Thursday, January 28, 2016

Port of Call

A 2014 Nanoracks video promoting its CubeSat deployer. Video source: NanoRacks YouTube channel.

Eric Berger of Ars Technica published January 27 a story about NanoRacks planning to add a commercial airlock at the International Space Station.

NanoRacks is proposing to build a large, half-cylinder-shaped airlock about two meters in diameter and 1.8 meters long. The airlock would attach to the end of the station’s Node 3 module, near the cupola. It would connect via a common berthing mechanism, or CBM, and then be pressurized. After pressurization, the hatch could be opened and the airlock configured for various tasks.

The airlock would launch in the trunk of a SpaceX cargo Dragon sometime in 2018, according to the report.

The NanoRacks airlock would attach to the end of the Node 3 airlock. Click to see additional images in the original article. Image source: Ars Technica.

Eric Berger writes that “The $12 million-15 million airlock would also allow NASA to bring in costly large pumps and storage tanks for repairs rather than disposing of them.”

In January 2014, the Obama administration announced its intention to extend the ISS to 2024, four years beyond the existing agreement among the fifteen partner nations. As of this writing, all partners except the European Space Agency have agreed to the extension, and ESA is working through the formalities.

Extending the ISS to 2024 helped convince the NewSpace industry that there won't be a repeat of 2004, when the Bush administration announced its intention to end the station in Fiscal Year 2016 to fund what came to be known as Constellation. That administration chose to phase out university and commercial microgravity research in favor of research geared towards long-duration human spaceflight to the Moon and eventually to Mars. Principal investigators who were trying to raise money to fund ISS research felt betrayed by the NASA bureaucracy, and that distrust has lingered for years.

The multi-million dollar commitment by NanoRacks to add a new portal signals that the private sector now feels confident ISS will remain available for at least another ten years, if not longer.

Informal comments in recent years by NASA executives have suggested that the agency hopes to phase out its involvement with ISS by the middle of the 2020s, prioritizing human deep space flight with the Space Launch System and Orion capsule. Some have said they would like to find a commercial entity to take over station operations.

The NanoRacks announcement seems to be a first step in station commercialization.

But the key to continued ISS operation will be the viability of the Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitats. The first modules are being built now in North Las Vegas.

A 2014 Bigelow Aerospace promotional video. Video source: Bigelow Aerospace YouTube channel.

A prototype, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), is scheduled to launch to the ISS on the SpaceX-8 delivery planned for March 2016.

If Bigelow's expandable technology proves viable, it may be more cost-efficient for the private sector to operate those habitats instead of trying to maintain an aging steel and aluminum structure. The first ISS module was launched in 1998, meaning that by the middle of the 2020s some station parts will be over 25 years old.

SpaceX may be the most publicly visible disruptive technology in the NewSpace industry, but in my opinion Bigelow and NanoRacks are the other two big pieces of the NewSpace equation. Commercial customers need a means of shipping their experiments to microgravity. SpaceX, Orbital ATK and soon Sierra Nevada Corporation will provide cargo transportation options, but NanoRacks will handle the actual shipping and deployment technology. Bigelow may offer a commercial laboratory free of government regulation and political interference.

NanoRacks customers aren't just in the private sector. They're also educational institutions, from universities to grade schools.

In February, the St. Thomas More Academy STMSat-1 will be deployed by NanoRacks from the station. The Arlington, Virginia grade school raised $50,000 to build its own communications satellite. The video at the top of this article depicts the CubeSat deployer that will launch STMSat-1.

Click here to learn more about NanoRacks' CubeSat deployment services.

By 2024, many of the students in the educational programs supported by NanoRacks will be entering their university years, or perhaps already graduated with a degree in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Those graduates will have on their résumé a microgravity science mission they flew during their education thanks to NanoRacks.

It's an investment in this nation's future spacefaring economy that would have been lost if the ISS had been splashed in this fiscal year, as planned by the Bush administration.

UPDATE January 29, 2016The Houston Chronicle published an article today about the Nanoracks announcement. Reporter Andrea Rumbaugh writes:

The proposal by NanoRacks could be the first time a private company owns, designs and builds a complicated element of the space station. Until now, private companies have mostly owned research hardware to hold experiments.

“It's a big deal,” said Mike Read, manager of the space station's National Lab Office. “It hasn't been done before.”

The space station has an airlock in the Japanese Experiment Module called Kibo that currently deploys satellites and places experiments outside the station, but it can't keep up with demand. The airlock is opened only 10 to 12 times a year because of logistical constraints.

Read said the airlock's ability to deploy cubesats — small satellites that weigh about 2 pounds and are roughly 10 centimeters wide, long and tall — was an unexpected success.

“That created a demand we didn't see coming,” he said.

