the President took from that day, and the events of that year, is that there's no upside to spending political capital on the government space program.

Two months before, the Obama administration rocked the space-industrial complex when NASA proposed cancelling Constellation to replace it with commercial cargo and crew programs. Although NASA claimed Constellation would return the United States to the Moon by 2020, the reality was that Constellation was years behind schedule and billions over budget. The program received one bad audit after another. It had been badly underfunded by the Bush administration, and Congress had shown no inclination to do something about it.

The first Constellation launch vehicle, Ares I, was to take crew to the International Space Station in the Orion capsule. Originally scheduled for 2014, by the time Obama took office Ares I had slipped to at least 2017. The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee believed it could slip to 2019. The committee noted that Ares I was to be funded by decommissioning the ISS in 2016, meaning NASA was building a rocket to nowhere.

The Ares V, which was to be NASA's Moon launch vehicle, wouldn't be ready until the end of the 2020s, and there was no funding for a lunar lander to take astronauts to the surface.

Proposing the end of Constellation unleashed a political firestorm on Capitol Hill. Constellation contractors, and the politicians who benefitted from their generous campaign contributions, spewed apocalyptic claims that Obama intended to end the U.S. human spaceflight program.

Although his April 15, 2010 KSC speech was not particularly memorable as a work of lyrical prose, Obama did serve notice that he intended to change the cozy relationships between NASA, its legacy contractors, and the politicians who protected those interests.

The President said that day:

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

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

All that has to change.

April 15, 2010 ... President Obama tours Launch Complex 40 with SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Image source:

In my 2010 blog article, I cited a column by Time magazine senior Jeffrey Kluger, who lambasted Obama's speech. Kluger labelled as a “tactical blunder” Obama's visit that day to Launch Complex 40, where SpaceX founder Elon Musk led the President on a tour of the company's facilities. At this time, SpaceX was still two months away from its first Falcon 9 launch at LC-40. Kluger dismissed the visit as “eye candy” and huffed, “Plenty of NASA folks want nothing to do with the private-sector interloper.”

Left unexplained by Mr. Kluger was why he thought Obama should kowtow to a group of government civil servants. NASA employees answer in the chain of command to the President, not the other way around.

By the time 2010 ended, a delicate compromise had been negotiated by Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). Constellation was cancelled, but replaced with another pork program, the Space Launch System. SLS was labelled the Senate Launch System by its critics for this very reason. It had no missions of destinations, but its political supporters lauded the legacy contractor jobs that would be protected.

The commercial crew program could proceed, but those protecting the pork assured it was underfunded so the interests of the legacy contractors were protected.

The compromise did succeed in saving the ISS from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The Obama administration intended to fulfill our nation's promise to its spacefaring partners that we would operate the ISS until 2020. In January 2014, the White House announced its intention to extend the ISS to 2024. In February of this year, Russia announced it would join the U.S. in operating the ISS through 2024, despite the strained political relations between the two nations.

I suspect that historians will look back at saving the ISS as one of the most significant achievements of the Obama-era space program, because it provides a hub for true commercialization of space.

“NewSpace,” as it's sometimes called, didn't originate with the Obama administration. It began in 2004 under President George W. Bush, in the wake of the Columbia accident.

President George W. Bush announces his Vision for Space Exploration on January 14, 2004.

It wasn't mentioned in President Bush's January 14, 2004 Vision for Space Exploration speech, but commercialization was part of the detailed proposal that was delivered to Congress. Bush appointed a commission to recommend how to implement his Vision. That panel in June 2004 delivered a report with a section titled “Building a Robust Space Industry.” The report stated:

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. This space industry will become a national treasure.

NASA opened its Commercial Crew/Cargo Program Office in November 2005. Constellation would rely on commercial cargo providers to service ISS, but commercial crew went unfunded, perhaps because it would have created a rival for the “OldSpace” Ares I.

The first cargo contracts were issued by the Bush administration to SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler in 2006; after RpK failed to achieve early milestones, it was dropped for Orbital Sciences in 2007. The Obama administration used the cargo model for commercial crew.

Every year since he proposed it in 2010, Congress has joyfully slashed Obama's proposed funding for commercial crew. They succeeded only in extending U.S. reliance on Russia for ISS access. Their failed leadership created last year's political crisis where Russia threatened to end U.S. access to the ISS in retaliation for U.S. sanctions after Russia invaded Crimea.

For over fifty years, the NASA bureaucracy held a death grip on U.S. civilian access to space. Any entity or individual who might want to fly to space from the United States had to go through NASA. “Space tourists” such as Dennis Tito went to the ISS via Russia. Microgravity experiments on the Space Shuttle or the ISS had to be justified as worthy of NASA's time.

