Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Fall

Click here to watch the SpaceX CRS-7 launch and loss. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

Less than five years after their first powered flight, Orville and Wilbur Wright brought one of their Flyers to Fort Myer, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The brothers hoped to sell their two-passenger craft to the U.S. Army.

On September 17, 1908, Orville took to the air with Lt. Thomas Selfridge of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Division. As the two circled the field, the right propeller broke and hit a guy wire bracing the rear vertical rudder. The Flyer plunged into the ground. Orville was badly injured but survived. Selfridge became the first known fatality in a U.S. powered flight.

The Wright Flyer crash on September 17, 1908. Image source: Wikipedia.

In May 1919, New York hotelier Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 to the first team that could successfully fly a powered aircraft non-stop between New York City and Paris. Over the next eight years, six men died in three crashes attempting to win the prize. On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to successfully fly across the Atlantic.

Later that year, seven lives were lost in August during the Dole Air Race to become the first team to fly non-stop between San Francisco and Hawaii.

During the spring and summer of 1927, twenty-one people were killed in various long-distance flight attempts.

Despite the fatalities, interest in aviation boomed. Entrepreneurs across the nation invested in starting their own airlines, some to deliver cargo, a few to fly people. The boom was spurred by the U.S. Post Office offering exclusive contracts in the mid-1920s to commercial companies that would fly air mail along designated routes. To defray costs, some of the airlines carried a few passengers, although the cargo was the priority.

One of the first commercial air mail pilots in 1926 was Charles Lindbergh. By flying commercial air mail, he gained the experience to cross the Atlantic.

Echoes of the earliest days of commercial aviation can be heard in the June 2004 report A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover released by the President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. Commonly known as the Aldridge Commission after its chair, the group was charged with recommending how to implement President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration.

In Section III, titled “Building a Robust Space Industry,” the commission found 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.”

The Aldridge Commission holds a public hearing in New York on May 3, 2004. Image source: University of North Texas.

The commission believed that, given the chance, “The private sector will continue to push the envelope to succeed competitively in the space field.” The report recommended using prizes as an incentive, specifically citing the Orteig Prize that led to Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic.

Recognizing that risk had to be introduced into the space industry if innovation could begin, the commission wrote:

Government regulation of the nascent private sector space industry is ongoing and will be necessary in the future, but it is important to ensure that this industry not become over-regulated. A key issue in the private space flight business is liability. There is a pressing need for a change in liability laws to set a reasonable standard for implied consent. People throughout society do dangerous things for fun and profit; it is not reasonable to impose governmental risk standards on people who are willing and eager to undertake dangerous or hazardous activities.

Based on the commission's recommendations, NASA opened the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office on November 7, 2005. NASA courted entrepreneurs who might want to be part of this venture to open space to the private sector.

One of them was Internet entrepeneur and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk.

April 20, 2005 ... NASA Administrator Michael Griffin (left) meets with SpaceX founder Elon Musk (right). Image source: Wikipedia.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin addressed the X-Prize Cup Summit on October 20, 2006. He recalled the origins of commercial aviation through the U.S. Post Office in the early 20th Century. That model would now be applied to the space industry. Griffin said:

If we can do this, we will be able to change the paradigm for transportation services to be more in line with the air mail service of the 1920s, meeting the logistics needs of the ISS, some 7,000 to 10,000 kilograms per year, after the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010. In the process, we may be able to spur innovation for low-cost access to space. This is a carefully considered investment with known risks that we can all see and appreciate, but with a potentially huge upside that makes it well worth the risks.

SpaceX received one of the first commercial contracts to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, even though the company had yet to successfully launch a rocket, much less a cargo ship.

A little more than two minutes after launch today here on the Space Coast, SpaceX lost its seventh commercial cargo flight to the ISS. A tweet by Elon Musk suggested a problem with the upper stage:

In less than a year, both commercial cargo companies have lost vehicles. Orbital ATK lost its third Cygnus flight last October when an engine on its Antares rocket failed. For now, NASA is without a domestic means of ISS cargo delivery.

But this is why the commercial cargo program was created. Failure must be an option if we are to progress. As Michael Griffin said in October 2006, the “potentially huge upside” makes it worth the risk.

Fourteen lives were lost during the Space Shuttle program due to two accidents. In the 1970s, the United States chose to put people on cargo ships, while the Soviet Union simply developed a robotic cargo ship. The first Progress flew in 1978. Although Progress ships have failed from time to time — most recently, on April 28 — no lives were lost. The Soviet Union and Russia have not had a space fatality since 1971.

Today's incident is a tragedy, but as with Cygnus no lives were lost.

SpaceX critics will point to the perfect flight record to date by rival United Launch Alliance, but it's unfair to compare the two. ULA was created as a legal monopoly in 2006 after Boeing and Lockheed Martin 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.

If not for SpaceX disrupting the launch industry, commercial satellite launches would still be going to overseas competitors because ULA costs too much. Since December 2013, seven commercial satellites have launched on Falcon 9 boosters from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The last time ULA launched a commercial satellite from the Cape was 2009.