NanoRacks plans to create a larger airlock that will hold five times the volume. The goal is to get more commercial projects into space while also helping NASA and other government agencies meet their needs.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Launch. Land. Repeat.

Click the arrow to watch the launch test. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

Blue Origin has posted a video of its latest suborbital test flight, flying once again the New Shepard booster and capsule first flown on November 23.

Blue founder Jeff Bezos wrote in his blog:

The very same New Shepard booster that flew above the Karman line and then landed vertically at its launch site last November has now flown and landed again, demonstrating reuse. This time, New Shepard reached an apogee of 333,582 feet (101.7 kilometers) before both capsule and booster gently returned to Earth for recovery and reuse.

Data from the November mission matched our preflight predictions closely, which made preparations for today’s re-flight relatively straightforward. The team replaced the crew capsule parachutes, replaced the pyro igniters, conducted functional and avionics checkouts, and made several software improvements, including a noteworthy one. Rather than the vehicle translating to land at the exact center of the pad, it now initially targets the center, but then sets down at a position of convenience on the pad, prioritizing vehicle attitude ahead of precise lateral positioning. It’s like a pilot lining up a plane with the centerline of the runway. If the plane is a few feet off center as you get close, you don’t swerve at the last minute to ensure hitting the exact mid-point. You just land a few feet left or right of the centerline. Our Monte Carlo sims of New Shepard landings show this new strategy increases margins, improving the vehicle’s ability to reject disturbances created by low-altitude winds.

As I wrote on November 25, Blue's efforts compare more to the suborbital adventure tourism market than SpaceX attempts to land Falcon 9 boosters delivering payloads to orbit.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Solve for X

NASA Director of Planetary Science Jim Green comments on reports of a possible “Planet X” beyond the Kuiper Belt. Video source: NASA.

Two researchers at the California Institute of Technology announced this week the possible existence of a planet affecting objects in the Kuiper Belt.

(For the record, none of the researchers were named Cooper, Hofstetter, Koothrappali or Wolowitz.)

The article by Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown was published January 20 by The Astronomical Journal. To read the paper, click here to download the PDF.

Mike Brown may be familiar to you, because his research into trans-Neputian objects (TNOs) was instrumental in the decision by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 to reclassify Pluto and other similar objects as “dwarf planets.” In 2010, Brown published a book titled, “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.”

A January 20, 2016 interview with Michael Brown by National Public Radio. Audio source:

The existence of the Kuiper Belt has been confirmed only since the 1990s. NASA's web site defines the Kuiper Belt as “ a disc-shaped region beyond Neptune that extends from about 30 to 55 astronomical units (compared to Earth which is one astronomical unit, or AU, from the sun). This distant region is probably populated with hundreds of thousands of icy bodies larger than 100 km (62 miles) across and an estimated trillion or more comets.” Although theorized for decades, its existence was proven in 1992 with the discovery of an object farther from the Sun than Pluto. The Belt was named after astronomer Gerald Kuiper, who in 1951 proposed that a belt of icy bodies might lay beyond Neptune.

Mike Brown in 2003 discovered Eris, an object about one-fourth larger than Pluto. Its discovery led to the debate within the astronomical world about the correct definition of a planet. The “dwarf planet” category was created by the IAU in 2006 to include Pluto and Eris. The list now includes Ceres, Haumea and Makemake. Ceres is in the asteroid belt near Jupiter, while the others are in the Kuiper Belt.

Eris in relation to the Kuiper Belt and Pluto. Click to view at a larger size. Image source:

The discovery of more objects in the Kuiper Belt provided scientists with the opportunity to monitor their trajectories and how they might be affected by gravity from other objects, called an orbital perturbation.

The paper's abstract states:

Recent analyses have shown that distant orbits within the scattered disk population of the Kuiper Belt exhibit an unexpected clustering in their respective arguments of perihelion. While several hypotheses have been put forward to explain this alignment, to date, a theoretical model that can successfully account for the observations remains elusive. In this work we show that the orbits of distant Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) cluster not only in argument of perihelion, but also in physical space. We demonstrate that the perihelion positions and orbital planes of the objects are tightly confined and that such a clustering has only a probability of 0.007% to be due to chance, thus requiring a dynamical origin. We find that the observed orbital alignment can be maintained by a distant eccentric planet with mass ≳ 10m⊕ whose orbit lies in approximately the same plane as those of the distant KBOs, but whose perihelion is 180° away from the perihelia of the minor bodies. In addition to accounting for the observed orbital alignment, the existence of such a planet naturally explains the presence of high-perihelion Sedna-like objects, as well as the known collection of high semimajor axis objects with inclinations between 60° and 150° whose origin was previously unclear. Continued analysis of both distant and highly inclined outer solar system objects provides the opportunity for testing our hypothesis as well as further constraining the orbital elements and mass of the distant planet.

