Saturday, May 30, 2015

Retro Saturday: Disneyland Goes to the World's Fair

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

The new Disney film Tomorrowland premiered on May 22.

If you grew up visiting the original Tomorrowland at Disneyland as I did, you'll note several internal references to several Disney attractions that arrived in Anaheim in the late 1960s. They were originally featured at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

The Tomorrowland movie opens with George Clooney's character as a child arriving at the 1964 New York World's Fair to the theme song from the Carousel of Progress. He travels through the “It's a Small World” ride. Later in the film, we learn that robots in the movie Tomorrowland operate using audio-animatronics — the technology used for “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”

This week's Retro Saturday is a 1964 episode of Walt Disney's The Wonderful World of Color that aired on the NBC network. The first half of the episode is the history of fairs, but in the second half we're introduced to the Disney attractions at the fair, most of which wound up a few years later in Anaheim.

The Carousel of Progress was at Anaheim from 1967 until 1973. It moved to Florida's Disney World Magic Kingdom in 1975. The final scene is updated periodically to reflect advances in modern technology.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Book Review: After Apollo, Part Two

March 5, 1969 ... President Richard Nixon appoints Thomas Paine as permanent NASA Administrator. Vice President Spiro Agnew is to the right. Image source:

Click here to read Part One of the review.

Having finished reading After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program for the second time, Dr. John Logsdon's latest work left me musing parallels between NASA's post-Apollo history and the classic Akira Kurosawa 1950 film Rashomon.

The Japanese classic gave us “the Rashomon Effect,” conflicting interpretations of the same event. In the film, witnesses and suspects of a murder recollect inconsistent versions of the incident. The filmgoer is left to ponder not just how these recollections could be inconsistent, but why — ranging from selective memory to lies motivated by self-interest.

One might view After Apollo as Dr. Logsdon's Rashomon. In a bit of personal whimsy, he structured the book as a two-act play, complete with an overture, intermission and epilogue.

The playwright didn't provide a Dramatis personæ, or cast of characters, which might help a reader unfamiliar with all the thespians performing this drama. There's an index of course, but I found myself wanting a page where I could remind myself who a person was, for what agency or executive he worked, and his relationship to other characters. An organizational chart for the various agencies would have helped too, as they related to the man in the Oval Office.

As I wrote in the Part One review, Dr. Logsdon's preceding work John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon is a prerequisite for After Apollo. Contrary to mythology, Kennedy was not a space visionary. He was a Cold Warrior reflexively reacting to the perception that U.S. space technology was inferior to the Soviet Union.

NASA's creation in 1958 was also a political reflex, to Sputnik 1 and the political fallout that followed. Senator Kennedy, along with Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson and other Democrats, accused the Eisenhower administration of being weak on defense. Kennedy used the phrase “missile gap” in speeches, defined as the difference in weightlifting capability between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The definition didn't make much sense. The Soviets focused on developing intercontinental ballistic missiles because they couldn't stage air bases near possible European and American targets. The United States had bombers and escort fighters stationed in Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as medium-range missiles. The U.S. was also better at miniaturization. And unknown to the public (as well as ambitious politicians), the Central Intelligence Agency and the Air Force were preparing to launch reconnaissance satellites that could photograph Soviet military sites from orbit.

NASA began on October 1, 1958, a merging of the old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) with civilian space research programs from the Defense Department. While NASA launched some of the earliest satellites and probes, the real action was still with the military. Even Project Mercury, the first U.S. human civilian spaceflight program, was intended to be no more than early research into the effects of space travel on the human body. The Air Force pursued its own human spaceflight program with the X-20 Dyna-Soar.

If you were to ask today's space enthusiasts about how NASA began, I suspect very few would recall NASA's pre-Kennedy origins, or that human spaceflight was not a priority. The Rashomon Effect would have most people telling us the space program began with Kennedy proposing a human spaceflight to the Moon.

Dr. Logsdon documented in John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon that JFK was motivated primarily by “prestige.” Kennedy wanted to demonstrate to the rest of the world that U.S. technology was superior to the Soviet Union. But today's Rashomon, thanks to a half-century of mythology, is that Apollo was a modern-day demonstration of what was called Manifest Destiny in the 19th Century.

After Apollo picks up the story as the Nixon administration takes office in January 1969. Kennedy is the off-stage fallen hero. In my Part One review, I wrote about how Nixon harvested the “prestige” intended by Kennedy, although perhaps not in a way that Kennedy envisioned.

In the first year of their administrations, both Kennedy and Nixon faced critical decisions about what direction to take NASA. The agency is our story's protagonist.

This is where reading both Logsdon books is useful, because together they become a study in how two administrations with distinctly different personalities addressed similar challenges. The decisions made by both can largely be blamed for the sclerotic pork-laden bureaucracy NASA has become today.

Neither President gave NASA much of a priority when taking office. Both appointed their Vice President to head a Space Task Group to determine policy and direction for the space agency. Both Vice Presidents were left politically impotent afterwards once their reports were delivered.

March 3, 1969 ... Vice President Spiro Agnew talks to Wernher von Braun (center) and NASA Associate Administrator George Mueller while awaiting the launch of Apollo 9. Image source: NASA.

Logsdon writes on Page 48 that in February 1969 Nixon directed his science advisor Lee DuBridge to assess how to reduce the cost of space launches, and to recommend a process for reviewing the nation's space programs. Nixon wrote in his memo that “the Department of Defense and NASA be directed to coordinate studies in this area.”