Overlooked in today's reporting is the implication that commercial satellite launches might also halt until the upper stage anomaly is resolved. The ambitious SpaceX manifest will have to wait for the foreseeable future.

In his September 12, 1962 Rice University speech, President John F. Kennedy described the Apollo human lunar spaceflight program as “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” Lives would be lost. Technology would fail. He warned us it would not be easy. It would be hard.

Humanity reached the Moon in 1969, yet failures and fatalities still happen. They always will.

Today I met a 12-year old from a Colorado middle school who had an experiment aboard SpaceX CRS-7. I told her I was sorry she lost her experiment, but she was undeterred. Grinning from ear to ear, she said, "We'll build another one and do it again!"

That is what SpaceX will do. Build another one. And do it again.

Click the arrow to watch the post-launch press conference. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Going Up, Part 6

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

This morning I made my latest pilgrimage to shoot photos of SpaceX renovations at Pad 39A.

Most obvious are the SpaceX signs on the new horizontal hangar, and the administrative building across the street.

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)

Going Up, Part 5 (May 26)

SpaceX CRS-7 Pre-Game Show

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

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

SpaceX is scheduled to launch tomorrow its seventh Dragon cargo delivery to the International Space Station, under its contract with NASA. The instant launch window is 10:21 AM EDT.

Click here for the SpaceX/NASA CRS-7 Press Kit.

The weather forecast remains 90% favorable, with the only concern for now a violation of the cumulus cloud rule.

In addition to the two above briefings, a third is scheduled for today on the new International Docking Adapter that will be delivered by Dragon for future use by commercial crew companies. That will air on NASA TV at 2 PM EDT.

UPDATE June 27, 2015 — Here's the video of today's student science/commercial crew briefing. It's worth watching the beginning for the motivated middle school students flying an experiment aboard CRS-7.

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

Retro Saturday: Western Aeronautical Test Range

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

The first “A” in NASA stands for Aeronautics, often overlooked by the world that thinks that the agency is only about astronauts in space.

This week's Retro Saturday is a 1988 documentary by NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California, north of San Jose. It's about the Western Aeronautical Test Range (WATR) based at Edwards Air Force Base, which is also the home to the Dryden Flight Research Center. In 2014, Dryden was renamed the Armstrong Flight Research Center after astronaut Neil Armstrong. The (WATR) was renamed the Dryden Aeronautical Test Range (DATR).

Clear as mud?

Anyway, the Range has history that precedes NASA's creation in October 1958. It was here that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. The X-15 flew here, its origins with NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). One of the X-15 pilots was some guy named Neil Armstrong ... and you thought they renamed the place because he walked on the Moon.

Tracking the X-15 required a new system dubbed the X-15 Range. Out of that evolved the WATR that would go on to service the Space Shuttle and decades of experimental aircraft.

If you're old enough to remember EGA computer monitors, you'll have a flashback watching this documentary.

Friday, June 26, 2015

NASA's Sidekick

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

Among the experiments headed to the International Space Station on the next SpaceX Dragon run is a test by Microsoft of a holographic virtual reality technology called HoloLens.

Project Sidekick would use HoloLens commercial technology to empower astronauts aboard the International Space Station. It was discussed during today's ISS science panel media event at Kennedy Space Center, which I'll post online when available.

UPDATE June 27, 2015 — The science briefing is on YouTube at this link. The Sidekick discussion is the third panel.

According to a NASA press release:

The goal of Sidekick is to enable station crews with assistance when and where they need it. This new capability could reduce crew training requirements and increase the efficiency at which astronauts can work in space.

HoloLens was demonstrated at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles earlier this month. Watch the below video to see the demonstration.

Click the arrow to watch the presentation. Video source: Kotaku YouTube channel.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Retro Saturday: Biography of a Titan

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

This week's Retro Saturday is a 1965 U.S. Air Force documentary on the history of the Titan rocket titled, Biography of a Titan.

The first Titans were intended as a successor to the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile. As a weapon, Titans became obsolete because their liquid fuel would have to be loaded before launching a nuclear payload.

NASA used Titan IIs as the launch vehicle for Project Gemini in 1965-1966. While the Geminis launched from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 19, the Air Force constructed two new Titan facilities, Complex 40 and Complex 41, for the next-generation boosters known as the Titan III family.

The documentary features the Integrate-Transfer-Launch assembly line. The buildings are still at the Cape, and can be viewed by tour buses driving along NASA Causeway between Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Complex 40 today is the home of the SpaceX Falcon 9. Complex 41 is leased to United Launch Alliance for the Atlas V.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Huntsville Chases the Dream

Click the arrow to watch an excerpt from the Huntsville media event. Video source: huntsvillecity YouTube channel.

Sierra Nevada Corporation has yet to fly anything more than an uncrewed drop test, but the company signed an agreement June 15 to explore the feasibility of landing its Dream Chaser space plane at Huntsville International Airport.

SNC already has a deal to explore landing at Houston's Ellington Field, which is a joint-use military and civilian airport owned by the City of Houston. Huntsville is the first purely commercial airport to explore becoming a runway for Dream Chaser.