Mathematical models suggest that an unknown force is acting on objects in the Kuiper Belt. Click the image to see at a larger size. Image source: California Institute of Technology.

The Cal Tech researchers refer to the theoretical world as Planet Nine, but others including NASA Director of Planetary Science Jim Green have nicknamed it “Planet X.”

Science magazine writes in its article about other claims to have found a Planet X in past decades. Conspiracy theorists claimed a dark planet named Nibiru is on a collision course with Earth, and NASA is part of a massive coverup.

Of course, any fan of Merrie Melodies has known since 1953 how to find Planet X.

How to find Planet X. Video source: Justin Edelson YouTube channel.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Missed It By That Much

A video posted by SpaceX (@spacex) on

SpaceX launched the Jason-3 weather satellite yesterday for NOAA and NASA from Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. After the Falcon 9 sent the payload into orbit, SpaceX returned the booster to attempt a landing on one of the company's Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships.

(What the rest of us would call a barge ...)

SpaceX failed in two earlier ASDS landing attempts in the Atlantic Ocean after launches from Cape Canaveral.

The above video released this morning by SpaceX founder Elon Musk showed the booster landed on the barge, but one leg failed causing the rocket to collapse and explode.

Musk later posted the below photo on Twitter of the smouldering remains on the barge. I cleaned it up a bit in Photoshop.

Original image source: @ElonMusk Twitter account.

Hide and Seek

Video shot from a helicopter of the Falcon 9 landing December 21 at the Cape's Landing Zone 1. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

One of the many privileges of having access to Kennedy Space Center is that you'll come around a curve and witness history.

That happened this afternoon when I was in a vehicle driving past Pad 39A, the future home of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and crew Dragon flights to the International Space Station.

The new horizontal hangar is being used to store the historic Falcon 9 first stage that launched and landed on December 21. SpaceX took the booster last night back to its Pad 40 launch site on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to relight the engines.

The historic F9 returned this afternoon to Pad 39A. We happened to be driving by when security stopped traffic while SpaceX maneuvered the stage back into the hangar.


These images are taken with a cameraphone shooting through a vehicle window, so they're not the best quality.

Click an image to view it at a higher resolution. All images in this article are copyright © 2016 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to

Friday, January 15, 2016

Planet Express

Click the arrow to watch the January 14, 2016 media event. Original video source: NASA TV.

After months of delays, NASA announced yesterday the three vendors who will receive contracts to deliver cargo to the International Space Station from 2019 through 2024.

The winners were incumbents SpaceX (Dragon), Orbital ATK (Cygnus) and newcomer Sierra Nevada (Dream Chaser).

According to the NASA press release:

The contracts, which begin upon award, guarantee a minimum of six cargo resupply missions from each provider. The contracts also include funding ISS integration, flight support equipment, special tasks and studies, and NASA requirement changes ...

NASA has not yet ordered any missions, but will make a total of six selections from each menu of mission options at fixed prices, as needed. Each task order has milestones with specified amounts and performance dates. Each mission requires complex preparation and several years of lead time. Discussions and engineering assessments will begin soon, leading to integration activities later this year to ensure all space station requirements are met, with the first missions beginning in late 2019.

The selection was widely viewed as the last chance for Dream Chaser. Earlier in its design, the spaceplane was a finalist for a commercial crew contract, but lost out in September 2014 to Boeing's CST-100 and the SpaceX crew Dragon. After reports that Boeing's bid was higher, SNC filed an appeal but lost in January 2015.

The company signed development deals with the European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, hoping to diversify their portfolio, as well as a mini-Dream Chaser design for Stratolaunch. But without a NASA contract, it seemed unlikely that SNC could justify continued work on Dream Chaser.

SNC dropped earlier designs depicting the crew Dream Chaser and began to promote a cargo version. The company also signed deals to explore landing sites at Houston's Ellington Field and Huntsville International Airport. The idea was to underscore the ability of Dream Chaser to land at any runway of significant length, including those near NASA's space centers in Houston and Huntsville.

A cargo Dream Chaser promotional animation. Video source: SNCspacesystems YouTube channel.

After yesterday's announcement, SNC Executive Vice-President Mark Sirangelo told the Denver Business Journal:

Cargo flights for NASA will mean a funding stream to help SNC Space Systems finish Dream Chaser’s development over the next three years and prove it as a viable, commerical spacecraft for NASA and, eventually, other paying clients, Sirangelo said.

He declined to specify how many people he expects SNC Space may hire to work on Dream Chaser, but it will be significant, he said.

“What you’re seeing here is that, while we’re the prime contractor, this is really great news for us and for Colorado’s space industry as a whole,” Sirangelo said.

Boeing's cargo CST-100 and the Lockheed Martin Jupiter proposals were the losers, but shed no tears because their joint subsidiary United Launch Alliance will provide the Atlas V booster for Dream Chaser.