This, in my opinion, is a critical directive, because it results in NASA having to design the Space Shuttle to support DOD missions ... but we'll get to that later.

The various stakeholders came to the table, participants in a Space Task Group chaired by Vice President Spiro Agnew. NASA had the most at stake; Kennedy's prestige program morphed NASA from an aerospace research and development agency into a propaganda organ. NASA management takes the propaganda to heart, believing that “if we can put a man on the Moon,” as the saying goes, they are capable of any technological achievement.

But there's also a subtle thread of entitlement that runs through the book. Logsdon writes on page 55 that, “The creation of the Space Task Group (STG) was a blow to NASA's hopes to get early approval of a major new space initiative; the president not surprisingly took the position that he would wait until he received the STG recommendations before making any commitment to new space ventures.”

Indeed, NASA Administrator Thomas Paine responds with disappointment to NASA's early STG submission, directing NASA Associate Administrator Homer Newell to work on “a more exciting prospectus,” according to Logsdon. ”During June, a strategic focus began to emerge in Newell's plan — exploration of the solar system with both robotic and human missions. This was perhaps the first time that exploration — going to new places to learn about them — was put forward as a justification for moving forward in space, distinct from scientific discovery,” Logsdon writes.

Before Kennedy, NASA's raison d'être was simply as an aerospace R&D agency. During the 1960s, Kennedy morphed it into a propaganda organ. And now in the 1970s, NASA management hoped to turn the propaganda into reality, building Starfleet to boldly go.

All of this was unconstrainted by budgetary or political reality.

The Space Task Group report was issued in September 1969. It foresaw a “Space Transportation System with technical, operational, and economic characteristics satisfying the needs of both NASA and DoD.” Although it would eventually devolve into the Space Shuttle design, the STS originally included a “reusable chemically fueled shuttle operating between the surface of the Earth and low-earth orbit in an airline-type mode” as well as a “chemically fueled reusable space tug or vehicle for moving men and equipment to different earth orbits” and a “reusable nuclear stage far transporting men, spacecraft and supplies between Earth orbit and lunar orbit and between low Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit and for other deep space activities.”

All of this would support a space station “base” occupied by “50-100 men.”

A Grumman Aerospace artist's early concept for a Space Shuttle with a reusable booster and orbiter.

The STG report concluded, “NASA has the demonstrated organizational competence and technology base, by virtue of the Apollo success and other achievements, to carry out a successful program to land man on Mars within 15 years.” But there was no real-world evidence to support this. Was this a Rashomon Effect caused by NASA believing its own propaganda?

Logsdon on page 83 calls the report “a marketing document ... Like any other sales prospectus, it made the most positive case possible for investing in its proposed activities, without comparing that investment to alternative uses of available funds.” No one questioned the illogical assumption that placing people on a cargo ship would somehow make operation cheaper.

It's a pattern that would repeat itself throughout NASA's future — from the Space Shuttle to Space Station Freedom to the the National Aero-Space Plane to the X-33 to the Constellation program and now the Space Launch System.

Our story's second primary character is the Department of Defense. By President Nixon's directive, the DOD would participate in determining NASA's future.

While NASA captured all the publicity with Project Mercury, the U.S. Air Force had pursued its own human spaceflight program with the X-20 Dyna-Soar. Kennedy's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara concluded that the USAF “did not have any real objectives for orbital flight” and cancelled the X-20 in December 1963. It was replaced by the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), which would be a crewed reconnaissance platform. MOL was cancelled by the Nixon administration in June 1969 because the Bureau of the Budget concluded automated reconnaissance satellites could do the job more safely and cheaply.

Twice thwarted in its efforts to establish its own human spaceflight program, the DOD could now have crewed access to space through the Space Transportation System.

Despite NASA claims that it could develop a cheap reusable launch system, the calculations concluded that Shuttle would have to fly about fifty times a year to bring down the cost through volume. Military launches would also have to use the Shuttle to reach that number; Logsdon documents that “military and intelligence satellites launched by the national security community comprised almost half of the U.S. demand for space launches, and there was no way that the shuttle could be cost effective unless that community abandoned its own launch vehicles and committed to use the shuttle once its feasibility had been demonstrated.”

An artist's concept of the X-20 Dyna-Soar. Image source: Wikipedia.

Even though NASA would pay for Shuttle development, it needed DOD support to make Shuttle financially viable on paper. With the upper hand, the military imposed its own design specifications on a civilian spaceplane at no cost. The orbiter's final 60 foot by 15 foot payload bay dimensions were dictated by DOD to accommodate a projected future National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite — that was never built.

So DOD's Rashomon was that, after a decade of aborted military crewed space programs, here was finally an opportunity to have crewed access to space. The beauty of it was that NASA would bear the cost, and suffer the political heat if the program fell flat on its face. Such a deal.

In addition to NASA and DOD, the third actor in our space Rashomon was the Bureau of the Budget. Reorganized by the Nixon administration in 1970 into today's Office of Management and Budget, I'd argue that OMB might be the hero of the drama. OMB was the only actor to openly question the assumptions being made by NASA and DOD about the cost-effectiveness of the Space Transportation System.

Logsdon writes on page 161:

When NASA in its September 30, 1970, budget proposal to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) characterized the space shuttle as “cost-effective,” it was responding to pressure from the budget office to demonstrate that the combination of the costs of developing and operating the reusable shuttle would, over the period of shuttle use, produce a cost savings over the use of existing or new expendable launch vehicles to launch the same missions. This requirement was unprecedented; in the 12 years since NASA had begun operations, it had never been required to show that one of its programs could be justified in economic terms.

