Thursday, March 31, 2016

Up In The Air

Click to watch the Fox 35-TV Orlando news report about OneWeb coming to the Space Coast.

The Orlando Sentinel reported today that space Internet startup OneWeb is hiring for jobs in Melbourne.

OneWeb has been scouting a possible location on the Space Coast. The company hasn’t officially announced a Florida location yet, but its website shows job postings in Melbourne, about 40 miles south of Kennedy Space Center — a clear sign the company has plans for the region.

OneWeb’s arrival would add to a recent string of good news for Central Florida's Space Coast, which last year saw space company Blue Origin announce a new rocket-engine testing facility at Cape Canaveral.

Space Florida is about to award a major new contract to build a new 120,000-square-foot spacecraft-assembly building at Kennedy Space Center. Although Space Florida would not confirm the tenant, among many possibilities, one of the most likely occupants is OneWeb, which did not return requests for comment.

The article included this excerpt from a Space Florida document showing a “Spacecraft Integration Facility” at Exploration Park near KSC.

The Orlando Sentinel speculated the site might be for OneWeb, but other commercial suitors abound, including Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada.

Blue Origin already has announced intentions to build at Exploration Park and launch from the Cape's Complex 36.

Sierra Nevada recently won a NASA commercial cargo award for its Dream Chaser spaceplane. Sierra Nevada announced in January 2014 it intended to use KSC's Operations & Checkout facility for Dream Chaser, but that was before the company lost its commercial crew bid.

OneWeb announced in June 2015 that its microsats would be deployed using both Russian Soyuz rockets and a Virgin Galactic LauncherOne booster deployed beneath the left wing of a 747.

Both KSC's former Shuttle runway and the Orlando Melbourne International Airport can handle 747 takeoffs and landings.

Walk on the Wild Side

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

PC Magazine published a report March 30 that a virtual reality experience will come to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex this summer giving guests the opportunity to walk on Mars.

Visitors to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida will soon be able to experience what it's like to walk on Mars, thanks to a new partnership with Microsoft. Using Microsoft's HoloLens headsets, the public will be able to take tours of parts of the Red Planet this summer, guided by astronaut great Buzz Aldrin.

HoloLens is Microsoft's augmented reality device, which is now shipping to developers, the company announced at its Build Developers Conference today. It's not quite the immersive virtual reality experience that true VR headsets like the Oculus Rift offer, but it's still capable of stitching together real imagery from NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover, which has been exploring the planet since August 2012.

When the exhibit goes live this summer, visitors who don the HoloLens will be greeted by Apollo 11 astronaut Aldrin, who serves as a holographic tour guide. He'll be joined by a Mars Rover driver, who will explain scientific discoveries and Mars facts while visitors are free to make their own way through the rocky terrain.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Error Message

An OIG video accompanying the release of the audit. Video source: NASA OIG YouTube channel.

The NASA Office of Inspector General issued a report today blasting NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program at Kennedy Space Center for delays and cost overruns in its Spaceport Command And Control System software.

The report describes SCCS as “a software system that will control pumps, motors, valves, power supplies, and other ground equipment; record and retrieve data from systems before and during launch; and monitor the health and status of spacecraft as they prepare for and launch.”

The audit states:

The SCCS development effort has significantly exceeded initial cost and schedule estimates. Compared to fiscal year 2012 projections, development costs have increased approximately 77 percent to $207.4 million and the release of a fully operational version has slipped by 14 months from July 2016 to September 2017. In addition, several planned capabilities have been deferred because of cost and timing pressures, including the ability to automatically detect the root cause of specific equipment and system failures. Without this information, it will be more difficult for controllers and engineers to quickly diagnose and resolve issues. Although NASA officials believe the SCCS will operate safely without these capabilities, they acknowledge the reduced capability could affect the ability to react to unexpected issues during launch operations and potentially impact the launch schedule for the combined SLS-Orion system ...

In the past, NASA has encountered difficulties with large and complex command and control software development efforts, failing on two occasions to meet expected requirements despite spending more than $500 million. In something of a repeat of this pattern, the SCCS development effort is more than 1 year behind schedule and significantly over cost, and several planned software capabilities have been deferred.