According to the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce press release:

The preliminary studies will assess environmental factors such as airspace, traffic flow, potential impacts to commercial air traffic and the compatibility of SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft with the existing runway and taxiway environments at Huntsville International Airport, a public use airport ...

If preliminary assessments are successful, a second phase of work may begin in late 2015, which could result in the issuance of a re-entry license from the Federal Aviation Administration to land the Dream Chaser spacecraft in Huntsville. The Huntsville International Airport would be the first commercial service airport to acquire the permission and ability to accommodate Dream Chaser spacecraft landings whether on missions to the ISS, or other destinations in low-Earth orbit.

WAAY-TV Channel 31 in Huntsville notes:

Huntsville is a landing option for the Dream Chaser because of a few obvious factors. The Marshall Space Flight Center runs the science operations on the ISS, and a lot of hardware that goes to the station is manufactured there. Huntsville also has a strong presence of national aerospace giants like Boeing, local technology companies like Teledyne Brown Engineering and Dynetics and research entities like HudsonAlpha the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

The existing capabilities in Huntsville present a strong case — Teledyne Brown already provides logistics services for the science operations on the ISS for Marshall, and they hope to play that role in the Dream Chaser program as well. Teledyne Brown is leading the Huntsville landing initiative from the industry side.

An example of what could happen for a local Huntsville company — the Dream Chaser can operate as an independent science platform, that is, experiments can be sent to space on an unmanned Dream Chaser and run remotely from the ground. This already happens on the ISS to save astronaut time. Teledyne Brown, for example, could be contracted by HudsonAlpha to run a biotech crystal growth experiment in orbit. For this to be cost-effective, the Dream Chaser would need to be packed full of investigations, but when it returns, it would be unloaded in Huntsville and the sensitive results brought to the scientists within hours.

A computer animation of the cargo version of the Dream Chaser released in April 2015. Video source: SNCspacesystems YouTube channel.

SNC has always planned to land Dream Chaser at Kennedy Space Center's former Shuttle runway. On June 22, the runway will be formally leased by NASA to the state agency Space Florida, which will operate it for the next thirty years. Adding Houston and Huntsville to its landing portfolio might make Dream Chaser a more attractive option for NASA in the future, especially since SNC recently released a proposal for a strictly cargo version that lacks windows.

Sierra Nevada also has development deals with the European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Dream Chaser has only one free flight to date, an October 2013 drop test at Edwards Air Force Base. Although the flight was nominal, one landing gear failed to deploy, causing the prototype to careen off the runway.

SNC has purchased a United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch scheduled for November 2016 to be the first uncrewed test mission for Dream Chaser.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

This Space For Lease

A computer animation of a notional Stratolaunch mission from the KSC runway. Video source: Stratolaunch YouTube channel.

A deal literally years in the making is finally official.

Florida Governor Rick Scott announced at the Paris Air Show that the State of Florida has agreed to terms with NASA to lease the former Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF).

A tentative deal was announced in July 2013, but negotiations dragged on for two years.

According to the Space Florida press release:

The Shuttle Landing Facility will be used by Space Florida as a testing ground for new technologies and companies. It will serve a wide variety of customers such as Just-In-Time delivery companies, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) systems, NASCAR, and a new generation of space launch vehicles.

The release states the lease is for thirty years. The formal signing ceremony will be June 22.

Several commercial companies have publicly expressed interest in the runway, including Stratolaunch, XCOR, Swiss Space Systems, and Sierra Nevada Corporation. The U.S. Air Force intends to land the Boeing X-37B at the runway, near the two former Shuttle orbiter hangars recently refurbished for the uncrewed orbital space plane.

In related news, NASA yesterday solicited proposals for commercial use of the Vehicle Assembly Building's High Bay 2, as well as the three Mobile Launch Platforms that go back to the Apollo era of the 1960s. NASA solicited proposals for the MLPs back in 2013 but found no takers.

Monday, June 15, 2015

In Defense of “Tomorrowland”

Click the arrow to watch the trailer. Video source: Disney Movie Trailers YouTube channel.

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

Why did Tomorrowland bomb at the box office?

Opinions abound. You've probably heard the old saying that opinions are like a certain anal orifice. Everybody has one.

Some might blame the poor reviews, such as this one from The New York Times. Others might blame the Disney marketing strategy, such as this column on the Forbes web site.

A common complaint in various posts is that the story is a “mess” and generally incomprehensible.

I can only relate my own experience.

The first time I saw it, I admit I came in to the theater with a chip on my shoulder.

Here on the Space Coast, we're the “home field” so to speak for this film. Scenes were filmed at Kennedy Space Center, Titusville and other locations in the area.

Summer blockbusters in recent years have delivered a subliminal message that the United States government has ended human spaceflight, which is nonsense.

So when an early Tomorrowland scene informs theater goers that KSC's Pad 39A is being demolished, I was peeved. Casey Newton, the protagonist, tells her brother, “It's hard to have ideas and easy to give up.”