But in 2010, the Obama administration solicited proposals to turn over operation of the U.S. national laboratory on the ISS to a non-profit entity. NASA would no longer guard the gate.

The Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) now finds commercial, government and education customers to use the lab. The private sector can do research as it sees fit.

Click the arrow to watch the April 12, 2015 ISS National Laboratory media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Despite Congressional underfunding, in 2015 the two commercial crew companies will begin uncrewed tests. SpaceX and Boeing have contracts not only to deliver crew to the ISS, but also agreements to fly to the private sector Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitats.

The Bigelow technology is licensed from NASA, which developed the idea in the 1990s with a project called TransHab. The module would have had an inflatable shell made of materials such as Kevlar. It would have been cheaper to deploy and maintain than the aluminum and steel used to construct the ISS.

But the ISS, as with most NASA programs, was seriously behind schedule and over budget. In 1999, the National Space Society issued a statement urging Congress to ban NASA from development of TransHab, although research could continue.

Transhab, a research and development program intended to investigate the potential of habitable, inflatable space structures, has come under fire within the House of Representatives. Concerns were raised by legislators that the R & D effort would emerge from the ISS office as a construction project that would replace the current station habitation module. The fear was that with the replacement would come a dramatic increase in the cost of the International Space Station and delays in the contemplated construction schedule.

Congress followed that recommendation and cancelled TransHab in 2000. OldSpace triumphed yet again.

But Bob Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA and invested his own money in developing a private space station, which he calls an expandable habitat.

NASA under the Obama administration has been much friendlier to Bob Bigelow.

8 News NOW
Click the arrow to watch the January 16, 2013 NASA event at Bigelow Aerospace. Video source: KLAS-TV Channel 8, Las Vegas.

In January 2013, NASA acquired a prototype called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module to deploy at the ISS. BEAM was delivered to NASA in March, and is scheduled to launch to the ISS on the SpaceX CRS-8 delivery this fall.

For the first time in history, a commercial cargo carrier will launch a commercial space station.

The first full-scale Bigelow habitats, called the B-330, are being built now in Las Vegas. Bigelow hopes to launch them in 2018.

The enduring legacy of NASA under President Obama is that his administration opened the door for private companies to launch private customers to private space stations.

That could happen by the end of this decade.

The NewSpace genie is out of the bottle.

Like Bob Bigelow, Elon Musk is a man on a mission. SpaceX technology continually evolves. United Launch Alliance, born in 2006 to create a legal monopoly, chose not to evolve unless compensated by the government. Now ULA scrambles to find a market share in the commercial payload launch business, because SpaceX has shown it can launch for a fraction of the cost. New ULA CEO Tory Bruno has pledged to make ULA competitive, as members of Congress start to ask uncomfortable questions about why ULA should continue to have a military launch monopoly.

That wouldn't be happening now if it weren't for the Obama administration opening the door to NewSpace.

Five years ago, Barack Obama pledged change.

In my opinion, it was change for the better.

April 14, 2015 ... Five years after President Obama's visit to this site, SpaceX launches its sixth cargo delivery to the ISS under a 12-mission contract with NASA. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The SpaceX CRS-6 Pre-Game Show

Click the arrow to watch the ISS Science, Research and Technology Panel media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch the ISS National Laboratory Panel media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch the SpaceX CRS-6 pre-launch media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

NASA held three media events today ahead of tomorrow's SpaceX CRS-6 robotic cargo delivery to the International Space Station. The launch has an instant window at 4:33 PM EDT.

Click here for the SpaceX CRS-6 press kit.

As of this writing, the weather forecast is only 60% favorable for Monday. The odds improve to 70% on Tuesday.

SpaceX will attempt once again to return the Falcon 9 booster to its autonomous spaceport drone ship for soft landing. Their last attempt on January 10 failed when the steering fins ran out of hydraulic fluid on approach.

Click the arrow to watch the failed January 10 landing attempt. Video source: SciNews YouTube channel.

Articles of Interest

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

I haven't written in a while because I've been reading several space-related books.

First up is After Apollo: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program by John Logsdon. It's a semi-sequel to his 2010 book, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon. The latter is my go-to reference for the political process that led to Kennedy proposing the human lunar spaceflight program.

It's my second read-through of After Apollo. The first time was with a galley proof. This time, it's for a review.