One OMB staffer went so far as to suggest a commercial Space Shuttle, decades before the commercial cargo and crew programs that came out of the Bush administration in 2005. Dr. Logsdon writes on page 214 of an October 7, 1971 NASA hearing with OMB:

William Niskanen, head of the OMB Evaluation Division, made two provocative suggestions. The first was to finance the NASA program through revenues raised by selling the material returned from the Apollo missions to the Moon. The second was to have the private sector, using its own financial resources, develop the next generation space transportation system, and then sell transportation services to NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD) to recoup that investment. The staff of the Evaluation Division was even more skeptical of the value of NASA's human space flight program than were OMB's mainline budget examiners, and Niskanen a year earlier had been an opponent of any hint of a commitment to the space shuttle ...

As you might suspect, NASA rejected the idea, as did Niskanen's superiors who realized that ending the government human space flight program wasn't politically viable. Niskanen left OMB shortly thereafter.

In his 2011 obituary, The New York Times called Niskanen “a blunt libertarian economist” who throughout his career had a penchant for floating unpopular ideas.

A video played at William Niskanen's memorial service. Video source: catoinstitutevideo YouTube channel.

And now we turn to the villain of our play, Richard Milhous Nixon.

It's easy to vilify Nixon. He was, after all, the only President to resign in disgrace. His many sins for decades have been a part of this nation's historical record.

But the best villains in fiction are the ones who are totally convinced of their righteousness, who perhaps bring a bit of raw truth to the tale.

Nixon was a politician of national stature. For all his demons, Nixon understood the politics of election — and re-election.

Logsdon writes that Nixon paid close attention to opinion polls. Contrary to mythology, the public majority opposed spending more on human space flight stunts. Space historian Roger Launius wrote in 2003:

... [M]any people believe that Project Apollo was popular, probably because it garnered significant media attention, but the polls do not support a contention that Americans embraced the lunar landing mission. 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.

With Kennedy's challenge answered, the majority of the public saw no need to continue funding human lunar flights.

But a consequence of Kennedy's challenge was that it created a space-industrial complex. By one recent estimate, “At the beginning of 1966, at least 420,000 people were working directly or indirectly for NASA.”

It was the first step towards what General Electric CEO Ralph J. Cordiner called in 1961 a “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, a Republican, had supported Nixon during the 1960 presidential race and would go on to chair Barry Goldwater's Finance Committee during the 1964 presidential election.

By 1970, nearly a half-million Americans depended on NASA for their jobs — “dependent on the political whims and necessities of the Federal government,” as Cordiner had warned.

In his epilogue, Dr. Logsdon cites three principal space policy decisions by the Nixon administration:

  • To treat the space program as part of the daily activities of the federal government, its budget determined in competition with other national priorities.
  • To not issue another challenging space goal, ignoring the recommendations of the Space Task Group and the dreams of NASA management.
  • To authorize the Space Shuttle without a long-term strategy for its use.

Nixon personally admired the astronauts and, like most Americans, had some passing interest in NASA affairs, but declared privately, “ I am not one of those space cadets.”

Much of After Apollo is about the Nixon administration's deliberating what should happen to NASA human spaceflight after the Moon landings. In the end, it boiled down to Nixon not wanting to be known as the President who ended U.S. human spaceflight, nor did he want to be blamed for the loss of hundreds of thousands of NASA-related jobs.

NASA leadership failed to convince Nixon to support its grandiose vision for expanding humanity across the solar system. But they did have an interest in protecting their workforce, and here they found common ground with the Administration. Once perpetuating employment emerges as the agency's raison d'être, it dovetails nicely with the Nixon administration's 1972 election strategy to protect California aerospace jobs.

January 5, 1972 ... NASA Administrator James Fletcher meets with President Nixon to announce the formal approval of the Space Shuttle program. Image source: Wikipedia.

Logsdon blames Nixon for creating an environment where NASA to this date is on a “goal-less voyage.” He writes on page 300:

Nixon and his closest advisers gave little attention to the longer term consequences of their decision to put the NASA full-capability space shuttle at the center of the post-Apollo space program. Those consequences were compounded by approving a shuttle design that from NASA's standpoint was a step toward an eventual space station. The consequences were exacerbated by setting out an approach to determining the NASA budget that was very likely to result in funding insufficient to support efficient development and operation of both the space shuttle and the space station while also funding the space activities they were designed to serve. It was difficult to rally public and political support for the capability-driven approach inherent in the Nixon approach to the post-Apollo space program, and the lack of broad public support for the space program has persisted.

I would argue that some of the blame should go to President Kennedy, for morphing NASA into something it was never intended to be.

The original National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 created NASA, “To provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes.” It lists a series of objectives to which NASA may “contribute materially.” The Act doesn't require NASA to launch humans into space, to send them to other worlds, or even to own its rockets.

NASA was intended to be an aerospace research and development agency. Kennedy recast NASA as a propaganda organ, a bloodless front in the Cold War. When he proposed the human lunar program to Congress on May 25, 1961, he did warn of the enormous expense and invited Congress to assume the political risk with him. By 1963, as Logsdon wrote in John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, Kennedy was increasingly concerned about the program's cost. Some evidence suggests he was looking for a way to alter the challenge, perhaps by turning off the end-of-decade clock, but he was assassinated on November 22, 1963, so we'll never know what might have happened during the 1964 election campaign or in a second Kennedy term.