The truth is that Elon Musk, the biggest “idea” person of our generation, is spending his own money to upgrade 39A for his SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket that is another step towards what he hopes will lead one day to permanent human colonization of Mars.

As with many critics, I had difficulty following the film. It seemed like just so much technobabble.

I left the theater with a negative view of the film, but then found myself thinking ... I'd like to have one of those pins Casey Newton uses to visit Tomorrowland.

So I ordered one (thank you, eBay) and have been wearing it for a couple weeks now.

Why did I do that?

The Tomorrowland pin ... abundantly available from many retailers online.

The film's theme is that optimism will triumph over all.

And as I thought more about the film, I began to realize a lot more was going on than just this message.

So I went again to see Tomorrowland to give it a second chance.

And fell in love with Tomorrowland.

Tomorrowland is an incredibly rich and diverse universe. One reason Lord of the Rings was so popular as a trilogy of novels (and later films) is that J.R.R. Tolkein created a rich and consistent fantasy universe.

That's what Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen did with Tomorrowland. This film requires you to pay attention.

Most summer blockbusters require little intellectual engagement. Jurassic World grossed $209 million on its opening weekend. It's a movie about CGI dinosaurs running rampant. For the fourth time. No intellectual engagement here. Sit back and enjoy the carnage.

You have to think to grasp Tomorrowland.

I think the problem with Tomorrowland is that you have to see it twice.

When you see it for the second time, pay attention not so much to the Casey Newton story line, but to the larger issue, which is Plus Ultra.

In the Tomorrowland universe, four brilliant scientists and visionaries gathered in Paris in 1889 to form Plus Ultra — Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Jules Verne and Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. Co-writer Jeff Jensen explains the origin of the phrase Plus Ultra:

“It’s a riff off of the Latin phrase Non Plus Ultra,” Jensen says. “In antiquity, it was the warning the gods gave to man to stay away from certain regions of the world where monsters may dwell. I believe it translates as ‘nothing further beyond.’ It’s also a metaphor for hubris, and ‘Know your limits, mankind.’

“The phrase has also come to mean the very best, as in “none better.” But the term’s meaning has evolved over the ages.

“In 16th century during the golden age of exploration, the Spanish adopted Non Plus Ultra, but tweaked it. They got rid of the Non and used Plus Ultra, ‘further beyond,’ as a defiance to that ancient order from the gods, and used it as a rallying cry to push the limits and explore,” Jensen says.

That served as the inspiration for Tomorrowland’s fictional braintrust, who decided to create a utopia in a parallel dimension where only the most brilliant minds would be invited to participate.

“We loved the idea of Plus Ultra, that it would be adopted by a new era of exploration, but in a different regard, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility, and it would be adopted by the founding fathers of this organization: Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and Gustav Eiffel,” says Jensen. “They formed this society at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris where the Eiffel Tower was premiered.”

It's fairly well known that Edison and Tesla hated each other, and within that lies what in my opinion is the fascination of Tomorrowland.

A fictional 1964 featurette created by Walt Disney to promote Plus Ultra. Video source: Disney Movie Trailers YouTube channel.

John Dalberg-Acton wrote in April 1887, two years before the fictional creation of Plus Ultra:

Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Tomorrowland poses the question — can optimism counter the corruption of absolute power?

The film does not detail the political or economic systems of the Tomorrowland parallel universe, but it appears that Tomorrowland is not democratic. One could hardly expect those arrogant enough to assume they know better than the rest of us to allow the masses to determine Tomorrowland's fate.

A cartoonist humorously speculates about Tomorrowland's economic system. Image source: Tales of Absurdity.

The film suggests that the 125 years or so that have passed since the founding of Plus Ultra have been anything but harmonious. What would we expect of an organization founded by two people who hated each other?

If you're willing to delve further into the Tomorrowland universe, you will find that Plus Ultra has always had a struggle between the optimists and the cynics.

In April, Disney published a prequel novel, Before Tomorrowland. This is not a novelization or a merchandise gimmick. It is a rich and lush 300-page novel that takes the reader back to the 1939 New York World's Fair, where Plus Ultra intends to reveal itself to the world.

The three film writers are credited with Jonathan Case as the book's authors. Whomever did the bulk of the writing certainly did his homework, because Before Tomorrowland is firmly rooted in actual historical events. The book covers July 2-4, 1939 — not just the World's Fair, but also the first World Science Fiction Convention. The story is faithful to historical events at the convention, including those described in this 2013 essay by Andrew Liptak.

If you're an aficionado of science fiction literature and its history, Before Tomorrowland is a loving homage to its first Golden Age, generally cited as 1938 to 1946.

The Tomorrowland movie has a nod towards that age in the Houston comic book store scene. The male proprietor is named after Hugo Gernsback, who published the earliest science fiction magazines. The Hugo Award given at today's annual World Science Fiction Conventions is named after Hugo Gernsback. Yes, Hugo appears in Before Tomorrowland.

As with many fictional stories about global events in the late 1930s, the Nazis are the villains in Before Tomorrowland. Werner Rotwang is a cyberneticist who was kicked out of Plus Ultra for experiments considered too unethical even for that group. Rotwang decides to use the Nazis to fund his work, which he hopes will culminate in his consciousness being transferred into a robotic body, giving him immortality.