NASA made its decision regarding the SCCS software architecture nearly 10 years ago, but in our view this may no longer be the most prudent course of action given significant advances in commercial command and control software over that time. For example, the two companies under contract with NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station — Orbital Sciences Corporation and Space Exploration Technologies — both use commercial software products to accomplish their missions. In our judgment, the GSDO Program’s reluctance to change course reflects a cultural legacy at NASA of over-optimism and over-promising what the Agency can achieve in a specific timeframe.

Criticism of the NASA culture is a recurring theme over the years in various internal audits and external reviews.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board report released in August 2003 showed a distinct lack of faith in NASA, citing a cultural arrogance resistant to change or external advice. The report stated on Page 102:

External criticism and doubt, rather than spurring NASA to change for the better, instead reinforced the will to “impose the party line vision on the environment, not to reconsider it,” according to one authority on organizational behavior. This in turn led to “flawed decision making, self deception, introversion and a diminished curiosity about the world outside the perfect place.” The NASA human space flight culture the Board found during its investigation manifested many of these characteristics, in particular a self-confidence about NASA possessing unique knowledge about how to safely launch people into space.

Space journalist James Dean of Florida Today reports on the release of the audit.

The initiative managed by KSC’s Ground Systems Development and Operations program faces ongoing challenges that could delay launches, prompting auditors to suggest that NASA consider scrapping it in favor of commercially available alternatives ...

In a response, Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s human spaceflight systems, acknowledged the work has proven more challenging than estimated and agreed to conduct an independent assessment after the first software system is ready.

The agency has “instigated a series of process improvements that are bearing positive results,” Gerstenmaier wrote last week.

A 2011 introductory film about Spaceport Command and Control System. Video source: ExploreKSCresources's channel YouTube channel.

UPDATE March 29, 2016 — Despite yesterday's events, the GSDO Program office which received the bad audit issued a press release today declaring all is well on the “Journey to Mars.”

“The team is working hard and we are making remarkable progress transforming our facilities,” said Mike Bolger, GSDO Program Manager. “As we are preparing for NASA's journey to Mars, the outstanding team at the Kennedy Space Center is ensuring that we will be ready to receive SLS and Orion flight hardware and process the vehicle for the first flight in 2018.”

On the Road Again

The crawler March 23 as seen from the Launch Control Center. All images credit

Having completed its upgrade for Space Launch System, the historic Crawler Transporter 2 has been on a test drive the last few days. Here are various photos I've taken of the beast as it moves between the Vehicle Assembly Building and Launch Pad 39B.

UPDATE March 29, 2016 — More images from the last two days of the crawler on the prowl, including images of both crawlers near each other.

And here's an official photo from Kennedy Space Center of the crawler as it passed the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Click the image to view at a higher resolution.

UPDATE March 30, 2016 — Today the upgraded crawler was testing its lifting capabilities by transporting MLP-1, one of the original three mobile launchers going back to the 1960s.

When completed in 1965, it was designated Mobile Launcher 3. It carried Apollos 10, 13, 15, 16 and 17.

After it was modified in the 1970s for the Space Shuttle, ML-3 was renamed Mobile Launch Platform 1. MLP-1 was used for the first five Space Shuttle flights. It last use was for the Ares I-X test flight in 2009.

The upgraded crawler in the future will transport a new platform, originally built for the Constellation program but modified for Space Launch System. That's the gray tower you see in some of the photos in this article.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Orbital OA-6 Pre-Game Show

Click the arrow to watch the Orbital OA-6 pre-launch briefing. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch the science briefing for the OA-6 mission. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

United Launch Alliance is scheduled to launch its Atlas V tonight at 11:05 PM EDT with the Orbital ATK Cygnus commercial cargo ship to the International Space Station.

As of this writing, the weather forecast is 90% favorable, although other factors can always intrude.

This is scheduled to be the last Cygnus launch on Atlas. Orbital will return to its Wallops, Virginia home base to launch the next Cygnus mission to the ISS.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Let's Get Small

Click the arrow to watch a March 5, 2016 CBS News report on the St. Thomas More Cathedral School small satellite. You may be subjected to an ad first.

What's a satellite?

Check and you'll find several definitions.

In astronomy, it's “a natural body that revolves around a planet.” Earth's Moon is a satellite to the planet.

When we use the word, we tend to think of artificial satellites — “a device designed to be launched into orbit around the earth, another planet, the sun, etc.”

Until recently, we think of artificial satellites as very large.