In any case, Nixon inherited the space-industrial complex Kennedy unwittingly created.

When Kennedy stood on the floor of Congress in May 1961 to propose the human lunar space flight, no one raised a hand to ask, “What will you do with all this when we're done?” I wish someone had. We've been searching for an answer for nearly fifty years.

Unlike Dr. Logsdon, I don't blame Nixon for selecting the more bloated Shuttle design. Nixon and his advisors were not aerospace experts; those who were, in NASA and the DOD, were looking out for their own interests. OMB seemed to be the only character in this space Rashomon seeking the truth, but were thwarted by the politics of the 1972 presidential election campaign. Nixon created his own shadow staff outside the government bureaucracy, which he famously distrusted, and this saga shows why.

In my opinion, Nixon really had no viable alternatives. He did what most leaders do when faced with a decision — he appointed a committee to recommend a direction. The Space Task Group gave him one in September 1969, but it was delusional.

After Apollo doesn't offer much insight into who may have been the key Congressional players if the Administration had proposed more radical reforms, such as closing space centers or privatizing spaceflight. Were there early 1970s equivalents of today's Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) who would have blocked any attempts to reform the space-industrial complex? Nixon didn't seem much inclined towards reforming NASA anyway, but I'd like to know what might have been his chances had he tried.

Bill Niskanen's commercial space proposal was before its time. In future decades, libertarian-minded politicians would pass legislation through Congress attempting to enable commercial space, but always faced a headwind from NASA and its political protectors. Only after the Columbia accident in 2003 did the notion of “building a robust space industry” take hold, with the 2004 Aldridge Commission report that recommended how to implement President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. That led to the creation in November 2005 of NASA's Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office, the first commercial cargo contracts in 2006 and the first commercial crew contracts in 2010.

Dr. Logsdon faults Nixon for not giving NASA a voyage with a goal. I think a more fundamental question should be posed — Why should NASA have a voyage with a goal when it wasn't designed to have one?

Dr. John M. Logsdon speaks May 6, 2015 about his book at the California Institute of Technology. Video source: KISSCaltech YouTube channel.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Articles of Interest

Click the arrow to watch an animation of the Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) relocation scheduled for today. Video source: ReelNASA YouTube channel.

I've been rather busy in the real world the last two weeks, so I'm behind in posting blog articles. Let's catch up on some news.

The International Space Station takes one small step today for commercial crew when the Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) is relocated to make room for a new International Docking Adapter. The Unity module uses a docking adapter called the Androgynous Peripheral Attach System. The APAS design is descended from one developed by Russia for the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. The IDA will be compatible with the commercial crew vehicles that will fly to the station in 2017, assuming Congress doesn't cut the funding again.

Which the House Appropriations Committee did on May 20, reducing its Fiscal Year 2016 funding by 20% from the $1.2 billion requested by the White House. Congressional funding cuts of commercial crew have already extended NASA reliance on Roscosmos at least two years. The Committee also cut earth sciences funding. The money from the cuts was shifted to the Space Launch System boondoogle and planetary science missions. I wouldn't hold out much hope for the Senate Appropriations Committee to restore the commercial crew cuts; champion OldSpace porker Richard Shelby (R-AL) rules the roost on the Senate subcommittee that allocates NASA funding. He's been a vocal critic of commercial crew, demanding the money be spent in his state on the SLS.

Click the arrow to watch the House of Representatives debate and approve the SPACE Act. Original video source: C-SPAN.

Elsewhere in NewSpace, the House of Representatives approved on May 21 the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act of 2015. Click here for the bill's complete text. Most organized opposition came from Democrats led by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), a lawyer whose district includes NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Edwards has announced a 2016 run for U.S. Senate, replacing Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), another fierce protector of NASA pork for her state. The SPACE Act passed 284-133; 48 Democrats crossed the aisle to join with 236 Republicans to support the bill.

The U.S. Air Force announced May 26 that SpaceX is now certified for national security space missions. According to the press release:

SpaceX is now eligible for award of qualified national security space launch missions as one of two currently certified launch providers. The first upcoming opportunity for SpaceX to compete to provide launch services is projected to be in June when the Air Force releases a Request for Proposal for GPS III launch services.

The certification process was contentious at times; in March, an independent review concluded the Air Force “overstepped its bounds” by imposing unnecessary restrictions on SpaceX.

Closer to home, Florida Today journalist Dave Berman reports that Brevard County commissioners have approved $13.7 million in incentives to bring two aerospace projects to the area.

In the larger of the projects, rocket company Blue Origin would receive an $8 million grant as part of a $205 million to $220 million rocket-manufacturing operation it is considering at Exploration Park, a planned research and industrial complex outside Kennedy Space Center's south gate. The company would launch from Launch Complex 36, a state-run pad on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The company said it would employ up to 330 people at Exploration Park.

The grant money would come from the North Brevard Economic Development Zone, which uses property tax revenue generated by new commercial and industrial construction in North Brevard for projects that spur economic development in that part of the county. The County Commission created the zone in 2011.

Blue Origin, founded by CEO Jeff Bezos, also is expected to receive even larger incentives from the state, although details have not been disclosed.

The second project involves a Lockheed Martin renovation of an old Astrotech facility near the Titusville airport. The nature of the project was not revealed.

In closing, Florida Today space journalist James Dean reported May 23 that the NASA railroad engines have left for new homes. Over the last four decades, the three locomotives were used primarily to haul Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster segments through Kennedy Space Center property.