The new contract also requires Orbital ATK to provide a Cape Canaveral launch option for Cygnus. The first Cygnus launches were atop the company's Antares booster from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at the NASA center in Wallops, Virginia. After an October 2014 accident that destroyed the third Cygnus delivery, Orbital purchased two launches on an Atlas V from the Cape's pad 41. The first launch was in December 2015, with the second scheduled for March.

The December 6, 2015 launch of Cygnus on an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Future Cygnus deliveries will return to Wallops for the remainder of the existing contract, but Kennedy Space Center's Space Station Processing Facility is the hub for processing ISS experiments for shipment. If NASA purchases future Cygnus launches from CCAFS, that would imply that Wallops will lose its only commercial orbital launch company.

Launch Complex 41 will also be the site for Boeing crew CST-100 Starliner flights to ISS, with the first flights planned for late 2017. The crew access tower is under construction, with a tower topping-off ceremony held in December.

NASA commercial crew astronauts watch service tower assembly on December 10, 2015 at CCAFS Launch Complex 41. Image source: NASA.

Had SNC received a commercial crew contract, the crew Dream Chaser also would have launched from LC-41.

As for SpaceX, the company plans to evolve its Dragon capsule with a crew version that has side-mounted thrusters so it can land on a pad. The speculation is that cargo Dragon may go that way some day. NASA has indicated that it wants the initial crew Dragon flights will land in the ocean, so perhaps SpaceX can use a thruster-equipped cargo Dragon on a demonstration flight to calm NASA nerves.

During yesterday's media event, NASA officials emphasized that having three vendors will help stock the ISS for seven astronauts. Once commercial crew vehicles are flying by the end of 2017, the crew limit can increase from six to seven. The current limit is due to the Russian Soyuz carrying only three people, so with two docked at ISS that means escape seats for a total of six. The commercial crew vehicles will carry four people. A larger crew complement requires more supplies.

As ISS ramps up for more microgravity research, the addition of a third option is welcome news for principal investigators. If Dream Chaser proves capable of a soft landing at any runway, then researchers could have their experiments within hours. The addition of a seventh crew member also means more astronaut time available for performing experiments.

Yesterday's announcement was on the twelfth anniversary of President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration speech. Out of VSE came the President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy report in June 2004 that recommended a new commercial space program which “will become a national treasure.”

The Bush proposal, ironically, would have ended the ISS in 2015 to fund what eventually would be known as Constellation. The “NewSpace” industry would have no destination to service.

President Barack Obama changed that in 2010 when his administration proposed cancelling Constellation to save ISS and extend it to 2020, as well as funding commercial crew to transport astronauts. In January 2014, the Obama administration proposed extending ISS to at least 2024. Congress formally approved the extension last year. Russia, Canada and Japan have also committed, leaving only the European Space Agency which is currently deliberating its continued participation.

The Obama administration's commitment to extend ISS to 2024 has been cited by commercial transport vendors, principal investigators and microgravity entrepreneurs as a major reason why they have decided to invest in the station as a research laboratory for the next eight years.

A Bigelow BEAM promotional film. Video source: Bigelow Aerospace YouTube channel.

By the middle of the 2020s, we'll know if the Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitat will be the next-generation technology for human activities in low Earth orbit and beyond. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is at KSC awaiting delivery to the ISS by SpaceX on its next Dragon delivery flight. SpaceX and Boeing will offer crew delivery to Bigelow customers, and it's been rumored that SNC's Dream Chaser will also be Bigelow-compatible.

We as a nation, and as a species, are at the dawn of humanity's biggest step towards a thriving commercial space economy. The epicenter will be Kennedy Space Center. We'll have a front row seat.

What, Me Worry?

The Swedish cover for the November 1969 issue of Mad Magazine. posted an article January 12 detailing anonymous reports about this week's all-hands meeting for NASA civil servants at Kennedy Space Center.

Although these reports were second-hand and anonymous, if true the comments suggest that NASA's sclerotic bureaucracy still feels no urgency to fly Space Launch System on a crewed mission any time soon.

I wrote in September 2014 that NASA executives hesitated to commit to any reliable date for Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first uncrewed test flight with the Orion capsule. Although publicly NASA says it will launch by the end of 2018, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in public comments last year suggested it would slip at least in 2019. During the September media event, the executives said that EM-2, the first crewed test flight, would be somewhere in the 2021-2023 range.

According to the report, the 2023 date may no longer be reliable.

The report states that SLS management is contemplating a redefinition of EM-2 to be the first uncrewed test flight of a new upper stage, called the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS). According to writer Chris Bergin:

More recently, NASA made no secret of its wish to move to the EUS as soon as possible. During the KSC meeting, managers noted that move is now targeting the second flight of SLS.