Take for example TerreStar-1, the self-proclaimed largest commercial satellite ever built, launched by TerreStar Corporation in July 2009. It had a launch mass of about 15,000 pounds, or 7,000 kilograms.

TerreStar filed for bankruptcy in October 2010. According to one media report, “Analysts estimated the cost of the satellite, launch and insurance to exceed $500 million.”

But if you're willing to go small, you can launch your own satellite into space for a few thousand dollars.

St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Virginia launched a “CubeSat” in December 2015 to the International Space Station. Called STMSat-1, it measures about 4 inches or 9 centimeters to the side. The device has a small camera that will transmit images every thirty seconds back to the school.

STMSat-1 cost the school about $50,000, partially funded by a NASA contest grant. According to a 2013 NASA article:

The pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes conduct outreach. The first grade has mission operations, including building the antenna and operating the ground station. The second grade is responsible for earth observation, including operating the cameras and building the solar arrays. The third grade is writing the procedures, operating the asteroid detection camera and conducting system engineering including orbit determination. The fourth grade is creating the computer-aided design of the mechanical structure and performing environmental testing. The fifth grade is the communication team, responsible for the Ham radio transmissions of images from the CubeSat to the ground station and also the battery. The sixth grade is building the spacecraft bus including the power and flight computer. The seventh grade is making the 3D compass payload, which will determine the location and orientation of the satellite. The eighth grade just successfully conducted a high-altitude balloon test.

Small commercial satellites have been around since the 1980s. The United Kingdom company Surrey Satellite Technology launched its first smallsat in 1981. The 13th annual CubeSat Developer's Workshop will be held in April in San Luis Obispo, California. The 30th annual Small Satellite Conference will be held in August in Logan, Utah.

Since 2007, the National Science Foundation has funded university cubesat projects.

Stanford University's Space and Systems Development Laboratory “provides graduate students with a world-class education and research in the field of space system design, technology and operation.” According to their web site:

SSDL's Satellite Quick Research Testbed (SQUIRT) trains students in all aspects of the spacecraft design life cycle through hands-on work on real, student-engineered satellites — intended to be excellent examples of simple, fast, cheap, flexible and intelligent micro-satellite design, launched into orbit and operated from Stanford. SQUIRT also prepares students for participation in SSDL's advanced space research projects. Scientific and engineering partners in these projects include a variety of academic research centers, government laboratories and industrial corporations. SSDL's flagship satellites are SAPPHIRE and OPAL.

It's a boom era for the small satellite industry. According to an August 2015 Fortune magazine article:

Interest in small satellites — typically defined as those under 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) — has grown over the years based on a number of factors working in tandem: The miniaturization of once-bulky satellite components, standardization of many satellite parts, and other factors have trimmed costs substantially. That has made the building, launching, and operation of “smallsat” constellations increasingly feasible.

In January, the Tauri Group published a study titled, Start-Up Space: Rising Investment in Commercial Space Ventures. They found that, “More venture capital ($1.8 billion) was invested in space in 2015 than in the prior 15 years, combined.”

The report stated that SpaceX is the first “NewSpace” company to reach a valuation of more than $1 billion. Tauri named small satellite company Planet Labs as potentially the next billion-dollar startup in the space industry.

A Planet Labs film promoting use of its earth-imaging satellites to monitor agriculture. Video source: Planet Labs YouTube channel.

Planet Labs is deploying a “flock” of Dove nanosatellites using the International Space Station. To quote from the NASA press release:

Commercial applications of the imagery include mapping, real estate and construction, and oil and gas monitoring. If a company has high-value, distributed assets that need regular monitoring, Flock 1 imagery can assist in this type of endeavor. For example, Flock 1 can supplement or replace the need for flying a helicopter over an oil pipeline to monitor for a leak, since the 28 Dove CubeSats can quickly collect the necessary imagery.

Anticipating the demand to launch small payloads, Kennedy Space Center in July 2015 dedicated Launch Pad 39C. According to the KSC Partnerships page, “Launch Pad 39C will serve as a multi-purpose site allowing companies to test vehicles and capabilities in the smaller class of rockets, making it more affordable for smaller companies to break into the commercial spaceflight market.”

In October, NASA awarded three Venture Class Launch Services contracts for companies to demonstrate small satellite launch capabilities. One company, Firefly Space Systems, already has committed to using Pad 39C as a launch site.