Click the arrow to watch a 2011 NASA documentary on the KSC railroad. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Going Up, Part 5

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

Since January, I've been making monthly trips around Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A to photograph the SpaceX upgrades.

This month's photos were shot on Memorial Day, Monday May 25 — which also happened to be the 54th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's congressional speech proposing a human lunar spaceflight.

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)

Going Up, Part 4 (April 27)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Retro Saturday: The Wright Brothers at Huffman Prairie

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

This week's Retro Saturday is a 25-minute 1988 U.S. Air Force film titled, The Wright Brothers at Huffman Prairie.

In popular culture, the Wright Brothers are associated with Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, but most of their pioneering research was near their hometown of Dayton, Ohio in a pasture called Huffman Prairie.

The Wrights were looking for a test site closer to home. They found Huffman Prairie. The site wasn't ideal, but it was much closer than travelling all the way to North Carolina.

Today's commercial space entrepeneurs have echoes in the early 20th Century's aviation pioneers.

The Wright Brothers sought to sell their earliest biplanes to the U.S. Army. When their own government showed no interest, they went to Europe and were warmly received.

The film doesn't mention the brothers' rivalries and patent wars with Glenn Curtiss, nor does it mention the fatal accident in September 1908 with Orville Wright at the controls. Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge was killed after the biplane lost a propellor in flight. Orville survived with broken bones.

Huffman Prairie today is part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. An interpretive center is one of five sites around Dayton that can be visited by the public.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Retro Saturday: Aerial Tour of White Sands

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

This week's Retro Saturday concludes a trilogy of documentaries about the White Sands missile range.

Aerial Tour of White Sands is a 1963 U.S. Army documentary about the missile range. It runs about nine minutes.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Tale of the Tape: Space Shuttle vs. Falcon Heavy

Click the arrow to watch an animation of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

One no longer flies.

The other has yet to leave the ground.

One of the accusations levelled by critics of the Shuttle's demise was that the United States did not have a vehicle of equivalent capability.

It's debatable whether those capabilities were “unique” and couldn't be performed by a different approach.

In any case, that starship has gone to warp, so to speak, so let's focus on the future.

NASA's third-generation booster will be the Space Launch System. Officially it will have its first uncrewed test flight by the end of 2018, although the evidence is mounting that SLS will slip to at least 2019 due to delays with the Orion crew vehicle and other critical systems.

SLS has no official missions or destinations. NASA and Congress talk about the Moon, asteroids, Mars, and solar system probes. But so far, it's all talk, which is far cheaper than any actual mission, crewed or not.

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy is poised to become the logical successor to the Shuttle. Although less powerful than the SLS, SpaceX believes it will have a test firing by the end of 2015 and be operational in 2016.

Until it leaves the pad and proves that attaching three Falcon 9 boosters to each other actually works, we need to maintain a bit of healthy skepticism.

But if you compare the numbers, Falcon Heavy — if it performs as projected — will be a significant cost savings for NASA instead of flying its own Shuttle.

Let's look at the Tale of the Tape.

ThrustAccording to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy web page, FH will have 4.5 million pounds force (lbf) of thrust at launch from its 27 engines. According to the final Space Shuttle mission press kit, each of the three Space Shuttle main engines provided 490,000 lbs. when operating at 100% in a vacuum, for a total of 1.47 million lbf. Each of the two solid rocket boosters provided 3.3 million lbf, for a total of 6.6 million lbf. Add it all together, it totals about 8.1 million lbf.

Thrust advantage: Space Shuttle.

However ... Thrust doesn't mean much when you're lifting a lot more mass. The FH will have a mass of 3.2 million lbs while the Shuttle was about 4.5 million lbs. Divide mass by thrust and you get .71 for FH, .56 for Shuttle.

So the winner in mass to thrust: Falcon Heavy.

Payload — How much weight it can deliver into space is the raison d'être for any launch vehicle. One number is difficult to calculate because of the intricacies of orbital mechanics. Where is the payload going? What altitude? What inclination to the equator? Does it need to escape Earth orbit? Does it need to be stationary over one location?

Going with basic numbers, we'll look at Low Earth Orbit (LEO) which is between 100-1,200 miles and Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO), which is about 26,000 miles. The International Space Station, for example, is in LEO at about 250 miles.

According to references, FH will deliver 117,000 lbs. to LEO and 47,000 lbs. to GTO. The Shuttle delivered 53,600 lbs. to LEO and 8,390 lbs. to GTO.

Payload advantage ... Falcon Heavy.

Price — The SpaceX Falcon Heavy web page states the cost of a launch is $90 million to deliver 6.4 metric tons (about 14,000 lbs.) to GTO. According to a NASA web site, the average cost of a Shuttle launch was $450 million, although by other calculations the cost was somewhere between $1.2 to $1.5 billion.

Price advantage ... Falcon Heavy.

So what can we conclude?

With little more than half the thrust, the Falcon Heavy will deliver more than twice the payload to LEO and more than five times the payload to GTO for at least one-sixth of the cost.

The most important difference ... Falcon Heavy doesn't risk lives to deliver payload into orbit.

July 8, 2011 ... The final launch of the Space Shuttle. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Fixer Upper

Click the arrow to watch a March 2015 KSC commercial partnership promotional film. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

The last launch from Kennedy Space Center was July 8, 2011, when the Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis launched from Pad 39A.

And so began a battle for the hearts and minds of those working at KSC.