After that, I'll start on Airlines & Air Mail: The Post Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry by F. Robert van der Linden. I've been reading several books about the birth of commercial aviation in the early 20th Century, which has fascinating parallels to today's NASA commercial space program. The U.S. Post Office, the U.S. Army and other government entities offered contracts, subsidies and incentives to encourage aviation buffs and entrepreneurs to start carrying passengers with air mail. There were accidents, there were fatalities, and of course Congress couldn't help but intervene.

To quote sage 20th Century philosopher Yogi Berra, it's déjà vu all over again.

Elsewhere in NewSpace, Sierra Nevada Corporation is still trying to find a market for its Dream Chaser spaceplane. The company released on April 6 the above promotional video showing Dream Chaser launching either on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V, or on a European Space Agency Ariane 5. Dream Chaser has a new paint scheme, and hinged bat wings to fit within a payload fairing. The video concludes with a notional landing at a runway, and the declaration that it will launch in 2018. SNC hopes to land at Houston's Ellington Field, so it can truck returned ISS payload directly to Johnson Space Center. Even though SNC didn't get one of the first crew delivery contracts, last month it was announced that NASA will help develop Dream Chaser through Critical Design Review.

On the OldSpace side of aerospace, NASA's late March revision of its Asteroid Initiative hasn't found any more enthusiasm in the halls of political power than have earlier iterations.

Congress foisted the Space Launch System on NASA in 2010 to protect NASA contractor jobs with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and ATK. Since then, NASA has been searching for a use for SLS. As it has for 45 years (read After Apollo), NASA continues to insist that it's sending people to Mars. When President Obama visited Kennedy Space Center five years ago, he proposed a human spaceflight rendezvous with an asteroid as a stepping stone to Mars. The Asteroid Initiative attempted to politically marry the President's proposal with Congress' pork program to give SLS a raison d'être. Congress has yawned, demanding an Apollo rerun to the Moon, or an Apollo on steroids mission to Mars, yet has declined to provide any funding for such pretentious programs.

The latest variant, called the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM), would pluck a boulder from an asteroid and park it in lunar orbit for an eventual Orion rendezvous sometime in the 2020s. NASA insists this mission evolves technology for a human Mars program, although most observers fail to see any logic in that assumption. In any case, the mission fits within the meager budgets Congress is willing to approve for NASA in the years ahead.

Last week, the NASA Advisory Council clucked its disapproval for ARM, and for good measure proposed their own idea — pluck a boulder from the Mars moon Phobos.

No one seems to have the courage to speak aloud the real question — why should we send people to Mars now?

There is no reason, of course.

Some will tell you that it's to “inspire” children, although they don't explain how this is a better investment in “inspiration” than spending the hundreds of billions of dollars elsewhere. (How's about a modern classroom and textbooks for every U.S. child?)

Then there are those who will tell you that humanity is destined to explore — we must explore for the sake of exploration. As John Logdson writes in After Apollo, NASA tried that argument on the Nixon administration and Congress after the Moon landing, only to fail miserably. It was a fundamental misread of the political confluences that led to Kennedy proposing the human Moon program in May 1961. Even if humans are destined to explore, with today's technology we can use robotics. A human footprint on Mars is an egotistical indulgence.

Others will tell you that only humans can truly survey the Mars surface, that robots can't do it as fast as a human. But the rover Curiosity seems to be doing just fine, and there's no real urgency to roaming Mars any faster than we are now.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk and others believe that humanity must establish a colony off-world so the species survives annihilation. That's okay, so long as they're spending their own money.

Meanwhile, the taxpayers continue to flush $3 billion a year into what critics call the Senate Launch System. NASA administrators have hinted in recent weeks that the SLS schedule will slip yet again into 2019, more than two years behind the December 31, 2016 launch date mandated by Congress in 2010.

Which brings me to another book on my reading list, Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership, edited by Roger D. Launius and Howard E. McCurdy. The book was published in 1997, but I doubt much has changed. To quote from the publisher's web page:

Setting the tone for the collection, NASA chief historian Roger D. Launius and Howard McCurdy maintain that the nation's presidency had become imperial by the mid-1970s and that supporters of the space program had grown to find relief in such a presidency, which they believed could help them obtain greater political support and funding. Subsequent chapters explore the roles and political leadership, vis-à-vis government policy, of presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan.

Which takes us full circle to John Logsdon's books ... In fact, John has a chapter in this collection, titled “National Leadership and Presidential Power.”

So I continue to sift through these and other written works, looking for the common theme that leads us into a rational national space program ... not that anyone will give me the power to implement it ...

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Retro Saturday: Seeds of Discovery

Click the arrow to view the film. Video source: wdtvlive42 YouTube Channel.

This week's Retro Saturday film is a 1970 documentary titled Seeds of Discovery. Narrated by actor James Franciscus, it's a 26-minute film produced for NASA by MRC Films.