The July 17, 2015 dedication of Pad 39C. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

Another contract winner, Virgin Galactic, plans to use a 747 with a booster under its left wing to launch small payloads. I wrote on February 9 about the Virgin Galactic partnership with Airbus to create a constellation of micro-satellites to function as a space-based Internet. The OneWeb partnership may build and launch its microsats from the Space Coast.

NASA continues to do its part to evolve smallsat technology.

Another passenger with STMSat-1 on that December 7 commercial cargo delivery to the ISS was the NASA Nodes swarm satellite experiment.

The Nodes mission, which consists of two CubeSats weighing just 4.5 pounds each and measuring 4 inches by 4 inches by 6.5 inches, will test new network capabilities for operating swarms of spacecraft in the future.

“The purpose of the Nodes demonstration is to test out the potential for using multiple, small, low-cost satellites to perform complex science missions,” said Andrew Petro, program executive for the Small Spacecraft Technology Program (SSTP) in the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

A first for small satellites, Nodes will demonstrate the ability to receive and distribute commands in space from the ground in addition to periodically exchanging scientific data from their onboard radiation instruments. The satellites will be able to configure their data network autonomously by determining which spacecraft is best suited to communicate with the ground each day of the mission.

“The technologies demonstrated during this mission are important, as they will show that a network of satellites can be controlled without communicating to each satellite directly,” said Roger Hunter, program manager for SSTP at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. “Nodes will demonstrate inter-satellite communications and autonomous command and control; this will help enable future constellation command and control capabilities.”

The NASA project to test swarm satellite technology at the International Space Station. Video source: NASA's Ames Research Center YouTube channel.

The article concludes:

Networked swarms of small satellites will open new horizons in astronomy, Earth observation and solar physics. Their range of applications includes multi-satellite science missions, the formation of synthetic aperture radars for Earth sensing systems, as well as large aperture observatories for next-generation telescopes. They can also serve to collect science measurements distributed over space and time to study the Earth, the Earth’s magnetosphere, gravity field, and Earth-Sun interactions.

Researchers are already positing the notion of using a satellite swarm as a telescope. A 2010 Netherlands astronomy group wrote:

A logical next step would be to investigate possibilities to miniaturize the electronics and use very small satellites, perhaps even nano satellites with masses between 1-10 kg to build the radio telescope. The approach is to use a swarm of satellites to establish a virtual telescope to perform the astronomical task.

A generation of U.S. school students are learning right now how to deploy and operate small satellites in low Earth orbit. Their generation may be the one that first deploys a deep space swarm telescope, or uses a swarm of satellites to make a three-dimensional image of an asteroid ripe for harvesting.

“Satellite school” now has an entirely new meaning.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Book Review: "Leonard"

Leonard Nimoy performs “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” on a variety show in 1967. Video source: SputnikMonkey YouTube channel.

In 1975, actor Leonard Nimoy published a book titled I Am Not Spock to show the world that he as a person was far more than a character he'd performed for three seasons on a cancelled television show.

Twenty years later, Nimoy published a sequel, I Am Spock, as a tacit surrender to the inevitability that forever he would be identified with the character that became symbolic for the Star Trek universe and pop science.

Trapped in the same bubble was his castmate, William Shatner.

When hired for their Star Trek roles in the mid-1960s, both were young actors just entering the prime of their careers. Both were born in 1931 — Shatner four days older than Nimoy — so when the show premiered on September 8, 1966 they were 35 years old. Both had appeared on stage and on television. Both were lead characters on a television network series for the first time.

Shatner and Nimoy had crossed paths before, working an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in 1964. They had no relationship although, like thousands of other actors, they were struggling to raise families and keep the bills paid.

Yet fate brought them together on a low-rated TV show that, like it or not, would join them at the hip for the rest of their lives.

Shatner has published a book titled Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man that explores the relationship he had with a man who began as a co-worker and occasional rival, later business partner and finally personal friend.

Many books have been published with Shatner's name on it, although in reality written by someone else. The TekWar universe was largely Ron Goulart. A series of Star Trek novels resurrecting Captain James T. Kirk after the events of the movie Star Trek Generations, starting with The Return, were written by Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens.

How much is Shatner, how much his writing partners, is known only to those who were in the room.

Leonard is co-written by David Fisher, a professional ghost-biographer for celebrities ranging from lawyer Johnnie Cochran to actor Leslie Nielsen to umpire Ron Luciano. Having been a writer-for-hire myself, I assure you a lot of money can be made if you're willing to allow someone else's name to be on the book.