Ever since it opened in 1963, KSC has been focused on servicing a lone government launch program — first the Apollo era, and then the Space Shuttle.

The Obama administration envisioned the facility becoming a multi-user spaceport, both government and commercial. This riled many of the old guard, NASA civil servants and their contractors, who had long enjoyed the notion that they had a guaranteed government job with compensation far beyond what was comparable in the private sector.

Introducing competition at KSC was heretical, if not downright evil. A number of KSC workers believed they had some sort of divine right to taxpayer dollars, proceeding at a pace they saw fit, working on whatever program NASA engineers deemed appropriate. Accountability? Consequences? Lower wages comparable to the private sector? Blasphemy!

But others, including Obama political appointees running NASA, believed the agency could no longer sustain itself with that kind of attitude, especially after the failure of the Constellation program — just the latest in a series of NASA program cost overruns, delays and inevitable cancellations.

Four years later, KSC is slowly transforming itself into a multiuser facility with commercial tenants, although some facilities are lacking customers and other facilities are still in government hands.

The most obvious transformations are at the two launch pads.

As I've chronicled in photos this year, Pad 39A is being renovated by SpaceX for its new Falcon Heavy rocket, as well as the Falcon 9. Click here for the most recent photos. SpaceX hopes to have its first Falcon Heavy test firing on Pad 39A by the end of 2015, with crew Dragon launches to the International Space Station by 2017.

Pad 39B, the government program pad, continues its renovations at a more leisurely pace typical of Constellation and its failed predecessors. published on May 9 a detailed article about Pad 39B renovations, including a project called the Deployable Launch System (DLS) or “Launch Pad in a Box” which KSC hopes will lure commercial launchers with smaller payloads to use the pad.

Pad 39B reverted to its original Apollo-era clean pad configuration after the Constellation Ares I-X test flight in October 2009. KSC envisioned commercial users leasing one of the three existing mobile launchers dating back to the 1960s, but no company stepped forward. The vertical integration and transfer approach favored by Wernher von Braun a half-century ago has proven more expensive and cumbersome than horizontal integration, as demonstrated by SpaceX at the Cape's Pad 40. The SpaceX Pad 39A will also have horizontal integration. At the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Orbital ATK uses horizontal integration for its commercial launcher, the Antares.

The DLS hopes to attract “small class” launches with a vertical integration in the Vehicle Assembly Building, then delivery to the pad on a “a wheeled flatbed transporter” instead of the half-century old Crawler Transporter.

As for 39B's primary tenant, Space Launch System on paper is scheduled to launch by the end of 2018, but anecdotal evidence — including congressional testimony by NASA executives — suggests that the first test flight may slip into 2019 or even later. The 2010 congressional legislation mandating SLS ordered the first uncrewed test flight by December 31, 2016, but that appears to be at least two years too optimistic.

One has to wonder how much longer Congress will tolerate SLS slips at 39B while SpaceX flies its far more affordable Falcon Heavy at 39A.

A map showing existing and potential vertical launch pads at Kennedy Space Center. Click to view the image at a larger size. Image source: NASA via Florida Today.

Even though KSC has yet to find a commercial tenant for Pad 39B, that hasn't deterred facility executives from dreaming of more launch pads.

An article posted May 8 on the Florida Today web site reports that NASA executives are proposing commercial pads within KSC boundaries, including a small vehicle launch site that would be dubbed Launch Complex 42. Also proposed are full-scale pads 39C and 39D.

Space Florida, a state agency charged with attracting commercial users to the Space Coast, believes that such facilities won't attract customers because the private sector is stifled by the bureaucracy that goes with having a government landlord. That's why SpaceX chose to build a commercial spaceport near Boca Chica, Texas and now Blue Origin is looking at sites other than the Space Coast for its launch vehicles.

The landlord issue could be resolved by KSC turning over land for commercial pads to Space Florida, but so far KSC executives have rejected that idea.

Space Florida has also been negotiating a lease for the former Shuttle runway, but that too has faced bureaucratic obstacles. A tentative agreement was announced in July 2013, but nearly two years later a final agreement hasn't been signed.

A January 2015 Daytona Beach News-Journal article reported, “After 18 months of negotiations, Space Florida is awaiting final approval of its contract with NASA to use the former shuttle landing facility.” The article quoted NASA and Space Florida executives as saying the deal should be final by the end of January, but here we are in May and a signed deal has not been announced. Potential commercial tenants such as Stratolaunch, XCOR and Swiss Space Systems can't negotiate a lease with Space Florida until the NASA deal is done.

Film footage of the June 2010 Exploration Park groundbreaking. Video source: ThePizzutiCompanies YouTube channel.

Just outside KSC's Gate 2 but still on NASA property, Exploration Park still hasn't begun construction of a tenant facility almost five years after breaking ground. The project is managed by Space Florida but the land is still owned by NASA.

A Boeing X-37B after landing in October 2014 at Vandenberg AFB. Image source: Boeing.

More successful has been the transition of the three former Space Shuttle orbiter hangars to the Boeing Company. Two hangars will be used for the X-37B, an uncrewed orbital space plane operated on behalf of the U.S. Air Force. The next X-37B launch is scheduled atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from the Cape's Pad 41 on May 20. The third orbiter hangar, leased through Space Florida, will be used for Boeing's CST-100 commercial crew capsule.

Slowly but inevitably, Kennedy Space Center is becoming the multiuser spaceport promoted for the last five years.