The risk, of course, is that Plus Ultra technology falls into Hitler's hands.

Non Plus Ultra.

(By the way, Werner Rotwang is named after the scientist Rotwang in the classic 1927 German science fiction film Metropolis.)

In the Tomorrowland film, Governor David Nix has been in charge of utopia since apparently the 1964 New York World's Fair, which is the opening scene of the film. Nix concludes by 1984 that our universe is beyond salvation, so he closes the door to Tomorrowland rather than risk us contaminating it. Thirty years later, Tomorrowland is in disrepair, but Nix can't see it's because he shut out the “dreamers” such as Casey Newton.

The Tomorrowland universe is a fertile playground. It's a shame we probably won't see any more of it.

So I urge you to see Tomorrowland while you can, and dream of what it might have been.

You can also explore the online Tomorrowland universe at

Oh ... I'm pretty darn sure that Elon Musk is Plus Ultra. Just sayin'.

Charles Bolden on Star Talk

Click the arrow to watch an excerpt from Neil Tyson's interview with Charles Bolden. Video source: National Geographic Channel.

A programming note that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will be the guest tonight on National Geographic Channel's Star Talk which airs at 11 PM/10 PM Central.

Click here for more information about the episode.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Retro Saturday: Nuclear Propulsion in Space

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: The Mars Underground YouTube channel.

Well, this never happened.

This week's Retro Saturday is a 23-minute 1968 film called Nuclear Propulsion in Space. Jointly produced by NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission, it foresaw the use of nuclear-powered upper stages on a Saturn V-like system to send crew to Mars.

As recounted by Los Alamos National Laboratory article, nuclear propulsion had proven quite promising in the 1960s.

But the technology would turn out to have no use.

By 1970, the Nixon administration, Congress and the American public had no taste for more extravagant human spaceflight programs. Nixon's Space Task Group proposed a Space Transportation System to service an Earth-orbiting permanently manned space station. A space tug, possibly propelled by nuclear engines, was an option.

The Space Task Group recommendations were largely ignored, although they did evolve into today's Space Shuttle. The "STS" moniker for a Shuttle mission stands for Space Transportation System.

The idea of an international space station (that wasn't its original name) came out of Nixon's desire to use the U.S. human spaceflight program as a diplomatic tool to reward friends and punish enemies.

The relatively low thrust provided by nuclear engines was of little use on the ground, and the space tug idea was dropped, so NASA shelved its ideas for nuclear propulsion.

The uncertainty about the future of NASA's human spaceflight program is clear in the narrator's final words about nuclear propulsion:

It will be available when this nation determines its next great objective in space.

Friday, June 12, 2015

NSS Opposes Senate Republicans Gutting Commercial Crew

This press release just received from the National Space Society.

National Space Society Opposes Senate Gutting of Commercial Crew Program

(Washington DC, June 12, 2015) The National Space Society (NSS) strongly opposes the Senate Appropriations Committee's $344 million (27%) cut of the 2015 Commercial Crew budget requested by the Administration. The Senate cuts were $100 million more than those recently passed by the House.

NSS stands with NASA administrator Charles Bolden when he said "By gutting this program and turning our backs on U.S. industry, NASA will be forced to continue to rely on Russia to get its astronauts into space — and to continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the Russian economy rather than our own." The two winners of the Commercial Crew competition, Boeing and SpaceX, have been making excellent progress, exemplified by the May 6th successful pad abort test of the SpaceX Dragon 2 crew escape system. Both are on track to fly astronauts in 2017 assuming funding is provided.

Until Commercial Crew vehicles are flying, the only way for anyone to get to the ISS is the Russian Soyuz. Unfortunately, the Russian space program has recently displayed a worrisome lack of reliability. On May 16th the failure of the third stage of the Russian Proton resulted in the loss of the MexSat-1 communications satellite. During April, a Russian Progress M-27M carrying cargo to the ISS went out of control and was lost with all its contents. More recently, the unexpected firing of the engine of a Soyuz spacecraft attached to the ISS shifted its orbital position. Congress, which has underfunded and thus delayed Commercial Crew consistently, will bear a significant share of the responsibility if the next Russian accident results in injuries to astronauts or the abandonment of the ISS.

Some have advocated reducing the Commercial Crew program to a single vehicle, reducing current costs and eliminating competition. NSS has long supported competition in the Commercial Crew program (see the 2014 NSS position paper on the NASA Commercial Crew Program: ). The failure of the Orbital ATK Antares cargo rocket during a launch attempt to the ISS last year demonstrated the value of redundant systems, underscoring the vital importance of having multiple Commercial Crew providers.

It is imperative that Congress provide full funding to Commercial Crew so that both Boeing and SpaceX reach operational status. The Commercial Crew program has been one of NASA's biggest success stories, generating large amounts of real product innovation while reducing costs to the government. Any expansive future in space, such as that envisioned in the NSS Roadmap to Space Settlement ( requires lower cost specialized systems such as those being created by Commercial Crew and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS).