That results in another problem, where that second flight won’t be able to launch a crew, as the new EUS would require a validation flight before crew are allowed to fly with it due to safety considerations ...

The KSC meeting appeared to confirm this requirement, claiming the second flight would now be a cargo mission, before claiming they hope it will involve launching the spacecraft planned to investigate Europa. However, that mission is still in the very early stages of evaluation, with SLS yet to be confirmed as the launch vehicle of choice.

While the plan to move to the EUS by the second flight will benefit SLS in the long run, it would result in the first crewed mission moving to at least the third flight of SLS.

That mission would likely become the repeat of EM-1, with a crew, prior to the fourth flight becoming the mission to send a crew to investigate a captured asteroid.

The article states that NASA management at the meeting blamed funding constraints, which is a bit ridiculous considering SLS receives about $3 billion a year from Congress. One can only imagine how much SpaceX or Blue Origin or other NewSpace companies could accomplish in a year with $3 billion.

Funding constraints was one factor mentioned in the 2015 Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel report released on January 13. The Panel was created in 1968 after the Apollo 1 fire. The group evaluates NASA’s safety performance and advises the agency on ways to improve. After the Columbia accident in 2003, Congress mandated that ASAP submit an annual report to the NASA administrator and to Congress. ASAP's findings are advisory and impose no mandate on the agency or Congress.

The history of Congress underfunding commercial crew. Click the chart to view at a larger resolution. Image source: Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

In a section titled “Funding Adequacy and Profiles,” the 2015 report states:

As we noted in our 2014 Annual Report and continue to assert this year, NASA’s budget is insufficient to deliver all current undertakings with acceptable programmatic risk. Programmatic risk can lead to tradeoffs that are inconsistent with good safety practice. Historically, most successful programs have reflected a bias towards robust, early funding to support critical design and system decisions. Both the amount of resources available and the time distribution of when the funds become available are issues for Exploration Systems Development (ESD) as well as the Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Accompanying charts show that Congress each year underfunded commercial crew below what the Obama administration requested. This resulted in extending U.S. reliance on Russia for International Space Station crew rotations through 2017.

The history of Congress funding Space Launch System and the Orion capsule. Click the chart to view at a larger resolution. Image source: Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

It's a different story for SLS and Orion, lumped together into Exploration Systems Development. The Senate Launch System, as it's called by critics, receives generous funding from the elected officials who represent states and districts working on the program. In late December 2015, Congress gave SLS $700 million more in Fiscal Year 2016 than the Obama administration requested.

But SLS management still claims it's not enough, if the article is accurate.

The ASAP report states:

ESD has been resourced at a greater level than the President’s Budget Request by an average of 10.5 percent during FY 2012 through FY 2015. However, the funding profile has been essentially flat. This distribution of resources reflects one more typically observed in “level-of-effort” programs rather than a budget constructed to achieve the needed design efforts of a major program’s discrete and integrated requirements. In addition, funding is appropriated for individual elements rather than the program as a whole, which limits NASA’s ability to more efficiently allocate resources to prudently address issues. As noted in the conclusion section of the ASAP’s 2014 Annual Report, NASA’s response has been to embrace “…a strategy of ‘capabilities-based’ investments. This strategy develops and matures many of the new technologies and methodologies required for the future but does not deliver an integrated capability. While this is an understandable pragmatic response to insufficient funding, this approach costs more and can negatively impact overall performance and safety in the long run.” Careful attention and considerable program management skill will be required to ensure the resulting “Journey to Mars” system achieves the optimum balance between risk and reward.

In the next section titled “Accretion of Risk is Impacting Safety,” the panel writes of a “disquiet” with ESD safety.

  • The test program for components of Exploration Systems Development (ESD) appears to have gradually eroded since 2010. Among the multiple changes that have diminished the testing rigor are the decisions to reduce the scope of the Ascent Abort 2 (AA2) test and to delete pyrotechnic (pyro) shock/separation testing at the integrated system level.
  • Late changes are being made to the Orion heat shield design with only one opportunity (Exploration Mission-1) to flight test the new design prior to the first crewed mission.
  • Exploration Mission (EM)-2 is scheduled as the first crewed flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the first flight of the Orion environmental control and life support system ECLSS). This system will not have had an end-to-end flight test to build confidence that it will function safely during a cislunar mission where return to Earth could require up to as much as 11 days. This plan appears to incur an increased risk without a clearly articulated rationale.
  • The SLS infrequent flight rate leads to higher risk due to mission operations team personnel loss and fading memories of lessons learned. EM-1 is scheduled to launch in mid-2018, and EM-2 is scheduled for launch between 2021 and 2023. NASA has told the ASAP that the intent is to launch once per year subsequent to EM-2, but the demand and schedule are vague.
  • There has been growth over time in the maximum acceptable Loss of Crew (LOC) probabilities. This was discussed in the ASAP’s 2014 Annual Report.