I wonder who is delaying the inevitable, and why.

UPDATE May 12, 2015Florida Today space journalist James Dean reports that at today's National Space Club Florida luncheon KSC director Bob Cabana said the final deal for the former Shuttle runway has been delivered to Space Florida.

After nearly two years of negotiations, Space Florida CEO Frank DiBello plans to present a tentative agreement to his board late this month in Tampa ...

If the deal is approved, DiBello said the state would take over the facility immediately, focused initially on seamlessly continuing existing flight operations such as deliveries of satellites and other mission hardware or astronauts visiting during training.

"The real future of the Shuttle Landing Facility is developing it for a new class of users, because right now it is only a landing facility," he told FLORIDA TODAY after the presentation. "The future is to make it the flagship for the U.S., as far as I'm concerned, horizontal takeoff and landing, special purpose aviation spaceport."

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Retro Saturday: JFK Visits White Sands

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

Last week, we visited the White Sands missile range in New Mexico to participate in a Redstone test firing.

This week's Retro Saturday returns to White Sands for President John F. Kennedy's June 5, 1963 visit.

Kennedy made three trips to Cape Canaveral during his administration. His Rice University speech in Houston on September 12, 1962 is remembered for its lyrical rhetoric appealing to national pride for support of the human lunar spaceflight program. Kennedy also visited Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, and the McDonnell Douglas facility in St. Louis during that September 1962 trip.

But his White Sands visit is all but forgotten to history.

White Sands as a military facility long predated NASA's arrival.

The missile range was established in 1941 as a bombing and gunnery range. The first nuclear weapon was detonated at the Trinity Site in 1945. After World War II, Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team of German scientists used White Sands to resume testing and development of V-2 missile technology.

NASA arrived at the range in 1963. It was chosen as the site for the Manned Spacecraft Center's Propulsion Systems Development Facility, primarily to serve the Apollo program. (MSC is known today as Johnson Space Center.)

Kennedy witnessed demonstration launches of eight different Army missile systems.

Today the NASA faciilty is known as the White Sands Test Facility.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

How to Train Your Dragon

Click the arrow to watch the pad abort test. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

SpaceX took one small step for a crash test dummy, but one giant leap for NewSpace, when it conducted a pad abort test Wednesday morning at the Cape's Pad 40.

The NASA press release declared the event “a successful demonstration” although according to a SpaceX pre-launch release the Dragon V2 may have come up short.

The release stated that Dragon at apogee would reach 1,500 meters. A tweet by SpaceX founder Elon Musk stated it reached only 1,187 meters.

Dragon V2 was projected to splash down about 2,200 meters off-shore but according to Musk it landed just 1,200 meters away from the pad.

At about the 16 minute 10 second mark in the above video, you can hear someone on the radio loop say “slightly below nominal.” at about 16:50, someone says, “Hang tight, everyone!” There's some speculation that the Dragon was drifting back to the shoreline due to easterly winds.

In a post-launch media briefing, Musk stated that one of the eight Super Draco thrusters had underperformed due to an abnormal fuel mixture ratio.

The thrusters use nitrogen tetroxide as on oxidizer and monomethyl hydrazine as a fuel. These are known as “hypergolic” in that they burn when mixed together without a heat source. N2O4 and MMH have been used for decades on space vehicles as the thruster propellant of choice, because in a vacuum no ignition source is required. The Space Shuttle orbiter used the same chemicals for its Reaction Control System thrusters and Orbital Maneuvering System engines.

The projected flight test trajectory and sequence of events. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: SpaceX.

According to James Dean of Florida Today, after an in-flight abort test this year at Vandenberg Air Force Base, SpaceX will send the Dragon V2 on an uncrewed demonstration flight to the International Space Station sometime in the next year and a half, if all goes well.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The SpaceX Pad Abort Pre-Game Show

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

NASA announced that the SpaceX crew Dragon pad abort test will be Wednesday May 6 at the Cape's Launch Complex 40.

The launch window opens at 7 AM and runs until mid-afternoon.

It's believed that this is the first pad abort test at Cape Canaveral. Mercury-Redstone pad aborts were conducted in 1959 and 1960 at the NASA facility on Wallops Island.

Mercury-Atlas 1, an uncrewed test, suffered a structural failure one minute after launch from the Cape's Pad 14 and generated its abort command. The uncrewed Mercury-Atlas 3 test suffered a similar fate when its booster failed to execute its roll program, but the escape system performed as intended. Unlike MA-1, MA-3 had a live escape tower.

Project Mercury abort tower escape tests. Video source: sdasmarchives YouTube channel.

The Gemini capsules didn't have an abort tower. The two crew members sat in ejection seats similar to those in jet fighter craft.

The Apollo escape system was tested at the White Sands missile range.

The Space Shuttle had no effective escape system, leading to the deaths of fourteen astronauts.

The in-flight abort test of the Orion crew capsule is scheduled for 2018, atop an old Peacekeeper missile launched from the Cape's Pad 46.

If the SpaceX test goes well, an in-flight abort test will be launched sometime this summer from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Retro Saturday: Redstone at White Sands

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

This week's Retro Saturday is a 1959 documentary by the U.S. Army Signal Missile Support Agency called, Redstone at White Sands.

The 18-minute film is set in early 1959 and shows how the Army used the Redstone as a weapon.

Human spaceflight fans are more familiar with the Redstone as the launch vehicle for Project Mercury suborbital flights. The chimpanzee Ham, followed by humans Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, all launched on Redstones from Pad 5 at Cape Canaveral.