In the acknowledgements, Shatner rightly gives credit to Fisher:

There are many people I would like to acknowledge, but this book would not exist without David Fisher, with whom I have worked before and hope to work with after (soon, David, because there isn't much time left). With a deep bow and a wave of my hand, I acknowledge my cowriter, David Fisher.

Shatner's comment “There isn't much time left” I think may be a clue to the inspiration for this work.

Shatner turns 85 on March 22.

In 2001, Shatner produced a 75-minute video titled Mind Meld in which he and Nimoy sat in the latter's backyard to discuss their careers, separate and together.

Near the end of that film, in the section titled, “Final Frontier,” Shatner comments on his compulsion to always find new projects:

Perhaps the reason I'm running as fast as I can is I see, very clearly, my own death. What with the death of my wife, and the lady I've married nursed her husband through cancer to his death, I see death and mortality very very clearly. It's just over there. He's coming on. And it still doesn't relieve me of all the irritations of every day life where I should be able to say, “Oh, I'm not going to let that bother me because, y'know, how many years do I have left.” You can count them. Very conscious of my death and my fear of dying. I'm truly afraid, and when I'm asked what am I afraid of, it's ... inchoate. Loneliness. Of loss. Of aloneness. Name the thing, and I'm afraid of it. I don't know how to deal with it.

As I read Leonard, I found much material lifted from Mind Meld and other works, such as Nimoy's two books, Shatner's earlier biographies with ghostwriter Chris Kreski, as well as the biographies written by other Trek actors. If you're a regular attendee of Star Trek conventions, you've probably heard many of the tales about on-set hijinks recounted in Leonard.

Watch the trailer for the 2001 documentary “Mind Meld.” Video source: Cinedigm YouTube channel.

The stories of their personal lives, including Shatner's marriage woes and Nimoy's alcoholism, have also been told before.

I found myself asking, “Why was this book written?”

Leonard died a little more than a year ago, on February 27, 2015.

Shatner was at a Red Cross fundraiser in Florida. He was criticized by some for missing the funeral, although his daughters attended in his absence.

The one revelation in Leonard I found, well, fascinating is that Nimoy had stopped talking to Shatner a few years before. Shatner claims it was a misunderstanding over Shatner's cameraman filming Nimoy without permission at a convention for a Star Trek documentary Shatner was producing called The Captains. Shatner writes that he and Nimoy were friendly on the flight back to Los Angeles, that Nimoy said nothing about it, so he doubts this incident was the cause. In any case, Nimoy rebuffed Shatner's gestures of reconciliation, to his deathbed.

As I closed the book, this revelation brought me back to that 2001 Mind Meld scene where Shatner discussed his fear of death and abandonment.

Nimoy's rebuff, if as described, had a purposeful motivation. Leonard is gone, so we'll never know what it was. But given Shatner's Mind Meld comments about his deepest fear being “aloneness,” denying him his best friend unto death may have sent a message only the two of them will truly comprehend.

If you read the other Trek actors' biographies, you'll find that most of them don't have kind things to say about Shatner.

In her 1994 book Beyond Uhura, Nichelle Nichols wrote about Shatner requesting to interview her for background material for Star Trek Memories. Nichols wrote on page 304:

Contrary to what Bill subsequently wrote in his first book, I did not “conspire” with other cast members to use these interviews to “confront” him. That is just one of many, many distortions and inaccuracies he presented ...

Over the course of twenty-eight years, I'd witnessed Bill change from my hero to an insensitive, hurtful egotist and had seen his callousness affect everyone around him, including myself.

Nichols proceeded to tell Shatner how thoughtless and insensitive he'd been to his castmates. In Mind Meld, Shatner tells Nimoy he believes that the two of them carried the bulk of the load during the series' three years of production, but that once the conventions began in the 1970s the other cast members began to believe that their contribution equated to those of Bill and Leonard.

Contrast that with the Next Generation cast, who always treat each other as equals, as an ensemble.

The 2009 documentary, “The Captains' Summit” featuring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes. Whoopi Goldberg moderates. Video source: Nathan Travis YouTube channel.

None of us were there on the Desilu lot fifty years ago when all this happened, so none of us can truly judge whose version is true.