The report also cites Commercial Crew Program concerns:

  • While much of the accretion of risk we have seen is in ESD, the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is subject to budget and schedule pressures that could lead to similar incremental risk acceptance decisions. As an artifact of the transition from Space Act Agreements to the Commercial Crew contractual arrangements, hazard reporting is behind for the CCP. There is a lack of design maturity at Critical Design Review (CDR); therefore, design is going forward without the benefit of the completed hazard analyses.
  • Additionally, in the CCP, the lack of formality or “paperwork” aspects of design decisions and changes is a concern. There is danger that this will lead to an undesirable and unplanned or unrecognized increase in risk acceptance as schedule and budget pressures mount.

The panel states on Page 7:

... [T]he ASAP remains convinced that a primary contributing factor to our perceived accretion of risk is continued lack of clear, transparent, and definitive formal risk acceptance and accountability.

The report continues on Page 8:

The ASAP believes that significant decisions need to be made by an individual who clearly and publicly accepts responsibility for the decision and the results it produces. When a person in an executive position is required to take accountability for risk acceptance, positive things happen. There is a higher-level review of other options and resources, outside of the program manager’s control, that can sometimes be redirected to “buy down” the risk. Risk acceptance is clearly a significant decision; the ASAP is disappointed that NASA has not recognized this and undertaken the timely resolution of our recommendation, which has been standing since January 2014. We are concerned that the continued lack of clear responsibility for assumption of risk is a substantial contributor to the currently observed risk accretion.

In my opinion ... No one will accept responsibility because there is no consequence if Space Launch System and Orion run behind schedule. Members of Congress representing Florida, Alabama and Texas assure that funding will continue to flow regardless of performance. Because NASA employees are civil servants, no jobs will be lost.

The article notes that the average age of a NASA civil servant is almost 50 years old. Why rock the boat so close to retirement?

“What, Me Worry?” has been Alfred E. Neuman's catch phrase on the cover of Mad Magazine since 1955. It could apply today to the NASA bureaucracy. Who cares if it ever launches, or the billions of dollars spent. Jobs are protected — which is what Congress told us was the program's purpose when the SLS design was unveiled in September 2011. The design was unveiled not by NASA, but by members of Congress. Another example of how our political system has gone Mad.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

ZGSI Signs NASA Space Act Agreement

Agricultural biotechnology company Zero Gravity Solutions, Inc. of Boca Raton issued a press release today announcing a Space Act Agreement with the NASA Ames Research Center.

The focus of this partnership is the development of new agricultural technologies and products. The primary objectives of the Space Act Agreement are as follows:

  • To establish a scientific basis for action of ZGSI products;
  • To quantify the impact of ZGSI products on plant growth and productivity;
  • To evaluate and test the impact of ZGSI products on yield physiology of selected crops important to commercial agriculture; and
  • To evaluate and test the potential utility of ZGSI products to NASA space biology and life support applications.

ZGSI's BAM-FX agricultural solution was developed using microgravity research and is currently on the market. A BAM-FX experiment will fly to the International Space Station on SpaceX-9.


January 14, 2004 ... President George W. Bush announces the Space Shuttle will retire once the International Space Station is completed. posted an article January 13 with statements from a few presidential candidates they were able to ask about NASA and the U.S. space program.

Here's the response they received from former Florida governor Jeb Bush:

According to Bush, “I think that the idea that we do not have a replacement for the Space Shuttle, that we mothballed it and didn’t have a replacement, is outrageous.

“When we have to rely on the Russians to get payload up to the Space Station, that’s just totally wrong. And the lack of planning, the lack of interest in this I think is dangerous for our national security, for our military purposes.”

Conveniently overlooked in Jeb's response is that his brother George was the one who made those policy decisions — twelve years ago today.

In his Vision for Space Exploration speech on January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush announced that the Space Shuttle would fly only to complete the International Space Station, then be retired.

Bush proposed a new program eventually called Constellation that would be funded by ending the ISS in 2015. A chart released by NASA two weeks later showed a four-year gap between the end of the Shuttle program and the first flight of the new “Crew Exploration Vehicle.”

Click here to download the Vision Sand Chart from the NASA web site. The free Adobe Acrobat Reader is required.

Former Space Shuttle manager Wayne Hale wrote in August 2008 that NASA calculated how many flights would be needed to complete ISS, ordered parts to complete those missions, then began to shut down the supply chain. By the time of Hale's column, with George Bush still President, it was all but impossible to restart the Shuttle program.

The decision to rely on Russia was also made in 2004. After the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003, ISS crew rotations moved over to the Soyuz. Implicit in the four-year gap was continued reliance on Russia until a domestic replacement was ready.