But the Redstone was originally a short-range ballistic missile, designed by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) for deployment in West Germany. Depending on the weight of its payload, the Redstone had a range of about 50 to 200 miles.

The Redstone is a direct descendant of the German V-2. Both were developed by Dr. Wernher von Braun and his ABMA team at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.

At the time of this film, the Army was about to end its involvement with long-range missiles.

The ABMA, along with White Sands, the Redstone Arsenal, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena were all grouped in 1958 under the new Army Ordnance Missile Command. In 1960, AOMC and most of its employees were transferred to NASA.

The Redstone missile itself remained property of the U.S. Army, which provided the Redstones to NASA.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Small Change

Click the arrow to watch the April 30, 2015 House science committee hearing on NASA's budget.

There comes a point where you can't watch these hearings any more.

You feel your intelligence being insulted by the naked partisanship, the craven porkery and the self-inflicted ignorance that pervades the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Five years ago, members of this committee howled with outrage when the Obama administration proposed cancelling the bloated failed Constellation program. Members of both parties claimed this would end the U.S. space program, that Russia and China would surpass the U.S. in space, that commercial companies would never succeed at spaceflight.

If this committee and its senatorial sibling had funded commercial crew at the level originally requested by the administration, it was projected that U.S. and other allied astronauts would be flying this year from the Space Coast. Congress chose instead to cut the President's request by 62% over the next three years, and by lesser amounts in subsequent years, extending U.S. reliance on Russia for two to three years.

The money went instead to the Space Launch System, which to this day has no missions or destinations. NASA was required by its 2010 authorization act to spend about $3 billion per year on SLS and its Orion crew capsule. Although the act required the first test flight by the end of 2016, it now appears that will occur no earlier than 2019.

Judging by its September 2011 media event, the main purpose of SLS seems to be to preserve jobs in the districts and states of certain members of Congress — including those on this committee.

Many of those prognosticators remain on this committee five years later. Their failed prophecies have left them unrepentant, as they move on to new idiocies that leave me in more cynical moments questioning the wisdom of representative democracy.

Thanks to Vladimir Putin directing Russian troops to invade Crimea, Congress was left with no choice this year but to fully fund the administration's $1.2 billion request for commercial crew.

But SLS pork had to come from somewhere, so the Republican members zeroed in on NASA's Earth Sciences budget.

It's no secret that most Republican members of Congress are skeptical of climate change, if not outright deniers.

With both houses now led by Republican majorities, it seemed likely that the GOP leadership would try to slash climate change funding.

Space policy analyst Marcia Smith writes on

NASA’s earth science program is funded at $1.773 billion in FY2015. The request for FY2016 is $1.947 billion. Under the bill’s aspirational scenario, it would receive $1.450 billion in FY2016. Under the constrained scenario, it would receive $1.199 billion. Using current funding and the aspirational scenario for FY2016, it would be an approximately 18 percent cut. Compared to the President’s request, it would be a roughly 26 percent cut. If the [Budget Control Act, i.e. sequestration] caps are not removed and the constrained scenario plays out for FY2016, it would be about a 32 percent cut compared to current funding or a 38 percent cut compared to the President’s request.

House and Senate Republicans on NASA’s authorization committees argue that NASA’s unique expertise is space exploration and studying the Earth should not be one of its priorities. Although many also are climate change skeptics, publicly they do not frame their arguments in that context, instead insisting that other agencies should pay for that research, not NASA. Republicans on this committee proposed deep cuts to NASA’s earth science budget in 2013 and Democrats introduced their own bill with more favorable funding. The Republican bill was approved, and the Democratic bill rejected, on party line votes in committee. That bill was never taken to the floor for a vote by the House, however. Instead, the House has since passed two NASA authorization bills that avoided partisan discord over funding by using figures that already were approved in the appropriations process. That tactic cannot be used this time since the bill is for future years.

The Republicans argued that other agencies should fund climate change research, but they didn't include in their bill those agencies or any funding for them. Those agencies, perhaps, are not within their jurisdiction, but it's certainly irresponsible to say “let someone else solve it” and walk away without a solution.

After the vote, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden issued this statement:

“The NASA authorization bill making its way through the House of Representatives guts our Earth science program and threatens to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and storm events.

“NASA leads the world in the exploration of and study of planets, and none is more important than the one on which we live.

“In addition, the bill underfunds the critical space technologies that the nation will need to lead in space, including on our journey to Mars.”

The legislation has a long way to go. The Senate science committee must pass its own authorization, and then the two bills must be reconciled as part of the annual budget process.

But the Senate committee is headed by Ted Cruz (R-TX), who in March called climate change activists “flat Earthers” and compared himself to Galileo. Mr. Cruz is running for President in 2016, so it's unlikely he'll mellow his climate change views which would leave him vulnerable to charges of moderation by the Tea Party wing of the Republican party.

My guess is that NASA's Earth Sciences budget will be gutted for the next two fiscal cycles, while the Republicans control Congress. But 2016 is a presidential election year. National demographics all but assure that the Democratic nominee will have an edge in the electoral college. Thirty-four Senate seats will be open, and twenty-four of those are Republicans. The current partisan divide in the Senate is 54-46, so in a year with a more sympathetic Democratic turnout it seems likely that the 2017 Senate will flip back into the (D) column.

If all this happens, expect some NASA climate change funding to be restored.

After a lot more forehead slapping on this end of the cable modem.