"NSS urges the Senate to pass a clean amendment restoring full funding of $1.244 billion to Commercial Crew when this Bill comes to the Senate floor for final passage," said NSS Executive VP Dale Skran. "We are extremely concerned with the increasing difficulties in the Russian space program and suggest NASA immediately develop a contingency plan for Russian withdrawal other than evacuating the ISS."

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Whole Hog

Click the arrow to watch Senator Richard Shelby named the June 2010 Porker of the Month by Citizens Against Government Waste. Video source: ReasonTV YouTube channel.

In a Congress of porkers, Richard Shelby (R-AL) is the prize pig.

Citizens Against Government Waste named him Porker of the Month in August 2003, October 2007, June 2010, and January 2014.

Shelby won the June 2010 award for trying to protect Constellation, a NASA program from the George W. Bush administration that was years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. The Government Accountability Office in August 2009 issued a report which concluded that Constellation lacked “a sound business case” and had unresolved technical issues. The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee in October 2009 issued a report which concluded that Constellation was not sustainable without a massive infusion of taxpayer dollars.

Based on those findings, the Barack Obama administration proposed in February 2010 that Constellation be cancelled and replaced with a commercial crew competition based on the Bush-era commercial cargo program.

That didn't sit well with Senator Shelby, whose state has thousands of people employed by government contractors working on Constellation.

CAGW stated in their June 2010 press release:

Sen. Shelby co-sponsored an amendment that would shield the program from proposed budget cuts to the fiscal year 2010 emergency war supplemental. “Americans are being forced to tighten their belts and the economy is limping along, but that doesn’t deter the porkers in Congress, like Sen. Shelby, who are still spending and rewarding government contractors orbiting the program. Sen. Shelby’s actions just perpetuate the notion that politicians in Washington are living on a completely different planet,” said CAGW President Tom Schatz. “This would be the time to move toward a more competitive model for space exploration. It is outrageous for Sen. Shelby to object to the private sector's work on space exploration and characterize it as 'corporate welfare,' when his own actions are nothing but pure pork-barrel spending to contractors from his state.”

As part of a broad political compromise, Congress eventually agreed to cancel Constellation and authorize commercial crew. Constellation was replaced with another program called Space Launch System. SLS is called “Senate Launch System” by its critics because it was crafted by members of the U.S. Senate led by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) to protect jobs in NASA space center/contractor states such as Alabama. To this date, SLS has no missions or destinations, and is at least two years behind schedule.

Commercial crew, meanwhile, has been underfunded every year by Congress. Over Fiscal Years 2011-2013, Congress cut President Obama's commercial crew funding by 62% from his original 2010 proposal. The cuts have been less in recent years, but in every fiscal year the money from those cuts was transferred to SLS. NASA estimates that these cuts delayed the first operational commercial crew flight at least two years, from 2015 to 2017.

The Republican Party took control of the Senate in 2015, and has controlled the House since 2011, so now the GOP is in a position to dictate both NASA's budget and the appropriation funding the agency actually receives.

Under the Democrats, for years Shelby was the ranking minority member on the Senate's appropriations subcommittee that controls NASA funding. In 2015, he is now the subcommittee chair, and his party controls the majority of votes on the panel, so Shelby now has more power to redirect commercial crew funding to SLS.

NASA officials have repeatedly warned Congress that cuts in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget would extend U.S. reliance on Russia for International Space Station access. Relations between the United States and Russia have been strained since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, and at times Russian officials have threatened to terminate U.S. rides on ISS.

The Obama administration requested $1.2 billion for commercial crew in Fiscal Year 2016. Despite the warnings, the GOP-controlled House recently passed an FY16 appropriation reducing commercial crew by $250 million, or roughly 20%.

Not to be outdone, Shelby's subcommittee yesterday whacked $300 million — 25% — from commercial crew for FY16.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden issued a statement after the vote:

I am deeply disappointed that the Senate Appropriations subcommittee does not fully support NASA's plan to once again launch American astronauts from U.S. soil as soon as possible, and instead favors continuing to write checks to Russia.

Remarkably, the Senate reduces funding for our Commercial Crew Program further than the House already does compared to the President’s Budget.

By gutting this program and turning our backs on U.S. industry, NASA will be forced to continue to rely on Russia to get its astronauts to space — and continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the Russian economy rather than our own.

I support investing in America so that we can once again launch our astronauts on American vehicles.

Senator Bill Nelson, ironically the prime architect of the Space Launch System, took to the Senate floor to decry the Shelby subcommittee vote.

Click the arrow to watch Senator Bill Nelson's statement. Video source: SenBillNelson YouTube channel.

Dr. Frankenstein's monster has turned on its creator.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee met today to review the Shelby-led legislation. The full committee is chaired by Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), whose state includes NASA's Stennis Space Center where rocket engines are tested, including those for the SLS.

As you might suspect, Cochran failed to ride to the rescue. The committee voted to uphold Shelby's 25% reduction in commercial crew funding. A proposal by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) to restore the cut was defeated along party lines, 14-16.