More in my January 14, 2014 column, “VSE + 10”.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Things to Come

The first commercial crew astronauts, left to right: Bob Behnken, Suni Williams, Eric Boe and Doug Hurley. Image source: NASA.

'Tis the season for end-of-year highlight lists and predictions of what is to come in the year ahead.

Let's take a different approach.

So much is already planned for 2016 that predictions are unneeded.

I believe 2016 will be the most exciting year for space advocates since the early days of the space program in the 1960s.

Here's what lies ahead for you.

Space Launch System/Orion Crew Vehicle Schedule Update — The 2010 legislation mandating NASA develop SLS directed that it launch an uncrewed test flight with Orion by December 31, 2016. That schedule already has slipped by two years, and NASA management continues to evade a firm commitment on a launch date.

During a September 2015 teleconference NASA executives downplayed the importance of a firm launch date for Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1). claiming that what's truly important is the launch date for EM-2, the first SLS/Orion mission with crew. But that date has slipped as well, to somewhere in the vicinity of 2023.

An update on the EM-1 launch date is expected sometime in the first quarter of this year, but as I wrote in November 2015 NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has indicated twice on the record that EM-1 most likely will be sometime after 2018.

For now, the official estimate is November 2018.

Commercial Crew — The Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon are in various stages of uncrewed tests. By the end of 2016, we may have seen the first uncrewed test flights, and have estimated dates for the first flights with astronauts aboard. The first Dragon test flight is planned for late 2016 from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

We can have some faith now in the Commercial Crew schedule, because last month Congress for the first time fully funded the President's budget request for that program. Cuts in previous years delayed the program by at least two years, extending NASA reliance on Russia for International Space Station access through at least the end of 2017, and possibly longer.

Commercial Cargo — Sometime this month, NASA should announce the next round of Commercial Cargo vendors. Incumbents SpaceX and Orbital ATK remain the favorites, although it's possible that the Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser may finally get a contract.

Computer animation of the cargo Dream Chaser. Video source: SNCspacesystems YouTube channel.

SNC just missed receiving a Commercial Crew contract in late 2014, and filed an unsuccessful protest. Although the company has development deals with the European and Japanese space agencies, without a NASA contract it will be more difficult for SNC to justify further spending on Dream Chaser.

Habitat ModuleSpace News reported on December 28 that the 2016 omnibus spending bill “directs NASA to accelerate work on a habitation module that could be used for future deep space missions, although how NASA will implement that direction is unclear.”

“NASA shall develop a prototype deep space habitation module within the advanced exploration systems program no later than 2018,” the report states. It also requires NASA to provide Congress with a report within 180 days of the bill’s enactment on the status of the program and how it has spent the funds provided.

In March 2015, NASA awarded contracts to seven companies to study “habitation systems.”

Habitation systems selections will help define the architecture and subsystems of a modular habitation capability to enable extended missions in deep space.

Bigelow Aerospace, one of the seven, will fly to the ISS on SpaceX CRS-8 in February its prototype, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). Based on NASA TransHab technology developed in the late 1990s, the Bigelow modules could be used as self-sustaining space stations, crew quarters for a long-duration deep space mission, or as base stations on the Moon or Mars.

A computer animation of the Bigelow BEAM attaching to the ISS. Video source: Video YouTube channel.

The omnibus bill provides $55 million for the habitat prototype, and gives NASA three years to complete it, so Bigelow would seem to be ahead of the competitors.

Microgravity Research — More projects are headed for the ISS in 2016 that are deserving of your attention.

Grimm Space Research at Aarhus University in Denmark will send on SpaceX CRS-8 its third thyroid cancer experiment. As I wrote in October 2015, earlier research showed that in microgravity the cells became less aggressive. The ESA SPHEROIDS experiment is the next step in their research.

U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck will send to the ISS on SpaceX CRS-9 an experiment to go beyond research and actually produce a drug in microgravity. Dr. Paul Reichert hopes this research can eliminate the need for intravenous drug delivery, relying instead on a single shot with a needle.

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

Also on SpaceX CRS-9 will be an experiment from Zero Gravity Solutions Inc. in Boca Raton, Florida. ZGSI will test its proprietary BAM-FX plant nutrient technology on broccoli in microgravity. The experiment is particularly timely, because NASA's attempt to grow zinnias on the ISS isn't going very well. According to Florida Today reporter James Dean:

The relatively simple Veggie chamber lacks active irrigation systems, so astronauts have been injecting water into the seed pillows. It’s difficult to tell if they have too much water or not enough, striking the right balance of moisture and air in the root zones ...

Since they were first installed and watered on Nov. 16, only three zinnia plants have flourished, with at least one developing a flower bud.