The film focuses primarily on the path for robotic space exploration of the solar system in the 1970s, although humans would be part of the planetary sciences program using Skylab.

The Mariner program had been flying since 1962, and at this point had two missions left.

The Viking missions would be the first U.S. spacecraft to safely land on the Mars surface, return images and conduct biology experiments.

The Voyager missions still fly today. Launched from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 41 in 1977, the Voyagers are now on the brink of interstellar space.

James Franciscus had an extensive television career before starring roles in two science fiction films, Marooned (1969) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), which probably explains why he was chosen to narrate this film. Many scenes in Marooned were filmed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (then known as Cape Kennedy).

Franciscus died from emphysema in 1991.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Retro Saturday: The Wonder World of Chemistry

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

I've always been a sucker for industrial documentaries and their sibling political propaganda films.

This week's Retro Saturday is an 18-minute 1936 film titled The Wonder World of Chemistry: A Film Story of Better Things for Better Living. It was produced by E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., Inc. — known today simply as DuPont.

The film was released the year after DuPont coined its famous marketing phrase, “"Better Things for Better Living ... Through Chemistry.” You will see and hear that phrase during the film. The phrase's derivation, “Better Living Through Chemistry,” was not coined by DuPont but came into popular use in the American lexicon.

The Wonder World of Chemistry is also a look at the U.S. economy in the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression. The U.S. unemployment rate in 1936 was 16.9%, down from the high of 23.6% in 1932, but still a staggering number by today's standards. The film reminds us that in the 1930s the U.S. economy was largely based on farming and coal mining as well as industry.

Thursday, April 2, 2015


SpaceX employees and contractors at work today renovating Hangar S. Image copyright © 2015 Stephen C. Smith.

Once destined for the wrecking ball, historic Hangar S has been saved by SpaceX.

According to a November 2014 Historical American Buildings Survey (HABS) report, Hangar S was originally built at Cape Canaveral in 1957 for the U.S. Air Force. It was made available to Project Vanguard, the United States contribution to the International Geophysical Year.

It can be argued that Hangar S was the epicenter for the early days of the Space Race.

After the Soviet Union orbited its first Sputnik on October 4, 1957, politicians and the media pressured the Vanguard program to respond in kind. Sputnik 1 launched on an intercontinental ballistic missile known in the west as the R-7. Vanguard was using a nominally civilian booster based on a Viking sounding rocket.

The IGY was a peaceful civilian program, and Sputnik 1 did little than transmit beeping sounds, but in the U.S. the public — thanks to overreacting politicians and media — feared this presaged a nuclear Armageddon.

So a Vanguard test vehicle called TV-3 was spun by the media as America's response to the Communists.

It blew up live on national television, on December 6, 1957.

A Universal newsreel reporting the failure of TV-3. Video source: Nuclear Vault YouTube channel.

Once the Vanguard program ended, new tenants moved in — NASA employees and contractors working on Project Mercury.

In its earliest days, Project Mercury was stationed at Langley. Prior to NASA's creation on October 1, 1958, the Langley Research Center had been part of NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. According to a NASA history site, many of the NACA's aeronautical engineers were reassigned to Project Mercury “to help solve problems far removed from their original training and experience.”

Much of the early training by the Mercury astronauts was at Langley, not at the Cape.

Langley AFB stenciled on the side of Hangar S. Image copyright © 2013 Stephen C. Smith.

According to the 2014 HABS report:

In 1959, NASA’s Pre-Flight Operations Division of Project Mercury moved into Hangar S, where the Mercury spacecraft capsules were received, tested, and prepared for flight. The hangar also housed the Mercury astronauts’ pre-flight training and preparation, including capsule simulator training, flight pressure suit tests, flight plan development, and communications training. The astronaut crew quarters were located on the second floor of the hangar’s south wing. The ownership of Hangar S was transferred in 1964 from the Air Force to NASA, who modified the interior of the hangar high bay in 1965 to process spacecraft payloads. NASA has owned the building since 1965.

By 2012, NASA concluded it no longer had need for Hangar S, so it was scheduled for demolition.

A web site,, was started to circulate a petition, which seems to have had no impact on saving the facility.

But SpaceX expansion did.

According to a post on that site dated February 27, 2015:

NASA-KSC acknowledges a temporary stay in the demolition of Hangar S as the building is being used by SpaceX for a period of six (6) months after which time the Hangar is to be returned to NASA for the ultimate demolition unless an extension is needed.

In any case, Hangar S is yet another in a growing list of CCAFS facilities now occupied by SpaceX.