The Republicans on that committee essentially voted to extend NASA reliance on Russia, perhaps to 2019 by some estimates.

Commercial crew still has some cards left in the funding deck.

When the funding bill comes up on the Senate floor, a proposed amendment could restore the funding if passed.

If that fails, the House and Senate versions will have to be reconciled in conference committee. That bill will go for a vote to both houses, although any changes again would have to be approved by majorities in both chambers.

The last line of defense would be a presidential veto. On June 1, the President's Office of Management and Budget issued a statement that criticized House cuts in commercial crew among other provisions, and stated that the President's senior advisors would recommend he veto the bill.

Unlike the governors of some states, the President has no line-item veto. The final budget bill will contain thousands of pages, and NASA will be only one small part of it. President Obama won't veto the government's entire Fiscal Year 2016 just because of the commercial crew line item.

In any case, the actions by members of both houses in recent days document for the American voter which of these politicians are serious about returning astronaut flights to the United States, and which are only interested in parochial pork.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Another Milestone for SpaceX

Point of view footage of the SpaceX pad abort test. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

NASA announced today that SpaceX will receive a $30 million milestone payment for successful completion of its pad abort test May 6 at the Cape's Pad 40.

According to the press release:

“This test was highly visible and provided volumes of important information, which serves as tangible proof that our team is making significant progress toward launching crews on American rockets from America soon,” said Jon Cowart, partner manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “The reams of data collected provide designers with a real benchmark of how accurate their analyses and models are at predicting reality. As great as our modern computational methods are, they still can’t beat a flight test, like this, for finding out what is going on with the hardware.”

The press release concludes, “SpaceX is expected to receive its authorization to proceed with work on a post-certification mission later this year. The determination of which company will fly the first mission to station will be made at a later time.”

On May 27, NASA announced that it had given Boeing its first crew mission order. That does not mean that Boeing gets the first flight, just that Boeing received its first order. It's like ordering a plane ticket for a particular date, but later on you may order a ticket for an earlier flight with another airline.

Meet the New Porker

March 26, 2015 ... Rep. Brian Babin (left) poses with astronaut Scott Kelly. Image source: House of Representatives.

NASA's fate in Congress is controlled in each house by two commmittees.

The authorization committee tells NASA what it is allowed to do, and how much money it is allowed to budget for what it is allowed to do.

But the real power lies with the appropriations committee, which actually releases the money. Appropriations can provide more, it can provide less, depending on whim.

Uninformed observers often blame the President for the rise or fall of NASA programs, but under the U.S. Constitution the President has no real budget or appropriations authority. That lies with Congress.

For years, President Barack Obama has tried to close the “gap” created by President George W. Bush and Congress in 2004, when they agreed that NASA would rely solely on Russia a minimum of four years for International Space Station access, once the Space Shuttle program ended.

Yet every year, Congress has cut the Obama administration's funding requests for commercial crew. NASA estimates that, if Congress had provided the funding Obama requested each year starting in 2010, commercial crew flights would be operational this year. Due to the cuts, NASA reliance on Russia has extended to late 2017, and NASA has already signed a contract with Roscosmos for 2018 flights should Congress cut funding further.

The House authorization subcommittee this year finally voted to fully fund commercial crew at the $1.2 billion requested for Fiscal Year 2016.

But the appropriations subcommittee whacked $250 million out of that, along with a $250 million cut in earth sciences, to spend it instead on the subcommittee's favorite pork program, the Space Launch System and its Orion crew capsule. Conceived in 2010 by members of the Senate to protect NASA civil servant and contractor jobs, critics labelled it as the “Senate Launch System”. When its design was revealed in September 2011, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was relegated to a minor role while members of both Houses lined up at the microphone to take credit for protecting NASA jobs in their states and districts.

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

Here we are in mid-2015, and Congress still hasn't given SLS an official use.

For the last two sessions of Congress, the House space subcommittee was chaired by Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-LA), whose district includes the NASA Stennis Space Center. Stennis has hardened stands for testing rocket engines, including the Space Shuttle Main Engines originally designed in the 1970s. The 2010 legislation ordering SLS required NASA to use existing Shuttle technology where possible, so SLS will launch with SSMEs removed from Shuttle orbiters before they were sent to museums. Those SSMEs are being test-fired once again at Stennis.

Jobs protected.

Rep. Palazzo recently resigned as chair of the authorization committee to take a seat on the appropriations subcommittee that disburses NASA money, but he also remains on the authorization committee.

The Republican majority running the House announced June 5 that the new authorization chair will be Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), a first-term member of Congress whose district happens to include ... wait for it ... Johnson Space Center in Houston.

A dentist by profession, Babin told a prayer breakfast meeting on April 2 that human space flight should be NASA's top priority.

My focus as member of the House Science Committee is to return human space flight as NASA’s top priority. NASA’s attention has been diverted toward a host of other competing priorities over the last several years. I think it is long past due that we return NASA’s focus to what their mission was originally and that was human space flight and exploration.

Which NASA space center is in charge of human space flight? Johnson, of course.