Reusable Rockets — SpaceX made history on December 21, 2015 when the company's Falcon 9 first stage successfully landed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage lands December 21, 2015 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Image source: SpaceX.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk said that this booster won't fly again, but its engines will be fired to test the renovations at Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A. The company hopes to recover a second booster sometime in 2016 and fly it again to prove the technology is viable.

The United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket will continue design work in 2016. Unlike the F9, the Vulcan first stage won't be fully reusable. ULA hopes only to recover the engines, which the company believes is the most cost-efficient. ULA CEO Tory Bruno has stated that parent companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin review the project quarterly, so it's possible that mom and dad might decide to cancel the project now that ULA can once again legally purchase Russian RD-180 engines for the Atlas V booster.

Adventure Tourism — Blue Origin took the lead in the adventure tourism space race with its November 23, 2015 successful test flight of its New Shepard suborbital system to the edge of space, defined by international standard as 100 kilometers (62 miles) and known as the Karman Line. More test flights can be expected in 2016, while Blue prepares to begin operations later in the decade at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 36. Blue will move into Exploration Park near the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex; the industrial park has lacked a tenant since property manager Space Florida broke ground in 2010. Maybe we'll see Blue start building its facilities this year.

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

Virgin Galactic struggles to resume to flight after losing VSS Enterprise in an October 2014 accident. A replacement, possibly named VSS Unity, could fly sometime in 2016. But passengers who for years have patiently waited to fly after depositing $200,000 probably won't reach the Karman Line in 2016.

XCOR announced on November 23, 2015 the departure of two founders as part of a corporate restructuring. Last month the company announced a “major breakthrough in engine technology” with the Lynx main propulsion rocket engine, but when it will fly remains an open question.

Venture Class Launch Services — In October 2015, NASA announced a new program called Venture Class Launch Services. Contracts were awarded to three contracts to provide access for small satellites to low Earth orbit.

One of those vendors is Virgin Galactic, which acquired from Virgin Airlines a used 747 to carry the LauncherOne booster. The aircraft would take off from a runway and drop the launcher from an unspecified altitude. From a cynical perspective, one might speculate that Virgin Galactic is diversifying should the adventure tourism business fail.

Click the arrow to watch a computer animation of Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne. Video source: Virgin Galactic YouTube channel.

One of the two other companies, Firefly Space Systems, already has committed to launch from KSC's new pad 39C, a concrete slab within the perimeter of Pad 39B. The third vendor, Rocket Labs, is looking at KSC as one of several potential launch sites.

None of these are expected to fly in 2016, but their progress and commitment to KSC as a launch site will help measure the success of NASA's latest attempt to grow a commercial launch industry.

CubeSats — Call them CubeSats, SmallSats or NanoSats, but this is the next growth industry in aerospace and NASA is helping with a program called Cube Quest.

Click the arrow to learn more about Cube Quest. Video source: NASA's Marshall Center YouTube channel.

CubeSats for years have been popular with student teams learning how to engineer satellites. The Cube Quest Challenge will award a total of $5.5 million to teams “that meet the challenge objectives of designing, building and delivering flight-qualified, small satellites capable of advanced operations near and beyond the moon.” Some of the winners may fly on the Space Launch System EM-1 mission.

In November 2015, United Launch Alliance a competition for cubesats to fly for free as secondary payloads on their launches.

“ULA will offer universities the chance to compete for at least six CubeSat launch slots on two Atlas V missions, with a goal to eventually add university CubeSat slots to nearly every Atlas and Vulcan launch,” said Tory Bruno, ULA president and CEO. “There is a growing need for universities to have access and availability to launch their CubeSats and this program will transform the way these universities get to space by making space more affordable and accessible.”

Even grade schools now launch cubesats. St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Virginia launched a cubesat aboard the Orbital ATK Cygnus commercial cargo ship on December 6, 2015. Called STM Sat-1, it's scheduled for deployment on February 15 from the JEM Small Satellite Deployer aboard Japan's Kibo laboratory. Its Earth observation cameras will transmit pictures back to the school.

Solar System Robotic Exploration — Planetary science fans will have lots to love in 2016.

NASA's Juno mission to Jupiter arrives at the gas giant on July 4, 2016. Juno will study the planet's atmosphere, map its magnetic and gravity fields, and study the auroras near the poles.

The European Space Agency's ExoMars mission to Mars launches from Baikonur, Kazakhstan in March. “The main objectives of this mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes and to test key technologies in preparation for ESA's contribution to subsequent missions to Mars,” according to the mission web site.

NASA'a OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu intends to map the asteroid and return a sample. It's scheduled to launch from the Cape's Launch Complex 41 aboard an Atlas V on September 3. According to the mission's web site, “Bennu is also one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids and it has a relatively high probability of impacting the Earth late in the 22nd century.”