But in the context of Leonard, I have to wonder if Shatner's comments about mortality and loss may have been the driving force behind why he wrote this book.

Early in Leonard, Shatner recalls a near-death experience when he was in his 20s acting in Canadian repertory theatre:

One day while I was driving to Toronto in a tremendous rainstorm and as I crossed a bridge, a mammoth eighteen wheeler coming from the other direction raced by me, spraying water from its front tire wells. The combination of a massive blast of water and the wind generated by the truck almost blew me into the Ottawa River. I realized something about myself at that moment: if my car went into the river, I would have left no tracks on this earth. Beyond my family, there was no one who truly cared about me. I had no close friends; I knew a lot of people, I'd worked and shared experiences with a lot of people, but there was no one who woud miss me if I disappeared beneath the river. And conversely, there was no one other than my family that I cared enough about to miss if something happened to them. That understanding left me with a terribly empty feeling, but I didn't have the slightest idea what I could do to change that.

I've no doubt that Shatner's affection for Nimoy was genuine and sincere. But given comments by almost all of his castmates, I'm left to conclude he still hasn't figured out how to create and sustain loving relationships of self-sacrifice.

And that may be the reason why Leonard was written.

It may be Shatner's way of acknowledging what he lost.

But I'm left wondering why it had to be aired publicly.

I've known more than my fair share of celebrities — actors, politicians, athletes, astronauts.

It's hard for a celebrity to lower the guard. Most people want something of them other than a friendship. Maybe it's an autograph. Maybe it's money. Maybe it's exploitation.

Years ago, I joked to two actor friends, “How do I know you're really my friend and you're not just acting?”

They looked at each other, shrugged, and replied, “You got us.”

It was my metaphorical wink that this uncertainty goes both ways.

For someone who's a cultural icon like William Shatner, it must be incredibly difficult to establish a trusting relationship.

The media of books, of documentaries, of videos are all one way. Bill can be Bill, portray Bill as he wishes, and not risk a heartfelt rejection.

I have to wonder what the Nimoy family thinks of Leonard. The book is certainly loving, but I can see how they may view it as exploitative. Bill, not Leonard, gets the final word on their relationship.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Swamp Fever

A demonstration of Swamp Works regolith mitigation technology. Video source: Backyard Astronomy Guy YouTube channel.

Earlier this week, I was part of a group touring the Kennedy Space Center Engineering & Development Lab, commonly known as the Swamp Works.

The name is a homage to the famous Lockheed Skunk Works that began in 1943 in Burbank, California. According to the Lockheed Martin web site, the name was derived from the moonshine factory in the Lil' Abner comic strip.

A team engineer named Irv Culver was a fan of Al Capp's newspaper comic strip, “Li'l Abner,” in which there was a running joke about a mysterious and malodorous place deep in the forest called the "Skonk Works." There, a strong beverage was brewed from skunks, old shoes and other strange ingredients.

One day, Culver's phone rang and he answered it by saying “Skonk Works, inside man Culver speaking.” Fellow employees quickly adopted the name for their mysterious division of Lockheed. “Skonk Works” became “Skunk Works.”

The original Skunk Works team was working on a secret Army jet fighter project. They “broke the rules, challenging the current bureaucratic system that stifled innovation and hindered progress.”

It was in that tradition that the KSC EDL dubbed itself Swamp Works.

Many of the technologies I saw demonstrated were projects related to potential use with lunar or Mars regolith.

A simple example, demonstrated in the above video, was how to automatically remove dust and regolith from solar panels. The answer was to run an electrical current through the surface.

Photography was largely restricted, as many projects are in partnership with private companies and educational institutions testing proprietary technologies.

Videos of some projects exist on the Internet. Another example is this asteroid lander prototype.

An asteroid lander prototype demonstration. Video source: Public Domain TV YouTube channel.

You can take a virtual tour of the Swamp Works lab by going to this web page and then clicking on the image of the technology you wish to explore.

A 2013 NASA video demonstrating the RASSOR regolith excavator. Video source: NASA Observatory YouTube channel.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

When It Counts

The iconic Kennedy Space Center countdown clock retired in November 2014 and was replaced by a new digital clock.

The original clock is now on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex entrance. Below are photos taken on February 27.

All images in this article are copyright © 2016 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to

UPDATE March 3, 2016 — Kennedy Space Center posted this video of the March 1 ceremony dedicating the clock at the Visitor Complex.

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