For the record, Babin was dead wrong when he claimed NASA's original mission was “human space flight and exploration.” Nothing in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 requires NASA to launch people into space or to explore other worlds, much less own its rockets. The Act does list a number of activities for which NASA may “contribute materially,” but none of them are human space flight just to go sightseeing.

That mythology arose in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy's morphing NASA into a propaganda organ, proposing the human lunar spaceflight program for “prestige” to prove that U.S. rocket technology was superior to the Soviet Union. His 1962 Rice University speech is best remembered for the line, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” But in private he made it clear that prestige was his motivation, amply documented by Dr. John Logsdon's 2010 book, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.

The mythology persists to this day, particularly among Houstonians who were employed by the Apollo or Space Shuttle programs. Their standing army must be eternally protected for the day that the nation decides to do Apollo again. Never mind that the political climate in which Kennedy proposed Apollo will never return, just as King Arthur never returned to Camelot.

During his 2014 election campaign, Babin was endorsed by legendary JSC Mission Control Flight Director Gene Kranz. Kranz stated:

It is long past time for Houston industry leaders and elected officials to step up and proactively protect the Johnson Space Center’s irreplaceable assets, most notably, the capable and highly experienced workforce that has made our Center a leader in human space flight for decades.

Once again, the top priority is protecting the jobs, even if unneeded or obsolete.

Babin accused his Tea Party challenger of encouraging SpaceX to locate in Houston and plotting to privatize Johnson Space Center, as if that's bad.

But in May, Babin co-sponsored H.R. 2262, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, which is “intended to facilitate a pro-growth environment for the developing commercial space industry by encouraging private sector investment,” according to the House Republicans web site.

His web site press release included this statement he made on the House floor:

Let’s face it, in any field, no American entrepreneur is going to invest billions of dollars of their own money where there is regulatory uncertainty. The SPACE Act of 2015 creates a regulatory framework and provides certainty for these privately financed endeavors to take the next steps.

This legislation will bolster thousands of high-tech American jobs — building a stronger economy, advancing technological leadership, and strengthening our nation’s industrial base. America has always prospered because we have not stood in the way of visionaries but rather found a way to enable them to take a chance and succeed on their own.

A vote for this bill is a vote to ignite the flame of commercial space and propel the American entrepreneurial spirit beyond our world and into the final frontier. Passing this bill tells the world that America is the home for commercial space.”

Just not in Houston, I suspect.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Retro Saturday: Range Report, First Quarter 1967

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

The year 1967 began at Cape Canaveral promising to be the busiest and most historic in the history of Cape Kennedy Air Force Station.

But by the end of January, three Apollo astronauts had perished when fire broke out inside their capsule at Launch Complex 34.

As investigators descended on the Cape, other uncrewed programs continued — military and civilian, launched from land, water and even from a hole in the ground.

This week's Retro Saturday is a quarterly report prepared by the U.S. Air Force Office of Information at Patrick Air Force base, south of Cocoa Beach. Technically speaking, Cape Kennedy (today known as Cape Canaveral) Air Force Station was part of Patrick AFB, sharing the same commanding officer.

This 15-minute film touches briefly on the Apollo 1 fire, then looks at a number of launch programs at the Cape that year.

Friday, June 5, 2015

2015: A SpaceX Odyssey

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

SpaceX posted this video today on YouTube. Titled “Falling Back to Earth,” it should have been titled 2015: A SpaceX Odyssey.

Play the film and find out why.

According to the YouTube description:

A GoPro inside a fairing from a recent Falcon 9 flight captured some spectacular views as it fell back to Earth. Footage is played in real time.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Heroes and Legends

Click the arrow to watch the animation. Video source: Falcon's Creative Group YouTube channel.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex announced June 2 that its existing U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville will close in 2016 to move across the Indian River into a new KSCVC attraction called “Heroes and Legends.”

According to the press release, Heroes and Legends will be “a high-tech attraction” that is “designed to showcase the heroism of America’s early space pioneers and provide the Hall of Fame with a brand new home.”

Heroes and Legends will not only bring to life the enthralling stories of America’s pioneering astronauts, but also invite guests to vicariously experience the thrills and dangers of America’s earliest missions through high-tech elements and special effects, including simulated holograms and augmented reality. The highlight of Heroes and Legends is an omnidirectional theater with 3D and special effects, designed to make guests feel as though they are floating in the vastness of space. Stunning images will envelope them as legendary astronauts, including Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Jim Lovell and Neil Armstrong, invite them to join in their epic journeys into the vast unknown. The new U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame will serve as the culminating element of the attraction, allowing guests to interact virtually with nearly 100 astronaut heroes.

A computer animation of Heroes and Legends is available on the YouTube channel of Falcon's Creative Group. According to the company's June 1 press release, “Falcon’s scope of services for Heroes and Legends will include concept design, schematic design, design development, media production and executive production.”

Originally conceived in 1980 by the surviving Mercury astronauts, the Hall of Fame opened in 1990. The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, founded by those astronauts, consults on Hall operations and supervises the selection of new members into the Hall of Fame.